- CTS contamination spreads
- New storm-water rules approved
The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners sold a piece of parkland to developer Stewart Coleman; now they want it back. But they're asking the city of Asheville to make it happen. At their June 24 meeting, the commissioners unanimously approved a resolution encouraging the city to agree to a land swap so that Coleman's controversial Parkside condominium project would not intrude into the adjacent Pack Square Park.
The county resolution encourages the city to swap adjacent land it owns (presumably a parcel on neighboring Marjorie Street) so that Parkside could be set farther back from the park; currently, part of the proposed project would occupy a section of parkland near City Hall that the county sold to Coleman in 2006. To sweeten the deal for Asheville, the county is also offering to pay the city for any parkland it acquires from the developer. Coleman originally paid the county $322,000 for the land; county staff now estimates its value at $540,000.
The Asheville City Council has unanimously condemned the county's sale of the property to Coleman, however, and some commissioners questioned the likelihood of the city's accepting such an exchange. The Council resolution condemning the sale states that the county should be the one to get the land back.
"The City Council doesn't seem very receptive to a land deal," noted Chairman Nathan Ramsey during the commissioners' June 24 meeting.
Tom Israel of Black Dog Realty, Coleman's company, sounded a similar note, saying, "So far, the City Council has shown no interest in such an exchange. Though if it was relevant, we'd certainly consider it."
If the city doesn't agree to a land swap, the county will explore other options for regaining the property, the resolution states. It also says that if the land were returned, the county would work with the city to set up a permanent conservation easement on it.
After a presentation by Israel, Ramsey praised the Parkside project, calling it "a beautiful building" that "looks very nice." But "political realities," he added, meant that the board had to try to find a way to get the parkland back.
Moving Parkside back would satisfy the Pack Square Conservancy's guidelines in a way that the current plan does not, said Herman Turk. Turk serves on the board of the nonprofit, which is overseeing a massive redesign of the park.
But most of the 10 residents who spoke during public comment condemned the proposed deal.
"We support a buyback on the parkland -- but not at the terms Mr. Coleman has demanded," said Jake Quinn, who presented a statement signed by groups including the Mountain Voices Alliance and Asheville Democracy for America. "The [county commissioners] should speak long and hard about the ramifications of handing him a profit for his speculative land deal and forcing the county taxpayers to foot the bill. We also hope that the county and city will reject a land swap, since Mr. Coleman refused to follow established procedures. Considering the contempt he has displayed for development rules and the community, there is no reason to reward him with special treatment."
Quinn urged the commissioners to consider several options, including using an easement to prevent Parkside from being built on the land, reaching out to philanthropists to get the money to buy back the land, adopting a "permanent parkland" zoning designation, and using eminent domain, if necessary, to reclaim the property.
County Manager Wanda Greene said the county had offered Coleman $2.8 million for the disputed parcel and the neighboring Hayes & Hopson Building but that Coleman had refused, asking $4.5 million instead. Under state law, the county is not allowed to pay more than the appraised price for property.
Asheville resident Veronika Gunter also urged the county to block Parkside.
"You can take action to stop this: Land speculators are not owed a return on investment, [and] the public is due good stewardship," she said. "We need to stop having this deference for developers. They're salesmen; they're always refining their pitch. When you're hearing a salesman who's going to make millions, I hope you keep that in mind."
Before the meeting, Asheville resident Julie Clark stood outside the boardroom with a sign pinned to her shirt that superimposed the word "Outrage!" on a picture of Parkside.
During public comment, she said: "The county commissioners got us into this mess; the county commissioners should get us out of this mess -- not try to dump it on the city. Get our public land back for public use, period. No land swap. No more sweetheart deals."
Meanwhile, activist Steve Rasmussen presented a petition with 1,003 signatures asking the board to rescind the land sale.
"This is sacred space to democracy, [and] to proceed with anything resembling a land swap is a violation of that democracy," Rasmussen declared.
Ramsey said later that he would not support using either eminent domain or condemnation to get the property back; he also defended the original land sale as legal.
CTS situation worsens
In response to the unwelcome news that another drinking well near the former CTS of Asheville plant had just tested positive for trichloroethylene, the commissioners unanimously approved a resolution addressed to state and federal officials (see sidebar, "A Full and Proper Cleanup?"). The resolution demands that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources work more in concert with the county, present a clear timeline for taking action, and foot part of the bill for connecting area residents to city water.
"We're concerned that the [toxic] plume is expanding and creating additional health risks," said Department of Social Services Director Mandy Stone, trembling visibly. "We feel like there's a lack of information available from EPA and DENR. We continue to not have a full set of facts to make a decision."
The resolution also calls on the state to retest all wells within one mile of the hazardous-waste site. The county is already offering to test wells outside the one-mile limit at the owners' request.
"Our Citizens Monitoring Council continues to raise questions about the completeness and accuracy of the records of both EPA and DENR," she said, adding, "We immediately want that information: a synopsis of actions taken and remediation ordered at CTS."
Commissioner David Young praised Stone both for her work on the resolution and her efforts to address residents' concerns but said the word "request" should be changed to "demand"; the board then approved the resolution.
"We need a strongly written letter from us saying that there's a problem here, a signficant problem," said Young. "We want them here, we want them solving this problem, we want them taking the actions they should be taking. They're failing right now. Let's be tough; let's call them to action."
Vice Chair David Gantt agreed.
"They've had a long time to fix this, and they haven't done it -- and it doesn't look like they're doing it," said Gantt. "It's time to get on the stick."
"I'm sure they're shaking in their boots," Ramsey remarked.
Young shot back, "Well, if they start hearing from senators, they'll get the idea."
Revised storm-water rules approved
After deadlocking over proposed new storm-water rules three weeks earlier, the commissioners quickly and painlessly approved a revised version. On June 3, Ramsey and Young had objected to a provision saying that individual homeowners could be fined up to $200,000 for storm-water problems in their development if there were no homeowners' association.
But on June 24, Assistant County Attorney Michael Frue reported that revisions had been made to spread any fines among all a development's residents.
"We took the concern that a future body might not be equitable in enforcing these rules to heart," he said. "The financial burden will now be applied evenly among all those responsible."
The revised measure passed unanimously, with no discussion or objections.