Asheville – By way of public comment, quality of life issues dominated Tuesday’s Asheville City Council meeting. The first remarks came from a group identified as the Asheville Coalition for Public Safety. Members of this newly formed group showed solidarity by wearing T-shirts with the group’s name in logo form. Their stated purpose for speaking before council was an item on the consent agenda requesting acceptance of a $175,000 grant from the Office of Community Oriented Police Services (COPS), the US Department of Justice Law Enforcement, and the Mental Health and Wellness Act.
The grant would create and sustain the position of wellness coordinator for the police department for two years. The staff report didn’t offer any details, such as a job description. Instead, it stated police officers function better when they are “physically and mentally fit.” “A successful employee total wellness program for police employees must include a continuum of physical wellness strategies beginning at the hiring process and continuing through retirement.”
Honor Moor, the first to speak, said, according to neighborhoodscout.com, the chance of an Ashevillian being the victim of a violent crime was one in 124. The chance of him being the victim of a property crime was one in 17. Also, she said the local daily reported crime was up 34% in the city. As corroboration, she said the people with whom her husband works downtown tell him about problems such as thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment being stolen and public defecation. What’s more, her daughter from New York City considered Asheville to have way more homeless people on the streets. Another speaker, Thomas Tesser, said 608 violent felonies had been reported in Asheville year-to-date, putting the city among the top 10% in per-capita attacks.
During general public comment, Lani Blakeslee, who lives in an apartment overlooking the tennis courts of Montford Park, told of a petition asking the city not to allow pickleball at that location. She described the streets as being overcrowded by the cars of people who play. It’s a neighborhood park, so there are no parking spaces. When people come from outside the community, they take the street spaces that are needed by residents who live on streets designed before people drove cars. They also bump into residents’ cars and run over their plantings.
Montford, she said, is a historic neighborhood, and it used to be tranquil. To honor the historic designation and preserve the historic character, residents aren’t allowed to do so much as install energy-efficient double-pane glazing. Pickleball is a new sport that is therefore nonconforming. It is also raucous. Shouts and cheers reaching up to 75 dB can be heard as long as the park is open, which is from 6am-10pm. Also disrupting the peace is the barking of dogs left in cars as their owners play. Pickleball players make additional noise when they order tennis players off the courts and use leaf blowers to dry the courts after rain.
Pickleball, according to Blakeslee, is a game and a desire. It must be balanced with the needs of others in the community, which include safe streets, parking spaces, and rest. “Just because enthusiasts are vocal does not mean that they are in the majority, nor does it require the rest of the constituency to relinquish our quality of life to accommodate their demands.” In essence, she told the pickleball players to get in line behind all the other people who have been waiting for the city to get enough labor and money together to deliver more essential services.
The third person to address council about public defecation, among other things, was Sharon Sumrall. “I’m coming to you once again as the beleaguered property manager of a shopping center on South Tunnel Road,” she began. She told of “massive camping” behind the shopping center that has persisted for the eight years she has managed the property. She said she has police accompany her as she gives campers 24 hours to vacate, and when they depart, they leave their needles and trash for her to remove. Sumrall said if the campers have mental problems, she knows the protocols for dealing with the situation. But these people don’t, she says; they don’t want to seek help and don’t want to relocate.
“I’ve spent a huge amount of time, um, corralling people. And that’s not part of my job description.” Sumrall said she has had to budget about $60,000 per year for overnight security due to robberies and vandalism.
Sumrall said she hadn’t planned on speaking until she heard the presentation by Emily Ball, who is now serving as manager of the city’s newly-formed Homeless Strategy Division, which is part of the Community and Economic Development Department. Ball spoke a lot about building capacity. One effort on behalf of the homeless that she highlighted was the partnership of the city, county, and Dogwood Health Trust to contract with the National Alliance to End Homelessness to perform a needs assessment. This will involve mapping the homeless service system to identify gaps. Results will be reported at a joint city-county meeting on January 25 at Harrah’s Cherokee Center.
Sumrall said she hoped one consideration in the analysis would be to provide clarity to owners of large properties, the city, and the North Carolina Department of Transportation on who is responsible for maintaining public safety and sanitation. Sumrall said she knew the city had a strategy for the downtown area, but people on Tunnel Road have been left to fend for themselves. She said other property owners in the area are similarly perplexed, and Sage Turner said she has been “hearing more and more” comments like this from her constituents.
In Other Matters
Citizen Jonathan Wainscott shared some statistics he deemed emblematic of a broken system. Five of the five District 28 Court Judges on the Buncombe County ballot ran unopposed. In fact, those now serving have been involved in a total of 26 elections, only three of which had more than one candidate. Statewide, only seven of the 34 races for Superior Court Judges had more than one candidate. Among the 37 district attorney races statewide, only three had a choice. Most offensive, though, were the 129 District Court Judge races, where only seven involved more than one candidate.