Asheville City Council

“We’re the Asheville City Council, not the Asheville City Development Council.”

— Council member Holly Jones

It was over in under three hours, but the decisions made at the the Asheville City Council’s Oct. 28 formal session will probably affect life in this city for years to come. Tackling three public hearings, Council members deliberated, then unanimously approved the 2025 Plan, the WECAN Greenway plan and an agreement with Buncombe County that could bring a public-access channel to a television near you in the near future.

The hearings themselves were brief and noticeably lacking in the kind of verbal gymnastics often employed by Council members and city residents alike at the twice-monthly meetings. But the turnout was scant, and most of those who did attend seemed content to watch: When Mayor Charles Worley offered the mike to the audience, there were few takers. In other words, there wasn’t much “public” in the public hearings.

Brevity seemed to be the order of the day for City Council as well. And the lack of controversy wasn’t lost on Council member Jim Ellis, who quipped with a smile, “We must be in the right place, or else we’d have a roomful of people.”

Let my people speak

In her presentation, Chairwoman Beth Lazer of the Public Access Channel Commission stressed that the long-running proposal for a channel showcasing programs produced by area residents is indeed moving closer to becoming reality. The issue now before Council, she explained, was an “interlocal agreement” between the city of Asheville and Buncombe County that would formally authorize a joint public-access channel to be run by a nonprofit organization. Noting that the county commissioners had already signed off on the agreement (on Sept. 16), Lazer urged Council members to “take the next step.”

She also called attention to a movement to enlist local multimedia professionals to help launch the channel by training novice producers, directors and videographers in the nuts and bolts of television work. Such a partnership, suggested Lazer, could be housed in a proposed media-arts center that project supporters say could serve as an incubator for local media-related businesses and aspiring professionals. Council member Brian Peterson, however, cautioned that there is concern in the community about overemphasizing the channel’s potential as an economic-development tool. “I don’t think funds for public access should be diverted,” he observed. Lazer assured him that the fees being paid by subscribers to Charter Communications (the local cable-TV franchise) that are earmarked for the public-access channel would be “dedicated to the public-access station.” The commission’s only goal, she said, is to “get the station up and going.”

Peterson next waded into the thorny issue of content on the new channel, predicting that there “is going to be some material that could be politically or sexually offensive, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for any political body to say ‘These views are acceptable’ or ‘those views are acceptable.'” Lazer concurred, noting that some programming would probably take “positions that offend somebody.” She added, however, that cable subscribers would be free to block the channel entirely if they so chose. In addition, noted Lazer, the nonprofit agency that would be created would “take on the responsibility for programming,” acting as a buffer between the channel and elected officials.

City Attorney Bob Oast gave a legal opinion on the arrangement, asserting that having the channel administered by a nonprofit agency could “insulate Council from criticisms and, in a certain sense, liability.”

But with responsibility comes a certain amount of power — a point not lost on Council member Joe Dunn, who said, “The makeup of that board is going to be a big factor for me.” Dunn went on to observe that although he believes in free speech, he feels it also has a downside. “In the name of free speech, things can get skewed one way or another,” noted Dunn.

Soon after, Council members exercised a little free expression of their own — by voting. And those voices spoke as one; the vote to approve the agreement was unanimous.

What’s in a name?

The Asheville City Plan 2025 is now official — except that that’s no longer what it’s called. In the course of tweaking the document to reflect Council members’ concerns, the city Planning and Development Department changed the name to the Asheville City Development Plan 2025. Despite the concern about the title, however, the seven Council members seemed to be substantially in agreement on the content of the plan.

Although the comprehensive planning document — which will help guide growth and development in the city over the next 22 years — might have been expected to spark a knockdown-dragout debate, the individual Council members generally seemed to agree that the 300-plus-page plan was palatable enough to be adopted. As Council member Carl Mumpower put it, “There’s no such thing as a perfect document.”

Some of Council’s specific concerns about the plan may have been assuaged by Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford‘s assurance (in a memo issued prior to the meeting) that “the plan is not an end into itself — it is a guide [emphasis Shuford’s] for specific actions, with the individual consideration and implementation of these actions being the method by which the plan will be put into effect.” To further underscore his point, Shuford also pointed out that Council was merely being asked to approve a resolution affirming the document’s importance, rather than making it a city ordinance.

That said, however, one sticking point remained. Joe Dunn suggested striking a paragraph about working with the National Parks Service to preserve viewsheds along the portions of the Blue Ridge Parkway that run through Asheville. The Council member prefaced his comments by noting that though he doesn’t oppose viewsheds, he feels it’s inappropriate to offer such a partnership with Parkway administrators at a time when the city and those same federal officials are fighting over access rights to the city’s planned “beneficial landfill” site at the Azalea Road Recreation Complex. A Parkway bridge provides the only access to the city property, and Parkway officials have thus far denied the city use of the bridge — leaving Asheville with a site for a landfill and no way to get to it. In the meantime, moreover, the city has had to dump its “beneficial” fill (dirt and debris from highway and other infrastructure projects) at a private facility in Buncombe County facility, which Dunn said is costing “$18,000 per month.” (Asheville Solid Waste Manager Richard Grant explained later that thanks to efforts by the city to reduce the amount of material it hauls to the private facility, that cost has dropped to roughly $10,000 per month.)

“The Parkway is holding the city of Asheville hostage,” Dunn declared, adding, “Where is their support for the city? It should be a two-way street. … It’s time for us to stand up for the Asheville taxpayer — they’re getting hammered.”

Brian Peterson, meanwhile, sided with those city residents who have fought the city’s plan to site the landfill there and have supported the Parkway’s reluctance to let the city use the bridge. “I think the Parkway is making the right decision,” said Peterson.

Eventually, Dunn’s colleagues persuaded him not to take out his anger on the 2025 Plan. After noting that he shares Dunn’s frustration, Mumpower asked his colleague, “Might there be some other way to approach this, rather than going into the document?”

One of the last comments before the vote came from Council member Holly Jones. Expressing her dismay about the name change, Jones quipped, “We’re the Asheville City Council, not the Asheville City Development Council.”

In the end, however, the differences were tabled and Council adopted the plan on a unanimous vote.

WECAN have green space, too

In yet another unanimous vote, City Council approved the Clingman Forest Greenway Master Plan, which will create a 10-acre wooded corridor through the heart of the West End/Clingman Avenue neighborhood (WECAN) featuring a mix of hiking trails, affordable housing and protected natural areas. Tamara Calabria of Mountain Housing Opportunities, a local nonprofit agency that helped develop the plan, told Council that funds received from a variety of outside sources will help defray the project’s cost. That support includes $172,000 from the N.C. Department of Transportation, $34,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant moneys, and $95,000 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. City Parks and Recreation Department Director Irby Brinson told Council that the project will cost an estimated $1.5 million, but thanks to strong prospects for additional outside funding, Asheville taxpayers will probably have to foot only about 15 percent of the bill.

Mayor Worley applauded the initiative, observing, “The funds we spend leveraging grants are an investment in our future.”

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