“When we start criminalizing poverty, we’ve gone too far.”
— Council member Terry Bellamy
It’s been said that admirers of law and lovers of sausage should watch neither being made. And the March 23 formal session of the Asheville City Council might serve as a case in point.
It was well past midnight when the meeting finally dragged to a halt — seven-and-a-half hours after it had started.
Popes have been elected in less time.
With 14 public hearings on the evening’s agenda, it came as little surprise to anyone that the meeting stretched into the wee hours. What did give many veteran Council watchers pause, however, was the city lawmakers’ sheer ambition in attempting to tackle such a lengthy task list.
Facing hot-button issues such as affordable housing and the redesign of Pack Square, Council found itself, once again, battling fatigue and strained attention spans as the clock ticked away. On two occasions, members paused to debate whether they should plow on into the evening, or else suspend the session and continue it at a later date.
Mayor Charles Worley made the first attempt at calling it a night shortly after 11 p.m. — following the eighth public hearing. The idea was nixed, however, after Carol King of the Pack Square Conservancy pleaded with Council to continue. King and a sizable entourage had been cooling their heels all evening, waiting to present their latest proposal for the redesign of Pack Square (see “The Park Plan” section below).
A frantic-looking King explained that the Conservancy had flown in designers and architects from Pittsburgh just for the hearing, and that postponing discussion would force her organization to spend more money on travel expenses to bring their guests back to Asheville a second time.
The level of frustration at that late hour — for both the audience and for Council — was by then nearly palpable.
A flood of opposition
The evening’s longest hearing arose out of a local developer’s request for a conditional-use permit to construct 100 units of affordable housing in the Kenilworth neighborhood. Dozens of Kenilworth residents packed the chamber to oppose the plan.
The property in question, a 9.5-acre strip off of Swannanoa River Road, is owned by Thomas Wolfe, an Asheville real-estate salesman. Wolfe had recruited Alabama-based developer Thomas Ward to construct five 20-unit apartment buildings, along with both a swimming pool and a 3,000-square-foot community building.
Wolfe’s development team was represented in the Council chamber by Asheville attorney Albert Sneed, while a portion of the opposition had secured Asheville lawyer Patsy Meldrum. The two battled back and forth throughout the quasi-judicial hearing, grilling various witnesses. Repeatedly, both lawyers took issue with their opponent’s tactics — with Mayor Worley overruling each objection.
But while Meldrum detailed potential legal obstacles to the proposed Kenilworth development, the neighborhood residents may very well have made the strongest case against it themselves.
One by one they approached the lectern, rattling off their reasons for opposing the proposed affordable-housing complex. Chief among their concerns was the property’s location: It’s situated directly below the Lake Kenilworth dam.
Michael Weizman, president of the Kenilworth Neighborhood Association, told Council that the structure, which was constructed in 1925, is “certified by the state as a high-hazard dam.” According to Weizman, that’s the lowest grade a dam can receive.
To underscore his point, Weizman showed photos of the dam in which cracks were clearly evident, plus pictures in which water was seeping through and over the structure during major rainstorms.
In addition, Weizman noted that the developer was proposing that the complex have only a single entrance/exit — one that would be situated directly within a certified floodway.
“We’re concerned about access during a flood,” he stated. “These people can’t get out — they’d be trapped.”
Neighborhood resident Jimmy Boyd pointed out that the conditional-use-permit section of the city’s Unified Development Ordinance lists as its first condition that “the proposed use will not materially endanger the public health and safety.” If Council approved the Kenilworth permit, Boyd added, they would be increasing their liability in the event of a flood.
Lee Heminger, vice-president of the Kenilworth Neighborhood Association, pleaded with Council to consider the dangers in building below a dam.
“This place will be a death trap,” she declared. “These people will not be able to escape. You’re asking these people to trade personal safety for cheap rent.”
Another opponent, Eric Finstick, reiterated the safety concerns. “Would you or your family like to live 250 feet below this dam?” he asked Council.
Some Kenilworth residents argued that the development would significantly increase traffic on Swannanoa River Road, particularly in light of the new Wal-Mart that’s being constructed further down the road. Still others argued that property values would be negatively impacted by the development, with one resident even stating that adding affordable housing to a neighborhood leads to an increase in crime there.
That last argument drew a stinging rebuke from Council member Terry Bellamy, who called the assertion “insulting,” asking that it be stricken from the record because it was false.
“When we start criminalizing poverty, we’ve gone too far,” she angrily intoned.
Interestingly, the developers and their attorney were the only audience members to talk on behalf of the project — not a single other person spoke up in favor of it.
After the close of the public hearing, Vice-Mayor Carl Mumpower made a motion to approve the permit, explaining that, in his opinion, the developers had “met the requirements.” He added, however, that the proposal “is not perfect, but none of them are.”
Yet the seeds of doubt cast by the Kenilworth crowd apparently found purchase with the majority of Council: Mumpower’s motion failed due to a lack of a second. Immediately thereafter, a motion to deny the permit passed 5-2, with the minority votes cast by Mumpower and Mayor Worley.
