Trees dominated the agenda at the Asheville City Council's Jan. 18 work session. From a discussion of what to do about a developer in Montford who cut a swath of trees after promising under oath not to, to turning thumbs down on a staff-initiated plan to hire a private firm to craft a forest-management plan for the city's pristine watershed, arboreal awareness was the order of the day.
But if trees were abundant, Council members were in short supply as they tackled these thorny issues. At the outset of the meeting, Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower announced that Mayor Charles Worley was out of town on city business, Council member Joe Dunn was absent because he had to attend a funeral, and pregnant Council member Terry Bellamy would have to leave early because her baby was due any day.
Nonetheless, into the woods they went.
Riding the crest
Mumpower launched the discussion of the Montford controversy by noting that Council is "walking on spongy turf with this issue" due to the quasi-judicial nature of the hearing on which the city based its decision to grant a conditional-use permit to the Campus Crest development team. That prompted City Attorney Bob Oast to note, "This is all new territory for all of us," apparently in reference to the discrepancy between statements made in the hearing and the developer's subsequent behavior. City Council issued the permit back in August after a lengthy and contentious public hearing, paving the way for the construction of a 154-unit apartment complex.
The heart of the problem seemed to be a communications breakdown between the planning staff and City Council. As a result, the permit language apparently did not reflect what at least some Council members thought had been approved (see "Nothing But the Truth," Jan. 19 Xpress).
But with the public up in arms over the tree cutting and Council member Brownie Newman questioning the integrity of city staff, Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford prepared a presentation for the Jan. 18 work session. In a memo to Council before the meeting, Shuford conceded that the cutting that has occurred at the site "is inconsistent with either (or both) the permit condition or the statement made by the developer early in the conditional-use permit hearing that indicated that an 80-foot strip of undisturbed vegetation would be retained." Shuford added, however, that "staff relies on the wording of the conditional-use permit to ascertain compliance with the permit, not statements made in public hearings."
In his presentation to Council, on the other hand, Shuford -- while acknowledging that there had been "some confusion" over the term "buffer" -- maintained that the cutting is allowed under the buffer requirement approved by Council. He also argued that, in the end, it won't make much difference, saying, "Our position has been that with the addition of supplemental plantings, the site won't be visible [to the Montford Avenue neighbors] once the plantings are mature."
Newman, however, wasn't satisfied. "I think the thing that has people confused is that the developer was so specific about the buffer along Montford Avenue," he told Shuford, adding, "It seems unambiguous; if their site plan said something different, then why?"
To which Shuford replied: "The statement was confusing and still is confusing -- on a number of different levels. ... Their plan creates a strong impression among the public that the plan includes an 80-foot buffer. There's always been a disconnect."
At that point, Newman suggested a possible approach for resolving the conflict. "I don't think anyone wants to revoke or even change the permit," he commented, adding, "The thing that makes sense is for the staff to talk to the developer and ask them to talk with the neighbors and see if there is a way to mitigate this and reach an agreement about restitution."
Shuford replied, "The developer would be receptive to a meeting with the neighborhood -- I'd be surprised if he wasn't."
Hot enough for you?
Council member Holly Jones -- the only other Council member who'd voted against approving the permit to begin with -- shared Newman's unhappiness, saying she was "even more concerned after reading the developer's press release" on the matter. Shifting the focus from Campus Crest to the very nature of the conditional-use-permit process, Jones turned up the heat, declaring: "I want to feel more confident that our conditions have teeth. ... Surely there will be other development projects we'll have to approve -- and I don't feel confident."
Later in the discussion, Shuford offered a mini mea culpa in explaining how, during the course of the four-hour hearing, the developer's promise to preserve an 80-foot buffer of trees had morphed into a condition that allowed the existing vegetation to be cut and replaced by new saplings and shrubs. "I don't think I did a very good job of communicating that; I'm going to have to do a better job in the future," he observed.
And Oast, the city attorney, added: "There is a difference between expectations and requirements. These requirements are somewhat less than what you expected. We are going to look into what the expectations were of Council."
But Jones reached for the stove knob again. "On-street tree retention -- that doesn't seem ambiguous to me. We expected the trees to stay." Newman, too, fed the fire: "There is a very good case that can be made that [the developers] are in violation of the conditional-use permit, based on the evidence they submitted at the public hearing."
In the end, however, Council directed staff to ask the developer to meet with neighborhood representatives and seek an amicable solution including, as Newman put it, "reasonable restitution." And if that doesn't work, Shuford noted that City Council would have 30 days (from Jan. 18) to request a hearing before the city's Board of Adjustment -- the first step in reopening the permitting process.
After the hearing, Barber Melton, vice president of the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods (which has criticized both the developers' actions and the city's response) told Xpress: "It will take years for Montford to recover from this. This speaks to a trust issue; this can't be good for local government."
