- Quiet zones for trains not ready for prime time
- Glen Rock afforable-housing complex gets more loans
- Mentoring program seeks budget love
It was branded both a last resort and a first step, but the Asheville City Council's condemnation of Buncombe County's sale of public parkland adjacent to City Hall nonetheless got the votes of all seven Council members at their June 10 formal session. Many in the audience -- some of whom had spent the past year working to oppose the controversial Parkside development -- broke into applause despite Mayor Terry Bellamy's repeated pleas to "maintain decorum" in the Council chamber.
City Council was originally slated to consider the Parkside proposal as a level III project needing a conditional-use permit, but a late-in-the game design change by developer Stewart Coleman cut two floors from the building, eliminating the required City Council review.
Nonethless, City Attorney Bob Oast had drafted a resolution -- at Council's request in a previous closed session -- objecting to the sale of part of City/County Plaza to Coleman in 2006.
The county was out of line with both history and precedent when it sold the 0.18 acre parcel without communicating with the city, said the city attorney.
"There is a history of cooperation, as this Council knows, in the handling of that property," noted Oast, citing examples stretching back to the 1920s. "That covers the selling of part of that property without consulting the city. It's an unfortunate thing to happen, but that's where we are."
Although the resolution takes issue with the Buncombe County commissioners' sale of the parcel, it falls short of taking legal action. A short discussion before the vote spelled out just what Council was considering in connection with the high-profile case. Because the proposed development has been removed from the city's purview, Council could legally consider only the actual land sale.
"There is no building proposal [before us]," said Council member Robin Cape after Carol King, chair of the Pack Square Conservancy, asked City Council to direct Coleman to move the building.
But Council member Brownie Newman said the building's design and location were now public knowledge and should be part of the discussion unless there was some legal obstacle.
City Council typically limits public comment on a topic to the specific resolution under consideration, however, and interim Planning and Development Director Shannon Tuch confirmed that no application from Coleman is currently pending.
Nonetheless, project opponents had long awaited a chance to air their concerns before City Council, and they seized it eagerly. Daniel Weisshaar, representing the Buncombe County Chapter of the Western North Carolina Alliance, said he thought the county should rescind the land deal, but he had words for Council as well.
"You can send a clear message that this sale is not popular with the public and is not valued by the city," he said.
Jake Quinn, meanwhile, suggested that Council revamp the Unified Development Ordinance to give the city regulatory control of level I and II reviews under certain circumstances. Others asked for a conservation easement on the park -- or even, as Asheville resident Dixie Deerman suggested, creating a new zoning classification for parkland that would prohibit any land sales or development.
"I am happy you are taking this step," said Barry Summers, who hosts a radio show on WPVM and has been investigating the history of the land deal though county e-mails and memos. "But I am encouraging you to do more." Summers maintains that e-mails demonstrate the county's intent to sell the property long before Coleman showed up, and that the developer's purchase of the parcel was actually a ploy to obtain city-owned property on Marjorie Street through a land swap.
"The county is taking advantage of the city and the citizens," Summers charged. "I applaud you for this resolution. I wonder what you are prepared to do when Mr. Coleman and the county say, 'We're moving forward.'"
Meanwhile, a couple of the roughly 20 speakers took a different view, arguing that Coleman has the right to build on the property.
"What you need to realize is that any person, if he complies with your ordinance and has legal title to the land, he should be able to do it," said architect John Cork.
But Asheville resident James Shealer said that Council's consideration of the resolution should restore excitement to those typically cynical about government. "I find the resolution very refreshing," he told Council members.
Deerman agreed, saying, "I've talked to a lot of people who have never seen a Council rise up in this way."
The resolution passed unanimously with little discussion by City Council. Meanwhile, activists are setting their sights on June 24, when the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners will take up the Parkside discussion and consider its options. A decision to reaffirm an affidavit allowing construction to take place from county property is no longer required, due to design modifications made by Coleman in the days after the Council meeting. (see "Trouble Ahead," June 11 Xpress).
