Disputes over what kinds of residential arrangements should be eligible for the city’s homestay rental program seem likely to get an airing when City Council hears a report on the findings of a task force devoted to that issue next week.
The task force was appointed by City Council earlier this year to develop recommendations for the use of accessory units as short-term rentals. The group is slated to present its conclusions at Council’s regular meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 13. Ahead of that meeting, some members of the task force are raising doubts about the process used by the group and the validity of the outcome. At the same time, other task force members have declined to speak about the matter until after the meeting.
According to a preliminary report of the task force sent to City Council on Nov. 10, eight task force members said they “could live with and support” a recommendation to maintain the city’s current ban on using accessory units as homestays. Six task force members said they could support allowing homestays in accessory units. Since the task force has 12 members, some members voted for both options.
The double voting, along with other concerns about the way the process was handled, are the focus of some task force members’ complaints.
Jackson Tierney, a task force member who owns an accessory unit, wrote in an email to Council member Julie Mayfield, “In my 35-year professional career, I have been on scores of working teams and have participated in well over 100 facilitated meetings. I can confidently say the Asheville ADU Task Force was the most poorly planned, disorganized, inefficient and unprofessional process I have ever been associated with.”
On the other hand, a task force member who asked that Xpress withhold their name until after the Dec. 13 meeting says, “I feel like our process was done perfectly from beginning to end.”
On May 17, Asheville City Council voted 4-3 to continue the city’s policy of restricting homestays to bedrooms within a primary residence. Council members Cecil Bothwell, Brian Haynes and Keith Young cast the opposing votes. At the same time, Council members agreed to appoint a special citizen task force to examine whether the city should expand its homestay program to accessory dwelling units or ADUs.
A homestay is a type of short-term rental in which a homeowner or long-term resident rents no more than two bedrooms to guests. The resident must be present during the rental. City Council expanded the homestay program Nov. 15 last year to make it available to a larger number of city residents.
Renting out a whole house or a separate living unit (including an ADU) on a short-term basis is not permitted in the city (except in the central business district). Violators face fines of up to $500 per day.
Supporters of the prohibition on using an ADU as a homestay cite the city’s tight rental housing market as one reason self-contained units should be used for long-term tenants. Other supporters of the ban argue that allowing more transient guests in residential neighborhoods undermines neighborhood character and creates an unwelcome commercial intrusion.
Those in favor of loosening the homestay rules to include ADUs say homeowners should have the flexibility to use their properties in the way that best suits their individual circumstances. They say homestay rules can be structured to reduce the impact of guests on neighborhoods and manage the number of housing units the practice could remove from the long-term rental market.
City Council appointed 12 members to the task force. Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler explains that Council deliberately sought out a diverse set of viewpoints for the group, including some residents who favor expanding the homestay program to ADUs, others who oppose the idea, neutral but concerned neighbors, and renters.
The city contracted with Ed Manning of Leadership Asheville for $7,250 to serve as the task force’s facilitator. In that role, Manning says he made use of a seven-step facilitation process that aims to “develop a high level of agreement leading to cooperative implementation” and that is characterized by “a collective and collaborative approach.”
Any city-appointed advisory group is subject to laws requiring open public meetings, says attorney Amanda Martin of the N.C. Press Association, including providing public notice of meeting dates and locations and keeping full and accurate meeting minutes. Manning agrees that the meetings were open to the public, but says that he doesn’t know how or whether public notice of meetings was given. “That wasn’t part of my responsibility,” he says.
The task force expected to meet four times, Manning explains. In the end, the group actually met nine times. At the eighth meeting, Manning says, he called a vote. By a show of hands, he says, eight members indicated they could “live with and support” continuing the current ban on using ADUs as homestays (called “core idea one” by the task force). Six members voted they could support allowing ADUs to be used as homestays (“core idea two”). A total of 14 votes were cast among the 12 task force members.
The group had previously agreed that a two-thirds majority, or eight of 12 members, would need to agree on a solution prior to submitting a recommendation to Council, says Manning.
When pressed, Manning clarifies that two members were physically absent when the voting took place. One, he says, voted via a written proxy held by another task force member. Tierney says he cast that proxy vote for John Farquhar. The other absent member, Randall Barnett, cast votes for both options in a telephone call, says Manning.
Manning says he is not able to provide a list of which task force members cast which votes.
Xpress has requested meeting minutes, records related to public notice, copies of task force reports and task force-related correspondence from city officials. With the exception of the task force report dated Nov. 10 (which was attached to the agenda for City Council’s Dec. 13 meeting), these items have not yet been provided.
