“It’s time for Asheville to decide whether we are going to be an elite community and whether people who work in Asheville can live in Asheville.”
— Mountain Housing Opportunities Director Scott Dedman on Council’s rejection of a 35-unit affordable-housing development.
Everyone supports affordable housing. At least that’s the impression one would have come away with based on what nearly everybody said about the concept at Council’s marathon eight-hour meeting on Feb. 12. With the Council chamber filled to capacity an hour before the meeting even started and an estimated 80 people standing in the hall outside, it also seemed safe to assume that the evening’s agenda contained an item of unquestionable importance to citizens of Asheville.
And so it did.
All told, 69 members of the public rose, one by one, to address Council members as they tackled a controversial public hearing to determine whether Ross Creek Commons, a 36-unit affordable-housing complex, would be built at the entrance to Chunn’s Cove. And the vast majority of those speakers prefaced their remarks with the phrase, “I support affordable housing.” The only difference was that more than half the speakers who uttered those words followed them with a proviso such as “but not 36 units,” “but not at this location,” “but not a building this tall,” or “but not with the infrastructure problems in this neighborhood.”
No ands, ifs, or buts about it, the conditional conjunction “but” saw frequent use Tuesday night, underscoring the difference between the idea of affordable housing and the practical application of that pretty concept. Juxtaposed, the two resemble the polarity between the bacchanalian revelry of Mardi Gras and the sobering reality of Lent — appropriate for an affordable-housing hearing that began on the afternoon of Fat Tuesday and ended in the wee hours of Ash Wednesday.
In the darkness of that Wednesday, the Asheville City Council — in its first real chance to make good on a litany of campaign promises about supporting affordable housing — rejected the Ross Creek Commons proposal. More specifically, Council member Joe Dunn rejected it when he stared out over the exhausted, emotionally drained chamber and uttered the word “no,” casting the final, decisive vote. Soon after, Mayor Charles Worley adjourned the meeting, and Council members filed out into the cold February night and headed home.
The matter landed in Council’s lap after Mountain Housing Opportunities and WNC Housing (the local nonprofit agencies that are developing Ross Creek Commons) had their plan denied by the Planning and Zoning Commission. The commissioners were deadlocked 3-3, and under their bylaws, a tie vote results in a denial. The petitioner, however, can appeal the decision to City Council. Highlighting the evening’s drama was the fact that, under state law, Council needed a “super majority” to overturn the commission’s decision because a protest petition had been filed. With a seven-member Council, City Attorney Bob Oast interpreted this provision to mean six out of seven votes. But because Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy had to recuse herself from voting due to a conflict of interest (she works for MHO), the project needed all six remaining Council members’ votes to get the green light.
MHO’s plan called for constructing four buildings containing 35 residential units plus a community room. Much of the evening’s debate revolved around the mechanism used to develop the project. The Unified Development Ordinance allows for what’s known as a “planned-unit development,” or PUD. During the meeting, Mayor Worley explained that the PUD designation had been added to the UDO as part of the city’s 1997 overhaul of its zoning laws. At that time, many parcels of land that had been designated multifamily were rezoned single-family. Typically, affordable-housing developers need the increased density that results from the multifamily zoning designation — simply put, they can build more units on a single piece of property and pass the savings on to the buyer. To make up for the loss of potential affordable-housing sites, Worley explained, the city had tacked on the PUD provision, which allows for “density bonuses” to promote affordable housing and preserve open spaces and natural settings. These bonuses allow a developer to exceed the limits imposed by the parcel’s zoning designation.
In the case of Ross Creek Commons, MHO would be allowed to build 36 units on 3.4 acres of land zoned for only six units per acre. Early in the evening, MHO Director Scott Dedman explained that under the PUD guidelines, he could build those units and still leave about one-third of the land undisturbed. If Council rejected the density bonus, however, the land’s RM-6 zoning would limit the project to 20 units — and the per-unit cost would rise.
Attorney Lou Bissette, representing Chunn’s Cove residents opposed to the plan, said his clients would accept a 20-unit development.
Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford briefed Council on the proposal. This was the first time the city had used the PUD provision, he noted, explaining that in order for them to approve it, “a compelling case must be made” and adding, “I think it can be made.” In his presentation, Shuford displayed a chart depicting housing costs in North Carolina. In bold print across the top was the title of the chart. It read: “Asheville has the least affordable housing in North Carolina.” Citing the example of a house in Asheville costing $150,000, the chart showed that a comparable house would cost $116,000 in Greensboro and would also be cheaper in Charlotte, Raleigh and Winston-Salem.
