A rock, a tree, a park on asphalt?

Some day, visitors to Beaucatcher Mountain may be able to savor a spectacular view of downtown Asheville, while enjoying a grassy field, a smattering of picnic tables, mountainside trails and a special exhibit honoring Asheville’s Sister Cities. They may never suspect that tons of old asphalt and other road-construction debris lie buried just beneath their feet.

However, that vision assumes the city of Asheville can find a new dumping ground for thousands more tons of gravel, used asphalt, dirt and similar debris, which it accumulates each year — and that someone can come up with the money to fund the Beaucatcher park project.

“We have an opportunity, with [the old White Fawn Reservoir site], to create a central park for Asheville,” proclaims local architect Robert Griffin, who, less than a year ago, almost single-handedly raised the money to save the historic Zealandia Bridge (located near the White Fawn site on Beaucatcher Mountain).

But after voters nixed the city’s proposed $18 million parks-and-recreation bond issue last May — which included funding for a White Fawn/Beaucatcher park — Griffin acknowledges, “There’s going to have to be some private money [raised], and we are going to have to get organized.”

It’s not quite that simple, however.

Asheville Parks and Recreation Director Irby Brinson agrees that there needs to be a plan for the 12-acre site. But making it a park will take more than money: “The city is still dumping material there, [although] they’re pretty close to the max that site can handle,” he admits.

The city will have to stop dumping at White Fawn soon, but officials have nowhere else to take the tons of debris generated every year, adds Assistant Public Works Director Suzanne Malloy. Over the past decade, the city has been gradually filling up the old reservoir, which once helped provide drinking water for the city, she explains.

In the course of fixing roads and sidewalks and carrying out other construction projects each year, the city generates nearly 17,000 tons of material annually, which state and federal environmental regulations consider “inert” or “beneficial” — that is, safe for use as infill. Those materials include brick, concrete, dirt, gravel and used asphalt, Malloy reports.

After a decade’s worth of dumping, White Fawn’s 11-million-gallon tank is just past full, with only portions of its rim still visible and the ground bulldozed almost flat in between.

But the site could offer a nearly 360-degree view of downtown, Chunn’s Cove and the Blue Ridge Mountains — with some selective tree cutting. On the barren fill area itself, a bulldozer sits silently, ready to tame the piles of black asphalt and gray gravel that pierce the earth-fill topping the old reservoir. Giant pipes are stacked off to one side, broken concrete garbage receptacles sit under a tree, and old granite curbs lie jumbled nearby.

Not quite a park yet.

“The site needs to be cleaned up, but right now, we have nowhere else to go,” says Malloy. The city is considering buying the Lake Craig property in east Asheville, as part of a plan that includes constructing soccer fields, a park, a composting facility — and a place to dump those inert materials, she explains. But the deal hinges on a carefully coordinated partnership between the city and a host of local organizations (such as the WNC Soccer Foundation). And then there’s the question of whether federal floodplain regulations will even allow the city to use those inert materials for infill (not to mention some neighborhood opposition to the project).

Dumping that much rubble at the county landfill would cost more than $500,000 a year for transportation and tipping fees, Malloy estimates. Another alternative would be to find people or businesses that want the material for infill, in order to reduce the amount the city ends up having to bury — if the city staff had the personnel and budget to coordinate such an effort. “If we had another site, we’d be using it,” stresses Malloy, conceding, like Brinson, that White Fawn is full.

“The city needs to come up with a plan,” declares neighborhood resident Jane Hamill, who lives on the ridge and took part in the recent fight to keep Public Works employees from dismantling Zealandia Bridge. “It doesn’t make any sense, does it, to keep dumping materials on land that’s going to be a park?” asserts Hamill.

She envisions a park linking White Fawn with the Zealandia Bridge and another now-defunct, city-owned reservoir about a mile down the ridge, heading toward College Street. “One of the reasons for these parks is that one of the tourist draws to Asheville has always been the view,” Hamill notes. And White Fawn could definitely deliver those views.

Griffin agrees. “It’s not well known, but Asheville was modeled on European cities, and most of them that I know of have some sort of central park,” he comments, noting that Florence, Italy, for instance, offers a hillside park with views and modest trails that link the urban core with a wooded setting.

