Asheville City Council member Robin Cape says she wasn’t trying to pour gasoline on the fire when she asked for a Council discussion on the idea of a moratorium on downtown development. She just wanted to hear options from the city attorney and perhaps gauge where her fellow Council members stood on the matter.
But the heated debate during Council’s March 25 formal session provided ample evidence that the topic has already ignited passions in Asheville.
“The concern was that there were so many [development proposals] coming forward, it was compromising the master-planning process,” Cape explained. The issue figured heavily in Elaine Lite‘s unsuccessful bid for a Council seat last year, and Cape brought it up again during Council’s retreat back in February.
Since then, she told her colleagues, the issue has snowballed due to local media coverage and community activism. Noting the absence of Mayor Terry Bellamy (who was on vacation) and the last-minute departure of an under-the-weather Carl Mumpower, Cape acknowledged that Council wouldn’t be likely to make a formal decision that night. Nonetheless, emotions ran high both among members of the public and on the dais. “When people say elected officials are bought off [by developers] … that is wrong,” fumed Council member Holly Jones.
City Attorney Bob Oast presented a report on the issue—the first time he’d directly addressed the feasibility of such a move. Other U.S. cities, he said, have established moratoriums, and the N.C. General Assembly has addressed the issue in the wake of litigation resulting from previous moratorium attempts. Now, said Oast, a city wishing to enact a temporary halt on development must specify precise parameters, including an end date and a list of things that will be accomplished while the moratorium is in effect. In addition, the move must be approved by voters, the report notes.
Cape, meanwhile, said she’s trying to get more people involved in the city’s master planning process for downtown, which is currently under way, and encouraging them to emphasize facts rather than emotions. “Not just ‘I like this/I don’t like that,’” she noted.
Vice Mayor Jan Davis, who presided over the meeting in Bellamy’s absence, said the Downtown Commission (which he serves on) opposes a moratorium. He added that the group felt it was being bypassed by Council, which scheduled a discussion of the matter without consulting its supposed advisory body. Davis also maintained that the city’s review process provides a sufficient check on development.
But in this case, he said, the issue “kind of just got out there.” And though it was clear from the outset that Council wouldn’t take action on a moratorium that evening, he also noted that some in the audience had turned up in hopes of speaking on the subject. So, in a departure from normal Council procedure, Davis opted to allow public comment despite the absence of a formal motion and vote.
Elaine Lite, who had called for a moratorium during her Council campaign, observed: “There’s nothing wrong with taking a pause to plan—to say, ‘You know what? This has hit us like a brick from the sky, and it’s happening real fast.’ Growth for the sake of growth is a freaking cancer cell.”
Dwight Butner, another unsuccessful Council candidate last year and a recent Downtown Commission appointee, conceded that downtown is at a cusp in terms of new construction, but he opposes any sort of moratorium.
“There is a rising tide of interest in our downtown. There’s no doubt about it,” said Butner. He said he supports creating a master plan but not a moratorium that would “divide the community against itself before we ever get started.”
But it was Asheville resident Jesse Junior who raised Jones’ hackles by accusing City Council of playing into the hands of developers. “There’s only so much room here, folks. There’s only so many things you can fit in this space,” he said, chiding Council for repeatedly approving high-profile, large-scale buildings. “It makes me doubt the integrity of the process,” said Junior. “It makes me think that some of our elected officials are more concerned about pleasing developers and special interests, of money being put into the campaigns, than they are about the people’s business.”
Jones, however, branded that language “slander,” saying her position on development reflects her support for affordable housing. Increasing supply, she asserted, keeps prices from skyrocketing further.
“The things I hear most about are people who are on the edge,” noted Jones. “We are down about 5,000 affordable units in Buncombe County. For anybody to insinuate that I’m not representing those people in the way I look at things is wrong,” she declared. “There may be reasons to consider a moratorium, but this has been framed in a way that I’m personally offended. When people say elected officials are bought off … that is wrong. … I’m standing up for everybody at this table—and I’m standing up for me.”
Cape maintained that the level of emotion displayed in the Council chamber during the discussion demonstrated the need to look at the issue openly. “People are so frustrated, they want to blame somebody,” she said.
No wires—or strings
How much weight does the city’s endorsement carry? For Wally Bowen, executive director of the Mountain Area Information Network, it’s the next step in establishing a nationally recognized wireless system in Asheville. “Having the city’s blessing raises our visibility and our credibility,” he told Council.
