Asheville City Council

After killing the proposed Parks and Open Spaces Ordinance by a 3-3 vote, the Asheville City Council, at its Feb. 22 formal session, directed city staff to explore the possibility of establishing conservation easements for all city-park properties. (A tie vote automatically kills any item coming before Council.) The easements would deter the city from selling park lands, either now or in the future, by limiting other potential uses of the properties.

Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger — who supported the parks ordinance — also suggested that the city consider filling its coffers by selling tax credits on those easements, similar to what the Grove Arcade Public Market Foundation did with Carolina Power and Light.

“I’m not proposing selling the properties, just the right to sell the tax credits,” Cloninger clarified. The rest of Council seemed interested in exploring the idea, if it’s deemed legally feasible. City Attorney Bob Oast said he’d research the matter.

The parks ordinance — which presumably would have passed if Mayor Leni Sitnick hadn’t been out of town (she was the original impetus behind it) — aimed to create a new zoning category and establish conditional uses and other restrictions for parks and open-space properties. Council members had previously butted heads over a provision allowing the city to designate private property as park land, but that provision was deleted. Ultimately, the ordinance’s downfall was the city’s new commitment to streamlining the development process.

Council members Barbara Field, Terry Whitmire and Charles Worley argued that parks are already allowed in most zoning districts, and that the new ordinance would have eliminated Council’s flexibility in zoning any property — whether city-owned or private — under the Unified Development Ordinance.

“[Planning and Development] staff is trying to get some consistency throughout zoning. They’re trying to get less, rather than more, zoning classifications,” said Field. “We could quickly get some land easements [for the parks], and we don’t want to tie our hands in the long term.”

Cloninger liked the parks ordinance, he said, because he felt it would have sent a message that Council is committed to preserving all open spaces within the city limits. He also recalled the city’s abortive plan to sell Memorial Stadium (a move which he supported, and now says was a mistake), revealing that he thought the ordinance would have sent a message to the neighborhoods that, “We will not use city property in a way that is inconsistent with surrounding properties.”

Worley contended, however, that current zoning categories already make sure that parks are compatible with the surrounding neighborhoods. “It’s a good idea, but a bad ordinance,” he asserted. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

Conditional-use zoning a go

By sticking to its goal of promoting “smart growth,” City Council voted 5-to-1 to approve conditional-use zoning — in effect, creating districts within districts.

City planner Gerald Green explained that the new approach could be applied throughout the city, and would allow greater flexibility when creating mixed-use neighborhoods including both residences and businesses.

Oast pointed out that some people liken conditional-use zoning to “legalized spot zoning.” Council member Ed Hay said that he likes the idea because, “[Property] doesn’t have to [house] a super Wal-Mart for us to get our hands on it.”

Applicants seeking conditional-use zoning — such as a restaurant wanting a permit in an area zoned only for homes — would have to go through an extensive review process in which everyone involved would agree on a master plan ahead of time. “[That] allows us to be more creative and flexible about solving problems,” Whitmire said.

Council member Brian Peterson — who had previously revealed, at Council’s January retreat, that he has some concerns about creating conditional-use districts — cast the lone vote against the idea. “I’m for [residences] in residential areas, businesses in business areas; mixing them up is just going to cause problems,” he declared.

Peterson noted that he feels the city already does a poor job of enforcing development uses — and he sees only bigger problems coming out of the new zoning category. He asked what would happen if someone built a large barber shop in “the front room of their home,” and, seven years down the road, the house was sold and the new occupant “put in a 7-11 [store].” Green replied that the house would immediately revert to its original zoning — and the store would constitute a zoning violation.

Annexation issues

For the first time in seven years, the city of Asheville has taken steps toward involuntarily annexing certain areas,

Working under the guidance of Benchmark Incorporated — a government-services consultant based in Kannapolis, Md. — Council voted unanimously to begin the process of acquiring 3.08 square miles of land adjoining the city’s existing boundaries. Encompassing six separate areas, the annexation would bring 819 dwellings into the city, increasing the assessed tax base by $203,036,300. The largest areas involved are a 1,500-acre tract surrounding Lake Julian and 205 acres between Ridgefield Boulevard and Oak Terrace, in East Asheville.

This public hearing garnered not a single comment, from either Council members or the 1,950 residents involved. The next public-information meeting is scheduled for May 2, and the effective annexation date is set for June 30, 2001.

Traffic-calming measure

After working out a compromise over the percentage of necessary public participation, Council unanimously adopted Asheville’s new neighborhood traffic-calming policy.

As reported in the Feb. 9 Xpress, the policy is intended both to guide city staff and inform citizens about procedures for implementing traffic-calming measures — such as speed bumps — on residential streets.

Citing concerns by Council member Peterson that certain neighborhoods might have a harder time generating enough community support, city Traffic Engineer Michael Moule suggested lowering the required level of neighborhood participation to 40 percent to initiate a project and 60 percent for final approval of the measures.

“I’m concerned [that] some areas are not as organized as others, and could have the worst streets in the whole city,” Peterson had said. Traffic Engineer Cathy Ball seemed to ease Peterson’s mind by saying that, if safety issues were involved, staff would be “responsible for taking action on this issue, regardless of [the traffic] policy.”

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