“Democracy tends to be long-winded.”
— Citizens Planning Advisory Committee member Mike Lewis
Democracy ain’t pretty; just ask anyone who attended the Asheville City Council’s April 22 formal session. In fact, that sentiment was actually expressed by both citizens and Council members during the six-hour meeting. Even veteran Council gadflies (who normally relish the opportunity to fan flames from sparks of friction) found themselves exasperated by the evening’s slow pace. At times, the ebb and flow of information and opinions challenged even the most disciplined attention spans. Yet the undercurrent of consequence colored every action as both governed and governing struggled to steer the ship of state into the uncharted waters of the future.
Setting the course for that ship was one of the topics Council tackled as members of the public stepped up to share opinions about the city’s 2025 Plan. And after two years of preparation, the document that will serve as the city’s guide to growth over the next 22 years inched closer to formal adoption.
Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford presented the plan, prefacing his comments by praising the group of citizens who helped craft it. “There has been an unprecedented effort to involve the public in this process,” he noted, giving the nod to the 60-member Citizens Planning Advisory Committee. In addition to that core group, said Shuford, another 700-1,000 people contributed ideas and suggestions in a series of nine public forums and numerous meetings with focus groups. The 300-page draft plan reflects that public input.
Shuford, who served as a liaison between the public and city government throughout the process, also emphasized that the proposed plan is not an ordinance. Instead, he explained, it is meant to be a “guide to specific actions” concerning to land use, transportation, air and water quality, and economic development — a web of related issues that the city must address as it confronts the pressures created by increased population.
But a discussion of the draft document during the previous week’s work session had caused a stir among some Council members, with Council member Joe Dunn questioning whether the document would be a “writ-in-stone, etched-in-concrete blueprint” that might tie the hands of future City Councils. One week later, Shuford seemed to be offering an answer: “Like the [Unified Development Ordinance], we do expect to make updates to it,” hinting at the flexible nature of the plan.
Council member Carl Mumpower had also expressed concerns about the plan, showing up at the work session with a 20-point critique and asserting that the plan contains “inaccurate or skewed information that could undermine the credibility of the effort.” At the formal session, however, Shuford responded by describing in detail the painstaking deliberations and scrutiny that had gone into every step of the process.
But Mayor Charles Worley wasn’t about to let the evening’s discussion turn into a full-blown debate on the plan, pointing out that the hearing was primarily a chance for the public to make comments and for staff to take one last stab at tweaking the document before placing it on Council’s plate for final consideration. Still, it was hard to ignore the body language of Mumpower and Dunn, who seemed to champ at the bit, anxious to wade into the debate.
Asheville resident Paul Godfrey, who served as facilitator during the plan’s development, was the first to take the microphone. He described the project as an attempt to define “the flavor of Asheville.” Godfrey also echoed Shuford’s earlier comments, stressing that the “whole process was truly citizen-driven.” Asheville attorney Pat Whalen, a member of the planning committee, focused on the effort made to be as inclusive as possible. “It is not a perfect plan, because it is the result of a democratic process. I’ve never been involved in a group that met more or had as many diverse opinions or worked so hard to include them. … It represents thousands of hours of public involvement,” he noted. And the final product, said Whalen, “is a fair representation of the voice of the city of Asheville.”
Next up was committee member Hazel Fobes, who publicly thanked both Shuford and the Planning Department. “We had a very fine person in [Shuford] who led us through it all. The staff at the Planning Department will always be in my mind as a wonderful group. They mean well always. We should always listen to them. We don’t always agree, but we should always listen, because they are wise people and they are for the city of Asheville.” Fobes also stressed the diversity of the citizen committee, saying: “We were diversified. I didn’t realize how diversified we were — in background, in culture, in career. We argued, we debated, we raised our voices in anger at times, but we learned slowly to listen to each other. We gave a little, we gained a little, and we focused our goals,” she said. Fobes then segued into how the plan’s four areas of concentration are similarly diverse but wholly interrelated. “We realized that everything is influenced by everything else. Land use, transportation, air and water and economic development must work together — they must accept each other.”
