Asheville’s proposed system for approving future lodging developments, more than 15 residents told City Council on Feb. 9, will fail to stem an influx of projects that extract community resources and prioritize profits over residents struggling to make ends meet.
The lengthy critiques came just two weeks before Asheville’s hotel moratorium is scheduled to expire on Tuesday, Feb. 23. Originally intended for one year, the temporary pause on all new lodging projects was extended in September so Council members and staff could create a more effective review process. But after months of discussion, two Council work sessions and multiple opportunities for public engagement, frustrated residents told Council the final proposals did little to advance equity or support employees working in the service industry.
“If we don’t set these standards incredibly high right now, the historical laws of entropy suggest that we’re not going to come back in the next month and tweak them to make it more difficult for hotels to pass,” said Emily Peele, a commenter from the South Slope.
For the last 18 months, city staff has worked to “improve predictability and transparency” in the hotel development process, said Todd Okolichany, Asheville’s director of planning and urban design, in his presentation to Council. If adopted, the new process would outline several criteria for new lodging developments: Projects must be located within a newly created Hotel Overlay zoning map, contribute to a series of public benefits and meet design and building standards. If all of those steps were met, hotels could be approved at the staff level.
Council members pushed back on several aspects of the plan. The proposed overlay map currently includes four areas that staff believes may include parcels the city purchased through urban renewal. Vice Mayor Sheneika Smith, backed by member Kim Roney, asked that these areas be removed from the map until they could be assessed by the yet-to-be-formed reparations commission.
Roney added that she would only support the project if the number of public benefit points developers are required to meet was raised substantially. As it stands, developers of large hotel projects only need to reach a minimum of 180 points, with credit for contributions to Asheville’s housing trust fund (60-180 points) or reparations fund (80-120 points), offering a living wage to all employees (60 points), becoming B Corp certified (180 points) and other options.
“My suggestion is to take the top points from each category and make that the new minimum,” Roney said. “This is not the time to devalue our community.”
Mayor Esther Manheimer also expressed a willingness to raise the minimum number of required public benefit points. But that move could backfire, warned Gwen Wisler: If developers are forced to pay more toward benefits, it could raise room rates citywide.
Sage Turner, who chaired the city’s Downtown Commission before being elected to Council in November, shared concerns about the design review process. The design review bodies of the Downtown and Riverfront commissions both voted against the proposed changes, she said, and Council would not directly appoint members to the proposed hotel review board.
“I am not opposed to going back to conditional zoning while we work on this to get it really right,” Turner said, referencing the pre-moratorium rules by which Council separately considered each lodging project above 20 rooms. “I’m not opposed to continuing the moratorium for a little bit to continue our work on this. I know I might be alone in that, but I think there’s more work that we need to do and I still have existing concerns that haven’t been addressed.”
The city does not have the authority to extend the current hotel moratorium any longer without facing potential legal repercussions, argued City Attorney Brad Branham. State law also prohibits North Carolina municipalities from excluding all new hotels through zoning codes, he added.
But Council does have the ability to halt all future lodging development in practice, countered commenters. If the city returns to case-by-case review at the Council level, members could theoretically reject all incoming proposals.
“It’s not enough for [developers] to pay a few fees here or there into things that promote equity and whatnot,” said Victoria Estes, a caller from Asheville. “We don’t need any more hotels, period. I would prefer that you keep it the old way, where all hotels have to go through Council inspection, so the community can continue to have a voice on each and every project.”
Because of public hearing requirements outlined in North Carolina’s virtual meeting guidelines, members will vote on this issue at their meeting of Feb. 23.