Oaks’ last stand: South Slope urban forest won’t get city funds

URBAN FOREST Unaware of the controversy over their fate, 23 mature oaks stand on a knoll overlooking Coxe Avenue. Photo by Virginia Daffron

“Many people do not know exactly where this property is,” said Imke Durre of the half-acre wooded plot at 11 Collier Ave. on Asheville’s fast-developing South Slope. With her mother, Inge Durre, Imke is a leader of a group of citizens who mobilized to save the parcel’s 23 mature oak trees — which are estimated to be 80-100 years old — when plans to build a 48-unit apartment building on the site materialized last fall.

“However, the birds, they know very well where it is,” continued Imke, speaking at City Council on Jan. 12. In addition to the forest’s value to the birds who shelter there, the trees provide irreplaceable aesthetic and environmental benefits to Asheville’s downtown, say supporters of the effort to preserve the site. And as some of the last remnants of the former Ravenscroft School campus, the trees have historical significance as well, according to the group.

When the Durres and other preservation advocates first appeared before City Council on Sept. 8 last year, Council members agreed to explore alternatives for protecting the trees, with Councilman Cecil Bothwell commenting, “Over and over again, we lose these trees. … And I would hope that we could find some way to facilitate this, whether it is a land swap, whether it is helping to facilitate raising private funds.”

Former Councilman Jan Davis, however, sounded a note of caution: “This could turn into a ton of work to get from here to there.” Former Vice Mayor Marc Hunt agreed with Davis, saying that the private sector would need to undertake significant legwork and fundraising before bringing a plan to Council for consideration. Hunt discussed previous city partnerships used to conserve land, including the Hominy Creek Greenway, the Rory and Hazel Masters Park in Haw Creek and Beaucatcher Overlook Park. Hunt noted that, in each of these cases, significant private fundraising was already in place before the city committed to the projects.

And so the stage was set in September for a race against time, as supporters of the preservation effort worked with the owners of 11 Collier Ave. and with various city officials to identify city-owned property that might be offered to the owners, in exchange for turning over the wooded section to the city.

Swap meet

The first candidate, a city-owned 1-acre parcel on the western side of Asheland Avenue north of Phifer Street, initially looked like a promising contender for a swap. But further examination of the deed revealed a restriction: Ironically, the property can only be used “for public outdoor recreation.” Any other use would require the approval of the U.S. secretary of the interior, a legal process whose outcome and duration would be impossible to predict. “It couldn’t happen in time to help us,” explains Imke Durre.

As the process continued, Durre notes, the Collier Avenue property owners, the Wilmington-based father-and-son development team of Matt and Mark Maynard, were “extremely willing and accommodating” in seeking alternatives to building on the wooded parcel. The Maynards are developing 49 residential units at 150 Coxe Ave., right around the corner from the Collier site, and they expect to begin construction soon on 138 units at 185 Coxe Ave.

Eventually, the property search led the preservation advocates to 33-35 Page Ave., the site of two city-owned brick structures across the street from the Grove Arcade and next door to the Captain’s Bookshelf. To the north of the property, a city-owned surface parking lot currently serves residents of the Battery Park Apartments as well as other permit holders.

On Jan. 12, Inge Durre presented the Maynards’ proposal to City Council: In exchange for swapping 11 Collier Ave. for 33-35 Page Ave., the Maynards would commit to reserving 20 percent of the residential housing units on Collier Avenue as affordable units. Additionally, their company would donate $100,000 toward the creation of a public park on the existing parking lot adjacent to the property. The developers would pledge to not build a hotel on the Page Avenue site, and they would accept public comment on the proposed design for a structure, in conjunction with a larger planning effort for the area facing the Basilica of St. Lawrence and the U.S. Cellular Center.

The Maynards’ proposal stipulated that all property appraisals and transfers be completed by April 1, 2016.

