- Parkside "zombie" returns; activists want eminent domain
In a rare 3-2 vote, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners narrowly agreed to delay endorsing one of the remaining options for the controversial I-26 connector until more information has come in. But less than 48 hours later, Commissioner K. Ray Bailey changed his mind, joining forces with his former opponents on the vote in calling for a special noon meeting on Dec. 23 to decide the matter. The split vote came during the board's Dec. 16 meeting, which was supposed to be the last one of the year.
Construction on the connector is now slated to begin in 2013, and many of the N.C. Department of Transportation's proposed designs have drawn criticism from local groups, who say those routes call for too many lanes and would negatively impact both the community and the environment.
The Asheville City Council has endorsed alternative 4b, proposed by the nonprofit Asheville Design Center, and last month the DOT agreed to include that option in the environmental-impact study planned for alternatives 2, 3 and 4, the agency's in-house designs.
Bailey said the state agency isn't being clear about what it needs. "I want DOT to come and tell us, as a board, what we need to do and when we need to do it -- and I'm not real sure why we've been asked to do what we're talking about today," he explained. "I would agree we should delay until we have further information from them."
Bailey, however, sounded less than enthusiastic about the Design Center proposal, saying, "When I look at all of these, I'll be honest, 4b doesn't do a whole lot for me. But we need to look and make sure we're making the right decision. But everyone in this community knows we've been talking about this since 1989, and that's far too long."
Commissioner Carol Peterson, however, pushed for a decision that day.
"There's no question that there's a desperate need for this: We need to make a decision, and I come prepared today to make a decision," she declared. "The City Council has made a decision on this; I think the community fully expects us to leave here making a decision today. The time has come for us to put our stamp on one of these projects."
Peterson was joined by Vice Chair Bill Stanley (participating from home via speakerphone while recovering from eye surgery) in opposing a motion by Commissioner Holly Jones to postpone a decision until no later than the board's Feb. 3, 2009, meeting. By that time, those supporting Jones' motion hope DOT officials will have answered their questions about both alternative 4b and the overall process.
Jones, an Asheville City Council member until her election to the Board of Commissioners last month, added that she hopes the Design Center and the Chamber of Commerce will have "a conversation on some of the differences here." The Chamber has endorsed alternative 3, but earlier in the meeting, Design Center planners told the board that Chamber officials had said they might be open to changing their endorsement.
One of those voices was Design Center representative Alan McGuinn, who said that DOT officials' request for a county endorsement by the end of this year implied an urgency that wasn't really there.
"We don't have all the information -- this is premature, and a body of your stature can weigh in at any point," said McGuinn. "I had a conversation with [the Chamber's board] chairman [Peter Alberice], and after we explained some of the different issues, because all the data's not in, he's invited us back to their next board meeting. Alternative 4b has not been developed fully."
He added that new traffic figures coming in next year may well change everything: If traffic volume is declining, all the designs will have to be reconfigured, said McGuinn.
Alternative 3 (also favored by Stanley) would displace about 61 homes while providing no improvements to local roads or riverfront access on the east side of the French Broad River.
On the other hand, 4b would require less land and would separate local and interstate traffic. According to the DOT's figures, however, it would also be the most expensive option -- costing an estimated $423 million compared with anywhere from $221 million to $368 million for the other options -- due to the inclusion of a double-decker bridge that would separate local and interstate traffic.
But McGuinn stood up for 4b, asserting, "These aren't apples-to-apples [comparisons]. There's a huge difference, and [the DOT's cost estimate] doesn't figure in land-acquisition costs." Alternative 4b, he noted, "uses a lot less land, and therefore it costs less to get it."
Design Center board Chair Joe Minicozzi, an urban planner by trade, maintained that if the land used by the other options but left intact by 4b were developed -- as he said would be likely once the connector is built -- the county would see increased tax revenues to the tune of nearly $1 million.
And Bailey, while agreeing to delay the decision, exclaimed with a chuckle, "It's a wonder an interstate ever gets built in North Carolina." Jones and board Chair David Gantt joined Bailey in approving the postponement.
Less than two days later, however, Bailey joined Peterson and Stanley in calling for a special meeting of the Board of Commissioners to endorse one of the I-26 alternatives.
"I did it so that we can make a decision," Bailey told Xpress. "There were a couple of questions I had that have been answered."
Gantt, meanwhile, said that while he was against holding a special meeting, if three commissioners want it, he has no choice. As for which alternative he might favor, Bailey's keeping mum until the meeting, saying, "I'm not ready to reveal that yet."
Parkside is back
"There's a zombie that got up and started walking around again," Asheville resident Gordon Smith told the commissioners. "With the new board in place, we can look forward to a resolution of this. This is a zombie that's going to keep coming back."
Smith was referring to the controversial Parkside condominium project, which had indeed shambled back to the commissioners' table after seemingly having been derailed by a Superior Court ruling deeming the county's sale of public parkland to developer Stewart Coleman illegal. The project is currently in legal limbo while Coleman appeals.
In the interim, however, he has gotten permission to demolish the adjacent Hayes & Hopson Building, which occupies another portion of the condominium site. And though the developer has said he'll delay demolition until his appeal is successful, the prospect had local activists calling on the commissioners to resolve the matter once and for all.
Meanwhile, Smith's comments marked the start of what proved to be a theme.
"I'm here about the zombie too," fellow activist Steve Rasmussen said with a chuckle. "It's time to move on this -- to move on eminent domain. We would like 10 minutes at your [Jan. 10 retreat]. The Parkside building won't get built. Even if [Coleman] does win the appeal, the city has said they don't want it in their front yard, and the public has made it quite clear they don't want it."
Rasmussen also called for saving the Hayes & Hopson Building, which dates back to the 1890s.
"There could be lots of [renovation] jobs here, and the Hayes & Hopson could be a demonstration project," he argued, adding that the structure could provide additional office space for the county or be used as a pavilion for the new Pack Square Park (an expensive pavilion planned for the park may not get built due to budget constraints).
"The days of dumping usable old buildings into the landfill are done -- and so are the days of building fancy, expensive condos no one can afford to move into anymore," Rasmussen proclaimed.
And Asheville resident Jenny Bowen noted: "Over 8,000 signatures have been collected declaring that we, as citizens, ask you to undo the illegal sale of Parkside and eminently domain that land. There is ample support from the community. You have a large groundswell of people ahead of you asking you to do this."
But groundswell or no, the board seems unlikely to take such a step soon. "The official position of the board right now is to wait and see how the court case turns out," Gantt told Xpress. "We're considering our options and prioritizing them. Obviously eminent domain's not at the top of the list; we'd rather resolve it another way."