Asheville open space updates approved

SPACE ODDITY: Urban Forestry Commission member Perrin de Jong argued that updates to Asheville’s open space requirements, which were approved during the July 26 Council meeting, are not guaranteed to increase affordable housing and may instead lead to gentrification and higher costs for homebuyers. Photo by Brooke Randle

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.’”


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9 thoughts on “Asheville open space updates approved

  1. Froscari

    FINALLY this city has taken a step towards increasing the housing stock and changing outdated regulations that encouraged low density suburban sprawl. Perrin de Jong and his followers’ opposition to this change has been wrong and misguided from the start. Their sky is falling hysteria is both laughable and infuriating. Kudos to the 6 council members who voted to approve and thumbs down to Ms Roney who needs to grow a spine and stop trying to placate the NIMBYS and “environmentalists” who don’t know what they are talking about.

    • Grant Millin


      In exactly a year we can pull the plug on this senseless Open Space Amendment.

      Section 7.11.4 of the UDO wasn’t halting dense development in Asheville. Now the inevitable build out of every potential lot and square foot in Asheville will just accelerate.

      The amendment of 7.11.4 was supposedly about fixing the racial wealth gap in Asheville according to Vaidila Satvika and Todd Okolichany. Every word, idea, and supposed metric associated with the 7.11.4 amendment can be thrown back in the faces of the people who absolutely had to make it happen. The council members and Debra Campbell deserve to own the outcome here too.

      I don’t hang out with Kim Roney or vote for her; but she can be right in certain ways. Hiring a COA forestry specialist to witness the reduction of green space is indeed sad, ludicrous, and heinous. Of course that individual could have done an analysis on the 7.11.4 amendment impacts.

      Barry Bialik is an example of a subject matter expert being on a COA advisory board… but the self-interested party aspect does mesh with the public interest role of COA.

      “For 25 years, [UDO Section 7.11.4] has been putting significant downward pressure on housing in Asheville,” Satvika said at the July 26 meeting. Vaidila! Look at all the development over the past 25 years! Both heinous and ludicrous policy, all at once.

  2. R.G.

    No one in Asheville was complaining about the lack of housing stock 25 years ago. Nor were they complaining in 2008-09 when properties were being given away with great tax incentives. People are only bitching now because Asheville is way underpriced to those who can afford to buy with cash from out of state–many of whom first visit here as tourists begged by the TDA to come. We will only get a few hundred units and a much hotter downtown with these amendments that are a gift to developers. In the future (who knows when?), Asheville might become less attractive to tourists and then the people can finally get reparations in the form of some deserted hotels. All that said, it’s ridiculous and downright criminal that the city could not at least hire our urban forester before making this decision. Kudos to Kim Roney for once again seeing beyond the present hysteria.

    • NIMBY

      Asheville should pause everything until we get the urban forester hired. But, while we’re at it, the City should pause until the Mayoral election is completed. Then we should pause until the County’s comprehensive plan is done. And on. And on. And on.

      It would be “downright criminal” not to. #MakeAshevilleGreatAgain

      That’s what you sound like.

    • Peter Robbins

      You can still salvage something from all this policy misfeasance, R.G. Why not postpone any further criticism of the City Council’s vote until after the urban forester has been hired and can assess whether the open-space reform interferes in any way with enforcement of the existing tree-protection ordinance? You do think only an urban forester can rationally make that judgment, don’t you? Hey, it’s downright criminal for anyone to venture an opinion without her expertise, right? And you’ve assured us — based on the highest authority (your gut) — that hardly any housing development at all will result from this reform ever. A few months before the inevitable repeal can’t possibly make any difference, can it? Think of the energy savings. For all of us.

  3. AndyPAvl

    This is welcome news. It’s an incremental change, and we’re going to need more so that we can grow our much-needed housing supply without sprawling out and increasing car-dependency.

    Opponents of the amendment misunderstood it—and likely didn’t read it. Our neighbors need to face the facts— when cities don’t change and grow with the times, their demographics *do* change, which is to say that everyone who isn’t wealthy (and by extension, white) gets priced out.

    • Grant Millin

      Whoever ‘AndyPAVL’ really is.

      This is more… more ‘Magical Growth Math’ bamboozlement.

      I followed the UDO 7.11.4 process and read the documents and COA presentations. It’s a Buncombe Shuffle.

      • kw

        Only time will tell…but contrary to what andy thinks, many intelligent people read the thing but still think that we should have had our new urban forester onboard, among a great many other things, before setting Asheville up in this way…there really could come a time (though not likely for years) when it becomes pretty crummy here in shangrila and tourism diminishes or even dies (for a variety of reasons–climate, fuel costs, future pandemics) and then there will be lots of places for folks to live downtown for andy and his bunch to put all us ‘non-whites’ (who appreciate trees and open space) on whose behalf white andy believes he has the authority to speak.


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