Asheville City Council March 22, 2011 meeting
- Trash pickup may be retooled
- Living wage approved for city contracts
To some observers, it may have seemed as though Asheville City Council members and Ingles Markets were playing a game of development chicken, reaching the cliff’s edge during Council’s March 22 meeting.
In February, Council members balked at approving a proposed expansion of the local grocery chain’s Smokey Park Highway store; the ambitious project called for adding a gas station and creating an Ingles superstore. Ingles was seeking exemptions from the city's parking, lighting, traffic-management and tree-planting requirements. Furthermore, asserted staff, there wasn't any particular hardship or challenging terrain that might justify the contested exemptions: The company simply wanted to follow its own design guidelines.
Attorney (and former Vice Mayor) Gene Ellison said the exemptions were needed to address safety concerns. Unable to reach an agreement, City Council kept the public hearing open to give Ingles a chance to adapt its proposal. And when they returned on March 22, company representatives said they were willing to meet city standards in all the contested areas except lighting. Ingles’ proposed gas-station lighting was still three times as bright as what the city allows.
“For our customers' safety, that's where we need to be. … Our customers come first to us,” Ingles representative Preston Kendall told Council. “I can fill you full of data from our lighting companies and engineers. The design we have on our canopies is superior to a lot of different companies. The light doesn't harm the dark sky at night.”
The ensuing debate featured dueling photos of gas stations. Ingles showed gas stations in compliance with city rules that it said put out much more light than theirs would, due to inferior design. City Planner Shannon Tuch countered with pictures of various gas stations that she said meet city standards without endangering customers. The city's rules, she noted, are based on the Illuminating Engineering Society's national standards.
City staff weren't the only ones objecting to the Ingles proposal. Residents from the neighborhood and elsewhere in Asheville trooped to the lectern to express their disapproval.
“It seems to me that if you're granting an exception to following the rules, the evidence that there is just cause for it should be overwhelming,” said resident Laura Piraino. “I didn't hear any evidence to suggest that the standards set by your staff compromise safety.”
And West Asheville resident Steve Rasmussen predicted that if Council gave Ingles an exemption, it would spark a “light-pollution arms race” as more companies pushed for permission to use ever brighter lights to lure customers (Ingles’ true purpose, he maintained).
These arguments found a receptive ear on Council.
“We would essentially be saying we're throwing our lighting standard out the window,” said Vice Mayor Brownie Newman. “It would be meaningless. There's been no evidence presented that this development has some unique quality that would justify this.”
“I'm a big fan of this project and want it to go forward, but I think of precedent,” added Council member Gordon Smith, noting that when Council makes an exception for one company, it must apply the same standard to others.
Mayor Terry Bellamy defended Ingles’ request, saying, “As a frequenter of Smokey Park Highway, that corridor is a dark corridor, and there are concerns about safety. There needs to be some give-and-take.”
Nonetheless, Council rejected Ingles’ justifications. On a 5-2 vote with Bellamy and Council member Jan Davis opposed, they made satisfying the city's lighting requirements a condition for approving the project.
In the end, however, Ingles blinked. After Council quickly passed a signage exemption (5-2, with Smith and Council member Cecil Bothwell dissenting) and road closure needed for the project to proceed, Ellison returned to the lectern.
“It comes to a point where we just need to bring some things to a close,” he said. “This project is important to Ingles; I have the authority to stand before you and say we accept your approval.”
But as he sat back down afterward, Ellison, shaking his head and chuckling, leaned over to an Ingles representative and said, “Bob [Ingle] would kick my butt if he were still alive.”
During a pre-meeting budget briefing, City Council (minus Newman and Council member Esther Manheimer) discussed possibilities for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1. Despite improving property- and sales-tax revenues, both are still projected to be down slightly overall. Meanwhile, thanks to looming state budget cuts, the city will have to transfer an additional $350,000 from the general fund just to keep the buses running, staff revealed.
“There's no rabbit to pull out of the hat” in this budget cycle, Administrative Services Director Lauren Bradley observed.
But staff also broached an ambitious proposal to shift to bigger recycling bins (already in use in four city neighborhoods) and a new “pay-as-you-throw” system with two sizes of trash bins. Customers using the smaller trash bins would pay less.
The change would cost the city about $1 million (much of it in one-time expenses), though there could be some savings through reduced tipping fees at the landfill. Most customers, meanwhile, would probably end up paying more for garbage pickup — particularly those using the bigger trash bins.
Bothwell wondered if the city could realize significant savings by switching to biweekly trash pickup. “There's not much you can't recycle or compost,” he noted, saying he takes out his garbage only once a month.
Staff responded that while such a move is possible, it would be unpopular and probably trigger complaints during warm weather.
“I really can’t believe people would resist two-week garbage pickup that much,” Bothwell replied.
“I would,” Council member Bill Russell shot back. As for reconfiguring trash pickup, Russell said he understood the rationale but didn't think this was the right time for it, given the city’s fiscal troubles.
In the end, Council sent staff back to the drawing board, urging them to find a way to keep expenses unchanged for customers using the smaller trash bins. In general, staff said they’re proposing no major fee increases for the coming budget year. Bellamy, meanwhile, questioned a proposal to defer staff raises for a third consecutive year.
Staff also noted that the city's domestic-partner registry will open May 1, with a $75 registration fee for locals, $100 for out-of-town residents. Benefits for domestic partners of city employees will be available starting July 1.
Living wage approved for contract workers
In other business, City Council:
• Approved a living-wage requirement for city contracts worth between $30,000 and $90,000 on a 4-2 vote (Bellamy left the meeting early), with Davis and Russell opposed. In Buncombe County, the current living wage is $11.35 per hour without benefits, $9.85 with them. Asheville already pays its employees a living wage, but doesn’t require contractors to do so. Proponents say this creates a level playing field, discouraging those submitting bids from undercutting businesses that do pay living wages. • Approved reduced parking requirements for the River Arts District, to encourage denser development rather than businesses with separate, suburban-style parking lots.
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at email@example.com.