A plan to quiet trains rolling through Asheville's River District didn't muster enough Council support for a vote, despite the contention that it would encourage development in the area. The Federal Railroad Administration permits the establishment of "quiet zones" under certain circumstances, but they require costly new safety features at railroad crossings to compensate for the trains' inability to use their horns to sound warning blasts.
RiverLink Executive Director Karen Cragnolin said her organization would pick up the tab for a $2,800 feasibility analysis. But the full conversion would cost $3 million to $4 million.
Cragnolin said the noise reduction would make the area more appealing to both developers and potential residents. It would also provide added safety measures, such as more secure gates, she noted.
"It won't decrease the number of trains; it won't change the schedule. What it will do is make the crossings safer," said Cragnolin.
But Gene Robinson, an engineer with Norfolk Southern, told Council that he thinks quiet zones are downright dangerous.
"Every time I've been involved in a collision with a car, the first words out of someone's mouth were, 'The engineer was not blowing the horn' -- if they are still alive," said Robinson. "The train horn is the only means of communication the train has with the public."
Cape, noting that a River District Commission is currently being formed, said it may be too soon to give the go-ahead. "This may be putting the cart before the horse," she said, adding, "I need more information about this."
Bellamy agreed, saying, "This seems a little premature. It's hard to say that this would be the best tool in the toolbox."
Newman, meanwhile, argued that the overall implementation costs could be better spent on other infrastructure needs and that he would rather "defer this until the people on the riverfront come to us and make a stronger case."
Vice Mayor Jan Davis said he didn't want to interfere with the rail industry, calling it "one of our most important assets -- especially with the gas [crisis], because it is how everything is going to get here."
An affordable-housing complex planned for Depot Street will receive twice as much Housing Trust Fund money as is typically allocated to a single project. The 60-unit Glen Rock development spearheaded by Mountain Housing Opportunities had already been granted a $500,000 loan from the fund in 2007, but spiraling construction costs coupled with a declining market for tax credits -- a major source of funds for such projects -- had brought the nonprofit back to the table seeking a second half-million-dollar loan.
Council member Carl Mumpower objected to the loan, saying it flies in the face of current policy, but Cape said the decision should and does lie with Council. "It is a departure," she conceded. "But that's why we have Council members."
Newman supported the loan as a way to secure affordable housing -- one of Council's stated goals -- declaring, "The most powerful way to use public resources is to do the things we want them to," he said.
The $500,000 loan was approved 6-1, with Mumpower voting no.
Council has only one more budget presentation before a June 24 scheduled vote, and with just two weeks to go, there were a few public comments about how the city is -- and isn't -- spending public money.
Greenway Commission Chair Linda Giltz said the city isn't putting enough money into capital improvements for its Greenway Master Plan. "I would suggest the proposed budget falls short," she said. "Growth means more capital spending, not less."
But the bulk of the discussion focused on Project Lighten Up, a summer mentoring and educational program headed by the Rev. Spencer Ellis Hardaway of Rock Hill Missionary Baptist Church. The summer camp, already operating on a small scale, bridges the gap between school years, and although they have several ideas for raising additional funds, Hardaway said, "We are asking the city to contribute." He added: "I would never trade a green space for children's space. Rethink: Rethink your decisions."
City Manager Gary Jackson said he could give Council members funding options for the program at their next meeting, but Mumpower said the move amounted to sidestepping the budgetary process. (For his part, Mumpower has vowed to mow lawns and wash cars for private individuals who sponsor the program.)
Cape, however, argued that the need for this kind of program outweighs red tape. "There is an urgency that may not fit into the bureaucratic process," she observed.
Hardaway agreed, saying, "Nothing is written in concrete; nothing can't be changed. We are not circumventing the process: We are asking for a rethinking."
Council members will review funding options when it hears the final staff report on the budget at their June 17 meeting.