Asheville City Council

The Asheville City Council chamber has seen its share of controversy … but helmets? Scores of people wore protective headgear to Council’s Feb. 26 meeting—not because of physical danger, however, but to show support for a new city bicycle plan.

On a roll: Helmet-clad cyclists showed up in droves to support Asheville’s bike plan at the Council meeting. Photo By Jonathan Welch

Council’s adoption of the plan is being hailed as a coup by the cycling community. At best, they maintain, Asheville’s streets are inconvenient for biking; and at worst, they’re outright dangerous.

“I’ve only been hit by a car once, but I know people who have had three or four accidents,” BioWheels owner Matt Johnson told City Council. “I can’t tell you how many times I hear people saying they are scared to death to ride a bike in this town.”

The public hearing drew a large turnout, with helmet-clad supporters seated in the second-floor Council chamber and filling the downstairs overflow room, where the meeting is broadcast on television.

“The bicycle culture is beating,” local teacher Michael Sule told Council members. “But it needs the city’s economic and political support to maintain the rhythm.”

Following on the heels of Bike Love—an annual bicycle-advocacy benefit held the previous weekend—the crowd was enthusiastic, often breaking into applause, though Vice Mayor Jan Davis, filling in for Mayor Terry Bellamy (who was home with a sick daughter), tried to keep the outbursts to a minimum.

Heavy pedal: A map from the Comprehensive Bicycle Plan shows routes all over the city.

The plan, the city’s first comprehensive bike initiative, envisions 181 miles of designated paths and bike-safe roads in a winding network throughout Asheville. Weighing in at around 150 pages, the document is the fruit of a yearlong effort involving nearly 1,000 people and the N.C. Department of Transportation, said city Transportation Planner Dan Baechtold.

Both the overall scope and unknown cost (one casually mentioned estimate put the total at $1.8 million) put some Council members on guard, though supporters emphasized that the plan is meant to be implemented incrementally.

“There’s some really easy no-brainers,” noted Council member Bill Russell. “But there’s a lot of really complex issues in this plan.”

But transportation consultant Dan Goodman—whose company, the Hyattsville, MD.-based Toole Design Group, was hired to develop the plan—said some steps may be as easy as incorporating bike-friendly design into routine road maintenance. That could include things like taking advantage of resurfacing projects to include new bike lanes, where existing roads are wide enough to accommodate them.

The plan represents the next step in bringing Asheville up to par with other progressive cities across the country, asserted longtime cycling activist Claudia Nix during the public-comment period. In Portland, Ore., making the city bike-friendly has quadrupled the cycling population, said Nix, who is co-owner of Liberty Bicycles in south Asheville.

Meanwhile, Rich Matthews said the plan will also benefit the city’s children.

Is everybody happy?

by Hal L. Millard

Asheville annually racks up its fair share of national accolades, cropping up on a bevy of published best-of lists; now it’s been hailed as one of the happiest places on Earth. National Public Radio correspondent, author and globe-trotter Eric Weiner made the call in his book The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World (Hatchette Book Group, 2008).

Take a deep breath and ponder that for a moment. Weiner’s not just talking about Asheville being one of the happiest places in North Carolina, or the United States, or North America—or even the Western Hemisphere.

No, we’re talking Earth here: the whole big, blue ball. All 197 million square miles of it.

What’s more, no other American town even made the list. But, hey, there’s always room for improvement.

With that in mind, the Asheville City Council voted 4-2 on Feb. 26 to draw $23,200 from the city manager’s contingency account to fund a survey that’s expected to hit city residents’ mailboxes beginning in April. Vice Mayor Jan Davis and Council member Carl Mumpower voted against it; Mayor Terry Bellamy was absent.

The questionnaires will be followed by 400 random telephone interviews. Surveys will also be available in Spanish, according to Public Information Officer Laurie Saxton.

Using a customizable five-page form created by the Boulder, Colo.-based National Research Center Inc., the surveys will probe residents’ satisfaction with community amenities, gather general information on their likes and dislikes, and gauge how well the city is serving its populace. The company will collect, process and analyze the data and submit a final report to the city before the end of June, said Saxton.

“Citizen surveys are used to set performance standards for local government, measure successes and identify opportunities to improve,” she told Council members in a staff memorandum. “Surveys offer a useful way to hear from residents who may be too busy to actively participate in community forums, Council meetings, public meetings and other opportunities for public engagement. Results from a survey will be used to better understand what citizens think about municipal services and communication efforts. Survey results will also be a benchmarking tool that will allow management and Council to look at trends over time, as well as to compare to results in other communities.”

