Letter from mayor prompts backlash from board

Proposed compromise on Trestle Crossing development not representative of board’s opinion

Fred McCormick

Toward the end of the of the Aug. 14 board of aldermen meeting, Black Mountain mayor Mike Sobol read aloud a letter he sent seven days earlier to Joe Cordell, who plans to develop Trestle Crossing on Broadway Avenue.

Mayor Mike Sobol caused a stir among aldermen when he sent a letter of "compromise" without their approval.

The letter was Sobol's third attempt prior to the town historic preservation commission's Aug. 16 meeting to consider the St. Louis-based attorney's plans to build a small complex that included a three-story mixed-use building and restaurant in the downtown historic district. (The board voted to deny Cordell the certificate of appropriateness he needed - see the related story on page 1A.)

Sobol's letter offering what he called a "compromise" did not represent a decision by the town's governing board, which would have had to approve the offer first, according to a statement that alderman Larry Harris submitted during the Aug. 14 meeting.

Sobol’s letter, dated Aug. 8, implied the town an interest in purchasing the lawn and parking area at 120 Broadway Ave., part of the property that Cordell is seeking to develop. Harris and the rest of the aldermen said they had not agreed to extend any such offer.

Sobol said he was "acting as a leader" when he offered a solution to a conflict between the developer and members of the community who don't want to see a three-story structure downtown. Sobol said his first letter, dated July 19, was meant to reach out to Cordell, a part-time Black Mountain resident, in hopes of opening a dialogue.

“I thought it was best to go to the person who has control, which is Mr. Cordell,” Sobol said in an interview last week. “I went to him hoping he would listen to what I had to say and think about the greater town interest.”

Having heard nothing from Cordell, the mayor sent a second letter July 29 telling Cordell he would be a "hero" in town if he altered the project and reduced the plans to two stories. Sobol's first letter appeared on town of Black Mountain letterhead and did not contain the names of board members. Both of his subsequent letters appeared on the town's letterhead with the names of the board members and town staff, with Sobol's signature at the bottom.

“The Black Mountain Board of Aldermen were not consulted and does not concur with the proposal regarding Mr. Cordell’s property,” Harris said in the statement he introduced during the Aug. 14 aldermen meeting.

Sobol maintains his overture was not a proposal on behalf of the town, but an idea for Cordell to consider. Harris said in a separate statement to The Black Mountain News that he believes Sobol’s letter implied the board supported that action.

Harris said he felt “obligated to make it clear to the public that I was not supportive of the proposal and certainly had reason to think others on the board felt likewise.”

Don Collins, who is running against Sobol for mayor, agrees with Harris and adds that using letterhead with board’s name on it made the letter deceiving.

“He puts our names on it, making it look like it was an official letter from the board,” Collins said last week. “We have not discussed that one iota. This as an example of the mayor overstepping his authority.”

Collins said he spoke to Cordell three weeks ago and told him there were members of the community opposed to the three-story development in the town’s historic district.

“He (Cordell) told me it wasn’t possible to make it two stories,” Collins said. “He then told me he understood he was allowed, under the current ordinances, to build it up to 40 feet (tall). He asked if he was doing everything by the rules then why would he not be allowed to build. And just like Sobol said in his letter, if he passes through the necessary boards he has to go through, then he has a right to do what he wants with his property.”

Sobol said he is representing “hundreds of people who see this (town) as a rudderless ship as far as development goes,” and that this project personifies “exactly the things that need to be addressed.”

Vice mayor Ryan Stone, also seeking re-election as alderman in November, said he didn’t know about the statement from Harris until the night of the August meeting when it became a part of the meeting.

“It’s not the way I would’ve handled it,” Stone said. “I think speaking to Michael (Sobol) in private and letting him know (that) if you’re going to use town letterhead with everyone’s name on it in an official capacity, you should probably run it by the board members first would have worked. That was my biggest issue with (Sobol’s letter).”

The letter doesn’t make it appear as though the town was committing to purchasing the property, Stone said.

“And I don’t see us discussing it in the future,” he said. “I don’t think Mr. Cordell has any interest in selling it. Part of the mayor’s responsibility is to be the face of Black Mountain and to be proactive in addressing issues, and I think he attempted to do that. It would’ve been better to ask some people first, but what’s done is done.”

Alderman Carlos Showers, who is not seeking another term this fall, supports Harris' statement, he said.

“For him (Sobol) to make the comment the town would be interested in purchasing part of the property from Mr. Cordell is totally inappropriate,” Showers said. “He has no authority without the board telling him to go into negotiations with somebody.”

“If (Cordell had) said ‘OK, that sounds like a great idea, let’s talk when I’m in town for the (Aug. 16) historic preservation commission meeting,’ then what?” Showers said.

Alderwoman Maggie Tuttle didn't like the mayor writing a letter with the the board's names on the letterhead, she said. She is also bothered that Sobol didn't consult the board before suggesting the town was interested in a deal.

"I agree that the board doesn't concur with (Sobol's) letter," she said. "I knew nothing about what he was going to say in those letters, and I certainly didn't agree with what he wrote."