The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners took a major step Sept. 4 toward building an extensive greenway system that would link towns, parks, schools and other key sites throughout the county.
However, although board members approved the Greenways and Trails Master Plan, funding remained an open question. Constructing the roughly 100 miles of paths it calls for would cost at least $39.3 million; the board committed no funds towards implementation.
During a public hearing on the matter, Commissioner Carol Peterson and Vice Chair Bill Stanley both said they liked the idea of putting the funding question before voters next year in the form of a bond referendum. Board Chair David Gantt also recently told Xpress he supports the idea of a bond referendum.
In the meantime, New Belgium Brewing Co. is donating $50,000 toward the effort, according to Fran Thigpen, director of Buncombe County Parks and Recreation Services, who announced the company's grant during the meeting.
The cash infusion will get the plan off the ground by helping fund detailed feasibility studies, identify other grant opportunities, form a landowner outreach program and take other initial steps recommended in the plan.
New Belgium executives have said that the area's growing multimodal infrastructure was a key factor in their decision to build a $175 million production facility in Asheville and hire an estimated 154 workers. Biking is a key part of the company's corporate culture, according to Jenn Vervier, the Fort Collins, Colo.-based company's director of sustainability and strategic development.
In declaring his support for the plan, Gantt said the greenways system will serve as an important economic development tool for the area, helping to lure other companies here that value environmental stewardship and a high quality of life.
"We have a moral obligation to look ahead," he maintained.
Noting that some smaller businesses such as Ultimate Ice Cream have also raised money for the greenways plan, Commissioner Holly Jones added: "This has broad business support."
During a lengthy public hearing on the matter, several area residents argued that greenways would provide safe transportation alternatives, as well good outlets for healthy recreation.
However, about an equal number of residents argued that greenway development would be a waste of taxpayer money and shouldn't be a priority. Some expressed fears that the county would use eminent domain to seize private property for the greenways.
In response, the commissioners passed a motion specifically stating that eminent domain would not be used as a method for land acquisition. The master plan already noted that the "negative implications of using this process make it a strategy that should not be used for the acquisition of property for a greenway."
Instead, the plan calls for using a number of different land acquisition methods, including easements and negotiated sales. Dwayne Stutzman, chair of the county Greenways and Trails Commission, said planners would work to find alternative greenway routes rather than force landowners to cede property involuntarily.
However, that did little to comfort Jane Bilello, chair of the Asheville Tea Party, who insisted that the plan "is a scheme to confiscate private property." She urged residents to vote against any commissioner candidate who supports it this November.
Stanley praised the plan, maintaining that he's also a strong supporter of private property rights. However, he agreed with Bilello that the greenways plan should be a political issue, noting that ultimately any decision on holding a referendum and dedicating county funds would be up to the candidates who win spots on the next board.
Although Stanley's opting to retire after serving on the board for 24 years, he urged attendees to "think about who you would want sitting up here in November."
"This is a great thing; this is unbelievably good work," he added. "We should put this in front of the people of Buncombe County and let them decide."
For more on the Buncombe County greenways debate, see Xpress' June 19 cover story, "The Path Ahead: County Greenways Plan Faces Major Hurdles."