At home in Shiloh: Venerable community fights encroachment

Shiloh AME Zion Church, built in 1926 to replace an earlier wooden structure moved to the site from land purchased by George Vanderbilt for his estate. Photo by Virginia Daffron

To Norma Baynes, Shiloh is simply home. “When I walk on my porch and look up at the sky, it feels peaceful. ‘Shiloh’ is biblical: It means ‘the peaceful one.’”

No wonder Baynes feels at home here: She grew up in Shiloh with her grandparents, Daniel and Rossie Singleton. A registered nurse who retired from the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 1996, Baynes returned to Asheville around the time that residents were gearing up to create the Shiloh Community Plan 2025, in partnership with the city of Asheville. She’s served as the community’s spokesperson and liaison ever since.

Alongside many longtime Shiloh residents who’ve since “gone on to glory,” notes Baynes, she worked to help develop the community plan over the course of nine years. Adopted by City Council on Sept. 14, 2010, the document reflects the neighborhood’s vision for maintaining and furthering its quality of life.

Over 140 years of history

Nestled between Sweeten Creek and Hendersonville roads, today’s Shiloh is bounded by Interstate 40 on the north and Rock Hill Road to the south. But this isn’t the community’s original location.

At the end of the Civil War, African-American farmers established “Old Shiloh” on land that’s now part of Biltmore Estate. That community was mostly situated between Hendersonville Road and Cedarcliff Road and the area where Biltmore House now sits, says Bill Alexander, landscape and forest historian for The Biltmore Co.

George Vanderbilt, working through his agent Charles McNamee, bought 25 to 30 parcels from African-American landowners as he assembled the property that became his estate. Alexander’s research suggests that Vanderbilt paid well above the going rate for the land, which had been cleared of timber and had poor soil. For example, McNamee paid $1,000 for the acre of land on which the Shiloh African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church stood. The money covered the cost of purchasing a new two-acre site, moving and re-erecting a white former Presbyterian church building to become the new Shiloh AME Zion Church and relocating the church cemetery.

“New Shiloh” was built just east of Hendersonville Road, close to two existing African-American communities. Maps in the Biltmore archives show “Rock Hill Colored Village,” made up of about 30 houses, and “Petersburgh Village,” near the present-day junction of Sweeten Creek and West Chapel roads, with about 50 cabins. “I believe that both of those communities were established following the Civil War when the old Henry Stevens plantation (approximately 1,166 acres located mostly between Hendersonville Road and Sweeten Creek) was divided by his widow and children,” says Alexander. “Stevens’ family history shows that they provided land and helped build houses and a church for their former slaves.”

Vanderbilt also purchased a new site for the church: its current location on Shiloh Road. After compensating congregation members for their labor in connection with the move, McNamee returned the balance of the funds from the church land sale to the congregation.

In a letter to McNamee, Shiloh AME Zion’s pastor expressed “our heartfelt thanks for the New Shiloh Church which you have given us for our former Shiloh which we sold to you. …We pray that you and Mr. Vanderbilt may live long to do good in our community.”

This mid- to late-1800s building was a former Presbyterian Church given by Vanderbilt to the Shiloh AME Zion Church. Shiloh residents moved the building from its original location near the French Broad River to the present-day site, where it is seen in this photo. This structure was preceded by an even earlier log building.
This mid- to late-1800s building was a former Presbyterian Church given by Vanderbilt to the Shiloh AME Zion Church. Shiloh residents moved the building from its original location near the French Broad River to the present-day site, where it is seen in this photo. This structure was preceded by an even earlier log building. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville, N.C.

Shiloh AME Zion, Rock Hill Baptist and Brooklyn Mission churches formed the cornerstones of the new community’s life.

Early Shiloh residents pursued a variety of trades, notes community historian Anita White-Carter. Many worked in Biltmore Forest or as laborers on the estate. Others were midwives, ministers and shopkeepers. Despite tedious jobs and long working hours, community members made special efforts to lend time and support to activities for neighborhood children, says the retired UNCA librarian.

Shiloh Elementary School, partly funded by Julius Rosenwald of Sears, Roebuck & Co., became another important social and cultural center. The philanthropist gave money for thousands of schools and libraries for poor blacks across the South. From 1927 until the 1960s, Shiloh Elementary served African-American students from Asheville and communities as far away as Arden, Concord, Fletcher and Weaverville.

After desegregation, the building became Shiloh’s community center, providing after-school and summer activities for young people and programs for senior citizens. The center has a library, a fitness room and outdoor facilities.

