Seven months after halting student tours of city water-treatment facilities, the Asheville City Council reaffirmed that decision. At their Oct. 21 work session, Council members briefly revisited the issue, once again concurring with interim Water Resources Director David Hanks‘ recommendation to continue barring access to the water system due to security concerns.
In both cases, no public input was solicited and no formal vote was taken. But somehow — and despite apparently significant disagreement on Council — a majority position was established.
The city suspended the popular tours back in March, citing fears of possible terrorist attack. Besides declaring the treatment plants off-limits to all except the necessary personnel, the city also installed camera surveillance and key-card gates as part of a general security upgrade recommended by a security consultant. At the time, Council said it would revisit the issue in six months.
At the Oct. 21 work session, Hanks — while conceding that tours of the North Fork Water Treatment Facility and the Mills River Water Treatment Plant had been popular with surrounding schools — recommended keeping the facilities off-limits to school groups.
“We’re vulnerable in certain areas,” said Hanks.
The intervening months did not appear to have changed individual Council members’ positions on the issue.
Council member Joe Dunn once again took a strong stand for security. “The trade-off isn’t worth it. I don’t think we have a choice,” said Dunn.
Council member Brian Peterson reiterated his belief that halting the tours is an overreaction and the educational benefits of the tours outweigh the concerns.
Council member Holly Jones suggested soliciting public input at a formal session — a step she said Council had said it would take.
At the request of Council member Carl Mumpower, however, City Clerk Maggie Burleson checked the minutes of the March 18 meeting and found that Council had merely said it would “revisit” the issue. That prompted some on Council to argue for making a decision quickly and quietly and moving on.
“The less we talk about this publicly, the better off we are,” Dunn declared. “This is our only water supply; you just don’t know.”
Besides the educational value of the tours, the pristine wilderness surrounding the facilities also contributed to their popularity as field-trip destinations.
“This is one of the most tranquil places we can go,” Hanks observed. But with wilderness comes danger, he warned, noting that injuries sustained at the facilities could leave the city open to litigation. And because consultants have warned Council about possible dangers, the city would be even more liable in the event of a disaster or injury, he continued.
In response to a question from Dunn, Hanks reported that there’s been a drop in demand for the tours over the last seven months. “If schools were lining up, that would make a difference,” argued Dunn. The schools were closed for summer break during much of that time, noted Hanks.
In the meantime, Hanks and the city’s Water Resources Department are working with the Asheville Parks and Recreation Department to identify alternative educational sites, such as French Broad River Park, where students could learn some of the same kinds of things they would during tours of the water-treatment plants. But when Hanks said that developing those educational facilities could cost $2 million, a stilted silence reigned in the Council chamber.
At the very least, resuming the tours would require a motion to do so by a member of Council. Since no motion was made, it appears that the water-treatment plants will remain closed to visitors. There was no mention of any plans to revisit the issue in the future.
“If situations change nationally, I hope we would revisit it,” Mayor Charles Worley later told Xpress.
Other pending issues
At press time, two long-running plans were slated to come before Council and the public at the Oct. 28 formal session.
Supporters of a public-access television station are asking the city to sign an “interlocal agreement” with Buncombe County to help secure funding for the project. On Sept. 16, the Buncombe County commissioners voted to join forces with the city to help fund the nonprofit station. If the city agrees, the next step toward making the station a reality will be negotiating specific dollar amounts.
Also due to land before Council was a master plan for the proposed Clingman Forest Greenway. The plan, explained organizer Tamara Calabria, would guide the development of a 10-acre wooded parcel with a mix of affordable housing, trails and protected natural environment.
The greenway — bordered by the Asheville Middle School to the east, Aston Park to the north, Clingman Avenue to the west, and the River District to the south — would be developed as part of a larger network of green spaces envisioned in the city’s Greenways Master Plan and 2010 Plan. Mountain Housing Opportunities, said Calabria, has secured grant funding for much of the project. Most of the property in question is public land, but Calabria told Xpress that private landowners whose property adjoins the forest are also on board.