More housing, at greater density, may soon be coming to Asheville. At least that’s the hope of Asheville City Council, which voted 6-1 to approve a controversial update to the city’s open space requirements July 26. Council member Kim Roney was the sole vote against the measure.
Open spaces, as defined by city planner Vaidila Satvika during the meeting, are required in residential and commercial construction to provide light and air for environmental, scenic or recreational purposes. Examples include lawns, decorative plantings, walkways, playgrounds, fountains, swimming pools and wooded areas; driveways, parking lots and other driveable areas don’t count.
Under the city’s former open space rules, developers building eight or more residential homes or apartments were required to dedicate the greater of either 500 square feet per unit or 15% of the total parcel to open space. (Developments of seven units or fewer are exempt.) Subdivisions were required 20% of total area to be left as open space. The old rules also did not include stormwater management requirements for infill housing projects.
The newly approved amendment loosens those regulations by reducing the amount of open space required to as little as 5% of the parcel for apartments and as little as 10% for subdivisions. Sites of 1 acre or larger that include affordable housing will also have lower open space requirements. And the new rules create incentives for those properties to include stormwater management measures.
The city had been working on updates to the ordinance for about three years. A task force consisting of members from several city boards and commissions, including the Riverfront Commission, Affordable Housing Advisory Commission, Downtown Commission and others, was formed in 2021 to help address community concerns about the proposed changes. Satvika said that the task force had helped shape the new rules with “full consensus” by its members.
Concern among some community members remained, however. Before the vote, the amendment received both support and criticism from 10 speakers during public comment. Six people opposed the measure, including Urban Forestry Commission member Perrin de Jong, who called the amendment “a deregulatory gift basket of wishlist items for developers.”
Council member Roney said that the affordable housing incentive in the new rules didn’t go far enough. She also argued that Council should wait for a recommendation from the city’s urban forester, who has yet to be hired, on how the policy would impact Asheville’s tree canopy.
“The stormwater incentives are obviously sorely needed. But I wonder if, before loosening the development standards for open space, we could incentivize deeper affordability at 60% of the area median income … and then consider pausing approval until the new urban forester is hired,” Roney said. “I would hate for us to bring a new staff member on board and have this policy and that staff member’s work be in conflict when we have an opportunity to get it right.”
Satvika said that the number of trees on a given property is managed by a separate policy, the Tree Canopy Preservation Ordinance, which was established in September 2020.
Four people supported the change, including Chris Joyell, director of the Healthy Communities program at Asheville-based environmental advocacy nonprofit MountainTrue.
“Our community currently faces two mounting crises, affordable housing and climate change, and these two issues must be addressed in concert,” Joyell said. “While we have serious concerns about the city’s urban tree canopy, we are confident that the Asheville City Council can use the existing tree ordinance to protect our city’s trees.”
Another supporter was Barry Bialik, chair of the city’s Affordable Housing Advisory Committee and owner of Compact Cottages, which builds “missing middle” housing. He said that the city’s former open space requirements had reduced the number of units that he could build. Continuing to wait to change the open space ordinance, he argued, would deepen the city’s affordable housing crisis.
“We talk about a lot of stuff over the years [in regards to] affordable housing and building. And we press pause a lot, we stall a lot,” Bialik said. “Sometimes we need to look at ‘good enough.’”