“I think we all believe in the Constitution. But I think the Constitution is used as a weapon to paralyze us sometimes.”
— Council member Carl Mumpower on banning sex offenders from city parks
In case anybody needed reminding, the Asheville City Council’s Dec. 12 formal session (the final meeting of the year) reprised many long-running issues issues: development, affordable housing, crime, environmental policy and the ever (un)popular Civic Center. And though the evening was book-ended by thank-yous from Council members to one another and to staff, the meat of the meet was dominated by philosophical bickering, cries of socialism by Council member Carl Mumpower, and a push by the year-old City Council’s progressive faction to get pet agenda items approved. But as Mayor Terry Bellamy made clear in her introduction to the meeting, she prefers to “emphasize people, process and policies over pride and polarization.”
And stay out …
In one of the evening’s few unanimous votes, Council barred sex offenders from the city’s public parks. Other North Carolina municipalities, including Fletcher and Woodfin, have passed similar legislation.
The Woodfin law is being challenged for violating the constitutional rights to due process and freedom of movement, noted City Attorney Bob Oast, who said he believes the ordinance is defensible.
That prompted Mumpower to observe that such legal actions can hinder enforcement efforts. “I think we all believe in the Constitution,” he said. “But I think the Constitution is used as a weapon to paralyze us sometimes.”
That brief exchange was all that Council members had to say about the constitutional issues at stake. Instead, unarticulated fears about children dominated the conversation.
Bryan Freeborn and Vice Mayor Holly Jones, both of whom have children of their own, told stories involving known sex offenders in Asheville who live close to parks and other places likely to attract children and families. No one explained how the proposed measure would actually protect children, however.
Even as Jones was supporting the ban, she raised doubts about the law’s practical impact. “This is largely symbolic,” she said. “I’m not sure how much we can really enforce it at the end of the day.”
Police Chief Bill Hogan said his department would rely both on photographs of offenders and on assistance from community members, some of whom closely track the state’s online list of sex offenders, he noted.
The Rev. Christopher Chiaromonte, an advocate for the homeless, advised Council to wait and see how the legal challenge plays out before jumping on the bandwagon. “So as not to get too much egg on your face, you might ought to hold off,” he counseled during the public-comment period.
At Council’s request, Oast will explore the possibility of further legislative restraints, such as prohibiting sex offenders from living within a specified distance of a park. State law already bars such people from living within 1,000 feet of a school or daycare center, and Oast told Xpress that the N.C. General Assembly may consider adding parks to the list. Meanwhile, the city will post notices about the new ordinance in all of its parks within the next 30 days, he said.
The civic center that wouldn’t die
Perhaps unwilling to start another year with the specter of the Civic Center still staring them in the face, Council approved a capital-improvements plan to catch up on long-neglected repairs.
“This should be the one thing that Council puts to bed in 2006,” Mayor Bellamy declared.
A staff proposal called for spending roughly $400,000 a year over five years to gradually take care of wear and tear at the Civic Center: replacing lights, generators and the portable stage as well as converting locker rooms to dressing rooms. First up for 2007: replacing seats and smoke hatches (trap doors that vent smoke in case of a fire) and repairing damage to the concourse.
Council had previously allocated money to replace the aging facility’s leaky roof — the first tangible progress after years of hemming and hawing — but the new proposal sparked some discussion.
“It would be nice to put a hat on this, but we shouldn’t side-step these folks to do it,” said Mumpower, noting that this particular version of the plan had not been screened by the Civic Center Commission — an intermediary between staff and Council. Mumpower formerly chaired the commission.
But Council member (and former Civic Center Task Force chair) Jan Davis urged Council to move forward, saying the commission had seen enough elements of the plan. “It’s very important that the people know we are not just letting the building sit there,” he said.
The enthusiasm quickly spread to others on Council. “Let’s end the year with some movement on the Civic Center,” Freeborn agreed. “Let’s just go for it.”
The initial plan passed 6-1 with Mumpower opposed, but a more ambitious staff proposal that would require outside funding was held until it could go before the commission. That initiative, which entails more extensive remodeling, calls for spending about $1.1 million a year for five years and would require some form of special funding, such as a 1-cent hotel-occupancy tax. Previous attempts to secure the needed permission from the N.C. General Assembly have not been successful.
In related news, Council endorsed the efforts of the North Carolina State University Water Quality Group to secure grant funding to install a “green” roof on the Civic Center. Although the city hasn’t taken an official stance on the idea (which could improve air and water quality and reduce energy use), the deadline for the grant application is fast approaching, and City Engineer Cathy Ball assured Council members that they could always refuse the grant later if they decided against the project.
Meanwhile, Council members still seem hopeful that the city may be able to find a developer interested in building a new downtown performing-arts center. City-owned property on Marjorie Street (between City Hall and The Block), was repeatedly mentioned during the meeting as a possible site.
