- Don't panic -- gas is on the way, officials say
- City supports CTS petition
- No agreement on graffiti cleanup strategy
The proposed Haywood Park development was the main event in an already loaded agenda for the Asheville City Council's Sept. 23 formal session, but questions and rumors about the area's uncertain gas situation prompted Mayor Terry Bellamy to start the meeting with unscheduled updates from local and state officials.
Saying she'd spent the past few days on the phone with everyone from county emergency officials to the U.S. Department of Energy, Bellamy pleaded with the public to calm down and lay off blaming the city and even gas-station owners for the shortage.
"We're in this together," she said. "We don't want to be on CNN because our citizens are fighting each other."
As for the state of gas in WNC, Buncombe County Deputy Fire Marshal Mack Salley said the area could expect shortages at least through the end of September. Western North Carolina gets most of its gas via a pipeline from the Gulf Coast, he explained, and neither that pipeline nor the refineries that supply it is yet up to speed in the wake of Hurricane Ike.
Meanwhile, anxious drivers are taking any opportunity they find to buy gas -- thereby exacerbating the situation.
"One of the problems is people topping off their tanks," noted Salley. "They're scared, and I don't blame them."
Randy Flack, the regional representative for U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler's office, agreed, saying, "If we could get people to stop topping off their tanks, that would be the biggest help they could do."
At last check, said Flack, the daily fuel supply for this area, which runs through the Colonial Pipeline Co.'s delivery system from refineries in Texas and Louisiana to Spartanburg, S.C., was 1.6 million gallons below normal -- an improvement over the 2.3 million gallon daily shortfall a few days earlier.
"So it's getting better slowly," he told Council members. "Hopefully in a few days, it will be back to normal."
In the meantime, the city was encouraging employees to work from home whenever possible, and Chief Financial Officer Ben Durant said further conservation measures might be taken if the shortage dragged on. That proved to be the case over the next few days. At the meeting, however, Bellamy noted that she'd rejected the idea of rationing gas to consumers, saying, "I don't think we're there yet."
But Council member Robin Cape said this is a good opportunity for the city to gauge how well it functions when gas supplies are low.
"I think this is a little taste of what we're going to see in the future," she observed. (For more on the local fuel situation, see "Anatomy of a Gas Crunch" on page 12 of this issue.)
Haywood Park parked
Perhaps appropriately, the staff report on Tony Fraga's proposed Haywood Park project is a massive document -- 116 pages of meticulous detail. But City Council's take on the monster development boiled down to a single issue: size.
One by one, Council members aired their concerns about the scale of the project, till it became apparent that it didn't have enough support to obtain the required conditional-use permit. At that point, Fraga's attorney, Lou Bissette, announced that his client was withdrawing the proposal from consideration for the time being.
An early hint may have come when Urban Planner Jessica Bernstein explained that her staff presentation would be longer than usual "due to the scale of the project."
With plans calling for two high-rises -- a 23-story hotel and a 25-story condo tower -- as well as a six-level underground parking lot and a mix of retail and office spaces, Haywood Park would dramatically reshape a bustling chunk of Asheville's central business district.
And since appropriate scale is one of seven criteria that must be met for Council to approve a conditional rezoning, it quickly entered the discussion -- with the focus on the letter of the law rather than personal preference.
"There's absolutely no way that this project is even remotely in harmony with a majority of [surrounding buildings]," said Council member Carl Mumpower. And though Mumpower said he has problems with the approval process detailed in the city's Unified Development Ordinance, he must abide by those criteria. "The height of this project represents what would be much more typical in a large city," said Mumpower.
Cape agreed, saying, "This feels very disruptive." Such a project, she added, might work in other parts of downtown.
Council member Brownie Newman noted that, unlike The Ellington -- a controversial 23-story, mixed-use tower Council approved last year -- this project would be perched on one of the highest points within the central business district.
"It does seem to me to be quite different from anything else you see," said Newman.
About 20 people spoke during the public hearing on the project, voicing opinions that were all over the map. But a number of owners of adjacent small businesses worried about the project's size and the impact of two years of construction on their businesses.
"That round tower is not a pretty thing," observed Bud Crawford, a co-owner of Earth Guild on Haywood Street. "These things are huge; they really are huge." And during construction, he predicted, "The west side of Haywood Street is going to be dead."
Others, such as Tom and Marcy Gallagher, who own the Kilwin's ice-cream store on Battery Park Avenue, voiced support for Haywood Park because of its expected positive impact in the long run. The hotel and retail space as well as the increased parking should drive more tourism downtown, they maintain.
