Letters to the editor

Turning the Wheel of the Year

The Summer (or Green) Solstice is a remarkable time: the longest day and shortest night of the year, celebrated by Pagan peoples since the dawn of human time. This year’s Solstice, however, was especially meaningful, because Druids were allowed to celebrate the sacred rites at Stonehenge for the first time in a decade.

When Margaret Thatcher ordered the monument closed in the ’80s, then-unknown Tony Blair objected, “You wouldn’t close Westminster Abbey on Christmas.” Now Blair is prime minister, and the Druids have returned to Stonehenge to chant the ancient chants within the great stone circle. This is a proud moment for the more than 15,000 Druids and uncounted numbers of unaffiliated Pagans in Britain, and for Pagan circles throughout the world.

Pagans were celebrating in western North Carolina that weekend, too. We weren’t standing in ancient stone monuments, but in ancient oak forests. In Pagan communities, large and small, we welcomed the powerful Sun, chanted the sacred chants [and] re-enacted the mythic battle of the Oak and Holly kings.

We celebrate a special connection to our brothers and sisters throughout the world (as well as to our beloved Ancestors and the Long Dead) as we honor the turning of the Wheel of the Year.

In a dominant culture that is sometimes rabidly anti-Pagan, it’s always a blessing to hear something positive about us in the popular press (thank you for the kind article about indigent burials at Riverside Cemetery. [“A soft, safe journey,” June 17]; Mike Brown did a terrific job, and I’m very grateful).

Happy Solstice!

— Byron Ballard

Lawmakers: clueless about drug problem

In today’s news, we have more evidence that our federal legislators don’t get it about drugs. Our own Sen. Lauch Faircloth supports putting billions of dollars into “drug interdiction,” but prohibiting federal funding of needle-exchange programs — while being dilatory about a tobacco bill that would result in less smoking by young people.

How much proof do we need that drug interdiction — by which we mean attempting to keep drugs out of the country — is a monumental failure, which has less to do with a lack of resolve and financial resources than with the widespread corruption resulting from the huge profits available in the business, or how much money can be made in the illegal drug trade (because of our draconian laws prohibiting the possession and sale of these drugs).

And is there a way to help legislators understand that needle-exchange programs — such as the one that exists in North Carolina, as part of a comprehensive harm-reduction effort — do not encourage drug use?

These programs save the lives of drug addicts, people who are not popular with Congress (unless, of course, the drug to which one is addicted is alcohol or tobacco, because then you are not a bad person, not really a “drug addict”; the drugs you’re addicted to are legal, and can you really be addicted to legal drugs?). The thinking about needle-exchange programs seems to be that, if you are a person contemplating using illegal drugs, you will be more likely to take that step if you know you can get clean needles. If you didn’t know you could get clean needles, the threat of getting AIDS or hepatitis would deter you from that path.

People who believe that this is how illegal-drug users think are unschooled in that behavior. If a person is interested in trying drugs intravenously, the absence of clean needles will not be an impediment for long. [Intravenous] drug use is very risky behavior in itself. The fact that there are ancillary risks is not a deterrent. However, addicts, given a meaningful, accessible and available choice, will typically choose clean over dirty needles. To deny access to clean needles is to make clear that what some of our legislators support is not so much a war on drugs as a war on drug addicts.

Prohibition never ended in this country, merely the prohibition against the making, distributing and selling of alcohol. Prohibitions against other drugs have increased in regard to both the number of drugs prohibited and the penalties for violating those prohibitions. These continuing prohibitions are at least as destructive to our social fabric — if not more so — than was the 18th Amendment, with regard to alcohol. There is widespread corruption in our law-enforcement and criminal-justice systems. Our prisons are overwhelmed with nonviolent offenders whose only potential danger, if any, is to themselves. As a bonus, these prisoners get to learn how to be more sophisticated law breakers while they are draining our public coffers — rather than participating in the economy as taxpayers.

And Newt Gingrich wants to have mandatory drug testing for school children.

Come on, people. Get a clue.

— Carroll Lewis

The pols get Seabrook; volunteers get a Coke

Having just read Jerry “The Authority” Sternberg’s silly commentary [“Seabrook, elected officials and a little perspective,” June 24], in which he tries to justify the high cost to taxpayers of the politicians’ Seabrook excursion, I was compelled to write this.

His headline promised a new perspective, but all Sternberg did was reiterate what politicians have been whining about for years: They deserve special treatment!

Sternberg overlooks the contributions of thousands of volunteers in our community who don’t go to expensive retreats or get gourmet meals or special privileges. Many folks attended meeting after meeting — for over a year — to plan the Bicentennial Celebration. All they got was a soft drink. About 600 volunteers give thousands of hours to the VA Medical Center — the equivalent of 44 full-time employees. They get a lunch if they work enough hours. And how about the Red Cross, RSVP, ACT and Asheville Police Department volunteers? The list goes on.