From the ground up
The 100-unit McCormick Heights housing project, which sits above McCormick Field, has long been plagued by crime, noted Executive Director Gene Bell of the Asheville Housing Authority. Things did not improve after Asheville Mountainside LLC (a partnership between Progress Energy and the Housing Authority) bought the property in 1999, he said. A “high criminal element,” said Bell, has hindered efforts to rent the units, driving the project into debt.
Council members considered a plan to buy the 8.45 acre parcel for $2.5 million, combine it with adjacent city-owned land, and develop a mixed-income community (see “Extreme Home Makeover,” Dec. 13 Xpress). The existing buildings would be torn down, and $85,000 would be earmarked for helping the 41 families now living in the complex relocate.
But Mumpower maintained that razing the structures and starting from scratch would amount to an admission that the criminals have won. “We have surrendered a public housing project to the bad guys,” he declared, blaming the area’s drug trafficking on a lack of enforcement.
Brandishing a report provided by Chief Hogan, Bellamy challenged Mumpower’s assertion that the police are to blame; the real culprit, she added, is the court system.
And Council member Robin Cape argued that taking a new tack is exactly what’s needed at McCormick Heights, rather than relying on the same enforcement policies used in the past. “Insanity would be building another one-level neighborhood and sending in the police to control it,” she proclaimed.
The purchase was approved 6-1, with Mumpower voting no. Chief Financial Officer Ben Durant said the city should be able to close on the property in mid-January.
Council members managed to deal with other housing and development items with less strife. A manufactured-housing overlay for 24 lots off Brevard Road in south Asheville and a new 16-unit subdivision for Davenport Road in West Asheville were both unanimously approved. A community of rental units for seniors on Springside Road in south Asheville was approved 6-1, with Mumpower again on the short end of the vote.
He also objected to adjusting Housing Trust Fund guidelines to reflect rising construction costs. The fund supports loans to developers who agree to build residential units priced below a certain threshold. A staff proposal called for raising those figures by 10 to 15 percent; the maximum cost of a two-bedroom unit, for example, would rise from $120,000 to $135,000.
“That’s socialism and I’m uncomfortable with it,” Mumpower proclaimed. “We are reaching into the pockets of people who are trying to make it on their own merit and putting [the money] into the pockets of people of our own choosing,” he said.
Nonetheless, the raise passed 6-1, with Bellamy’s support. But she went further, announcing her intention to create a hand-picked mayor’s task force on affordable housing that will take a big-picture look at the issue.
Bellamy wasn’t ready to sign on to another housing-related initiative, however. Cape and fellow Council member Brownie Newman proposed that the city promote the use of “green” building practices by offering various as-yet-undefined incentives. And to clarify what’s meant by “green building,” the two suggested that Asheville endorse the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system, citing examples of cities around the country that have already done so. Assigning hard numbers, they argued, would enable the city to track its progress.
“If we set a goal, it will challenge us and encourage us to think about ways to do this,” argued Cape.
But Bellamy argued that this kind of recommendation should come from the new Sustainable Energy and Environment Advisory Committee, whose members Council was poised to appoint that very evening.
Davis agreed that the move seemed to put the cart before the horse. “It bothers me that we are coming up with policy before the committee is even in place,” said Davis, adding, “It kind of reaffirms some of my doubts.”
And committee or no, Council will still have to make decisions and decide on a vision, Cape maintained. This move, she said, would merely suggest a direction for the group. “It is very clear to me that the committee is not going to take the place of Council,” noted Cape.
Once again, however, Mumpower smelled socialism in the air, declaring, “What I hear tonight is Council members using language that is socialistic.” He said he would not support dictating to the committee, which he already suspected would be stacked with pro-environment Council members.
But that didn’t sit well with Cape, who noted that Mumpower hadn’t participated in the interviews for prospective committee members. “If you don’t show up, you can’t say the board is stacked,” she declared.
The green-building proposal narrowly passed on a 4-3 vote, with Davis, Bellamy and Mumpower opposed. And when it came time to appoint the committee members, Mumpower stayed mum. Appointed were: Lach Zemp, Sylvia Farrington, Jonathan Barnes, Sasha Vrtunski, David Spector, Tabetha Reyes, Jane Mathews, Margie Meares and an as-yet-unnamed representative from Progress Energy.
The following public bodies have vacancies: ABC Board; Board of Adjustment; Community Relations Council; Downtown Commission; Sustainable Economic Development Advisory Committee; Firemen’s Relief Fund; Greenway Commission; Metropolitan Sewerage District Board; Public Art Board; Recreation Board; Transit Commission; Tree Commission. Applications must be received by Thursday, Jan. 11, 2007. For an application form, call 259-5601.