Asheville City Council

“I live in a mixed-use neighborhood, and I know that neighborhoods can grow and evolve as long as you preserve their integrity.”

— Council member Brownie Newman

Sometimes promises made on the campaign trail can come back to haunt you. That certainly seemed to be the case at the Asheville City Council’s April 27 formal meeting.

And Asheville resident Janet Hart seemed more than happy to serve as the community’s medium, channeling the ghost of campaigns past to remind two Council members about their stated positions on commercial intrusion into residential neighborhoods.

Hart’s seance came during a controversial public hearing on whether Council should approve a conditional-use permit allowing a homeowner to convert her dwelling into an office. The house in question — which occupies a 0.16-acre lot at 59 Arlington St. near the intersection of Interstate 240 and Charlotte Street — is zoned residential.

But it was apparent from the outset that owner Jann Ferree was facing an uphill battle. City Planner Shannon Tuch introduced the item, calling it “a little unique” in that it needed to be considered in the context of two other proposed rezonings that were listed as separate items on the evening’s agenda. Unlike Ferree, however, the owners of the properties at 51 and 53 Arlington St. (which are adjacent to hers) were requesting straight rezonings, rather than conditional-use permits. The three proposals, noted Tuch, came from “three different property owners and for three different reasons,” yet they should be considered as a “united front and in the context of [each] other.”

The Planning and Development Department, said Tuch, was not endorsing Ferree’s proposal, which “appears to have challenges meeting all seven of the standards” for a conditional-use permit. The situation, she said, included “pros and cons, and the cons were more significant.” One particular con had to do with parking. Fitting the six requested parking spots into less than a quarter-acre of space, she explained, would leave insufficient room for the required buffer.

Ferree, however, had come armed with an attorney — Robert Deutsch, a veteran of many Council meetings. The planning staff, he said, “must be looking at a different [proposal] than I’m looking at.” The area, noted Deutsch, already contains several offices, which he said haven’t hurt the quality of the neighborhood. He also argued that the proposed rezoning is compatible with the call for mixed-use development in the city’s 2025 Plan, a long-range planning document.

Deutsch then called as witnesses several neighbors — each of whom gave a different reason for supporting the proposal. Betsy Reiser, the owner of a nearby real-estate company, argued that converting the home to an office would not hurt property values. “In many ways,” she added, “it’s better to have a well-run office building” in a residential neighborhood. Arlington Street homeowner Larry Williamson maintained that having businesses in the neighborhood had actually helped improve it. In the past, he said, the area had had problems with drug dealing stemming from rental properties. Once they were converted to offices, he explained, the problem had subsided.

The other side

Then it was the rezoning opponents’ turn to lay out their arguments. Neighbor Mark Allison echoed the points raised by city planning staff: the failure to meet the standards for a conditional-use permit and the parking problem. He then reminded Council members about the other two proposed rezonings on the street, maintaining that once all three houses had been rezoned, they could be demolished and replaced by a commercial structure, such as a fast-food restaurant. Deutsch, however, countered that a fast-food restaurant would not be allowed in an office district.

In a later interview, Asheville Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford said restaurants are allowed in office districts, but drive-throughs and outdoor speakers are not. He added that siting a restaurant there would be difficult, however, because Ferree’s conditional-use permit, if granted, would not survive the destruction of the building for which it was issued.

Neighbor Joan Morris emphasized that parking is already a problem in the area and that adding another office would only make it worse. And Arlington Street resident Dean Nanney showed a video depicting the street lined with parked cars.

But the most telling moment came when Janet Hart, who lives nearby, took the microphone. The city, she said, doesn’t need more office space — what it needs is more housing stock. And harking back to the last Council race, Hart noted that Council member Jan Davis had promised to “preserve the integrity of our neighborhoods.” She then turned her attention to Mayor Charles Worley. Producing a campaign flier from his successful run for office, she unfolded it and placed it on the overhead projector. Worley grinned uncomfortably as the audience chuckled. Hart had highlighted one line on the flier: “We need to insure the integrity of our neighborhoods.”

After the close of the public hearing, Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower made a motion to deny the request, because he felt the plan did not meet the standards for a conditional-use permit. Davis, meanwhile, confessed that it was a tough decision. While conceding that parking is a valid concern, he also noted that under the current zoning, the owner could convert the property to a multifamily apartment building. In fact, Ferree herself had said earlier in the hearing that if her request were denied, she would consider doing so. And such a structure, noted Davis, would probably create an even bigger parking problem.

In the end, Mumpower’s motion to deny the permit passed on a 4-3 vote. Davis joined Council members Joe Dunn and Brownie Newman in opposing it (i.e. supporting the proposed rezoning).

After the meeting, Newman told Xpress that he’d endorsed Ferree’s request because he believes “in supporting architectural integrity.” He added: “A variety of uses in a neighborhood is an OK thing. I live in a mixed-use neighborhood, and I know that neighborhoods can grow and evolve as long as you preserve their integrity.”

At the request of Ferree’s attorney, Council agreed to postpone the hearings on the two adjacent properties until June.

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