"I am greatly concerned that there will be two years of construction," Tom Gallagher conceded. "But these buildings indeed are the kind of development we need."
Nonetheless, Council members couldn't find their way around the scale issue, and after some discussion, Bellamy asked whether Fraga wanted to withdraw the proposal. If a project gets voted down, she noted, it can't be resubmitted for a year. After some deliberation among the development team, Bissette announced that they would indeed take their request off the table. But the former Asheville mayor also had some harsh words for both City Council and the approval process.
"There's something terribly wrong," he said, noting that the project had already passed muster in public outreach meetings as well as the Downtown Commission and the Planning and Zoning Commission, only to lose out now in the Council chamber. "If you take a man through a process like the one Mr. Fraga has been through ... it's not fair. It's really not fair," declared Bissette.
After a short break, the attorney continued taking Council to task for the turn of events. The issue of scale had been sprung on Fraga, said Bissette, alleging that it had never come up during previous meetings. "If you're not going to approve this stuff, you should tell someone ahead of time," he scolded.
Newman, however, challenged that assertion, pointing out that two members of Downtown Commission had voted against the project largely on the basis of its size.
Vice Mayor Jan Davis also took issue with Bissette's indignation, pointing out that the approval process's quasi-judicial nature places severe limits on Council members' ability to preview or comment on projects up for consideration.
"You're putting some indictments out there that aren't true," Davis charged.
Cape, meanwhile, said she thought the artist's renderings supplied to City Council hadn't accurately conveyed the reality of the proposed buildings' scale.
And though a Council vote on the project was rescheduled for November, Fraga's team will have to figure out if it thinks a significant reduction in size is feasible. Bissette, however, seemed pessimistic about finding a way around the impasse. "Very frankly, I don't know what we can do to change some of the minds on Council," he said during the meeting.
City endorses CTS petition
The Oaks subdivision in south Buncombe sits outside the Asheville city limits, but the residents drink city water. That's because, in May of last year, Asheville and Buncombe County partnered to extend water lines to homes adjacent to the contaminated CTS of Asheville site on Mills Gap Road, after trichloroethylene, a suspected carcinogen, had been found in several wells.
Concerned about the TCE levels, which residents maintain are responsible for what they believe is a high incidence of cancer cases in the area, they've been pushing for a cleanup -- to no avail (see "A Full and Proper Cleanup," July 2 Xpress).
And though the neighborhood is not under Asheville's jurisdiction, it was to Council that residents came in connection with their latest push to get the hazardous-waste site cleaned up.
"If you can help us, we really do need your help," pleaded Aaron Penland, asking the city to throw its weight behind a petition to the Environmental Protection Agency seeking a "full and proper" cleanup.
The residents' desperation was plain as one after another stood before City Council with tales of cancer and delays by government agencies. One mother told of trying to get the Buncombe County Board of Education to move a school-bus stop that sits atop a high concentration of TCE.
"It's a fact that that stuff is buried in the ground, and someone needs to do something," said Oaks resident Erik Penland.
Council members unanimously approved a resolution of support, while emphasizing that it could only be symbolic.
"It's just a little piece," said Cape. "Please don't think that we can go out there and clean this up."
Mumpower invited the group to return regularly to keep Council members filled in on new developments, saying, "Let's keep some light on this."
Bellamy, meanwhile, said she'd like to explore ways to extend water service to more homes in the area. She also suggested that the city send a letter to the school board asking it to move the bus stop.
"We've already stepped into an area that's not ours," she said. "We might as well do it right."
Getting the writing off the wall
An anti-graffiti team formed by the Asheville Police Department 18 months ago has resulted in 20 charges of property damage. Meanwhile, city staff continues to look for ways to encourage -- or require -- property owners to remove graffiti quickly, calling it the best retaliation against vandals.
But that idea has been met with resistance on City Council, because it penalizes crime victims. A city cleanup team proposed by Public Works Director Mark Combs got a cold reception, due partly to the cost -- $279,500 annually -- even though the team would have other duties as well. Combs also noted that there would have to be some mechanism for getting the owners' permission before cleaning up their property.
Nonetheless, removing graffiti promptly is an essential component of any campaign to discourage it, Asheville Police Chief Bill Hogan maintained. "We have to be more hard-core about taking it down than they are about putting it up," he said.
To that end, Combs said he may return with more ideas later.
[Brian Postelle can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 153, or at email@example.com.]