Asheville City Council

“‘Smart growth’ is growth that happens in someone else’s neighborhood,” proclaimed Asheville resident Jim McClure during the Asheville City Council’s Feb. 11 formal meeting. And though he made it clear that he was speaking tongue in cheek, McClure’s comment nonetheless encapsulated the resistance city officials predictably face whenever they advocate infill housing.

A tenet of any smart-growth policy (such as the city’s 2025 Plan), infill housing tries to limit sprawl by encouraging development within existing neighborhoods, rather than continually spreading outward. The phrase has become a mantra of late among city leaders, who frequently cite a statistic that seems to be a battle cry of sorts for Asheville’s Planning and Development Department these days: “Within the next 20 years, Asheville will need to build 10,000 new dwellings to accommodate the projected population increase.”

And whether it’s prediction, premonition or promise, the call for 10,000 dwellings suggests that a lot of Asheville back yards that now face undeveloped land might soon be butting up against construction sites. If that happens, the developers and city leaders working to promote the fill-in-the-blanks approach will undoubtedly have to contend with the type of neighborhood resistance that Council faced on Feb. 11 when they held a public hearing to consider approving a 76-unit cohousing community on a 20-acre site off Beaverdam Road. Opponents of the proposal, most of whom live nearby, pleaded with Council to spare them from what resident Mark Niwinski called “an insult to our single-family neighborhood.”

The resistance forces came armed with a protest petition. Signed by a majority of adjacent property owners, it raised the stakes by requiring a three-quarters majority for approval, rather than a simple majority. City Attorney Bob Oast certified that the petition was valid, meaning it would take at least a 6-1 vote for the seven-member Council to approve the project.

But what Niwinski called an insult is, in Elana Kann‘s eyes, the epitome of anti-sprawl development. Kann, whose Neighborhood Design/Build partnership created the Westwood Cohousing Community in West Asheville, explained that Wild Cherry Village is a larger-scale version of the same concept, complete with solar power, energy-efficient homes, and an emphasis on pedestrian-friendliness. Cars would be parked in a communal lot, with electric carts to ferry homeowners and their groceries from there to their front doors, and a shuttle-bus service to various off-site destinations. The community, she said, would incorporate both smart-growth principles and “green” building techniques.” Her presentation, peppered with terms such as “resource conservation,” “clustered dwellings” and “shared facilities,” made frequent reference to the 2025 Plan and other official city planning documents. “We are presenting a model for smart growth,” she concluded. (For more information on Wild Cherry Village, see “There goes the Neighborhood,” Feb. 5 Xpress.)

Westwood resident Paula Robbins went even further, declaring: “If this isn’t an example of [the city’s] planning goals — infill housing, better use of public transit, preserving the environment — then I don’t know what is. Wild Cherry Village is smart growth.”

Support also came from the WNC Alliance, whose director, Brownie Newman, noted that “while some people talk about improving air quality, these people are actually doing something about it.”

But unhappy neighbors of the proposed development argued that clustering the structures doesn’t fit the area’s RS-4 zoning (the developers had requested a Planned Unit Development overlay that would allow them to build 76 units on roughly 15 acres, leaving the remaining 5 acres undisturbed. Some opponents also maintained that the development would create an unacceptable level of traffic congestion.

According to Carter Pettibone of the city’s Planning and Development Department, the city traffic engineer had determined that the development wasn’t big enough to merit a traffic study. Residents, however, emphasized the area’s traditionally rural character and the limitations imposed by Beaverdam Road (a 17-foot-wide, winding artery that provides the only direct access to the area).

Midway through the hearing, the tension level was ratcheted up another notch when Council member Brian Peterson announced that he needed to recuse himself due to a conflict of interest. After recognizing one of the attorneys representing the current owners of the property, Peterson explained, he’d realized that his wife (who is also an attorney) is involved in a litigation involving an aspect of the property transfer. After a brief recess to discuss the implications of Peterson’s revelation, Council reconvened and recused Peterson. Suddenly, the Council was down to six members, and the “super majority” needed for approval had now become a 6-0 vote.

When it came time to vote, however, those six Council members spoke as one. After a brief discussion in which each affirmed the need to fulfill the city’s long-term planning goals, they voted unanimously to approve the development.

Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy urged project opponents to re-examine their definition of community, declaring, “We’ve got to look at our total community, not just the boundaries on that map” as she pointed to a plan of the neighborhood.

Her words will surely echo, both in the ears of frustrated residents and in the Council chamber, as a growing city searches for places to put 9,924 more homes — places that will, more often than not, abut somebody’s back yard.

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