Asheville City Council

With an eye toward future residential development (and possible annexation), City Council extended Asheville’s extraterritorial jurisdiction into a mountainous area north of the city limits.

Passed by a 5-1 vote (with Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger once again sitting out, to avoid a potential conflict of interest), the ordinance zoned most of a 616-acre area for single-family homes. Council member Terry Whitmire cast the lone vote against the ETJ extension at the Jan. 25 formal session.

“The biggest reason is, no tax revenues are coming as a result,” explained Whitmire, suggesting that the city should have been looking at annexing the area from the beginning.

Most of the land is undeveloped, and some of it is steeply sloping, City Planner Mike Matteson told Council. Surveyors, he said, had suggested the low-density zoning because of the steep terrain.

City ordinances prohibit streets with more than an 18-degree slope, to ensure that fire trucks and other vehicles can get in; if the city did annex the area, any existing roads would have to be brought up to that standard.

“The areas adjacent to [the Reynolds Mountain subdivision] are, predictably, going to be developed in the future. They have similar potential as Reynolds,” reported Matteson, adding: “I would like to stress: This is not an annexation. This property would not be brought into the city, and would not be taxed by the city,” he added, noting that the Planning Department has received several phone inquiries about taxation, in connection with the ETJ.

No one from Reynolds Mountain appeared to be in attendance at the public hearing, but several owners of adjacent property said they feared the new zoning would be so restrictive it would scare off developers and in property owner/developer John Cort‘s words, in effect, “mothball these properties.”

“We think it’s a good idea that it be zoned … but it may not be compatible with RS-2 zoning,” said Cort. “Some of this land exceeds 25 percent [grades]. [The city] really needs to be creative, or you’re going to discourage any development.” Representing the Coleman family, which owns about 160 acres of the land, spokesman Mike Goforth echoed Cort’s concerns, saying he objected to the city “coming in and zoning this land.”

“Mr. Cort’s comments are very serious,” said Council member Charles Worley. “With the maximum grades allowed for roads, it would be difficult to get streets in there. I think we need to use a little common sense.”

Council member Barbara Field pointed out that because Asheville might eventually annex the property, street-slope restrictions are needed to ensure access for city services such as school buses, fire trucks and sanitation vehicles. And Council member Ed Hay noted that developments whose streets don’t meet city specs can be very costly to annex, saying,”That was the one lesson we learned the hard way with Beaver Dam Hills,”

Planning Director Scott Shuford said the new zoning does allow for some creativity and flexibility in those steeply sloping areas, and that Planning staff are working on some possible solutions, such as clustering homes. But he, too, warned about the difficulty of bringing these properties up to city standards at a later date.

One area resident, who apparently lives just outside the city limits, said he wished Asheville would annex the ETJ area immediately. “I just moved here 10 days ago, and I’m wondering why the city services stop just five houses away,” complained Bill Maselunas, adding, “We get no snowplows and no trash trucks.”

Flak still flying over speedway property

The coals of the racetrack fire, it seems, are still smoldering. Even though Council chambers weren’t bursting at the seams this week, racing proponents used a consent-agenda item to reopen the debate.

The item in question was a resolution to apply for $250,000 in grant funding for the former home of the now-defunct Asheville Motor Speedway, slated for development as an addition to the adjacent French Broad River Park. Council member Brian Peterson said he’d received some phone calls about the grants, and asked that the item be pulled off the consent agenda for discussion.

Parks and Recreation Director Irby Brinson told Council that planners were working from a conceptual plan (the master plan won’t be finalized until later in February, and the deadline to apply for an N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources grant was Feb. 1). The $250,000 grant requires a 50-percent match, he said, and RiverLink (the nonprofit that donated the million-dollar property to the city, as well as the French Broad River Park) has agreed to pick up the tab.

“Let’s get those big bucks, Irby,” urged the mayor, adding that, “Staff is always looking for ways to find funding that doesn’t come out of the taxpayer’s pocket.”

During the public-comment period, civic watchdogs Mike Morgan and Don Yelton used the opportunity to criticize the city’s handling of the racetrack issue, and then — declaring themselves to be candidates for the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners — pledged to support the racing community, if elected.

Racing fan Eric Gatty asked Council members how they planned to retrieve the tax revenues and jobs lost when the speedway shut down.

The answer, replied the mayor, lies in the city’s Strategic Economic Development Plan, and it boils down to quality-of-life issues. When companies are seeking a place to relocate or set up shop, she said, they most often look for “good churches, good schools, parks, roads and greenways. Asheville is far behind, statistically, in greenways for its citizens.”

Morgan told the Council that he believes the new park will attract drug traffickers and prostitutes, citing the example of other parks along the river. Brinson responded that the French Broad River Park has had some problems in the past, but is now among the city’s finest. “We have a full-time security officer on duty, and a park ranger patrols the area,” he said. “The reports of incidents have gone down drastically, and I believe it’s safer than any other park in town.”

When another racetrack patron told Council members they had made a big mistake in accepting the 31-acre property from RiverLink, Mayor Sitnick replied: “The racetrack was for sale for four years. I’m wondering why nobody purchased it. Can you tell me?” He couldn’t. And then she asked: “It was the city who received the gift — why has the city become the burden?” He gave no answer to that one, either.

RiverLink’s gift of the speedway property came with the condition that the land must be used for parks and greenways.

“That saved us approximately $1 million, for not having to purchase another piece of property,” said Peterson, adding, “We are losing some tax dollars, but we’re also gaining parks for our kids that are really needed.”

Council voted unanimously to apply for the grant funding.

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