“This is your evening to talk to us,” proclaimed Mayor Charles Worley at the outset of City Council’s east Asheville community meeting, held July 30 at the East Branch Library on Tunnel Road.
But it soon became clear that at least one topic wasn’t welcome: challenges to Council’s July 23 decision to approve plans for the 78-acre Riverbend Marketplace (which will include a Wal-Mart Supercenter) on the former Sayles-Biltmore Bleachery site.
“We’re not trying to rehash our decision of a week ago,” Worley cautioned early on, in response to a comment about potential traffic congestion on Swannanoa River Road. (Absent from the meeting was Council member Holly Jones, who’d surprised some project opponents the previous week by voting to support the development. Worley explained that Jones was on vacation.)
About 20 of the 50 or so city residents in attendance stepped up to the microphone. Most of them aired concerns about speeding traffic, road damage, sidewalks and trash pickup — standard fare for community meetings.
There was a contingent sporting anti-Wal-Mart buttons, but only a few spoke, and then only briefly — in contrast to their more emphatic efforts during the protracted hearings on the project.
Of course, Worley’s refusal to allow comments critiquing Council’s Wal-Mart decision may have contributed to the calm.
Community meetings are held whenever a month contains a fifth Tuesday. Council holds the sessions in various locations around the city; this time, they landed in what could have been the lion’s den.
And indeed, despite the relative tranquility, a few familiar faces from the Wal-Mart wars did get their licks in.
Corrine Kurzman first thanked Brian Peterson, the lone Council member to vote against the Riverbend Marketplace project, for “looking at the big picture for the city of Asheville.”
To the other Council members, however, Kurzman pointed out that the traffic concerns still hadn’t been addressed. She also brought up issues, both ethical and economic, that opponents had not been allowed to raise at the hearings. “Wal-Mart — now that we can say that out loud and in public — doesn’t pay its employees,” she asserted. “It has a terrible track record.”
And citing pollution woes at the Sayles site, as well as congestion and other potential problems, Kurzman warned Council to keep a close eye on the development.
“We feel like we’re having to do the job we elected you to do,” she complained. “We want you to watch this project every step of the way, because we’re going to be watching you.
Reading from a written statement, Rebecca Campbell commented loudly on the “intestinal fortitude” it must have taken for Council to appear at the community meeting. She added that she wishes Council members had shown that same quality when making their decision.
Campbell managed to get through a few more words before Mayor Worley cut her off.
“We made a decision a week ago [that] a lot of folks agree with and a lot of folks disagree with,” said Worley. “We’re not here to rehash those decisions. This is not a time to attack the Council for what took place during that decision-making process.”
Campbell responded by skipping to the end of her statement, charging that Council’s exclusion of some issues and overall attitude toward opposing opinions constitutes an attack on the democratic process. “When citizens feel obligated to defend themselves against their own government, a day of reckoning is not far off,” she concluded ominously.
Defending their decision-making process, Council member Joe Dunn said that compared to other cities, Asheville’s Council gives citizens more opportunity to speak. “We listened for two solid days,” he noted.
When Campbell asked why she’d been told to sit down at the hearings rather than being allowed to present her points, Worley emphasized that under state law governing quasi-judicial hearings, Council has to follow specific guidelines.
And after noting that he appreciates having information brought to his attention, Council member Carl Mumpower lamented the way citizens had addressed Council during the Wal-Mart hearings. “As a newly elected Council person, I can tell you that the persistent criticism, abuse, insults — the attacks on our character — they weigh heavily on us. They’re painful and distracting. They take energy away from other things.”
That appeared to put the issue to rest for the remainder of the meeting, though there was some grumbling and discussion among project opponents afterward.
Meanwhile, several speakers complained that traffic in the area is already at a dangerous level.
“We have traffic galore,” said neighborhood resident Sarah Harris, adding that children and joggers use the streets as well as tractor-trailers. Haw Creek Community Association President Chris Kelley emphasized that pedestrian safety remains a key neighborhood concern. And though he said he understands that money is tight, Kelley reiterated his hopes that “when the budget crisis is over, this will stay on your priority list.”
A healthy menu of other topics also surfaced at the meeting, including annexation, jobs and the future of the Asheville Civic Center.
Commenting on the benefits of annexation vs. the drawbacks, Huntington Chase resident Nancy Williams — noting that more people are forcibly annexed than choose to be — queried, “Why do you think that is?” (Williams’ neighborhood was designated for annexation a few months ago; it will take effect in 2003.)
Wondering about the city’s future annexation plans, Williams asked if there’s a map that shows the areas under consideration. “I’d like people in those areas to know before April that it’s going to happen in June,” she said. “Surely there’s some plan.”
Those areas, have not yet been mapped out, replied City Manager Jim Westbrook, adding that the current “map of consideration” shows only those surrounding areas that satisfy state criteria governing annexations. Specific annexation plans, he said, will be developed sometime this fall.
After the meeting, Williams conceded that the city needs the revenue annexation brings in. She’s frustrated by the trend, however, citing trash pickup as the only real benefit residents in annexed areas get.
On the economic front, east Asheville resident Wayne Marshall, concerned about Asheville’s high cost of living, asked what the city is doing to attract high-paying jobs to the area.
“The Chamber [of Commerce] is being very active,” responded Dunn. But, he continued, the effort is proving difficult, and at least one company — Cotene/Whaledent, a dental-supply manufacturer — recently decided not to relocate to Asheville.
“We really laid it out for them,” said Dunn, blaming the company’s decision on several factors — including the high cost of living. “The days of getting really big industry in this city are over,” he declared, stressing that current recruitment efforts should focus on high-tech industries.
Almost as an afterthought, another city resident asked about the status of the Civic Center. Council members restated their plan to discuss possible options once a month, with the goal of achieving consensus by the beginning of next year.
With that, the meeting ended — after only an hour, and with a minimum of conflict.
“You never know what to expect after making a controversial decision,” observed Mayor Worley as people headed for the exits. “But it was a very good meeting.”