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Developers Withdraw Charlotte Street Request

After nearly a year of intense opposition from community activists, the developers of the proposed 101 Charlotte Street development formally withdrew their application to the City of Asheville for special permission to exceed current zoning restrictions along the near-northside Asheville corridor.

The out-of-state developer, RCG of Massachusetts, and its local landowner partner, Killian Chestnut Residential Properties, planned to tear down and replace a dozen century-old homes with a new apartment complex, parking garage, retail space, office space, condominiums and rowhouses on the nearly seven-acre 100-block of Charlotte Street.

On Friday, the development team withdrew its request for a variance from the city that would have allowed buildings along Charlotte Street to be five stories tall, significantly taller than current zoning regulations allow. The withdrawal means that, at least for now, development will proceed under current zoning guidelines intended to prevent over-development.

Opponents, including the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County (PSABC) and the Charlotte Street Neighborhood Association, cheered the news, but said their fight to save the existing homes was not over.

“While we are very pleased that the developers are no longer moving forward with the project, the future of this block remains uncertain and there are a number of complicated zoning issues at play,” the PSABC wrote on Facebook. “We will continue to monitor the situation and to encourage the developers to work with us and the community towards a project we can all support.” — Peter Lewis

Trish Jones joins board of Asheville Watchdog

Trish Jones, a former senior executive at Turner Broadcasting System in Atlanta, has joined Asheville Watchdog’s Board of Directors. As director she will help oversee overall direction and strategy of the year-old nonprofit news organization.

Trish Jones

Jones, a resident of Asheville, was senior director of business planning at the Coca-Cola Company of Atlanta before joining Turner. At Turner she held roles as executive vice president and general counsel of Turner Broadcasting International and deputy general counsel of the Turner organization. She went on to become senior vice president and chief emerging technologies officer.

A graduate of Spring Hill College and the University of Richmond School of Law, she earned a master’s degree in international law at Georgetown University Law Center. She is a member of the Virginia and Georgia state bar associations.

Jones is also a director of the National Center for Women & Information Technology, a nonprofit coalition that works to increase diversity in IT and computing, and on the board of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association. 

Jones and her spouse, Lisa, have four-legged family members, Mattie, a 16-year-old Shih Tzu; Harper, a newly adopted English Cream Golden Retriever puppy; and CoCo, a feline rescue. They enjoy travel, hiking, and fly-fishing the local streams and rivers. — Peter Lewis

Not-so-happy Labor Day: Study ranks North Carolina “worst” for working women

For the second straight year, North Carolina ranks last overall in the United States for meeting the needs of working families, and especially in meeting the needs of working women, according to an annual study by Oxfam, the international anti-poverty organization.

The study, called the “Best and Worst States to Work in America 2021,” found that North Carolina “provides no support for workers’ rights to organize, does not exceed the federal minimum wage, and has very few worker protection policies.” In ranking North Carolina at the bottom for working women, Oxfam cited the lack of a mandate for paid leave, no accommodation for pregnancy, and no protection against sexual harassment.

Oregon topped the list of “best places to work,” which surveyed working conditions in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

Unlike many other states, North Carolina has not raised its minimum wage beyond the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, a level not changed since 2009, or the federal minimum tipped wage of $2.13 an hour, which has not increased in 30 years. In theory, employers of tipped wage earners are legally obligated to ensure that tipped employees earn at least the state minimum wage if tips fall short. However, the Oxfam report said, enforcement of this mandate is “paltry at best.”

Notably, women make up 69 percent of the tipped minimum wage workforce, and 36 percent of them are mothers, half of whom are single mothers, according to the report. 

Asheville-based nonprofit Just Economics, which studies wage and cost of living issues in western North Carolina, put the 2021 “living wage” for the Asheville metro area at $17.30 an hour. The figure is calculated using the Universal Living Wage Formula, which is based on a 40-hour work week, the Fair Market Rent for Asheville determined by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, and another HUD guideline that no more than 30 percent of a person’s gross monthly income should be spent on housing. 

HUD determined that the Fair Market Rent for a safe apartment in Asheville is $1,255 including utilities for a two-bedroom apartment. The statewide average for North Carolina is $919.

