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Double, double, toil and trouble

Regional water issues come to a boil

by Margaret Williams |

Asheville-area reservoirs may be full for the first time in several years, but listen closely: There's trouble a-boil in the depths.

On Jan. 25 of this year, Regional Water Authority Chair Jack Tate sent a letter to Asheville, Buncombe County and Henderson County officials. He asked these governing bodies to come together to address murky issues in the 1994 Water Agreement, which created the Regional Water Authority.

To date, there's been no official response from any of them. But in the interim, Tate and other Authority members have spoken publicly about the underlying issues, both at their meetings and to nonprofit groups such as Citizens for Safe Drinking Water and Air.

The Authority has also sought to form a committee of its board members and governmental representatives to discuss reorganizing as an independent agency which would, among other things, stave off the rising costs the Authority incurs when the state Department of Transportation relocates water lines.

Meanwhile, Henderson County officials recently sued the city of Asheville, the Authority and Buncombe County over an alleged failure to hand over, in good faith, nearly 140 acres off Brevard Road. The exchange was supposed to be part of the deal that gave Asheville the land needed to build the Authority's Mills River Water Treatment Plant. But after the city finally transferred ownership in 1999, Henderson County officials claimed Asheville had placed severe restrictions on the deed, limiting both Henderson's clear ownership of the land and future use of it.

It's a recipe for a bitter brew. Toss in the frustration shown by Authority board member (and Henderson County Board of Commisioners chair) Bill Moyers about the lack of progress in figuring out who will pay for a master plan that includes his county's Cane Creek area. Add a dash of Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick's annoyance that city appointees to the Authority's board haven't been more forthcoming with information on the situation. (On April 17, she urged Council to immediately implement a policy of automatically removing Council members from boards and commissions when their term on Council ends; former Council member Tommy Sellers, defeated in the last election, still serves on the Authority's nine-member board.) Then sprinkle in Asheville City Manager Jim Westbrook's admonition (at the Authority board's April 17 meeting) that Tate's public remarks weren't helping things any.

Mix it all together, and City Attorney Bob Oast's April 17 observation that there are "many issues percolating in the Water Authority right now" becomes a tactful understatement of the situation.

Enter the League of Women Voters, wading right into the frothing waters. The local Buncombe and Henderson branches are teaming up to host a forum on the Authority's past, present and future.

"The League is interested in working on regional problems cooperatively," says Nelda Holder, president of the Asheville/Buncombe chapter. "The situation that the Water Authority is facing in terms of its legal position [is] what spurred [this] forum. [The Authority's] history is part of the discussion, too: How did we get to where we are now, and why? And where do we go from here?"

Everyone, it seems, has a point of view. Former Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair Gene Rainey, who signed the 1994 agreement with Henderson and Asheville, says: "I regret the problems that Asheville, [the Authority] and Henderson County are having at this time. I think [these problems] need to be worked out, but Asheville may have to make some concessions [particularly with regard to the pending lawsuit]." The 1994 agreement, he asserts, was a model "in terms of other agreements ... that bring regional cooperation between cities and counties."

UNCA Professor Rick Maas, who served on the Authority's board a few years ago, adds: "We had an agreement. We got the Mills River [property] and Henderson County got the Brevard Road site [for a potential wastewater-treatment plant]. It was that simple. We shouldn't squabble over the details." Maas, who chairs UNCA's environmental studies department, urges regional cooperation, calling on Asheville and Buncombe leaders "to abide by the intent and spirit of the Water Agreement."

Local-government watchdog Jerry Rice remarks: "There's never been a public meeting to sit down and talk about all the issues involved in the Water Agreement. ... We need Buncombe County and Asheville and Henderson County sitting down and talking about every piece of this and the options." The lawsuit squabble and the laments about the DOT costs "are the tip of the iceberg," says Rice.

Mayor Sitnick agrees that the issue is complex. "I've been asking for a review of the Water Agreement for years," she points out. On April 17, she demanded that city staff prepare as Council member Brian Peterson had suggested a report on all the water issues, including the pros and cons of an autonomous Authority. She hopes to have that in hand sometime next month. But in light of the lawsuit initiated by Henderson County, she guarded her remarks, saying only, "The efforts of the Water Authority to become a true [autonomous] Authority ... is interesting."

Holder, meanwhile, maintains that "Everybody needs to talk to each other. The forum is an opportunity for the public to understand what the issues are."

The event, scheduled for Monday, April 30, will be held in the community room of the Skyland Fire Department on Hendersonville Road, from 7-9 p.m.

All elected officials of Asheville, Buncombe and Henderson have been invited, and former Asheville Mayor Russ Martin, former Henderson County Board of Commissioners Chair Vollie Good and Authority at-large member Leslee Thornton will be on hand for a question-and-answer session. Former Henderson County Board of Commissioners Chair Renee Kumor and former Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair Tom Sobol will present a historical perspective on the Authority. Tate will provide an update on the Authority's status.

For more information on the forum, contact Holder at 252-8569. In Henderson County, call 696-3543. For car-pooling in Buncombe, call 253-5383.

[You can reach Margaret Williams by phone (251-1333) or e-mail]

2001 Mountain Xpress
Asheville, NC
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