Asheville City Council

“Taxpayers should not bear the burden of entrepreneurial risk.”

— Shiloh resident Michael Tracey

Council member Terry Bellamy asked everyone to bow their heads as she delivered the invocation at the Asheville City Council’s May 11 formal session. As the chamber fell silent, Bellamy intoned, “Father, we ask that you unify this Council,” adding, “Help us to walk not divided.”

Her peaceable words came just eight days after a tumultuous budget workshop that saw several Council members trade barbs over a million-dollar war on drugs proposed by Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower. After the May 3 workshop, the debate escalated into a public airing of long-simmering gripes about communication, media relations and political aspirations (see “It’s War!” May 12 Xpress). A public prayer for unity, it seemed, couldn’t hurt.

The May 11 session featured five public hearings, including two that revisited issues from the past. In August of 2002, Council granted developer Rod Hubbard a conditional-use permit for a 168-unit affordable-housing development in Shiloh. At the time, Council members praised Hubbard for trying to help address the city’s affordable-housing shortage (at one point, Council member Joe Dunn even called him Santa Claus). But the Appledorn Condominiums proposed for Brooklyn Road have not been without their critics. Members of the Shiloh Community Association, including activist Norma Baynes, argued that large development would alter the character of the historic African-American neighborhood and that the projected increase in traffic would jeopardize residents’ safety — particularly the children. With that in mind, Council originally approved the permit on the condition that Hubbard agree to contribute $84,000 ($500 per unit) to the city to pay for traffic-calming measures and improvements to intersections. Council also stipulated that the cost of the units must fall within the city’s housing-affordability guidelines.

This year, however, Hubbard petitioned the city to reconsider that condition. In a March 29 letter to Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford, Hubbard wrote: “Since City Council granted my request … significant changes have occurred to the construction budget due to substantial increases in material costs. These increases have placed the project under some financial pressure although the need for affordable home ownership continues to be one of our community’s desperate needs.”

At the May 11 meeting, Shuford told Council that although there’s still a need for traffic-calming measures, the $84,000 could be covered by a grant from the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund. That, he explained, would enable the developer to keep the units (which are still under construction) affordable.

Hubbard followed Shuford to the lectern, pleading, “Plain and simple: I desperately need your help.” He also reported that half the units in phase one had been sold in the first five weeks. “Sixty-eight percent of that is to first-time buyers — it says that our community desperately needs this,” said Hubbard. And though he agreed that the traffic-calming is needed, Hubbard told Council that the added cost would affect his bottom line. The one-, two- and three-bedroom condos are priced from $69,900 to $119,900.

Baynes, however, argued against the city funding. “Most developers understand that there will be increases in costs,” she argued. Baynes also stressed that the community has other needs, such as repairing streetlights and sidewalks. If city funds are involved, said Baynes, that’s where the money should go. Fellow Shiloh resident Michael Tracey echoed those arguments, declaring, “Taxpayers should not bear the burden of entrepreneurial risk.”

After a brief discussion about traffic calming in Shiloh and elsewhere in the city, and about the role of the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, Council members unanimously approved Hubbard’s request.

Back on track

Later that evening, Council revisited the issue of passenger-rail service for Asheville. Back in January, Council members split over whether to endorse a North Carolina Department of Transportation plan to create such a system for the western part of the state. At issue was whether to send a letter to the N.C. General Assembly indicating Asheville’s commitment to the project. But that idea was tabled after Dunn, Mumpower and Council member Jan Davis balked, arguing that there isn’t sufficient local support and that research they’d conducted showed that passenger-rail systems can pose a financial burden.

This time around, however, it was Economic Development Director Mac Williams asking Council for a “commitment” to help the state acquire property that could house a passenger-rail station for Asheville. The site in question is in Biltmore Village, adjacent to existing rail lines. And under the state’s plan, said Williams, Asheville would have to contribute just 10 percent of the purchase price, with the state and feds supplying the rest. The land and associated work (such as reconfiguring rail lines) would cost an estimated $1.4 million; Asheville’s share would be $141,000. Williams also stressed that the city funds would not be needed immediately and that final approval of the funding would come later.

Dunn, Davis and Mumpower again expressed misgivings about passenger-rail service for Asheville. Dunn said he was troubled by the plan, maintaining that “the state is now willing to spend money on passenger rail with a total disregard for the facts.” But all three also acknowledged that buying the property would, as Mumpower put it, “keep the city’s options open.” That’s a good idea, he argued, given that rail service isn’t projected to begin for another 10 years.

Council member Holly Jones, long a vocal proponent of rail service for Western North Carolina, called the plan a “beacon of hope.” And Brownie Newman reminded his colleagues that Asheville is “the most requested passenger-rail destination currently not served” by Amtrak.

And though it had looked as if Williams’ request would spark a full-blown debate about the pros and cons of rail service, Council members quickly wrapped up their discussion and unanimously approved the commitment. That show of unity, coming mere months after Council had been split over the rail issue, was nothing short of miraculous.

Or maybe it was just a prayer answered.

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