The 2019 Bowen Report on housing needs for the City of Asheville found that 46.8% of renters were cost burdened, meaning they spent more than 30 percent of their income on housing, and 19.4 percent were severely cost burdened, paying more than 50 percent of their income on housing. And that report was completed before the latest surge in Asheville housing prices. 

In a meeting Sept. 2, the city’s Affordable Housing Advisory Committee noted that no houses were for sale in Asheville for less than $275,000. In August 2021, the real estate company Redfin reported, Asheville home prices were up 22.1 percent compared to last year, selling for a median price of $428,000. — Barbara Durr

Cawthorn targeted by panel investigating Jan. 6 attack

[Sept. 5] Western North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn is among the Republican members of Congress whose records are being targeted by the special committee investigating the fatal Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, The New York Times is reporting.

The committee has asked technology firms to preserve the phone and social media records of 11 far-right members of Congress, including Cawthorn, Lauren Boebert of Colorado, Matt Gaetz of Florida, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, and Jim Jordan of Ohio, the newspaper reported.

“These are the individuals who have been publicly supportive of Jan. 6 and the people who participated in the insurrection on Jan. 6,” Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi and the panel’s chairman, told The Times.

“We need to find out exactly what their level of participation in this event was,” he said. “If you helped raise money, if you provided misinformation to people, if you served on a planning committee — whatever your role in Jan. 6, I think the public has a right to know.”

Cawthorn rallied the crowd at a pro-Trump protest just before the attack on the Capitol. During the attack, while hiding in the basement, he called a right-wing radio show to say the rioters were “paid by the Democratic machine” and that he had carried loaded weapons into the Capitol.

At a recent GOP meeting in Macon County, Cawthorn said people arrested for their roles in the attack are “political prisoners” and warned of “bloodshed” over a “rigged” American election system. Among a number of provocative and misleading statements at the Macon rally, Cawthorn said in response to a question that “we are actively working on” plans for another similar protest in Washington.  — Sally Kestin

Mission Nurses’ Union Calls for Public Protest, Citing Patient Safety

[Sept. 1] The labor union representing registered nurses at Mission Hospital said nurses will stage a protest Thursday morning to call attention what it called “patient safety and unsafe working conditions” at Asheville’s flagship hospital system.

Among other complaints, the National Nurses Organizing Committee of National Nurses United asserted that HCA Healthcare-owned Mission Hospital scheduled symptomatic, COVID-positive nurses to work at the hospital, and failed to provide nurses with adequate masks, gowns, gloves and other personal protective equipment.

In a statement, Hannah Drummond, a registered nurse in Mission’s emergency department, said hospital administrators have ignored “months” of staff complaints about safety standards, including staffing. “We have a duty to the Asheville community to provide optimal care, and we will continue our advocacy until Mission is a safe place for our patients,” she said.

“We’re disappointed that the labor union would attempt to pull people away from patient care for a rally during COVID and not follow the mutually agreed upon process that they requested as recently as July,” JC Sadler, Vice President for Communications and Community Strategy at the North Carolina Division of HCA Healthcare, said when asked by Asheville Watchdog for a response to the union’s statement. “Caring for our patients and employees safely is our priority. We have ample PPE for our colleagues, require universal masking, and follow CDC protocols for returning employees to work.”

The protest is scheduled for 8 a.m. Sept. 2 at the corner of Biltmore Avenue and Hospital Drive.  — P.L.

Pardee Hospital Requires All Staff to be Vaccinated

Pardee UNC Health Care in Hendersonville on Monday became the first hospital in western North Carolina to make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for all staff, according to a memo sent Aug. 23 to employees by the hospital’s president. The announcement came within hours of formal approval of the Pfizer vaccine by the federal Food and Drug Administration.

Despite a local surge in COVID cases related to the highly contagious delta variant of the virus, vaccinations remained voluntary on Monday for healthcare workers at Mission Hospital in Asheville and AdventHealth Hendersonville. The vast majority of COVID infections, hospitalizations, and deaths nationwide are among unvaccinated people.