Who knows? The data could prove vital. As Weiner sees it, Asheville, while exceptionally happy now, risks going the other way if the city isn’t careful.

“The problem with finding paradise is that others might find it too. And that is what is happening in Asheville,” Weiner warns in his book. That statement struck a personal chord with Barbara Bamberger Scott in her review of Weiner’s book on www.bookreporter.com. To her, Asheville may already have reached its tipping point.

“I lived in Asheville for a few glory years in the 1990s and watched, gaping, as property prices soared, traffic snarl increased, and the demands of the beautiful people drove local businesses under,” Scott notes in her review. “It made me see my own search for bliss as part of the problem, so I moved away. The Asheville that Weiner visited is already a good example of the ‘You shoulda been there when’ phenomenon. He says: ‘Asheville is on the cusp. It could go either way.’ The question is, has it already gone?”

The answer, one supposes, is up to you.

 

“We, by far, are the largest group supporting this plan—and we call ourselves parents,” Matthews declared. By making Asheville bike-accessible, he predicted, “We will raise strong, healthy and self-reliant young adults.”

Council member Robin Cape praised the bike plan, saying it has done a lot of homework for both the city and the DOT in terms of future road renovations. “As they move forward, they already have public input on what the community wants,” said Cape, noting that the plan is a good fit with other city priorities, such as tourism, greenways and clean air.

Council member Holly Jones also voiced support, though she pleaded with the cycling community to educate riders about traffic laws and bike safety.

And despite Davis’ earlier pleas to hold the applause, several helmeted cyclists let out whoops when the plan was approved 5-1 with Council member Carl Mumpower opposed.

Annexation panic

Council members did their best to to calm down county residents concerned about an annexation map, chiding local media for being alarmist.

The map, similar to one adopted two years ago, highlights areas outside the city limits that could be considered for annexation, although staff maintained that the areas were selected based on their proximity to the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction and that only a few of them actually satisfy the state’s criteria for annexation.

“In all reality, much of this area will not qualify,” Urban Planner Julie Cogburn explained. But adopting the map, she said, puts areas on notice that they could be considered for annexation. And once the map has been a formal planning document for one year, annexations can be accomplished in just 70 days.

Urban Planner Blake Esselstyn said that although many areas shown on the map (which predates his coming to work at the city) are not high priorities for annexation, it seemed “simplest to keep it the way it is, just in terms of staff time.”

But Council member Brownie Newman wanted to know which areas are under serious consideration. “I would really like to have a sense from the staff of what are the areas we are really looking at,” he said.

Nonetheless, any time annexation is brought to the table, there is bound to be resistance. In this case, only a few people spoke against the move.

Davis, however, tried to quell the annexation fears, saying, “Asheville has only annexed about 8,000 people in, I guess, about 15 years.”

The map was adopted on a 5-1 vote, with Mumpower voting no.

Yes we CAN

When Neighborhood Housing Services, an Asheville nonprofit, dramatically scaled back its operations last year, it was the lead entity for a $10,000 federal Weed and Seed grant to be administered in the West Riverside community. These grants aim to transform neighborhoods through a combination of enhanced law enforcement and programs to keep out crime and drugs. The Weed and Seed program has been hailed as a turning point in the Pisgah View housing project.

The Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods is planning to take over the administration of the grant, even hiring a former NHS community organizer to handle the job.

But CAN’s repeated appearances before Council to chastize the city for what the group sees as lax enforcement of the building code led Mumpower to label the grass-roots organization a political group that should not be involved in handling official city affairs. Other local organizations, he argued, would be better positioned to assume responsibility for overseeing the grant. Community Development Director Charlotte Caplan, however, said that no other group had shown an interest in taking on the job.

Meanwhile CAN member Barb Verni-Lau defended the group, declaring, “CAN is about neighborhoods,” not politics.

And though Jones serves on the committee that recommended CAN for the job, she conceded that handing over the Weed and Seed funds is “a big deal.”

“I would feel remiss if we didn’t put it out there for other people to look at,” Davis agreed.

On a 5-1 vote with Mumpower opposed, Council agreed to table the matter until more groups could be approached.

 

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