"This is your opportunity to tell it like it is," Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick prompted east Ashevilleans on March 30. It was City Council's first community meeting of the year, held at the East Asheville Library. And residents wasted no time getting to the hot topics: the Interstate 26 connector, Trinity Baptist Church, litter, traffic in neighborhoods ... and culvert climbing, of all things.
"I'd like to know about the [I-26] connector delay," said an elderly gentleman sitting in the front row.
Sitnick -- criticized in recent months because Council had questioned the North Carolina Department of Transportation about the project (and, some say, contributed to its postponement -- responded that the DOT has funding problems with loop roads all across the state, and also had to consider an additional environmental-justice study for the Asheville route. City Council, the Buncombe County Commissioners, local business groups and other organizations have all asked DOT not to delay building the connector, which could relieve traffic on the Smokey Park Bridge, she added.
"So there's no date?" the man asked.
"Not that we have," said Sitnick.
Next, Redwood Forest resident Betty Martin brought up a subject that's more common for community meetings: speeding traffic cutting through her neighborhood. Explaining that she had first called attention to the problem back when Russ Martin (no relation) was mayor -- and that current Council member Tommy Sellers is her neighbor -- Ms. Martin observed, "I sure hoped we'd have some help by now."
Drivers, she continued, fly down her street. "The only time they slow down is when they're behind me. ... I make sure they go the speed limit [20 mph]."
Sellers said that city police have ticketed speeders and set out decoy cars to slow them down, in the past. "It helped -- it slowed me down!" he added, promising to step up efforts.
Sitnick mentioned that the city is working on applying traffic-calming measures throughout the city, neighborhood by neighborhood. "Maybe we all need to go to driver's education every decade or so," she reflected, recommending using multiple approaches to remind drivers to follow the rules.
Martin also raised another common complaint: trash around town. She asked whether litter laws are being enforced and fines assessed against violators.
Sitnick mentioned a citywide cleanup effort that started in March: the Great Asheville-Buncombe Clean Up, with educational and litter-pickup events planned through April. City Council also recently endorsed several pending state bills relating to litter, including one that increases fine levels.
But it was former teacher Roy McGuinn who brought up the most curious trash problem: Recently, he and his researcher son, he said, had climbed through a 14-foot-wide culvert running deep under an east Asheville K-Mart, and discovered that it was one-third blocked by trash and debris. "Who's responsible?" asked McGuinn, telling Council that the culvert could cause flooding problems, if it's not cleaned out.
Asheville Public Works Director Mark Combs replied that he is familiar with the culvert, which he said is private property and, thus, up to the owners to maintain.
When another resident remarked on the culvert's size and depth, Council members asked McGuinn what had spurred him to navigate it.
"I didn't want to," McGuinn answered, mentioning that his son is the type who likes to do such crazy things as mountain climbing, too. "I didn't want to show a lack of courage," he continued.
"[Combs] needs to inspect [that culvert] for pedestrian traffic!" joked Sitnick.
Another resident asked what could be done about people who don't adequately secure their recyclables on pickup day, so that bottles, newspapers and other items wind up littering the neighborhood.
Council member Chuck Cloninger mentioned the city's new government channel on cable TV, where the city could perhaps post information about how to handle recyclable materials.
"Maybe Chuck could star in [a video], and crush boxes with his bare hands," cracked Sitnick.
East Asheville resident Chris Pelly took the opportunity to applaud the efforts of city staff: He and his neighbors had been trying to clean up a ravine filled with discarded appliances, but had lacked the right kind of equipment. Public Works staff pitched in with the equipment and a bit of manpower "to drag all that stuff out of the ditch," said Pelly, thanking Combs.
On another note, he urged Council to weigh the Trinity Baptist Church issue in west Asheville carefully. Church members have asked Council to approve a major expansion project, but adjacent residents have complained about the negative impact it would have on the surrounding neighborhood. Pelly noted that Shelbourne Road, where the church is located, is similar to Haw Creek Road: a two-lane route through a residential area. "If such a church expansion happened on Haw Creek, it would have a high impact," said Pelly, urging, "Let's use some common sense, whether it's a church, a business or apartments."
Redwood Forest resident Connie Duncan steered the discussion back to the I-26 connector, encouraging everyone to work toward alternative solutions -- such as routing a bypass around Asheville, instead of through it. She mentioned the I-26 Connector Awareness Group, which is seeking "a community-friendly solution" to the issue. "It's a problem for all of Asheville, if that connector goes through town," said Duncan, expressing concern that Westgate Shopping Center might be paved over for the project.
She also mentioned a potentially dangerous, steep exit ramp off Interstate 240 in east Asheville, and asked what could be done to slow down drivers who use it.
City Manager Jim Westbrook responded that staff could contact DOT about the issue.
Shortly after that, Council members heard from Frank Martin, president of the Coalition for Scenic Beauty in Asheville and Buncombe County. A staunch opponent of billboards, Martin took this occasion to speak in favor of a sign. He pleaded with Council to amend the Unified Development Ordinance, so that Haw Creek residents could erect a sign helping motorists find local churches. There used to be such a sign on New Haw Creek Road, near Tunnel Road. But when the aging sign was ready to be replaced, city staff informed residents that it violated the 1990 sign ordinance, reported Martin.
It's an off-premise sign, but it's in a residential area, so it's forbidden," Martin explained. He urged amending the UDO to permit such signs. "We're not trying to sell cigarettes or pots and pans," he added, noting that the sign would benefit the neighborhood and its churches, which are nonprofit organizations.
Council replied that city staff are working on such an amendment. City Planner Gerald Green, however, noted that the problem lies not with the city, but with DOT: Signs aren't allowed in its rights-of-way. "Maybe Frank [Martin] has more pull with [DOT] than we do," he remarked.
Martin replied that he had contacted the DOT just the day before: The sign would be placed on an embankment, several feet outside of DOT's right-of-way.
No more residents appeared ready to speak after that, prompting Sitnick to remark that it was "only" 10 minutes to 8, "and Duke doesn't play tonight."
"They didn't play last night, either!" joked McGuinn, commenting on Duke's surprise loss to the University of Connecticut in the NCAA championship game.
After the laughter had subsided, resident Gerry Hardesty stood up and questioned whether enough is being done to involve businesses in litter-cleanup efforts.
Sitnick mentioned the ongoing Adopt-A-Street programs and Quality Forward's new adopt-a-spot project, in which businesses, individuals and organizations can "adopt" a particular place to clean up and beautify.
Cloninger added that the Chamber of Commerce, a co-sponsor of the Great Asheville-Buncombe Clean Up, plans to involve member businesses in the project.
Sitnick also observed that fighting litter requires a continuing educational effort. She recounted a meeting with elementary-school students last month, at which one little boy had told her that he had convinced his high-school-age brother to stop tossing his fast-food containers behind his bed, "because he was littering the room they shared."
Then, Council member Earl Cobb chimed in, citing a sobering statistic: $400 million is spent picking up litter in North Carolina each year. Cobb also told of visiting an elementary school recently, saying he had asked each child, "Why do we do it? Why do we foul our nest?" He told east Asheville residents that it's crucial to involve everyone, at every level, in the litter campaign. Recalling a governmental visit to Boise, Idaho, last year, Cobb added that "you couldn't even find a cigarette butt on the streets." And when he asked why the place was so clean, the reply was, "We just don't stand for it."
The I-26 Awareness Group can be reached care of Roger Derrough, 40 Westgate Parkway, Suite S, Asheville, NC 28806, or by calling 281-4800, ext. 50. For information about the cleanup project, contact Quality Forward at 254-1776, or Karen Rankin at 259-5936.