“The Chamber of Commerce always advertises the view of Asheville. But we’re advertising something that doesn’t exist for the public. When you look at the views that used to be there in the past, we need to start treating the mountainsides like a garden.”

Not surprisingly, Griffin is urging City Council and city staff to find another place to dump their tons of debris, and come up with a park plan for White Fawn.

The ever-optimistic Barbara Hodgson — an active volunteer in Asheville’s Sister Cities projects — already has the seeds of such a plan in mind. The park that Hodgson envisions would feature (in addition to the stunning views, of course) a Sister Cities exhibit, with landscaping or public art provided by architects, sculptors and artists from Asheville’s three urban siblings: Saumur, France; San Cristobal, Mexico; and Vladikavkaz, Russia.

“Can’t you see it?” gushes Hodgson: “We could have a gazebo, with city and mountain views. If the parks bond had passed, we were going to go up there and have a wine-and-cheese party to celebrate. We’ve already got [Sister City] people who are interested in helping.” Asheville City Council member Chuck Cloninger, she notes, is involved in trying to set up a parks-and-greenways foundation that could raise money for such projects — regardless of whether the city attempts another bond referendum for parks in the future.

The failed bond proposal may have set back the timetable, Hodgson reflects, “But we can do a park up there — it’s just going to take a few more years.”

Hamill, meanwhile, continues to ask questions about the dumping, wondering about things like polluted storm-water runoff. Earlier in this decade, she notes, state officials learned that the city was at that time dumping inappropriately at White Fawn.

“The city wasn’t fined. They were just required to clean up the operation,” says Janet Cantwell, environmental technician for North Carolina’s Solid Waste Section, Division of Waste Management.

Asphalt — though not classified as an inert material — is allowed at infill sites, without a permit, Cantwell notes. The ideal situation, she adds, would involve finding a developer who needs the old asphalt and other materials for infill.

UNCA environmental sciences Professor Rick Maas confirms that “the risk from old asphalt is very small. We have done some leachate experiments, to see what [contaminants] come off of it [as storm-water runoff], and there’s very little.” Road runoff, he continues, is a bigger problem, being likely to contain more contaminants (including significant traces of gasoline).

So where does that leave the park dream?

“We’re pretty much at square one,” says Brinson: “Definitely, the process [has been slowed], since the bond referendum failed. “If an alternative dumping ground can be found, he’d like to clean up the White Fawn site, sow grass seed, and provide some bare-minimum park facilities, so people could at least get to try out the place as a park. “We haven’t given up hope,” he says.

But Hamill has bigger plans, at least down the road: During a graduate-level course she took recently at UNCA, she researched and documented the history and park potential for White Fawn, compiling topography maps, old photos and property records. In the course of that work, Hamill learned about unused city rights-of-way — some of them old roadbeds dating back to Thomas Wolfe’s day — that could be turned into wide, grassy trails linking White Fawn, the old Beaucatcher Reservoir and Zealandia Bridge. And, she suggests, the city could offer tax benefits to property owners who grant easements for other trails, park access or parking areas.

“We need a place to walk, not just nice views. But White Fawn’s the kind of location, no matter what you do with it, you can’t go wrong,” she continues. Whether the funding can be found for a grander facility — complete with gazebos and Sister City exhibits — or simply a grassy, open space with picnic tables and some trails, “The city needs to come up with a plan — and stop dumping.”

Still need help envisioning the ridgeline park? Hamill offers the words of acclaimed author Thomas Wolfe, quoting from the scene in Look Homeward, Angel where the young Eugene Gant undertakes a romantic hike with a girl over Beaucatcher Mountain and down toward Chunn’s Cove (this was back before Interstate 240 blasted through it):

“But the hills were lordly, with a plan. Westward, they widened into the sun, soaring up from buttressing shoulders. The town was thrown up on the plateau like an encampment. … As they went under the shadow of [Zealandia] bridge Eugene lifted his head and shouted. His voice bounded against the arch like a stone. They passed under and stood on the other side of the gap, looking from the road’s edge down into the cove. But they could not yet see [it], save for green glimmers. … The day was like gold and sapphires: there was a swift flash and sparkle, intangible and multifarious, like sunlight on roughened water, all over the land.”

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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