City staff hint at major zoning overhaul during budget work session

Asheville budget cover
UNDER THE COVER: Through a series of five monthly work sessions, Asheville City Council is examining the budget for each governmental department. Screen capture from the city of Asheville

The debut of Titanic, chess master Garry Kasparov’s defeat by the computer Deep Blue, the death of Princess Diana — 1997 was an eventful period for the world at large. For Asheville, noted Director of Planning & Urban Design Todd Okolichany during City Council’s Oct. 23 budget work session, the year represents a different milestone: the last thorough update of the city’s Unified Development Ordinance.

“We certainly have made these sort of Band-Aid edits to it. Sometimes we update the UDO to reflect changes to state statutes, other times to implement certain plans or city goals,” Okolichany said. But the underlying structure of the city’s main development code, he added, has remained unchanged for over 20 years, even as Asheville has experienced substantial growth and adopted a new comprehensive plan.

During the third of five scheduled events offering the public a close look at the budgets and work of city functions, Okolichany listed the need for a UDO overhaul as one of his department’s key challenges. Planning & Urban Design has instead been consumed with piecemeal changes to the ordinance such as redefining urban centers, rezoning major corridors and updating signage rules.

“Again, when we look at these incremental updates, we’re not really able to look at the UDO extensively and holistically,” Okolichany explained. “That’s something I’ve highlighted as a potential goal or need for us moving forward.”

On a day-to-day basis, Okolichany cited support for zoning enforcement as a major need. He said current enforcement was “complaint-driven” and that additional resources would be necessary for the city to take a more proactive approach.

Following Okolichany was Asheville Police Department Chief Tammy Hooper, who oversees the city’s second-largest department by spending. Of the APD’s over $29 million budget, Hooper said, roughly 82 percent goes toward employee salaries and benefits, with the remaining funds used for nondiscretionary expenses such as liability insurance and Criminal Justice Information System fees.

Discussing her department’s biggest challenges, Hooper referenced the “national trend” of reduced recruitment and retention, as well as increasing calls for service, traffic congestion and vehicle accidents. She didn’t mention heightened community concerns about the APD’s trustworthiness following revelations about the August 2017 beating of black Asheville resident Johnnie Jermaine Rush by former white officer Chris Hickman.

Council members did not question that issue after Hooper’s presentation, but Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler asked Hooper about Asheville’s spending on CJIS, which it shares with other law enforcement agencies throughout Buncombe County. “I know I beat this drum, and I hope it’s not to death, but I just really feel like a lot of times the city of Asheville… pays a disproportionate amount of funds when it comes to sharing with the county,” she said.

Hooper explained that, due to the very high cost of services such as records management and computer-aided dispatch, sharing with the county is beneficial for the city’s budget. “Gwen’s trying to get all the little municipalities to cough up their share,” quipped Mayor Esther Manheimer in response.

Council had no questions for Jonathan Feldman, the self-described “friendly neighborhood director of IT Services,” after his presentation. As previously reported by Xpress, one of his department’s main priorities for the coming year is cybersecurity, to be supported by at least two new full-time positions. He thanked Council for funding those additional staffers — an allocation of over $130,000 — as well as new public safety radio infrastructure.

The final department to present was finance, led by Chief Financial Officer Barbara Whitehorn. She emphasized the “limited growth in existing revenue streams” for the city, as well as newly initiated multiyear operational planning to ensure smart spending over time. Council member Vijay Kapoor praised this latter focus, calling it “critically important” for his colleagues’ financial decisions.

The next budget work session takes place at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 13, in council chambers, located on the second floor of City Hall at 70 Court Plaza, Asheville. The full meeting agenda and supporting documents are available five days before each meeting date at avl.mx/59r.

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the Green Scene editor and city government beat reporter for Mountain Xpress. His work has previously appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville, and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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