Asheville City Council

  • Predatory towing ordinance approved
  • Crowne Plaza expansion a go
  • Compromise gets pet crematorium OK’d

Three subsidized housing developments are in dire need of refurbishing, according to a study funded jointly by the city and the Asheville Housing Authority. That was the word from David Nash, the Authority’s deputy director, at the Asheville City Council’s March 24 session.

Time for a rebuild? Lee-Walker Heights could receive a major face-lift if Asheville snares federal Hope VI funding. It’s one of three public-housing complexes labeled “severely physically distressed” or “functionally obsolete” by an Asheville Housing Authority study. Photo by Jonathan Welch

Performed by Housing Authority staff with the help of outside contractors, the study concluded that two projects—Lee-Walker Heights and Aston Park Towers—are “severely physically distressed,” while the Pisgah View Apartments are “functionally obsolete.” But a federal grant through the Department of Housing and Urban Development could enable the city to replace at least one ailing complex with mixed-income housing.

Funded by the city and the Housing Authority, the study spells out lingering problems at all three developments, including deteriorating exterior brick at Aston Park Tower and obsolete electrical, plumbing and heating systems at the Truman-era Lee-Walker Heights—Asheville’s oldest public housing project.

The study, said Nash, was performed in preparation for HUD’s annual Hope VI grant application process. The Housing Authority, he said, needed “to determine which of our developments meets the HUD threshold for severely physically distressed.” Congress approves the funding annually—$120 million this year—but out of hundreds of applicants, only five or six get money, noted Nash. Nonetheless, he said he’s optimistic, because North Carolina has a good track record of receiving funds.

Any Hope VI funding Asheville receives would be pooled with other city, county and Housing Authority moneys.

But dollars, cautioned Nash, are only part of the equation. Any such project would displace the current residents, and the city would have to find them new homes and offer relocation assistance—which could mean negotiating tricky political and logistical terrain. In addition, HUD requires that rehabilitated housing complexes be converted into mixed-income family developments including larger units as well as one-bedrooms.

Of the three projects, said Nash, Lee-Walker Heights may be the best fit with HUD guidelines and the terms of the grants. Aston Park’s tower, he said, makes it an unlikely candidate for family housing, and Pisgah View’s needs may exceed the reach of both the Hope VI grants and the city’s current fiscal situation. Nash did recommend considering some improvements to Pisgah View using money from the city’s capital-improvements budget or federal stimulus funds, though he warned, “We may need to put it on the back burner for now.”

Council member Brownie Newman, who chairs the city’s Housing and Community Development Committee, said that group thinks the study was “a very useful process” and that the Hope VI funding has a “lot of appeal.”

But he also voiced concern about the impact on the city’s supply of affordable housing, particularly one-bedroom apartments, saying, “We’re going to create a greater scarcity if existing developments are demolished.” Instead, Newman suggested building new units on city-owned property and leaving the current units standing.

Council member Carl Mumpower expressed severe doubts about that approach, however, citing the city’s failed attempt to buy and revamp the McCormick Heights project in 2007. He also feared the initiative would sidestep his preferred focus on preventing crime in public housing. In addition, Mumpower wasn’t convinced that the goal of mixed-income development is realistic, saying, “I don’t think we should be going down dark alleys, and I believe this is one.”

Mayor Terry Bellamy, however, was enthusiastic about the opportunity, telling Nash, “I am sincerely open to your ideas, and I think you’ve made great progress.” A longtime affordable-housing advocate, she noted that previous City Councils have already increased the police presence in the city’s public-housing complexes.

The next step, said Nash, is issuing a request for proposals from developers that would address the projects’ needs while meeting the Hope VI goals. He will report back to Council in 60 to 90 days.

Towing the line

Council members hope a new ordinance banning predatory towing will succeed where previous attempts have failed.

Whether you call it “predatory” or “nonconsensual” towing, it’s a long-standing sore point from many perspectives. Unsuspecting vehicle owners return to a private parking lot to find their car gone, and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce says the practice is hurting tourism. Private lot owners and towing company employees report being accosted by furious vehicle owners (see “No Parking”, Dec. 10, 2008, Xpress). Meanwhile, Council members keep hearing complaints via mail, e-mail and phone calls. The problem has been festering for nigh on a decade.

