Taking the LEED

In common: A city diagram of road closures (in yellow) required for the Montford Commons project. Council delayed the road closure after a nearby property owner complained it would deny her access to her property. image courtesy of the city of Asheville

Asheville City Council March 8, 2011, meeting

  • $1.2 million revenue shortfall projected
  • Early voting sites on chopping block?

In the latest effort to encourage construction of high-density, environmentally sustainable, affordable rental housing, the Asheville City Council approved a new “transformation development” incentives policy March 8 on a 6-1 vote.

The policy implements a points system: 10 points exempts the developer from a year’s worth of property taxes and grants a 10 percent reduction in permit and fee charges. One way to score points is via Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification: LEED Bronze would be good for 10 points, each higher level would score an additional 10 points, with a maximum of 40 for Platinum. (The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program rates buildings based on specific performance criteria.)

Developers can also score 10 points for every 10 percent of a project’s units whose rents are considered affordable for someone earning up to 80 percent of the median household income for the area, with a maximum of 40 points for 40 percent affordable housing.

And creating work-force rental housing (affordable to someone earning up to 120 percent of the median household income) can be worth as much as 15 points (for a project featuring 75 percent work-force units).

Council members approved a similar policy back in November but delayed implementation while staff sought information from the Sustainability Advisory Committee on Energy and the Environment and presented the plan to groups including the Council of Independent Business Owners, the Downtown Commission and the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods. According to staff, both CIBO and the Downtown Commission urged a less restrictive policy, while CAN wanted it to be more restrictive and more attuned to Council’s goal of promoting environmentally sustainable, affordable housing.

Making a motion to approve the measure, Vice Mayor Brownie Newman said it would clarify the kind of development Council members would like to see, calling the language in the November ordinance “pretty subjective and sort of hard to measure.”

Council member Bill Russell cast the lone opposing vote, declaring, “There is no transformational new aspect” to the policy. Council, he asserted, was simply responding to environmental interests. Council member Jan Davis voiced a similar concern, observing, “There’s some tail wagging the dog here.” Davis ultimately supported the motion, however, on the condition that Council revisit the policy in a year to assess its effectiveness.

Pawns in their game

Also on the agenda was an ordinance that would require pawnbrokers and other dealers in secondhand goods to electronically report all purchases from customers to local law enforcement within 48 hours of the transaction. Currently, pawnbrokers must submit such information daily, and law enforcement picks up the paper records each workday. The new ordinance would also apply to businesses such as antique stores and used-record shops. Garage sales, flea markets and nonprofit thrift stores that accept donations would not be affected.

Some local business owners expressed various concerns. Many said they don’t have a computer or Internet access, which would be required to submit the information electronically. A number of antique dealers said they rarely buy anything from people coming into the store, acquiring most of their goods from estate and garage sales. Others wondered how consignments would be handled.

Several pawnbrokers spoke in favor of the measure, however, saying it would close a loophole that enables criminals to unload stolen property by selling it to secondhand stores, which the current ordinance doesn’t regulate.

Council members postponed a vote until April 26 to allow time for gathering more feedback from business owners and fine-tuning the ordinance.

Do the right-of-way thing

Council also delayed action (until its April 12 meeting) on a proposed right-of-way closure related to the Montford Commons development after Dana Parker expressed concern about losing access to her 0.15 acre parcel. The city can’t legally remove access to a property without ensuring that other access is available. Staff said there is another right of way, but several Council members worried that it might be inferior to the access Parker has now and, lacking that information, were reluctant to proceed.