James M. Kirby II, president and CEO of Pardee, set a Nov. 12 deadline for all workers to be vaccinated, but his memo did not specify the consequences for noncompliance. “As with the flu vaccine, we will review requests for a medical or religious exemption to this requirement,” he wrote. “Full policy details will be shared by the end of this week.”

Hospitals nationwide are struggling with staffing shortages, especially among nurses and nursing assistants, and hospital administrators elsewhere have said they fear staff will quit if required to get vaccinated.

“We hope that the FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine encourages those who were previously hesitant to decide to get the vaccine,” said Nancy Lindell, director of public and media relations at HCA Healthcare North Carolina Division-Mission Health. “Our infectious disease experts as well as those at the CDC are strongly encouraging vaccination as a critical step to protect individuals from the virus, but at this time our colleagues are not required to be vaccinated for COVID-19.”

“AdventHealth has not mandated vaccines for our team members,” Victoria Dunkle, director of communications and public relations at AdventHealth Hendersonville, told The Watchdog on Monday. “Based on scientific evidence, COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective at reducing the risk of severe illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19,” she said. — P.L.

Local Residents Sue HCA, Alleging Overcharging at Mission Hospital

Since being acquired by the giant for-profit hospital chain HCA Healthcare, Mission Health and its Mission Hospital flagship have become the most expensive hospital system in North Carolina for many procedures, with prices often double the state average, according to a class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday against HCA Healthcare and its Mission Health subsidiary in Asheville.

The 87-page lawsuit, filed in Superior Court in Buncombe County by a group of local residents, alleges that Nashville-based HCA illegally used its effective monopoly market power in the region to raise prices while reducing the quality of care at the six hospitals and multiple clinics it operates in Western North Carolina, harming doctors and consumers.

“Once we have been served with the lawsuit, we will respond appropriately through the legal process,” Nancy Lindell, division director for public and media relations for HCA Healthcare North Carolina Division and Mission Health, said in a statement. “Mission Health is committed to the health and well-being of every person who comes to us for care, and we are proud of our dedicated hospital teams that are facing the many challenges of this pandemic and the exceptional care they have provided to our patients.”

Many of the allegations against HCA and Mission Health were first reported by Asheville Watchdog.

The plaintiffs in the class-action suit include Katherine Button, Faith Cook, and Will Overfelt of Asheville, Richard Nash of Candler, William Davis of Clyde, and Jonathan Powell of Morganton. The complaint was prepared by the law firms Wallace & Graham of Salisbury, N.C., and Fairmark Partners of Washington, D.C. — P.L.

Update: Covid cases spike among younger, unvaccinated

The Delta variant of the SARS-COVID-19 virus is spreading “exponentially,” doubling since last week, and about 92 percent of all new cases in Buncombe County are among individuals who are not fully vaccinated, Buncombe County Public Health Director Stacie Saunders said Wednesday. The average age of newly infected individuals is 39, Saunders said.

Even so, Gov. Roy Cooper said his executive order mandating facial masks at schools, camps, and child care facilities will expire next week and will not be renewed. However, Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said Wednesday she and Cooper “strongly recommend” masks for all students, teachers, and staff inside elementary and middle school facilities even if adults or students 12 and older have been fully vaccinated.

Three-fourths of North Carolina’s children 12 and older have not been vaccinated, according to Cohen and Cooper, leaving most schools vulnerable to the Delta variant of COVID-19. — P.L.

COVID-19 cases rise sharply a month before schools open

New COVID-19 cases are rising sharply in Buncombe County in the past two weeks, but public schools in Asheville and Buncombe County will resume in-person classes a month from now without requiring students, faculty or staff to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Most of the average 18 new cases a day — triple the number of early July but far fewer than at the height of the pandemic in January —are among people who have not been vaccinated for the coronavirus, doctors tell The Watchdog.

All children age 12 and older are eligible for free COVID-19 vaccinations — adults too — and Asheville and Buncombe County schools hosted free immunization clinics this summer. But COVID-19 vaccinations are voluntary, and any decision to make them mandatory for students, faculty, and staff ahead of the scheduled Aug. 23 opening would have to come from the state health department and the Department of Public Instruction, school officials said.  

