- Council weighs in on CTS cleanup
By the time the Downtown Master Plan came before the Asheville City Council May 12, they were just about the only group in town that hadn't already commented on it.
The two-year process of crafting the plan entailed some 5,000 hours of volunteer time, mostly by members of the Downtown Master Plan Advisory Committee, said project manager Sasha Vrtunski. David Dixon of consultants Goody Clancy said he's received thousands of comments through a series of well-attended community forums and via e-mail.
On top of the $170,000 paid to Goody Clancy, city staff put in about $30,000 worth of time, according to Vrtunski. The plan was originally slated to be unveiled to the public last winter, but the deadline was pushed back so advisory committee members could try to work out their differences. The plan's presentation to Council, originally scheduled for March, was also delayed to allow for more back-and-forth between the committee and the consultants.
During that time, the project received extensive media attention, and the draft plan posted online drew objections from assorted community activists. Meanwhile, the Downtown Commission, Technical Review Committee and Planning & Zoning Commission have all given the document a thumbs-up. Not to mention that by the time Dixon stood before Council two hours into its five-hour session, he and his team had already given the same presentation four times that very day.
The first of those appearances, at a 9 a.m. meeting in the city's Office of Economic Development on Haywood Street, served as both a dress rehearsal and a pep rally.
In attendance were members of the Downtown Commission and the advisory committee, and Pat Whalen, who serves on on both groups, noted that although the advisory committee included some folks who were polar opposites, they'd somehow managed to find common ground. (See commentary, "The Long Road Toward Harmony," elsewhere in this issue.)
"This has been two years of work. Let's send it off in a good way," Whalen urged.
Vice Mayor Jan Davis was also on hand. Serving on the Downtown Commission, he said, had familiarized him with the plan, but he cautioned that his Council colleagues would probably raise questions about certain elements, particularly the recommended development-review process ("because that's what [City Council is] involved in") and the "community improvement district," previously called the "business improvement district" (see "Taking Care of BIDness," March 18 Xpress). City leaders, noted Davis, may be sensitive to any implication that they need help supplying essential services to downtown.
The warning came despite the fact that the Council agenda listed the item as merely an opportunity for Council members to hear the presentation and ask questions. The public hearing and formal deliberation would not come for another two weeks, and implementing some plan elements could take years. But with Council members up for re-election this year, noted Davis, some might seize the opportunity to take a political stand. "It is the silly season," he observed.
In the event, however, Davis proved to be only partly right. Council members did target both the development-review and CID components, but speechifying was kept to a minimum, and much of the discussion centered on the community's involvement and investment in the plan.
"This is a community that wanted seriously to plan for their future and to act upon it," Dixon told Council. And the final draft, he said, is an attempt to "make sure they all saw themselves in this plan, whether they were artists or business owners or developers."
Architect Tom Gallaher, who worked with the consultants as a local liaison, pointed out that it has already generated some momentum in the community. Among the plan's many recommendations, for example, is establishing an artists' resource center, and one local group is already discussing how to make it happen. "The plan is ready to be implemented -- and in some ways [is] already being implemented," said Gallaher.
Council member Robin Cape noted that community concern over proposed changes in the process for reviewing new development had prompted her to meet with people involved in the project to find out more about what she called "those sticky wickets." But she added, "I'm excited about the foundation it's given us."
On the same theme, Council member Brownie Newman indicated that he'll want more discussion of the proposed review process, in which existing, Council-appointed bodies would have the final say on most new development, with only the largest projects ever coming before Council. That seems to fit with recent experience, he noted, citing such controversial projects as The Ellington hotel/condos, which City Council approved amid considerable furor.
"It's kind of the big ones people have questions about," said Newman, adding, "When I look at this chart, it looks like the big ones that come back here."
But Council members, he maintained, will always rely on opinions and impressions as well as hard technical guidelines. The massive Haywood Park project, for instance, was withdrawn after Council complained that it was out of scale with its surroundings. "Don't bring it to us if you don't want our opinion," Newman warned.
Council member Carl Mumpower, meanwhile, had both general and specific criticisms of the plan. "I do not think efforts to exert control downtown is the best use of our time and resources," he observed.
Most of his attention, however, was focused on the proposed community improvement district, in which owners of businesses within the downtown district would pay a special tax to fund enhanced services managed by an independent body. Downtown property, said Mumpower, already generates a good portion of the city's tax base, and property owners have a right to expect a certain level of service in return. Even more controversial is the "community benefits plan," which calls for taxing all property transfers and new development within a specified area to provide a funding source for downtown initiatives approved by City Council. The advisory committee's pro-development faction has vehemently opposed the plan, Vrtunsky noted, saying, "We know that's not a widely loved idea."
Davis, himself a downtown property owner, said he shares those concerns, at least for the time being. "I'm not sure I'm ready to sign off on this either," he revealed. "But someday, I might have some interest in that."
But the vice mayor, who was running the meeting because Mayor Terry Bellamy was caring for a sick child, pointed out that there's a lot more in the plan than can be addressed in a 20-minute presentation, urging city residents to bone up on it in preparation for the public hearing.
Meanwhile, community response is already coming in. Activist Steve Rasmussen, who bent the consultants' ears at several public forums, has circulated an e-mail criticizing the lack of an appeals mechanism for residents in the proposed development-review system.
Council took no formal action other than unanimously setting Tuesday, May 26, as the date for the public hearing and Council vote on whether to accept the plan. Implementing its various components and recommendations would require separate Council votes at some future time. The proposed master plan is available online at www.ashevillenc.gov/downtownmasterplan.
City urges CTS cleanup
The former CTS site on Mills Gap Road -- the subject of prolonged and continuing controversy concerning the contamination of neighboring residents' wells -- is not within the city's jurisdiction. But that didn't prevent Council members from taking a stand on negotiations between the Elkhart, Ind.-based CTS Corp. and the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources concerning voluntary remedial action.
Under state law, such a deal would cap the company's liability for cleaning up the site at $3 million. But residents say the deal would let CTS off the hook without accomplishing the needed cleanup. In a May 5 letter to Gov. Bev Perdue's office, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners urged that the discussion not result in allowing "those responsible to limit their accountability" (see "Buncombe Commissioners," April 29 Xpress).
A similar resolution opposing the agreement and calling for a "full and proper cleanup" was originally on Council's consent agenda (items typically approved as a group without discussion), but at Mumpower's request, the resolution was set aside so that Council could consider including stronger language.
Cape agreed, saying it needed to convey the message that the site is a serious hazard and that cleanup is long overdue. "Voluntary remediation would have been great if it had been done in a timely manner," she said. "We don't need you to tell us whether you think it is a threat. We want you to be reminded that it is a threat."
That position was backed by comments from neighbors of the site who spoke during a public-comment period.
"This is completely voluntary; there's nothing forceable about this," resident Barry Durand said about the proposed deal. "This is an incredible golden parachute for everyone."
Resident Tate MacQueen agreed, proclaiming, "We cannot have a voluntary remediation by the very criminal who committed the crime."
Council members unanimously approved the amended resolution. "This is something we don't have to do, but it's good when local government steps out and takes a position," noted Davis.