It was a City Council meeting like no other. With nine people present in the echoing chamber, Council members on March 24 unanimously approved a consent agenda that granted Mayor Esther Manheimer broad emergency powers.
Manheimer, along with Council members Sheneika Smith and Keith Young, attended via phone as their four colleagues in City Hall first passed a measure allowing up to three members to participate in meetings remotely.
The emergency ordinance gives Manheimer — or, in her absence, Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler — authority to regulate nearly any activity “reasonably necessary to maintain order and protect lives or property” during the COVID-19 state of emergency.
Written public comments read by City Clerk Maggie Burleson included exhortations to the mayor to properly exercise her new authority. “I just pray that the mayor uses the new powers with even greater skill. … Feel free to direct APD to maintain order in an effective and just manner,” one said, with another asking Manheimer, “Please do not let us down. The everyday public who live full time in Asheville are in dire straits.” Burleson did not read the names of the commenters.
Burleson said that 96 of the 130 comments received ahead of the meeting concerned the city’s proposed Urban Forestry Master Plan and the hiring of an urban forester. During Council’s March 13 retreat, City Manager Debra Campbell said Asheville’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year did not contain funding for either item, with tree protection instead to come from a new city ordinance.
A commenter also weighed in on the I-26 Connector project, calling current plans to expand bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure a distance of 5 miles “severely inadequate” and advocating for a network of bike and walking paths fully separated from roadways outside the highway expansion project’s immediate area.
Most of the Council’s other business was pushed to its Tuesday, April 14, meeting, including public hearings on the following items:
- A land use incentive grant for affordable apartments on Collier Avenue.
- A historic landmark designation for the Lewie Muller Griffith House on Woodland Road.
- An amendment to the Unified Development Ordinance to update open space requirements.
- A newly introduced proposal to allocate $100,000 from Asheville’s general fund to the One Buncombe Fund, a collaborative economic relief initiative involving Buncombe County, the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, Mountain BizWorks and the Land of Sky Regional Council, in addition to the city. The fund will also serve as a centralized resource to accept and allocate contributions from foundations and private individuals.
Sam Powers, the city’s economic development director, said the details of the One Buncombe Fund were still being worked out. The general idea, he continued, is to provide economic assistance to individuals and small businesses with fewer than 50 employees.
“Thousands of jobs in our community have been reported as furloughed, lost or imperiled. While programs may exist to support members of our community, many of our individuals impacted by COVID-19 will not be eligible,” Powers explained. “People like independent contractors, for example.”
And on the business side, he said, “Many of the businesses impacted by COVID-19 will not be able to sustain operations until disaster relief funding is available.” Local companies could receive low-interest loans of up to $10,000 for immediate operating needs; payments will be deferred for six months.
City Council also voted for the second time to approve conditional zoning changes to the RAD Lofts project. Those changes, which shifted affordability requirements for the 243-unit mixed-use development, passed along the same 4-3 lines as during their first reading on March 10, with Council members Smith, Young and Brian Haynes in opposition.