In 2005, Lawrence Wilson, the Shiloh Community League’s sole surviving trustee, donated land at 59 Hampton St. to the Shiloh Community Association for a community garden. Wilson died in 2014, and that same year, the Tupelo Honey Café partnered with other donors to build an outdoor kitchen and an amphitheater that was dedicated to his memory.

Threat of encroachment

With reasonable property values, relatively gentle topography and major thoroughfares close at hand, Shiloh presents an attractive target for development in a city that’s increasingly squeezed for land.

This is nothing new: Since its accidental annexation by Asheville in 1954 (apparently due to a clerical error in the state attorney general’s office), the neighborhood has often been the focus of development plans.

In 1972, the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission rejected a request to rezone a 31-acre tract lying between Sweeten Creek and Caribou roads for an industrial park, opting to retain the area’s residential zoning.

But the Appeldoorn condominium complex off Brooklyn Road was a different story. Completed in 2007, the project found both opponents and supporters in the community. Norma Baynes feels the nearly 500-unit complex is out of step with Shiloh’s modest single-family homes, many of which feature hospitable front porches.

Fear of further encroachment, in fact, was one of the primary motivations for creating the Shiloh community plan, which notes, “Development pressures on the edge of the community can lead to increased pressure in the historic core.”

A contentious issue

That statement proved prophetic when, earlier this year, developers proposed a massive self-storage facility at 890 Hendersonville Road (between the Colton Mattress factory and Mission Health). The site, which is owned by Charles D. Owen III and Joe Brumit, consists of two separate plots.

The Hendersonville Road parcel, which accounts for 40 percent of the project area, is zoned highway business, allowing buildings of up to 100,000 square feet. The second plot, accessible from Forest and Cornell streets, is zoned office, which permits buildings of up to 8,000 square feet but not self-storage facilities.

According to a memo from city Planning Director Todd Okolichany, the zoning designation is intended “to reserve areas for development of small-scale office uses adjacent to residential uses. This district may serve as a transition between residential and commercial areas.”

To accommodate the proposed 89,000-square-foot structure, the developer asked the city to rezone the office portion of the site as highway business. Spread over three levels, the facility would feature 700 storage units staffed by two employees. Customers and employees would access it via driveways on Forest and Cornell streets; no Hendersonville Road access was proposed.

The Planning and Zoning Commission reviewed the proposal on Aug. 5. Three Forest Street residents spoke against it, and city planner Vaidila Satvika read a letter from another resident, Carol Romano, opposing the project. Commissioner Joe Minicozzi pointed out that the proposed structure would be 11 times larger than the maximum allowed under office zoning.

The commission unanimously recommended that City Council deny the developer’s conditional zoning application on the grounds that it was inconsistent with both the city’s comprehensive plan and the community’s own plan. The Planning Department later made the same recommendation.

Undaunted, the project team took its case directly to the residents, meeting with the Shiloh Community Association on Sept. 14 and with another group of residents on Nov. 6.

By the time the matter came before City Council on Nov. 10, lines had been drawn, with powerful supporters on both sides.

City Council gets an earful

Lou Bissette knows a thing or two about bringing an issue before City Council: The former mayor is a partner in one of Asheville’s most prominent law firms, and his client list “includes some of the region’s biggest players,” according to the firm’s website.

On behalf of Taylor/Theus Holdings of Columbia, S.C., Bissette urged Council to consider the difference between the proposed project — which he said “looks a lot like a nice office building” that would generate only a modest amount of traffic, noise and light pollution — versus what could be built on the highway business portion of the property under current zoning.

“Any convenience store could be built there by right,” noted Bisette. “The people who own this property, they’re going to sell it. If it’s determined that this won’t fly, they’re going to go straight to what’s a matter of right, and I think that would be a bad thing for the community.”

Bissette also pointed out that the property is located on the periphery of the community, relatively distant from Shiloh’s historic core.

When Mayor Esther Manheimer opened the public hearing, Baynes, the community liaison, stepped up to the lectern. “We are in the middle, nowhere to go,” she noted, adding, “If the commercial businesses continue to encroach into Shiloh, we will not exist.”

Baynes confirmed that several members of the project team, including Owen, had spoken at the community association’s meeting. But after the team had left, she reported, the organization’s executive committee voted 6-3 to oppose the project.

“We are asking City Council, on behalf of Shiloh, to keep our historic community intact,” concluded Baynes.

