Democracy ran a marathon when the Asheville City Council met to determine the fate of two proposed developments. The Feb. 8 formal session ran into the early hours of the next day, and in the end, both Home Depot and Nettlewood Professional Park got their conditional-use permits.
“That was the longest meeting I can remember,” observed City Clerk Maggie Burleson. “Even longer than the UDO public hearings [in 1997] — those got out a little after midnight.”
“That’s the nature of public hearings: That’s the price we pay for democracy,” Mayor Leni Sitnick told a man who started complaining, somewhere around the three-hour mark. Many of the audience members who hung on to the weary end were senior citizens waiting for the second scheduled public hearing.
The first half of the evening was dominated by talk of traffic-impact studies and whether West Asheville could support another home-improvement store, in the area where the Smokey Park Highway meets Interstate 40. It was the first test of the city’s new development standards for large retail structures — and, after four hours of testimony, Council members voted 5-1 to allow a new, 108,000-square-foot Home Depot to be built.
Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger excused himself from the hearing, because his law firm represents Home Depot; Council member Brian Peterson cast the lone vote against issuing the permit. Looking at the Unified Development Ordinance’s “conditional guidelines to ensure protection of the public health, safety and welfare,” Peterson said, “I don’t feel [that item] number seven has been addressed.”
Item seven states that the project will not cause undue traffic congestion or create a traffic hazard. Several residents disputed city Traffic Engineer Michael Moule’s prediction that proposed improvements — including widening Monte Vista Road, adding a turning lane to Acton Circle, and synchronizing traffic lights on the Smokey Park Highway — would not only negate the impact of the projected 2,310 additional vehicles brought by Home Depot, but would also reduce the current traffic congestion, notoriously bad in the afternoons (and peaking during tourist season).
Home Depot has agreed to pay for all these changes. And, to qualify for a UDO variance allowing the project to exceed the usual size limits, the developer had to meet a number of landscaping, lighting and pedestrian criteria recommended by the Planning Department.
Many Monte Vista residents echoed Carie Becker, who questioned why Home Depot would want to move into a neighborhood that already has two lumber yards and a new Super Lowe’s: “How many home-improvement stores do we need? Eventually, the market drops off.”
Other residents were concerned about runoff from the new building’s roof and parking lot, but most seemed more worried about the traffic. Council spent a lot of time asking staff about those concerns, before concluding that the revised UDO gives the city more control over a single large project, such as Home Depot’s, than it would have over several smaller ones, if the property were subdivided. Council member Ed Hay asserted that: “This property is going to be developed. This is the best way to improve the traffic problem.” Mayor Sitnick seemed to agree.
“I’ve struggled with these decisions in the past, but I feel Home Depot has gone above and beyond what we have required of them,” said Sitnick. “I’m going to vote for this project because I think, considering the potential uses for that property, this is probably the best kind of development we could get for that acreage. There are other things I’d rather not see there.”
At that point, grumbling people started filing out of the Council chambers, even though the official vote wasn’t cast for several more minutes.
A road more traveled?
The second public hearing, which lasted almost as long as the first, was a bit more bizarre. It unfolded like a courtroom drama, with the Nettlewood Professional Park and the Deerwood Neighborhood Association squaring off over access to Deer Lake Drive.
Nettlewood developers came to Council seeking a conditional-use permit to build a 186,000-square-foot office complex behind the Hendersonville Road Wal-Mart. Access to Hendersonville Road would be via a long, narrow strip of land. But Deerwood already has an easement for a private driveway on the same 30-foot-wide strip, and they don’t want to share it with Nettlewood. Efforts to find a compromise have failed.
“This public hearing has been continued several times, and is something we have wrestled with at numerous meetings with [both parties],” said a frustrated Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford, declaring, “In my 20 years in the business, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The master plan also includes two other access points, but without the Hendersonville Road access, “this office complex becomes economically unfeasible,” developer Jerry Grant told Council. “We would try and sell the property for whatever we could get for it.”
Both groups had their lawyers with them, wielding deeds and charts, and arguing the finer points of law to serve to their own needs — prompting Council member Barbara Field to say, “I’m not a lawyer — what does this mean?”
“[Nettlewood] either has the right to use it or not, and we don’t have the authority to determine that,” clarified Vice Mayor Cloninger, one of four lawyers on Council.
“I don’t think this should ever have come to us until the loose ends were worked out,” said a very tired Mayor Sitnick. “Clearly, we are stymied. Now it comes to the city to make a determination that is borderline impossible.”
Eventually, Shuford broke the stalemate by suggesting that the permit be granted — with the stipulation that details of the contested access be worked out later, by city staff. This seemed to please Cloninger, Hay and Council member Charles Worley, who said they liked the Nettlewood project. They were seeking a way to avoid making the developer wait two or three years to start construction, while contention over the north access heads for litigation.
But Council member Peterson disagreed, again pointing to UDO guidelines on issuing conditional-use permits. The master plan for Nettlewood, he said, relies on the disputed Hendersonville Road entrance to provide access for city emergency vehicles. To approve the permit without resolving the access question could endanger public safety. “I don’t see how we can apply these standards when it’s so undecided,” said Peterson. “It’s our responsibility — if we give it to staff, we are not doing our job.”
The final vote was 5-2 for approval, with Peterson and Council member Terry Whitmire dissenting.