“Tell ’em how we’ve been had,” Betty Fagan urged me after Asheville City Council’s April 28 meeting.
Fagan, a resident of the Old Haywood area in west Asheville, had just witnessed Council’s decision, by a narrow 4-3 vote, to rezone 43 acres of mostly vacant and undeveloped land in her neighborhood from a single-family to a higher-density designation (RM-8, multifamily, eight units per acre).
Mayor Leni Sitnick, who cast one of the dissenting votes, later attributed the rezoning’s success to a “clever move” by the zoning petitioners’ lawyer, former City Attorney Bill Slawter.
Council had been faced with a protest petition by residents whose homes abut the 43 acres, but Slawter responded by asking Council to rezone only the interior of the property RM-8, leaving a 100-foot-wide perimeter “buffer” around the edge zoned RS-4 (single-family, four units per acre) — a classification that matches the petitioners’ single-family neighborhoods.
His concession, made on behalf of property owners Mac Wilson and David Evans, effectively nullified the neighbors’ protest petition, according to City Attorney Bob Oast.
The petition would have required a three-quarters Council majority for any zoning changes. But such petitions are valid only if signed by a certain percentage of the people who own land within 100 feet of the property being reviewed, City Planner Gerald Green explained. With a 100-foot buffer, the abutting-property owners no longer qualified; there was no valid petition — and, without one, Council could take action by simple majority, in this case a 4-3 vote.
Council member Earl Cobb voiced concern about potential traffic problems if the neighborhood is developed. “The 100-foot-buffer idea is just to get around [the rules and allow action with] a 4-out-of-7 vote and push [this rezoning] through,” he charged. He also pointed out that rezoning the land from RS-4 to RM-8 would go against the city’s 2010 Plan, which calls for low-density residential development in that area.
Council member Barbara Field said she was disappointed that a compromise couldn’t be reached between the petitioners and their neighbors. Council had postponed the issue in March, urging everyone affected to meet, but no compromise was forthcoming.
The neighbors — most of whom live in single-family homes — objected to any multifamily designation, including Slawter’s offer to ask the city for a lower-density classification, RM-6. They argued that the area already faces development pressures, such as the planned expansion of the nearby Lowe’s.
“I had hoped for a meeting of minds, for people to meet each other halfway,” said Council member O.T. Tomes, the one who’d recommended the neighborhood meeting. “The lack of a compromise puts us in a tough position.”
Council member Barbara Field, who said she was struggling to make a decision on the issue, commented, “We want people to be able to walk across [their] backyards and shake hands.”
Council member Chuck Cloninger said the 100-foot-buffer proposal was reasonable, and he made the motion to rezone the land as Slawter suggested. Vice Mayor Ed Hay seconded the motion.
Cloninger’s motion passed 4-3. Cloninger, Hay, Tommy Sellers and Field voted for the rezoning; Sitnick, Cobb and Tomes voted against it.
Oast pointed out that the narrow margin means Council must approve the rezoning a second time, on May 12, before it becomes effective.