- City still facing massive budget shortfall
- Shriner appointment survives challenge
- URTV funding request trimmed
After months of controversy, Asheville City Council gave The Larchmont— 60 densely packed affordable-housing units off Merrimon Avenue — a unanimous go-ahead.
"No matter how I vote on this, I'll be making 50 percent of my neighbors mad," said Council member Esther Manheimer, who lives near the north Asheville neighborhood where the project will be built. "I think the politically easy thing to do is say no. But the right thing to do is say yes — and that's what I'll be doing tonight."
Mountain Housing Opportunities plans to build The Larchmont on the former Navy Reserve site, which the nonprofit is buying from Buncombe County. The property's institutional zoning would allow a maximum of 37 units. The nonprofit's representatives, however, said 60 units are essential for the project to be economically viable — and after a lengthy public hearing, City Council wound up agreeing with them.
Nearly two hours of public comment preceded the vote, with opinion roughly split, even among neighboring residents. Proponents said the project would provide much-needed affordable housing that's a model of dense, sustainable development. Opponents, meanwhile, said the project would be out of scale with the neighborhood and worsen an already dire traffic problem. Many also noted that they would support The Larchmont if it were scaled back to meet the current density limits.
"Affordable housing is not the issue with us," said Larry Holt, who spoke for the organized opposition to the project. "What you're proposing here — 60 units on 1.5 acres, family units — is not acceptable; it's not really keeping with your 2025 plan. … There are already major problems with pedestrians; adding traffic is not going to help."
James Gardner, who also spoke for the opposition, called for a compromise. "The best solution, the best plan — one that fits the current zoning — isn't the one that's before City Council," he asserted. "Require the developer to submit an alternate plan that fits the scale and size of the neighborhood," and the opponents would become supporters.
Gardner added that there were good intentions on both sides, and that Council should think of the opponents as "a strange breed of friendly gadflies" who were trying to draw attention to broader issues.
But attorney Wyatt Stevens, who represented the nonprofit at the hearing, countered, "There is no way Mountain Housing Opportunities could have gotten tax-credit financing for this project with 37 units." MHO, he noted, is setting aside $10,000 for traffic-calming measures to address the neighborhood's concerns and has agreed to pay for a sidewalk down to Merrimon.
Some opponents said the county's decision to sell to the nonprofit seemed a foregone conclusion, and the project has been a juggernaut ever since.
"This whole process has an unsavory smell to it," resident Andrew Tashie told Council, adding that he didn't feel the neighborhood had been adequately informed about either the project or its impact.
But resident George Perry defended the process, saying, "This has been openly and transparently discussed. It's time for Council to approve this project."
And Mike Lewis said, "Mountain Housing Opportunities has done a superb job; I think it will be an asset to the neighborhood," though he emphasized that the traffic situation needs to be addressed.
Beverly Nevins, meanwhile, noted: "We live in a city; that means density. This is a lot better than some of the other possibilities that could go on that land under the current zoning."
Council members asked plenty of questions about both the impact on traffic (the city's engineers predict that it will be negligible) and specifics concerning the development, but in the end, they found the proponents' arguments convincing.
"I think this is part of the solution to the traffic problem on Merrimon," said Council member Cecil Bothwell. "When we get the higher density level, we're going to be able to afford to run half-hour buses. Once we have those, more people will ride the buses. I really think it's part of the solution to the traffic. It won't solve it immediately, but it's a piece of how we have to build this city out."
Council member Gordon Smith said he believes the neighborhood will end up embracing The Larchmont once it's built.
"Like those denser apartments [in the area] that were built 70 years ago, I think this will become an integral part of this neighborhood," Smith predicted. "I'm really excited about this, because it's going to provide a lot of people with long-term affordability. Increased density in our urban corridors will decrease energy use and decrease sprawl, thereby preserving open spaces."
The debate stretched on to the point that, toward the end of Council's discussion and questions, some in the audience were audibly muttering, "Vote already."
But Council member Jan Davis, noting that "Unlike some of my colleagues, I think most people drive cars," requested a condition that MHO negotiate in good faith for overflow parking. The Larchmont will have 71 parking spaces, but he felt that during holidays and similar occasions, more might be needed. The nonprofit promised to do this.
In the end, Council voted unanimously to rezone the property from institutional to urban residential, allowing the development to proceed. Current plans call for The Larchmont to be completed in 2012.
Budget deliberations continue
Council members faced a broader but no less controversial challenge during a pre-meeting work session: how to deal with the city's looming budget deficit.
City Manager Gary Jackson began by announcing a bevy of proposed cuts to help close a projected $5 million budget shortfall in the next fiscal year. They included reducing police and fire overtime, cutting eight to 10 full-time jobs (and 12 to 14 part-time positions), reducing training, cutting transit-system subsidies and temporary work, transferring money from parking-garage revenues, and requiring groups partnering with the city to help cover the cost of co-sponsored events.
Because this was a work session, Council wasn't making formal votes, but (except for Manheimer, who was absent) they agreed to those measures after some brief discussion. There were some concerns, however, and Mayor Terry Bellamy, referring to the reductions in overtime, noted: "There are some services people expect. There's been a double-digit drop in crime, and I think people want to see that continue."
"We have lost some flexibility," Jackson admitted, maintaining that the cuts are necessary.
