Knocking at the gate

It’s not every day that a former chairman of the UNC Board of Governors (and a man with a distinguished professorship named after him) takes a complaint to the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson. But that’s what Philip Carson found himself doing at the Authority’s Nov. 16 meeting, when frustration and even anger began to creep into his voice.

“Why not?” asked the eminent attorney, wondering why the go-ahead to supply water to individual homes in The Ramble — a gated community going up between Biltmore Forest and Biltmore Park — had yet to be granted. “Because Jim Westbrook or the city doesn’t want to?”

Carson’s question points to one of the great ironies of Westbrook’s tenure as Asheville’s city manager: Whereas opponents of controversial building projects often portray senior city staff as acting in cahoots with powerful developers and bending the rules to suit their every whim, the developers themselves often say the opposite — that the city capriciously throws up obstacles to growth, giving Asheville a reputation as a bad place to do business.

Conflict of interest?

And make no mistake, Carson’s client, Biltmore Farms, is as powerful as they come. Chairman George Cecil and President Jack Cecil are grandson and great grandson of George Washington Vanderbilt. Since inheriting the family’s dairy and milk-processing business along with thousands of acres that were once part of Biltmore Estate, they have made the most of the family legacy, creating a series of major developments that includes Vanderbilt Park, Biltmore Square Mall, Biltmore Park and Biltmore Lake (although the last project sits on land purchased from BASF Corp. around what used to be known as Enka Lake in Candler).

True to form, The Ramble is also being carved from former Biltmore lands, and its Web site cites Frederick Law Olmsted’s work on Biltmore Estate as the inspiration for its design. (That the name itself is actually borrowed from one of the wildest parts of another famous Olmsted landscape, New York City’s Central Park, hasn’t stopped Biltmore Farms from putting a trademark on it.)

As a former board chairman of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, Jack Cecil knows everyone who’s anyone in local business circles. And if the team he assembled for The Ramble is any indication, he likes to employ the best and best-connected in their fields. In addition to Carson, there’s Bill Lapsley — who, in addition to heading the well-respected water-engineering and land-planning firm that works on most of Biltmore Farms’ projects, also happens to be chairman of the Water Authority).

In fact, it was Lapsley who first brought the issue to the Authority’s attention. At the agency’s October meeting, he said he’d heard that the city was requiring an unnamed developer of an unspecified gated community to employ a master meter for the whole project, rather than individual meters for each residence. David Hanks, Asheville’s interim water-resources director, responded that his staff has encountered problems gaining access to gated communities to read meters and make repairs, so they now prefer to use master meters for such developments.

Although the city owns and operates the water infrastructure, the Authority — which includes representatives from Buncombe and Henderson counties as well as Asheville — sets policy. A quick discussion yielded general agreement among those board members present that deciding whether to require master meters is a policy question. Accordingly, Ed Metz, who chairs the Policies and Priorities Committee, asked that the matter be put on the agenda for his committee’s next meeting (which was scheduled for early November). But Hanks, who draws up the agendas, omitted the item, telling Lapsley that city staff needed more time to study the issue.

That set the scene for the Nov. 16 meeting. And with Carson coming before the Authority to directly request individual meters for The Ramble, the context had clearly shifted from general policy to one particular development that Lapsley was involved with. Citing a conflict of interest, Chairman Lapsley turned over his duties to Metz. Hanks, meanwhile, was attending a family funeral in South Carolina. Consequently, the two men whose voices usually feature most prominently at Authority meetings were absent from the spirited discussion that followed.

A gentlemen’s handshake

Carson explained that Biltmore Farms had submitted its paperwork for water connections on July 12, expecting the project to be treated like other recently built gated communities such as the Cliffs at Walnut Cove (which has individual meters). Installing a master meter would require the development to act as its own utility and go through the cumbersome process of applying to the state Utilities Commission. “Getting to the meters is not an issue here,” asserted Carson. A guard will be posted at one gate 24 hours a day, and the others will have phones visitors could use to contact the guard.

Carson’s comments won sympathy from several Authority members, including Metz, fellow Buncombe appointee Patsy Keever and at-large member Winston Pulliam, who is a developer himself. Entry shouldn’t be a problem, they maintained, since police, fire and other utilities are routinely granted access codes to gated communities. Accordingly, they expressed dismay that an arbitrary staff decision was holding up the project.

Water Authority attorney Craig Justus struck a sympathetic note, saying he knows firsthand the frustrations of developers, having represented several himself, and stressing that he was “open to what [Carson] was trying to say.” But Justus emphasized that whereas the Authority sets policy, the city handles operations. “The bottom line is that there is a procedure for this kind of request,” he said. That procedure, he explained, involves writing an official letter to Hanks, who must respond to it within 15 days. After that, the matter goes to the Policies and Priorities Committee and then to the full board.

Justus also noted that an Authority member can make a motion to waive policy in a given instance. Keever started to do just that, but she held off after others on the board urged further discussion. Saying that he didn’t “have a dog in this fight,” Asheville appointee Joe Dunn suggested that the Authority didn’t have all the information needed to assess the situation. And fellow city appointee Brian Peterson warned that waiving the procedure would set a precedent, meaning other developers would expect the same treatment in the future.

Assistant City Manager Jeff Richardson, meanwhile, expressed surprise that Carson had come before the Authority at all. Recalling a meeting a few weeks earlier between city staff and Biltmore Farms representatives concerning other matters involving The Ramble (which lies within the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction for zoning), Richardson recalled that he and Paul Szurek, the company’s chief financial officer, had made “a gentlemen’s handshake” agreeing that city staff would look into the water-meter issue and get back to them soon.

“It’s high on the to-do list,” said Richardson, noting that there had been past instances of gated-community access codes being changed, so that emergency vehicles were denied entry. He added that he believed the city had previously installed master meters at some gated communities, which would make it an operational matter to be left to the city’s discretion.

“There are a lot of issues here,” observed Westbrook, the city manager, “including the pros and cons of master meters and gated communities.”

One issue that didn’t come up is the question of maintenance. Although developers pay to have new water lines installed, the lines then become city property, and the Authority is responsible for maintaining them. A gated community with a master meter, on the other hand, would still buy water from the system, but it wouldn’t turn over the water infrastructure to the city — and would thus have to pay for maintenance and any electricity used at pumping stations.

A passage in the city’s 2025 Plan discusses the problem of extending infrastructure out into low-density areas, “creating a development pattern that is expensive to serve [and] requires continual maintenance.” The passage specifically cites the Water Authority’s policies as an example of what is causing local sprawl and its attendant economic inefficiencies. In that context, requiring low-density gated communities to use master meters might seem to be a good way for the municipal water system to avoid some of those costs.

But Asheville Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford told Xpress that in this instance, rather than trying to cut maintenance costs, the city is concerned about the broader issue of “public utilities on private streets.” (Shuford went on to praise the developers of The Ramble for the steps they’ve taken to reduce water runoff from the site, which he called innovative and environmentally responsible.)

And with the Authority declining to vote on meters for The Ramble, it’s an issue that seems destined for further debate.

[Jonathan Barnard, a freelance translator and writer, lives in West Asheville.]

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