Spring cleaning began a little early this year as the Asheville City Council took the time — quite a bit of it — to discuss potential changes to existing city ordinances. Challenging the usefulness of some procedures, whether obsolete signage rules or mandatory Council review of proposed private development projects, no holds were barred in a six-and-a-half-hour Feb. 15 work session.
The proposed changes came in the form of a wish list handed down by the city’s Development Task Force, created at City Council’s behest last summer to recommend potential changes. But Council did not appoint anyone to serve on the open-ended, volunteer committee, and city Building Safety Director Terry Summey (who coordinated the task force) told Xpress that it consisted of whoever showed up at the meetings — many of them developers. After six months of brainstorming, the group came up with 32 recommendations — many of which would make it easier for developers to move their projects along.
The extensive list was unveiled in a series of public meeetings back in January. Council members’ responses to the ideas varied widely, and many of the suggestions will be left to city staff to address.
The topics ranged from consolidating required forms and ensuring that city inspectors use a consistent approach to more divisive issues, such as who should pay for sidewalks and other infrastructure — the city or the developer?
The Unified Development Ordinance requires developers to pay for such amenities. But Council member Joe Dunn argued that this puts an unnecessary burden on them.
“I think we need to be careful of what we keep asking and asking and asking,” cautioned Dunn.
At least one proposed change — exempting conditional-use permits for Level III developments from City Council review — was roundly rejected. “We need to keep elected officials accountable,” argued Council member Carl Mumpower. (Level III developments are residential projects with more than 50 units, or commercial buildings containing more than 100,000 square feet of space; the Campus Crest apartments in Montford and the new Wal-Mart Supercenter are examples of recent controversial developments that had to undergo City Council scrutiny.)
Council members’ resistance to that proposal appears to have killed it outright; other suggestions on the list will be developed by city staff and then brought back for Council approval.
One item that proved more divisive was a proposal to exclude the public from Technical Review Committee meetings. The committee is made up of city staff and representatives of such agencies as the Department of Transportation, the Metropolitan Sewerage District and the Regional Water Authority. The proposal calls for replacing the formal meetings with informal, closed-door sessions.
Those meetings, noted Mumpower, are intended to address technical issues — not solicit general feedback from the community. “We are creating the illusion that this is a public forum,” he said.
Mayor Charles Worley, however, pointed out that city residents have sometimes identified a technical flaw in a proposal. And if the public is excluded from these meetings, there will have to be some other way to get that information to Council members, said Worley, calling his idea “a good compromise.”
Council member Holly Jones, meanwhile, defended the need for keeping TRC meetings public as a way to shore up trust in Council’s oversight. “I think we have a larger perception problem; I don’t think we’re ready as a community for this. This is another door being closed — it is a PR nightmare,” she predicted.
The work session may have been the last time the whole list of recommendations will appear together. City Manager Jim Westbrook told Xpress that, as staff modifies the suggestions, they will come back to Council one by one for approval or rejection.
Signs, signs, everywhere a sign…
Stop the Signs, a citizens’ group concerned about the proliferation of illegal advertisements, says that between 20,000 and 30,000 of them litter the landscape in Asheville and Buncombe County every year. “It is bad, ugly and illegal,” said Renate Rikkers. “And it’s not a landscape to be very proud of.”
Offenders include both paper and cardboard signs, often advertising sales or political candidates; banners and vendor signs (such as the cigarette ads outside convenience stores); and even parked vehicles with billboard-size ads on their sides.
Rikkers and her group have been working for nearly a year to get Council’s ear. Besides the aesthetic concerns, they say, there are safety issues. Roadside signs, says Rikkers, can distract drivers and block visibility.
Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford said technological advances now allow people to produce large numbers of signs quickly and cheaply, outpacing the 15-year-old sign ordinance — and the city’s ability to enforce it.
“And it is cheaper to pay the fines than to get other advertising,” Shuford told Council.
“We have an ordinance that is being violated — that’s about as clear as a bell,” said Mayor Worley.
Under the current guidelines, violators have 72 hours to take down their signs after receiving a warning, Code Enforcement Officer Jerry Reese explained. After that, a fine of $50 is imposed, with equivalent fines levied every three days thereafter until the sign is removed. But violators can leave their signs up for 70 hours, wait a few hours and then post new ones with impunity. And many signs (such as those announcing sales at retail outlets) are removed during the 72-hour window, having already served their purpose. Last year, said Reese, the city collected $3,000 in fines. But he added that the code is in need of a major overhaul, and the ability to ticket violators immediately would make a big difference.
City staff, including Shuford and City Attorney Bob Oast, are looking into alternatives, such as ticketing violators for each sign they place, as well as ways to make it easier for staff to find and remove illegal signage.
What price traffic control?
Several Council members trounced the city’s current traffic-calming policy, which uses speed humps and islands to slow vehicles traveling through residential neighborhoods.
According to Traffic Engineer Anthony Butzek, these measures, which have been applied in several neighborhoods since the policy was adopted in 2002, cost about $77,000 per mile. And though Butzek said complaints about speeding cars — a hot topic at community meetings — typically dwindle after such strategies are implemented, Joe Dunn attacked both their effectiveness and the cost to taxpayers.
“I have to ask you if we can continue to afford this,” said Dunn. “I think it’s just way out of hand.”
He also questioned the safety of the speed humps and the wear and tear they inflict on city vehicles, citing information culled from the Internet.
“These are facts,” Dunn declared, waving sheets of paper in the air.
Butzek said it’s up to Council to decide whether the city can afford traffic calming. As for the safety issue, he admitted that the response time for emergency vehicles is a concern. Calculations done by his office indicate a 15-second delay in fire and ambulance response when using those streets, said Butzek.
Mumpower, on the other hand, favored more police enforcement. Although he didn’t produce hard numbers, he said he “bets” that traffic enforcement by the police has dropped over the past 20 years.
Butzek countered that traffic calming is cheaper than enforcement, but Mumpower insisted, “Money spent on enforcement is money well spent.”
Police presence is an important component, agreed APD Capt. Ted Lambert, who also spoke at the meeting. But it’s only one part of a total approach that also includes education, traffic calming and street design. Some people, noted Lambert, respond to one of those components but not the others.
Worley took the opportunity to champion yet another enforcement method: cameras that take pictures of passing traffic.
“A speed camera could do the trick in a heartbeat,” said Worley. But photographing cars has been a constitutional hot button in other areas, and such a move would require permission from Raleigh. Several Council members indicated that some members of the local legislative delegation say they won’t support the use of cameras; Mumpower later told Xpress that state Rep. Wilma Sherrill has told him she strongly opposes the cameras on constitutional grounds.
Holly Jones, meanwhile, seemed surprised by the turn things were taking. The discussion, she noted, had shifted 180 degrees from traffic-calming measures that she sees as beneficial.
“I have heard no complaints, but I have heard compliments,” she said. “It makes a difference when you’re holding your child’s hand and crossing the street.”
She also seemed puzzled by Dunn, Worley and Mumpower’s insistence on challenging facts presented by the city’s traffic expert.
“We’re telling him traffic calming doesn’t work,” objected Jones.
City staff will continue collecting data, including the traffic-enforcement numbers and information about cameras, before reporting back to Council.
[Brian Postelle is a regular contributor to Mountain Xpress.]