A proposed ordinance that would allow considerably more density — and faster approval — for green, affordable development saw a reversal last week when the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission voted it down 3-2 and recommended a scaled-down version instead. The rules triggered a debate about exactly how Asheville will pursue the oft-touted goal of sustainability.
The ordinance, crafted over two years by the Mayor’s Affordable Housing task force, allows developers to build denser housing than normally allowed by an area’s zoning if it’s considered affordable or sustainable and located in certain areas a quarter-mile from major transit corridors. Exactly how much denser the projects may be depends on how affordable, how green and how close to transit they are. The rules would allow such projects to be directly approved by Planning and Zoning, instead of having to go before Asheville City Council for a vote.
However, at the commission meeting last Thursday, there was a sharp split between advocates of the proposed rules, who believe it would provide a major boost to making Asheville a better place to live, and those who fear it would intrude on neighborhoods and harm the democratic process. The commission ended up voting down the initial proposal, with members Jerome Jones and Cindy Weeks supporting it. The body then unanimously approved asking city staff to revise the proposal to exempt neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes and to reduce the areas affected by the proposed ordinance to those within an eighth of a mile of transit corridors.
“Our concerns were with the single-family zones,” said commission member Mark Brooks, a local engineer. “A multi-family development in a single-family area could have some unintended negative effects. The quarter-mile zone, once we looked at the maps, included almost the whole city. It only left out a few pockets. Going back to an eighth of a mile, you don’t run into much conflict with single-family residences.”
Robin Merrell, the managing attorney at Pisgah Legal Services, is among those who crafted the ordinance. She believes it’s sorely needed.
“We’ve debated, considered and weighed lots of options,” she tells Xpress. “There’s an overwhelming need for affordable housing. We hear a lot about it, but it’s true. The clients I talk to all the time struggle with housing. Now, the clients at Pisgah are low-income. But also when I talk to my peers, other professionals working in the city, they’re struggling to find decent housing in the city that they can afford to rent. I was just talking to a friend last week who’s renting one room for $550 and is stunned at what he’s run into. Some people don’t realize it’s like that, and to what a crisis point it’s come.”
Merrell added that the focus on putting density along transit corridors will help to encourage the use of public transit, “which is environmentally conscious and economically sound. All of the research we’ve done, everything we’ve read, indicates that density bonuses are the greatest way to increase the supply of affordable housing.”
Furthermore, Merrell says that less developments coming before Council is one of the incentives for more sustainable development.
“That was an intentional part of this ordinance,” she says. “Having to defend a development through the conditional-use process is very expensive, which increases the cost of the housing. Because this is not a density bonus for any kind of housing, but for affordable housing, which is a stated priority for City Council, for lots of entities in this area, that’s a greater public purpose that outweighs the necessity for a public hearing.”
She gives an example of the 2001 Chunns Cove project “that was really damaged by the outcome of the hearing, opposed by people who really didn’t want people with disabilities in their neighborhood. Some of the animosity towards this comes from it being so soon after the Larchmont project.”
However, she says the modifications the commission requested will not significantly harm the proposal.
Elaine Lite, a local progressive political activist, differs sharply from Merrell and the ordinance’s supporters, especially on the matter of less developments coming beofre Council, something she criticizes in harsh terms.
“I am a huge supporter of affordable housing, believe me, but affordable housing doesn’t give them carte blanche to bypass the democratic process; it’s too critical to how our city functions,” Lite tells Xpress. “As it is, developers of all stripes, affordable and gated communities, have the upper hand in the process as far as the citizens are concerned. There is no way they can eliminate this point from the process. That just doesn’t fly. I think it’s a good idea in theory, but they have to examine it.”
She added that the modifications “scaling [the ordinance] down and stay away from single-family neighborhoods, make a lot of sense. But that’s just the technicalities, the process is my main concern. I wasn’t thrilled about the ordinance, I thought it was too far-reaching — but we can’t even begin talking about that if we’re going to bastardize the process like this. We elected the City Council, not the planning and zoning board. Everybody wants to have their say. People have come up with some very valid objections to some of these developments.”
In the audience the night of the vote was Council member Gordon Smith. While Smith and Lite have agreed on many issues in the past — the Scrutiny Hooligans blog he founded endorsed her 2007 Council run — he thinks the ordinance, especially as originally proposed, is necessary.
“If we as a city are going to be serious about becoming a sustainable city, if we’re going to be serious about our carbon footprint as well as the quality of life for people living in Asheville, as well as for our workers who often can’t afford to live here, then we have to look beyond some of the old objections,” Smith says. “We really have to start to ask where we want to be in 25 years.”
He says the suggested modifications will do some harm. The reduction in the scope of the ordinance to an eighth of a mile, he says, “will drive up costs because there’s simply going to be less land available to do this kind of development affordably. Eliminating single family neighborhoods from the ordinance kind of ignores the historical nature of Asheville, where you have so many neighborhoods that have duplexes, triplexes and quads. Asheville used to be a city where neighborhoods were made up of many different kinds of housing units. It’s only in the last several decades that we’ve switched to this more sprawling idea of how we should live in cities.”
As for less developments coming before Council, Smith doesn’t see an issue.
“Over the last few elections what you’ve seen is those who talk about affordable housing, about sustainability, are [those] who move forward politically,” he says. “It seems the electorate has made a decision about which way they want to go. So we can enshrine that in our development ordinance or we can hash it out project by project. If you want people to invest in your city, you have to give them some confidence the process is going to work for them.”
“There’s still a lot of question marks around what the final product is going to look like,” Smith adds about the ordinance.
Whether it’s this ordinance or others, the fight about exactly how Asheville should become a sustainable city doesn’t look to die down anytime soon.
— David Forbes, senior reporter