The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners sold a piece of parkland to developer Stewart Coleman. Now they want it back, and they’re asking the city of Asheville to make it happen. The board unanimously passed a resolution last night encouraging the city to agree to a land swap, so that the controversial Parkside project would not be on parkland.
The resolution encourages the city to swap land so that Parkside will be farther back from the park; currently, part of the proposed project would be located on a section of parkland near City Hall that the board sold to Coleman in 2006. Asheville City Council has unanimously condemned that sale. The resolution offers to defray the city’s cost of a land swap by paying, out of county coffers, the appraised price of any parkland they get back (estimated at $540,000 by county staff). Coleman originally paid the county $322,000 for the land.
However, some commissioners felt the chance of the city accepting a swap is slim. The Council resolution condemning the sale stated that the county should be the one to get the land back.
“The City Council doesn’t seem very receptive to a land deal,” Chairman Nathan Ramsey noted.
Tom Israel, a representative of Coleman’s company, Black Dog Realty, also said that “so far, the City Council has shown no interest in such an exchange. Though if it was relevant, we’d certainly consider it.”
If the city doesn’t engage in a land swap, the resolution states, the county will try other methods to gain the land back, adding that that if the land were returned, the county would work with the city to set up a permanent conservation easement.
After a presentation by Israel, Ramsey praised the project, saying he felt Parkside “is a beautiful building” that “looks very nice.” But he added that “political realities” meant that the board had to try to find a way to get the parkland back.
Herman Turk, from the Pack Square Conservancy, asserted that by moving Parkside back, it would meet the conservancy’s guidelines in a way that the current project does not.
But the majority of citizens speaking in public comment condemned the proposed deal.
“We support a buyback on the parkland, but not at the terms Mr. Coleman has demanded,” said Jake Quinn, who presented a statement signed by groups including Mountain Voices Alliance and Asheville Democracy for America. “The commission should speak long and hard about the ramifications of handing him a profit for his speculative land deal and forcing the county taxpayers to foot the bill. We also hope that the county and city will reject a land swap, since Mr. Coleman refused to follow established procedures. Considering the contempt he has displayed for development rules and the community, there is no reason to reward him with special treatment.”
Quinn urged consideration of several options, including using an easement to prevent Parkside from being built on the land, reaching out to philanthropists to get the funds to buy back the land, adopting a “permanent parkland” zoning designation, and using eminent domain, if necessary, to get the land back.
County Manager Wanda Greene revealed that the county had offered Coleman $2.8 million to get the land back and buy the neighboring Hayes and Hopson building, but said that Coleman had refused, wanting $4.5 million.
Veronica Gunter urged the county to take action to stop Parkside.
“You can take action to stop this — land speculators are not owed a return on investment [and] the public is due good stewardship,” she said. “We need to stop having this deference for developers. They’re salesman, they’re always refining their pitch. When you’re hearing a salesman who’s going to make millions, I hope you keep that in mind.”
Activist Steve Rasmussen presented a 1,003-signature petition to the board asking that it rescind the land sale. “This is sacred space to democracy, [and] to proceed with anything resembling a land swap is a violation of that democracy.”
Ramsey later said he would not support the use of eminent domain or condemning the property to get it back, and defended the sale as legal.
— David Forbes, staff writer