Playing the field

Field of dreams: Mike Rottjakob, executive director of ABYSA, promised that the nonprofit would take good care of the soccer fields at the Buncombe County Sports Park in Enka-Candler if given a lease to the property. photo by Jonathan Welch

Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Oct. 18, 2011 meeting

  • Retaining-wall ordinance tightened
  • CTS condemnation hearing postponed

In yet another attempt to maintain services while cutting costs, the commissioners unanimously approved leasing soccer fields at the Buncombe County Sports Park in Enka-Candler to the Asheville Buncombe Youth Soccer Association.

Under the agreement, the nonprofit will handle maintenance and scheduling for the seven tournament-quality soccer fields at the park, which is off Sand Hill School Road near U.S. 19-23. ABYSA will lease the fields for five years at $1 per year and will maintain them using the county's equipment but providing personnel and any additional supplies or materials needed. The county will continue to maintain and schedule events in the remainder of the park, which includes another soccer field, a playground and other facilities. The sports park serves about 350,000 visitors a year.

In her pitch during the commissioners’ Oct. 18 meeting, Parks, Greenways and Recreation Services Director Fran Thigpen said the move would save the county an estimated $130,000 a year.

"This year we've seen increasing use of our parks, increasing costs of maintaining the parks, and we've seen another year of tightening departmental budgets," she noted, adding that the proposed move "promotes the department's objective to look at new and more creative partnerships as we move forward."

Thigpen also pointed out that the lease with ABYSA would be similar to arrangements the county has had with youth baseball leagues for a number of years.

"Since the sports park opened,” she explained, “its primary focus has been to fill the need for competitive soccer fields. … Buncombe County has maintained those fields for a very high standard of play for games and tournament competitions."

Mike Rottjakob, the association’s executive director, promised to maintain that high standard, portraying the deal as a logical evolution of the group’s ongoing relationship with the county.

"The lease agreement that you're considering tonight reflects our ability to step up and do more, and to accept more financial responsibility for the great facility we have in Buncombe County Sports Park,” he pointed out. “We look forward to many years of successful partnership with the county moving forward.”

Rottjakob cited figures showing the association’s growth over the last 30 years: It now serves some 5,000 youth players and 1,095 adult participants. In 2010, ABYSA hosted seven weekend tournaments at the sports park that resulted in 4,757 hotel-room nights and had a total economic impact of more than $2 million, according to the Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau. Those figures, said Rottjakob, "reflect the popularity of our programs and the broad community support that we enjoy today."

Still, Commissioner Holly Jones sought reassurance that the general public would still have access to the fields under ABYSA's care.

"I think this is a great win-win for the county and ABYSA,” noted Jones. “But I want to make sure this is a win-win-win and the citizens of Buncombe are also looked after." Board of Commissioners Chair David Gantt echoed that sentiment, and both asked for further details concerning how the nonprofit would handle use of the fields by non-ABYSA members.

Rottjakob said the association plans to post signs explaining how to reserve the fields, adding that figuring out those details is "going to be a work in progress.

"The most important thing to us,” he continued, is “maintaining the fields … to the standard that they've always been maintained to.” ABYSA, said Rottjakob, would consider weather conditions and wear-and-tear when granting access, explaining that the Bermuda grass is susceptible to root damage during the winter months, and drainage is a big problem after heavy rains.

"There's going to be some calendar issues and day-to-day issues," he conceded. "But we're not interested in telling families that they can't play around on the fields."

Thigpen also said her department plans to explore ways to improve the park’s remaining field, which has previously been maintained at a lower level as a practice site.

Before joining the other three commissioners in supporting the measure (Commissioner K. Ray Bailey was absent), Jones suggested funding those improvements with a portion of the county’s first-year savings from the lease agreement. Thigpen said she’d look into it and report back to the county manager in 60 days.

Commissioner Carol Peterson praised ABYSA and thanked everyone involved for their work on the measure, which will tentatively take effect in the spring.

"This is a great partner here," she gushed. "It's a great thing you folks do."

Other business

In addition, the commissioners: • unanimously approved a change in the county's zoning ordinance requiring developers to submit artist’s renderings of planned retaining walls to the Planning Board and Board of Adjustment. Commissioners said they hope the change will help those bodies make more informed decisions concerning proposed development projects. • agreed to postpone an Oct. 18 hearing on the county's decision to condemn and demolish the contaminated former CTS of Asheville plant until Nov. 1. The delay was requested by the property owner, Mills Gap Road Associates, which is appealing that decision. • During a testy public-comment period, Gantt ejected three members of the public. He first ordered county resident Fred English away from the lectern when he refused to stop criticizing President Obama. Later, Gantt ordered Mills Gap resident Aaron Penland to leave the room when he refused to stop talking about the CTS appeals process. (Earlier in the meeting, County Attorney Michael Frue had advised the commissioners not to allow any discussion of the issue before the Nov. 1 hearing, a quasi-judicial proceeding in which they’ll be legally bound to consider only the evidence presented at that time.) Gantt also ordered resident Lisa Landis escorted out of the chamber after she rose in defense of Penland, screaming, "Let him have his free speech!"

— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at jfrankel@mountainx.com.

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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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