Towing companies’ inflated fines, cash-only policies and limited availability to answer questions or return impounded vehicles have combined to give Asheville a bad rep as a tourist destination.

In 2003, Council passed an ordinance requiring lots that allow towing to clearly display signs indicating this. But the complaints kept coming. And last year, an Asheville Police Department sting resulted in criminal charges against two tow-truck drivers who snatched a legally parked decoy car. Meanwhile, the calls and letters haven’t stopped.

“Most of the time I’ve been here, it’s been an issue,” City Attorney Bob Oast told Council. “This is not going to end nonconsensual towing in this town,” he added later. “But you are doing as much as you can.”

“This is one of my pet peeves,” said Council member Kelly Miller, who’s also the Chamber’s executive vice president. “This, graffiti and litter.”

Among other details, the new ordinance caps towing fees at $100 per vehicle, limits storage fees to $25 per day (starting 12 hours after the tow), and requires towing companies to accept credit cards.

The ordinance also establishes a $50 “release fee” for owners who show up while their vehicle is being towed. Towing companies must also allow vehicle owners to retrieve items from their car and must notify police that a vehicle has been towed.

The new rules, which affect only downtown and Biltmore Village, will kick in after a grace period to allow time for notifying affected businesses and property owners. The tentative effective date is June 1.

The ordinance also seeks to address towing companies’ concerns, prohibiting vehicle owners from interfering with a tow or canceling credit-card payments made to reclaim their car. But the latter provision didn’t sit well with Council members, some of whom felt the city has no place getting involved in private financial transactions.

“There’s a whole legal ground for whether you cancel a credit card [payment],” noted Council member Robin Cape.

Some also thought the penalty for towing a legally parked car wasn’t stiff enough. “That’s really obnoxious behavior,” said Newman. “I would like there to be a significant penalty.”

Mumpower agreed. And his motion to adopt an amended ordinance—with the fine for towing a legally parked vehicle tripled to $300 and the ban on canceling credit-card payments removed—found broad support. The amended ordinance was approved 6-0. (Bellamy had been excused before the agenda item.)

Ronnie Davis of Davis Automotive and Towing told Council that, apart from a few details, he likes the clarity the new law provides, saying, “I want to minimize my problems as much as you want to minimize yours.”

And Miller emphasized that, while the ordinance may help resolve such situations, it’s not a free pass to park anywhere. “It is not OK to park in [private lots],” he declared, adding, “Read the signs, know where you’re parking and pay attention.”

Resort expansion approved

A proposed expansion of the Crowne Plaza Resort, which faced a sharply divided City Council two weeks ago, did decidedly better this time. On March 10, a level III conditional-use permit for the project barely squeaked by on a 4-3 vote. Some Council members opposed issuing the permit because the resort sits in the path of several potential routes for the I-26 connector—including alternative 4b, which Council has endorsed (see “Asheville City Council,” March 18 Xpress).

In certain situations, however, a 4-3 vote triggers a second reading and vote before the resolution can be adopted. And this time, both Bellamy and Mumpower changed their votes.

Mumpower, who’d initially voted against issuing the permit because he didn’t want the property’s enhanced value to increase the cost of the I-26 project, said: “I continue to remain conflicted about that. However, we have a responsibility to do right by this gentleman.”

Bellamy, meanwhile, said she would vote for approval only with Oast’s assurance that the state Department of Transportation wouldn’t use the vote to nullify Council’s previous resolution endorsing alternative 4b.

Newman, who voted for approval both times, said he has no problem separating the issues. “I remain in support of 4b, but I feel like it’s not fair for [the resort] to be sort of held hostage,” he explained. “I hope 4b gets picked, and I hope these folks continue to make plans for their future.”

In the end, only Cape maintained her opposition, and the permit was approved on a 6-1 vote.

Crematorium gets green light

A pet crematorium planned for the Forest Lawn Memorial Park near Candler got the nod from Council after a cemetery official announced that he’d agreed to move the incinerator to the far end of his property, away from the site of a planned condominium development (see “A Burning Controversy,” March 4 Xpress).

Crematorium representative Patrick Bradley told Council that he and condo developer Tony Fraga had worked out the compromise, and a message from Fraga’s representatives confirmed this.

With that obstacle removed, the rezoning from RM High Density to Institutional District passed unanimously.

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