Asheville City Council

It’s only a small step toward cleaner air, but Asheville City Council members took it.

They unanimously passed a resolution urging North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt to sign an agreement with Tennessee that defines a process for reviewing — and allowing public comment on — air-quality permits for new industries whose emissions might affect national parks and wilderness areas, such as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (which straddles the two states) and the Shining Rock Wilderness Area in Haywood County.

The agreement doesn’t create stricter standards for new or expanding industries — “it just provides an opportunity for [federal and state] agencies to confer and hold public hearings,” said Rick Maas, an environmental-science professor at UNC-A. The agreement sets a policy of cooperation between federal land-management agencies — in particular, the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Agriculture — and state and federal environmental agencies, said Maas.

Tennessee’s governor has already signed the agreement, and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution on Nov. 17 supporting it, Maas noted.

Maas emphasized the importance of including in the agreement a 60-day comment period, during which the various agencies can review applications and the public can comment on them — rather than a 30-day period, as some officials have called for.

The shorter comment period, along with five other amendments, have been proposed by some North Carolina officials. Thirty days isn’t enough time, Maas argued, for an adequate review, let alone public comment.

Familiar with the pace of government, Asheville City Council members agreed — although some suggested that the state should be the one to negotiate such amendments. Council member Barbara Field noted that when the issue was introduced to Council the week before, Council member Chuck Cloninger had spoken against any resolution condemning the various amendments, including the 30-day amendment. Field said she wanted to honor Cloninger’s comments. “Leave it to the state,” she said.

But Mayor Leni Sitnick wanted to pass a resolution that specifically stated Council’s objection to the 30-day requirement.

Vice Mayor Ed Hay tactfully suggested that Council’s resolution include language voicing members’ concern about any amendments “which may have the effect of limiting public comment.”

Council members agreed to that, with O.T. Tomes moving that Council pass the resolution; Earl Cobb seconded.

Before Council members voted on the issue, they heard from a number of residents and experts about the importance of air quality in western North Carolina.

UNC-A economics professor Susan Kask pointed out that good air quality is good for business: In surveys and studies conducted by her, Kask found that most businesses and industries list quality of life as one of the top reasons for relocating in the region. “The businesses that locate here [do so] because this is a beautiful place,” she said.

And, Kask added, visitors to the Blue Ridge Parkway report that if the mountains’ scenic views continue to be worsened by pollution-generated haze, they would be less likely to visit the area. “If we don’t protect air quality, we have the potential of losing visitors to this area,” Kask declared. And the tourist industry brings an estimated 75,000 jobs to the region, she said.

“If we clean the air, we save [our] quality of life,” noted Kim Carlyle, a member of the Western North Carolina Alliance, a local environmental group. He urged Council members to “consider a value system other than dollars; consider … quality of life.” That’s good for business, he said, noting a broad range of support for the proposed interstate air agreement, which has been endorsed by a number of business leaders and organizations, as well as environmental and other citizens groups.

“The jobs of the future are the ones that are going to produce the least pollution,” said Asheville resident Keith Thompson, urging Council to support the agreement, which, he said, would have the effect of encouraging environment-friendly industries in the region.

And that’s important because “trees are dying” in the Appalachians, said Appalachian State University professor Harvard Ayers, who has studied failing tree health in the region. His research has concluded that hardwoods are dying, in addition to the spruces and firs that are beset by the balsam woody adelgid. “It’s hard to come up with a bug for each of the trees that are dying,” explained Ayers, mentioning failing populations of beech and other hardwoods. “There’s a strong case for an overlying stressor: air quality,” Ayers told Council members.

He urged them to support the agreement. “This is just the first step. We’re trying to prevent new pollution.”

Real-estate developer Ted Prosser also urged Council’s support. When he’s showing properties to prospective business owners who are considering relocating to the Asheville area, “a major draw is the quality life and clean air,” he said.

After hearing from everyone, Cobb urged that Council adopt the resolution, saying, “We’ve got some serious problems [with pollution]. We’ve just been turning our heads for years.”

And Sitnick declared, “The environment is not a political issue. It’s where we live.” She said she was happy to take this step for cleaner air.

Tomes moved that Council adopt the resolution supporting the agreement, including Hay’s provision urging the governor to oppose any amendments that would limit the public’s ability to comment. The motion passed unanimously, 6-0 (Council member Chuck Cloninger was absent).

(Almost) full-throttle ahead for speedway

On Nov. 24, Asheville City Council members directed City Manager Jim Westbrook to negotiate a lease that would allow for the operation of the Asheville Motor Speedway in 1999.

Their unanimous vote elicited applause from racing fans in the audience. The decision sets the stage for one more racing season at the 31-acre facility, which was recently purchased by RiverLink and then donated to the city for development as a park. But a few requirements will have to be met before racing can continue. RiverLink has suggested a minimum $200,000 charge for the lease, and an anonymous donor, who was instrumental in the transfer of the property to the city, has asked that Council squelch any plans to grant the 40-year-old speedway a historic designation and forbid the construction of a racing hall of fame on the site.

RiverLink also asked that it be allowed to keep the lease payments, for use in the future development of the park.

As a matter of principle, Council member Barbara Field said she’d rather the city collect and control the lease income: “We’re still very thankful to RiverLink [for donating the property], but if we hold the deed … and we lease it, we should hold any remuneration.”

City Attorney Bob Oast, who has negotiated with RiverLink and Speedway ’99 representatives, suggested that Council could earmark the revenue for park development. He also suggested that Council let the city manager negotiate the best deal, in terms of the lease amount and other details.

Council members agreed. On a motion from Tommy Sellers, who has worked as a liaison between Council and Speedway ’99 leaders, Council voted 6-0 to grant Westbrook the authority to select a speedway operator and negotiate a lease agreement (Council member Chuck Cloninger was absent).

Vice Mayor Ed Hay pointed out that if the city or any future owner ever sold the property, deed restrictions forbidding the future operation of a racetrack and limiting development within 100 feet of the French Broad River (which borders the property) would still have to be honored — despite the fact that RiverLink and the donors who made the purchase of the property possible have agreed to temporarily lift those restrictions.

And Sellers stressed that the lease will allow other uses of the facility during the rental period next year, such as bicycle racing and concerts, which have been held there in the past.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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