“Schools aren’t getting the funding they need, but we always seem to find money for jails,” bemoaned Council member Holly Jones at the Asheville City Council’s Aug. 10 formal session. Her remarks came just before Council unanimously approved a conditional-use permit allowing a major expansion of the Buncombe County Detention Center in downtown Asheville.
Earlier, Jones had deplored the addition’s hefty price tag, observing, “You just have to wonder: What if we spent $23 million on A-B Tech or other programs that help keep people out of jail?”
Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower gave a solemn answer, saying, “This is a necessary evil.”
Buncombe County plans to build the annex directly behind City Hall, adjacent to the existing jail and connected to it, on land that’s now a parking lot. The proposed six-story structure will contain nearly 100,000 square feet of space and will house two 40-person dormitories (one each for men and women assigned to work-release programs) and three 40-person cell pods. The current jail has exceeded its 356-person capacity, Buncombe County Planning Director Jon Creighton told Council.
County leaders first approached the city about acquiring the city-owned parking lot about a year ago. After some negotiation, the city agreed to swap the property for a county-owned lot immediately south of City Hall plus cash. The latter property has recently been discussed as a possible site for a mixed-use high-rise the Grove Park Inn wants to build. The city approved the swap on Aug. 26, 2003 — with the stipulation that the new building not obstruct the view of City Hall.
During the Aug. 10 formal session, city Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford said the jail annex would not be more than six stories tall “and will not exceed the balustrade of the City Hall building.”
When City Council first discussed the deal, Council member Terry Bellamy also insisted that the county be required to contact residents of the neighborhood adjacent to the site (across South Charlotte Street) and hold a public meeting to hear their concerns. The county did so, reported Shuford, but only one person showed up.
Shuford also briefly reviewed the project’s contentious history. Buncombe County had originally planned to site the annex several blocks from the jail. In 2001, the county bought the old Union Transfer and Storage Building at 123 S. Lexington Ave. for $1.5 million. But when plans for the jail annex were announced, city leaders and downtown property owners balked. At the time, noted Shuford, opponents feared the project would jeopardize development efforts in the area, which was targeted for expansion of the central business district.
City leaders also complained that they hadn’t been consulted about the plan. Moving swiftly to head off the project, the city threatened legal action and amended the Unified Development Ordinance to make jails a conditional use in the downtown area. Eventually, however, the city and county did broker an agreement. Placing the facility next to the jail seemed to satisfy everyone, and Shuford noted that the county would save an estimated $600,000 annually in food- and prisoner-transfer costs.
But at the Aug. 10 public hearing on the permit, Harry Pilos, the developer of the Sawyer Motor Building condominiums, said he’d heard that the county plans to use the Union Transfer Building (which is just around the corner) as an ambulance center. “Frankly, if given a choice, we’d have gone with the jail,” declared Pilos, adding, “That piece of property impedes the growth for everyone else.”
When Holly Jones questioned Creighton about the likelihood of the county’s using the property to house its EMS services, he didn’t deny it. Creighton did say the county had explored the possibility of placing the EMS facility underneath the proposed jail annex but had run into “a cost problem.”
Pilos was the lone member of the public to speak during the hearing, however, and after a very brief discussion, City Council approved the plan on a 7-0 vote.
Get on board(s)
The city is looking for a few good volunteers to fill vacancies on the following boards and commissions: the Americans with Disabilities Compliance Committee, the Fair Housing Commission, the Planning and Zoning Commission, the River District Design Review Committee and the Tourism Development Authority. To obtain an application form, call 259-5601.