There’s a paradox at the heart of the city’s plans for the new Beaucatcher Greenway, says property owner Lisa Bakale-Wise: An unknown number of trees will die as a result of the effort to preserve the urban forest. For nearly eight months, she says, she’s been asking Asheville officials how many trees will be removed to build a stairwell, retaining walls and a 10-foot-wide paved path, but she still doesn’t have a clear answer.
Last summer, Bakale-Wise, a New Orleans-based attorney, was looking to buy a home in Asheville with her fiancé, Will Spoon. He grew up in Black Mountain, attended Warren Wilson College and, after graduation, joined the Coast Guard and was stationed in Louisiana.
The couple always knew, though, that Asheville was where they’d put down roots and raise a family, and last August, they bought a bungalow at the end of White Fawn Drive. The narrow street of modest homes is carved into the hillside above Memorial Stadium.
Neighbors told Bakale-Wise about the city’s plans to build a greenway on a large tract of forested land adjacent to the couple’s new home, and Spoon asked Al Kopf, who heads up construction projects for the city’s Parks & Recreation Department, for more information. “It became clear pretty quickly,” says Bakale-Wise, “that we were going to have a hard time getting answers.”
She wrote letters and emails and documented phone calls. Those efforts, however, yielded incomplete and contradictory responses, and on Dec. 15, Bakale-Wise filed a Freedom of Information Act request for public documents related to the project. She also turned to Mike Kenton, chair of the city’s Tree Commission, for help.
Besides protecting the city’s trees and encouraging additional planting, the commission advises City Council on related issues. When Bakale-Wise and Spoon contacted him, says Kenton, they seemed “very pro-greenway and concerned about trees.”
They raised three specific concerns: A large number of trees appeared to be marked for removal, no environmental impact assessment seemed to have been done, and residents had been shut out of the planning process.
Kenton arranged a Feb. 12 walk of portions of the proposed greenway, inviting Kopf, Council member Cecil Bothwell (the liaison to the Tree Commission) and Rich Lee (a recent appointee to the Multimodal Transportation Commission who also serves on the city’s Greenway Committee) to join them. Kenton also invited other concerned residents and Bob Gale, ecologist and public lands director for MountainTrue, a local environmental advocacy organization.
Kopf did not respond, says Kenton, and Lee made it clear that he was attending strictly as an observer. In a follow-up email, however, Bothwell said, “I’m shocked to learn what the Parks & Rec Department has approved for the Beaucatcher Greenway, and I will do all I can to prevent current plans from implementation.”
Jewel in the crown
First proposed in John Nolen’s pioneering 1922 Asheville City Plan, the idea of a public park on Beaucatcher Mountain has, in recent years, assumed the form of a greenway linking several future parks. The northern end would be anchored by a small parking area and planned pocket park known as Helen’s Bridge (the bridge itself is a remnant of the former Zealandia estate); the southern terminus would be the Memorial Stadium parking area. The greenway will mostly traverse land acquired in 2007 via a joint funding effort with Buncombe County, the state and The Trust for Public Land, according to Parks & Recreation Director Roderick Simmons.
Supervision of all other city greenway projects was transferred to the city’s Transportation Department in 2012, but because the Beaucatcher greenway was much further along, it was left with Parks & Rec.
The project got a boost last fall when the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority’s Tourism Product Development Fund — which awards a portion of hotel room tax proceeds to local projects with the potential to boost tourism — approved $1 million toward the greenway’s construction. According to the terms of the grant, construction must begin by March 31 of this year, and the greenway must be open to the public by June 30, 2018.
Costs and benefits
As Xpress reported last fall, however, some property owners at the greenway’s northern end have clashed with the city for years over the proposed route.
Residents of the Sky Club condominiums object to the use of their gated driveway to create a connection between South Beaumont Street and an abandoned stretch of roadway in the neighborhood. The city says it has a right of way along the route that includes the driveway; the residents dispute that. Attorney Brian Gulden of Patla, Straus, Robinson & Moore represents the condo owners’ interests. Meanwhile, Sue and Nick Peterson, whose property abuts the Sky Club driveway, are represented by Albert Sneed of The Van Winkle Law Firm.
