Asheville City Council

“This is what bothers me about zoning: It’s so creative.”

— Council member Joe Dunn

Pack Square Conservancy Director Carol King approached the lectern in the Asheville City Council chamber, shuffled her papers, drew a breath and spoke. “Good morning,” she said softly, with a weary grin.

King’s greeting to Council wasn’t far off the mark: It was three minutes to midnight, and the Jan. 13 meeting — which had started some seven hours earlier — was now heading into its second day. The end of a marathon meeting was nigh, and the last item on Council’s agenda was finally front and center.

In retrospect, it may not have been the best time to tackle an issue as thorny as the future of Pack Square.

Controversy has surrounded the Grove Park Inn’s plan to build a high-rise on public parkland in the Pack Square area. But even though the inn announced last month that it was abandoning the plan, the future of the targeted parcel remains in doubt. King came before Council with a four-pronged request aimed at addressing that question.

The request (which was released to the press on Jan. 7) has been hailed by opponents of the high-rise. The Pack Square Conservancy, a quasi-governmental nonprofit, is overseeing a redesign of the city’s central public space.

The conservancy recommended:

• removing from consideration any present or future proposal to build a high-rise on the site;

• declaring a moratorium on any sale or development activity on the city-owned site;

• letting the Pack Square Conservancy use the moratorium period to develop alternate plans for the site and hold a public forum;

• formally endorsing the concept of permanently protecting the entire Pack Square area as parkland.

After King’s presentation, Julie Brandt spoke, representing People Advocating Real Conservancy (the group that spearheaded the opposition to the GPI plan). Brandt endorsed King’s request, emphasizing that PARC wants the “entire parcel [designated] as parkland in perpetuity,” with legal documentation to that effect.

In the wake of the presentations, the exhausted Council members had little to say. Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower made a motion to adopt the request with a “caveat of 60 days.” The motion passed unanimously.

The next morning, however, that ambiguity came back with a vengeance as Council members launched a flurry of e-mails among themselves (and with members of the press and city staff) in an attempt to pin down exactly what they’d approved the night before. At one point, Council member Holly Jones wrote that she had “understood the 60-day time frame to be in relation to the moratorium on sale and development of [the] site … and the length of time to plan public input.” She added that she hadn’t understood that the ban on high-rise buildings would expire in 60 days, noting, “If I [had] understood this to be the case, at a minimum I would have asked the conservancy representatives their reaction to such a drastic change.”

In a later interview, King said she’d mentioned the 60-day time frame in response to a question from Mumpower about how long the conservancy needed to study options for the site. Nonetheless, King said she was satisfied with Council’s action.

Meanwhile, in one of Mumpower’s e-mails the next day, the vice mayor explained that his intent had been “to provide a moratorium on any decisions on the property for 60 days.” He added, “I would not have personally supported a permanent ban without a staff report and additional information.” Such a ban, noted Mumpower, would “remove one of our resources for funding the infrastructure changes that the conservancy will need.”

Still later in the e-mail dialogue, both Mumpower and Jones agreed that the late hour had contributed to the confusion. The vice mayor agreed to clarify his motion at the next Council meeting.

Won’t you be my neighbor?

This year’s Warren Haynes Christmas Jam sold out the Asheville Civic Center, rewarding ticket holders with a concert that lasted nearly eight hours. But the fruits of Haynes’ gift to the Asheville chapter of Habitat for Humanity will last longer still: The proceeds from the marathon concert will help the local nonprofit provide affordable housing for area residents.

Less than a month after the last encore had been played at the 15th annual jam (which saw Mayor Charles Worley take the stage to designate Dec. 20 as Warren Haynes Day), the Asheville City Council held a marathon session of its own. This one, however, displayed a radically different tone. City residents packed the chamber to oppose the nonprofit’s latest affordable-housing project. Council’s Jan. 13 formal session clocked in at a little over seven hours — more than half of it consumed by a public hearing on whether to issue a conditional-use permit allowing Habitat to build 60 houses for low- and moderate-income people on 17 acres of land the nonprofit owns off Sand Hill Road.

But before the assembled city residents could be heard, they had to cool their heels for the better part of an hour while Council debated a consent-agenda item. The consent agenda (typically adopted in a matter of minutes) is supposed to enable Council to quickly dispense with a host of noncontroversial matters. On this evening, however, Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower asked that one issue be removed from the consent agenda for separate consideration.

The item in question was a resolution of support for statewide passenger rail service. Since 1999, the Western North Carolina Rail Corridor Committee has been pushing for a passenger line extending the existing rail service (which now ends at Salisbury, N.C., northeast of Charlotte) to Asheville. Judith Calvert Ray, the committee’s chairperson, told Council that Asheville is the most-requested city in the country not currently serviced by Amtrack. Rail service, she said, could also boost tourism.

