Asheville City Council

  • Council still not ready for tethering ban
  • Mumpower pitches his own solution to water stalemate

Going into the Asheville City Council’s May 26 meeting, the big question was what sort of reception Council would give the long-awaited Downtown Master Plan. The team from consulting firm Goody Clancy had presented its work to Council members on May 12, but public comment and Council discussion were put off until the next meeting.

Gimme some slack: Activist group ChainFree Asheville is still pushing for a no-tether law for dogs within the city limits, but City Council continues to have doubts about the law’s practicality. Photo by Jonathan Welch

Now the item was back on the agenda in the form of a public hearing, but it wasn’t clear whether Council would deliberate it. And if they did take action, they faced a range of options: adopting the plan outright, accepting it for later consideration, breaking the weighty document into pieces, or even sending it back for more work. In the end, Council members went with adopting it “in concept,” indicating their desire to move the plan forward while recognizing that city staff would now face the extensive task of fitting its ideas into the Unified Development Ordinance (which will require further Council decisions) and addressing the more controversial plan components.

“I think staff has a lot of work ahead of them,” said Vice Mayor Jan Davis. “There are substantial portions of this plan that will require legislation.”

But one group, at least, has most of its work behind it at this point. Over the past two years, the Downtown Master Plan Advisory Committee worked alongside the consultants at the Boston-based Goody Clancy (mostly via telephone conference) to ensure that the plan addressed the concerns of city residents and other stakeholders, and committee members accounted for the majority of the 20 or so people who spoke at the meeting.

A running theme was that the 30-member committee’s unanimous support for the plan in fact represented a fragile “treaty” between opposing sides of the development coin.

“The need for a master plan comes from all sides,” said committee member Jesse Plaster, pointing out that the group’s often polarized factions represented conflicting viewpoints in the city’s continuing development debate. “No single party got exactly what they wanted. Our feeling is that if anyone did, it would be a skewed plan.”

The upcoming presentation to Council had been a concern at recent Advisory Committee meetings, with some emphasizing the need to show Council members and the general public that the plan has unanimous support.

Committee member Pat Whalen (who recently stepped down as chair of the city’s Downtown Commission) said the master plan will go a long way toward fixing an approval process for downtown development that all parties have characterized as confusing. “Sitting on the Downtown Commission, I saw a development process that was, depending on your perspective … badly broken,” he noted. The attention previous City Councils paid to downtown, said Whalen, was geared more toward reviving and restoring the comatose central business district of the 1980s and early ‘90s rather than the new construction so prevalent these days.

But several committee members exposed the frailty of that united front, taking the opportunity to express their continued reservations about the plan.

Attorney Albert Sneed decried the level of restriction it would impose. “I urge you to have some humility and restraint,” he said. “You may come up with a plan that makes it impossible to use downtown.”

And former Asheville Mayor Lou Bissette, who’s also an attorney, said the plan’s design guidelines create a labyrinth of rules that, when he tried to apply them to a downtown lot he and several partners own, made it “a mind-boggling task to determine what, if anything, can be built there.”

Jenny Bowen (who, earlier in the evening, had been unanimously appointed to the city’s Public Art Board) also served on the Master Plan Advisory Committee. Noting that committee members had very mixed attendance records and levels of involvement (but refusing to name names), she asserted that the final product allows too few opportunities for public notification and input during the approval process for proposed developments.

“This is an error, it is a tweak, it is something I am absolutely asking Council to look at and to take into high consideration as the plan is moved forward,” Bowen urged.

Activist Steve Rasmussen, meanwhile, warned that giving Council-appointed commissions more power to approve development without incorporating an adequate appeals process undercuts city residents’ ability to contest decisions they think are wrong.

“Some claim that these changes are intended to take the politics out of the process,” said Rasmussen. “But the reality is that politics will always play a role in decisions in which millions of dollars and the quality of our lives are at stake.”

City staffer Sasha Vrtunski, who served as project manager in developing the plan, reminded Council members that it’s intended as a framework to be built upon and that their acceptance of it would not, in itself, implement any new laws. She also emphasized that they would be adopting only the broad-brush plan, not the more detailed and specific appendix, about which much noise has been made.

“You are not painting yourself or the community in a corner,” she declared.

And though some Council members had closely followed the plan’s development, this was the first time they spoke about it in the Council chamber.

“I believe we’ve come up with a plan that is a good place to land,” said Council member Robin Cape, “and we owe it to our community to adopt [it].”

Council member Kelly Miller agreed, saying the plan would make the development process more “predictable and actionable.”

