Asheville City Council

One man’s version of hell might be to end up serving, forever and ever, on a big committee.

Disappointed by the mixed results achieved by a “Church Committee” directed to resolve zoning-classification issues for churches in the city, Asheville Council members asked the group to meet again and report to the Planning and Zoning Commission before its February meeting.

The committee did agree — near unanimously — on a revised definition of churches for the city’s Unified Development Ordinance, Vice Mayor Ed Hay pointed out. “But size is still a problem, and we’re right back where we started,” he complained.

The committee — consisting of church and neighborhood representatives — was appointed last year, to hammer out a compromise on redefining “church” in the city’s Unified Development Ordinance, and to recommend ways to deal with questions about the size and expansion of churches located in residential areas.

But the committee waffled on such thorny questions as establishing size categories for churches, and whether to prohibit larger ones from being located on minor thoroughfares in residential areas, such as Murdock Avenue, Shelburne Road or Sand Hill Road.

At one point, the committee had recommended, on a 5-4 vote, that churches with more than 800 seats in the sanctuary could locate only on major thoroughfares, such as Merrimon Avenue or Haywood Road — and then, only with approval from Council, City Planner Gerald Green explained.

Soon after, however, the Rev. Bill Clark — a committee member from Malvern Hills Presbyterian Church — called Green and asked to change his “aye” vote, saying he hadn’t been sure what he was voting on, said Green. That shifted the vote to 4-5, effectively nixing the recommendation, he explained.

Said Council member Barbara Field, “The committee needs to go back and decide what’s being voted on.”

But Hay was reluctant to throw out all the committee’s work, though he said he was troubled by the changed vote. Hay stressed that committee members did reach consensus on a new definition of “church.” Eight of the committee’s nine members agreed that a church is a “place of worship,” and recommended broadening the current definition to include all facilities intended for religious services. Nonreligious operations — such as daycare facilities — must follow the general UDO guidelines for size and traffic impact dictated by the zoning classification of the particular church property.

Green — remarking that he had enjoyed working with most of the committee members, but adding that “some of them may be tired of me” — suggested limiting further committee work to the size and location issue.

Council member Chuck Cloninger suggested deferring the issue to the Planning and Zoning Commission, for discussion at its February meeting — and, meanwhile, directing the committee to meet again and revisit the issue. “That keeps the process moving forward,” he remarked.

But continued signs of distrust and frustration among the parties involved seemed to indicate that moving forward might not be easy.

Mayor Leni Sitnick mentioned that the site plan for Trinity Baptist Church’s proposed expansion was due to come before the city’s Technical Review Committee on Jan. 20, and that Carrier Heights residents had formally requested that discussion of the site plan be postponed. Their letter cited previous postponements on zoning and related issues dealing with Trinity — made at the church’s request — and claimed that those postponements have been “very advantageous” to Trinity, which has continued grading and clearing land for the expansion, and installing street lights and sidewalks without getting the proper permits.

Sitnick asked staff what violations are pending (the church was recently cited for installing the street lights and sidewalks), and also whether Council could, indeed, postpone consideration of the site plan at the Review Committee meeting.

Green cautioned that Trinity “may have some rights,” having submitted the site plan as requested; City Attorney Bob Oast agreed.

But Sitnick insisted that the Review Committee — made up of city staff — should at least be informed of Carrier Height’s concerns. “These things are going on concurrently, and one is going to affect the other,” she observed.

But Trinity attorney David Payne asked who had signed the letter, questioning whether Carrier Heights Neighborhood Association members had taken part in the committee meetings — and whether their letter had any bearing on the issue at hand.

Association representative Tom Lewis — whose name appears on the letter — served on the committee, Sitnick replied.

Payne pressed his point, asking if the alleged violations were “relevant at all.”

“I don’t understand what you’re getting at,” Oast replied. “The mayor raised an issue, which she has the right to do.”

City Manager Jim Westbrook noted that pending violations would “have to be dealt with.”

“The complete institutional plans for Trinity are being implemented: They have a parking lot and lights, and they’re ready to go,” said Carrier Heights representative June Lamb, whose name was also on the letter Sitnick presented to Council. In previous Council meetings, Lamb has charged that Trinity has violated city ordinances and codes by proceeding with construction without proper approval from the city.

