“I sunk to my shins in places where I used to walk on hard ground.”
— Council member Robin Cape
After a long and heated debate, the Asheville City Council dramatically scaled back the controversial plans for Richmond Hill Park in the wake of a state citation for failure to adequately control erosion.
Approved in 2004, the plans called for turning over 12 acres to the National Guard for a new armory. In exchange, the Guard agreed to do the grading for two baseball fields, a parking lot and restrooms in addition to a shared access road.
The new decision, handed down during City Council’s Sept. 12 formal session, limits clearing in the city’s 171 acre, mostly wooded property to the seven acres already graded. Council also allocated $50,000 for remediation efforts and declared its intention to give closer scrutiny to the first of two disc-golf courses also planned for the park.
On the fault line
Parks and Recreation Director Irby Brinson outlined the damage and violations incurred while grading the seven-acre parking lot. As he had in a recent press release, Brinson was quick to take the lion’s share of blame, saying, “I apologize to you for any embarrassment we have caused to the city or this Council.”
In a PowerPoint presentation, Brinson reviewed the problems that led the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources to send the city a notice of violation on Aug. 23. The litany of woes included misplaced or inadequate sediment basins and traps, and a heavy rain earlier last month that overwhelmed the erosion-control system, spilling red clay from the site into watersheds and streams in the lower part of the park. Remediation efforts and cleanup are nearly complete, and DENR is expected to re-inspect the site soon, Brinson told Council. (At press time, the Division of Water Quality had signed off on the work, but the Division of Land Resources had not, according to the city’s Web site.)
Despite Brinson’s apology, members of the public in attendance aired grievances in all directions, and everyone involved — the Parks and Recreation Department, the National Guard and City Council — wound up with mud on their hands.
The park had been controversial even before the city was cited, (see sidebar, “A Muddy Business”), but the recent developments reinforced the suspicions and concerns of those already opposed to the project. And though it had been approved by a prior City Council, some residents lambasted the current city leadership for lack of oversight.
“I wish you could have seen the forest from Richmond Hill Drive before you — City Council — ripped away the trees,” said one park neighbor, who spoke of watching the forest being bulldozed into piles of fallen trees.
“I am personally appalled by what happened at Richmond Hill Park,” fumed Julie Brandt.
Local resistance to siting baseball fields there has been evident since the idea was first floated in 1999. More recently, the clearing and grading for them had been put on hold as local guardsmen prepared for possible deployment. But the erosion violations painted the strongest picture in the fight to jettison the ball fields altogether, and the decision was sealed on a 5-2 vote, with Council members Carl Mumpower and Jan Davis opposed.
The damage done
While Brinson’s presentation emphasized the city’s remediation efforts, UNCA environmental-studies student James Wood — who brought the problems to the state’s attention — highlighted the damage resulting from the failure of the sediment-control system.
Brinson noted that the DENR report had characterized the damage as “slight,” the least serious of its three ratings, but he added, “I am not here to say that’s acceptable: It’s not.”
The extent of the damage proved to be cause for debate, however, as Mumpower dismissed the mud and rutted trails as an inevitable part of construction.
“I believe the impact has been dramatically exaggerated,” he said. “These concerns were raised by people trying to kill this project.”
But Council member Robin Cape said she’d visited the site and had seen the devastation firsthand. “I sunk to my shins in places where I used to walk on hard ground,” she said.
Searching for a silver lining, Mayor Terry Bellamy said the city has learned a valuable lesson that will help future projects run more smoothly. “This process is going to make the next process even better,” she predicted.
Paying the price
After bearing the brunt of the blame, Brinson found himself in the awkward position of having to ask for city funds to finish correcting the construction-site errors. Most of the money would eventually have been spent anyway, he said, but the 30-day time limit set by DENR to avoid a fine meant the funds could not be taken from a future budget.
Still, it didn’t sit well with Cape, who griped that Council’s hand was being forced. “I don’t doubt that we have to jump on this at this point, but I am distressed by how it was handled,” she said.
The budget amendment passed unanimously, but some on Council raised questions about the National Guard’s future role in the project.
Since there would be no grading for the ball fields, Brownie Newman wondered if the Guard could provide some other in-kind work — especially if those facilities are moved to another location.
Bryan Freeborn took a stronger stance, saying the Guard hadn’t met its commitment to the city and should have to pony up the money for repairs.
“I think they should have to pay for the damage, or I am not comfortable seeing them go forward with the armory part of the project,” he said. “It appears that this was a boondoggle of an agreement.”
Bellamy, however, urged caution, saying the city should not try to back out of a contract. City Attorney Bob Oast, she noted, was already planning to review the contract to see what consequences the current developments would have on it.
While the erosion problems and the ball fields have claimed the spotlight, a new disc-golf course has been under construction in the northeast corner of the park. Planned to replace another course partly located on property handed over to the Guard, the new one is almost complete, but its location and potential environmental impacts attracted a newly sensitized Council’s attention.
Wood and several other speakers talked about moving the course — perhaps to space freed up by the elimination of the ball fields.
Clearing for the fairways, as well as the high foot traffic on the course, would cause further erosion and runoff, Wood predicted.
“I’m not trying to come down on disc golf,” he said. “I’m trying to make sure the sensitiveness of this watershed is recognized.”
The WNC Disc Golf Club, which has partnered with the city in designing and building the course, has changed its plans twice to accommodate environmental concerns, club President James Nichols told Xpress.
