“A funny thing happened on the way to the forum.”
That title line of an early ‘60s musical comedy-of-errors has now turned out to be more pertinent to Asheville than we might wish.
For the last two months, Mountain Xpress has been working to pull together a forum on the broader governmental issues underlying the sale of public parkland in Pack Square Park to a private developer, Stewart Coleman. I was one of the people representing the paper on the planning committee.
Of course, the musical comedy referred to the word’s older meaning: the public square in ancient Rome. But it’s ironic that the forum we were planning—a public meeting for purposes of discussion—would have focused on Asheville’s own historic public square.
The League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe County had agreed to co-sponsor the event, to be titled “Parkside: The Unanswered Questions.” Consisting of a moderated panel followed by audience questions and comments, the evening was designed to give the residents of our town and county a chance to engage in public dialogue with key parties involved in the history and decisions concerning the parkland sale.
Among those unanswered questions are:
• Who first proposed the sale of parkland, and to whom?
• Was there a survey of the parcel, and how was it valued?
• What management agreement exists between the city and county concerning Pack Square Park; what does it entail?
• How was it possible for the county to sell parkland in Pack Square Park without consulting the city?
• Is it normal for the sale of county-owned land—especially public parkland—to be included in the consent agenda? If not, why was this transaction handled this way?
• What agreements exist among the city, the county and the Pack Square Conservancy, and how might those agreements govern the sale of parkland and/or development at its periphery?
• Do the current development plans violate the conservancy’s guidelines? If so, what recourse does the conservancy have?
• How are the park boundaries delineated, and what sightlines are included in any of the management agreements? How are they enforced?
• Given The Block’s proximity to the parcel in question and the public funds invested there, what consideration was given to the impacts of the land sale and proposed development on that historic area?
• What recourse does the public have in determining the fate of public parkland?
By mid-July, the planning committee had selected and invited the panelists who, it was felt, could best speak to the governmental process and its results. They were: Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy, Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair Nathan Ramsey, Pack Square Conservancy Chair Carol King, Asheville Downtown Commission Chair Pat Whalen, YMI Cultural Center Executive Director Harry Harrison, developer Stewart Coleman and local activist/historian Barry Summers.
Representatives of the following groups involved in the area had also been invited, to help answer audience questions: the Eagle/Market Streets Development Corp., Mount Zion Community Development Inc. and the Asheville Area Center for the Performing Arts.
Sadly, that public forum won’t be taking place. Originally scheduled for Aug. 28 at the Diana Wortham Theatre, it was called off on Aug. 14—just before it was slated to be publicly announced. At that late date—and despite repeated attempts—we hadn’t been able to confirm participation by the mayor and the Pack Square Conservancy. Meanwhile, time had run out for notifying the public about the event—and without the involvement of those three entities so critically tied to the process, it was felt that the public would not be well served by the event.
It should be noted that Chairman Ramsey had initially accepted the invitation and confirmed the date, but he subsequently notified us that he’d been advised by the county’s legal office not to participate (at press time, a lawsuit against the county concerning the property was still pending). Phone calls to Assistant County Attorney Michael Frue were not returned. Mayor Bellamy originally accepted the invitation but never confirmed the date, despite repeated requests. (Bellamy did confirm after receiving the notice that the forum had been called off.) The Pack Square Conservancy raised questions about the event but never agreed to participate. Whalen, Summers and Harrison all accepted and confirmed promptly. Coleman, too, had originally planned to participate but was advised by counsel not to attend.
I’m detailing these responses because of the critical issue the forum was intended to address. Many local people remain mystified by the process that embroiled the city, the county and the community in the current controversy. The real-estate transaction involving the parkland was—and continues to be—essentially cloaked in the legal screen of closed meetings by City Council and the Board of Commissioners. Those of us planning the forum had hoped to illuminate the process.
Mountain Xpress and the League of Women Voters regret that questions from the public concerning this vital local issue will not be discussed in open dialogue on Aug. 28. Perhaps another forum can be organized at a later date that will focus on the lessons to be learned from this controversy and what procedural changes might better serve the public’s interests.
For now, however, we are left to reflect on how it can be that we as a community were unable to simply sit down with our elected officials and civic leaders and talk together. A funny thing, indeed.