In a short, two-hour Sept. 24 meeting, Asheville City Council members grappled with several major topics:
Urban agriculture: Council approved new rules allowing local agriculture throughout the city, while setting rules for storage and urban farming structures. The changes are the latest in a years-long push to allow more farming in Asheville. In 2009, Council relaxed rules on keeping some animals, like chickens and bees, within city limits. Last year, Council also voted to allow more tailgate markets in more locations.
City staff had originally proposed restricting produce stands to weekends, due to the city's tradition of limiting commercial activity in residential areas. But a representative of the Asheville-Buncombe Food Policy Council asked city officials, during the meeting, to increase access to local food by removing that restriction. Most Council members agreed.
Council member Gordon Smith, a major proponent of urban agriculture who has worked with the Food Policy Council on the changes, said that the city's issues with hunger and a lack of fresh food outweighed considerations about limiting commerce. Others on Council mentioned that, next year, a city review of the new rules should catch any problems caused by lifting the produce-stand restriction.
But Mayor Terry Bellamy asserted that there hadn't been enough deliberation about the change. Allowing produce stalls on weekdays was too drastic a change without more input from neighborhoods, she said.
Council approved the overall changes unanimously. But on the produce-stand issue, Council voted 6-1 for approval; Bellamy opposed.
Downtown crime: At Council's request, Asheville Police Department Chief William Anderson discussed an increase in downtown crime, burglaries in some areas, and the department's treatment of the homeless. Anderson highlighted the APD's arrest earlier that day of suspects in a series of break-ins reported in Kenilworth and West Asheville. With significant vacancies in the department, Anderson said, the APD is using overtime to make sure there are sufficient patrols around town.
Bellamy mentioned recent, recurring reports of topless women in downtown Asheville. She said that she has heard from families who are "livid" about the incidents. Bellamy noted that on Oct. 21, city staff will meet with concerned downtown merchants about the topless women.
Also, the APD has shifted recently to making more arrests than citations downtown in response to a rise in downtown crime. The approach has been criticized by homeless activists and religious leaders, who assert that it runs counter to the city's generally more service-focused initiatives for helping the homeless and getting them into housing.
Council member Cecil Bothwell claimed the change was driven by an increase in criminal behavior and a need to "maintain civility" rather than any shift on the APD's part. The police must strike a challenging balance between "humanity and crime prevention," said Bothwell.
But Matt Shepley, who runs the Veterans Restoration Quarters, a local non-profit for veterans, said that he's seen APD officers take a more zero-tolerance approach, such as applying "stop and frisk" methods on homeless people in Pritchard Park. And Amy Cantrell, who heads Beloved House, said 38 local faith leaders submitted a petition to Council expressing their concern.
Bele Chere: City staff are seeking suggestions for a summer event that replaces the now-defunct Bele Chere. Their "request for information" aims to see how much interest there is out there, with the criteria left intentionally broad to allow some "new, exciting ideas" to come forward, said Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer. Most Council members said they wanted an event very different from Bele Chere, which was ended this year due to concerns about budget and impact.
The information request passed 6-1. Bellamy opposed it, saying it wasn't specific enough and hadn't gone through the proper process.
Funding for The Block: Council unanimously passed a development agreement that sets aside $3.8 million for the Eagle Market Place project in The Block neighborhood in downtown Asheville.
Bellamy said the funding shows that "progress is slow, but it does happen." The Block was a thriving, longtime African-American commercial and community hub that was devastated by urban renewal programs in the 1970s.
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