Asheville City Council

Asheville needs new parks, and it needs to fix the parks it already has.

Asheville needs $57 million.

That’s what City Council members heard on April 21, when consultants unveiled a new Parks and Recreation Master Plan: a long-range guide to meeting city needs over the next 17 years.

Foremost on Council members’ minds, of course, was: How do we pay for it?

The plan proposes that the city build a youth-sports complex; create two “mega-centers” (one with an indoor pool); add three 30-acre community parks and six smaller, neighborhood parks; renovate and expand four existing community centers; develop a public golf course; and fix up Memorial Stadium.

That’s just the highlights.

To do everything in the plan would cost upward of $70 million over the next 17 years, said consultant Gary Stewart. To do nothing but keep up with routine maintenance and renovations would cost $13.4 million, he noted.

Stewart suggested a “moderately agressive” option: A $57.3 million plan, paid for largely with borrowed money — from the sale of bonds, which would first have to be approved by voters.

“Do you think this community will support [that]?” asked Mayor Leni Sitnick.

“We did not hear a strong no,” replied Stewart. Consultants, he noted, have conducted surveys and held community meetings, all to get feedback from city residents about the plan and the possibility of bond funding.

Council member Earl Cobb asserted that residents would support it. Many of the city’s parks are well past their prime and need basic renovations. In recent public hearings, Council members have also heard the call for more ballfields, neighborhood parks and greenways.

Just the same, Cobb remarked, “The first thing citizens are going to want to know [is], ‘How much is this going to cost me?'”

That’s a good question — and one that has, as yet, no definite answer. Council member Barbara Field, making quick estimates, calculated that the debt service, alone, on $27.8 million — the first of three proposed bond issues — could result in a substantial tax hike for property owners.

Mayor Leni Sitnick mentioned another route: A one-and-a-half-cent sales tax. The town of Columbus, Ga., used such a tax to fund a new civic center, an Olympic-class ballpark, greenways, soccer fields, a skateboard park and more.

Consultants Stewart and Leon Younger also pointed out that the city should aggressively seek grant, foundation and sponsorship funding for parks.

But it was Cobb who summed things up, in his usual pithy manner: “I’d love to have a Cadillac … but I’ve got to crunch these numbers.”

Council members tentatively scheduled a public hearing on the Master Plan for Tuesday, May 12.

Copies of the plan’s executive summary are available at the Asheville Planning Dept., 5th floor, City Hall. Maps and a a copy of the entire plan are available for viewing in the office only. Call the Planning Dept. at 259-5830 for more information.

Conditional use for Trinity?

After surviving the lengthy Unified Development Ordinance process last summer, why would city officials be considering a new — and time-consuming — process called conditional-use zoning?

Consider these three words: Trinity Baptist Church.

On April 21, Council members didn’t mention the church by name — but did ask staff provide background information on conditional-use zoning, a process that gives Council the authority to allow uses at the church that don’t comply with existing zoning classifications to continue — such as an on-site Bible college.

Schools are not permitted in the neighborhood’s RM-6 (residential, low density) zoning classification, City Planner Gerald Green reports.

The church has requested that its west Asheville property be rezoned institutional. The public hearing on that issue isn’t scheduled until July. But, on April 20, city staff approved the church’s site plan, which details the first phase of a major expansion project.

Said Associate Pastor Jerry Young that day, Trinity’s Bible college and other, related uses were allowed under the property’s pre-UDO zoning designation. And so was grading of the site, for which the church got a city permit earlier this year, he insisted.

City staff later revoked that grading permit because it was granted before the site plan was approved. “Speculative” grading without a site plan is prohibited in residential areas, under the UDO.

“Frankly, we were not aware we were under the UDO and assumed we had been grandfathered in,” said Young on April 20, defending Trinity at a meeting of the city’s Technical Review Committee.

That committee — made up of city staff from a cross-section of departments, as well as a representative of the Metropolitan Sewerage District — approved the site plan. But Trinity must meet several conditions, such as creating landscape buffers between the church property and adjacent homes, building a new sidewalk on Sand Hill Road, and bringing the church into compliance RM-6 zoning requirements, says City Planner Bruce Black.

That brings us to Council’s review of conditional-use zoning. It’s a method that would give the city great flexibility in land-use issues, Green told Council members. With it, Council could make an exception allowing certain land-uses — with restrictions — that would otherwise be prohibited, such as restricting business hours to allow a convenience store to operate in a neighborhood zone.

But there’s a catch: Conditional-use zoning takes extra time and effort to review, implement and enforce — double or triple that of other zoning methods, Green cautioned.

And once one conditional use is granted, others follow. Some cities that allow it have found that up to 90 percent of their subsequent zoning requests become petitions for conditional uses, Green reported.

Each request would have to be reviewed by Council.

Several Council members expressed concern over implementing a new procedure — especially on the heels of the Herculean effort that created the new UDO. “The whole purpose of the UDO was to create standards [and] fairness,” Mayor Leni Sitnick noted.

“I like the idea of more flexibility, but I don’t know if I want 90 percent of [zoning requests] to come before Council,” Council member Barbara Field remarked.

Vice Mayor Ed Hay suggested that Council and staff “take this information and put it in the backs of our minds.” Early this summer, Council will review the UDO and evaluate how the new ordinance is standing up, he pointed out.

“Who requested this information?” west Asheville resident June Lamb asked. She has been been tracking the Trinity Baptist Church issue, complaining about the site grading and the expansion project.

“We did,” said Council member Chuck Cloninger.

Lamb pointed out that she had attended the April 20 meeting of the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods, where the conditional-use issue was mentioned. Many residents think, she said, that “this is gutting the UDO.”

Emphasizing that Trinity’s grading project was done illegally, Lamb added, “The neighborhood is being railroaded!”

Council members did not respond to her remarks. Hay, however, did say that people had been told Council would not discuss Trinity Baptist that night.

The public hearing on Trinity’s rezoning has been scheduled for July 28.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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