During the Feb. 12 greenway walk, Sky Club resident Geoff Kemmish, who’s met with Simmons and the city’s design team several times, explained his understanding of the plans. Because the route follows a steep, curving stretch of College and South Beaumont streets, he said, significant retaining walls would be needed to support a sidewalk alongside the roadway. Engineers, he continued, have also proposed an elevated boardwalk to cross a ravine.
“That’s completely crazy,” commented Bothwell as the group walked the potholed street. Bothwell, who worked as a building contractor for years, says he was referring to both the design and the cost. At the Sky Club driveway, the group discussed how many trees would need to be removed to make way for a sidewalk. Kemmish also pointed out that although the city claims the greenway will offer spectacular views, there are currently no unobstructed views of downtown along the route, even when the leaves are down in winter.
Not all neighborhood residents oppose the plans, however. Michael Fitch, whose property also abuts the greenway route, says that though he has some concerns about a loss of privacy, overall, he’s “looking forward to getting to walk and bike on the new path.”
And Bakale-Wise and Spoon say their main concern is with the design of the path connecting the Memorial Stadium parking lot to an existing trailhead at the end of White Fawn Drive. “When we saw the plan that showed the giant stairwell, all the retaining walls, the zigzagging asphalt path, the parking lot on White Fawn and the new sidewalks,” says Bakale-Wise, “we started to get a lot more concerned.”
The greenway, she points out, will pass through one of the largest remaining wooded parcels within the city limits, so it doesn’t make sense to create such an invasive design — particularly since the space is already being used by the public. “There is a trailhead at the end of the street,” she says. “This project will not open up something that is currently inaccessible.”
Meanwhile, city officials have painted a very different picture of their efforts to involve the public in the planning process.
On Feb. 19 — one day after Xpress had submitted questions about the outstanding FOIA request and other issues — city staffer Ben Farmer sent Bakale-Wise a link to a Dropbox folder containing various project-related documents.
And in a Feb. 22 meeting with Xpress, Parks & Recreation Director Simmons explained that city officials had met with the Sky Club residents before the design was finished, “So they felt like we were stonewalling, but our engineers were working on the design and we couldn’t speak to [specific questions] until it was done.”
After walking the site with them, said Simmons, “We paid the consultants to produce four different alternatives to see how we could work around the Sky Club. It set us back another four months, but that was OK, because we wanted to do what we could to get everyone on board.
“We gave them the alternatives, and we gave them the pros and cons with each one. We didn’t all agree on the one moving forward: The low-cost option wasn’t their favorite option, but still it was in the best interest of the city, using the current right of way.”
Through all this, Simmons maintained, the city has “been open to the community.” A public information session is planned for mid-March, he explained, “to make sure that the public feels like we are transparent and open. … Some citizens may agree with us; some may not. But at the end of the day, we all live in the community together, and we want to do this in a positive way.”
According to a written summary provided by Dawa Hitch, the city’s director of communication and public engagement, “The Beaucatcher Greenway was approved by City Council when the first Greenway Master Plan was developed. Subsequently, City Council has approved two updates to this master plan (2009 and 2013) that also included the Beaucatcher Greenway.” Beginning in 2010, “Planning for the project was reviewed by the Asheville Greenway Commission [now known as the Greenway Committee] on multiple occasions.”
But current Greenway Committee Chair Mary Weber says she’s not familiar with the details of the Beaucatcher project. Unlike the greenway projects supervised by the Transportation Department, says Weber, her committee has received few updates about this one, and Parks & Recreation staff haven’t attended the committee’s meetings. Committee member Lee confirmed that assessment.
The minutes of the committee’s Jan. 7 meeting have this to say about the project: “Comment about Beaucatcher and the construction bid date and whether the plans are complete. Greenway Committee does not have any updates on the project. Designs are unknown to the committee.”
