- Affidavit becomes latest Parkside flash point
- County approves 2008-09 budget
- New storm-water rules provoke debate
- Auto parts company gets $1 million incentive deal
Normally, it would have been no big deal -- a routine piece of red tape needed for a proposed development bordering county property to advance to the city's Technical Review Committee.
But this was Parkside, and it sparked continued controversy at the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners' June 3 meeting. The proposed nine-story condominium project, to be built on former public parkland that the county sold to developer Stewart Coleman, has evoked a storm of criticism from people who say it was a backroom deal that handed valuable property to a private developer.
And last month, Coleman scaled back the height of the proposed structure -- thereby avoiding the need to get the Asheville City Council's approval. That seemed to leave the TRC review as the project's final hurdle.
Assistant County Attorney Michael Frue emphasized that the affidavit did not constitute approval to use county property for staging construction of the project and did not address the question of easements needed to provide emergency services to the high-rise -- all issues the board may have to deal with later.
"This affidavit is just our consent for the city to review the plan on an administrative level," Frue told the board.
The commissioners agreed to put the matter on the agenda for their June 24 meeting, where it will be one of only a few matters up for consideration.
"We'll take that vote in a public manner, so there won't be someone out there saying this was done behind closed doors -- [to ensure] that it was a very transparent process," observed board Chair Nathan Ramsey.
Among the criticisms of the land sale has been the lack of a public hearing or even a clear explanation of the transaction. Vice Chair David Gantt has publicly stated that he wasn't aware of exactly what the board was voting on. The sale was placed on the consent agenda (a list of routine matters collectively addressed by a single vote) and was only briefly discussed.
During public comment before the formal meeting, critics urged the board to take this opportunity to rectify what they saw as mistakes.
"I would implore you to very carefully consider the errors that happened a few months ago," said Asheville resident Elaine Lite. "If there's any way for the county commissioners to redeem themselves and reclaim our public space, even if it requires denial of certain necessary papers -- if it is within your legal bounds, I would request that you do whatever is necessary to put this to an end."
Ramsey asserted that because the property is now private, there is little that the county can do.
"There are a lot of people that have very, very strong feelings about this -- aside from what Mr. Coleman believes are 80 fringe lunatics," Lite replied.
Gantt said he hoped to get all options for resolving the issue before the board at the June 24 public hearing.
Asheville resident Barry Summers accused the county of hatching a backroom deal with Coleman.
"This was not a mistake," said Summers. "Look at the e-mails that have come out: County staff deliberately wanted this property sold for development. They very clearly intended to pressure the Pack Square Conservancy to give public support to Mr. Coleman's building when it was wildly unpopular -- at the conservancy and with the public."
Summers added that "it is very disturbing to see public institutions pitting themselves against one another over a private development," asserting that Coleman intends to trade the property for even more valuable public land nearby.
"Our park is being held hostage for a speculative land deal," Summers charged. "This is not how a world-class city does anything; this should be stopped. Do we really want to have our city and county governments going to war over a building the public doesn't want, that violates the conservancy guidelines and that was initiated in a backroom deal to grab valuable public land? If you're not stopping it, you're helping it -- and we are watching how you vote."
Ramsey, however, took issue with Summer's statements.
"We didn't sell this behind the scenes -- we sold it in a public meeting, just like we're doing today," he said. "We might not have notified enough people, but there's notices out: That's a legal process. To say the county was doing anything behind the scenes is just incorrect."
Summers replied that he was aiming his criticism not at the commissioners but at county staff, who "clearly knew what was happening."
Local blogger Gordon Smith said he hoped the commissioners would recognize "the obligation of the county commission in rectifying this error." He also asked the commissioners "to take responsibility and ownership of your mistakes. I hope that you all take the opportunity to rectify this error."
Not all the public comments were critical, however. Tom Israel, who works for Coleman's development company, said that Parkside has met the guidelines of the Downtown Commission, the Pack Square Conservancy and has tried to work with both city and county government.
"We get a lot of support for this project: It's good for the city, it's good for the park, it's good for the community," asserted Israel. "I just hope that in these opinions you hear, we can differentiate fact from fiction. We respect opinions based on fact. We've only done what's been asked."
Coleman himself also came forward to offer a brief statement, asserting that the project hasn't gotten a fair shake in the public eye.
