Asheville City Council

At their two-hour Sept. 18 meeting, Asheville City Council members once again held off on rezoning portions of Merrimon Avenue and approving new rules governing development there after business and property owners reiterated concerns that the proposed changes were too stringent and would cause severe financial hardship.

Merrimon’s future: Merrimon Avenue-area residents and businesses were surveyed last year on design and development preferences for the busy road. These two graphs show respondents’ choices of the best and worst examples of new buildings on the avenue.

At the suggestion of city staff, Council voted 7-0 to take up the issue again at a Jan. 15 public hearing, allowing more time for planning staff to find middle ground with those concerned residents.

“It’s our feeling we have more work to do,” said City Manager Gary Jackson.

The city hopes to increase the density along the commercial corridor with pedestrian-friendly, mixed-used development. The aim is to enhance Merrimon’s commercial viability without creating traffic or parking problems. The upcoming City Council elections may also affect any eventual decision.

This was the second time in as many months that Council has postponed a decision on rezoning a thoroughfare that is both a major commercial corridor and a gateway to north Asheville neighborhoods. The prospect of dropping a new zoning designation on a few large Merrimon Avenue properties against their owners’ wishes first prompted Council to delay action on the matter at its Aug. 14 meeting.

The proposed designation, which would govern new construction and major renovations, has generally found favor among Council members as well as with the Merrimon Corridor Study Group, which has been working with city staff for nearly two years to develop the rules. Among other requirements, the proposed Mixed-Use District zoning (which would supplant various other commercial zoning designations along the roadway) would require buildings to be at least two stories and to be sited close to the road, with parking in the rear.

According to interim Planning and Development Director Shannon Tuch, the plan was substantially shaped by the preferences expressed by property owners in a survey conducted last year (see chart). Some have questioned this assertion, however, noting that the Atlanta Bread Company (one of the buildings that drew the most praise from survey respondents) has some parking in the front, whereas the Staples building (the least-popular among respondents) has all its parking in the rear. But in any case, the proposed designation does meet the city’s smart-growth policy goals, Tuch maintains.

“Mixed-use districts have long been identified as a means to a smart-growth development pattern that provides opportunity for a higher mix of uses and a higher economic return,” she wrote in a memo to Council. “One of the primary benefits to this pattern of development is the ability to absorb a higher intensity of uses without an increase in automobile traffic; this is a fundamental principle of smart growth and is particularly appropriate for Merrimon Avenue, given the site context.”

Although the study group asked the city to adopt the new zoning designation without exemptions, Tuch has recommended excluding several Merrimon properties from the requirements, including the Ingles, Walgreens/Blockbuster, Stein Mart and Fresh Market sites. The owners of those properties have said that under the new designation, any major renovation would trigger compliance requirements and costs that would be nearly impossible for them to meet.

Former planning director still doing work for city

by Brian Postelle

When Scott Shuford stepped down as Asheville’s planning director this summer, he garnered praise from some quarters for having steered Asheville in a “smart-growth” direction via a host of new zoning designations and planning documents, including the city’s 2025 Plan. But he also departed amid mounting criticism by neighborhood activists about his interpretation and enforcement of the Unified Development Ordinance.

Still making plans: In this file photo, former Asheville Planning Director Scott Shuford addresses City Council. Shuford resigned this summer, but still consults for the city.

In his letter of resignation to city manager Gary Jackson, Shuford wrote, “After a rewarding period of time with the city of Asheville, I’ve reached a point in my career where I’m seeking new opportunities and challenges.” But it turns out that Shuford has continued to work for the city as an outside consultant, helping to update several critical planning documents.

Over the last couple of years, Shuford took shots from community activists, especially with regard to a pair of Merrimon Avenue businesses, Greenlife Grocery and Staples. And after his announcement in March that he planned to resign, several Council members said that a majority on Council had lost confidence in the planning director’s handling of those issues. Some in the community speculated that Shuford opted to resign rather than being fired.

“If indeed there was a vote of no confidence, it’s kind of weird to have him under contract,” says Joe Minicozzi, president of the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods. “This is the guy who authorized and defended those projects and put the City Council in an embarrassing, stressful, awkward situation,” wrote Heather Rayburn of the Mountain Voices Alliance in an e-mail to Xpress.