Council member Carl Mumpower, on the other hand, branded the document an “ill-advised, expensive indulgence by the city” that would actually increase the political tension surrounding development. As for empowering the Planning and Zoning Commission and the Downtown Commission to approve proposed development, Mumpower said he’s “uncomfortable with the idea that we use an appointed body to basically do our job.”

Council member Brownie Newman, meanwhile, took a cue from the Advisory Committee, saying, “The whole downtown ‘treaty’ thing is hysterical; I think we should seriously consider calling it that.” The concept of compromise, he continued, gets to the heart of why the plan was envisioned in the first place. As for worries about tightening the screws on downtown developers, Newman observed, “There is such a thing as overregulation that hurts development, but I don’t think this is it.”

And looking ahead, Mayor Terry Bellamy said she’d like city staff to develop a detailed process for implementing the Downtown Master Plan.

After that, City Council adopted the plan “in concept” on a 5-2 vote, with Mumpower and Council member Bill Russell opposed.

Planning and Development Director Judy Daniel said staff would immediately start working on the requisite changes to the UDO but would most likely seek Council’s guidance on some of the plan’s stickier elements.

All tied up

Back in April, Council members amended the city’s animal ordinance to ease restrictions on raising chickens, but they voiced doubts about a proposed prohibition on tethering dogs (see “Chicken Coop for the Soul,” May 6 Xpress). And it appears that recent weeks haven’t done much to alleviate those concerns.

The current law allows dogs to be tethered provided that the leash is at least 15 feet long and the dog has access to food, water and shelter. Animal activists, particularly the group ChainFree Asheville, are pushing for an outright ban on the practice. But despite a staff report outlining potential methods and concerns about implementing such a ban, Council members found themselves no closer to pulling the trigger than they were in April.

“I am not ready to say ‘no unattended tethering,’” Newman revealed. “I’m not prepared to take that step.” Many people, he said, can’t afford to fence their yards, and he wanted to explore the possibility of establishing a fund of donated money to offset those costs before outlawing tethering.

Assistant City Attorney Curt Euler cautioned that offering assistance only to the financially needy could invite lawsuits.

Newman also asked about the ability to grandfather current dog owners and apply the ban only to newly acquired dogs, which police Chief Bill Hogan said could be accomplished using registration records. But enforcing a tethering ban, Hogan warned, would require hiring another animal-control officer, which might not be possible under the current tight budget.

Bellamy, meanwhile, said she wouldn’t support the ban, especially since it would include the T-runners used in many Asheville yards. Eliminating all those forms of restraint, she predicted, would lead to more loose dogs, which would conflict with the city’s leash law.

“There needs to be some sort of tethering in the yard to protect the greater neighborhood,” Bellamy maintained.

In the end, Council members once again sent the issue back to staff for possible inclusion in the budget for the new fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Mumpower pitches water plan

The last time a compromise on Asheville’s water problems came up, Mumpower stalked out of the room. This time, he stood at the lectern.

In April, Mumpower had vigorously opposed a proposal by Newman that Asheville accept an appeals court ruling forbidding the city to charge differential water rates but asking state legislators for a limited ability to use access to the water system as an annexation tool. Before leaving the room that day, Mumpower called the proposal a “surrender document.”

This time, however, he came forward with his own idea, though it didn’t generate much enthusiasm on Council. Mumpower proposed separating Asheville’s reservoirs from the delivery system. An independent authority would oversee the system, but the city would retain ownership of the actual water, which it could then sell to the authority.

Bellamy, who pushed for the multimillion-dollar repair of the city’s water lines that’s now under way, was immediately resistant, arguing, “It would be a disservice to give that over to a group who can do whatever they want.”

Vice Mayor Jan Davis also took a dim view of the idea, noting that the decades-long deferral of basic maintenance happened while the system was being overseen by a water authority. “I have a long way to go to get where you are,” said Davis.

Newman, meanwhile, said he didn’t think the plan was “politically viable.” He also pointed out that even if other cities were represented on the proposed authority, it wouldn’t alter their desire for cheap water.

Mumpower persisted, trying to drum up enough support from others on Council to request more information from the city attorney’s office, but not enough of his colleagues were interested enough to advance the idea.

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8 thoughts on “Asheville City Council

  1. The details remain to be seen, and there are lots of battles ahead, but at least Council has agreed that limits on development are reasonable. At the end of the day, we could have meaningful height restrictions and avoid future BB&Ts;, Staples and Indigos.

    The hollow promise of growth has been exposed lately by the news that the top two floors of city hall – our city’s Art Deco gem and official logo – are uninhabitable due to lack of repair money. So after 10-15 years of runaway growth (“Grow the tax base!”) we’re renting private space at the Innsbruk Mall because we can’t afford to fix a leaky ceiling. Could there be a clearer example to demonstrate that all of the high-speed development hasn’t paid its own way here? Quite the contrary, all of us who have been here for decades are paying more in taxes while our beautiful city hall rots in place.

