If we can't stop it -- can we at least make it pretty?
That seemed to be the best angle Asheville City Council members could come up with at their Sept. 1 work session, after hearing from state officials about the planned eight-lane widening of Interstate 240 through west Asheville. The project will extend I-26 from its current terminus at I-40, connecting it with U.S. Highway 19-23 on the east side of the French Broad River. That portion of 19-23 is being converted into North Carolina's I-26 link to Tennessee.
"It's a bad idea. ... If you run that thing through town, it's going to be disastrous," protested Council member Earl Cobb. Weeks earlier, Cobb had asked fellow Council members to invite North Carolina Department of Transportation officials to a work session so they could explain their plans. He has been vocal in his opposition to the project, arguing that the resultant noise, pollution, traffic and loss of nearly 70 business and residential properties will "destroy" the west Asheville area.
But DOT officials made it clear that, three years ago, a previous City Council had endorsed the expansion and the routing of a new section of I-240. And before that, they said, a citizens' committee had endorsed the plan by a 6-3 vote -- although DOT's documentation noted that those endorsements were for a six-lane project, rather than the current eight-lane proposal.
"Am I hearing you say that the decision [on the routing and the eight-lane proposal] has been made?" Cobb asked the DOT staff and DOT board member Gordon Myers, who lives in Fairview.
Environmental Engineer Tom Kendig replied, "That's correct."
His response, along with others from state officials, encouraged an almost fatalistic mood among Council members as the meeting progressed -- especially after the DOT staff launched a detailed defense of the project.
DOT Transportation Planner Blake Norwood explained that the decision to widen I-240 and use existing highway corridors for I-26 came after a 1993 endorsement by a citizens advisory committee, which included environmentalists, neighborhood representatives and businesspeople. Asheville City Council then endorsed the project when it passed a 1995 resolution supporting DOT's environmental analysis to use "corridor A."
"I understand Cobb's opposition, [but] this [route] was brought forth by the community. This was not something we forced on the community," asserted Myers .
But Cobb remained unimpressed, saying that the community meetings convened earlier this year by the DOT, in order to show west Asheville residents maps of the project, were attended by very few people. He urged the DOT to reopen the public-comment process and reconsider a rejected alternative route that would take I-26 traffic north from I-40 through Leicester before crossing the French Broad and connecting with 19-23, rather than through west Asheville.
Reopening the public-comment process, responded Norwood, would add five years to the project. He added that the west-Buncombe route had been dropped because of its high expense and large potential for environmental damage.
Norwood explained the DOT's enlarged eight-lane plan by saying, "We have to plan for at least 20 years, [and] for the past eight, Asheville has had 4.2 percent actual growth [in traffic volume]" -- double the department's original estimate for interstate traffic, which was used to determine the required number of lanes.
Norwood supplied more DOT math: Widening the western section of I-240 to eight lanes would swallow up 68 homes whereas, six lanes would take out 58.
Council member Tommy Sellers raised another concern, asking, "Are there any provisions for a noise wall [to protect] residents?" He added that such walls should be well-designed and attractive, since west Asheville is "the welcome mat to the city."
And Council member Barbara Field, an architect, wondered whether the DOT could design attractive bridges and interchanges for the project. "Anything can be made ... aesthetically inviting," she said, citing some urban-roadway expansions she had seen out West. Field also urged the DOT officials to consider building an access ramp to serve the River District, where the city, local property owners and environmentalists are planning greenways and riverfront development.
"Certainly we could look at all that. Those are good ideas," allowed DOT roadway-design Engineer Tom Shearin, adding, "but the cities participate in the cost."
Mayor Leni Sitnick questioned the DOT's traffic counts. The Broadway Avenue connector to U.S. 19-23, she said, took a whopping 75-foot strip through downtown Asheville in order to provide a four-lane road with median. That was based on DOT traffic estimates, she said. But even during peak hours, she noted, the traffic on that road "has not quite lived up to [DOT's] projections. Sometimes, it's desolate."
DOT staff didn't respond to this point, and Sitnick moved on to other matters, wondering out loud how the DOT could justify eight lanes "through little ol' Asheville, when I-40 can get you coast-to-coast on four."
Norwood's argument was that at least 80 percent of the increased traffic will come from the Asheville urban area itself -- not from Ohio Valley through-traffic. Asheville is simply outgrowing its existing major thoroughfares, he maintained. The department's earlier projections had predicted about a 50-percent increase in vehicular traffic on I-240, 20 years from now; but new projections, based on the DOT's most recent traffic-growth counts, predict more than twice as many cars using I-240 daily, 20 years from now.
