In a session that saw passage of revisions to the city’s Homestay ordinance for short-term lodging and approval of an extension of the management contract for the Asheville bus system, the first order of business was to make clear what wouldn’t be discussed: a new ordinance to establish buffering requirements for downtown utility substations.
Over the weekend and on Monday, Nov. 16, Mayor Esther Manheimer brokered a deal between Duke Energy and the city. Duke Energy promised not to apply before January 2017 for construction permits for any of the three downtown sites the company has purchased for use as utility substations. Duke also committed to working with city leaders to identify an alternative to its site adjacent to Isaac Dickson Elementary school. In return, the city agreed to delay public hearings on new utility substation zoning regulations until Aug. 23, 2016.
Council recognized outgoing members Jan Davis, Marc Hunt and Chris Pelly for their service to the city.
Davis served on City Council for 12 years, part of which time he served as Vice Mayor. Davis, a business owner, said he was amazed at the positive changes in the city over the course of his time in office. He cited the city’s AAA credit rating and continuing growth as proof of the great strides Asheville has made. To incoming council members, Davis offered some unsolicited advice: “Get to know the city employees. Our employees are what make this city great.”
“This work is challenging. It can be gut-wrenching at times,” said outgoing Vice Mayor Marc Hunt. Observing first-hand Mayor Manheimer’s leadership, he continued, has been one of the great experiences of his tenure. “This compromise with Duke Energy is just one of the ways Esther has understood how to lead,” Hunt observed.
Hunt congratulated new council members Julie Mayfield, Keith Young and Bryan Haynes, saying he greatly admires them all. He also thanked the people of Asheville for their votes, support and encouragement. “It’s been a joy and an honor,” Hunt said of his four-year term.
Chris Pelly observed that “So much of what we do is about balancing competing interests. Growth vs. maintaining our community’s character. Services vs. keeping taxes reasonable.” He noted that the agenda items for the upcoming meeting were typical of the different needs Council must balance. He too reflected fondly on his single term: “It’s been my honor of a lifetime to serve you all and I thank you very much.”
Sabrah N’haRaven asked Council to consider separately Item J of its consent agenda: the authorization for extending First Transit’s contract for management of the Asheville Transit System through June 30, 2016.
Council passed consent agenda items A through I unanimously after a brief discussion of Item C, a franchise agreement for an operator of a low-speed shuttle vehicle that will operate downtown and Item I, a new two-mile segment of sidewalk on Patton Avenue.
Transportation director Ken Putnam explained that the contract extension for First Transit was necessary to provide for ongoing management services during the upcoming RFP process the city will conduct for the transportation management contract. The new contract will start no later than July 1, 2016.
N’haRaven asked Council to consider an extension of three months, rather than six, if at all possible due to “real issues” impacting the safety and efficiency of the transit system.
Diane Allen, president of the transit workers’ union Local 128, testified that her bus was fired upon on Nov. 12, resulting in two shattered windows. Supervisors at First Transit, she said, did not follow up to inquire about the safety of staff or passengers. Allen is also concerned about gaps in service: “We are missing routes and people are losing their jobs.” On Nov. 14, she said, the S-2 bus did not run during half of its service hours.
Driver Ernest Weston has been on the job for 13 years. “Our bus service here was good at one time,” he commented. “Now we are eight buses down and drivers work every day. We are just tired.” Hearing city staff say they will look into problems isn’t good enough, Weston said, since he’s heard the same promise for years and he doesn’t see things getting better.
Councilman Hunt asked staff to redouble efforts to hold First Transit to the terms of its contract before Council passed the contract extension unanimously.
Public hearing: Homestay ordinance changes
Planner Shannon Tuch presented an overview of changes proposed or considered since Council last heard public comment on revisions to the city’s existing Homestay regulations on Aug. 25.
After Tuch’s presentation, Council participated in a discussion on points including:
- possibly changing the number of bedrooms allowed for Homestay use from three to two
- allowable home occupation uses while offering Homestays
- documentation required for establishing that the Homestay operator is the permanent resident of the home (three forms of documentation proposed)
- process for obtaining a Homestay permit
- whether the city could prevent a single investor from establishing multiple LLCs for multiple properties to get around the one-permit-per-operator requirement (City Attorney Robin Currin advised that the city could not legally prevent this)
Following Council’s discussion, Mayor Manheimer opened the public hearing. Lisa Shoemaker spoke first on behalf of a new organization representing Homestay operators, the Asheville Home Sharing Network.
Within the 18 individual testimonies presented to Council, several themes emerged. Eight speakers asked Council to include accessory dwelling units (ADU) in the Homestay ordinance, thereby making garage apartments or in-law apartments eligible for temporary lodging use. Manheimer responded that voting on ADUs would not be possible at the meeting in progress, since new language must be reviewed by the Planning & Zoning Commission prior to a Council vote.
Eight speakers asked Council to postpone a vote on the Homestay ordinance changes until the newly-elected city council members have taken office. In the discussion that followed the public hearing, no member of Council advocated in favor of that suggestion.
Three members of the public called for less governmental oversight of Homestay operations, saying that operators can and should largely regulate themselves. Commenter Tom Gallo was the first to suggest that the Homestay ordinance represents an attempt to fix a problem that does not exist. Gallo requested statistics on complaints. Two other members of the public echoed his contention that the proposed ordinance was a solution without a problem.
Architect Jane Mathews and one other commenter expressed concerns about the impact of Homestay operations on the character of Asheville’s residential neighborhoods. Mathews also believes that relaxing the city’s Homestay regulations is in conflict with the city’s stated goal of promoting housing affordability. By allowing short-term rentals of single rooms, opportunities for renting single rooms in a private residence on a long-term basis will be reduced.
In the end, Council took two separate votes to address changes to specific parts of the ordinances regulating Homestays. Council approved amendments to the ordinances that differed from the proposals approved by the Planning & Zoning Commission and previously presented to Council on Aug. 25 in the following ways:
- Maximum of two bedrooms can be used for Homestay
- Eliminated the requirement that no more than 25% of the square footage of the home be solely dedicated to Homestay use
- Allow non-conforming properties to participate in Homestay program (includes non-conforming for reasons of lot width, depth, setbacks and encroachments)
- Require two forms of identification to prove full-time resident status (rather than three proposed)
- No restriction on home occupations that may be pursued while offering Homestays
- One license per operator
The first vote, which encompassed only the two bedroom limitation, was passed unanimously. The second vote, which covered all other modifications from the Aug. 25 recommendations, passed 6-1, with Hunt opposed on the grounds that the changes lacked important protections against predatory investors.
Finally, Council voted unanimously in favor of a motion to review the performance of the new Homestay provisions in four, eight and 12 months.
New Business: Downtown Coordinator
Council unanimously approved a proposal to add a new staff position to serve as a dedicated liaison between the city and various stakeholders in downtown and the central business district. Half the funding for the position will come from parking revenues, while the other half will be drawn from the general fund of the Public Works Department.
New members of City Council will be sworn in at 4 p.m. on Dec. 1 in the council chambers on the second floor of City Hall; the next regular meeting of City Council will be Dec. 8.