While the region dangles dangerously close to federal designation as a "nonattainment area," Asheville City Council may ask Gov. Jim Hunt to drop his lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency.
"The only way to fight air pollution is regionally and nationally," declared Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger, who also chairs the N.C. Parks, Parkways and National Forests Council. "It really sets a terrible precedent if we tie the hands of the EPA."
A nonattainment designation would put anything that could affect air quality -- new industry and highway projects -- under federal scrutiny.
At the June 20 Council meeting, Cloninger and Mayor Leni Sitnick discussed Western North Carolina's dirty air, much of which comes from states west of here. "During the ozone season last year, one out of every four days was unhealthy," noted Sitnick, who says the local medical community also opposes the lawsuit and has asked Council to come on board.
Hunt's lawsuit contests the EPA's authority, under the Clean Air Act, to set minimum air-pollution standards for all states. The suit was filed partly with an eye toward making N.C. emissions standards for motor vehicles stricter than the EPA minium standards; the legal move also disputes the claim that North Carolina power plants are polluting the Northeast. But critics say the suit would really limit North Carolina's ability to fight the biggest threat to this state's air quality -- polluting neighbors -- and that the EPA already allows states to raise their emission standards for vehicles.
"Just one power plant in Cumberland, Tenn., produces more air pollution than all the cars in North Carolina combined," asserted Cloninger.
Back in April, state Sen. Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe, who has argued against the lawsuit on the floor of the General Assembly, likened the suit to "going after fleas while the bear's" in your back yard.
Council members agreed to study the issue further before passing a resolution urging Hunt to drop his suit. They plan to bring in air experts from the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the opposition to debate the merits of the suit. "We don't want to make this a controversial thing," Cloninger said. "We just respectfully disagree on this issue."
Mayor urges regional approach to fixing Civic Center
Mayor Leni Sitnick is calling on Western North Carolina's elected officials to join the dialogue about the future of the ailing Civic Center.
State Rep. Philip Haire of Sylva, quoted in a local newspaper, said the Civic Center benefits the entire region, not just Asheville, and surrounding communities could help pay for improving the 25-year-old facility. It's a sentiment the mayor has often repeated.
"I figure the worst they can say is no, but we may get some positive response," observed Sitnick. "I think we can all agree the Asheville taxpayer shouldn't be solely responsible for the Civic Center's needs."
Council members agreed that it wouldn't hurt to try, and Sitnick directed the city manager to put out the word to the surrounding counties about starting a Civic Center consortium.
City retools noise ordinance
Asheville is cranking up its noise ordinance.
City Attorney Bob Oast unveiled the revised document, which Council members will hold up for public scrutiny at their June 27 formal session.
The revision reflects community concerns about the difficulty of enforcing the current ordinance, Oast explained. When the police issued citations, the courts proved unreceptive to the enforcement efforts; and the original law did not sufficiently regulate certain noises, such as barking dogs and booming car stereos, he said.
"Thank God -- it's about time!" exclaimed the mayor, who has advocated beefing up the ordinance in the past, noting that some noise offenders have "literally ruined people's home life in this community."
Among the interesting features in the new document, said Oast, is the switch from a criminal penalty (fixed at $50) to a civil penalty, to allow for escalating fines as a deterrent.
In addition, an appeals board would be created, giving citizens an informal avenue for addressing noise disputes with neighbors, and a way to appeal the civil citations. The board would include both citizen appointees and city staff.
In the future, added Oast, the city may have to consider the growing residential population downtown, and the specific types of noise problems they face.
Even as the buzzword "smart growth" seems to be creeping into City Council's weightier decisions with increasing frequency, the Planning and Development Department is creeping closer to creating a definition of smart growth that fits the city's needs and character.
Planning Director Scott Shuford says the definition will combine smart-planning concepts with the elements of economic sustainability.
"Do to our unique topography, a lot of things that work well in other places don't work here," asserted Shuford. Smart growth for Asheville, he noted, would make efficient use of limited usable land, protect the architecture and environmental character, and recognize the city's role as a regional hub for jobs and commerce.
"It shows real vision and forward thinking, while trying to uphold the traditions and all these other things the people hold dear," commented the mayor.
The city's pilot program testing automated, side-loading trash trucks began with a roar, back in April -- a roar of complaints. It also generated a critical column in this paper and several letters to the editor.
Since then, however, Public Works Director Mark Combs says folks (3,332 homes now get the service) have gotten used to it, and the number of complaints has dropped to around three per week.
Most of the original concerns came from seniors unhappy about the size and bulk of the 96-gallon trash containers, Combs said. The heavy containers are necessary for the automated, remote arm to pick up the refuse and pitch it into the truck.
And for those people still having trouble handling the big green containers, Combs says the city has ordered 200 smaller ones (66 gallons), to be distributed according to individual need.
Given the program's general success so far, Combs said he expects eventually to service 90 percent of the city with the expensive, automated equipment, as funding becomes available. And all newly annexed areas will be serviced by the automated system from the start, he said, "so people don't have to change their habits."