And church representatives have continued to argue against the UDO’s restrictions — as Pastor Jim Dykes did, moments after Lamb’s comments. Dykes, who served on the committee, asked about the traffic counts on “major” thoroughfares (about 25,000 vehicles per day on Merrimon, Green estimated). Dykes posed a somewhat rhetorical question: “Is it not overkill to require such a large road?”

“Let’s let the committee work on that,” replied Sitnick.

On a motion by Hay, seconded by Cloninger, Council directed staff to reconvene the “Church committee” for discussion of the size issue — and, concurrently, to send the overall issue (including the revised definition of “church”) to P&Z. Hay’s motion passed, unanimously.

The alcohol business

Council considers Bele Chere proposal

Bele Chere might not survive without streetside beer and wine sales. But it could do with less, and even offer an alcohol-free Sunday during the three-day event.

That’s the heart of a compromise deal worked out by the Bele Chere Alcohol Task Force, Chairman Tim Richards reported to Council members during their Jan. 19 work session. In 1997, the task force — comprised of downtown merchants, city police, Alcohol Law Enforcement officers, Bele Chere festival staff and board members, and the city attorney — had been charged with resolving “the issues surrounding the selling and consumption of alcohol at the festival,” Richards explained.

In the two years since then, the task force has recommended (and Council has implemented) a number of changes in how the city manages such sales at the festival: The number of city-operated alcohol booths has been reduced, from 13 to six; better management of sales, coordinated with law enforcement, has resulted in 60 percent fewer alcohol-related arrests; the wristband system has curtailed underage drinking at the festival; and the city’s relationship with merchants has improved, thanks to changes in how the city runs the festival and accommodates merchants’ needs, he continued.

For this year’s festival, the task force presented Council with three options:

1) Turn over all alcohol sales to the Merchants Action Coalition, a local nonprofit organization, which would pay the city a percentage of its sales.

2) Do option one and make Sunday an alcohol-free day at Bele Chere.

3) Completely prohibit all outdoor alcohol sales at the festival.

“Option three would be the beginning of the end of Bele Chere,” warned downtown restaurateur Tommy Tsiros, who owns Max’s Celebrity Deli. His establishment and others, he predicted, would be overwhelmed by customers (more than 300,000 people attended the event last year), and the city would lose about $200,000 in sales revenues and sponsorship money. “It would be a nightmare for us,” declared Tsiros, voicing support for the first option and remarking that he is “comfortable” with the alcohol-free Sunday idea.

Richards reminded Council that, in a 1998 survey of festivalgoers, 76 percent of respondents supported the sale of alcohol at the festival.

Festivals Coordinator Denise Hedges added that an alcohol-free Sunday would reduce sales revenues by only 15 percent. The task force and city staff have yet to identify a funding source to replace that lost revenue, she mentioned.

At that, Council member Earl Cobb suggested raising the price of streetside alcohol at the festival. “They’ll drink that beer, no matter what you charge for it.”

Hedges, however, wasn’t so sure.

Cobb also pointed out that turning over alcohol sales to a nonprofit would not entirely relieve the city of liability for alcohol-related problems.

Richards noted that one of the improvements in managing alcohol sales at the festival has been to require training for all sales personnel, who must check the ID of everyone attempting to purchase alcohol at Bele Chere booths. “Anybody, even you, would be asked to show your ID — that’s the rule,” said Richards, speaking to Cobb.

“I’d be in trouble,” joked the white-haired Cobb.

In any case, Council members seemed inclined to approve the first two options. Council member Field remarked that Sundays at Bele Chere are most like the family-oriented event that it was meant to be, saying she would support an alcohol-free Sunday. She also suggested having all-local entertainment on that day.

Mayor Sitnick also supported the second option, pointing out that festivalgoers could still get a drink on Sundays, by visiting a downtown restaurant or bar — provided they left a big tip, she added, nodding toward Sirros.

Council member Sellers, who has advocated a completely alcohol-free festival, commented, “If I were king for a day, option three is what I’d rule. But, in the interest of compromise …” Sellers said he would support option two.

Council members will vote formally on the task force recommendations at their Jan. 27 session.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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