For the second time in less than three months Asheville City Council was the battleground, and ultimately, the west side of town was the recipient of large-scale development.
On April 26, Council members unanimously rezoned 71 acres within the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, to accommodate a planned community to be built about a mile from the intersection of Interstate 40 and the Smokey Park Highway. Neighboring residents vehemently opposed the ambitious Planned Unit Development (PUD), independently valued at about $45 million. Back in February, Council overrode significant opposition in clearing the way for a 100,000-square-foot Home Depot in the same area.
“This will never hold up in court,” predicted attorney Tom Bell, who represents the 105 homeowners in the semirural community surrounding the proposed PUD. State law, he said, requires areas rezoned for development to be compatible with the surrounding neighborhoods. Pointing to a rezoning recently struck down by a Mecklenburg County judge, Bell said: “This is a farms area. Putting this out there is an atomic bomb.”
Indeed, City Attorney Bob Oast warned Council members at the beginning of the public hearing to avoid making references to the project’s master plan (a separate legal issue, to be addressed at a later public hearing) and to concentrate, instead, on the effect of rezoning the property. That proved a difficult task, as Council members noted that some aspects of the master plan would necessarily have an impact on the surrounding neighborhoods. The Planning and Zoning Commission had already approved the master plan, but the neighborhood filed an appeal, essentially voiding that approval until the plan comes before City Council in May.
The project, Crowell Farms, is the first PUD in Asheville since the city adopted the Unified Development Ordinance in 1997, opening the door to such projects. Chief City Planner Gerald Green says PUDs are at the forefront of the “smart growth” movement, which seeks to limit urban sprawl. By clustering homes, these developments reduce the amount of grading needed, limiting the destruction of the land’s natural beauty. They also preserve open space for residents and often feature a network of trails, to promote a sense of community. PUDs located outside Disney World in Orlando, Fla., noted Green, are considered models for how to stop sprawl.
Crowell Farms is slated to include 40 single-family homes, 98 townhouses, 70 condominiums and 80 apartments intended as affordable housing for elderly residents. “We want to create a community that converts renters to first-time homeowners and, ultimately, to [living in] an elderly apartment – without ever leaving Crowell Farms,” said Marty Kocot, the lead designer and project engineer.
Most of the residents opposing the development said they approve of PUDs and particularly like the affordable-housing component – they just don’t want it in their back yards.
As with the Home Depot conflict, much of the hearing focused on the impact of increased traffic in an already congested area, and the possible effects on land values. “What we have here is a rural area that is becoming urbanized,” said city Traffic Engineer Micheal Moule. “It will be more like urban traffic, if this project goes in.”
Central to the traffic issue is a crucial five-way intersection. Residents of four neighborhoods, as well as the PUD, would have no option but to converge at the intersection, if they wanted to get to town. The Sand Hill Road School area is already very congested during drop-off and pickup hours, and some of the roads are only 16 feet wide, with no shoulders. Moule’s traffic analysis predicts that Crowell Farms would bring an additional 2,000 vehicle trips per day (up from 1,000) to the intersection, and that two of the approaches to it would operate at a level of service rated E or F (on an A-F scale).
“However, during the peak hour, it’s not uncommon for the minor approaches of two-way, stop-controlled intersections to operate at this level,” reported Moule. He also noted that the state Department of Transportation, which maintains the roads, says there are many others just as narrow that handle more traffic. Thus, Moule didn’t recommend any road changes to accommodate the PUD. Residents, however, see things differently.
“On our road, we do have children, bicycles and walking shoes,” observed West Oakview Road resident Dave Pinelli, who seemed to convey the prevailing feeling in the neighborhood. “When the traffic triples, we can pretty much retire our walking shoes, bicycles and fence our children in.”
Resident after resident painted a pretty ugly picture, seeming to make a good case against the PUD until developer Ben Slosman took the podium. Under the property’s existing zoning (part single-family and part multifamily residential), Slosman told Council members he could actually build more homes (395) than under the PUD. “We are sacrificing units by not overgrading,” he said, adding that he had gone through the PUD process voluntarily. “This property is going to be developed, one way or another,” he warned.
