Community, Council share concerns on proposed hotel plan

NO MORE: Asheville’s hotel moratorium is set to expire on Tuesday, Feb. 23. Community members criticized the proposed system to approve future lodging development at Asheville City Council’s meeting of Feb. 9. The 132-room AC Hotel opened in 2017. Photo courtesy of McKibbon Hospitality

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.

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About Molly Horak
Molly is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and writer for Mountain Xpress. Her work has appeared in the Citizen-Times, News and Observer and Charlotte Observer. Follow me @molly_horak

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24 thoughts on “Community, Council share concerns on proposed hotel plan

  1. Austin

    Developers are stinky. I don’t like them. They take a big dump and then leave, usually not using a poo bag, and if they don’t, and actually maintain the property, then you have some Santa Barbara fancy stuff that continues to increase costs that locals can’t afford anymore. And that is where the Republicans are misguided with their fake common man mantra. In this case, mark my word, they will support the developer while criticizing local activists and council over and over, even while the new-clean-fancy stuff just keeps driving up property values. Oh and they will negligate any efforts being made, just because they are shallow with flexible values and don’t actually appreciate democracy. It’s time for Republicans to start appreciating losses while trying to get along . I appreciate the hard line attitude coming out. No more hotels! Let’s enrich the investors and people who are already here!! They and we built this city. Rich outside investors, Johny come lately’s who want Asheville $$ Who cares? We don’t owe them anything.

    • Big Al

      It is not Republicans who are selling out Asheville to hotel developers, this is a firmly DEMOCRAT city.

      Party is irrelevant anyway, money talks, and donkeys eat as much green as elephants, they just lie better about caring about your feelings.

      Nice try with the straw man, though.

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      • Austin

        “Party is irrelevant anyway, money talks, and donkeys eat as much green as elephants, they just lie better about caring about your feelings.”
        As a centrist I can appreciate your sentiments, and the humor. That was really funny! I also stand by my comments.

      • bsummers

        But the rules for how cities like Asheville can respond to an issue like tourism/hotels are decided by the Republican-controlled General Assembly. If they want to redirect some of the tax revenue from local tourism to city infrastructure needs – sorry, State law doesn’t allow that. If they want to blunt the effect of massive campaign spending by the tourism industry on local elections – sorry, State law doesn’t allow that. If Asheville wants to deny a permit for a new hotel because it prefers to promote affordable housing instead – sorry, State law doesn’t allow that either.

        As a wise man once said, “Nice try with the straw man, though.”

        • Casey

          I don’t have a political dog in the fight here, but I’m pretty sure the state laws governing local flexibility were put in place during the 100 years that the legislature was under Democrat rule to restrict what local jurisdictions could/could not do. The ‘my team is better than yours’ finger pointing doesn’t accomplish anything here. No matter who is in power on the state level, there are always restrictions placed on local independence & decision making.

          • bsummers

            Right. No finger pointing. Except when you’re pointing at Democrats.

            Anyway, what you said is incorrect. The lack of home rule for municipalities stems from the NC Constitution, drafted in 1776 and revised in 1868.

    • Froscari

      All you no-more-hotel and anti-development people need to face some facts. You live in a captialist society. You live in an area that people want to visit and move to. Maybe a few of you moved here within the last decade when the population increased from around 60,000 to around 90,000. More than likely an evil developer built the house or apartment that you live in. Unless you grew up on your grandparent’s farm and built yourself a log cabin you need to thank a developer for providing you with a place to live. Another fact. Hotel developers don’t build affordable housing. And affordable housing developers don’t build hotels. The lack of affordable housing is primarily driven by population growth, the cost of land and building materials, zoning regulations and NIMBYs. It’s not because the BB&T building or the Flatiron is converted to a hotel.

      Another fact, no new hotels were built in downtown Asheville from 1973 to 2009 with the exception of the old Ivey’s building becoming the very small 38 room Haywood Park Hotel. That’s 35 years and not a single new hotel that wasn’t a conversion of an existing building. Maybe there was some pent up demand? Look at a map of downtown Asheville and you’ll see there just aren’t that many hotels. Chattanooga has more hotels in its downtown and it’s arguably more livable than Asheville.

      So many of you are benefitting from growth and tourism and you won’t admit it, or maybe you just like to self righteously rail against the tourists, evil developers and the TDA. ( Looking at a certain unnamed piano player at the Grove Park Inn and a few anti-hotel realtors active on Facebook selling over priced houses to out of towners.) The TDA has paid for a number of items that benefit locals, such as Civic Center, the Orange Peel, African American Heritage sites, LEAF, Montford Neighborhood Association, ASAP and the John B Lewis soccer fields. See the entire list here: https://www.ashevillecvb.com/projects-funded/
      Of course they could do more, and they should. But to claim they do nothing is incorrect.