Bowen hopes to expand MAIN’s current wireless Internet service into a system of ports providing online access citywide, he said. The city’s endorsement would bolster the nonprofit’s efforts to seek support and funding from national and international foundations and corporations, Bowen explained.
Meanwhile, he assured Council members, MAIN wasn’t asking the city for any money or even to be the designated Internet provider for city government, though he could imagine that Asheville might want to use the network once it’s in place. “We’re there for you, but we’re not asking for any commitment out front.”
In fact, said Bowen, local-government-funded Internet projects haven’t fared well nationwide. But establishing a citywide wireless network would advance some of Council’s long-term goals, he argued. Making the Internet available to everyone helps close the achievement gap, noted Bowen, because it’s a “way of reaching down to our underserved neighborhoods and our at-risk students. We do have a digital divide, and it is getting worse.” MAIN, he said, would have to come up with a strategy for making the service affordable to lower-income users.
That was a sentiment that Cape could get on board with. “That tool should be available to our kids,” she said.
Bowen also noted that a wireless network could play a big part in stimulating the local economy by enhancing existing businesses’ ability to grow and providing an incentive for new ones to move to Asheville.
Technological consultant Terry O’Keefe encouraged City Council to be forward-thinking and envision Wi-Fi playing a role similar to that of roads. “In the coming world, this is the infrastructure we are going to be relying on,” said O’Keefe, adding that MAIN is exactly the kind of tech company the city has been trying to attract or develop locally. “We need to be nurturing every possibility like this,” he asserted.
The nonprofit, noted Cape, has already been winning accolades at the national level. “You are an unsung hero in this town sometimes,” she observed.
Davis, too, praised MAIN’s efforts, though he worried that a formal endorsement would imply that the city favored the nonprofit over its competitors. But Bowen argued that it only appears that way, because MAIN has been situating itself in the community since 1996.
“At this point, I’m going to be supportive of what you are doing,” continued Davis. “Heck, I’m a subscriber of your service, so I’m not down on what you do.” But he said he wouldn’t endorse MAIN as the city’s official wireless company.
A resolution endorsing MAIN’s push to make Asheville a Wi-Fi city passed unanimously (5-0).
Et tu, Swannanoa?
Incorporation drives seem to have been coming at Asheville from all sides lately. Mills River achieved town status in 2003. Then, late last year, Leicester pitched its own request, seeking Council’s blessing. But while that effort left City Council staggered by the sheer size of the proposed entity, it at least sparked a continuing dialogue between the city and the township.
Next up was Swannanoa, whose representatives also came before Council requesting its approval. Under state law, a community looking to incorporate must gain the endorsement from large nearby cities in order to obtain a positive recommendation from the Joint Legislative Commission on Municipal Incorporations.
“By now, this should be well-known to this Council,” noted Oast. Even if the commission recommends against the move, the General Assembly can still approve an incorporation or require a local referendum. But without a resolution of support from Council, he continued, “the hurdle’s a little bit higher.”
“Folks, we’re trying very hard to be good neighbors,” said Petitions Committee member Jane Connelly Hansel, noting that both Black Mountain and Montreat had already signed off on the idea. “We’re ready, all except for your response.”
But Swannanoa residents themselves seem divided on the matter. Several showed up to speak against incorporation, accusing its supporters of using the threat of annexation by Asheville to elicit petition signatures.
As in Leicester’s case, Swannanoa’s incorporation advocates deny the charge, but opponents say the campaign wielded the threat “that the big, bad Asheville is going to come and swallow us up,” as Swannanoa florist Terry Dorlan put it.
Both sides, however, seemed to agree that the best answer is a local referendum, which can be initiated only by order of the General Assembly.
City Council seemed generally amenable to the incorporation idea, though there were some questions about the future town’s size and ability to annex areas closer to Asheville.
“We seem to be in a place where we have to say yes or say no,” noted Cape. “Is there an ability to say we are supportive but that there is work to be done? I guess this is a chance to show what good neighbors we can be, because we have something to work out right off the bat.”
For Council member Brownie Newman, the biggest concern was what might happen in the future to the area between the current city limits and the westernmost portion of the proposed town. He’d like to see some discussion of annexation rights in that area. “I support the incorporation of Swannanoa,” said Newman, though he added, “There may be a little more work to be done. We owe it to our constituency to make sure we get that decision right.”
On a 5-0 vote, Council instructed city staff to start meeting with Swannanoa representatives to hash out details that will eventually come back to Council.