By Leslee Kulba- The Buncombe County Commissioners and members of Asheville City Council met for a joint meeting. To break the ice, County Chair Brownie Newman asked each member at the table to introduce himself and say something about one of his pets. Most notably, Robert Pressley used to have pets Elvis and Priscilla, but they ran off. Julie Mayfield named her pet after Madeleine Albright, and Cecil Bothwell named his Chomsky. Getting down to business, Mayor Esther Manheimer said the city and county were partnering to pool resources and eliminate duplication of effort in many transit issues and affordable housing initiatives; but this meeting would focus on other areas.
County Manager Wanda Greene told how the city and county had consolidated dispatch for the police and fire departments. City Manager Gary Jackson added the melding was seamless. He stressed, “We know who we work for,” and said emergency responders don’t care if somebody is outside of their jurisdiction. They work together to get people the help they need ASAP. Other initiatives Greene celebrated were the Criminal Justice Information System, which frees up a lot of time for patrolling officers. The new mental health clinic on Biltmore Avenue and the Family Justice Center are additional tools for getting people targeted assistance instead of processing them through the criminal justice system.
Ellen Frost suggested the city and county could work together to deal with the area’s “opioid problem.” Newman said the presentation before the commissioners at one of their recent meetings was “sobering and alarming.” Jackson then broke with the political correctness typical of such conversations. In addition to acknowledging the city and county are working on a complex problem, he said Asheville was a destination for dealers, and where there’s trafficking, there’s organized crime.
Moving right along, Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball spoke about capital project partnerships. The first she mentioned was Eagle Market Street. While Ball presented it in a positive light, after two decades and millions of dollars from multiple grants, the project remains unfinished. Meanwhile, the city, Ball said, had changed its mind about creating affordable housing on prime real estate nearby while attempting to repurpose its park maintenance facility. The decision was made to sell the property and extract affordable housing funds from the proceeds.
Things were moving swimmingly with the River Arts District Transportation Improvement Program. Other initiatives for multimodal transit would be leveraged with as much state and federal funding as possible. The city is now planning more walkable infrastructure for the South Slope, Coxe Avenue, and South Lexington Avenue. Lastly, Ball said staff is mindful that realtor.com identified Asheville as America’s second-fastest gentrifying city. Median home prices in Asheville practically doubled between 2000 and 2015.
Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton talked about the county’s buildings that are always in the news, but the East Asheville Library got special attention. The library is within the city limits. Asheville owns it, Buncombe County operates it, and the citizens are up in arms to expand it. The county has hosted community meetings and surveyed users. The problem is, the people want a two-story megalibrary on a small site. Newman suggested building satellite libraries; Mayfield thought a third story with affordable housing might be nice; and Frost wanted to save the beautiful, mature oak trees.
Josh O’Connor provided the update on greenways. He said the long-range plan was to connect Reems Creek in Weaverville to Lake Julian. There was also interest in creating a trail connecting Asheville to Morganton. The latter would receive a lot of state subsidy. O’Connor said it typically costs $1.2 million per mile to build a greenway. Soft costs, like land acquisition and design, are not included. The greenway in Swannanoa followed an old rail line, so site work was minimal. It cost only $250,000 per mile. O’Connor added the commissioners had forbidden staff to invoke eminent domain for greenways. If a landowner gives the county a “clear no,” no more costs will be sunk designing a route through his property. There county’s ambitious greenway master plan has no shortage of other options for the small amount of funding allocated.
Gordon Smith said expanding greenways will qualify more sites to score “locationally efficient” points, should developers wish to pursue a Land Use Incentive Grant. LUIG uses a point system to award tax credits and density bonuses for green, affordable residential development. Greenways, like bus stops, theoretically connect people without cars to jobs. Smith said the program has undergone a few iterations, and council is still “trying to figure out how to get it right.” In its first three years, only two developers applied for LUIG grants, and their projects stalled. Interest grew in the program after local developers sat down with members of council to explain that banks don’t intentionally finance large projects with abysmal forecasts.