By now, it was becoming apparent that the members of the public who were rising to speak about the plan had a plan of their own — they were there to defend it. Committee member Mike Lewis, for instance, said: “I understand that there is some criticism emerging already regarding the new comprehensive 2025 Plan. One of those [criticisms] centers on that it may not reflect local demographics and values. You’ve heard about the net we cast to attract participation; I don’t think we could have done any better if we had Chief Annarino go out and take people in custody and bring them in to those meetings.” Lewis added, “I think that the community was well-represented.”
And responding to criticism of the plan’s length and complexity, Lewis once again stressed the multitude of voices that had been included, declaring, “Democracy tends to be long-winded.” As for Mumpower and Dunn’s previously expressed concerns about the plan’s impact on economic development, Lewis didn’t mince any words: “Some people say that the plan doesn’t reflect the current economy, and I get a little hot under the collar when I hear that. If we as citizens and you as our leaders accept the status of the current economy as the standard by which to measure our community’s success, then we’re in bad shape. That kind of opinion reflects a lack of faith in the community, and to express that kind of hopelessness and fatalism — ‘Nobody will ever bring in new business to this community, and this city will become an economic wasteland. After all, who wants to work with a bunch of losers?’
“The 2025 Plan,” continued Lewis, “reflects a certain level of optimism that we can resolve our problems. … Let’s not betray the hopes of our children by accepting the economic status quo.”
Despite Worley’s expressed wish that the evening not digress into a Council debate about the plan, Mumpower found Lewis’ words to hard to ignore. “Mayor, kindly, if I may,” Mumpower began, “There are some of us that have concerns. We are called upon to vote on this. We are part of the system of checks and balances, and I think we have a responsibility to do that in a careful manner. It’s not easy to speak against the good efforts of 60 to 600 people. But I think, in fairness, there are some of us that have some concerns.”
Dunn, too, chimed in: “Sixty people, and maybe more — this is an awesome amount of work. But there are some serious questions in here, and I’d hate to second-guess anyone, but, for an example, there’s nothing in this thing about government. You know, are we going to be governing ourselves the same way 25 years from now as we are now? I think that’s just as important. … I have questions, too. But I promise you I’ll give an honest look at it.”
With that, the mayor closed the hearing and sent the plan back to staff for a final review. After that, Council will consider adopting the plan at an upcoming formal session.
Taking the hill
Council unanimously approved a plan that will allow the National Guard to relocate from its Brevard Road facility in West Asheville to a site atop Richmond Hill, where the city owns 187 acres of forested parkland. The plan calls for developing 32 acres to accommodate a new National Guard Armory and an adjacent Parks and Recreation Department playground and baseball/softball complex. During his presentation to Council, city Parks and Public Facilities Supervisor Jim Orr explained that in return for allowing the Guard to take over a portion of city-owned parkland, the federal government will pay 100 percent of the infrastructure costs associated with developing the land. Those costs will include linking the hilltop with water-and-sewer lines and cutting in an access road off Richmond Hill Drive. Additionally, noted Orr, the feds will do the initial grading for the area behind the new armory site — the eventual home of five new ball fields and related facilities.
Orr also explained that the disc-golf course that now occupies the site will need to be relocated to the rear of the property and that the city will consider adding another 18 holes to the course, due to the sport’s popularity with city residents.
Mayor Worley called the deal with the National Guard “an excellent partnership” noting the added benefit of being able to use a gymnasium at the new armory site for youth-basketball leagues.
Col William Johnson, a spokesman for the National Guard, told Council that the relocation is needed because of a recent restructuring of North Carolina National Guard units. Asheville’s Guard presence is now a military police unit that’s larger than the outfit it replaced, requiring more space than is available at the current facility. Johnson also indicated that the Brevard Road property would revert to city ownership once the Guard relocates.