Since Shuford left, he’s signed two contracts with the city, according to Assistant City Manager Jeff Richardson. One of them involves updating the “Standard Details and Specifications Manual,” a highly technical document used by builders to ensure that development projects are up to city specs. Produced by the city’s Engineering Department, it covers details—from grading to sightlines to sediment control—culled from the UDO.

“He can devote uninterrupted time and effort to getting it updated holistically,” said Richardson.

Under that same contract, Shuford is helping the Engineering Department revise the city’s storm-water ordinance. Another project has him drafting a facilities-management master plan covering the next 10 to 20 years.

Transportation & Engineering Director Cathy Ball insists that Shuford is not drafting policy but is needed for his “level of technical expertise” required to update the standards and regulations laid out in the document.

But community activists remain concerned about Shuford’s role. “There are a lot of people who were frustrated with his performance,” Minicozzi notes. “And the problem is the perception that he is still involved with the city.”

“This looks really bad, and public perception has so much to do with public trust,” Rayburn wrote. “To me, it’s a nice big kick in the pants to the taxpayers. We all want a reason to believe in justice and accountability in government. This doesn’t give me a lot of hope.”

According to Richardson, Shuford’s contracts, which expire Dec. 31, will pay him $110 per hour, with a ceiling of $50,000 for all work. Richardson added that a retainer fee had been discussed, but the final contracts involve only the hourly rate.

Shuford says he’s taken on several clients since his departure from City Hall, advising developers on how to navigate the city’s rezoning process and doing consulting for the National Climatic Data Center. But his background, he says, makes him a good fit with certain city contracts. “I feel like I still have the opportunity to contribute to the city and the community through these projects,” he told Xpress.

 

The city has also recommended that the sites be exempted because they would be prime candidates for possible redevelopment as so-called “urban villages,” which feature a mix of high-density and pedestrian-friendly residential and commercial uses. One developer has already submitted an urban-village plan for the former Deal Buick site, which neighbors have criticized for including 13-story condo towers (see “Deal Buick Property Plans Reviewed, Debated,” July 15 Xpress).

Before the vote to once again postpone a decision on the zoning rules, Mayor Terry Bellamy allowed property and business owners to weigh in. For the most part, they restated concerns voiced at the Aug. 14 meeting, adding that the city had done a poor job notifying property owners of the proposed changes. That prompted Bellamy to ask the city manager to look into ways to improve such communication, which is now accomplished via notification letters and rezoning signs placed in the affected areas. Some owners who rent out their properties complained that the notices were sent to the property address instead of to their homes or business offices, so that they never received them or got them too late to respond adequately.

One property owner said she’d received the survey mailed last year but not the more recent notice of proposed changes. She added that the changes, if adopted, would “probably put a lot of people out of business.”

Of the dozen or so members of the public who spoke, nearly all agreed that new requirements—especially those regarding setbacks and building height—needed more discussion and input from those affected.

“This zoning does not need to be applied at this time,” said another property owner, who argued that the city should “let people use their property to its highest and best use.”

Many owners seemed to fear the prospect of having to move their buildings. In fact, they would have to comply with the new site requirements only if the cost of a renovation exceeded 50 percent of the structure’s appraised value or if an expansion involved adding more than 50 percent of the existing gross square footage.

In other business

At the behest of Parks & Recreation Director Roderick Simmons and city Chief Financial Officer Ben Durant, Council unanimously agreed to hire a business manager for the Parks & Recreation Department to oversee capital projects. The new position will cost the city an estimated $66,000 in annual salary and benefits.

Having the new staffer will ensure better overall financial management of millions of dollars that have been allocated for improvements and additions to the city’s parks system, Simmons and Durant told Council. The manager will help prevent snafus such as the shortfall created when the owner of the now-defunct Asheville Splash semi-pro women’s soccer team apparently “reneged on his pledge” to spend $300,000 on artificial turf for Memorial Stadium, according to the staff report.

Parks & Rec’s capital projects are now managed piecemeal, and Simmons said a business manager would bring cohesion by working directly with the Finance Department to ensure that projects stay on track and on budget. Eight city parks have ongoing or planned capital projects totaling $10.1 million.

