Asheville City Council

Work sessions are typically opportunities to discuss and weigh issues before voting on them at the next formal session. But the Asheville City Council’s Dec. 17 work session proved to be the group’s last meeting of the year (the next two Tuesdays being Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve), and some items on the table just couldn’t wait until January to be taken to a vote.

One such pressing matter was a decision on whether to commit to a regionwide effort to improve air quality. The affected local governments have until Dec. 31 to come on board; otherwise, the federal government is threatening to step in and take charge.

That looming threat would actually arrive in 2004 in the form of a “nonattainment” designation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, due to excessive ozone levels.

Metropolitan Planning Coordinator Dan Baechtold described for Council members the process that had brought the region to this pretty pass. In both 2000 and 2002, local ozone sensors recorded readings exceeding the EPA’s maximum permissible level (.085 parts per million) both in the valleys (at Bent Creek and Waynesville) and on ridge tops (on Purchase Knob and Frying Pan Mountain in Haywood County).

Nonattainment status would have a huge impact on the area, making it difficult to recruit new industry or build new roads. In addition, a mention on the EPA’s “dirty cities” list would probably hurt tourism and other key sectors of the local economy.

And as Council member Carl Mumpower put it, a nonattainment label would also mean “a 20-year marriage with the EPA.”

Before imposing those restrictions, however, the feds are offering the region a last chance to solve the problem on its own. At a Dec. 3 meeting hosted by the Land-of-Sky Regional Council at A-B Tech’s Enka campus, a group of community leaders, business owners and clean-air activists was told that Buncombe, Henderson, Haywood and Madison counties could band together to form an “early action compact” and, by implementing a successful program to reduce ozone levels, stave off the dreaded nonattainment status (see “Choose clean air,” Dec. 11 Xpress).

Under the compact, clean-air strategies would be developed locally by the counties and cities involved.

Baechtold’s report came with staff’s recommendation that Council adopt a resolution supporting the compact, though he conceded that many key points of the concept (a new one for the EPA) remain vague.

Although all four named counties must sign on for the compact to be valid, for example, it’s not clear whether municipalities such as Asheville and Hendersonville are required to give their blessings.

It’s also uncertain what effect the compact would have on proposed transportation projects, such as the widening of Interstate 240 and Interstate 26. Under nonattainment, any new transportation projects would have to be shown to meet EPA standards using computer modeling.

After all the talk, however, Council members were left facing an almost surreal choice. If the region refused the compact and nonattainment status kicked in, the area might qualify for up to $2 million in federal aid, though this is a long shot. But if the compact were adopted (essentially saying we can clean ourselves up more quickly than the feds can), no money would be forthcoming from Washington. “We’re probably stepping into a minefield either way,” observed Mayor Charles Worley.

Council member Holly Jones reminded Council that nonattainment aid is determined by population, and that Asheville would probably be too far back in line to receive significant federal funding. “I hate to see one or two million dollars be the deciding factor here,” she said.

Council members Jim Ellis and Mumpower, meanwhile, seemed optimistic that grants could be obtained to pay for clean-air initiatives.

Council member Joe Dunn, however, questioned the accuracy of the EPA findings, wondering whether samples collected by only a few sensors truly represent local air quality.

“Has the state ever sued the federal government to challenge their numbers?” asked Dunn.

City Manager Jim Westbrook said he hasn’t heard of such a suit being successful.

Asheville’s poor air quality has been well documented, however. And some, including Mayor Worley, seemed optimistic that environmental measures already in the works, such as upcoming state-mandated vehicle-emissions inspections and new smokestack technology may make the critical difference curbing ozone pollution.

Ellis, in fact, encouraged Council to view the compact as an opportunity rather than a burden.

“Cleaning up the air is going to be a boon for this area,” he declared. “We should do it as soon as we possibly can.”

And Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy reminded her colleagues that clean air entails more than purely economic concerns.

“The consideration should be the most vulnerable of us: the children,” she said, citing increased local asthma rates. “We can’t just think about tax dollars right now.”

Nonetheless, the uncertainty about the nuts and bolts of the early action compact — and the fact that the actual strategies and decision-making powers would be determined only after all parties were on board — left some on Council feeling uncomfortable.

“I’m concerned that the city is committing to strategies without knowing what those strategies are,” noted Council member Brian Peterson. “There has been talk that this is Asheville’s fault; other counties could ask Asheville to foot the bill.” Peterson added that potential clean-air strategies such as bike lanes and cleaner-running buses have been on the table before, but there was no money to pay for them.

Baechtold reminded Council that any plans for improving local air quality would have to be endorsed by all members of the compact.

In the end, however, Council members seemed to take comfort in the fact that their commitment to the compact isn’t binding.

“We’re just taking a look-see,” said Worley. “We can back out at any time.”

On that note, Council voted unanimously to endorse the early action compact.

Women At Risk

The Women At Risk program has offered alternative treatment for local female offenders for the past 15 years. But this was the first time that Western Carolinians for Criminal Justice, which oversees the program, had appeared before Council.

WCCJ Executive Director Ellen Clarke said she’d come simply to bring Council members up to speed on the Women At Risk program.

“We want all of you to know what we have planned for the next few years,” Clarke told Council. Women At Risk works with the court system to identify good candidates for the program.

Brenda Carleton, director of Women At Risk, said participants are typically single mothers in their 20s or 30s who have suffered some form of abuse and have a drug or alcohol addiction.

Women At Risk supplies such services as drug counseling, women-only AA and NA meetings, GED classes and court advocacy. In the past year, the group worked with 108 cases and graduated 33 women.

The program, noted Carleton, costs about $8 to $18 per person per day, compared to about $54 a day to keep one woman in prison.

And as Women At Risk has gathered steam, more and more clients have come forward voluntarily, having heard about the program from graduates, she said.

Holly Jones congratulated program leaders for “looking very holistically at a very complex issue.”

In January, Carleton told Council, the WCCJ will kick off a capital campaign to raise money to buy their Patton Avenue office, which they now rent. The campaign will begin on Martin Luther King Jr. Day with a “Cut the Risk” fund-raiser involving local hair salons.

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