Council member Joe Dunn, however, was not impressed. Stating at the outset that he wouldn’t support the resolution, Dunn argued that passenger rail service doesn’t make sense here. “Our density in North Carolina defies this,” he reasoned, adding, “This is not New York or the New England corridor.” His research, Dunn explained, has shown that passenger rail systems are money-losing propositions nationwide. Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower also expressed doubts about the project’s economic viability, saying he was reluctant to support any resolution before seeing more hard numbers on the cost of such a venture. Even if federal funds were available, noted Mumpower, the money would still come from taxpayers.

After 45 minutes of discussion, Council adopted the resolution on a 4-3 vote, with Council member Jan Davis joining Mumpower and Dunn in a failed attempt to derail the measure. The resolution will now be sent on to the General Assembly in Raleigh, which is slated to consider statewide rail service during the next legislative session.

We like Habitat, but…

At the outset of the public hearing on Habitat for Humanity’s conditional-use permit, Gerald Green, a development consultant representing the nonprofit, explained that Council’s approval would help Habitat “provide housing for the working people of our community — including city workers.” To underscore his point, Green referred to a list of current job openings published by the city’s Human Resources Department. The list detailed both the positions available and the starting pay, which he said “qualifies these people for a Habitat house.” Green, a former Asheville city planner, also noted that the proposed development would reflect the goals of the city’s 2025 Plan, both providing affordable housing and adding density through infill development.

Before Habitat could proceed with its plan, however, the nonprofit first had to get the 17 acres rezoned from RS-4 (residential, single-family, four units per acre) to RS-8 (residential, single-family, eight units per acre). And if Council approved the rezoning, it would then have to vote on whether to issue the conditional-use permit.

Green’s task that evening was to win Council’s confidence — and it proved to be a formidable one, because project opponents had filed a valid protest petition. Under North Carolina law, such petitions raise the stakes by requiring a “super-majority” (in Asheville’s case, either a 6-1 or a unanimous vote) to approve the conditional-use permit.

During the hearing, Council members got an earful from a steady stream of project opponents, most of them residents of the Captain’s Drive neighborhood, adjacent to the Habitat site. An attorney hired by the unhappy neighbors to lead their charge argued that the development was too intensive for the neighborhood.

Captain’s Drive resident Sandra Baylor said she opposes the Habitat plan because the RS-8 zoning is incompatible with her neighborhood’s RS-4 zoning. The denser zoning, she maintained, would “crowd families together,” creating a “potential for conflict.”

Neighbor Kathleen Hailey also raised the issue of compatibility — one of the seven criteria that projects must meet to qualify for a conditional-use permit. The smaller Habitat houses, argued Hailey, would be out of proportion with the larger houses on Captain’s Drive. “The smallest house on Captain’s Drive is larger than the largest house” in the proposed Habitat development, she noted.

Yet another Captain’s Drive resident, Carol Tracy, echoed Hailey’s argument. “We have double-car garages; they have none. I have three fireplaces; they have none. My home is solid brick; theirs won’t be,” she reasoned, adding, “I don’t think any of these homes are comparable.” She also pointed out that if Habitat built houses on the wooded, 17-acre parcel, “The animals will have nowhere to go; the dogs will have nowhere to walk.” Returning to the rezoning argument, Tracey implored Council members not to grant the permit because, “We will go from a quiet suburb to an inner-city neighborhood with that density.”

All told, about 20 city residents spoke against the project, many prefacing their remarks by noting that they support Habitat as an organization but don’t want 60 Habitat houses next door to their neighborhood. The lone member of the public expressing support was Martin Lewis, a partner in an industrial park being developed across the street from the site. His development, said Lewis, would bring new jobs to the area, and it would be good to have new residents who might fill those jobs.

After the public had spoken, it was Council members’ turn to weigh in. Joe Dunn immediately sided with the opponents, saying the proposed development “doesn’t fit the neighborhood.” It would be too dense, he said, and the required rezoning was too extensive. “This is what bothers me about zoning: It’s so creative,” Dunn declared.

Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford reminded Dunn that this very Council has been urging city staff to reduce the red tape in the city’s Unified Development Ordinance to make it easier for developers to build in the city. “You’ve told us to build in flexibility for developers,” noted Shuford, adding, “This is one example.”

Dunn said the issue was “pulling [his] heart from both sides. We all want people to have homes, but I’ve got to think about the neighborhoods. … I don’t want to see it happen at the total expense of the people who were there first.” In response, a Habitat representative told Dunn, “These are people from our community seeking homeownership — it’s not like they’re coming from the outside.”

Council member Holly Jones reminded her colleagues that according to the 2025 Plan, the city will need 10,000 new residential units over the course of the next two decades to accommodate the projected population increase. She also tried to quell some of the concerns about the Habitat project’s impact on existing neighborhoods, saying, “This is a reputable developer in our community.”

As the discussion neared the four-hour mark — and before any nose counting could be done — Council members hit on the idea of approving the rezoning while tabling the vote on the permit to give the developer and the neighbors one more chance to work out a compromise that would allow the project to go forward. The rezoning passed unanimously; the vote on the conditional-use permit was postponed until the Feb. 24 formal session.

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