Shuford went on to endorse the project, noting that his staff had concluded that it met all city requirements, was compatible with the area, and would not overtax the city’s infrastructure — all points that would be challenged throughout the evening.
Dedman then took the floor and made his case. He began by asking Council to approve “the city’s only land-use design that supports affordable housing [referring to the PUD]. Acknowledging that some in the audience would argue about the plan’s density, Dedman wondered aloud, “What is density?” Then, answering his own question, he said, “People are density … people that need this housing.” Introducing the term Nimbyism, (“not in my backyard”), Dedman opined that there were people in the audience who would speak against the plan and that some had been “coached” to say that they weren’t against affordable housing. “But,” he added, “like a dark liquid boiling up, the real meaning comes out.”
Dedman supported his claim by referring to correspondence from some of the project’s opponents. In one letter, he noted, the writer referred to the site as “Looney Hill” — an allusion to the fact that some of the residents being considered for the homes are mentally handicapped. Another woman, said Dedman, had written to him to express her concern over “the safety of the children [at the development].” She then suggested that he build his development on the site of the deserted theater at the Innsbruck Mall or the abandoned Heilig-Meyers store on Tunnel Road. To help the audience visualize this, Dedman showed slides of both sites — one depicting the vast expanse of the theater’s parking lot, the other showing cars zipping by the Heilig-Myers store just a few feet from the street.
Attorney Patsy Meldrum, who also represented MHO, informed council about several legal cases in the state that she said would support Council’s overturning P&Z’s decision. Meldrum, too, emphasized that the proposal met all of the city’s requirements. She noted: “You’ve set out the rules, and we’ve complied with the rules. This is the right site and the right time. … You’ve made the policy — now make it a practice.”
Bissette strongly refuted Dedman’s characterization of his clients, saying: “I’m a little disappointed in Scott’s rhetoric in trying to paint these people as out to do evil or as an evil group. … This community is made up of good people, not the evil axis Scott portrayed.” Bissette also dismissed Meldrum’s citation of legal precedent as a moot point, arguing, “This is not a judicial decision; this is a legislative decision.” The debate, he maintained, was not about affordable housing but about the density and scale of that housing, since the PUD would allow twice as many units as the existing zoning designation. Throughout his presentation, Bissette repeatedly mentioned that the people of Chunn’s Cove support affordable housing and that he, himself, is a contributor to MHO. The problem, said Bissette, is that this development is “like trying to stuff an 800-pound gorilla into a suitcase — which is what the developer is trying to do.” But the attorney made it clear that the real problem here, in his view, was the PUD itself: “It pits neighbors against the city. … It destroys trust and causes uncertainty.” He ended his presentation by noting, “If the developer will lower the number of units to 20, they will be welcomed as friends and neighbors.”
A string of project opponents assisted Bissette in his presentation, each of them questioning a different aspect of the plan, from the capacity of the area’s aging sewer lines to fire safety to traffic concerns and other infrastructure issues.
Soon after, members of the general public got their turn at the microphone. Some quoted scripture, some recounted tales of their own experiences living in public housing, others spoke of economic development and the future of the city. One Chunn’s Cove resident who supported the development, Pauline Council, told the audience that she had placed a sign near the entrance to the cove that quoted the gospel of Luke. “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” it read. Within 24 hours, someone had torn it down, she said, adding, “I didn’t replace it.”
Cove resident Susan Councell, who opposed the project, noted that the “residents of Chunn’s Cove support diversity. … But the double density proposed by the PUD is like the emperor’s new clothes,” explaining that the people can see aspects of the provision that the government can’t or won’t see.
A frequent theme voiced by project supporters was: “If not here, where? If not now, when?”
Opponents countered with issues of fairness and equity and the rights of neighborhood residents to have their opinions count.
In the end, it all boiled down to a Council vote that had to be either all or nothing. During Council’s discussion of the matter, Dunn began to show his hand by questioning aspects of the area’s infrastructure and alluding to the density of the project. On more than one occasion, he referred to the density bonus and the PUD designation as “smoke and mirrors.”
When Worley called for the vote, Council member Brian Peterson, conceding that it was a tough decision and that solid arguments had been made by both sides, argued that the pressing needs for affordable housing and supporting developments that meet the city’s requirements were far too great to ignore.
But Dunn, before casting the lone vote against the project, stated: “I don’t think that a decision here will kill affordable housing. … I’m just not sure this [proposal] is fair.”
When the vote was final, half the room exploded in shouts and applause; the other half sat dumbfounded and silent. Everyone, however, left quietly and went on home.