In his email to Mayfield, Tierney takes issue with the voting process:
For eight meetings, all the members of the task force had the understanding that there would be one vote per person (seems logical, right?). But we were informed during the voting in the last ten minutes of the eighth (!) meeting that we had as many votes as there were solutions! Mass confusion ensued and several task force members got angry (myself included). Ed quickly adjourned the meeting and a firestorm ensued via email.
This revelation at the nth hour caused great angst because, if this voting scheme (apparently in the facilitator’s head only) was understood by all team members from the first meeting, it would have changed how solutions were brought up, discussed and packaged. If we could have as many votes as solutions, there wouldn’t be any [deterrent] to bringing up more solutions and pushing the bounds of what was possible. (Note: In reality, if Ed explained his process of multiple votes per person, I and many others would not have agreed to it.)
Kama Ward, another task force member, also shared concerns about the voting with Wisler via email (Xpress obtained access to the email through another individual, not Ward):
Second to last meeting: Ed tells us to vote on one or both solutions! No one knew that. The anti-, pro- and neutral-STR people were equally confused. [Because] Randall [Barnett] was out of town, Ed read a text or email from his smartphone to the group: Randall “I vote for core two”. We left that meeting with a 7-7 vote and agreed to present both core ideas. Ed said he had not let Randall know that he could vote for both, and that he would talk to him and see if he wanted to vote for core idea one as well.
A few days later: Ed informed us by email Oct. 28: “I did speak with Randall when he returned and he said he could live with and support both core ideas. I need to caution against saying this is a final vote. This does show that two-thirds of the task force could live with and support core idea one, with six saying they could live with and support core idea two. Given this split and the discussion held in our last meeting, we agreed that both ideas would be brought forward to Council.”
Speaking to Xpress, Barnett says he feels he was misled into a vote upholding the ban. The city ought to want to base its decision on a “fair, transparent process,” he continues, and the process the task force used was neither. If Barnett’s vote saying he could live with core idea one were omitted from the total, the count would be seven votes for that option. In that case, the eight-vote two-thirds majority would break down.
In response to task force members critical of the voting process, Manning says that some of those who were dissatisfied with the outcome tried to make an “end run” by reopening the deliberations. Manning also comments that “focusing on where there’s conflict” might “sell newspapers” but shifts attention away from “the amount of great work this group did.”
“They came together and put aside their beliefs and prejudgements. It’s a complex issue, no question,” he says.
Citing an agreement among the group to refrain from commenting publicly before the group’s presentation to City Council, task force member David Rodgers declines to express an opinion about the process or the outcome. Rodgers writes by email, “I will say this. None of us got exactly what we wanted. We all made compromises. There are things in the final recommendation I am not thrilled with, but I recognize we can’t all have everything our own way. That’s why we had a facilitated group working hard to find a recommendation eight of 12 of us could support and live with.”
But Tierney notes that no one can give a definitive accounting of how the vote shook out. “There was a lot of voting that was outside of the public eye,” he says, and no full count was available prior to end of the eighth meeting. “I find that problematic,” he says.
City residents whose livelihoods might be affected by Council’s decision on this issue, Tierney continues, ought to at least know how task force members voted. Attorney Martin, however, says that while state law requires meeting minutes to reflect the outcome of a vote, the law doesn’t spell out a requirement to list how each member voted.
Xpress attempted to contact each of the task force members. The members are listed below; those not quoted in this article either declined to comment or did not respond:
- Randall Barnett
- Greta Bush
- Wendy Dean
- John Farquhar
- Israel Hill
- Jane Mathews
- Barber Melton
- Kelly Prime
- David Rodger
- Jackson Tierney
- Kama Ward
- Carter Webb
Frayda Bluestein of the UNC Chapel Hill School of Government points out that City Council is not legally bound to accept the recommendation of any appointed task force, board or committee. In making its decision, she says, it’s up to Council to judge whether the vote taken by the task force represents the will of the group. And either way, Council members are free to base any actions they may elect to take on the merits of the issue, Bluestein says.
In Tierney’s view, given the questions surrounding the task force process, the effort resulted in a stalemate. Ultimately, he says, Council must “do what it was elected to do, which is to make a hard choice.”
City Council will hear a presentation on the issue during the presentations and reports portion of its regular meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 13, which starts at 5 p.m. in Council chambers on the second floor of City Hall.