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City moves to protect watershed

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12/13/2012 - City moves to protect watershed
by Mark Barrett - Asheville Citizen Times

ASHEVILLE -- If Jennifer Lawrence wants to use a city watershed to shoot another movie, City Council wants to be sure she's welcome.

But it is not so happy about the idea of someone cutting trees on 17,000 acres on the north side of the Swannanoa Valley where the city gets its drinking water.

The difficulty involved in allowing activities the city wants -- but prohibiting things it doesn't -- on the property is part of the reason it took an hour of debate before council unanimously adopted tougher restrictions on the property Tuesday.

Hanging over the discussion was the possibility that the General Assembly might give control of the watershed to the Metropolitan Sewerage District. The easement would stay in effect if the land changes hands unless the legislature provides otherwise.

Part of the movie "The Hunger Games" that Lawrence starred in was filmed on city watershed property under the terms of the existing conservation easement. It lists activities that can occur and those that cannot on the property.

The city granted the easement on the property to the Conservation Trust of North Carolina in 1996. The question before council Tuesday was whether to adopt a new easement that reflects changes in the way the legal agreements are now typically written and would in some ways be more restrictive.

The new easement that council approved in principle Tuesday would prohibit commercial logging on the property and many other activities that might cause damage to water quality on the property, which is drained by the North Fork of the Swannanoa River and Beetree Creek.

But it would require the city to get the trust's permission before many uses of the property could occur. The agreement says such a request "may not be unreasonably refused" by the trust, City Attorney Bob Oast told council.

That arrangement, and the prospect of paying for forest stewardship and property management plans, worried some members.

"That's a huge tract of land and we've done a pretty good job with it over the years," said Councilman Jan Davis.

But Oast and Greg Gregory, a local attorney the city hired to work on the easement, said the city already gave up much of its control over the property in 1996. The new easement is more flexible in some ways while making it clearer that activities that could hurt water quality, like logging or significant earth moving, are not allowed, they said.

Council seemed reassured when Councilman Marc Hunt, who until recently worked in land conservation, said the terms of the proposed easement are similar to those considered state of the art that govern other water supply watersheds in Western North Carolina.

The same legislative study committee that recommended transferring the city water system to MSD also recommended strengthening the easement, he said, suggesting that the legislature would be likely to leave the protections in place.

And, there is a good chance that a private donor might pick up some or all of the cost of developing the plans the easement requires, Hunt said.

Councilwoman Esther Manheimer supported passage, saying protections in the easement would help meet an important goal of the city for the property. "Asheville as a community has really expressed strong support for conservation," of the watersheds, she said.

On other issues Tuesday, council:

o Approved plans for a 184,208-square-foot allied health and workforce development building at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College on 13.1 acres bordering Victoria Road.

o Put off a hearing on requests for changes to plans for The Thoms Estate subdivision in North Asheville that would include keeping gates closed to vehicles 24 hours a day and not building a planned sidewalk along Beaverdam Road.

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