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4 thoughts on “Asheville City Council

  1. SeeingThrough FogMakers

    Scott Shuford on the city payroll again, how ridiculous is that?

    When privileged or questionable activity is reported in the national news media, we frequently hear that one must follow the money or the benefit to find the truth.

    Could that be happening in Asheville??

    No amount of speculation will reveal the truth.

  2. Benjamin Gillum

    I would like to point out that the “Atlanta Bread Co.” building that was identified in the survey as being among the ‘best’ examples on Merrimon Ave. was NOT the main building with parking in front of it.

    In fact, it was the 2-story mixed use building behind the main Atlanta Bread Co. building that was asked about and voted on in that survey.

    The survey clearly identified a desire for multiple story, mixed use buildings on Merrimon. Inaccurately identifying the main Atlanta Bread Co. as one that was praised only confuses the issue.

  3. Heather Rayburn

    It’s vital to note that Staples was not built legally to our code. There was supposed to be a 15-setback on both Orange St. and Merrimon, and the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government confirmed this. The setback should have only been waived on the Merrimon side if the company had placed pedestrian amenities on that side (ex. front entrance, windows/doors). Both the company and city are to blame for the eyesore that sits there now.

    Unfortunately, Staples is being used by some to say that buildings should not be moved closer to the street. But instead of Staples or the ugly new bldg across from Brew & View (which doesn’t truly have a Merrimon-side – predominant street – entrance in the spirit of New Urbanism style) — think instead of Toy Box Building or the apartment building on the corner of East Chestnut and Merrimon and the nice street-feel those have.

    That’s what the rezoning would have encouraged. It would have also required a two-foot planting strip between street and sidewalk to give pedestrians a psychological buffer from cars — and it would have required 6-ft sidewalks.

    The study group spent two years of volunteer time researching ordinances, organizing public meetings, attending meetings, contacting property owners. The city spent mondo hours on this rezoning endeavor as well.

    The study group had lots of interaction with Chris Peterson (rep for the “official” business group) and, in fact, compromised with him by agreeing that a row of parking on the Merrimon side wouldn’t be the end of the world (despite that this wouldn’t be in complete harmony with the intent of promoting a New Urbanist corridor). We also hosted two meetings with property owners willing to show up.

    The rezoning does work in the best economic interests of property owners on Merrimon as it offers the protection of knowing that — if city planning does its job in the review process — any new building going in next door to them won’t be a hideous eyesore like a stripmall or Staples-style building.

    Note: Ingles didn’t bother to respond to invitations from our group to participate, much less send a representative to any meetings that I’m aware of. Instead, the first we ever saw them was at the end of the process when they came in at p&z;and Council to push their weight around and ask to be exempt from the new zoning so they can keep their antiquated “highway/business” designation. (btw, all the buildings on Merrimon would be grandfathered in unless there is a 50% renovation.)

    The point of all this is to protect Merrimon from becoming a row of box stores ala Tunnel Road and to preserve and enhance its unique character. Does it serve the community at the end of Merrimon to have Ingles/Fresh Market/Steinmart properties redeveloped under a zoning designation that basically suits a “motor mile” as opposed to a residential/mixed-use community?

    So, anyway, two years of work looks to be down the tubes and am wondering how this happens when we have a supposedly progressive majority on council. Course I’ve been wondering why none of them stood up to Staples from the beginning.

    Council missed a great opportunity by kicking this back into the ether. (Who knows when it will be considered again.)

    Bottom line is: I’m voting for Elaine Lite for City Council … http://www.electelaine.org

  4. cheryljay

    Well, Washington politics has arrived in Asheville. This is so typical of what happens when government employees leave their goverment jobs, they come back throught the revolving door as consultants doing the same work they did as a government employee, but for higher pay. I also predicted that Mr. Shufford would go to work for developers helping them to navigate the system and pointing out to them where the loop holes and weakness are that they can exploit. If people weren’t confident of Mr. Shufford when in was in position as head of planning, why would our confidence increase in him as a consultant.

    This sounds like the good ole boy network taking care of a good ole boy to me.

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