“A great effort was made, and I wish we were in a better place.”
— Council Member Jan Davis
After years of wrangling, Asheville has severed yet another city/county connection. At its March 28 formal session, City Council pulled out of discussions with Buncombe County concerning a possible “joint planning area.”
The JPA was envisioned as a designated area outside the city limits but subject to joint city/county regulation. Although the details were never ironed out, the idea was that city development restrictions would apply, but a special city/county board of adjustment would be authorized to grant variances.
Under state law, Asheville could extend its sphere of influence up to three miles beyond the city limits. This band of city-zoned land in the county is known as the “extraterritorial jurisdiction.” For the most part, Asheville’s ETJ now extends about a mile past the city limits; the county retains control inspection in areas that have local zoning. But though the city can legally impose a broad range of controls (including floodplain management and building codes), Asheville has so far limited its regulation to zoning and subdivision rules.
When the city last expanded the ETJ in 2001, Buncombe County responded with a lawsuit, which it eventually lost. In the wake of that decision, the two governments began negotiations on establishing a joint planning area as a kind of compromise.
But parts of the county have a history of fierce resistance to zoning, and progress on the planning effort was sluggish.
The city and the county “have fundamental differences [over] how growth should be managed,” Planning Director Scott Shuford told Council. Accordingly, the staff report recommended walking away from the JPA talks and implementing all legally permitted development controls and inspections. It also urged Council to consider extending the ETJ into all areas within a mile of the city limits.
Council member Jan Davis, who chairs the city’s Planning and Economic Development Committee, said he’d had high hopes for the negotiations, observing, “A great effort was made, and I wish we were in a better place.”
At its heart, the ETJ serves as a kind of annexation incubator. By requiring adjacent areas to conform to certain city standards, it paves the way for eventual annexation. State law permits cities to annex adjoining territory that satisfies specific criteria, such as density requirements. But involuntary annexation is a perennially sensitive subject, and when the city recently identified the latest round of potential annexations, the move sparked considerable outcry by county residents.
A further source of bad blood, Davis told Xpress, was the city’s decision to dissolve the Water Agreement and use its control of water service to induce developers to seek voluntary annexation. (Both issues are now tied up in court, and on March 28, Council members also approved a $50,000 budget amendment to help fund the legal battle.) From that point on, however, the JPA talks have been stalled, said Davis.
Council member Brownie Newman defended the city’s annexation practices, noting that those who live just outside the city limits “get all of these services and infrastructure and do not pay for it” through city taxes.
But Council member Carl Mumpower urged his colleagues to stay the course. “I’m concerned our timing is off,” he said. “I’ve spent three years working on this JPA; I don’t want to close any doors right now.”
Citing a growing schism between the city and the county — including Asheville’s lawsuit against the N.C. General Assembly challenging laws that favor the county in the breakup of the Water Agreement — Mumpower urged more dialogue. Increased aggression on the city’s part, he argued, does little to heal the rift with Buncombe County.
“We’re saying, ‘To heck with you guys — we’re going to do what we want,” asserted Mumpower. “We’re going to walk away from a three-year process.”
Davis, meanwhile, agreed with the staff report but objected to its tone of finality. He made a motion to amend the staff proposal to indicate the city’s willingness to take part in future discussions, saying, “We are moving away from this plan, but we are always open to [new] ideas.”
His amended motion passed on a 6-1 vote.
Get along now
If Asheville could have everything it wanted in the way of transportation, what would the city ask for? Such a sweeping concept seems a sure bet for sparking lively debate, but how about appointing a task force? Surely that step, at least, could be taken without controversy or communications meltdown? Or perhaps not.
Changes in state law now require the DOT to take all forms of transportation into consideration when crafting long-range plans, including things like bike paths and greenways as well as highways. To that end, Asheville and neighboring municipalities and county governments are developing plans. In cooperation with the Metropolitan Planning Organization, they will craft a comprehensive vision, which the DOT will then translate into a series of maps detailing the community’s transportation goals over the next 20 years.
The current time line calls for the DOT to provide draft maps by this summer and the MPO to adopt the maps in September. And though individual projects must be defendable in terms of local needs, no funding or time contraints need be considered.
Freeborn, who was charged with compiling a list of nominees for Asheville’s task force, had chosen people serving on existing transportation-related groups. “We already have a lot of subplans and maps,” he told Xpress later. “It would be really silly to start from scratch when we have these plans.”
The list he presented to his colleagues consisted of names drawn from the Greenway Commission, the Bicycle and Pedestrian Task Force, the Transit Commission, the Aesthetics Advisory Committee and the Economic Development Advisory Committee. But some on Council felt there were glaring omissions.
“I only see one business group represented,” said Davis.
Mumpower, meanwhile, griped that in light of recent changes made by Council in board-and-commission lineups (including his own dismissal from the Transportation Advisory Committee), he suspected a political agenda was driving the selections.
As the two Council members picked at Freeborn’s list, however, he stressed that time was short. “We’re way behind on this,” he said. “My deadline is tomorrow, really.”
But Mayor Terry Bellamy said she preferred to have the new body go through the city’s established process for boards and commissions: a public announcement, applications, nominations by Council, and interviews before a final vote to appoint members.
That process, argued Freeborn, is too slow in light of the pending deadlines. And Council member Robin Cape emphasized that the group is not a board or commission but a task force, which typically uses a looser selection process.
Those arguments did not persuade the doubters, however, and Freeborn grew visibly frustrated.
“A month ago, when I brought this to Council, that was the time to talk about this,” he fumed. “This is why Asheville keeps getting outdone in transportation.”
But Bellamy stood firm, saying, “Let’s just run it through what’s tried and true.” And Davis and Mumpower likewise held fast to their objections, until Freeborn had had enough.
“I came to you two months ago!” he bellowed. “For people to raise objections now, this is ludicrous!” Bellamy then called a recess, and Freeborn stormed out of the chamber.
Council returned about 10 minutes later, and Cape announced that, to quell concerns about the task force’s dynamic, members of the Tourism Development Authority, the Planning and Zoning Commission and the Downtown Commission would be added to the list.
“I’m glad we are moving forward with this,” said a more composed Freeborn. “Thank you very much.”
The amended list was approved unanimously, with some delegates to be added later.