Closing the loop(hole)

Asheville City Council Feb. 8, 2011 meeting

  • Council to consider raising industrial/commercial water rates
  • Pack Park visitor center scaled back

A sharply divided Asheville City Council approved two amendments to the Unified Development Ordinance during their Feb. 8 session on matching 4-3 votes . One would triple the minimum distance between developments for them to be considered separate projects, from 500 feet to 1,500 feet. The other would require developers to wait at least a year before filing applications for slightly modified versions of projects rejected by Council.

The amendments are widely seen as a reaction to the ongoing controversy over the Caledonia Apartments project. In September, Council unanimously rejected developer Frank Howington’s plan to build a 100-unit apartment complex in Kenilworth. Howington subsequently split the proposal into two 50-unit developments 500 feet apart, which did not require Council approval. The city’s Technical Review Committee approved the revised plan Feb. 7; the Planning and Zoning Commission rejected the one-year resubmission delay on a 4-0 vote and split 2-2 on the expanded separation requirement. City Council is the final arbiter, however.

Barber Melton, vice president of the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods, read a list of 15 neighborhood associations that had endorsed the proposed amendments, adding, “We have had numerous stabs in the back because of separation problems in years past.”

Several Kenilworth residents also voiced support. Cliff Yudell said the amendments would close loopholes developers use to circumvent Council members’ intent. “What about the respect for this Council and its decisions?” he asked.

Others said the amendments would unduly burden developers, undermining potential job growth and hindering efforts to create affordable housing. Attorney Tom Holman, representing the Caledonia Apartments, said the amendments would be “bad for the overwhelming majority of city residents.” He also pointed out that the 500-foot spacing requirement had been enacted in 2009 as part of a series of amendments designed to “encourage economic opportunities.” Holman added that he believes the current amendments are improper, having been proposed in direct response to his client’s project. “Caledonia expressly reserves all of its rights and remedies related to this,” he noted.

But Patsy Brison, attorney for the Kenilworth Residents Association, countered that the 1,500-foot spacing requirement merely reasserts the original 1997 UDO wording. “It’s not new language; it’s reinstating what was there,” the former assistant city attorney asserted. Brison also disputed the idea that the spacing amendment would hinder development, arguing that changing the review process doesn’t necessarily kill a project. “If projects comply with city code provisions … those projects succeed. If they don’t, the projects are denied.”

Council member Cecil Bothwell said the amendments would “bring more consistency to the rules” while following Council’s intent “to not have these [rejected developments] come back again within a year.” Council member Gordon Smith agreed, saying the proposals would restore a more predictable and stable development environment.

Mayor Terry Bellamy, however, expressed concern about the potential legal ramifications, given Council’s failure to foresee the potential for developers to modify rejected projects in order to bypass Council approval when the ordinance was amended in 2009. “I think that we’re going to get sued, and that will mean more taxpayer dollars to defend something that’s still not clear,” she contended.

But Council member Esther Manheimer, an attorney by trade, said that while she shares some of Bellamy’s concerns, she sees the amendments as a way of “enforcing the spirit of the law when someone’s able to make an end run around us using the letter of the law.” Manheimer added, “I have really struggled with this issue tonight, trying to think about what’s fair.”

Bellamy then called for separate votes on the proposals. Vice Mayor Brownie Newman joined Bothwell, Manheimer and Smith in supporting both amendments, with Bellamy and Council members Jan Davis and Bill Russell opposed. Because the amendments failed to win the support of two-thirds of City Council, a second set of votes will be taken at the Feb. 22 meeting.

All wet

Council members also heard an update on the city’s ongoing water-rate study. Lex Warmath, vice president of the Charlotte-based Raftelis Financial Consultants, reported that although the city’s residential rate is higher than those of other cities in the region, its industrial/commercial rates are much lower — 60 percent less than what residents pay. Water revenues are expected to slightly exceed costs during the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, but Warmath said some sort of rate increase would be needed after that to cover expenses.

“The message here is that we have some room … to raise commercial and industrial rates while still keeping them consistent with their cost of service and generating more revenue to close that gap,” he explained. Warmath also noted that Asheville residents use less water than their counterparts in neighboring cities.

Bothwell voiced support for bringing the industrial/commercial rates in line with what residents pay to address the predicted future shortfalls. “Looking at the numbers here, it’s clear that we’re subsidizing industrial use far more than other cities,” he said.

Russell, however, worried about increasing the burden on businesses, noting, “I know we all don’t want to make decisions that would place undue hardships on these companies that are already struggling.”

Bellamy, meanwhile, highlighted the differences in current rates: Single-family homes pay $3.77 per 100 cubic feet of water, while multifamily dwellings, small-usage business/industry and large-usage business/industry pay $3.08, $3.15 and $1.41 respectively.

Council is expected to consider restructuring water rates during this year’s budget process.

Other business

In other business, Council:
• Unanimously approved folding in the city’s storm-water utility fee with its recycling, sewer and water fees. The $28.08 per year storm-water fee will be broken into six bimonthly payments of $4.68, which will be added to the other bimonthly fees.
• Unanimously approved providing discounted bus tickets to homeless residents. This will make it easier for them to commute to jobs, school or medical appointments, search for housing and meet other basic needs, helping stabilize their lives.
• Heard an update on the Pack Square Park visitor center. The scaled-down 800-square-foot facility is projected to cost between $200,000 and $500,000; as originally conceived, the estimated cost was $2.4 million. The building will have bathrooms and a rinse-off area to accommodate users of the park’s “Splashville” fountain.
• Discussed early voting for this year’s City Council elections. In 2009, the city spent $39,406 on early voting. Several Council members expressed concern about the cost; no decision will be made before Council’s March 8 meeting.

— Freelance writer Christopher George lives in Spartanburg, S.C., where he reports local government news on his blog, FlyingOskar.com.

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