A little-noted sale of county-owned land adjacent to the Asheville City Hall has belatedly drawn heavy criticism from both local media and community activists.
The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners approved the sale of the 0.18 acre parcel, which includes a corner of Pack Square Park, to developer Stewart Coleman‘s Black Dog Realty last November. The developer plans to build a mixed-use, 10-story building with retail space downstairs and residential condos up.
The property includes a strip along the south side of the park, which is in the midst of a multiyear, multimillion-dollar redesign.
But the location and the fact that it includes a piece of the city’s largest downtown park—the symbolic center of downtown Asheville—never came up for discussion. It was approved as part of the consent agenda (a list of routine items collectively rubber-stamped by the board at each meeting).
The Pack Square Conservancy—a nonprofit, quasi-governmental agency charged with overseeing and helping fund a total makeover of the former City/County Plaza and Pack Square area—didn’t even learn about the sale until six months later, according to Communications Director Donna Clark. The parcel includes a large magnolia tree in the park that’s “where all the musicians gather during Shindig on the Green,” she told Xpress. “They are not going to be happy.”
Originally estimated to cost $8 million, the ambitious redesign is now projected to cost $20 million. The Conservancy initially promised that no tax money would be required, but the city and county have each pitched in $2 million, with up to $6 million coming from the federal government. The balance is supposed to be funded through private donations.
Meanwhile, as word got out about the sale, outrage spread. Heather Rayburn of the Mountain Voices Alliance sounded an alarm via various listservs. ” They’ve done it again!” she wrote, making reference to the commissioners’ $1-per-year lease of land to Progress Energy to site a power plant that has since been canceled.
“I’ll chain myself to that tree before I let them cut it down!” proclaimed Asheville resident Elaine Lite, who is seeking a seat on City Council.
As the facts of the sale emerged, more questions were raised. Last August, Coleman hired an independent appraiser who pegged the value at $322,000—which became the eventual purchase price. But in June 2007, the county tax office valued the parcel, which includes a former jail building on Marjorie Street as well as the parkland, at $600,000.
Apparently Coleman initially wanted to purchase only the old jail. “He approached us to buy the alley, and [County Manager Wanda Greene] said, ‘All or nothing,’” Planning Director Jon Creighton told Xpress. Asked who, if anyone, knew or should have known that the property included part of the park, Creighton said that would have been a matter for Assistant County Attorney Michael Frue to determine, but he added, “I don’t think there was ever a legal definition of the property that was given to the park.”
In an e-mail to Xpress, however, Frue wrote: “The county did not cede use of nor did it convey any property to the Pack Square Conservancy. The conservancy was formed for the purpose of promoting and facilitating the redevelopment of the Pack Square Renaissance Area and was given the authority by the city and county to coordinate and manage the project, as well as the sustained maintenance of the area.”
Hidden in plain sight
Was anyone involved in the deal aware that the county was selling a piece of Pack Square Park?
In an e-mail to local green-space activist James Wood, Commissioner David Gantt wrote: “I had no idea that the land mentioned was in the park when the [Board of Commissioners] voted to sell it. It was billed as the old jail site when presented to us.” He went on to assert, “I have unsuccessfully worked hard behind the scenes since this ill-advised sale took place to correct the situation.”
Pay a visit to the Register of Deeds office in the county courthouse, however, and they’ll show you an aerial photo with a map overlay that clearly shows a pink property line extending well into what is now parkland—including the big magnolia and other trees in front of City Hall. Did anyone in county government look at that image before the sale was made?
Greene’s office couldn’t answer this question, and at press time, Greene had not responded to repeated requests for information.
“Coleman’s group approached the county about acquiring the alley and adjoining property just east of the old Hayes & Hopson Building, i.e. the old jail tract,” Frue said in his e-mail. “This subject property was not set apart as a separate parcel, so a description had to be developed. I reviewed the description, resolutions and [Pack Square Conservancy] agreement concerning the legality of the transfer.” Frue did not indicate whether he’d been aware that the parcel extends into the park.
In a later e-mail, Frue pointed out that the official park design the Conservancy submitted to City Council and the Board of Commissioners in 2003 shows a building in an area designated “Site B,” which includes the parcel sold to Coleman.
Asked about the matter, Clark explained: “We always knew there would probably be a building on the site where Hayes & Hopson now sits (which is not parkland), because we knew the presence of the park and the quality of the park would increase the value of the surrounding land and make development very likely.” But the building shown on those early drawings, she noted, is “pushed back so that the front facade is on the same plane as the facade of the fire/police station. So City Hall is very visible, and the magnolia tree stands tall. Aside from the pavilion, we have never envisioned any structure that would have breached the original park outline.”
Because the land was owned by the county, no taxes were due for 2006. But last month, Black Dog Realty appealed the county’s $600,000 valuation, and the tax office reset the value at $306,000 as of Jan. 1, 2006 (the effective date of the last revaluation). The change will save Black Dog Realty about $3,200 a year in taxes, according to the tax office.
“That’s normal procedure for sale of county property—and, of course, anyone can challenge our valuation for 30 days after we issue our opinion,” Tax Director Gary Roberts told Xpress.
Eager to assuage concerns, Coleman told Xpress, “We have no intention to encroach on the park. We plan to allow the view corridor from Vance Monument to the city building to be uninterrupted.”
Concerning building plans, Gantt wrote, “Fortunately, the City Council will have final say on the appropriateness of any development near the park.” But Gantt expressed a view shared by many when he added, “We screwed up when that land was sold.”