    High time to reign in those who care more for their wallets than for our city. The DTMP is a beginning.

  2. Avl Tao

    Forward-looking towards a rearview mirror displaying battles of recent days gone-by is arguably a fair description of the Downtown Master Plan.

    The Plan remains a product of attitudes shaped, pro and con, by the EZ-money real estate economics of those by-gone days still fresh in our minds.

    The Plan is not forward-looking to a brave new economic future bereft of over-leveraged EZ-money, the construction it enabled, and the issues it raised. Rather, it is a plan of what boomers wished had been done at the height of this ‘once-in-a-generation’ EZ credit and real estate bubble that has now flatlined.

    What we need is ‘The Plan’ on adapting all that we got (stuck with) downtown; a plan using incentives and initiatives tailored to a brave new economic world driven by younger planners and rehabbers possessing a new-found respect for financial sustainability as well as Green; a plan to improve the quality of the downtown experience once booms have gone bust and EZ-money runs scarce, by acting methodically on a pay-as-you-go basis over years, perhaps decades.

    The world has changed and perhaps our well-meaning but frightened boomers have too much at stake financially, in their near-term thinking of re-inflating economies (and downtown) in time for golden retirements, to be entrusted as consultants and city councils with Master Plans meant to shape the world that younger-than-boomers will deal with.

    The plan ignores all the “for lease” signs piling up atop each other downtown, amidst ‘see-thru’ buildings of unsold condos – tall shameless relics of the by-gone years of EZ money. Would younger folks have developed a Master Plan that ignores such evidence? Only at their own peril…and therefore it is likely they would not have.

    Like a holograph that moves with your gaze, fear & denial shift places in Asheville’s response to growing evidence that 2008-09’s economic changes are more permanent than temporary; that most things dependent on EZ access to EZ credit remain endangered species (i.e. shoppers, tourists, and real estate-flippers).

    Denial is the defense-of-choice by those haunted by memories of a 1950s-1980s Asheville shaped by decades where visitors and new arrivals could NOT use EZ-money from cash-out home mortgage re-fi’s to buy his-n-her Priuses, to buy luxury golf-n-spa packages at the Grove Park Inn, and to put money down on a luxury condo. A stroll through our neighbor Canton offers a glimpse backward in time to how Asheville fitted within a frugal world where money ceased falling from trees and buy-what-you-can-afford ruled supreme.

    Canton, with its job losses, is a bigger specter haunting a growing group of locals who see an even bigger picture: how the demise of EZ credit means the demise of headcounts and payrolls of all things comprising impulse purchases or decisions driven by emotional pitches from realtors. Beginning with hours-cutbacks and furloughs, and progressing to layoffs, the local workforces in hospitality, real estate speculation & flipping, construction & rehabbing, and retail, are deflating like the sad head on a stale beer abandoned in Pritchard Park.

    This small but enlightened group realizes that despite visionary efforts by AdvantageWest and The Hub Project, Asheville still has no economic competitive growth engines to replace the afore-mentioned EZ-money sectors, except for health care…whose own budget is now in Team Obama’s national cross-hairs for cuts. Asheville has no competitive advantages, as seen by industry (rather than by local cheerleaders), over Metro Charlotte or Spartanburg-Greenville, let alone Atlanta, outside of hospitality & recreation. Once the credit bubbles have burst, beautiful mountains don’t provide jobs that can handle a local mortgage or a kid’s tuition.

    Within the Downtown Master Plan, folks in fear and denial found refuge in re-fighting ‘yesterday’s battles’ on new projects: new as taller or denser? new hotels or affordable downtown units? All battles from a past where projects could be easily financed, built, and sold, thanks to EZ credit that plopped atop any developer, homebuyer, and shopper merely showing a pulse.

    The Plan’s enablers find comforting solace in the attractive meme of Downtown Asheville growing via demographic trends for well-heeled retirees; they point to data that …surprisingly … coincides with the recent EZ-money bubble years where boomers could indeed expect to retire with juicy 401Ks, and bank accounts flushed with mind-boggling profits from the sale of a horrifically over-valued house; sold in unsustainably red-hot real estate markets back in their home state. If you don’t want to see adults cry, don’t ask these folks to ‘de-bubble’ their voluminous reams of ‘relevant data’ on wealthy retiring boomers.

