Asheville City Council

Should an old granite bridge on Beaucatcher Mountain be restored — or torn down?

To get an answer at Asheville City Council’s July 21 work session, you first had to clear away the smoke from dueling engineers.

Nearly a year ago, the city’s Public Works Department recommended demolishing the 91-year-old, unused bridge, claiming it’s a public hazard, with rocks falling to the street below. A city-hired engineer said the most economical solution for the old bridge is tearing it down: estimated cost, $5,000.

But local preservationists — including members of the Asheville-Buncombe Historic Resources Commission — urged Council to preserve the bridge, designed and built in 1907 by Smith and Carrier Architects (Richard Sharpe Smith single-handedly designed many of the most outstanding homes and buildings in the city).

The preservationists read a passage from Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, which refers to the arched bridge. And their engineer, Bill Wescott, mentioned the view of Vance Monument (another Smith project) from the old bridge. He also noted that the falling debris is actually rocks from the surrounding hillside — not the bridge’s granite blocks. The venerable structure was built for Philip Henry along the route to his Zealandia estate, apparently using granite from the same quarry that supplied the stone for the Grove Park Inn.

HRC member Jody Kuhne, a geologist with the North Carolina Department of Transportation, recommended temporarily shoring up the bridge and cleaning it of vegetation, in order to determine its condition.

And another preservationist, local architect Robert Griffin, offered to donate half the estimated $10,000 cost of the temporary fix, while Council members decide whether the city can afford to save the bridge.

But Public Works Director Mark Combs took a stand. Claiming that he had attempted to work with the HRC on the bridge issue at least a year ago, Combs declared, “This is a way of going around [city] staff.” A report prepared by Wescott and Kuhne was not handed to him until Thursday, July 16, he said, giving him little time to review its technical points.

“I’ll give you the facts — no literary allusions or sun setting on Pack Place,” proclaimed Combs. He insisted that the old bridge poses a health hazard: One of the wooden pilings installed by the DOT at least 20 years ago — as reinforcement during blasting for Interstate 40 — appears to be leaning; the bridge itself is overgrown; and rocks appear to be falling down on Beaumont Road below — where vehicular and pedestrian traffic still passes.

But, containing his obvious frustration, Combs said, “Let Council decide.”

Griffin countered that the bridge is worth saving. As for Combs’ complaints about preservationists’ romantic notions, he said, “Asheville has been selling romanticisim as a [tourist attraction] for ears. This bridge has the qualities that people come to Asheville to see.”

Mayor Leni Sitnick attempted to mediate the dispute, urging collaborative efforts from this point forward. “I’m not privy to the history,” she said, studying Combs’ written chronology of the issue. “I’m concerned with public safety — but let’s move to the present.”

In that light, Council member Barbara Field suggested that Council could either give the order to demolish, hire the contractor who gave preservationists the $10,000 estimate, or seek its own estimate and repair crew. The dispute between preservationists and Public Works “should have been resolved before [the issue] came before us,” Field remarked.

“Shore it up, and investigate the costs of completely fixing the bridge,” said Sitnick, summarizing the apparent consensus among Council members.

City Manager Jim Westbrook suggested letting Combs follow up on Council’s direction, warning, “We may or may not have the money in the budget to fix it.”

Bigger signs near interstates?

“You may not agree with the [Unified Development Ordinance], but that’s the framework within which we work. I’d rather stick to what we’ve got,” declared Asheville Board of Adjustment member Dennis Hodgson during Council’s July 21 session.

At issue was whether Council should change the size and height limits for on-premise signs visible from Interstate 40 — an idea broached by board Chairman David Young. “It wasn’t my intention, necessarily, to change the UDO to [allow] all larger signs,” he told Council members. But over the years, he continued, the board has received a constant stream of requests from business owners — particularly those with businesses near the I-40 Enka/Candler exchange — seeking larger, taller signs that could be seen from the interstate.

Under the 1990 sign ordinance, which was incorporated into the UDO, such signs can be no taller than 25 feet and no larger than 125 square feet — unless the owner can demonstrate a substantive hardship. Young conceded that most variance requests have been granted over the years, but rarely for as big a sign as the owners wanted. He asked Council to consider some kind of consistent standard for on-premise signs near the interstate, so that Board of Adjustment members wouldn’t have to “struggle with these [hardship] decisions.”

Hodgson emphasized that the request came from Young — not the whole board. “We need to be fair and consistent, and that hasn’t always been the case,” he said, noting that he opposes any “blanket change” to the sign ordinance.

Mayor Leni Sitnick, eyeing a list of variances granted since 1980, said it didn’t escape her attention that “99.99 percent of these requests were granted.”

Council member Barbara Field suggested that Council might consider a percentage cap on changes, allowing sign variances no greater than 20 percent of current limits, for example.

Young said he was interested in that idea, adding that it might be useful to cap the distance away from the interchange, as well: For example, limiting the sign variance to businesses located within a quarter-mile of I-40.

But Council member Chuck Cloninger, who has regularly pushed for stricter sign regulations, said such arbitrary limits could be a double-edged sword — limiting variances, on the one hand, but also giving the board leeway to routinely grant them, on the other. Cloninger said he appreciated Young’s seeking Council’s opinion on the issue. But he urged Board of Adjustment members to continue reviewing variance requests on a case-by-case basis — and to refrain from “endorsing wholesale granting of variances.”

The UDO: the usual suspects

“I thought you were tired of the UDO by now,” Council member Barbara Field kidded Asheville City Planner Gerald Green during the July 21 session.

Green just smiled. Like many Asheville residents, property owners, staff and politicians, he had endured many meetings last year that went till midnight; weathered arguments that went on even longer; and sat through a multitude of community meetings. This time, however, he was appearing before Council for the first annual UDO update.

There to have their say were the usual UDO watchdogs: representatives from the Board of Realtors, the Council of Independent Business Owners and the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods.

CIBO President Mac Swicegood said the UDO appears to be blocking the development of affordable housing in the city, by imposing “too rigid” standards and setting design-review thresholds too low. In the UDO, those thresholds — set by the number and/or size of the units being built — determine whether a proposed development project comes before Council for a public hearing, or is simply referred to staff for a decision.

And Board of Realtors Chairman John Von Dyke asked Council to add a phrase to the stated purpose in the UDO — one that ensures the protection of private-property rights.

CAN President Brian Peterson, on the other hand, countered design-review thresholds are too high. He also asked that more public input be allowed at Technical Review Committee meetings (staff-level reviews of proposed projects).

Green mentioned a few other suggestions he and city staff have heard during the past year, such as: Create an open-space or park classification in the UDO zoning-district standards; revise the office district to create a medium-sized classification (currently, there is no intermediary category between offices with less than 4,000 square feet of first-floor space and those with more than 30,000 square feet); review zoning districts along Merrimon Avenue, and consider removing the prohibition against drive-thru facilities in Community Business I districts.

Council members indicated that they will schedule further discussions and meetings for the UDO review, giving other residents and property owners a chance to get a word in.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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