There’s the rub

“I wish like all get out that we could find a path to make this work,” commented Councilwoman Julie Mayfield to kick off Council’s discussion of the proposal. Last November, MountainTrue, the environmental advocacy nonprofit that Mayfield co-directs, entered into an agreement with the Collier Avenue preservation proponents to allow the group to solicit tax-deductible donations. To date, the group has received close to $50,000 in pledges.

“I think the forest — to conserve it — is a great idea,” said Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler. But “prefunding” the project by way of committing cash or swapping land, Wisler continued, would mean that other projects approved through the city’s regular planning and budgeting processes would be “bumped.” Furthermore, the bulk of funds needed to make the project work has not been raised, she said. “At this point, I am uncomfortable continuing, devoting more staff time to look at it, with some of these pretty big hurdles that apparently are the only way to move forward.”

The purpose of the fundraising requested by the city was to maintain the property over time and compensate the city for lost property-tax revenues, as well as to make up any difference in value between the Collier Avenue parcel and the swapped one.

Mayor Esther Manheimer reflected on similar requests made by residents of West Asheville and Kenilworth during her time on Council. “So I have a difficult time understanding, as a steward of the taxpayers, and the taxpayer money and assets, how we could seize upon this one opportunity…,” Manheimer explained, adding, “Because the next one is going to be just as valid. And the last one made sense and was valid.”

“I just think this situation poses too great a challenge to us as a city and would take us too far off course,” the mayor concluded.

Mayfield contributed a final point to the discussion: “I’ve had conversations with people who do land conservation for a living. The general understanding and consensus is, if this land were to come into public ownership, fundraising for it would be extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible.”

Reached by email after the meeting, Mayfield clarified, “As a general rule, it is easier to raise money to save something that is facing a threat. These trees are under the threat of development, so now would be the best time to raise money to save them.”

“Once something comes into public ownership,” she continued, “the general sense on the part of the public is that it’s protected… [P]eople equate public ownership of natural areas with protection, and they are generally right.”

Out of options?

Assuming that the city has removed itself from the process, says Imke Durre, her group sees two possible ways the trees might yet be saved: An individual or group could purchase the property from the Maynards for the purpose of conserving it in its natural state, or a land-conservation entity could take up the effort. Unfortunately, most land trusts in this area seem to focus on larger tracts or more rural areas, she says.

“At this point, I think it is likely that the building will be built and the trees will be felled,” concedes Durre. “We always knew it might not work.”

“We’ve done everything we possibly can,” says Sharon Sumrall, a landscape planner who lives on Beaucatcher Mountain. Speaking of the preservation group’s fundraising efforts, she notes, “We have raised some money and other people want to donate, but it’s been hard to raise funds before we knew exactly where this was going.” Time has not been on the side of the advocates, Sumrall says, and whether hope remains for saving the trees will come down to the developer’s timeline.

The Maynards say they expect to bring their plans for 11 Collier Ave. to the Planning & Zoning Commission’s Feb. 3 meeting.

Imke Durre, however, emphasizes that the Maynards have been more than generous in trying to find an alternative to developing 11 Collier Ave. “Even though they are the ones that will build on the property,” Durre says, “they are not directly the reason that this has to happen.”

In an email, Matt Maynard commented: “Everyone we’ve worked with in the city has been hardworking, knowledgeable and extremely helpful every step of the way. I think Asheville does a better job than some cities laying out their plan for growth and the framework that developers have to abide by to execute that plan. Even though that may lead to more ‘hoops’ to jump through, it is a clearly defined process and helps insure that Asheville will remain a very special place for the future.”

Though City Council couldn’t, in the end, see their way clear to underwriting the effort, some Council members seem wistful about the outcome. “While I understand the group who want to preserve the Collier Avenue property are disappointed, the city must constantly make decisions on how best to use our incredibly limited resources,” wrote Wisler in an email. “Several members of Council worked hard to try to make this project successful… I, and I expect most of Council, wish the group success and hope they can meet their objectives.”

 

 

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About Virginia Daffron
Managing editor, lover of mountains, native of WNC. Follow me @virginiadaffron

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