These trees we'll keep
Later in the work session, Council turned its attention to the trees that blanket the Asheville watershed (the 22,000-acre undeveloped parcel that feeds the Bee Tree and North Fork reservoirs). At issue was whether to hire a consulting firm to design a management plan for the watershed. Council members had taken the first steps in adopting such a plan last July -- amid considerable controversy -- when they approved a conceptual management plan and a request for proposals from contractors, sparking an uproar among local environmentalists. The plan, they charged, was simply a way for the city to justify commercial logging within the pristine watershed (which is off-limits to all except Water Department staff).
The management plan, Interim Water Resources Director David Hanks had explained at the time, would address the need to keep access roads clear of fallen trees and control invasive plant species. Hanks also cited the difficulty emergency crews had had in responding to a plane crash in 2001 because fallen trees blocked the road.
At the Jan. 18 meeting, Hanks told Council that four companies had submitted proposals, recommending that the city hire Woolpert LLP to "inspect, section, survey and prepare a comprehensive management plan for the entire watershed." The project would cost an estimated $56,908 per year for five years, he said.
Before the meeting, a coalition of local organizations calling itself the Asheville Watershed Working Group had sent Council members a lengthy letter detailing its concerns about the city's plans for the watershed. Member groups include the Swannanoa Valley Alliance for Beauty and Prosperity, the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project, People Advocating Real Conservancy, Clean Water for North Carolina, the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition, the WNC Alliance and the Wild Law Sustainable Forests program.
Coalition members -- sporting bright-yellow stickers proclaiming, "No sense -- No tax $$" -- filled the chamber. "We see a financial -- and possibly an environmental -- train wreck coming down if the city proceeds to award a planning-and-management contract without modification and additional deliberation," their Jan. 14 letter declared. "The [city has] failed to demonstrate a compelling need for many of the activities proposed." The letter went on to pose such questions as: "Why is the city going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a dubious watershed-management plan when the city water lines and infrastructure are falling apart? Would not such huge funds be better spent updating our water system or establishing a comprehensive flood-control plan?"
But it was the next question that really seemed to get Council members' attention: "Why does the city not simply use the comprehensive road-maintenance plan outlined in the 1992 watershed plan? That plan [which the city considered but never adopted] states that the entire watershed road system can be mowed in only four weeks by two workers. Is not the real problem found in the city having shortchanged the watershed staff so much so that not even two workers are available to keep the roads clear?"
Vice Mayor Mumpower seemed familiar with the group's letter; one of the first questions he asked Hanks was how many employees are assigned to the watershed. Hanks responded that there's only one -- and he is assigned to the watershed "on a part-time basis."
Council member Jan Davis also voiced some reservations early in the meeting, commenting, "It seems as if this thing has taken on a life of its own." The city, he added, could meet most of its stated watershed-maintenance needs with "two men, a truck and a chain saw." City Manager Jim Westbrook responded that he "wouldn't want to go into the watershed with staff, chain saw and no plan." That prompted Mumpower to argue for a "simpler way," asking, "Could we take the '92 plan?" Westbrook cautioned that he would first want it reviewed by "an independent third party to see if it was reasonable."
At that point, Hanks -- perhaps seeing the momentum swing the other way -- reminded Council that one of the reasons for a watershed-management plan is to be better prepared to respond to a catastrophe. And as an example, that "We had one back in September," he reminded Council, referring to the back-to-back floods that devastated the area.
Newman, however, said he'd recently toured the watershed and was "astounded by how well our property came through the storm. Montford lost more trees than the watershed." Newman also noted his surprise at the working group's revelation, saying, "Some of us weren't aware that there was a management plan from the early '90s."
And Hanks' reply only underscored the impact of the working group's bombshell. "I actually wasn't aware either," he said. "I showed it to the current staff, and they hadn't seen it as well."
Mumpower, meanwhile, had another gripe. "There's no chain saws, no cutting, no actual work -- just planning." He then suggested that Council ask staff to "look into the possibility of their maintaining access roads and [combating] invasive species." That direction was adopted by the four remaining Council members. His colleagues agreed, directing staff to draft a report on how it can be done.
After the meeting, Buncombe County resident Monroe Gilmour, speaking on behalf of the Watershed Working Group, commented, "I think Council has taken a very positive step and avoided a lot of wasted money and controversy."
Gilmour knows whereof he speaks, having cut his teeth on the previous watershed-logging fight more than a decade ago. Gilmour's home in the North Fork community overlooks the watershed, and he figured significantly in the successful effort to derail the 1992 watershed plan.
That experience and its legacy -- a big, fat file of documents -- served Gilmour well in the present controversy. Among other things, the file contained a copy of that earlier plan -- a potent bit of ammunition that even Gilmour says he'd forgotten about. Asked about City Council's latest decision, a smiling Gilmour concluded, "I applaud their action."