No fiber for Asheville

In other business, City Council:
• Approved a resolution opposing proposed state legislation that would prohibit local governments from providing subsidies for broadband Internet access. The bill would rule out any public/private partnerships involving broadband — taking Asheville out of the running for the Google Fiber experimental broadband project. Cities nationwide are competing to be chosen as Google’s partner in bringing residents Internet access exceeding 1 gigabit per second — about 100 times as fast as most Americans’ broadband connections.
• Postponed a decision on the number of early voting sites for this year’s city elections. A motion by Russell to reduce the number of early voting sites from five to one was defeated 3-4, with Mayor Terry Bellamy and Davis joining Russell on the short end. Council will revisit the measure April 12 after determining the cost of such sites.
• Received its second-quarter budget update. The city’s tax base grew by only 0.7 percent, the slowest growth rate in a decade. For this fiscal year, revenues are projected to fall short by $1.2 million, due mostly to poor performance by the city’s investment portfolio.
• Heard an update from James Baudoin, executive director/project manager for the Asheville Area Center for the Performing Arts, on the facility proposed for The Block, the historically African-American business district adjacent to City/County Plaza. Tentative plans call for a 2,000-seat theater, a multipurpose rehearsal room and a 200-seat black-box theater. The target date for starting construction is sometime in 2013.

— Freelance writer Christopher George lives in Spartanburg, S.C., where he reports local government news on his blog, FlyingOskar.com.

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6 thoughts on “Taking the LEED

  1. J

    I can’t help but question some of the logic behind the transformational incentives.

    Through this term, Jan Davis has expressed concern over the ability to annex outlying areas, because we need the revenue and need to grow. Cecil Bothwell wants to raise the water rate on families and working class alike, because Asheville needs the revenue. Gordon Smith often whines about the hotel tax, and how Asheville needs to capture that revenue; or else we’ll have to cut police and fire services. Mayor Bellamy wants a larger share of the sales tax revenue generated by Asheville.

    So what do we do? We enact a proposal that will allow some for profit developers to back out of 8 years of property taxes while local government revenues are plummeting and services are being cut.

    Gordon says we have to do this because we can’t afford to replenish the HTF. So because we don’t have revenues to replenish the HTF, we’re going to take in less money? But don’t worry, Gordon assures us that it’s only an “abatement”.

  2. Correction: I have never stated that I want to raise the water rates on families or the working class. I have been pressing for a raise in the water rate for major manufacturing users who now pay 60 percent less for water than residential users. (Starting with the next budget year, if others on Council vote with me, we will begin to reduce the differential between the two rates.)

    I have also argued that the Sullivan Acts unfairly tax Asheville residents to provide cheap water to those who live outside the city limits.

    I’m perfectly happy to be criticized for what I actually say, but putting words in my mouth doesn’t much advance the public discussion.

  3. J

    Cecil,

    Please forgive me for the error.

    You DID increase the water rate on the backs of families and the working class, and then turned around and gave tax breaks to for profit corporations (http://tinyurl.com/6alfu3n).

    How progressive is it to raise the cost of living on everyone to help the for-profit developers become progressively richer?

  4. Actually, that rate increase was part of the budget approval, and included an increase on ALL users. In January I had started pushing for a conservation rate structure and moving the burden from residents to the big users who are getting such a huge break. It takes time to effect change.

    And note that I initially voted against the tax break for developers, for exactly the reason you state, which I made clear at the time of the votes on the Montford Commons project, and on the original draft of the “Transformational Project” plan. However, seeing that the plan was passed without my vote, I did what I could to make the final plan better (in my view, obviously).

    For a developer to get much benefit under the final plan, the building will have low energy demands for its life (which is good for society as a whole, and for the local community) and it will have to offer truly affordable rents.

    As I have offered frequently, I’m not a really big fan of city government attempts to create affordable housing, because it entails a major fight with the market. In the past, white flight and the boom of suburbia depressed downtown real estate prices and so downtowns in many municipalities became low income neighborhoods.

    In recent years the wealthy have rediscovered downtown living and bid up real estate, so attempts to force development of affordable housing in cities, particularly close to downtown, struggles against the market valuation. Better, I think, to provide the increasingly affordable real estate at the periphery of the city with frequent, reliable transit options. That way the low-wage workers upon whom downtown businesses depend for labor, can get to their jobs (as well as enjoy the accouterments of urban life.) Subsidizing transit is a benefit for both those minimum wage workers and our downtown businesses, along with others who avail themselves of travel without parking.

  5. bill smith

    [b]Cecil Bothwell wants to raise the water rate on families and working class alike[/b]

    On them both? Families AND the working class? What about working class families? Do they not pay? And how about the studying class? Single people?

  6. J

    Bill,

    Cecil pointed out that he doesn’t want to raise the water rates. You shouldn’t promulgate the error.

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