Nuts and bolts

“We’ll freely admit we don’t know everything. And if something new comes out, we have to be ready, because we’re going to see it in Asheville—that’s the kind of builders we have here.” So said Building Safety Director Robert Griffin on June 12, seeking to give his listeners a snapshot of the challenges his department faces. “Sometimes you’ll have one city department say something, and another [says something different]. We work very hard to eliminate that.”

In the audience were 40 participants in the penultimate weekly session of the city’s Citizens Academy. They questioned Griffin and his staff on everything from their personal housing needs to green building and broader neighborhood concerns.

“Do you have any homes with geothermal heat?” one woman asked.

“Yes, Ma’am. Most of them are single-family homes,” Griffin replied. “It’s about $3,500 to $5,000 to put in, but it pays for itself very quickly. We have a lot of solar panels in Asheville too.”

The department uses no tax money, he explained; it’s funded by about $2 million a year in building-permit fees. Despite the slump in the nationwide housing market, the number of permits in Asheville is still rising, although permits in the county have recently decreased.

Griffin also noted that his department’s authority is limited. Its primary duty is to enforce the state building code, and on many projects below a certain size, only technical issues can be considered—even if a proposal generates neighborhood opposition. Some larger projects do go before City Council, and in those cases, such objections can be considered and used as grounds for rejecting the proposal.

“I think sometimes the fact that the TRC [the Technical Review Committee, which must sign off on projects before they’re reviewed by the Building Safety Department] allows public comment gives people the wrong impression—they can only review technical issues,” said Griffin. “If there’s something at level II [projects that don’t go before City Council] and people don’t like it, we’re going to try to address your concerns, but that can’t stop the project if it meets all the criteria.”

But that, said Griffin, shouldn’t discourage citizens, because sometimes they can uncover technical issues—concerning traffic or buffering, for example—that the department can legally consider.

“Most developers, if you come to them and say, ‘Do this’—they’ll do it,” he said.

Developer Stewart Coleman recently reduced the size of his controversial Parkside proposal, adjacent to City Hall, to make it a level II project, thus avoiding City Council review. Council, for its part, just passed a resolution condemning the county’s sale of public parkland for the project (see related story, “The Deal and the Damage Done”).

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