Water signs

After years of wrangling over water issues, Asheville and Henderson County may be close to making peace.

On Oct. 16, the Henderson County Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 to allow Chairman Bill Moyer to negotiate with Asheville on a plan he drew up that would amend the Water Agreement and settle the county’s lawsuit against Asheville, the Regional Water Authority and Buncombe County. After looking over an outline of Moyer’s proposals, Asheville Mayor Charles Worley told Xpress that they aren’t far from what the city had previously offered and would require only minor changes and clarifications on a few unspecified points.

Under the Moyer plan, two of the thorniest issues — the funding of water lines in northern Henderson County and the fate of a Bent Creek property transferred to Henderson County under the 1995 agreement — would be resolved through a land-for-cash swap. Asheville would get back the Bent Creek property (which has been assessed at $2 million); in return, Henderson County would receive $2 million to build water and sewer lines in Cane Creek.

This, however, raises questions about the nature of Henderson County’s future role in the Water Authority, which it joined in 1995 largely on the expectation that the Authority would build lines like the ones the county would now be getting money to build itself.

Moyer’s plan also calls for Henderson County to retain one of the two appointments it currently makes to the Authority board. After the Henderson commissioners’ meeting, a high-ranking city staff member predicted that Asheville would resist Henderson’s having any representation at all. Later in the week, however, Worley said he has “no problems” with Henderson County appointing an Authority member, since it “should have some say” in regional issues that affect it.

Meanwhile, Council member Brian Peterson — a recent city appointee to the Water Authority who was one of Asheville’s Water Agreement negotiators under Mayor Leni Sitnick — says the city should be working toward the “long-term objective” of disbanding the present Water Authority and forming some other body to coordinate regional water issues.

In Peterson’s view (which is largely shared by city staff), the Authority is a flawed and ultimately undemocratic body whose structure is detrimental to the city’s interests.

Peterson and other Water Authority critics cite concerns about proportionality. Asheville — which owns the entire water infrastructure and provides about 60 percent of the Water Authority’s roughly 45,000 customers — gets to make three appointments to the Authority’s nine-member board. Buncombe County, which brings no infrastructure and only 15,000 customers to the equation, also appoints three board members. And Henderson County gets two board appointments despite providing less than 100 Water Authority customers.

This disproportionate representation, maintains Peterson, results in the Water Authority authorizing questionable projects that finance economic development out in the counties with water revenues collected mainly from city residents.

Peterson cites the Authority’s decision to run a 6-inch water line to the American Freightways (now FedEx Freight East) facility off Airport Road. Under the 1995 Water Agreement, the Authority is supposed to authorize building new lines in Henderson County only when the revenue from those lines is projected to equal the construction costs within nine years. Yet the Authority’s first such line, which cost $50,000 to build, now nets only between $11 and $16 a month in water revenues. Moreover, because it’s so much larger than needed, the line must be frequently flushed out — at a cost of about $2,000 a month.

But however much some denizens of Asheville City Hall may dislike the idea of Henderson’s retaining a seat on the Authority — and despite the commissioners’ vote to pursue negotiations — the neighboring county may harbor much greater opposition to closing a deal along the lines of Moyer’s plan.

Many Henderson County residents see the city as a liar and a bully. In their view, the Asheville-Buncombe Water Authority came to Henderson County in 1995 desperate for a new water source, and the county, being a good neighbor, gave permission for the city to buy land in the county and build the Mills River treatment plant. But after that, they maintain, Asheville simply refused to uphold its end of the bargain, making no attempt to negotiate toward forming a true regional body, stalling on transferring the Bent Creek property (and putting restrictions on the deed when the transfer finally did happen), and using the city’s control over water infrastructure and staff to delay implementing Authority decisions that it disliked, such as the one to build the water line out to American Freightways.

To Henderson County Commissioners Charlie Messer and Grady Hawkins (who wound up on the short end of the 3-2 vote), Moyer’s plan merely represents another chance for their county “to get shafted.” In their view, Henderson County should press for more money or insist that Asheville honor the 1995 Water Agreement. “Two million dollars — and that’s our water supply down the road,” said Messer during the discussion. “I know for a fact that this deal is going to benefit Asheville or Buncombe County more than it will Henderson County.”

Moyer, however, noted that the 1995 agreement’s call for good-faith negotiations toward establishing a truly independent Authority (which would own the water infrastructure) is nonbinding. “There is little or no hope of negotiating toward a regional authority,” he declared.

And continuing the current arrangement, maintained Moyer, would result in a repeat of the American Freightways scenario each time Henderson County requests a new water line: an endless cycle of city foot-dragging leading to arbitration or litigation.

Board of Commissioners Vice Chair Marilyn Gordon, who has been negotiating alongside Moyer in talks with Asheville, noted that the Bent Creek property would eventually revert to the city anyway. (According to the 1995 agreement, it is to be returned after 10 years unless Henderson County deeds it to either the Metropolitan Sewerage District or to an independent water authority to build a sewage-treatment plant; at this point, neither option seems likely.) Better for the county to get some money while it can, she argued. “In this card game we’re playing,” said Gordon, “Asheville has all the aces.”

Ultimately, however, Gordon’s views may not matter. Both she and Don Ward, the third commissioner to vote in favor of pursuing negotiations with the city, lost their re-election bids in the Republican primary. And it’s unclear how the new board will view Moyer’s plan for peace.

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