In many aspects, Asheville Planning and Zoning Commission Chair Joe Archibald is a conventional development board member. He is a licensed architect who owns Narwhal Design|Build, a residential design and construction firm. He’s white, male and a transplant to Asheville, having first arrived in 1995 and then settled for good after a brief absence in 2013.
But one important quality gives him a perspective unique from those of his six fellow commission members.
“I’m not a homeowner. I’m a renter,” Archibald declared at a January PZC meeting, during a discussion about whether to approve conditional zoning for a 45-unit apartment building, proposed by Haywood Street Community Development, that would offer 100% of units as affordable to residents earning 30%-80% of the area median income in perpetuity.
“Three years ago, I would have qualified to live in this project,” he added.
According to board members like Archibald and local officials, the makeup of the Asheville and Buncombe County bodies that have the greatest impact on large-scale development — the city’s PZC and Design Review Committee and the county Board of Adjustment — has recently become more diverse. “It’s more diverse than it has been in the 4 1/2 years I’ve been here,” Archibald says, citing in particular the recent appointments of native Black Ashevilleans Robert Hoke and Kelsey Simmons to the PZC.
(In 2021, according to a demographic report compiled by the city, 22% of all board members identified as African American or Black, an increase of 4 percentage points from 2020. Males made up 58% of board members, up 2 percentage points from 2020.)
“The thinking used to be, you put some architects on there. And you’d want to have a real estate investor, or a developer, or someone who’s a real estate agent, or you’d have some prominent business owner,” says Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer. “We’ve recognized that you need a Planning and Zoning Commission that’s more reflective of your community.”
Yet Archibald’s status as the only renter on the PZC highlights economic class as one crucial area where diverse representation is lacking. Occupational diversity is also low: Only Commissioner Jenifer Bubenik, a store manager, has a job unrelated to development. Similarly, only three members of the seven regular and seven alternate members of the county Board of Adjustment have backgrounds unrelated to development or law; all seven members of the city DRC work in architecture, real estate or development.
To have a diverse board, there first needs to be a diverse pool of applicants. That starts with alerting as broad a swath of the community as possible about board vacancies.
City residents can sign up to receive monthly vacancy announcements by email or visit the city’s Boards and Commissions page at avl.mx/a4h. According to Assistant City Clerk Jerri Goldberg, flyers regarding vacancies also go out to local media and several area religious leaders. The county lists its own vacancies for the current year on its Boards and Commissions page at avl.mx/brh.
However, Goldberg also says that current board members and city staff offer recommendations for new members at multiple stages of the application process. That practice may make it more difficult for outsider applicants to stand out.
“We ask members of current boards to reach out to their networks for people who may be eligible, qualified and interested,” Goldberg explains. Members also make recommendations to City Council’s Board and Commissions Committee, which then submits its own preferred members to the full Council.
Since 2016, the city’s boards and commissions application has asked whether the applicant is a renter or homeowner in addition to more standard demographic questions. “We know about half of our population rents,” Manheimer says, “and we want to get that balance reflected on [all] our boards, not just Planning and Zoning.” Of all board members, 68% were homeowners and 24% renters as of 2021; the remaining 7% percent either completed their application before 2016 or chose not to respond.
At Buncombe County government, spokesperson Kassi L. Day says that county commissioners now select members for the Board of Adjustment with the county’s Racial Equity Action Plan in mind. Unanimously approved by the commissioners in June 2021, the plan explicitly recommends increasing the diversity of representation on county boards. (Of the Board of Adjustment’s 14 members, 11 are white, and one did not provide racial identity.)
However, Day continues, the commissioners also try to “seek members who have expertise in the law, real estate, surveying and engineering, as well as striving to create a balance in the membership with folks who have backgrounds like finance, education and other fields.” This is due to the board’s quasi-judicial function, which requires board members to act as judges and consider sworn testimony that qualifies as legal evidence when ruling on development items.
Three of the 14 board members have a legal background. Two are real estate agents; six work or worked in development; and one each work in the financial, insurance and educational fields.
When many of those making decisions on area development are themselves involved in the industry, members risk encountering conflicts of interest. Asheville’s Boards and Commissions Orientation Booklet states that “no member of a board shall participate in the discussion or vote on any item involving their own official conduct or financial interest” and notes that individual members are responsible for disclosing any potential conflicts.
Upon such disclosure, other board members vote on whether to recuse the individual from voting. According to available minutes from February 2020 to last month, only two members of the PZC have been recused over that period: Archibald twice and Geoffrey Barton, director of real estate development at Mountain Housing Opportunities, twice.
When in doubt, the commission appears to err on the side of recusal. One of Barton’s recusals occurred because a hotel developer coming before the board had donated money to a playground on a separate affordable housing development involving Mountain Housing Opportunities. “There is a process, and it works to maintain the integrity of the decisions,” Barton says.
Six recusals have occurred on the Design Review Committee since its formation in May 2021. Half of these recusals — for real estate broker Jeremy Goldstein, landscape architect Stephen Lee Johnson and Christina Booher, designer at Laura Hudson Architecture — concerned just one development, the proposed Artful Way mixed-use building in the River Arts District, in April.
Minutes for the county’s Board of Adjustment meetings are not accessible online. When asked for those documents, Day said they were “still in the approval process, and once approved, they will be available from the planning website.”
Voices in the room
Barton acknowledges that there’s room for greater diversity on development boards, particularly regarding the income of members. “A lot of times we’re trying to approve multifamily apartments that would serve people who aren’t yet able to come and speak [because] they currently live in Haywood County or Madison County [and] can’t afford to live close to their job,” he points out.
But in the meantime, he tries to communicate the perspectives of lower-income people like the residents he works with at Mountain Housing Opportunities. “Even though I’m not a tenant in one of our apartments, I see my role as reflecting those voices,” Barton says.
“We strive for greater and greater access … in creating ways to sustain the conversation out in the community,” Manheimer says. The city’s communications team, she continues, alerts neighborhood organizations when significant developments in their area are proposed and liaises with them during the process.
As one recent example, Manheimer points to the Emma community’s successful appeal to the PZC and City Council not to include a planned Ingles development on Patton Avenue in the city’s Urban Place Zoning, which would have required greater density and encouraged housing development on the site. Emma residents had argued that such development could increase their property taxes and eventually lead to their displacement.
PZC Chair Archibald stresses that part of his job as a commissioner is to be available to any member of the public seeking to understand the commission and its workings better. Anyone can email the entire commission via the PZC website, he notes.
“If anybody ever has a question regarding [the] process or something that’s going to be before planning and zoning, people can certainly reach out.”