    City Council was right to drag their feet, but not for the reasons inferred. The Master Plan and its process provides little useful guidance to the brave new economic world facing a smallish city that does not rank in the Top 5 within its own state, which has seen above-average growth only twice in 100 years and only when entire nations & continents lose their fiscal & banking minds. A city which always de-evolves back to an economic state, in the decades in-between such banking & money madness, that is sustainable primarily by local wages earned by hard-working local residents.

    In this brave new emerging economic world, earnings from jobs and wages, rather than EZ cash from bubbles and from mortgage re-fi cash-outs and home equity loans, are what will drive Main Street’s economy. And (lack of) earnings from jobs remain Asheville’s biggest obstacle to financially sustainable growth.

    Re-shaping the existing downtown we’re now stuck with, and re-shaping what is clogging the project pipeline, will keep future Ashevillians busy. Be wary of decisions by boomers who choose to ignore economic data & trends that threaten their tightly-held dreams of golden retirements. The world has changed and perhaps well-meaning but frightened boomers have too much at stake, financially, to be entrusted with Master Plans guiding the world that we younger-than-boomers are being dealt.

  3. joe voter

    Cecil Bothwell–gadfly and annual losing candidate for anything. You need to look around our world at all the empty businesses. Your “runaway” growth–please tell us exactly where that stat came from??? You cant just throw out BS without citing your sources. Asheville lags the state, the south, and the US in growth (US Census Bureau). TELL THE TRUTH. The only thing that would be interesting about having you on Council the that YOU WOULD BE FORCED TO BE TRUTHFUL and eat many of your empty promoses.

  4. hauntedheadnc

    What I want to know is, if growth doesn’t pay for itself and Asheville can’t pay for itself as it is, how does Mr. Bothwell propose to make it pay for itself, if attracting new taxpayers isn’t a solution.

  5. Joe, the current spate of empty businesses is a direct result of the economic crunch that started in December, 2007, and which most economists agree hasn’t hit bottom yet. Last month the Biltmore Estate reported a 30 percent drop in visits.

    The perception among most residents I have spoken with in recent years is that the city is growing too fast. I hear over and over that major construction projects have blighted the viewshed. Illegal signs and garish structures have gone up in rapid succession.

    Many of the formerly wooded slopes that slowed run-off have been cleared with little enforcement of regulations during the boom years, with twin results: siltation of waterways in Kenilworth, on Town Mountain, in North Asheville and elsewhere; and the drying up of tributary streams to the French Broad.

    How this stacks up against growth anywhere else seems completely irrelevant to me. Here is where we live our lives. Here is where our children play. Here is where many of us expect to move into retirement and finally expire. Do we care whether “growth” keeps up with Atlanta or Charlotte, or do we care more about the community that is home?

    Haunted, here is some info about ways to make growth pay for itself. And as I’ve noted elsewhere, attracting new taxpayers hasn’t provided any solutions. Have your taxes gone down?
    http://cecilsblog.wordpress.com/2009/05/23/full-system-development-charges-ordinance/

  6. hauntedheadnc

    Okay, so you propose to charge developers the full cost for providing any infrastructure to any development they might build.

    That’s actually an argument for the dense urban development you’re against, as the infrastructure is already in place, costing less, and lowering the per unit cost, thus perhaps making room for affordable housing or commercial space… but that’s not the issue.

    The issue it brings to mind is the latter part of what I mentioned. How will upping the cost for the developer affect efforts to provide affordable housing or reasonably-priced commercial space or art studio space? If you jack up the cost, don’t you just jack up the cost of the unit the developer builds?

    The same principle is the reason that demanding short buildings downtown is a bad idea. If you build something on a plot of expensive land, like what is found downtown, and your building is required to be short, that means you have to charge more for each apartment, condo, or shop space you build in order to recoup your investment. If you’re allowed to build bigger, taller buildings downtown (where they already exist and where more should be allowed), you have the potential to build enough units to lower the cost of each to a reasonable rate.

  7. hauntedheadnc

    Oh yes, and to answer your question, no my taxes haven’t gone down because the land values keep going ever upward. It’s a consequence of Asheville being desirable.

    It also means you’d probably do more good, rather than making things more expensive, to work for an ordinance that locks in a property’s land value and tax burden until it’s sold or radically changed in some way. Don’t they do that in California?

  8. LOKEL

    At some point the “powers that be” in this area need to realize that a “tourist based economy” is not self-sustaining and begin to attract more industry to the area.

    I am not the least bit surprised by the fact that the City building is in a state of disrepair – look around, the streets of Asheville are filthy, the lack of affordable housing continues to grow, the infrastructure is a best a joke (water system is primarily 100 years old), and Council and the Commissioners bicker and battle amongst themselves for bragging rights.

    What they have to brag about is a mystery to me.

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