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Drive-by eminent domain?

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“Windshield tour” determined fate of RAD properties in 2014. Will it happen again?

The city’s action, taken under its eminent domain authority, appeared to be sudden and without warning; however internal documents relating to the RAD and obtained by the Tribune show that the locations affected by the city’s actions last summer had actually been in its crosshairs for two years.

The city’s raid on the RAD, coupled with a $14.6 million windfall in the form of a state grant, signaled the kickoff of the ambitious riverfront development plan now being undertaken by a joint city/private sector committee, the Asheville Area Riverfront Redevelopment Project (AARRC).

In all, some 50 riverfront properties stand to be affected by the plan’s implementation, but so far the AARRC has not formally notified most stakeholders that they may be in the master plan’s line of fire, even though the move has been the subject of public discussion, speculation and media attention since last October, when it was discovered that Asheville’s popular 12 Bones barbecue joint was in danger of falling victim to it.

In an e-mail to the Tribune, Stephanie Monson Dahl, the AARRC’s director and public contact, confirmed that “there are more than 50 parcels in the study” and that the AARRC has not yet “looked to see how many property owners that is (for example, the city owns many of those, so does Riverlink, and patterns like multiple parcel ownership means [there are] “something less than 50” [individual property owners]).”

“But,” she added, “good news for the public process and for reporters like you is that we are at a point in our design process where that definition can be made, probably in May.”

In other words, the AARRC is not yet prepared to send out letters of notification to property owners whose land and buildings may be taken by eminent domain, and exactly how that decision will be undertaken relative to plans for straightening and making other changes to a 2.2-mile section of Riverside Drive.

Minutes of the AARRC’s April, 2013, meeting related that an ad hoc subcommittee consisting of members Peter Sprague and atty. Joe Ferikes “went on a windshield tour of the RAD extended area with the goal of identifying buildings and properties that could benefit from improvements or increased use that would help to raise the value of the property.”

The discovery that this had happened drew immediate fire from the website Asheville River Gate, which appeared earlier this year after Peterson declared he intends to litigate against the city for both its designs on the 12 Bones property and the way the AARRC has carried out its plans to date.

“We are all for cleaning up the RAD of abandoned buildings, preventing fire and cleaning up vacant lots of industrial waste, especially those owned by the City. These areas are a magnet for crime, and become trash dumps and essentially an eyesore to the community at large. The issue here is not the cleanup, but the manner in which it was conducted. This drive-by Windshield Tour was not done by some official of the City, a building inspector, City employee or even Riverlink. This was done on an arbitrary basis by an ad hoc committee of the AARRC commission that has gone rogue,” the website contends.

“The City should not be arbitrarily selecting buildings for inspection. If the buildings are owned selection of those buildings should not be done arbitrarily by a Windshield Tour of a couple of people,” it continues.

At the time the city pulled the plug on the eight RAD structures (all located at 339 Old Lyman Street, the former site of a tannery) the city’s director of development services, Shannon Tuch, said there had been “structural issues” with the buildings since 2009. None of the buildings, she said, had certificates of occupancy; additionally, she said, some work had been undertaken inside them without proper permitting..

“The goal,” Tuch was quoted as saying at the time, “is to get everything and everybody from out of those buildings until they can become properly permitted and inspected,”

Although, according to Tuch, the buildings had been noted as faulty as early as 2009, and the AARRC’s “cleanup committee” conducted its “Windshield Tour” in 2013, records indicate the city did not actually contact the property owner, Asheville architect Robert Camille, until it did so by phone on May 13, 2014, some two months before it took its action. What was said between the city and Camille is not known. What is known is that the Lyman Street tenants, several of whom had already paid their following month’s rent, were caught flat-footed.

Tuch said that in such circumstances the city “sometimes” notifies tenants of code violations, only to learn that they later have vacated the premises “because so much work [has] to be done.” She said the city allows owners and tenants considerable leeway in correcting code violations, time-wise, “as long as they’re making progress,” but she added that had not been the case with the RAD buildings.

“Windshield tours” per se would not satisfy the requirements of the $14.6 million TIGER grant under which AARRC has been able to start funding its ambitious program of greenways, bicycle paths, streamlined roadways and other riverfront amenities. A panel of state officials will have to review AARRC’s property recommendations on a case-by-case basis, then refer its findings to the city for action. However, the total projected cost of the development project is now estimated to be about $50 million, and those inspections and evaluations not governed by the TIGER procedures would apparently revert to the AARRC’s discretion.

Meanwhile, riverfront owners continue to wait for official notification as to what is to become of their property.

Stephanie Monson Dahl, the AARRC Director had not responded to the Tribune’s request for clarification on the notification process by press time.

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