By the way, Mr. Sternberg: Unless I’ve missed it, I haven’t seen one report about what benefits we taxpayers received from that infamous, expensive retreat. The whole affair looks like it was R-and-R for the “good ol’ boy” inner circle.

— Richard C. Rice

Shame on the board

I attended the June 24 Board of Adjustment hearing and was appalled by the conduct. of the board, whose members were deciding whether to grant Chris Peterson and his family three separate variances, so that Eckerd could build a large drive-thru store on their [633 Merrimon Ave.] property — in violation of the Unified Development Ordinance.

This should have been a “no-brainer” for the board. Asheville Planning Department staff thoroughly briefed the board on the issues and told them — quite clearly — that the variances could not be granted under the UDO, and should not be granted, for a number of reasons — most importantly, traffic congestion and public safety.

An overwhelming number of citizens and neighboring property owners informed the board of how dangerous this third-busiest intersection in all of Asheville already is — without a drive-thru Eckerd that would be almost twice as large [a facility] as the UDO permits.

Three out of five members of the board completely ignored the UDO, the expertise of Planning [staff] and citizens’ legitimate concerns — and voted to grant all three variances. The board’s actions call into question its ability to follow the law and fulfill its duty to the public on critical land-use issues.

[Editor’s note: With a 3-2 vote, the action failed, because variances must be approved by four members.]

I am outraged by the board’s actions that night, but even more outraged by the conduct of the board’s chairman, Elbert Taylor, toward those who opposed the variances — and toward the public generally. Many of us had come straight from work, skipping dinner to attend the 5:30 p.m. hearing. Taylor treated us as a nuisance to be dealt with as swiftly and rudely as possible. For example, speakers who opposed the variances were cut-off in mid-sentence after two minutes had elapsed (an arbitrary and legally questionable time limit imposed by Taylor). But when a local developer spoke — in favor of the variances — Taylor refused to similarly limit the speaker’s time to two minutes.

The board should be comprised of individuals who can apply and follow the law, exhibit at least an appearance of impartiality, and respect the citizens who care enough about Asheville to attend its hearings. Elbert Taylor began the hearing by stating that he could think of other places he would rather be. I think there are a million other places he should be, rather than serving on the Board of Adjustment.

Those who attended the hearing — and were as disgusted as I by Elbert Taylor’s conduct — should contact City Council and ask them to review the videotape of the hearing. If you feel, as I do, that the current board is incapable of fulfilling its duties, let City Council know.

— Bonnie Sheldon

Where’d the mailboxes go?

Public mailboxes are vanishing from downtown Asheville. The local postmaster has authorized the removal of several mailboxes — without any notice to customers. One of the boxes removed was in front of the Flat Iron Building. This box got a lot of use and was often full. I am not sure where the next closest mailbox is now, but I think it is by the Federal Courthouse, three blocks away. This will make less work for the Postal Service, but more work for Postal Service customers.

Who is serving who?

— Paul D. King

[Editor’s note: Employees at the downtown Asheville Post Office on Coxe Avenue said that no more than 10 drop-boxes are being removed at this time, out of about 170 boxes in the city. “Some years I add them, some years I take them away,” explained Postmaster Harry Harvill. One postal worker, when asked about the removals, said, “It’s a nationwide thing.” Another worker said the Postal Service recently surveyed drop-box use, with an eye toward retiring some boxes. Certainly, the Battery Park Avenue box — once located in front of the Flat Iron Building — was not removed for lack of use: By the end of the day, it was sometimes stuffed so full that Xpress staff had difficulty getting their letters mailed. The other reason for removal — duplication of service by one or more boxes nearby — may have spelled this one’s doom: Three boxes stand around the corner on Haywood Street, and within the Flat Iron Building, there is a small brass mail box (complete with a mail chute that serves every floor).]

Support for Broadway Arts

[Editor’s note: We recently received the following petition, sent as a letter to the editor. The petition appears to have been signed by about 180 Asheville-area residents who support the Broadway Arts Building, a downtown gallery and community-events center, in its dispute with the Asheville Department of Building Safety.]

We, the undersigned (artists and audience who frequent all three galleries at the Broadway Arts Building), support the wonderful environment the galleries present for artistic and community events. We also support the fire code allowing the holiday lights in the galleries. Many stores throughout the city use these same lights. Broadway Arts has had them since 1988.

[Additional editor’s note: Asheville Building Safety inspectors have told Broadway Arts Building co-owner Bonnie Hobbs that decorative, Christmas-style lights hanging in the galleries must be plugged into standard electrical outlets, rather than into modified light-bulb receptacles, as they have been since the building was renovated in the late 1980s. The issue came to light after Hobbs’ request for a permanent liquor license, so the gallery and center could host parties, such as a Universal Studios event during the local filming of Patch Adams. State ABC officials asked city inspectors to see if the building meets current fire-safety and building codes.

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