When almost no one shows up for your party, someone’s got to pat you on the shoulder and say, “Don’t feel so bad.”
That’s what residents told Asheville City Council members on March 31. Council hosted its first community meeting of 1998 that evening, at the city’s Public Works Building in central Asheville. Problem was, fewer than a dozen residents attended.
Only a third of them spoke, mostly to applaud Council members and staff — and to bring a few issues to their attention.
The first resident to speak his mind was north Asheville resident Mike Lewis, who took one look around and observed, “The regular citizens are outnumbered by [city] staff.”
More than 40 city staff flanked him in the room. They had arrived an hour early, setting up displays, laying out brochures and handouts on tables, and priming themselves to answer residents’ questions.
They ended up chatting amongst themselves until Council members arrived at 7 p.m.
Lewis urged Council not to feel bad about the low turnout: It takes time for people to get used to the idea that they have an opportunity to come and speak their minds, he said. Council members hold informal meetings in various parts of the city four times a year — whenever there’s a fifth Tuesday in the month — hoping to field questions and get a little input from residents and property owners.
Lewis, who’s active in the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods, gave Council members a couple of issues to mull over in the coming weeks.
Too big for Merrimon?
The city’s Board of Adjustment, which grants and denies requests for exemptions to Asheville’s sign and zoning ordinances, has “subverted” the Unified Development Ordinance, Lewis claimed. On March 23, the board decided to allow the construction of a new drugstore on a Merrimon Avenue lot. The store will be 80 percent larger than the zoning designation allows, he reported.
The variance was given to property owner Jim Peterson. (His son, former Vice Mayor Chris Peterson, manages the lot and operates a business on the ground floor of the existing building, located at the corner of Merrimon and Edgewood avenues). The board’s decision will allow a nearly 11,000-square-foot structure to be built on Peterson’s lot, which is zoned to limit buildings to 6,000 square feet per floor.
Lewis called the board’s decision a “usurpation of power,” declaring, “That [decision] flies in the face of basic democracy.”
“Is this the type of authority the board has had in the past?” asked Council member Chuck Cloninger. He has pushed for the Board of Adjustment to be stricter in enforcing city ordinances, particularly for signs.
Asheville Planning Director Julia Cogburn replied that it’s not unusual for the board to grant exemptions — but that most cases are not this extreme, and most decisions are not made against city staff’s recommendations. She explained that the Board of Adjustment does have the authority to allow exceptions to the development standards allowed in that zoning district — but only if the regular zoning rules create a “hardship.”
In this case, Cogburn reported, city staff felt the property owner hadn’t shown sufficient grounds for a variance.
Nonetheless, board members voted unanimously to grant the variance on the building size, as well as variances for parking and minimum building setbacks from the adjacent streets, Cogburn indicated.
Current board members include Bud Taylor (chairman), Daryl Hart, David Young, Dennis Hodgson and Paul Smith. At the March 23 meeting, board alternate Doug Thrash filled in for Hart.
Vice Mayor Ed Hay remarked that he was very disappointed by the board’s decision, particularly because so much effort went into creating the UDO and its new zoning classifications. Just a few months ago, Council members voted to limit the board’s authority to grant variances for small residential lots. “We said [then that] we needed to trust that they would do the right thing,” said Hay. “If that’s not happening, we need to go back to the drawing board.”
Mayor Leni Sitnick asked whether the board’s decision was affected by the possibility that other businesses — perhaps more intrusive to the neighborhood than a drug store — could be built on the property as it is currently zoned.
Lewis replied that there had been some discussion about putting three 6,000-square-foot buildings on the 1.5-acre lot — or, some sort of “Mexican fast food.” (The last option was nixed because current zoning prohibits drive-throughs there.)
Lewis said he was also disturbed by the way board members whisper among themselves during the public meeting. Assistant City Attorney Martha McGlohon had to caution the board members that all comments needed to be made into their microphones.
While Council members mulled over Lewis’ information, City Attorney Bob Oast responded that Council could amend the UDO to limit the building-size variances to a certain percentage over the standard. Oast suggested that the ceiling could be considerably lower than the 80-percent increase the board had allowed for the Peterson property.
The Seventh Wonder of Asheville
Lewis also reported on another issue he feels needs scrutiny. A north Asheville resident, Lewis mentioned, has built a 50-by-20-foot storage shed on his property. Such a large structure “is totally inappropriate for a residential neighborhood,” argued Lewis, calling it the “Seventh Wonder of Asheville.”
But the building’s owner got the proper permits and went through the required process to build the shed, which he is using to store a boat or other recreational vehicle, Cogburn responded.
“Our ordinance, like many in other cities, doesn’t address the size of accessory storage buildings,” she said.
Hay encouraged other Council members to go see the building. “It’s a … remarkable structure,” he deadpanned.
“Can we do anything about it?” Mayor Leni Sitnick asked.
Not this particular one, Cogburn replied: It was built in accordance with current UDO requirements. But the city could decide to limit the size of future accessory structures.
“Do you reckon we could put [this building] on the summer sightseeing tour?” joked Council member Earl Cobb.
Loan funds for rental rehabs
UDO-related issues aside, city staff took the opportunity to announce that Asheville had just received a $1.5 million grant through the federal Housing and Urban Development program.
Pisgah View Apartments resident Minnie Lee Jones remarked that this is nice, “but what does it do for people?”
City Development Director Marvin Vierra said the grant will support a new municipal loan program for owners of rental property: If the landlords promise to rent to residents who make 80 percent or less of the median income in Asheville (about $35,000 for a family of four), those owners can get low-interest loans for fixing up their rental units. Under the deal, each landlord must continue to rent to low-income residents for the life of the loan.
Jones, speaking on behalf of many of the city’s low-income residents, applauded Council for helping to create affordable housing for renters. She also urged Council to do something about litter in the city. “Y’all did campaign on that,” she reminded them, “[so] I want y’all to hurry up and come on over to west Asheville,” which, she said, has a particular problem with litter.
Other speakers included new Sondley Estates Homeowners Association President Bob MacPherson, who thanked Council for lowering the speed limits in his east Asheville neighborhood. MacPherson said he also appreciates the city’s new traffic-calming policy, which encourages residents to work with city staff on such issues as speeding and other traffic problems. “We need to work on these things together,” MacPherson concluded.
Albemarle Park resident Rich Mathews also praised a recent city project: the repair of a 100-year-old stone wall on Cherokee Road. He also suggested that Council consider the city’s affordable-housing needs in a comprehensive way.
Council member Barbara Field responded that the city has two options for increasing its tax base: annexing outlying areas, or rehabbing existing residential or commercial properties that lie within the present city limits.
Sitnick noted that addressing affordable-housing needs is one of Council’s top goals for 1998.
H.K. Edgerton, president of the Asheville chapter of the NAACP, said he was glad to hear about the mayor’s proposed roundtables on litter problems. He has been part of regular cleanup efforts in the Eagle/Market streets area.
Edgerton also asked whether the city would consider hiring a truancy officer to deal with the large number of kids he sees on the streets during school hours. In addition, he said he would like to encourage people to volunteer in the city school system.
When no one else spoke, Council members adjourned — but not before Mayor Sitnick got a word in: “If you all see signs on [utility] poles, we’d appreciate it if you’d give us a call.” The visual litter caused by business signs illegally placed on utility poles or stuck on posts in city rights-of-way is one of her special gripes.
Sitnick told residents they could call her (259-5600), City Manager Jim Westbrook (259-5604), other Council members, or Sharon Allen, development-code enforcement administrator (259-5850).