Asheville City Council

Given Kenilworth’s proximity to downtown and the hospitals, many would consider property in the neighborhood prime real estate. And tucked in a corner of this residential enclave is 8.8 acres of undeveloped land, owned by Alabama-based developers Batt and Associates and their Asheville partner, Thomas Wolfe. Developing it, however, is proving quite a challenge.

Last year, Wolfe (no relation to the man who put Asheville on the literary map with his 1929 novel, Look Homeward, Angel) asked the Asheville City Council for a conditional-use permit for the Ross Creek Apartments, a 150-unit affordable-housing complex planned for the site. But the permit went down on a 5-2 vote amid a host of concerns, safety foremost among them. Portions of the parcel lie in a floodplain, and the Kenilworth Dam sits just north of the property — and 250 feet above it. Many neighborhood residents argued against the project, noting that the dam hadn’t been inspected recently; some displayed photos showing cracks in the structure. Council member Joe Dunn asked City Engineer Cathy Ball what would happen to the housing units if the dam gave way; the results, she said, would be catastrophic.

Camera ready

One year later, at City Council’s Feb. 8 formal session, Wolfe was back — this time requesting that the property be rezoned. The current zoning is split between RM-16 (residential, multifamily, 16 units per acre) and RS-4 (residential, single-family, four units per acre); Wolfe wanted River District zoning for the whole parcel.

In her presentation to Council, City Planner Kim Hamel explained that the Planning and Development Department was recommending approval, because the River District designation (which allows commercial and light-industrial as well as residential uses) would give the developers more options.

Asked about it later, Hamel said the parcel in question qualifies for the designation because “There is River District on either side of the property.”

For his part, Wolfe told City Council that while the new zoning designation would indeed enhance the parcel’s development potential, he and his partners have no “concrete plans” for the site.

Once again, however, Kenilworth residents turned out in force to oppose the rezoning. And this time, they came armed with photos of White Pine Drive, the site’s principal access road, inundated during last September’s flooding. Mike Wizeman, the president of the Kenilworth Forest Community Club, said the neighborhood isn’t trying to prevent Wolfe from developing the property, but it is concerned about the safety issues. “The Swanannoa River has flooded almost every six years in the past century — and four times in the last nine years,” Wizeman pointed out, urging, “Put the citizens of Asheville’s safety first — you can’t allow residential development here.”

Fellow Kenilworth resident Addison Martin also displayed flood photos. In one shot of the access road, she noted: “The water is an astounding 6 feet high. Mr. Wolfe’s access was entirely flooded.”

White Pine Drive property owner William Mansfield made what he called a “plea to prevent the loss of lives and homes.” And if Council did choose to rezone the land, he continued, it should be limited to commercial or light-industrial uses. But City Attorney Bob Oast said that’s not permitted under a rezoning.

Not a single member of the public spoke in favor of the rezoning, and the hearing concluded in less than an hour.

Votus interruptus

During Council’s deliberations, Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower noted that the staff report hadn’t raised any red flags about potential flooding. That led him to wonder whether the real concern might not be access rather than safety. Mumpower also pointed out that if the rezoning failed, the owners could still develop the land for residential use — and a project with fewer than 50 units wouldn’t even require Council review. Mayor Charles Worley echoed that sentiment, confirming that the public would have no say in such a development.

But Council member Joe Dunn countered that safety was his primary concern. “River District, residential — Mother Nature does not care about zoning designations,” he declared, adding, “I just can’t see putting anyone in harm’s way.” Brownie Newman then made a motion to deny the rezoning. And Council member Jan Davis, who’d voted against the permit for the housing complex last year, said: “We’ve covered this ground before. I don’t feel a whole lot different than I did last year — I’m not comfortable with this.”

As Mayor Worley called for the vote on Newman’s motion, three hands shot up in the air — enough to kill the rezoning (Council member Terry Bellamy is on maternity leave). But before the vote was complete, Wolfe jumped up from his chair and asked for a continuance to give him time to meet with city staff to discuss, as he put it, “a way to find a zoning designation that is more acceptable.”

Mumpower asked if such a request was valid. The city attorney said it could be done, but only if a substitute motion were made to allow it. Council members agreed to entertain such a motion, even though they’d already begun voting on Newman’s. Mumpower then made the motion for a continuance, but it failed for lack of a second.

The motion to deny the rezoning passed 4-2, with Council member Holly Jones joining Dunn, Davis and Newman in support of it. Worley and Mumpower came out on the short end.

After the meeting, Wizeman told Xpress that he was pleased with the outcome but “stunned that it took one-and-a-half hours for the Council to come to this conclusion.” Wizeman also expressed some concern about how things played out: “They were about to throw out their vote — and this was after hands were up. After the mayor closed the public hearing, they told us that we couldn’t speak, yet Thomas Wolfe was allowed to. There’s a double standard there. … I’m blown away by what happened.”

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