With time running out, Asheville City Council approved a joint air-pollution agreement with Buncombe County, during a May 30 community meeting.
The agreement establishes a new Air Quality Agency to replace the existing WNC Regional Air Pollution Control Agency, which was doomed when Haywood County unexpectedly withdrew, back in February. Since then, the city and county have butted heads over whether to maintain an independent agency, make it part of county government, or let the state take over.
The hours leading up to the agreement were a messy affair, with city and county attorneys battling over some unexpected wording in the county's draft version of the document. Heightening the drama was a June 1 deadline for notifying the state Environmental Management Commission of the intention to create a new local air agency. The consequences of missing the deadline are unclear; but failure to reach agreement at all could have led to the state's taking over local air-pollution control.
The county commissioners had adopted their final version earlier that afternoon, with some last-minute rewording penciled in. Two members of the APCA board, Arlis Queen and Alan McKenzie, said they were pleased with the document; that seemed to sway Council members, who voted unanimously to adopt the county's version, despite initial objections by the mayor and caveats by the city attorney.
The fracas over the agreement began late on May 26, when the county faxed its draft version to Mayor Leni Sitnick. She said it didn't reflect the discussions she had had on the subject with the vice mayor and commissioners Tom Sobol and David Young. Among the key points of contention were issues affecting the new agency's autonomy. According to the county document, only staff -- not agency board members -- would have had the power to approve or deny permits to local industry; and the county manager would have had the power to hire and fire all agency employees.
"We spent the day going back and forth with the county," said Sitnick, in discussion before the vote. "It's important for the Council to know we are not quite there yet. There are a number of things in the county's agreement that caused me great concern."
At the outset, City Attorney Bob Oast said he still needed "to iron out points of disagreement with the county attorney"; Oast recommended passing the city's version of the document instead, which differed significantly in some ways. Details, he said, could worked out later. The major sticking points, he said, included personnel policies, empowering the board to have a public-hearing officer, and how to appoint the trustees to the new Clean Air Community Trust.
An earlier version of the county's proposal had said nothing about the agency's director having the authority to hire and fire staff. That omission riled Sitnick and several community activists, and the county had relented earlier that day, adding the wording, "The Director of the Agency shall have the authority to employ and discharge staff," as long as it is in keeping with Buncombe County personnel rules and procedures. But Oast contended that, under current state statutes, County Manager Wanda Greene would still have the power to fire agency employees.
"What the county approved tonight is very acceptable," declared McKenzie, who is director of the Buncombe County Medical Society. Making agency staff subject to county personnel policies protects them from liability to a degree "that is very comforting to me," he added.
Council member Charles Worley noted that the city and county already have a similar arrangement in connection with the water system. The Regional Water Authority is an independent agency serving Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson County. But the staff are employees of the Asheville Water Resources Department and are subject to city personnel policies, administration.
There were also concerns about how the new Clean Air Community Trust Fund -- which will inherit the APCA's hefty fund balance -- will be administered.
The city will get two appointees and the county will have three, with two slots more to be elected by the Trust Fund board itself. Under the county's proposal, the trustees would have had sole power to appoint all future trustees to the board, essentially giving them total control of the public's money. "It takes away their accountability," the mayor said. That wording was eliminated, but Oast said there is still some confusion over who will name the trust's board chair.
Other wording in the county document also caused friction and was eventually changed. Originally, it said the new air agency would merely "advise" the city and county on the board's budget and on what to do about air-quality issues. "The [current] agency did their own budget -- that's what made them autonomous," noted Sitnick, adding that it sounded like a power grab to her and reminded her of when "in 1998, the county manager had curiously requested the city to drop out of the agency."
Council members approved the final county version -- with the offending clauses removed -- on a 5-0 vote. A visibly exhausted Sitnick signed on after Worley and Council member Ed Hay (both attorneys) noted that the final version seemed to have the approval of current air-agency board members. City Attorney Oast, too, seemed satisfied with the document, at this point. Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger was in Washington, D.C., on business, and Council member Barbara Field was absent due to illness in the family.
Oakley residents want relief from traffic
Before throwing air-pollution control a lifeline, Council members first listened to a steady procession of Oakley residents concerned about traffic issues. It was a community meeting, after all.
Most of the 70 or so in attendance had apparently come to talk about the possible ill effects of developing a 355,000-square-foot shopping center on the former Sayles Biltmore Bleacheries property off Swannanoa River Road, but City Attorney Bob Oast quickly squelched that discussion.
Noting that a conditional-use permit is pending for the project, Oast reminded Council members that they must base their decision on the permit solely on the information given at the quasi-judicial public hearing scheduled for July 25. A few grunts were heard in the audience, at this point, but that was the end of it.
Instead, residents concentrated on a request to close off one of the entrances to the Redwood Forest subdivision. Beechwood Road, they said, has become a shortcut for traffic trying to escape the gridlock on South Tunnel Road. Vehicles ranging from travelers on Interstate 240 to city sanitation trucks regularly cut through the community of 85 homes -- often at speeds over 50 mph, although the local speed limit ranges from 20 to 30 mph, residents complained. Some said they are afraid to back out of their driveways.
"If I have to get to Blockbuster, I go through Redwood Forest," admitted Council member Ed Hay, who lives nearby in the River Ridge community. "Going up Tunnel Road is just so daunting, you just do about anything to avoid it."
City Traffic Engineer Michael Moule said a traffic study had revealed that an average of 1,800 vehicles per day use the shortcut. The heavy use could make the neighborhood a top candidate for traffic-calming measures (such as speed bumps or chicanes) under the city's new policy.
Moule, however, was doubtful about closing off the road, which he said would probably just divert the traffic through an adjacent community, such as Beverly Hills. Council member Brian Peterson asked Moule to look into building a new thoroughfare -- running parallel to South Tunnel Road, on the other side of I-240 -- "even if it means taking a house or two."
"There are topography issues," responded Moule. "The expense of putting a new road through there would be astronomical, but we can look at it."
Residents also requested additional sidewalks on Fairview Road, restrictions on heavy-truck traffic on the narrow road, and signs directing travelers to use I-240 to access South Tunnel Road shopping.