Hitch’s written statement says the city held a public forum on an unspecified date to solicit input concerning the greenway and invited all adjacent property owners. Public comment, said Hitch, was also received at last June’s Grilling on Greenways information session. “Subsequent to this public meeting, property owners have been encouraged to send comments to staff and informed that their comments would be considered,” she wrote.
Asked if any input received at the planned March open house might be incorporated into the project plans, Hitch said: “Because of where we are in the process, I don’t think you can answer that with a blanket statement. Maybe there is something that we could accommodate in the project: If we can, we will. If something is suggested that is cost-prohibitive, then we may not be able to do that.”
The city, however, included no public comments and no evidence of public notices concerning the project in its response to Bakale-Wise’s FOIA request, which specifically asked for all such materials.
“To us, it’s a smoke-and-mirrors game designed to mislead the public and push through an environmentally destructive pet project that will despoil the very green space that citizens currently enjoy daily on the Beaucatcher path,” Bakale-Wise wrote in an email. “In our opinion, Simmons has been repeating the same party line for eight months as a way to placate concerned citizens and property owners while rushing Parks & Rec’s ill-conceived construction plans to completion before they can be stopped.”
Reconsidering the mission
At City Council’s Jan. 29-30 planning retreat, Cathy Ball, executive director of planning & multimodal transportation, suggested that the city reconsider the Parks & Recreation Department’s mission. Mayor Esther Manheimer agreed that the city needs to look at “what it is and what it does.” Council member Keith Young, who was elected in November and now serves as Council’s liaison with the Recreation Advisory Board, said cuts to the department’s programming during the recession had negatively affected the city’s underserved communities. “What we’re saying is, we already know a problem exists there,” he commented.
Asked about the concerns raised in connection with the Beaucatcher project, Council member Gordon Smith said: “Parks & Rec is going through some organizational evolution. … I think they’re having to get better at that two-way communication piece. Not just having a work plan and following it, but also doing the public interface.”
At the same time, Smith predicted a bright future for the project: “We’ve got the funding; it’s going to be a great amenity — everyone’s going to want to go up that thing and look at downtown and use it for exercise. Those folks whose property abuts it, their property value is going to rise.”
Bothwell, too, believes the greenway will be a great resource, but that doesn’t make up for the lack of public engagement.
“Somehow, Parks & Rec has gotten to a complete set of documents without providing an opportunity for the public to give input,” he says. “During my years serving on City Council, I have been repeatedly dismayed by the performance of our Parks & Rec Department. One good thing that’s going to come out of this is that Parks & Rec is going to be incorporating public process moving forward.”
Back to the drawing board?
Meanwhile, the TDA grant’s March 31 deadline for starting construction is looming. The city says the design is almost final, and as soon as it is, bids will be solicited.
Bothwell, however, says he’d like the city to consider reworking the plans for both the northern and southern ends. He says he and City Manager Gary Jackson walked those sections on Feb. 18 and discussed a range of alternatives.
At the southern end, Bothwell favors eliminating the proposed stairway from Memorial Stadium and rerouting the greenway onto neighborhood streets, connecting the parking lot to the existing trailhead via a “neighborway” shared by cars, bicycles and pedestrians. He also advocates scrapping the connection to Helen’s Bridge through the Sky Club driveway.
But while Bakale-Wise says she appreciates Bothwell’s responsiveness, she’s also “reaching out to environmental nonprofits in Western North Carolina and other statewide organizations, asking them to sign on to a letter that asks the city to pause the process to allow for an environmental impact review and additional public input.”
The current plan, she maintains, would cause permanent damage that “goes far beyond the impact to abutters: It’s a public space, and the damage would be irreversible. It makes sense to pause before it’s lost forever.”
Still, both Bakale-Wise and Spoon say they support greenways. “That’s why we became involved in the first place,” she explains. “Some of the last green spaces in the city are slated for destruction without environmental impact review and public input. We think greenways should increase access to natural spaces but preserve their integrity.”
Bakale-Wise and Spoon recently launched a Move On petition, Save Beaucatcher Mountain.