An earlier 18-hole disc-golf course was laid out at Richmond Hill in 2000, and when the city cut its deal with the National Guard, it promised the club two new courses: one before the existing course was removed, plus a second one to be added later.
Mumpower remained firm about that commitment. “I spoke against disc golf when we first did this,” he said. “But I have a problem stepping away from this now.”
Brinson said the course is now 90 percent complete, noting that its predecessor had been nationally recognized for its unique terrain and challenges. “We are the envy of a lot of people,” he said. Nonetheless, Wood asked Council to halt construction of the new course until an environmental group could assess the situation.
Club board member John Thelen asked Council not to lump the course together with the other issues at hand, arguing that most of impact of the course’s construction is already past. All that remains is installing some tee boxes and baskets.
But coming on the heels of such a live controversy, Council members were loath to let anything else slip by.
“I would like to bend over backwards to get this as right as we can,” said Newman. “I think we should take a pause and review the plans.”
On that note, Council unanimously voted itself right of approval for a revamped course plan to be worked out by city staff and the club.
In other news…
• Council recognized Capt. Mike Quinones of the Asheville Fire Department, who was named North Carolina’s Firefighter of the Year the North Carolina State Firefighters Association.
• The owner of 6.8 acres in Shiloh withdrew a request to rezone the property for higher-density development. Opponents had presented a valid protest petition, and Council appeared ready to deny the request due to lack of a master plan for the property.
• In its 82 years, the Princess Anne has served as apartments, a boarding house, a conference center and a residence for seniors. Now, the historic structure at the corner of East Chestnut Street and Furman Avenue will return to its original function as a hotel. After a show of support by neighbors, Council unanimously approved the neccesary zoning change.
A muddy business
Located near Richmond Hill Park’s western boundary, the construction site is a large expanse of red clay that slopes downhill toward the woods. During rainstorms, loose mud flows toward the woods, and ditches and basins were installed to catch the runoff. But several of them were put in the wrong places.
Parks and Public Facilities Superintendent Jim Orr cited various problems. In one case, guardsmen had dumped cleared trees where a catch basin should have been. Rather than moving the trees, the workers simply dug the pit uphill from its designated spot. In another instance, a properly sited pit proved unable to contain the sediment from a heavy rain. Still another diversion ditch was dug in the wrong place. In all, at least four components of the sediment-control system were either incorrectly sited or proved inadequate to handle heavy rains. As mud filled the basins and overflowed into the woods, the sediment nets collapsed, unable to bear the sheer volume of runoff.
Even before construction began, the project had caught the eye of UNCA senior James Wood, who lives nearby. The environmental-studies student and a professor from the school identified several rare species of plants and animals in the park, and Wood continued to visit the site as bulldozers began cutting into the forest. Wood took pictures after a heavy rainstorm and, noting the amount of sediment collected in low-lying areas, sent his photos to the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources. On Aug 23, DENR halted all work except for remediation efforts to relocate and fix the erosion-control measures. The agency must sign off before work on the park can resume.
At this point, grading has been done for an access road, parking lot and restrooms. Several trails have been widened to accommodate construction vehicles, and trees have been cut on the new armory site (the area formerly occupied by the first nine holes of the park’s disc-golf course — see main story, “It’s Out of the Park”). No grading or tree cutting has been done in the areas reserved for the recently canceled baseball fields, but some small streams and drainage areas remain filled with red clay.
“It took a really big hit,” said Wood, adding that it could take decades for the mud that’s already there to work its way through the stream system.
Over the years, the city has considered various plans for the property. The ball fields were on the short list for funding from a proposed $18 million bond issue in 1999. But a referendum later that year killed the idea, leaving the Parks and Recreation Department with no money for the project.
The current deal, struck in 2004 after two years of discussions, turned over 12 acres to the National Guard for a new armory. In exchange, the Guard would do clearing and grading for an access road, parking lot, restrooms and two baseball fields. The city spent another year negotiating a land swap with a neighboring property owner for a new access point to the park.
As a gesture to the disc-golf community, which has accounted for a large portion of the park’s users, the city also agreed to help build two new 18-hole courses in the northeast corner of the park. The city had said the existing course would not be torn down until a new one was built. But the parking lot had to be in place before a new course could be used, and rather than bring in logging equipment twice, the Guard went ahead and cleared both the city’s property and its own, Orr explained. Today, fallen trees cover the site of the old course’s first nine holes, and not a single new basket is in place.
As the recent Council vote confirmed, the ball fields at Richmond Hill have never been a done deal. Resistance to the idea was almost instantaneous when it was first suggested in the late 1990s. Meanwhile, early this spring — before ground was even broken — the clearing and grading for the fields was delayed indefinitely by National Guard scheduling changes.
During a Sept. 11 site visit, Orr told Xpress that the Guard still needs to fine-tune the road-and-shoulder grading, but with the local unit now facing a possible deployment to Iraq, it’s unclear how much personnel will be available. If the Guard is left short-handed, the city will pick up the slack, said Orr.
In the meantime, significant questions remain about the city’s contract with the National Guard. The prospect of free grading for the ball fields loomed large in council’s decision to approve the deal. But with those facilities no longer in play, parks officials are unsure what will happen to that commitment. Brinson, however, notes that the Guard has already completed $600,000 worth of grading — twice the value of the land handed over.