While Asheville City Council’s deliberations at its Sept. 27 meeting didn’t result in any immediate tweaks to zoning rules that control what gets built downtown, the elected officials reached consensus on reworking some of the finer points of the development review process. Those changes could have major implications down the road, both downtown and in the city as a whole.
In response to community concerns that the pace of development in downtown Asheville is exceeding the city’s ability to plan for or oversee it, Council asked the planning and urban design department to study possible changes to the sizes of projects City Council reviews at the end of last year.
Some in the community have complained that a 2011 increase in the size of the projects Council considers and approves has removed public control over building activity, contributing to a frenzy of new development that threatens to change the character of downtown and make the city unaffordable to those earning moderate or low incomes. Because Council only reviews downtown projects taller than 145 feet or larger than 175,000 square feet, many of the new buildings that have generated local consternation — including most of the city’s crop of recently built hotels — have not required Council approval.
Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler declared Sept. 27 Aviation Careers Day. A group of students and faculty in the Aviation Management and Career Pilot Technology program at A-B Tech described the program and their own career objectives.
Mayor Esther Manheimer declared Oct. 10, the second Monday in October, Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Previously known as Columbus Day, the holiday’s new name was approved last year by Council to recognize the contributions and importance of indigenous peoples and to acknowledge the injustices those groups have experienced. Vice Chief Richard Sneed of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Assistant Professor Trey Adcock of UNC Asheville were among those present for the proclamation.
Council then unanimously approved a resolution in support of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, which has been protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which crosses the tribe’s lands in North Dakota. “The tribe maintains that they were never consulted about the project as required by federal regulations which govern the Army Corps of Engineers when issuing federal permits. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe also have several cultural sites, burials and historic sites which would be negatively impacted by the pipeline project,” the resolution explains.
Gilliam Jackson, a member of the Eastern Band, told Council he had traveled to North Dakota two weeks ago to participate in the protests. The Standing Rock Sioux’s actions, he said, have signaled that it’s time to look more closely at a range of issues affecting the environment, including water resources and the impact of using fossil fuels on climate change.
Council passed its consent agenda unanimously. Within the consent agenda, the body set an Oct. 11 public hearing for the consideration of Land Use Incentive Grants for the Beaucatcher Commons affordable housing project on Simpson Street, and approved a contract for the design phase of the North Fork Dam improvement project and utility easements between the city and Duke Energy Progress in the River Arts District along Riverside Drive.
Karen Korp of Asheville Sister Cities presented a review of the organization’s activities over the past year. The organization has sponsored exchange travel between Asheville and several cities, including Karpenisi, Greece and San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico. Korp told Council that the organization continues to be very active and vibrant, and that it needs an office location downtown to fulfill its mission. The organization’s former offices at 33-35 Page Ave., a city-owned building, were recently demolished due to the poor condition of the structure.
Council considered a request from the Greater Works Church of God to re-establish a place of worship at its property at 25 Forsythe St., a 1.44 acre parcel with a church building in the Five Points neighborhood. According to city planner Jessica Bernstein, the church requested an alternate zoning compliance plan with smaller setbacks and buffer zones than are typically allowed in residential areas, as well as a larger number of parking spaces. She said the planning department had received several letters in support of the proposal from the church’s neighbors. The church allows residents to use the parking lot, she said, which is an important benefit in the densely-built area with limited street parking.
Council approved the request unanimously.
Planner Shannon Tuch explained a zoning amendment to limit the height of structures within the navigable airspace of the Asheville Regional Airport. Federal standards limiting the height of buildings within the approach and departure pathways that extend beyond the airport property apply regardless of whether municipalities call out those standards in their ordinances, Tuch said. Adding the height limitations to the city zoning code would be a precautionary measure, she continued, which could help avoid any unintentional violations. Council approved the amendment unanimously.
After Council’s Dec. 8 request to gather public input on current downtown development review standards, Director of Planning and Urban Design Todd Okolichany told Council, his department conducted a number of public meetings and outreach measures.
The public input encompassed four issues, Okolichany said:
- the project size that triggers Council review of downtown projects
- the nature of Council’s review of projects in the traditional downtown core versus the larger Central Business District (the former is a conditional zoning process, while the latter is a conditional use permit process)
- the possibility of establishing a different standard for reviewing hotel projects
- the possibility of requiring more meetings between the community and the developer prior to public zoning meetings, and requiring those community meetings to take place well in advance of public meetings.
Council member Cecil Bothwell suggested reviewing projects over 100′ tall or 100,000 square feet (versus the current 145′ or 175,000 square feet). In light of an expected development boom in areas like the River Arts District and West Asheville, he continued, “I would like to see it extended across the city.”