Shiloh resident Bennie Norman-McIntosh spoke next, and she didn’t mince words, citing concerns about the additional traffic on Forest and Cornell streets. Norman-McIntosh also disputed the project team’s contention that the new facility would be good for the neighborhood. “This building is going to be storage units: It would not benefit us,” she said. “There’s only two jobs; we can’t afford to pay $200 a month to rent a storage building. The only people in Shiloh who can do this are the drug dealers. That’s probably who will be renting these buildings, and people from elsewhere. But as far as putting it in our neighborhood, put something in our neighborhood that’ll benefit us. If other folks want it, put it in their neighborhood,” she admonished City Council, adding, “I am really upset with them walking over our plan like the plan doesn’t even exist. They just come here and say, ‘We’re going to do it.’”

But Faye Reynolds, who’s lived in Shiloh for 67 years, had a different view, saying she and a number of other residents had signed a petition supporting the project. Shiloh property owner Phyllis Williams-Green also spoke in favor of the facility, commenting that it was one of the best development proposals she’d seen in years.

Documents submitted to Council by the developer support the claim that at least 15 residents signed a statement of support for the project. And Donalee Hicks, the 100-year-old homeowner whose property abuts the rear of the project site, sent a letter through her son that said: “We wish to void our previous letter concerning the … storage project. … The buffer zone is very nice. Due to further considerations, we are not against the storage project.”

Bird in the hand?

“We must make this decision based on what is before us, not on what might happen in the future,” Council member Gordon Smith told his colleagues as they considered the matter. “I understand the fears about what could go there; that’s why I’m glad we’re going to revisit the comprehensive plan this year. We need to be trying to get what’s best for our community rather than avoiding the worst. When a community has come together and created a plan, it’s up to us to abide by it.”

Council member Chris Pelly, meanwhile, said that such neighborhood planning efforts “define a community’s vision for how to grow over time. Shiloh has done that; it’s what’s in effect right now. The proposed project clearly violates the tenets of that plan.”

But Vice Mayor Marc Hunt, who lost a re-election bid last month, called the decision “a judgment call,” warning, “The development pressure in this corridor could create a worse outcome.”

In the end, though, Council denied the conditional zoning request on a 5-2 vote, with Hunt and outgoing Council member Jan Davis dissenting.

Sharing the vision

Sophie Dixon, president of the Shiloh Community Association, says she’s glad about the outcome.

“We definitely appreciate the city’s support in upholding our plan. This is a different Council than the one that approved our plan back in 2010, so it’s wonderful that they see the value in what we created,” notes Dixon, who was unable to attend the Council meeting due to recent knee-replacement surgery.

Dixon has lived in Shiloh for over 50 years, but she grew up in Stumptown, an African-American neighborhood bulldozed in the 1970s to make way for development, including Montford Park. The dislocation Dixon experienced then shaped her commitment to neighborhood advocacy: “That’s how we know the value of having a plan,” she says.

Like many former Stumptown residents, Dixon moved to Hillcrest Apartments public housing after her neighborhood was destroyed by the urban renewal project. Federal Housing Administration funds built the single-family home Dixon and her husband eventually bought in Shiloh. Now, however, with her grown children living elsewhere, Dixon is depending on neighbors and friends to help out as she recuperates from surgery.

Once she’s back on her feet, Dixon expects to resume her work as financial manager and customer service representative for WRES, a local low-power radio station. She’s also active in the local chapter of the NAACP.

Shiloh’s opposition to the storage facility, Dixon is quick to point out, wasn’t a fight against development. “We are not trying to prevent anyone from using their property,” she explains. “If it’s zoned for a certain use, then we have no problem with it.”

Dixon also has no hard feelings toward those of her neighbors who supported the project. “Everyone has a right to their opinion,” she says. “We have a holiday celebration coming up, and we’ll all be back together then. This issue has not divided us.”

Baynes, too, says the community remains united. She’s looking forward to expanding outreach efforts to increase residents’ awareness of the Shiloh Community Plan and the vision that drove its creation.

Change, notes Dixon, is happening all the time, and “that’s not a bad thing.” And Shiloh, she reflects, is “nothing fancy. We’re just people trying to be a community.”


Editor’s note:
A reader, Sidney Finkel, wrote in to tell us that he owns a unit in the Grove at Appeldoorn condominiums. Mr. Finkel clarified that the development contains a total of 168 units in seven buildings. The units are all owner-occupied. A property manager for the complex with Baldwin Real Estate confirmed Mr. Finkel’s account.


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About Virginia Daffron
Managing editor, lover of mountains, native of WNC. Follow me @virginiadaffron

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2 thoughts on “At home in Shiloh: Venerable community fights encroachment

  1. Graham Paul

    Great article! Thanks for placing the current issue (now resolved, I hope) into the context of Shiloh’s history, as well as giving the hearing such a thorough treatment.

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