The Asheville City Council’s April 9 formal session seemed more a harbinger of things to come than an event in itself.
Two changes to the Unified Development Ordinance gave hints that the current Council might be more favorably inclined toward a pair of controversial proposed developments due to come before Council soon. And the appointments to a new citizens’ committee laid the groundwork for further discussion of the thorny issue of local campaign-finance reform.
Meanwhile, if you’re one of those who thrives on meaty political matters, feast on this: Wal-Mart is back. The big-box retailer is once again attempting to build a superstore at the old Sayles-Biltmore Bleacheries site in east Asheville.
Two years ago, Wal-Mart tried to locate two new superstores in Asheville (the second was slated for the former Gerber plant site in south Asheville). The resulting firestorm of controversy divided the community and spawned a pair of marathon public hearings; both projects were eventually rejected. The Sayles Wal-Mart plan died when the Board of Adjustment rejected the developer’s request for a variance; the Gerber Wal-Mart died at the hands of City Council in the final stage of the approval process.
But that was two years ago — and several things have changed since then.
First off, voters injected new blood into city government last November. Secondly, the new Council has given the Board of Adjustment a face-lift, replacing the only two members who voted against the Sayles project.
And meanwhile, some local community activists have charged that these recent changes are part of a concerted effort by local business interests to stack the deck in their favor. At a recent Council meeting, former City Council candidate Sharon Martin speculated that these political developments reflect the influence wielded by Citizens for New Leadership, a political-action committee that donated thousands of dollars to the campaigns of Council members Joe Dunn, Carl Mumpower and Jim Ellis and Mayor Charles Worley. A prominent member of the PAC, she explained, is Bob Jolly, one of the owners of the Sayles Bleachery site.
The PAC’s role in the recent city elections (by far the most costly ever) has sparked a grassroots reaction, with citizens across the political spectrum calling for local campaign-finance reform. In response, Council has is appointed a citizen’s committee to study campaign financing and recommend reform measures that are feasible at the local level (see “Ready, steady … study!” below).
Accusations of influence buying are hard to prove, however. Dunn, for example, voted against a hotly debated affordable-housing development proposed for the Chunn’s Cove area even though another prominent member of the PAC, Walter Plaue, strongly supported the project. On the other hand, the new Council wasted no time in taking steps to make the city more development-friendly.
During Council’s annual retreat in January, Asheville’s elected officials asked city staffers to explore ways to reduce the amount of red tape required by the Unified Development Ordinance. The request came on the heels of a discussion led by Council members Dunn and Mumpower about complaints they’d heard from the business community regarding the UDO.
The city, these freshman Council members reasoned, has a reputation of being unfriendly to business interests. Developers, Dunn explained, often jump through all the requisite hoops set forth in the UDO only to have their projects rejected anyway. Their Council colleagues concluded that regardless of whether the reputation is deserved, the perception is hindering economic growth. And the results of city staffers’ review of the UDO, now starting to trickle in, may very well be put to the test when Council concurrently tackles not only the new Wal-Mart plan but another proposed big-box development.
Meanwhile, another property owner is also working to bring a big-box retailer — Target, a Wal-Mart competitor — to the current home of the Dreamland Flea Market, just a few blocks away from the Sayles site.
Will citizens’ concerns about traffic and environmental impacts once again derail those plans? And will Council members remain true to their stated positions on land-use policy in approaching these proposed developments — or, to paraphrase George Orwell, will some projects prove to be more equal than others?
UDO changes could speed up residential development
Two UDO changes aimed at cutting red tape for developers were unveiled in public hearings at the April 9 formal session. One change, which gives developers more flexibility on such matters as landscaping, attracted little comment. The other change, however, particularly rankled several citizens in attendance.
Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford explained that the proposed UDO amendment would increase the number of residential units allowed under a level 1 administrative review from seven to 50.
The city has three levels of approval for development projects. Level 1, which covers small projects, requires only a review by city staffers with no direct involvement by Council. Level 2 also requires approval by the city’s Technical Review Committee and notification (by mail) of adjacent property owners. Level 3 is reserved for projects involving more than 100,000 square feet, such as a Wal-Mart. The proposed change would eliminate level 2 design review for residential projects with up to 50 units — a significant increase from the current seven-unit limit.