Green agreed that, with substantial amounts of grading, 395 homes could have been built under the existing zoning. Then he dropped a bombshell, saying the Planning Department had actually recommended the PUD to the developer. This appeared to seal the vote in Crowell Farms’ favor. “Why in the world, Mr. Westbrook, are we hearing this for the first time?” Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger asked City Manager Jim Westbrook, with a look of disbelief that seemed to convey the burden of having just sat through a three-and-a-half-hour meeting.
Attorney Bell, given one last chance for a rebuttal, argued that the property’s steep topography would have prevented building that many homes, anyway; the PUD, he charged, was really a scheme to increase revenue. “This allows them to put more units out there and make more money,” he said.
Cloninger, however, said the PUD is a “preferable alternate” to other development that could have gone in, and that the development’s smart-growth features are what Asheville needs. On the traffic issue, he said he would have to follow staff’s recommendations. “Since we passed the PUD ordinance, we’ve encouraged developers to use that method,” the vice mayor noted.
Council members Ed Hay, Terry Whitmire and Charles Worley agreed with Cloninger. “It’s a beautiful place,” said Hay. “It’s a heartbreaker, in a way, to see land like that lost to development. But in this case, I cringe when I think about the grading necessary to make 300 sites.”
Council member Barbara Field said she would have supported the PUD for the affordable-housing component alone. Mayor Leni Sitnick and Council member Brian Peterson both said they had concerns about the traffic, but that, in terms of development, the PUD is the lesser of two evils.
The contentious hearing was actually a two-day affair, with some unexpected fireworks at the end. During Council’s April 25 formal meeting, Whitmire learned about the death of a family member and was excused. After a short recess, a frustrated Marty Kocot (the Crowell Farms project engineer) stepped to the podium and insinuated that the developer had Whitmire’s vote in his pocket and wanted the meeting continued to the next day, so that she could be there. Rezoning votes require a three-quarters majority (six votes), and the mayor wanted Whitmire to be present anyway, but Kocot’s comments really seemed to infuriate Sitnick. “I’m really perplexed that you could assume that you could know how she would vote,” the mayor said heatedly.
When the hearing resumed the next night, Kocot apologized. But after the vote, both the mayor and Whitmire let him have it. “My integrity is the most important thing I have,” Whitmire said, garnering a standing ovation from the disgruntled residents filing out of Council chambers. “I don’t hate you, but what you did was wrong.”
Council set a public hearing for May 23, to review the PUD master plan.
Zoning overlays for Charlotte Street
The path is clear for city planners to test-market more smart-growth concepts – this time on Charlotte Street, along a 10-block corridor stretching from Chestnut Street to Evelyn Place. City Council voted unanimously to create a special “zoning overlay” there, but not before tacking on last-minute changes requested by neighborhood residents.
Planners hope the incentives-based, overlay-zoning district will entice more urban, pedestrian-oriented development. Developers who meet certain criteria will be allowed to erect projects up to 75 percent larger than would otherwise be permitted. The criteria use a point system to promote projects combining residential and commercial functions in the same building.
At a past work session, Terry Whitmire hailed the proposed zoning rules as a way to promote traditional neighborhoods, where residents can walk to needed services. She cited the example of the City Bakery on Charlotte Street, housed in the King James Apartments building, saying, “What you need is right there at your doorstep.”
In February, Council took another step to promote smart-growth concepts when it voted to amend the city’s zoning ordinance to include conditional-use zoning. The concept allows existing zoning rules to be waived if certain conditions are met – in effect, creating special districts-within-districts.
Several neighborhood groups expressed excitement about the zoning overlay, noting favorably the amount of interaction they’d had with the city. But they also had some reservations, and asked Council to make some additional changes: increasing the required amount of residential space, from 25 to 40 percent; rewarding developers for preserving historic structures, and penalizing developers for destroying them; seeking remedies for the area’s notoriously congested traffic; and holding off on additional landscaping requirements until the city’s streetscape plan is completed. Some Council members feared that this might scare away developers and, perhaps, defeat part of the purpose of the overlay; in the end, however, they agreed to the changes.