Winding down the water wars

It’s come down to just $500,000. That appears to be all that’s keeping Asheville and Henderson County from putting an end to their long-running water wars — provided, that is, that the two sides can cut a deal before the new Henderson County commissioners take their oaths of office in early December.

At a special Nov. 14 meeting called specifically to address the situation, the Asheville City Council voted 6-1 to offer Henderson County three options for resolving their disputes concerning the implementation of the 1995 water agreement (Brian Peterson was the sole dissenter). All three plans call for creating a “regional infrastructure council” that would include the city of Hendersonville, which is not a member of the current Regional Water Authority.

“Option 1,” as Mayor Charles Worley labeled it, would simply leave the 1995 water agreement intact, with all parties once again agreeing to abide by it.

At the other extreme, “Option 3″ would cancel the water agreement outright. Under this plan, Asheville would pay Henderson County $2 million; in return, Henderson would give the city back a much-disputed Bent Creek property (assessed at that value) that was obtained as part of the water agreement. Henderson County would lose its two seats on the Regional Water Authority, however.

But it was “Option 2″ that the mayor and most other City Council members said they hoped Henderson County would choose. That proposal calls for Asheville to pay Henderson County $1.5 million in exchange for the Bent Creek property; in addition, Henderson would retain one of its two seats on the Authority board. The Authority would cease building “regional lines” in northern Henderson County, but the county could use the $1.5 million to build water and sewer lines itself.

At the Nov. 20 Henderson County Board of Commissioners meeting, Chairman Bill Moyer suggested that they counter with a “final offer of $2 million and one seat.” Those are the same terms that Moyer had written into the first draft of Henderson County’s last proposal, which he had passed out at the commissioners’ Oct. 16 meeting. (By the time that proposal got to Asheville, however, the number of seats had risen to two.)

Moyer, Vice Chair Marilyn Gordon and Don Ward, all of whom had supported the county’s previous proposal to Asheville (which passed on a 3-2 vote), once again expressed a desire for “closure,” saying they worried that it would take the new commissioners several years to get up to speed on the complexities of the water-agreement issues. For that reason, they decided to reconvene on Nov. 26 — after they had time to review the fine print, but before the new board takes over.

A skeptic, however, might wonder if the three were worried less about the length of the learning curve than about the probability that the newcomers might take a different position. Both Gordon and Ward are leaving the board, and at least one of the commissioners-elect is regarded as a hard-core Asheville antagonist who might resist cutting any sort of deal with the city.

Meanwhile, despite some concern that the rancor that has long characterized the Asheville-Henderson County relationship might resurface, recent meetings of both bodies have, for the most part, been notably free of invective and displays of bitterness toward the other side.

At the Nov. 14 City Council meeting, Mayor Worley and Jim Ellis, who have been negotiating with Henderson County on behalf of Asheville, took pains to stress that both sides have at times been at fault. They admitted, for instance, that the city had erred in not immediately turning over the deed to the Bent Creek property, in accordance with the 1995 agreement.

And at Henderson County commissioners’ meetings, meanwhile, Moyer has acknowledged that the large and costly regional water line out to American Freightways, which the county had insisted upon over the city’s objections, was a mistake. He has also praised the current Asheville City Council for showing a sincere commitment to negotiate in good faith.

Even frequent city critic Mickey Mahaffey, who has lambasted Asheville for its water policies and its approach to the negotiations, was complimentary when Worley presented the three options on Nov. 14. Agreeing with Worley that the current arrangement simply isn’t working, Mahaffey said during the public-comment period that it’s “time to forget the past.” Commending City Council for its hard work, he noted with particular approval the proposal for a regional infrastructure council.

Not everyone, however, was equally enthusiastic. Council Member Peterson argued that Asheville is letting Henderson County “extort” money from them. “We’re being chumps,” he declared immediately after the meeting. “Henderson County thinks that we’re wimps, and we’ve proven them right.”

The city, argues Peterson, doesn’t owe Henderson County a dime. In his view, Asheville and Henderson should sell the Bent Creek property and split the proceeds, as the city had originally proposed. Otherwise, says Peterson, the city can simply wait for the property to revert to its control, as it will in nine years unless Henderson County transfers the parcel to another entity as a site for a sewage-treatment plant (which now seems unlikely).

Worley and Ellis, however, hold that Henderson County deserves something for allowing Asheville to buy the land for the Mills River water-treatment plant and draw water from Henderson County, especially in light of the tax revenues lost and the watershed restrictions imposed. And giving Henderson money to build water and sewer lines, they argue, is in keeping with the spirit of the 1995 agreement, since the county had expected the Water Authority to build regional lines in its northern districts and had thought that the Bent Creek site would be used to develop a sewage-treatment plant.

But Peterson counters that Henderson County, which wasn’t forced to agree to the 1995 deal, is simply frustrated that things have not worked out as hoped. It’s not Asheville’s fault, argues Peterson, that the Hendersonville system is so extensive in northern Henderson County that there’s little demand or economic justification for the Water Authority to build regional lines there.

A house divided

Peterson isn’t the only one upset with the direction of the negotiations. Hazel Fobes, chair of Citizens for Safe Drinking Water and Air, advocates establishing a truly independent water authority, as was envisioned in the 1995 agreement.

“We need regionalism, and we don’t need to be separated,” she proclaimed during the public comment session at the Nov. 14 City Council meeting. Fobes challenged the idea of trimming Henderson County’s representation on the Water Authority to one member. “get concerned that we don’t get equality of membership,” she said.

Fobes and others have long complained that city staff treat the Water Authority as if it were irrelevant or, at best, nothing more than an advisory body. And when discussing negotiating goals, both Peterson and Moyer have argued that the money is more important than a seat on the Authority, for the same reason.

The recent controversy over the fate of two water-efficiency educators in city’s Water Resources Department (which administers the water system) has brought the question of the Authority’s independence into sharp focus.

At its Oct. 15 meeting, the Water Authority ordered city staff to keep their hands off the water-efficiency education program. But the city’s Water Resources Department — saying this was a personnel matter and thus not within the Water Authority’s purview — went ahead with plans to move the two full-time educators from City Hall into jobs in the plants (although David Hanks, the department’s interim director, says the two would still have worked mostly on education).

After frantic calls and e-mails involving activists, Water Authority members and city officials, as well as a threatened emergency session of the Water Authority, Hanks backed down. But at the very next Water Authority meeting (on Nov. 19), he flatly refused Chairman John Tate‘s request to interview the two educators — once again stating that it was a personnel issue and thus not the Authority’s concern.

Without those eleventh-hour, behind-the-scenes efforts, it is unclear whether Hanks would have heeded the Authority’s demand. And if Henderson County loses a seat on the Authority board and a new regional infrastructure council is formed, questions about the Authority’s relevance will only multiply.

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