Buncombe Commissioners: Changing of the guard

  • Frue replaces Connolly as county attorney
  • County awards $2 million design contract for courthouse "life safety
  • tower," the first step in $80 million expansion, renovation.

Michael Frue has been Buncombe County's only full-time staff attorney since 2005. During that period he's worked on a number of controversial and high-profile cases, including the water dispute with Asheville and the Parkside development lawsuit. Now he's gotten a promotion.

Moving up: After four years as the county's associate attorney, Michael Frue is moving into the top job. He is the first new county attorney in 20 years. Photo by Jonathan Welch

The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners unanimously appointed Frue to replace Joe Connolly as county attorney. "I promise you and the citizens of this county that I'll do my level best," Frue said. Connolly, who held the position for two decades, will remain on as a consulting attorney through December to help with the transition.

Asked how his management style would differ from his predecessor's, Frue replied: "The differences will be both subtle and obvious. I've been with the county for several years, been the one full-time staff attorney for several years, so I work daily with the senior leadership and the managers. The difference now is that, as county attorney… instead of trying to avoid crises and handle crises, I [will] be in a position to handle the concerns of the commissioners on a daily basis to try to head off any problems."

Chair David Gantt expressed his confidence in Frue's abilities.

"Mike's an Asheville High graduate; he earned his undergraduate degree from Chapel Hill and his JD from Campbell University — a good combination, I thought," Gantt said. "We're looking forward to having good help and advice from both these men."

Unlike Connolly, who maintained a private practice while handling his duties for the county, Frue will remain a full-time in-house attorney.

"We'll also be searching for an associate who will be full time," Frue said, "so there will be two full-time attorneys working for Buncombe County by the end of October."

A number of lawsuits involving Buncombe County have made headlines in recent years. The county, along with the state of North Carolina, successfully fended off a challenge by the city of Asheville to state laws that uniquely prohibit Asheville from charging higher rates to customers beyond the city limits or from demanding that new developments accept annexation in exchange for water hookup.

But a Superior Court judge also ruled that the county's sale of a piece of parkland in City-County Plaza to Parkside developer Stewart Coleman was illegal (a case that Frue himself argued), and an N.C. Court of Appeals judge struck down the county's zoning ordinance. That last defeat has cost the county much time and money, since staff and commissioners had to go back to the drawing board to reinstate zoning.

In an April letter to Gantt, Connolly said he needed to resign because his wife was ill. On May 12, the commissioners met in closed session to discuss an unspecified "personnel matter." While no announcements came out of that meeting and none of the commissioners would reveal what was discussed there, a message writ large on a white tablet was seen through the glass: "Stop Losing Lawsuits."

Gantt has refused to comment on whether the message was related to Connolly's resignation and has praised Connolly's "distinguished leadership."

Building the tower

The board also unanimously approved a $2 million design contract for a "life safety tower" to open up the top five floors of the courthouse for use as court space. Those top floors used to serve as a jail but have been used for storage since construction of the Buncombe County Detention Facility in the mid 90s.  Reflecting 1920s building codes, those floors lack adequate fire escapes and access. The rest of the courthouse also has outdated facilities, though not to the same extent.

Renovations will make the entire building far easier to insure, county staff say. Although bringing the building up to current safety standards will be expensive, Buncombe County courts are increasingly desperate for space, so both staff and the commissioners believe the time has come.

"It has a lot of code issues," Assistant County Manager and Planning Director Jon Creighton told the board. "The tower consists of two stairwells, all the way to the top of the building, secure elevators for judges and inmates and for the general public. Also, while we're at it, we want to put restrooms in, because there aren't restrooms on every floor."

The contract was awarded to local architects Duncan Hargrove. One of the reasons the county chose that firm, Creighton added, was the presence of John Duncan, who drew up Buncombe County's 20-year master plan in 1990.

"He's done more courts and prison building in North Carolina than probably anyone else," Creighton said.

Building the tower is estimated to cost $24 million, but that's just the first part of a three-phase expansion and renovation of the courthouse that is expected to total around $80 million.

Gantt said that the renovation will help ensure that the courthouse remains viable for "our lifetime." 

"This has been a sore subject for 20 years or more," Gantt said. "We do not have an adequate facility as far as the access and safety issues. It's been by the grace of God and some good negotiations that we weren't shut down."

Building a new courthouse was ruled out, Creighton said, because the cost would be "overwhelming."

Creighton emphasized that judges could order the county to provide adequate space if they have trouble conducting their operations. 

"That's the situation we want to avoid."

Creighton noted that a panel of of judges, county staff and law-enforcement officials settled on the tower last year as a solution for vexing space problems.

Eventually, the county plans to move all its offices out of the courthouse, leaving it exclusively for judicial use. Earlier this year, the commissioners relocated their chambers to the county's permit-office building on Valley Street.

Commissioner Bill Stanley recalled that a lack of space in the courthouse has been an issue for the more than two decades he's been on the board — and that prior to the construction of the jail, the county was facing liability issues due to its inadequate facilities.

"We were at a tremendous liability if anyone had lost their life or been injured," Stanley said. "That would have been huge; taxes would have had to go way up."

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