"It's been a misfortune that there's been so many misunderstandings, so many misstated information and so many misstated truths," he said. "We've jumped through all the hoops with this building that it's possible to jump through -- including removing floors; including setting the building back off the park. We've been challenged every time we've made a concession. We'd like to move forward with this project."
Battening down the budget hatches
On a less contentious note, the board unanimously passed a $316.8 million budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. It shows a $6.2 million deficit, which the county will make up from its fund balance.
That, however, is down from the $6.7 million shortfall projected when the budget was first presented last month. County Manager Wanda Greene told the board that she'll look for ways to save money throughout the year to minimize how much the fund balance will actually need to be tapped.
"There are ways we can do that, and we'll look at slowing down hiring or hiring freezes," noted Greene. And if tight economic times continue, she added, the county's fund balance, in tandem with cost-cutting measures, should suffice to meet future budget challenges.
"We have a plan in place to identify savings we can tap into; we are ready on several fronts if we hit a recession," she said.
Leicester resident Alan Ditmore criticized the budget allocations for parking and public schools.
"Government parking garages are the worst possible kind of socialism," asserted Ditmore. "It's devoid of welfare; it has all of the drawbacks and none of the benefits. I just walked four blocks to get here; I had a pleasant walk and a healthy walk, so I don't see any reason to increase downtown parking."
Funding public schools, said Ditmore, amounts to "exploiting childless taxpayers," adding that sports programs "encourage bullies" and that the county should abolish the Planning Department.
Greene clarified that the parking decks will be paid for by user fees, not tax dollars.
Gantt, however, defended the spending on parking. "We don't have to do that, but we've waited and waited for other people to do this. This board's done the responsible thing: People want to be able to park near their park, their courthouse. Most people still take cars; we want downtown to keep growing," he said.
Asheville resident Keith Thomson, meanwhile, praised the commissioners' support of public schools. "That local funding is something I want to thank you for. We've got three of the best school systems in the state."
Enka resident Jerry Rice, on the other hand, said the county should lower the tax rate by 15 cents. He also took issue with the way Buncombe County Schools funding is handled.
"I wish we could have more than one time a year [when] we could see departments speak on behalf of the budget," said Rice. "The public schools don't come, and I don't like that -- it's not transparent."
He also took aim at what he felt was excessive spending on recreation and supplemental pay for teachers.
"We've nowhere touched the needs of the people in this community," said Rice. "We need this commission to set priorities before recreation. This budget doesn't set that high enough."
But Commissioner David Young argued that the supplemental pay for teachers serves as "golden handcuffs" that help keep skilled educators in Buncombe.
Young also praised the overall budget, saying, "Seventy five counties have a higher tax rate than us, and we do all this: This is a great budget, and I fully support it."
On a tie vote (Commissioner Bill Stanley was absent), the board postponed revising the county's storm-water ordinance. Both Ramsey and Young expressing concerns about individual homeowners' potential liability.
The current ordinance calls for penalties of up to $100,000 on homeowners' associations that fail to maintain their storm-water systems. If a particular development's association is defunct, however, individual homeowners must pay the fine.
"I just worry what could happen if a schoolteacher, for example, gets hit with that kind of burden," said Ramsey.
If a homeowners' association hasn't yet assumed responsibility for maintenance, the project's developer is liable.
The proposed revision merely updates the wording, Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton explained. And Stormwater Administrator Mike Goodson noted that the county provides each association with a manual spelling out simple ways to maintain such systems.
But Gantt and Commissioner Carol Peterson defended the policy.
"The burden has to fall on someone, and if it's not the taxpayer, it will have to be the homeowner," said Gantt. "There does have to be a penalty here."
The commissioners will revisit the issue during their June 24 meeting.
Turbo-charging forward (with $1 million in county money)
The board unanimously voted to give BorgWarner, a Michigan-based auto-parts manufacturer, $1 million in tax incentives for a recent expansion it undertook.
That $40 million expansion to the company's West Asheville plant added 87 jobs, most of them at $15 an hour or more with benefits.
Ditmore, the only member of the public to comment on the incentive package, said he feels that such incentives favor bigger businesses, "because a small business isn't going to have the time or knowledge to go through this process."
In response, Gantt asserted that the board is always looking for ways to make the incentive process more friendly to small, local businesses.
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