The big news at the Asheville City Council’s Nov. 26 formal session was no news, and no news looks like bad news — at least for those who’d hoped for a settlement of the region’s water fracas.
That same day, the Henderson County Board of Commissioners had voted to table possible divorce proceedings in the 1995 marriage of convenience created the Regional Water Authority of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson (see “Winding down the water wars,” Nov. 27 Xpress). That means Henderson County won’t revisit the issue until their newly elected commissioners are on board — and the word on the street is that the newbies aren’t too keen on any of the options that have been on the table to date.
“This is very disappointing news,” said Council member Carl Mumpower. “We spent a fair amount of time on this. We hoped it would keep rolling forward.”
And Council member Jim Ellis added, “I hope it is the new commission’s first order of business.”
Judging from the comments made by Henderson County commissioners at their meeting, however, it appears that the failure to reach agreement was due to last-minute changes made by Asheville. Board of Commissioners Chairman Bill Moyer expressed great displeasure that the final agreement offered for their consideration included more than 20 differences between what Henderson had sent Asheville and what Asheville sent back — apart from what they’d believed to be the key differences.
Speaking about the Asheville City Council, Henderson County Commissioner Don Ward said, “I don’t trust them as far as I can throw them.” He also suggested that given the number of differences in the fine print, it would be political suicide for the current board to make a deal now.
Mumpower later told Xpress via e-mail: “Regrettably, some Commission members seem to be more interested in playing ‘good guy/bad guy’ than in trying to resolve our mutual concerns. If there were that many significant changes between their proposal and ours, someone on our side made a serious error.”
Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy had opened the 5 p.m. meeting with a Thanksgiving invocation in which she acknowledged “those who aren’t as advantaged, who aren’t able to share a Thanksgiving meal at home.” She said that her awareness of their needs heightens her gratefulness for her own family and home.
Bellamy went on to thank those who stick it out in school through high-school graduation, or who return to A-B Tech to earn GEDs, noting that the whole community is grateful for that contribution to the general good.
Mayor Charles Worley seconded Bellamy’s emphasis on education, adding his thankfulness for the city staff.
Council member Joe Dunn added a word of thanks to his colleagues. “We may not agree 100 percent of the time,” he said, “but we are all 100 percent for Asheville.”
Worley then injected a note of humor, saying he’s also thankful for short meetings. That suggestion met with unanimous nods and smiles, although Council itself was short — Council member Brian Peterson was absent.
A Gold Medal city
President Ray Zender of the National Recreation and Parks Association was on hand to present that organization’s Gold Medal Award to the Asheville Parks and Recreation Department for its achievements in creating spaces and festivals, involving citizens, and delivering services to the community. Each year, Zender’s organization — in conjunction with the National Sporting Goods Association — recognizes five cities with what he called “this country’s highest award for parks and recreation.” Asheville took the honors in the 50,000 to 100,000 population category. Zender hailed Asheville as the first city in the U.S. to achieve and maintain what have since become national standards for its parks program, and for continuing to be a model for other cities in the state and nation.
Mayor Worley accepted the award on behalf of the department, acknowledging those Parks & Rec employees who were present.
Following this, the consent agenda was approved with little discussion.
What price history?
Two buildings under consideration for local historic-landmark designation sparked the only moments of dissent during the generally unanimous proceedings. City staff proposed the Bynum House (200 Macon Drive and the Grove Park Country Club clubhouse (on Country Club Road) as worthy of preservation as historic landmarks.
The designation, explained Historic Resources Commission Director Stacy Merten, comes with a 50 percent property tax deferral — amounting, in these cases, to about $4,700 and $12,000 per year, respectively. This both compensates the owners for adhering to historic-preservation regulations and provides a source of funds for maintaining the properties, she said.
There was little dispute about the Bynum House, which staff said has only narrowly escaped razing in recent years and which is reported to be in good exterior and poor interior condition. Following Merten’s presentation, Council member Mumpower requested “a further explanation of the upside for the community,” which he felt was needed in order to justify the revenue loss.
Merten responded that the designation would preserve an important piece of Asheville’s history dating back to the 1920s and would ultimately increase the tax base.
The designation was approved 6-0.
But the far more valuable Grove Park Inn property — and the more significant potential revenue loss — brought out the populist in Mumpower, who questioned the wisdom of granting a wealthy landowner a subsidy, given the city’s tight budget. Following Merten’s presentation, Mumpower reiterated that he had “trouble with this one, vs. the previous property” and asked for further explanation.
