“The cost of housing in Asheville … is an embarrassment for our community.”
— County-City Housing Task Force report
Three measures designed to bring federal funds to Asheville are included in an $820 billion omnibus bill that has passed the House and Senate and is now awaiting President Bush’s signature. Attorney Sean Dalton of the legal firm Ball Janik briefed City Council on the situation at the Jan. 20 work session. It was Dalton’s first report to Council since the city hired him last spring to help keep Asheville’s concerns on the minds of its elected representatives in Washington. But Dalton also brought some unwelcome financial news: Due to a statistical change in the 2000 census, the city could lose a big chunk of federal mass-transit funds.
The omnibus appropriations bill, said Dalton, includes the following benefits for Asheville: $2 million for traffic-signal equipment and system upgrades, $300,000 to begin replacing the city’s bus fleet (considerably less than the $825,000 requested, but Dalton said some portion of a $6.25 million allocation for North Carolina should also find its way here), and a provision enabling the city to apply for a state grant to help fund Azalea Road Park and the Next Generation Project. The provision, known as a “soft earmark” in the trade, encourages the state legislature to review the grant request and fund it using a portion of an $84 million federal allocation to North Carolina. The Next Generation Project is billed as an opportunity for at-risk youth to learn trade skills such as carpentry, landscaping and electrical while helping build the proposed Azalea Road Park.
Federal lawmakers, reported Dalton, turned thumbs down on a number of other requests. A $2.5 million communications upgrade aimed at bringing emergency services’ analog radios into the digital age was nixed due to a dispute between House and Senate subcommittees over which federal agency would handle the money. And another $2.5 million requested for a hazardous-response center was disallowed due to what Dalton called “unusual circumstances” — the fact that no such appropriations could be piggybacked onto the Homeland Security Act of 2002 during its first year in effect.
Dalton also brought the stunning news that according to the most recent census information, Asheville’s official population is now upward of 200,000 — almost double what it was in 1990.
That impressive number, however, reflects a statistical anomaly rather than actual population growth. The 2000 census, for the first time, lumped Asheville together with assorted outlying towns (including Black Mountain, Hendersonville, Waynesville and Weaverville) to create an “Urbanized Area of Over 200,000 Population.” As a result, the city is no longer eligible for section 5307 mass-transit operating funds to the tune of $800,000 to $850,000 — almost a quarter of the Asheville Transit System’s $4 million operating budget. The money would already have run out were it not for a pair of extensions that continued the funding through Feb. 29, 2004. Yet another extension is in the works, reported Dalton, but resistance in the Senate is holding things up.
Only a handful of U.S. cities — including Annapolis, Md., and Denton, Texas — share Asheville’s plight. But Asheville, said Dalton, “is in the worst situation of any similar city in the country.”
Striking while the iron is hot
Conceptual drawings of a proposed plaza honoring war veterans were unveiled to a mixed reception. The plaza, which would greet spectators making their way to Memorial Stadium, would be lush with symbolism, including sculptured gardens and trees arranged to represent soldiers marching in formation. A memorial wall would commemorate every American war and conflict (with spaces reserved for future ones); other features would commemorate missing and fallen soldiers.
Although the military memorial drew support from some on Council, Council member Holly Jones wondered how the project had gotten so high up on the priority list of a department ostensibly dedicated to parks and recreation. In previous discussions, noted Jones, pointed out that in previous discussions, Council had focused on replacing the lights in the stadium and on other critical needs in city park facilities.
“I need to feel like we’re playing this chip in the best way for the community,” said Jones.
Parks and Recreation Director Irby Brinson replied that although there are other pending parks-and-recreation projects, none of them are as far along (the drawings for the memorial were produced in-house by city staff).
“As Parks and Recreation director, sometimes you need to strike while the iron is hot,” he declared.
Jones’ “chip” and Brinson’s’ “iron” amounted to the same thing — $550,000 in donations pledged through Eblen Children’s Charities. One major donor is the Asheville Splash, the women’s soccer team that uses the stadium. That money, said Brinson, could be leveraged to apply for an additional $250,000 in matching funds from the state Parks and Recreation Trust Fund. Council members will vote on whether to accept the pledged funds at their Jan. 27 formal session.
Memorial Stadium, built in the late 1920s, was first dedicated to Asheville’s World War I casualties; the dedication was later extended to include World War II.
The facility, now used by many local sports teams, needs some $2 million worth of upgrades, such as lights, seating, press boxes and turf. Last November, Council approved a plan to move forward with conceptual drawings.
Seeing the light
A nonprofit looking for solutions to Asheville’s air-pollution problems has come up with what it figures is a bright idea.
Stressing the seriousness of local air-pollution problems, UNCA environmental-studies professor Richard Maas, who chairs the Clean Air Community Trust, told Council that despite all the talk about the Tennessee Valley Authority’s smokestacks, Asheville is largely responsible for the region’s air woes.
Last April, the city and county gave the nonprofit a total of $60,000 to conceive and implement educational and outreach programs. Planned projects include a ride-share computer database and tailpipe testing to show drivers how much pollution their cars actually produce.
But the trust wants the city and county to each contribute an additional $5,000 for one of those programs, which entails buying compact-fluorescent light bulbs for resale at cost to community groups.
The bulbs, which cost a few dollars apiece in stores, use 75 percent less energy and last much longer than conventional incandescent bulbs.
The nonprofit’s director, Marjorie Meares, sees the project as a way to boost community awareness of the need to conserve energy while helping clear the air. School groups, she said, could raise needed funds by selling the bulbs while helping educate area residents about how their use of electricity contributes to local air pollution. And because the trust would recoup the money spent on the bulbs, the program would be self-perpetuating, enabling still more bulbs (which fit in standard fixtures) to be sold.
Some Council members, however, had doubts about the idea.
“It bothers me that we’re in the light-bulb business all of a sudden,” said Council member Jan Davis. Davis, who serves on the Asheville-Buncombe Council of the Mountain Area Early Action Compact, also said he’d like to see something “more significant” result from money given to the trust.
At Jones’ prompting, Meares assured Council that the groups selling the bulbs would not undercut local retailers offering the same product. And in any case, she noted, the overall volume of sales would barely dent the local light-bulb market. But the educational value, argued Meares, could be huge.
At the request of Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower, the issue was referred to the city’s Outside Agency Committee.
Task force to city: Cut fees, streamline rules
A task force charged with finding ways to make local housing more affordable is calling on the city to cut its fees and change its zoning rules to allow denser development.
County-City Housing Task Force member Janet Moore presented the group’s final report, stressing this simple message: Housing in the city is too expensive. In the words of the report, “The cost of housing in Asheville is a problem for all but the wealthiest homebuyers, and it is an embarrassment for our community.”
Moore, who works for the Mission St. Joseph’s Health System, said the hospital has seen potential employees turn down jobs they’d been offered, deterred by the high cost of local housing.
The task force maintains that its suggestions would give developers more incentive to build smaller houses on smaller lots, as well as multi-family and high-density housing.
“Density is something we’re just going to have to get used to,” Moore observed.
To that end, the report calls for decreasing fees and permit charges for houses of up to 1,500 square feet. Under the current fee structure, those expenses account for about 7 percent of the total cost of a house that size; for larger homes, the percentage is much smaller. The task force also wants the city to allow construction on smaller lots, streamline public-hearing requirements, and waive the required Council approval for certain types of developments.
“Why would a developer invest in something that meets the [Unified Development Ordinance] when it can be denied in the 11th hour?” queried Moore.
The report will now go to city staff for review.