Recognizing that the context in which development takes place is continually changing, Council member Gordon Smith said, it is likely that future Councils will need to revisit the size thresholds, but “100,000 square feet makes sense to me.”
“In 2010, we were in a very different place in terms of what were trying to encourage in terms of development,” commented Council member Julie Mayfield. Today, she said, Council should have more involvement in overseeing proposed projects. She also favored establishing one standard that would apply throughout the city.
As consensus emerged around the size of projects Council will review, Wisler asked whether council members would favor changing the type of review to a conditional zoning process throughout the city. Currently, projects over 175,000 square feet are reviewed through a conditional use permit process, which forbids communication between Council members and the development team prior to the public hearing. During the hearing, Council members must approve or deny the project based on seven standards, which means Council has limited discretion or power to negotiate alternative conditions.
Manheimer replied that she would prefer a conditional zoning process for all projects; other Council members agreed.
Council moved on to the question of how it might exercise greater control over hotel development projects. Council members agreed with Manheimer’s suggestion that Council should review hotels with more than 20 or 25 rooms; they also quickly decided that the review should extend throughout the city and not be limited to downtown.
Smith pointed out that he has advocated working with Buncombe County and the Tourism Development Authority to undertake a sustainable tourism study to determine how much tourism is enough for the city and the county. “But until that conversation happens, we’re still not going to get where we are trying to go,” he commented.
While Mayfield agreed with the idea of reviewing all but the smallest hotel projects, she said, “This doesn’t quite get at everything I’ve heard people express concerns about in terms of downtown development.” Establishing greater control over hotel construction, she continued, “doesn’t get at preserving the historic fabric and feel of downtown,” with its characteristic mix of small and older buildings.
Manheimer said Council will take up the issue of establishing design guidelines for downtown development in the future.
Finally, Council agreed with Okolichany’s recommendation, which he said arose out of public input, that public notification of meetings concerning new development projects be expanded.
Based on the direction provided by Council, Okolichany said he would direct staff to move forward with drafting new zoning language and beginning the process of shepherding the changes through the various departments and commissions that must weigh in on significant changes in city regulations.
According to the Action Agenda from the meeting released by City Clerk Maggie Burleson on Wednesday morning, Council’s requested actions included:
- Consensus of Council to direct staff to prepare a wording amendment to the Unified Development Ordinance to amend the development review threshold of Level II projects to 20,000 square feet to 100,000 square feet or under 100 feet tall throughout the City.
- Consensus of Council to direct staff to prepare a wording amendment to Unified Development Ordinance to amend the development review threshold of Level III projects throughout the City to anything over 100,000 squarefeet or 100 feet tall, which would require a rezoning and which would follow that process; and to establish certain incentive criteria for developers wishing to build residential.
- Consensus of Council to direct staff to explore using the rezoning process outside of the Central Business District, especially in areas where mutual agreement would like to be reached.
- Consensus of Council to direct staff to prepare a wording amendment to the Unified Development Ordinance to make lodging facilities with 20-25 or more rooms throughout the City a use which would require a rezoning and which would follow that process.
- Consensus of Council to direct staff to prepare a wording amendment to the Unified Development Ordinance to increase public notification for Level II and Level III projects in accordance with staff’s recommendations.
Council considered a request from Pisgah Legal Services to rent facilities at the city-owned U.S. Cellular Center at a reduced rate for the organization’s sixth annual Poverty Forum on Oct. 5 featuring speaker Marian Wright Edelman.
The Poverty Forum has previously been held at the Diana Wortham Theater, which is not large enough to accommodate the crowd expected to attend this year’s forum due to the popularity of the speaker.
Wisler objected to awarding special funding outside of the city’s extensive review process for nonprofit partnerships. “Through the budget process,” she said, “we consider a lot of requests from nonprofits, and we have to turn down a lot. So I don’t think it’s equitable to pull Pisgah Legal out and give them a partnership outside of our regular process.”
Mayfield said she understood that concern, but one thing that’s busting Pisgah Legal’s budget for this event is the U.S. Cellular Center’s policy against serving donated wine and beer. The center’s General Manager, Chris Corl, explained that obtaining a special permit from the Alcoholic Board of Control to allow Pisgah Legal to serve donated alcohol would require at least 90 days.
Smith and Bothwell pledged personal contributions toward the event, while Manheimer said she would ask her law firm whether it could help offset some of the increased cost. In the final vote, Mayfield and Brian Haynes voted in favor of Pisgah Legal’s request, while the other five members voted against the request, which was denied.
Council adjourned to a closed session at 7 p.m.