Reid Thompson has lost the most recent battle in his 13-plus-year fight with the city of Asheville. On Oct. 9, Council voted to deny his application to rezone two of his properties, 28 and 32 Maxwell St., for short-term vacation rental, a move Thompson said was necessary only because city staff hadn’t stopped a nearby Whole Foods (formerly Greenlife Grocery) from illegal truck loading and other activities that drove away long-term renters.
But the war, suggested Thompson’s representative and urban planner Joe Minicozzi, is far from over. “He’s got to file a civil suit to get his civil rights upheld,” he told Xpress immediately after Council’s decision. “It’s the 14th Amendment of the fucking Constitution: equal protection under the law. You can’t enforce the law on one side of the street and not enforce it on the other.”
In the public hearing on the issue, Minicozzi said the city had issued no notices of violation against the grocery despite regular complaints from Maxwell Street residents, which he has documented since 2005. Meanwhile, Thompson has been fined $1,500 for each day he operates his Airbnbs in violation of city ordinances, with an estimated accrued total of more than $1 million. Thompson has also been issued a violation for allowing a shrub to grow eight inches over the edge of a city sidewalk.
Several previous long-term tenants of Thompson’s properties testified at the hearing in his support. Meg Jamison, who first moved to Maxwell in mid-2007, said she left in spring 2008 because of disturbances from the grocery loading dock. “I was 25 — I liked to stay up all night, but not day in and day out,” she explained.
City staff, however, maintained that Thompson’s request for rezoning should be considered in isolation from the problems with Whole Foods. “The city has taken direct, specific action in this year… to prohibit short-term vacation rental use in almost every zoning district,” said city urban planner Jessica Bernstein. She expressed concern that approving the request would set a dangerous precedent and erode that enforcement effort.
Council member Brian Haynes, the sole dissenting vote in the 4-1 decision — Mayor Esther Manheimer asked to be recused because The Van Winkle Law Firm, her employer, had previously represented Thompson in this case, while Vijay Kapoor had a scheduled absence — disagreed with the rezoning’s potential for setting a precedent. “I think this is a special case. I can’t think of any other person in the city who this would apply to,” he said.
Speaking for the majority, Council member Julie Mayfield agreed with staff’s logic on the issue. “Allowing these houses to be used as short-term rentals, in complete violation of every direction that this Council has gone in terms of that policy, doesn’t fix the problem,” she said. Instead, focusing on Whole Foods’ behavior would make Thompson’s properties usable for their currently zoned purpose.
Mayfield, who was elected to Council in 2015, responded by email to an Xpress request for comment on how she would succeed at bringing the grocery into compliance when previous Councils have not done so. She said she’d been advocating for a solution for “well over a year” and has met extensively with Minicozzi to discuss the details.
“This is not just a staff-level issue — Whole Foods needs to understand that the city leadership considers this a significant problem that needs to be fixed,” Mayfield wrote. “I don’t know why the previous efforts failed, but I do know that I don’t plan to let go of trying to get Whole Foods to make changes.”
Regarding whether staff would be held accountable for failing to enforce violations on the store, leading to conditions for Thompson she had called “inexcusable” during the meeting, Mayfield responded that it was time for the city to move forward. “Most of us weren’t here and can’t understand what dynamics were at play or why things happened the way they did,” she wrote.
Meanwhile, Maxwell Street resident Brandee Boggs suggested that Council’s lack of previous action was tied to state Rep. Brian Turner, D-Buncombe, whose family owns the land on which the grocery sits. Speaking after the meeting, she said the initial decision to place truck access adjacent to the residential area was due to the Turners’ influence.
“In the beginning, when they opened it, [we were told] that they didn’t have time to move the loading dock to the other side because they needed to make money for the property owners,” Boggs said. “It was financially driven.”
Mayfield said she spoke with Turner after the Oct. 9 meeting about “who exactly owns the property (five family shareholders) and if his family would be willing to be part of finding a solution.” She added that he directed her to the family’s property manager, Asheville-based Leslie & Associates, to avoid creating “any question about him or his family exerting improper influence on Council.”
In a phone interview with Xpress on Oct. 10, Turner confirmed that Leslie & Associates manages regular operations of the property. “It’s the tenant’s responsibility to be in compliance with all the ordinances, and we rely on our property manager to work with our tenants to make sure that they are,” he said. “I’m not involved in the day-to-day operation of the management of that property.”