We need space

You may be wondering how 11 parking spaces on a landscaped gravel lot could stir up so much controversy. But before you start singing the opening line of Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi, you might want to consider the opposing opinions in this debate.

Dan and Betsy Reiser own a vacant lot at the corner of Edwin Place and Charlotte Street. They’ve asked the city for permission to build a parking lot to service a building they own on Charlotte Street. The Reisers lease the building to several small businesses, including the Gardeners Corner, the Asheville Music School and the Manor Gate Beauty Salon. According to the Reisers, those businesses need more off-street parking to accommodate their clients.

But the parcel is zoned residential, meaning they must obtain a conditional-use permit from the city in order to build the parking lot. That involves working with city planning staff in a multistep process that includes a review of the plans by the city’s Technical Review Committee (composed of six city staffers and representatives from the Tree Commission and the Metropolitan Sewerage District) to ensure compliance with city guidelines. The final step is a review by City Council, which must be based solely on seven standards spelled out in the Unified Development Ordinance. But these standards are open to interpretation, and a public hearing is held so that the petitioner and any project opponents can explain how the proposal does or does not satisfy the UDO. If Council finds that a proposal violates even one of the standards, it is rejected.

In brief, the proposed land use must:

1) not materially endanger the public health or safety;

2) be reasonably necessary for the public health or general welfare, such as by enhancing the successful operation of the surrounding area in its basic community functions or providing an essential service;

3) not substantially injure the value of adjacent property;

4) be in harmony with the scale, bulk, coverage, density and character of the surrounding neighborhood;

5) generally conform to the comprehensive plan and other official city plans;

6) be appropriately located with respect to transportation facilities, water supply, fire and police protection, waste disposal, etc.;

7) not cause undue traffic congestion or create a traffic hazard.

The City’s Planning and Development Department has recommended that Council issue the permit. And the Reisers maintain that they’ve gone above and beyond the UDO requirements, designing what Dan Reiser describes as “the Garden of Eden of parking lots.” But local neighborhood groups, including the Grove Park-Sunset Association (represented at the hearing by their president, Wanda Adams) and the Manor Grounds Association (represented by their former president, Roger James), say the proposed parking lot violates six of the seven standards.

Ironically, both sides in the debate cite traffic and public safety as major concerns. The Reisers say that parking has long been a problem in the area and that customers of these businesses often circle the block repeatedly looking for a parking space. Many of them choose to park on the other side of Charlotte Street and cross the busy thoroughfare on foot, without the aid of a crosswalk. Anne Combs, the director of the Asheville Music School, recounted an accident that occurred several years ago. “Two feet from my door, a woman getting out of her car was severely injured when a car struck her car, which then rolled over on her. She broke her back,” said Combs.

But James countered that, “If the businesses are so concerned about safety, why don’t they tell [the customers and clients] to park on Edwin Place? It’s on the same side of Charlotte Street where the businesses are located and is only a short walk to the building.” He added that the parking lot would only add to the traffic congestion in the area and would be an increased threat to public safety. Adams indicated in a statement sent to Xpress that “The Charlotte Street Small Area Plan includes an effort to reduce or minimize the number of curb cuts along Charlotte Street. This project would add an additional cut into an already busy intersection. This curb cut would be very hazardous.”

Betsy Reiser, on the other hand, maintains that her landscaped parking lot is in tune with the plan (developed by the city to guide growth along the corridor). “How can a parking lot create traffic?” she asks, adding, “It will do just the opposite.”

But both sides agree about one thing: The bureaucratic process has been unnecessarily confusing. The Reisers feel that they have cooperated fully with every city request, yet they must now defend a project that, in their view, follows the letter of the law. And James, an attorney, expresses frustration about the murky rules governing quasi-judicial hearings. “Just who is the burden of proof on here?” he asks, adding, “This is so complicated. Should the public — or a developer, for that matter — have to rely on hired attorneys to see us through this? I think that diminishes the public’s voice.”

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