Merten reported that “the national country-club movement started in Swannanoa and spread across the country,” that the Grove Park Country Club clubhouse is a fine example of such buildings in their heyday, and that it “represents the historic importance of a particular social class in this community.”
Council member Dunn said he couldn’t understand why the clubhouse was being separated from the golf course for the proposed designation. “It seems like we’re taking one arm separate from the rest,” he said, observing that the golf course has been changed repeatedly during its history and is “definitely not a historic golf course.”
During the public-comment period, itinerant Franciscan monk Greg Christopher questioned whether the city can afford to take a facility for the rich off the books when it lacks the funds to provide for the poor.
David Holcombe, acting president of the city’s Historic Resources Commission, noted that, in addition to the property’s cultural and historical significance, “This building is a tax generator. It could be torn down for a parking lot, which would drastically reduce its value.” “Fifty percent of a high number is much better than 100 percent of a low number,” he declared.
In further discussion, Mumpower expressed disbelief that any property owner would tear down a $4 million building to make way for parking, but Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford assured Council that this could happen. “There are economic threats,” he warned, explaining that a newer, smaller building would be more efficient for the owner and would generate less tax revenue for the city. Shuford also cited the cases of other designated local landmarks: “The Kress Building, for example. We encouraged interior renovation, making that property far more valuable than it was before.”
Mumpower remained unconvinced, however, and said, “I’m unpersuaded that Asheville should subsidize this property. I don’t think it’s fair to the other people of Asheville.” The designation was approved 5-1.
In other business, Council unanimously approved conditional-use permits for a triplex at 25 Raleigh Road and rezoning of a Biltmore Park parcel (from RS-8 to Urban Village).
And Council member Holly Jones noted that she has received reports that violence against women is on the rise. Jones proposed a Council work session in January to address the issue.
When the meeting was opened for public discussion, activist Mickey Mahaffey warned Council members that the mood at the Henderson County Board of Commissioners meeting had been grim and that they shouldn’t expect quick agreement from the incoming commissioners.
Mahaffey went on to make four points concerning the recently adopted panhandling ordinance. “First, we desperately need an adequate public restroom downtown, with an attendant,” he said, explaining that it would serve tourists and shoppers as well as the homeless. “Second, we need some kind of facility where we can send the severely alcoholic people on our streets. There is no place for them to go.
“Third, I highly recommend that the Asheville Police Department place police officers in hot spots where most of the problems are occuring downtown.” The mere presence of officers, Mahaffey suggested, would solve 75 percent of the problems.
Finally, he said: “I hope you will keep a close eye on how this new ordinance is implemented. I have seen it handled with aggression on the part of the police.”
Christopher, the Franciscan monk, then delivered a sermon to Council about caring for the poor, the need for public restrooms, and Christians’ obligation to love the least among them as they love themselves.
Stewart David responded to Council member Dunn’s scathing criticism of the American Civil Liberties Union at Council’s Nov. 12 formal session. (The ACLU, said Dunn, is making the country “too politically correct” and is selectively defending rights.) David spoke about events in Skokie, Ill., in 1977. A neo-Nazi group, he said, had wanted to march in the largely Jewish city, many of whose residents were Holocaust survivors or relatives of victims. The ACLU defended the neo-Nazis’ right to free speech, losing more than 30,000 members nationwide as a result.
“I later came to understand,” said David, “that free speech isn’t limited to what you want to hear. The ACLU’s defense of the First Amendment is anything but politically correct.
“I believe this law will be found unconstitutional,” he continued, adding, “It is troubling that you passed this law without a discussion of the First Amendment.”
David was a party to the creation of Asheville’s current public-demonstration ordinance. He reminded Council that when the former ordinance was declared unconstitutional in 1993, he and other activitists had sat down with the city attorneys and Asheville Police Chief Will Annarino to craft a new ordinance that respected the First Amendment. David expressed hope that when the new panhandling ordinance fails in court, Council will seek community involvement in creating a replacment.
(Annarino, who was a prime mover behind the new panhandling law, told Xpress last week that a tougher public-protest ordinance is next on his agenda. This raises the question of why the Police Department is playing such an active role in drafting new laws, insofar as its job description is law enforcement, not legislation. There is no wording in the APD’s mission statement that suggests a legislative function.
Mumpower told Xpress “I do not think that a police department should be unilaterally constructing our laws. I don’t believe that happened in this case.” Annarino’s “strongest contributions would be in terms of research, practical application of the law, current trends in law enforcement and street knowledge,” continued Mumpower.