And that still left a $1 million gap. Staff had proposed a variety of ways to address this as well. They included taking the money from the general fund (which already stands below the target level set by city policy) or approving a 1 cent property-tax increase (which would fill the gap and cost the average Asheville taxpayer about $20 more annually).
Other potential measures included eliminating some evening and weekend bus service, shifting to a four-day work week to save energy, freezing salaries or raising Asheville's business-license fee. Jackson had, he noted, given Council a "menu" to choose from.
But they had a hard time deciding what to order. Both Bothwell and Smith favored considering a property-tax increase; Vice Mayor Brownie Newman and Council member Bill Russell didn't. Russell also opposed raising the business-license fee. Newman, Smith, Bothwell and Bellamy all wanted the transit cuts scaled back — if they were implemented at all — to protect low-income workers. Most Council members, worried about retaining experienced employees, were reluctant to freeze salaries for the second straight year. And both Bellamy and Davis were skeptical of the four-day work week, with the mayor saying, "It sends the wrong message for City Hall to be closed" on a Friday.
"We haven't gotten to zero," noted Smith as Council neared the end of its budget deliberations. "We haven't eliminated that deficit in our conversation today. I'd be interested to hear where that tipping point is where citizens will see a downturn in service delivery. Just based on what I'm hearing, there's going to be cutting into the general fund or a tax increase to get to what we're talking about. There haven't been enough cuts to get to zero."
Jackson, however, seemed satisfied, pronouncing the session a success. "You've given us a very clear idea of what's untouchable: the fund balance and property taxes," he said, adding, "I think you've opened the door for us to balance the budget."
Council's next budget work session will be April 27, with voting on a final budget slated for May.
A surprise motion by Bothwell to rescind the appointment of Holly Shriner to the Planning and Zoning Commission found little support, even from those who hadn't voted for her in the first place. Although Shriner, the wife of a local developer, had no formal planning experience, her position now appears secure.
Bothwell said he was taking such a step "because of the lack of transparency and strong outcry there's been in the community."
Bothwell maintained that Shriner hadn't sufficiently spelled out her connection to the development of the former Deal Buick site, co-owned by her husband, Foster Shriner, and former Vice Mayor Chris Peterson.
Smith seconded Bothwell's motion so that it could be discussed, while indicating that he wouldn't vote for it.
Newman, who hadn't voted for Shriner, was unhappy that Bothwell hadn't followed the usual procedure.
"I think we're violating the rules we've established as a Council," said Newman. "If a Council member would like an item placed on the agenda, they should request it through due process; the public did not have notice that this was an item we would be taking up this evening."
Bothwell replied that Council members hadn't had time to fully discuss the qualifications of the various members candidates, including Shriner, in a public meeting. For that reason, he argued, her appointment should be rescinded and she should re-apply.
Newman, however, noted that interviews with potential board and commission members are open to the public, and if Council members want to ask more questions about a candidate's potential conflicts of interest, that's up to them.
And Davis retorted: "Whether you like Mrs. Shriner or you don't, whether you like another applicant or you don't, she got four votes. Quite frankly, the other candidates were just as conflicted as she was. Now, we can carry this on forever, but it's not going to change things. I'm going to vote against this."
Some community members present sided with Bothwell, however.
Activist Steve Rasmussen noted that the Downtown Master Plan calls for granting the commission more power over development issues, making concerns about transparency more important than ever.
"Trust in our government is a big issue," he said. "That trust, knowingly or not, was violated when a candidate didn't disclose their financial connections — but also by Council refusing to back the trolley up, reconsider this, have her re-apply, this time transparently, and let the community be satisfied that … it's not the product of, oh, a former vice mayor lobbying. There are all kinds of rumors that are going to spread if you don't do this right."
Finding no support on Council, Bothwell agreed to withdraw his motion, but said he would ask Shriner to resign from the commission and re-apply.
Council whittles down URTV funding request
Council members also approved a new management agreement with public-access channel URTV (now formally known as part of the Western North Carolina Community Media Center).
The new agreement specifies that the nonprofit must adhere to the state's open-meetings and public-record laws (a source of controversy in the past). It also grants the channel $60,000 in cable-TV fees controlled by the city and county.
URTV had requested $100,000, with the extra $40,000 to be used to hire more staff, but the city chose to allocate the same percentage as last year.
The agreement originally called for Council to cease appointing members to URTV's board and treat the organization more like a private contractor, but some Council members balked at this.
"I like having someone on that board," said Bellamy, and Newman quickly agreed.
Davis was reluctant, noting that appointing members to the board "suggests greater control than we actually have: Frankly, we can appoint people all day long, and we don't have any more control than we do now." but agreed to keep that part of the deal as it currently is.
Currently, both the city and Buncombe County distribute funds to URTV, and each appoints two members to the group's board of directors. Over the past two years, the channel has seen bitter disputes over the quality and transparency of its management.
Some community members, including ex-URTV producers, urged Council not to approve the agreement, asserting that the operation is secretive and badly run.
"Under the current management, I am effectively censored in my views," charged ex-producer John Blackwell. "If you want censorship, support the current management and approve this agreement."
But current URTV producer Christopher Chiaromonte defended the station. "If you think $60,000 can run URTV, you're crazy; they should get the $100,000," Chiaromonte declared. "They are doing an excellent job. I'm the most active member; I know what's going on. You're getting more than your money's worth."
In the end, the amended agreement was approved 5-0, with Manheimer and Russell recusing themselves from the vote — Russell left early due to illness, and Manheimer because her law firm has represented URTV.