Lighten up: Council reallocates money for energy-efficiency improvements

  • Cell tower ordinance revised; residential component postponed
  • Chiaromonte continues protest

Asheville may soon begin implementing energy-efficiency improvements in everything from streetlights to city buildings. City Council voted Sept. 14 to use $250,000 in federal stimulus funds to secure a $3.5 million bond issue that would pay for the upgrades. The stimulus funds would help the city get better terms on the deal and make initial payments on the debt.

The $250,000 was originally earmarked for setting up a Property Assessed Clean Energy program to help residents make energy-saving improvements to their homes. Residents could borrow money from the city to make specified improvements and pay it back through a special tax assessment.

But with state legislation to allow PACE programs caught in legal limbo, city staff looked at other ways to meet Council's energy-efficiency goals. They laid out various possibilities, such as establishing an independent city fund to make energy grants to individuals (which wouldn’t offer the same advantages as a PACE program) or using the money to leverage additional grant funds.

On a motion by Vice Mayor Brownie Newman, however, Council members opted for direct action on the city's own energy and facility needs, funded by a bond issue.

“I'm very disappointed we don't have the legal authority to do [PACE],” noted Newman, a longtime advocate of green initiatives. In the meantime, he continued, “This will help achieve our own very ambitious energy goals. … If we can't create a community program, we can lead by example and show what can be done when an organization really commits itself to being energy-efficient.” LED street lamps alone, added Newman, could save the city about $400,000 a year.

Council member Esther Manheimer, however, voiced a concern about light pollution.

And Mayor Terry Bellamy — noting that she'd met with several energy companies, including Chevron, about other potential energy-efficiency projects — urged her colleagues to keep an open mind. “I'd ask that we take the opportunity to hear one or two of those presentations, so we can really know what some of the cost savings could be,” she recommended.
Council member Bill Russell also endorsed the bond issue, saying, “It spreads the benefits out to our city taxpayers; we're kind of setting a precedent.”

Council unanimously approved proceeding with the bond issue, leaving it to staff to work out the exact terms of the deal.

Too close for comfort?

A controversial proposal to allow cell-phone towers in residential areas, and a subsequent vote on a tower planned for Beaverdam, had been expected to dominate the meeting. U.S. Cellular, the developer of the Beaverdam project, requested 40 minutes for a presentation, and area residents, many of them opposed to the tower, turned out en masse.

In any event, those votes never happened. But many residents voiced their opposition to the ordinance changes, which had to be approved before the Beaverdam tower could be considered.

“The fact is, this is in our backyard,” Beaverdam resident David Hoffman told Council, asserting that the change would allow towers to be placed too close to people’s homes.

According to City Attorney Bob Oast, the proposed changes — which include updated technical specifications and legal requirements for cell towers as well the residential expansion — are needed to bring the city’s ordinance in line with state and federal law. The latter prohibits municipalities from creating rules so restrictive that residents can’t access cell-phone services. And if gaps in service became too large due to restrictions imposed by the ordinance, the city could face a lawsuit, Oast warned. Increasingly complex and powerful cell phones, he added, require more towers, and given the region's topography, that makes for a difficult situation.

“We live in an era where cell phones are important, but there's this aesthetic concern,” mused Newman. The proposed changes wouldn't allow cell towers in currently occupied residential areas, but they would be permitted on private property that wasn't being used for homes (such as the Lewis Memorial Park in Beaverdam).

Manheimer (an attorney by trade) thought the provision about expanding into residential areas needed further consideration, and she moved to approve the ordinance without that provision. Council members unanimously approved her motion while postponing decisions on both the residential expansion and the Beaverdam tower until the Oct. 26 meeting.

“I look like Auschwitz”

Chris Chiaromonte, a homeless street preacher who goes by “Brother Chris,” is a familiar presence in the Council chamber, often claiming prophetic powers and excoriating elected officials for what he sees as their shortcomings.

On this occasion, Chiaromonte reported that he's in the midst of a 35-day fast to protest his banishment from public parks, which he maintains the city did for no good reason and with no way for him to appeal the decision.

But he also acknowledged that the city had met his initial demand by lifting the ban, saying, “We've got due process, and now all the people that have been kicked out of the park can get back in; I hope that's an act of repentance from the city.”
Nonetheless, he says he's still limiting himself to 300 calories a day until the city accedes to some additional demands, such as repealing the panhandling ordinance, allowing people to carry signs asking for money, and setting aside an acre of land for camps for the homeless.

Comparing the diet to how the Nazis fed concentration-camp prisoners, Chiaromonte told Xpress, “I look like Auschwitz,” adding, “The fact that I've still got energy proves God's in charge!”

According to city spokesperson Dawa Hitch, Asheville has a "straightforward" appeals process: People banished from the parks simply send a request asking the Parks and Recreation director to revoke the ban. It was through that process, Hitch says, which has existed for years, that Chiaromonte was allowed back into city parks.

Chiaromonte, though, told Council: “The panhandling ordinance is against legitimate First Amendment rights, and why can't a busker put out a sign saying they want money? I'm five days short of 40 days; maybe I'll go 80 days, like Moses.”

— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at


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