Residential development, Shuford explained, doesn’t generate as much traffic as commercial development, and increasing the number of units allowed under level 1 would speed things up. This, he noted, would save the developer money — a factor in lowering housing costs.
City residents, however, balked at having their opportunities for input curtailed. In a level 2 review, members of the public can argue against the technical aspects of a proposal before the Technical Review Committee. Asheville resident Barber Melton, of the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods, complained: “The neighborhoods feel like we’re being stabbed in the back. There is already mistrust about city government; anytime you take the public out of the equation, you feed that mistrust.” And resident Patty Robertson declared: “This [amendment] is a courtesy to developers but a disservice to voters. The elimination of the TRC review [and the neighbors’ notification of it by mail] makes developments of this size a complete surprise.”
Shuford explained that the city will continue to post on-site signs to notify community residents about proposed level 2 and 3 projects and is exploring extending the practice to level 1 projects. This, he maintained, is an effective way to communicate with people who live near or drive by an area targeted for development. Shuford added that the city will use improved signage, in response to complaints that the current signs are too small and hard to spot.
He also stressed that eliminating the TRC review does not mean lowering development standards. The same standards would still apply, but they would now be administered at the staff level. In addition, Shuford also pointed out that public participation at TRC meetings has often been frustrating for people seeking to raise issues beyond the scope of the committee, whose job is to address infrastructure requirements, fire safety and other technical matters commonly associated with any building project. The Planning Department will still take public comments of whatever sort, he said.
But Shuford’s assurances didn’t seem to satisfy some in the audience, for whom the bottom line was that the change would make it easier for developers to plunk down up to 50 apartments or condos in their neighborhood. Council member Brian Peterson echoed those concerns, noting that Shuford’s argument about limited traffic impact was based on a study of an eight-unit complex — which would generate 53 trips a day. When Peterson asked how many trips a 50-unit complex would generate, Shuford said the number would be closer to 330. Peterson replied, “I’m opposed to this. Fifty units is too much to not let folks know. … 330 new cars in a residential area will have an impact.”
His colleagues, however, didn’t see it that way. The amendment was approved 6-1, with Peterson registering the lone “no” vote.
Council members Dunn and Ellis explained their votes by noting that development in the city is governed primarily by zoning, which should already address such matters as what kinds of developments are appropriate for a given area and how many units per acre should be allowed. “If a piece of property is zoned one way, that should be it,” Dunn declared, adding, “If we’re not going to obey our present zoning, we might as well not have it in the city.”
Neighborhood advocates might take solace in Dunn’s stand on the integrity of the city’s zoning classifications. After all, some of the most contentious battles waged in City Hall have come during hearings on conditional-use permits — which essentially give the holder permission to sidestep zoning regulations. And Dunn’s words may be put to the test in May, when the property of one of his campaign contributors is up for level 3 development review. Before Bob Jolly and the other co-owners of the Sayles site can sell it to the developer of the proposed Wal-Mart, the interested parties will first have to secure both a zoning change and a conditional-use permit.
Ready, steady … study!
During the April 9 session, Council also addressed the question of whether the city would respond to the public outcry for a citizens’ committee to study local campaign-finance reform. A report from Council’s Subcommittee on Campaign Finance Reform (made up of Council members Peterson and Mumpower and Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy) recommended immediately establishing a seven-member ad hoc study committee, with each member of Council appointing one committee member.
The appointees proved to be as varied as the appointers: Mayor Worley appointed former Mayor Lou Bissette (one of Worley’s campaign contributors); Vice Mayor Bellamy gave the nod to former City Council candidate Rod Whiteside; Brian Peterson selected Wanda Adams; Joe Dunn chose Christina McCormick, whom he described as “politically in the middle”; Holly Jones anointed former state legislator Marie Colton, who now works with Common Cause, a group in the forefront of the struggle to overhaul campaign financing nationwide; Carl Mumpower added Kent Wolff of the Civic Center Commission to the mix; and Jim Ellis bestowed the honor upon Planning and Zoning Commission member Max Haner.
The committee will be given 120 days to study reform options before making recommendations to Council. Vice Mayor Bellamy emphasized that the committee’s meetings will be open to the public and all who attend will be encouraged to share their opinions. The city clerk will post a schedule of meeting times and locations on the city’s Web site as soon as they’re available.