Asheville City Council

“I’ve had a big smile on my face since I got my hands on this report,” revealed Mayor Leni Sitnik, beaming like a proud parent, at Council’s Sept. 12 formal session. The smile was the result of reading the much-anticipated Report of the Community Coordinating Committee for the Design of the I-26 Connector through Asheville. The report was presented to Council by the committee’s co-chairs, Brownie Newman and former Asheville Mayor Lou Bissette.

Hundreds of people attended a series of public forums this summer to educate themselves about the planned connector and to influence the project’s design, according to Bissette. The June 15 Education Forum and the July 21-22 Design Forum elicited numerous ideas and suggestions from concerned citizens. The committee was charged with synthesizing these suggestions into a cohesive plan, while keeping the project on schedule. Newman told Council members that many people felt “appreciative for the privilege of taking part in the process.”

The report highlights the committee’s goals and recommendations, with an eye toward getting them included in the project’s purpose-and-needs statement and studied as a design alternative in the project’s environmental impact study. The goals are:

1. Separating local and interstate traffic.

2. Matching the scale of the project to the character of the community.

3. Reunifying and reconnecting neighborhoods bisected by I-240.

4. Minimizing the impacts on neighborhoods and local businesses.

5. Using updated traffic-modeling software and data.

6. Maintaining compatibility with the community’s design vision and incorporating community-selected design features.

7. Improving the connections between I-26 and I-40.

8. Minimizing air-quality and other environmental impacts.

9. Emphasizing safety, both during construction and in the design of the final product.

The report acknowledges that achieving the design goals would involve tradeoffs, stating, “While the accomplishment of some of [the goals] may reduce construction costs, the accomplishment of others may increase the overall cost of the project.”

Council member Barbara Field commented that the process of collecting public input and developing the committee’s report had been excellent and exciting . But Field went on to query, “Who is going to pay for it?”

Bissette pointed out, “We don’t know if this will cost more, or a lot more.” He did indicate that as much as 12 acres of right of way now controlled by the North Carolina Department of Transportation could conceivably become available for development for a variety of uses.

Buncombe County resident Alan Basist emphasized that the 12 acres could “enhance the tax base.” He added that the goals listed in the committee’s report could improve the “livability and integratedness [of the city] … and encourage more people to live downtown.”

Council member Edward Hay reiterated his colleagues’ sentiments: “I’m impressed by this report.”

Mayor Sitnik commented that the public’s and the committee’s combined efforts “make a wonderful recipe that’s going to be delicious. … I can see this [process] imitated by other communities in the state and out of the state.”

Council unanimously voted to accept the committee’s report.

Next, the report will go to the Transportation Advisory Committee (on Sept. 21), then on to the Transportation Improvements Plan Committee (on Sept. 28), which will decide whether to pass the report’s recommendations on to the NCDOT.

Insurance twist for cabbies

What’s the ideal balance of insurance coverage and trip fares for taxicabs in Asheville?

City Council members dangled on the question at their Sept. 12 formal session. A week earlier, they had agreed to allow cab companies franchised in Asheville to raise fares for the first time in many years. But Craig Justus, an attorney representing one local company, complained that Council members had also required cab owners to pay $1,100 more per vehicle for insurance coverage.

“It is … one hand giveth [while] … the other taketh away,” said Justus. Most North Carolina cities require the state-recommended minimums — $30,000 for personal-injury, $60,000 for accident and $25,000 for property-damage coverage. Asheville officials have asked cab owners to carry at least $100,000 personal-injury, $300,000 accident and $50,000 property-damage coverage, Justus pointed out. He argued that the higher insurance requirements were not made clear to cab owners who attended an Aug. 31 public meeting with city staff. While pleased that Council has agreed to allow cab owners to nearly double current fares, the cabbies are not so happy about the increased insurance coverage. “We were struck blind,” declared Justus.

Council members Charles Worley and Hay mentioned that Justus had called them after the Sept. 5 work session to question the new insurance requirements. “How did we arrive at that?” Hay asked staff.

Asheville Risk Management Director John Miall replied that taxicabs have a higher-than-average number of accidents and injuries. Many cities, he argued, require only the minimum coverage because they haven’t looked closely at the risk factors. Miall also pointed out, by way of comparison, “We routinely require contractors and others [who] do business with the city to carry $300,000 [in liability insurance].”

Worley, whipping out a calculator, quickly estimated that the $1,100 increase in insurance premiums equals an added cost of 35 cents per trip for cab owners.

Asheville Finance Director Bill Schaefer countered that because the fare increase is larger than the 55-percent increase in insurance coverage, the net effect on cabbies is a cost increase of approximately $2 per day.

But the real argument for higher insurance coverage came from David Crooke. He told Council members that he had been hit by a cab two years ago. The $25,000 personal-injury insurance the city required of cabbies at that time hasn’t been enough to pay his medical costs, not to mention the many months of missed work: Crooke passed out pictures of the damage done to his foot and ankle in the accident, commenting, “I’m disfigured. I’m disabled. I’m going to walk with a limp for the rest of my life.”

Council member Chuck Cloninger responded that he thinks the insurance coverage recommended by city staff is “very reasonable.” In the event of a serious injury such as Crooke’s, he argued, “The minimum [state-recommended] coverage is simply insufficient.”

However, in the interest of fairness, Council should give cab owners a chance to evaluate the added cost in relation to cab fares, Council member Brian Peterson suggested.

Other Council members agreed, and directed staff to meet again with cab companies and to re-evaluate the recommended cab fares ($1.80 per drop and $1.70 per mile, with a $3 minimum fare). The issue will come before Council in October.

Wal-Mart hearing canceled

Council voted to cancel a Sept. 19 public hearing on the Sayles-Biltmore Bleacheries/Wal-Mart Supercenter issue, and set a deadline of Dec. 15, 2000, for JDN Development to reapply for a conditional-use permit to construct a shopping center at the east Asheville site. The company’s original application stalled on Sept. 5, when the city’s Board of Adjustment failed to grant JDN a variance to the Unified Development Ordinance that would allow the developer to make changes in the River Resource Yard along the Swannanoa River. Without that variance, JDN cannot proceed with its current proposal for the project. JDN’s options now include appealing the board’s decision to the courts, or significantly revising and scaling back the development and offering a new proposal.

Clearer VISION

Council members Hay and Terry Bellamy each proposed ideas for inclusion in the VISION 2000 Project, a continuation of the “visioning” project begun by civic leaders in 1995 to set goals, priorities and strategies for the Asheville/Buncombe area. Hay proposed studying the feasibility of municipal-bus service linking Asheville and the town of Black Mountain. Bellamy suggested surveying local citizens on how the city can attract and keep young people in the 18-to-34-year-old age bracket. Emphasizing how vital this age group is to both the city and its work force, she stated, “We need to grow our own talent.” Bellamy said she had heard this message on several occasions during a recent visit by city and county officials to Austin, Texas, to study the successes of Austin’s city government.

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