Asheville City Council

Council member Charles Worley is still reeling from the effects of nine hours’ worth of brain-twisting debate.

Stricken with a staph infection and confined to a hospital bed, Worley nonetheless managed to keep a telephone plastered to his ear until the bitter end of Council’s Feb. 8 formal session, which lasted till 2 a.m. But at Council’s Feb. 15 work session, he called the previous week’s marathon “a disservice to the Council and the general public.”

Worley’s fellow Council members seemed to agree, saying steps should be taken to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

“Last week was horrible for me,” confessed Council member Terry Whitmire, who was suffering from aching wisdom teeth in addition to the pain of the lengthy meeting. Whitmire asked city staff to consider ways to make their presentations clearer and more concise.

Most of the finger-pointing seemed aimed at Planning and Development staff. About two-thirds of the session was eaten up by public hearings on conditional-use permits for the proposed Nettlewoood Professional Park and a new Home Depot store. Planning staff read some long and fairly dry reports about the projects — mostly for the public’s benefit, since Council already had the information.

Council member Brian Peterson suggested that the Planning and Zoning Commission hold public hearings on conditional-use permits before sending them on to Council, so the specific conditions could be worked out ahead of time, with public input. The Nettlewood proposal, said Peterson, “was not cooked. … It was a legal decision we were supposed to decide but couldn’t get to. We spent two hours pretending [we could].”

Worley offered a simpler solution: make it Council policy to continue any meeting that isn’t over by 10 p.m. to Wednesday (the next day) or Thursday (Council usually meets on Tuesdays, formal sessions starting at 5 p.m. and work sessions at 3 p.m.). Peterson and Council member Ed Hay agreed. “The church people stayed all night,” Hay recalled, referring to the folks who waited till 1 a.m. for a public hearing on zoning classifications for churches and sanctuaries. “We could have said, at 9:30, ‘We are not going to get to this [tonight]; let’s see you tomorrow.'”

Council member Barbara Field and Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger cited other recent culprits in making meetings longer, such as reading proclamations and taking items off the consent agenda for discussion. In the past, Field said, proclamations — which tend to be wordy — weren’t read aloud, and Cloninger hinted that discussions about consent items typically are confined to work sessions.

Council members stopped short of taking any action to shorten meetings — partly because Mayor Leni Sitnick was out of town, but also to give staff time to come up with solutions. They will revisit the issue in March. City Manager Jim Westbrook said he would direct city staff to watch the videotape of the marathon meeting, with an eye toward improving their presentations.

No one on Council criticized Sitnick’s well-known policy of giving everyone who wants to speak a chance to do so, but Field shared a story she’d heard about how former Mayor Larry McDevitt used to run public hearings. After a citizen spoke, McDevitt would ask people in the audience who agreed with the speaker to raise their hands; if anyone later tried to say the same things, McDevitt would tell them sit down.

For the record, the discussion on how to shorten meetings took about 30 minutes, and the entire work session lasted four hours — which is about normal.

Whose park is it, anyway?

What began as the mayor’s initiative to preserve open spaces in the city turned into a flap over property owners’ rights and the need to respect the views of city boards and commissions.

The proposed Parks and Open Space ordinance would create a new zoning category and establish conditional uses and other restrictions for such properties. At issue was a provision allowing the city to designate private property as park land. The intention, Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford said, had been to identify existing areas such as golf courses as open public spaces.

But the Planning and Zoning Commission, at its public hearing on the ordinance, added another provision specifying that only property owners could file a request to have their land rezoned as park land, to prevent the city from reclassifying property against an owner’s wishes — and, in the process, reducing its value.

Shuford recommended that Council pass the ordinance without the added provision, to give the city more discretion in dealing with zoning issues. “One of my jobs is to maximize your flexibility,” Shuford said.

“I have a problem with unilaterally identifying someone else’s property [as park land] without their permission,” said Council member Field. And Vice Mayor Cloninger added, “Here, if we zone, we are effectively taking it off the market, so the owner can’t sell it.”

It all started, said Shuford, because the city was looking for a way to protect a small, open space in a residential subdivision: If the city zoned it as park land, then it couldn’t be developed at some later date. Cloninger said he’s a strong advocate of protecting open spaces, but that he would support the ordinance only if it included P&Z’s provision.

At this point, Council member Peterson made a plea for respecting the positions taken by boards and commissions, asking staff to forward their recommendations to Council — even when staff disagrees with them. Boards and commissions are filled by citizens donating their time, Peterson said, and he wants to hear what they have to say. As presented to Council, the parks ordinance didn’t include P&Z’s provison, and the staff notes offered only a partial account of why P&Z wanted the changes.

Council member Worley, meanwhile, questioned the need for the new zoning category altogether. “I continue to have a problem with whether or not we need it,” he said, adding, “Parks are already permitted in every [zoning category]. This is a good thought — and perhaps a bad ordinance.”

Jump-starting the public-access channel

City Council appointed eight members to the Public Access Channel Commission, and is considering allotting the League of Women Voters a temporary, nonvoting position.

Raphael Peter, Jim Torpey, Andrew Reed, Mark Rosenstein, John Hayes, Beth Lazer, Mark Goldstein and Mary Ellen Brown will join forces to help get the city’s public-access channel up and running. A ninth commission member will be added later. So far, however, there’s no funding available to cover the channel’s operating expenses, and there’s no one to manage it.

In the past year, city officials have sought a local nonprofit to manage the channel, created in 1998 as part of a renegotiated cable-franchise agreement. The Asheville Buncombe League of Women Voters was the only nonprofit that submitted a proposal, but it didn’t meet the city’s technical requirements. As a sort of reward for the group’s interest, however, Council members Cloninger and Peterson proposed giving the League a nonvoting, advisory seat on the commission. Cloninger argued that the League’s energy, enthusiasm and knowledge would benefit the commission, and Peterson said it’s important to recognize the group for making a commitment.

“What we propose here are ways to get the community involved in the ultimate operation of this station,” said League member Tal Neece, who organized their proposal. “The channel [gives] people a new platform in the community to exchange ideas.”

Council member Whitmire expressed concern that, by giving the League a seat, Council would “be changing the process.” She said other nonprofits that have also voiced some interest, such as the NAACP and WCQS, might feel slighted. “I’m just a little leery that we’re creating something that’s going to create more problems down the road.”

Council member Worley echoed Whitmire’s concerns, suggesting that the League’s spot include a “sunset provision,” or expiration date. “I just think it’s premature,” Worley said, adding, “I just feel a little awkward with … appointing an ex-officio member, without really knowing where we are going.”

City Manager Westbrook said the city might issue another request for proposals, as the commission progresses.

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