“If the new mayor and [City] Council are serious about affordable housing, they won’t rezone it. Wal-Mart is not adding that much to the city,” declares 25-year West Asheville resident Walter Bryson, whose mobile home sits on land that is the proposed site of the retail behemoth’s latest local superstore.
The owners of the various parcels that make up the roughly 28-acre site have asked the city to rezone their properties — now occupied by a few stick-built rental homes and more than 50 mobiles — for business use. The West Asheville bywater overlooks the Lowe’s store on the Smokey Park Highway.
But Bryson and some of his neighbors aren’t happy about it. “There’s so much Wal-Mart could do besides this, and they aren’t going to gain friends by moving 56 families out,” he told Xpress. “But the only ones we’ve got who can help us is the city — by refusing to rezone it.”
And Buster Street, who’s lived on the property for about 15 years, said: “I hope they don’t sell it. I’m on a fixed income, and I don’t want to move. There are residents here in wheelchairs who have no money. They can’t afford to move.” Street added, “There’s nobody here who wants to move, but it’s the Lord’s will.”
Wal-Mart spokesman Glen Wilkins told the Asheville Citizen-Times that homeowners would be given financial assistance, though he didn’t say how much. He also said the owner of the mobile-home park plans to sell it in any case. Xpress‘ attempts to contact the various owners of property and/or trailers in the area — JDN Development Company, Asheville Property Management, Carl and Linda Harris, Wallace and Betty Medlin, and Jim and Lucy McFee — were unsuccessful. A handful of residents own their own units, but most rent theirs from or through Asheville Property Management.
The proposed rezoning poses a double whammy: Not only would the residents be forced out, but most of the trailers in question would run afoul of a Buncombe County ordinance that prohibits relocating mobile homes built before June 14, 1976.
Bryson’s trailer is new enough to move, but he asks: “To where? The parks here won’t take them.” And finding a site that’s as close to public transit, services and shopping as this one may not be easy.
Few other neighborhood residents were willing to comment about the proposal, and not everyone was opposed to the change. One owner who preferred not to be named said: “Just let us know one way or the other, so we can make plans. That’s all I want to know.” This person owns a newer trailer, which can be legally moved.
Simone Wilson co-owns a private residence that borders the trailer park and would be the closest house to the proposed supercenter. “We bought our house three years ago, and we hadn’t had the house a week when Wal-Mart approached us and made an offer,” she told Xpress. Wilson explained that she and her partner had searched a long time to find the property, which sits on 2-1/2 acres and includes a studio where she paints and sculpts. “This met all of our needs,” she said.
After briefly considering the offer, they asked the prospective developers what would happen to the people in the mobile homes. Wilson reports, “He said Wal-Mart would take care of them, and we asked to see that in writing. But he never did that. We didn’t want to be part of displacing all those families.”
As presently planned, excavation of the trailer-park site would result in a 40- to 50-foot sheer drop at Wilson’s property line, and her home would directly overlook a four-bay, 24/7 tractor-trailer loading dock.
Asked about a tenant meeting called on short notice in the hours before a Jan. 4 Asheville Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, Phyllis Fitzgerald of Asheville Property Management, which manages the trailer park for its owners, said: “We aren’t holding a meeting. The property owners are.” But an hour later, Fitzgerald came to the door of the trailer where the meeting was being held and refused to let this reporter in. Tenants said later that they’d all been told to vacate the premises, regardless of the outcome of the Wal-Mart project.
At the P&Z meeting soon after, both sides were allowed to make brief comments, although the full hearing was continued to the agency’s next session.
Speaking for the developers, Freeland and Kauffman, Inc., Alan Johnson stressed the beneficial impact the store would have on the community, including the jobs that would be created. He then moved through the requirements of the city’s Unified Development Ordinance point by point, explaining how the project would fit within its guidelines.
And Wal-Mart attorney Ashley Strong argued that the project “would be good infill development, compatible with other uses in the area.” He pointed out that the plan includes 50-foot-wide, vegetated buffer strips on some borders and said that neighbors’ worries about lighting and noise would be addressed. He urged the commission to permit his witnesses to offer an hour-and-a-half presentation on the benefits of the project.
Commissioners voted unanimously to offer him 30 minutes at the hearing, Feb. 1.
But most of the concerns voiced by trailer-park tenants and other city residents involved Wal-Mart’s impact on communities in general, such as depression of wages, demand generated by Wal-Mart employees in other cities for Medicaid, food stamps and other social services, and quality of life for near neighbors. These residents were informed that P&Z is not the proper venue for nonzoning issues, which should be taken to City Council.
A full-scale public hearing is slated for the commission’s Feb. 1 meeting. In the meantime, city staff and the developer will address, in writing, the relevant questions raised at the initial hearing. After the commission makes its recommendation, the project will come before City Council for a final decision.