Health officials say current vaccines are effective against the Delta variant, but only 51 percent of Buncombe County adults are fully vaccinated, according to figures updated Tuesday by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

As of Tuesday, “Asheville City Schools is NOT requiring our students or staff to receive a COVID-19 vaccine prior to the start of the 2021-2022 school year,” Ashley-Michelle Thublin, the system’s executive director of communications, told Asheville Watchdog via email.

“We will return to school in person, five days a week in August,” Stacia Harris, director of communications for Buncombe County Schools, emailed The Watchdog, adding, “BCS is not requiring COVID-19 vaccines for students or staff to begin school in August.” 

All students will still be required to have been vaccinated for diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, measles, rubella, mumps, flu, chickenpox, hepatitis B, and meningitis. By state law, school principals are required to deny admittance to any student who has not been vaccinated for these diseases.

One-hundred years ago, before an effective vaccine against diphtheria was developed, the disease killed 1,864 North Carolinians in the period 1920-24. The North Carolina General Assembly made the diphtheria vaccine mandatory for schoolchildren in 1939. The disease is now rare.

North Carolina was the first state to make a polio vaccine mandatory for schoolchildren, in 1959. A decade earlier, in 1948, polio killed 143 children and adults in the state and crippled thousands more. Today the disease is virtually eliminated. — P.L.

Cawthorn opposes removing statues of white supremacists

Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC11) voted by proxy Tuesday against a House bill to remove statues of white supremacists and pro-slavery Confederate sympathizers from the halls of Congress. The resolution passed with bipartisan support, 285 to 120, with three North Carolina Republicans joining the Democrats in voting to replace the statues.

The bill now goes to the Senate. A similar resolution passed the House last year, 305-113, but then-majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) did not allow it to come up for a Senate vote.

The bill opposed by Cawthorn calls for the removal of “all Confederate statues and Confederate busts from any area of the United States Capitol which is accessible to the public.” It also specifically calls for removing a statue honoring former North Carolina Gov. Charles Brantley Aycock, who was a key figure in fomenting the Wilmington massacre of 1898, in which a mob of some 2,000 whites attacked and killed at least 60 and possibly more than 300 Black residents.

Charles B. Aycock

As governor, Aycock wrote that North Carolina had “solved the negro problem” by “as far as possible under the Fifteenth Amendment to disfranchise him.” “He is unfit to vote,” Aycock wrote.

In 2018 the state of North Carolina voted to replace the Aycock statue — on display in the Crypt of the U.S. Capitol — with one of the Rev. Billy Graham, the Christian evangelist from Montreat, who died earlier that year, but the replacement has not yet happened. Each state has two statues in the Capitol’s National Statuary collection; North Carolina’s other statue is of Zebulon B. Vance, a Confederate officer, two-time governor, U.S. senator, slaveholder, and avowed white supremacist whose monument in downtown Asheville was demolished this year.

The bill Cawthorn opposed also specifically calls for replacing a bust honoring former Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, a white supremacist who delivered the majority opinion in the Dred Scott decision of 1857, with one of Thurgood Marshall, the court’s first African-American justice and a champion of the civil rights movement.

In Scott, Taney wrote that Blacks were “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race.” His landmark decision argued that “any person descended from Africans,” whether enslaved or free, would never be eligible for citizenship in the United States and that the federal government had no right to forbid or abolish slavery in expansion states.

Asheville Watchdog requested comment from Cawthorn’s office about his opposition to removing the statues and busts, but has not yet received a response. Cawthorn was traveling to Texas for a media event at the Mexican border with former President Donald Trump.

But in an interview with The Washington Examiner a year ago, then-candidate Cawthorn spoke in favor of removing public monuments to Confederate leaders. “Gen. Lee was a great man, an incredible man,” Cawthorn told the newspaper, “but I think he was on the wrong side of history, and I don’t think we should romanticize the side of history he was on.” — P.L.

[Editor’s note: This story was updated to note that because he was traveling, Rep. Cawthorn instructed his “nay” vote to be cast by his proxy, Rep. Troy Nehls (R-TX).]