"We don't want it to be like a hotel."
-- Council member Joe Dunn, speaking about the county jail annex
With the Asheville City Council elections just two months away, Council members have tackled a host of hot-button issues in recent weeks. And the outcomes of those deliberations have not been lost on local voters.
"Anything that concerns the long-term future of the city is a key issue in this election," city resident Lewis Lankford told Xpress. Lankford is treasurer of Match Our Mountains, a newly formed political action committee that plans to back candidates in the Council races. "There are a lot of people concerned about these issues," he said.
City Council candidate Adam Leslie McBroom concurs. "If they aren't issues, then they should be," he said. "These issues reflect exactly what's going on with this Council and who's in control -- and why they need to go."
And at the Aug. 26 formal session, Council member Joe Dunn made another move that could raise some eyebrows among Council watchers. City Council was slated to take a final vote on adopting the 2025 Plan. The long-range planning document -- more than two years in the making and reflecting the input of hundreds of Asheville residents -- will ultimately become the city's official policy on growth and development over the next two decades. Touching on such big-picture issues as sprawl, smart growth, air and water quality, mass transit and economic development, the massive blueprint runs a whopping 350 pages. And once adopted, Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford told Xpress, the document becomes the basis for specific proposals crafted by planning staff and brought to Council for consideration.
But Dunn wasted no time, announcing at the outset of the meeting that he still has too many "unanswered questions" to be ready to vote on the matter. Such postponement requests are not unusual, especially with a subject as complex as the 2025 Plan, and Council typically agrees to postpone consideration of the issue for a few weeks. In this case, however, Dunn suggested that Council revisit the matter in January -- a full four months from now, and well after the November elections. And with three seats up for grabs this fall (Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy and Council member Jim Ellis are seeking another term; Council member Brian Peterson is not), it could be a substantially different Council that sits down to address the 2025 Plan in January. Nonetheless, Council members unanimously approved Dunn's request.
Thus, early in 2004, members of the new City Council will consider whether to adopt the draft 2025 Plan as is or alter it to their liking before casting their votes on a plan that will impact many aspects of life in Asheville for decades. In the interim, however, Asheville voters will determine the makeup of that Council when they cast their ballots on Nov. 6.
Welcome to the neighborhood
Downtown Asheville's Pack Square and City/County Plaza have been much in the news of late. And with the Pack Square Conservancy planning a multimillion-dollar renovation of the city's central public space and the Grove Park Inn trying to develop a 15-story high-rise on public land there, it's easy to see why the strategic area has been the talk of the town. At Council's Aug. 19 formal session, Scott Shuford called the parcel the GPI wants to develop "the city's premier address," and the bulk of the project would probably consist of luxury condos.
But on Aug. 26, Council members unanimously approved the transfer of a city-owned parking lot to another developer seeking to build a multimillion-dollar downtown domicile whose inhabitants would be the nearest neighbors of the proposed GPI high-rise's residents. Those neighbors, however, will dwell not in posh condos but in an addition to the Buncombe County jail. "Location, location, location" is a mantra in the real-estate business, and it remains to be seen what the salespeople peddling the GPI condos might tell prospective buyers about their new neighborhood.
Council voted 7-0 to approve a land swap with Buncombe County. In exchange for a 0.65-acre parking lot directly behind City Hall, the city will receive county-owned land on the south side of City Hall (now leased by Asheville for use as a parking lot). The city acquisition also looms large in the continuing negotiations between the city and the Grove Park Inn, which wants to site a second larger, mixed-use high-rise there.
The deal gives the county (which approved it last year) the green light to build a $10 million jail annex that will house 350 nonviolent prisoners and a consolidated city/county 911 call center.
The agreement marks a significant improvement in relations between Asheville and Buncombe County. Two years ago, the county announced that it had purchased the old Union Transfer Building on Coxe Avenue as a site for a jail annex. Upset about the prospect of having such a facility built in the middle of an area targeted for downtown redevelopment, the city moved to make jails a conditional use in the area. That left Buncombe County with an expensive piece of property it might not be able to use if the city refused to grant a conditional-use permit. A heated debate ensued, with both sides threatening litigation. At the Aug. 26 meeting, Asheville Mayor Charles Worley described the land exchange as "one more step in the process of developing a good working relationship. It's truly a win/win situation."
Joe Dunn, however, raised a few questions before casting his vote. Putting Buncombe County Planning Director/Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton on the hot seat, Dunn first inquired whether the new penal facility would be "another country club." Creighton, appearing uncertain what to do with the question, assured Dunn that it wouldn't be, adding, "I don't think our current facility can be categorized as a country club." Dunn then asked how long it would take for the addition to become obsolete. Noting that the Buncombe County Detention Center, built in 1997, already holds 393 inmates (40 more than it was designed to handle), Creighton predicted that within a decade or less, the addition, which will be connected to the current facility, could be facing a similar situation. "We'll be able to meet our needs, but my successor eight to 10 years from now will be asking for new cells," he said. Seeming generally pleased with Creighton's answers, the tough-talking Dunn made one last observation before letting the county official off the hook, cautioning, "We don't want it to be like a hotel."
No place like home
Also on the evening's agenda was a public hearing on a proposed revision of the Unified Development Ordinance. The amendment would greatly increase the number of potential sites for group homes by allowing them as a conditional use in RS-8 (residential, single-family, eight units per acre), RM-6 (residential, multifamily, six units per acre) and RM-8 districts. The UDO now permits such facilities only in RM-16 districts, the city's densest -- and rarest -- zoning designation.
In the past, when a group home was proposed for any other zoning district, the petitioner had to request that the zoning of the property in question be changed to RM-16. Under North Carolina law, neighboring property owners can counter such requests by submitting a protest petition to City Council. This ups the ante by requiring a supermajority to pass the measure (in Asheville's case, six out of seven Council members). This scenario played out last year when Council rejected a proposal by the Flynn Christian Fellowship Home to relocate to an area in Oakley zoned RM-2. Neighbors submitted a protest petition, and opposition by Council members Carl Mumpower and Dunn was sufficient to kill the proposal.
During the Aug. 26 public hearing, however, Mumpower asked Scott Shuford why city staff was bringing the proposed amendment to Council's attention. Shuford reminded Mumpower that immediately following Council's vote on the Flynn request, those Council members who'd supported the rezoning had asked staff to look into a possible UDO amendment that would allow greater flexibility in siting group homes.
Speaking on behalf of the change was a ghost from Council's past. Laurie Tollman, executive director of the Flynn Christian Fellowship Home and a member of the Asheville/Buncombe Homeless Coalition, pleaded with Council members to adopt the amendment, noting, "This will greatly impact the city's goal of reducing the homeless population in Asheville."
But Barbara Melton, representing the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods, took issue with the city's curtailing the use of protest petitions. "I see a trend here that I don't like; the public's role is being cut out," she protested. Melton added, however, that CAN members "realize the need for group homes."
The amendment passed 6-1, with Mumpower providing the lone opposition vote. Expressing concern about the reduced role for protest petitions in such cases, Mumpower branded the amendment "too much, too fast."