  2. Enlightened Enigma

    wow, the amount of control from leftwingers is nauseating….the community is already greatly ‘devalued’ Kim Roney, due to a total LACK of leadership in AVL currently and decades past…most pathetically run city on the east coast.

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  3. Curious

    “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 . . .”

    How many more than 15 residents spoke against this? Were there 16? 17? 20?

    ” . . . 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. . .”

    I’m curious what other industries or business segments are required to meet standards of public benefits: contributions to housing trust fund, reparations fund, offering living wage, become B corp? This is not a rhetorical question.

    Can someone please say what criteria are used to decide what Asheville has too many of? Restaurants? Breweries? Brew pubs? Medical practices? Legal practices? Yoga studios?

    • indy499

      Need to bring in some experienced commie central planners on an exhorbitant consultancy to tells us what we have too much of.

  4. NFB

    “I’m curious what other industries or business segments are required to meet standards of public benefits: contributions to housing trust fund, reparations fund, offering living wage, become B corp? This is not a rhetorical question. ”

    None, that I’m aware of. At the same time there are no other businesses or industries that have the sate collect a special tax for it which said industry then uses to rustle up more business for itself. Since the local TDA is adamant that not even a small portion of the hotel room tax should be allowed to be used to help locals pay for the services and infrastructure the tourists they recruit to benefit itself use then the hotel industry should have responsibilities other industries don’t have since it has perks other industries don’t have.

    • Curious

      Does Asheville not have the political will/clout to get the state law changed so that a portion of the room tax is paid to the county/city for infrastructure needs? Could the “more than 15” people who spoke out against hotels speak to their legislators about getting the room tax law changed? The problem may not be too many hotels but the inability to tax them by the city and county.

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      • bsummers

        “Does Asheville not have the political will/clout to get the state law changed so that a portion of the room tax is paid to the county/city for infrastructure needs?”

        BWA-HA-HA-HA!!!!

        Ahem. Sorry. The polite answer is: No. If the TDA doesn’t agree before it even comes up, the City will get laughed out of the room in Raleigh. Tourism gives about 200 billion dollars to NC political campaigns, elected officials: $315.75.

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        • NFB

          County Commission could, however, vote to reduce the room tax, or even abolish the TDA. Not that either will happen. In a lot of ways Asheville is just a glorified mill town where one must never even speak ill of the mill that is spewing out a horrible stench from its smoke stack and for Asheville the mill is tourism.

          • dyfed

            Yes, Asheville is such an awful place to live because of tourism. It’s only gotten worse: fewer and worse restaurants, entertainment, culture, services, etc.

            Don’t tell NFB what happens to mill towns when the mill shuts down.

          • NFB

            I’m not advocating that the mill shut down, only that it behave more responsibly. The TDA consistent and adamant refusal to allow even a small portion of its slush fund to be used to help locals pay for the infrastructure and services used by the tourists they bring here is not sustainable, especially when that room tax brings more tourists for who more hotels are needed for which more tourists are needed to fill.

            I don’t even go as far as some have in advocating that the TDA be abolished. If it continues to refuse to help with the aforementioned infrastructure and services costs Buncombe County Commission does not have to so far as to abolish it as some want, it can cut the room tax it increased a few years ago.

            Remember that tax increase? For years whenever it was suggested that room tax be increased to help locals pay for infrastructure and services the TDA refused saying that it would make hotel rooms so expensive that Asheville would lose tourists to Myrtle Beach and Gatlintburgh, etc. as if those places have the Biltmore House, downtown Asheville, RAD, etc, and as if people plan their trips based on what hotel rooms cost rather than find the hotel that fits their travel budget.

            But when so many hotel rooms were being built and the TDA shifted into panic mode that there would not be enough tourists for all those “heads in beds” they went running to County Commission asking for (and getting) a room tax increase. They were no longer worried about making hotel rooms too expensive when the money goes to them.

  5. Mike R.

    I’d say it is a pretty good approach and hopefully Council will approve it and move on.
    To require each new project to be approved by Council takes up a lot of time and resource that is needed on other issues. Like crime!
    The best we can hope for is to “throttle” and “channel” hotel development. To think that it can be stopped is probably pretty naive.
    That said, I’m not a big fan of developers/development in general, but accept the reality which is that “development” in its many forms is a primary driver in the pitiful American economy. The alternative (which will eventually come) is not pretty.

    • indy499

      Sadly with this new approach we’d not be able to enjoy the council’s illogic for disapprovals and the inevitable law suits which the city always loses.

  6. dyfed

    What Asheville needs most is fewer employers and fewer buildings. That will be certain to improve the standard of living and raise wages for our most vulnerable populations.

  7. indy499

    As a land owner of significant county properties just outside the city, please, please continue to restrict city hotels. Tourists don’t really care when hotels are built so close to downtown, they can drive in and drunk drive home. Private parking lot owners score some $ on their otherwise useless nighttime ashalt. Kind of a win win all around.

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