In the furor over the fate of the city’s water system, one important aspect has escaped notice: in July, Henderson County is due to transfer an 137-acre property near Bent Creek to the city of Asheville. Lawyers for both acknowledge the deadline, but are staying mum about its relation to the current dispute.
“There’s that provision in the deed,” City Attorney Bob Oast confirms. As for whether this affects the current water system situation, “I can’t answer that.”
Is the transfer still going forward? “As far as I know,” Henderson County Attorney Charles Burrell tells Xpress, declining to go into further detail after agreeing that the water system issues are extremely complex.
“I’m going to stop right there.”
The story begins in 1989, when a referendum to build an additional water plant for the Asheville system on the Bent Creek property failed, partly due to water-quality concerns about the French Broad River. Instead, Asheville worked out a 1995 deal with Henderson County, arranging to build a new plant at the confluence of the French Broad and Mills River. A non-binding part of the agreement declared that the two governments “shall in good faith work towards the formation of a regional water authority.”
As part of that deal, Henderson would get the Bent Creek property to meet its own future sewer needs.
In 2002, after a failed land deal and two lawsuits alleging that the city wasn’t living up to its obligations, Henderson got the property. That started the clock ticking: Henderson officials had a decade to build a sewer plant in the area, with an expected transfer to the Metropolitan Sewerage District if a larger regional authority were formed.
But in 2005, the city cited numerous management issues and backed out of the water agreement with Buncombe County (see “Water Torture” for background on what led to the dissolution of the agreement). The move effectively scrapped any hopes of a building a larger regional authority and left no small amount of bitter feelings with Henderson County’s leadership, who had their own slew of pre-existing complaints about the city’s conduct.
“This whole issue has played such an important role in Henderson County politics,” says Jonathan Barnard, a contributing editor for Xpress who has long studied local water-system issues, observes.
In 2008, discussions over the property’s fate also failed to reach a resolution.
With the deadline looming, there are no plans for a sewer plant on the site, meaning Asheville will get the property in July — unless the water system changes ownership again, such as through state legislation that would give Asheville’s water assets to either MSD or a regional water authority.
The latter options are exactly what the commission chaired by Rep. Tim Moffitt is studying, and his original proposal called for giving the system to MSD outright.
Indeed, Barnard notes that Henderson officials have told him over the years that they might pursue “a legislative solution” to the property’s fate. In 2009, then-Henderson County Commissioner Chuck McGrady noted that if the county couldn’t negotiate its way to a settlement, it “was content to pursue a judicial or legislative remedy.”
McGrady is now a state representative and, along with Moffitt, sits on the committee that may decide the water system’s fate.
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