The five Council members then explained why they wouldn’t approve the permit; for each of them, it came down to safety.
“Just because people can’t afford to live in my neighborhood, we shouldn’t relegate them to a dangerous place,” Council member Jan Davis declared, echoing the prevailing sentiment of his peers.
After the motion failed, Mumpower lashed out at the Kenilworth residents: “This was one of the worst displays of NIMBYism [“Not In My Back Yard”] since I’ve been on Council. And I hope that upsets some of you — you deserve it.”
In a telephone interview two days after the meeting, Worley noted that he agreed with Mumpower.
“It was the worst case of NIMBYism I’ve ever seen,” the mayor declared.
The park plan
After convincing Council to continue the meeting, Pack Square Conservancy president Carol King presented her organization’s newest proposal for the redesign of the downtown green space.
Noticeably absent from the Conservancy’s plan was the controversial Grove Park Inn high-rise proposed last year for a portion of the park.
The GPI plan was recently scuttled following a protracted period of public outcry that rocked the city. GPI, however, maintains that the plan was nixed after an economic-feasibility study concluded that the building would be too expensive to construct. In the aftermath of all the brouhaha, the Conservancy held a series of public design forums to finalize a plan for the park.
When King shared the Conservancy’s proposal with Council and members of the public at the March 23 meeting, she noted that “more green was one of the themes” that her organization had adopted as a result of the forums. Indeed, the drawing of the proposed park showed trees, benches and a gazebo in the same location once slated for the GPI high-rise.
In addition to presenting the redesign plan, King asked Council to allow the Conservancy to grant naming rights to major donors for six — and possibly more — landmarks in the new green space. Naming rights, she explained, would assist her foundation in raising the $9.5 million required to pay for the park’s facelift.
“We need a donor-recognition policy,” she noted, “so that major park features can be named [in conjunction] with major gifts.” Such features might include a stage and artfully designed walkways leading to City Hall and the Buncombe County Courthouse, explained King, though the Conservancy would prohibit the use of names from corporations or for-profit businesses.
A little later in the hearing, Asheville attorney Roger Smith took issue with one aspect of King’s naming proposal — that “City/County Plaza” would be dropped to reflect the park’s new design (“City/County Plaza will no longer exist,” she’d said). Smith then urged the Council to keep the original name.
King was followed at the lectern by a steady stream of people in support of the redesign plan. However, attorney Smith argued that the Conservancy’s proposal that College Street be reduced from four lanes down to two would cause a traffic logjam, and could “choke off access, and make it more confusing” in the vicinity of the park.
Mumpower peppered King and City Planner Scott Shuford with questions about funding. The vice-mayor reminded them that Council originally adopted the concept of a park redesign with the Conservancy’s assurances that the work would not be funded by tax dollars.
In the organization’s latest proposed design, the city would have to repave some streets and redesign portions of others. Shuford assured Mumpower that the costs of the city’s street work would be nominal, and that “public investment creates private investment.
“With a world-class park,” Shuford added, “we will be creating an atmosphere of investment.”
In fact, one potential private investor had actually alluded to that same relationship earlier in the presentation.
Grinning broadly, Craig Madison, president of the Grove Park Inn, strode up to the lectern and announced, “He’s baaack!” Madison then heartily endorsed the Conservancy plan, just before mentioning that GPI still planned on moving forward with a second building proposal — this one slated for a parking lot adjacent to City Hall.
“I’ll be coming back in a few months with that plan,” he promised.
Council unanimously adopted the Conservancy’s proposal.
And suddenly, it’s over
By the time discussion of the park had wrapped up, it was well past midnight. And Council again debated calling it quits, despite the fact that there were still five scheduled public hearings remaining.
Terry Bellamy made a motion that Council consider four of the five remaining items as one, and simply vote to approve the whole package. After a brief discussion, Council voted 5-2 to support the idea, with Mumpower and Davis opposing.
The four items were then approved without discussion. They included a transfer of city property to the Health Adventure in return for an .89-acre easement for a greenway; the adoption of an air-quality-improvement initiative; support for suggested improvements made by the Haywood Road traffic study; and a series of budget amendments (allocating $80,000 to the Hall Fletcher Elementary School playground; $50,000 for new vehicles for the Asheville Fire Department; and $25,000 to the WNC Veterans Memorial Association, for construction of a memorial on Pack Square).
The remaining public hearing — over appointing a member to the Asheville-Buncombe Historic Resources Commission — was brief.
After it was all said and done, Worley gaveled the meeting to a close. As he did so, a group of elderly veterans rose and slowly made their way out of the chamber and into the dark night. They’d sat for nearly eight hours waiting their turn at the microphone in order to explain the merits of their cause. That moment never came.
And even though Council had approved their request for money, the gray-haired vets were surely privy to that the uneasy feeling that lovers of law and sausage get when faced with the view from inside the factory.