Sitnick quietly took in Norwood's comments, then concluded, "I guess we all have to accept, at some point, that the face of Asheville is changing." She urged DOT, nonetheless, to rethink its route selection.
Still undecided is the exact routing for a bypass and bridge linking I-240 with 19-23 on the other side of the French Broad River, near the Broadway exit: Two possible routes would slice through Westgate Shopping Center; another, more direct route, would take part of the Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort golf course.
"I would just challenge you not to be close-minded," Cobb told DOT officials. "Open this thing back up, and see what the citizens want." To do otherwise, he argued, "would be a mistake."
DOT board member Gordon Meyers insisted that the agency has been and remains willing to work with the city and its residents. "The design features [of this project] are not etched in stone. ... Very clearly, let us know what you want: Now is the time."
Taking no formal action, Council members indicated that they may schedule a meeting with the original members of the citizens' advisory committee that endorsed the expansion.
Limiting public comment
"We get so tired, we can't hear any more," said Asheville City Council member Barbara Field on Sept. 1.
That sums up part of Council members' logic for deciding to limit "other business" speakers to 10 minutes for one spokesperson, or three minutes each for two or three (but no more) speakers. This proposal was made by Council member Chuck Cloninger, following an Aug. 11 meeting at which nearly a dozen local cannabis supporters addressed Council for 40 minutes -- at the end of a five-hour formal session.
"The press has got the impression we're trying to thwart people's right to speak. That's not the case," said Council member Earl Cobb. "We need to have something in place to keep [meetings] orderly."
Cloninger argued that the limits may actually encourage more public speakers at Council meetings, since those who come to speak won't have to wait so long for their turn. "It gives more people a chance to speak, if everybody has to condense their comments."
But Council member O.T. Tomes said he isn't interested in limiting the number of speakers on a topic to one, two or three. "Limits can be intimidating -- a barrier to getting people involved," he argued, urging Council members to be flexible in applying the new rule, if it passed.
"It's the people's right to address their governing bodies, no matter what," declared Mayor Leni Sitnick. "In a democratic society, it's the responsibility of government to listen to the people," she added. Sitnick said she supports time limits "for the sake of order," but not the limit on the number of speakers on a given topic.
"I'm willing to listen to anyone for any length of time," said Field. "But when our meetings get long ... it's past time for reason." She asked whether Council members could request that the 10-minute limit be suspended, should they wish to hear more on a given issue.
Sitnick replied that she would always respect fellow Council members' wish to hear more.
Cloninger moved to suspend Council's work-session rules, in order to vote on the proposal to limit public comment. Seconded by Council member Tommy Sellers, the motion passed 6-1 (Sitnick voted against it, because she doesn't support taking formal votes during work sessions). Cloninger then moved to pass the new public-comment limits; that motion, also seconded by Sellers, passed 5-2 (Tomes and Sitnick opposed).
Make those towers short!
Size does matter -- at least when it comes to telecommunications towers in Asheville.
City Council members took their first look at a proposed revision of Asheville's tower ordinance during their Sept. 1 work session. One of the biggest changes: A maximum tower height of 100 feet, instead of 200 feet. The proposal also requires telecommunications companies to hide or disguise towers whenever and wherever possible.
Here are some highlights of the proposed new ordinance, which Planning and Zoning Commission members will soon review at a public meeting:
• Require telecommunications companies to co-locate antenna equipment whenever possible; before getting a permit for a new tower, companies must prove that they cannot place their equipment on any existing tower or other location within a quarter-mile of the proposed site (such as the top of the BB&T building, or on an existing electric-utility transmission tower).
• Require companies to give first priority to siting towers on city-owned properties (which would increase city lease revenues).
• Encourage streamlined, monopole designs, as well as "stealth" technology, which hides or disguises antennas (for example by placing them inside church steeples), or designs them to look like trees or architectural features.
• Increase tower-permit fees and require annual reviews of all towers, to ensure their compliance with city ordinances.
• Protect ridge lines and scenic Blue Ridge Parkway views by limiting tower construction in those areas.
• Allow some telecommunications devices in residential areas, but with additional restrictions on height, appearance and design. Typically, only disguised devices would be allowed in such areas.
Telecommunications consultant Paul Rosa, who prepared the revised ordinance, told Council members that most people's biggest objection to towers is their height: "The less visible impact, the better. ... For most citizens, it's the scale [of the tower] that's a problem."
One day, Rosa added, direct satellite transmission to and from cell phones may become affordable for the general public, alleviating the need for such towers.