Asheville’s 2025 Plan, which envisions how the city will grow and develop over the next 22 years and what to do about it, landed in front of Council members at their April 15 work session — and at 300 pages, the 2-inch-thick document made quite a thud.
Two years in the making, the hefty plan focuses on growth, transportation and economic issues that are likely to come down the pike as the region’s population continues its upward spiral. The document, said Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford, is the product of an “unprecedented” amount of public input. More than 1,000 comments — the fruits of nine public hearings and a community meeting, plus public input collected by the 60-member City Plan Advisory Committee — were incorporated into the plan.
Originally, the committee was charged with producing a plan in a mere six months — but that, said Shuford (who served as staff liaison), had sparked a near rebellion by committee members. An outside facilitator was brought in to help, and the group turned its attention to collecting public input.
“They wanted a plan that would be relevant and useful,” reported Shuford.
Dubbing his presentation “Smart Growth for Our Future,” Shuford argued that given Asheville’s unique setting, environmental protection, sustainable development and quality-of-life concerns can and must be integrated into efforts to foster economic growth.
According to the plan, an additional 20,000 people will call Asheville home by 2025. That translates into another 10,000 homes built in the city. During the same period, Buncombe County is projected to see 35,000 new homes built. And the inhabitants of those houses, reported Shuford, will make 350,000 additional car trips per year.
“There’s not a lot of room for new roads,” warned Shuford. “We have to live with the roads we have now.”
For these reasons, the current, suburban-style development patterns are simply not sustainable, noted Shuford, arguing that the city needs to focus on the kind of denser urban development envisioned in the recently adopted Broadway Corridor District Plan.
The 2025 Plan, he said, points toward a future in which smart growth allows for more efficient use of the available space, the main goal being to “absorb and serve a significant portion of population growth.” This, said Shuford, will require better utilization of urban areas, improved mass transit/traffic management, and protecting the enviroment in order to improve city residents’ health and quality of life.
Heading off any hopes for a rapid vote on the proposed plan, Mayor Charles Worley said he’d like to use Council’s April 22 formal session to collect more public comment and then send the results back to city staff to guide them in reworking the plan.
That, however, didn’t deter Council members from airing their own views on the proposal.
Council member Joe Dunn worried that such a document might bind the hands of both the present and future councils. “Is this going to be a writ-in-stone, etched-in-concrete blueprint?” wondered Dunn, adding, “There is a difference between a plan and a blueprint.”
Worley tried to assuage Dunn’s fears, pointing out that, like the current 2010 Plan, the new document would be a guide rather than a directive, and that it would be subject to changes.
“The implementation of this plan is up to Council,” asserted Worley.
Council member Carl Mumpower also voiced “serious concerns” about the plan, beginning with its length and breadth of scope. “How do you get buy-in on a 300-page document when we have trouble understanding it ourselves?” he asked.
Mumpower had already drafted a pre-emptive response to the plan. Before the meeting, he’d distributed a list of 20 concerns and 20 “Recommendations for Enhancing the 2025 Plan.” Besides being unwieldy (Shuford admitted that the document would be expensive to print and distribute), Mumpower said the plan would give city leaders too much power, which they might use to unnecessarily regulate business and development. Mumpower also charged that the document contains “innacurate or skewed information that could undermine the credibility of the effort.”
The committee, noted Shuford, had discussed streamlining the document but couldn’t find anything to cut. “All of this information is for at least somebody,” he observed.
Council member Jim Ellis argued that Council shouldn’t be deterred by the plan’s bulk. Citing a topic on everybody’s mind on April 15, Ellis pointed out that the federal tax code is unwieldy as well, “but somehow, all of us manage to get our taxes paid.”
Ellis also challenged Dunn and Mumpower’s assertion that restrictions on development might hamper business interests, noting that last year, there were more housing starts in Asheville than in the entire rest of the county. And this, said Ellis, was despite concerns that the city’s Unified Development Ordinance would discourage new businesses and residents from moving to Asheville.
Mumpower, however, remained unimpressed. “If we’re going to stir up this conversation now, fine,” he said, adding, “I don’t share your approval of this report.”
Dunn chimed in as well, saying that although some developers are doing projects here in spite of the UDO, he can point out many who refuse to do business in Asheville.
Given the meeting’s contentious undercurrents, it seems safe to say that there will probably be more heated talk among Council members after the public hearing slated for the April 22 formal session.
Speaking of development…
With Council’s collective attention already attuned to development issues, Urban Planner Shannon Tuch presented a proposed amendment to the UDO that would establish a new zoning designation called the Urban Residential District.
These areas would follow the same high-density models discussed in the 2025 Plan and the Broadway Corridor Plan but would be primarily residential. Although small businesses would be allowed in these districts, they couldn’t occupy more than 50 percent of a building’s first floor, with the remainder devoted to residential units.
The amendment, said Tuch, is driven by the need for more affordable housing in Asheville. The high-density districts would encourage a mix of residential development, including but not limited to affordable housing.
“This is encouraging and positive,” declared Council member Holly Jones. “It is thinking forward, and I am grateful for your work in it.”
At press time, Council was slated to take public comment on the proposed amendment at its April 22 formal session.