Asheville City Council

Asheville City County meetings commence at 5 p.m. sharp. But savvy citizens know that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and the Council chamber is often packed by 4:30, when the cavernous room fills with a clamorous din. For some of the “wheels” who arrived early to the May 28 formal session, the squeaking paid off.

First off, in an example of how organized residents can protect their neighborhoods from commercial intrusion, a group of Shiloh neighbors defeated a proposed rezoning before its scheduled public hearing even started. Minutes before, dozens of Shiloh residents had packed the chamber in anticipation, and community leaders and local ministers could be seen speaking in hushed tones to the owner of the parcel of land in question.

At stake was the potential rezoning of a piece of property on Caribou Road from RS-8 (Residential Single-family, 8-units per acre) to Neighborhood Business district. The developer, Bob Tucker, listened intently, and in a move that surprised many in attendance, he approached the microphone and formally withdrew his request for rezoning. “It is clear that the neighbors are vehemently opposed [to the rezoning],” he stated.

The crowd greeted his remarks with a sigh of relief and restrained applause; they then made for the exits. But not every resident of Shiloh in attendance went with them: Another public hearing concerning Shiloh was also on the evening’s agenda.

This one also involved a rezoning of property, but this time from RS-8 to Commercial Industrial District. Chris Jarrett, the owner of the 4-acre tract of land on Sweeten Creek Road, requested the rezoning so he could improve his chances of selling the land. According to Jarrett, the land was difficult to market because the city had split-zoned it: The front 1.5 acres are zoned Commercial Industrial, while the remaining portion is zoned RS-8. With only one point of entry and exit to the lot, he reasoned, the residentially zoned rear portion would forever sit vacant, given that a business or industry wouldn’t favor sharing a driveway with residents and vice versa.

But city staffers would not endorse rezoning the entire parcel to Commercial Industrial, citing the residential nature of the surrounding area. Instead, City Planner Stacey Merten suggested that Council consider rezoning the rear portion of the parcel RM-16. A report produced by the Planning and Development Department stated that “RM-16 zoning coupled with the Commercial Industrial provides more opportunity for a high-density, mixed-use development conveniently located with respect to transportation and other commercial services, while at the same time respecting the residential character of the surrounding community.”

Shiloh resident Norma Baynes argued that the rezoning should be blocked, explaining, “We need the City Council to help us define the boundaries of our community. This community is being destroyed by powerful business owners; our rights should be protected.” Baines went on to describe the distinct African-American roots of the community, and closed her remarks by noting, “To destroy Shiloh is to destroy history.”

Her remarks clearly struck a note with Council member Brian Peterson and Vice-mayor Terry Bellamy. The two proposed a rezoning to RM-8. (Interestingly enough, Bellamy, who works for a nonprofit organization that develops affordable housing, resisted the higher-density classification of RM-16 — a designation that lends itself well to affordable housing.)

But Bellamy and Peterson could not sway their colleagues, and Council voted 5-2 in favor of the rezoning.

“I’ll sue”

The longest public hearing of the night dealt directly with increasing the city’s stock of affordable housing. At issue was whether the city could develop a co-housing complex on seven acres of land it owns at the intersection of Brotherton and Virginia Avenues in West Asheville. The tract of land has seen its fair share of controversy: It was formerly owned by the Housing Authority, but the Authority’s attempt to develop a public-housing project was blocked by neighbors in 1994. The Authority then sold the land to the city in 2000, but in the interim nearby residents successfully fought to have the land rezoned as single-family residential, in an effort to control the type of development that could occur in the future at the site. Undeterred, the city has advanced a plan to build affordable housing on the property. But in order to keep the units affordable and to enable a co-housing design (which involves attached units, clustering of residences around a common area and maintaining green space), the city would need to rezone the property to RM-8 and seek a conditional-use permit.

Jack Morse, the developer hired by the city to build the co-housing, touted the merits of the intentional community he plans to construct. One of the important aspects, he explained, would be that the future owners of the units would actually participate in the planning of the development. Some of the larger units would be sold at market value — up to $160,000 for a three-bedroom. But 21 of the units would be reserved for those who qualify for affordable housing.

Charlotte Caplan, the city’s community-development director, explained that the 21 units would be available to people who earn 80 percent of the region’s median income — such as “nurses, teachers, fire[fighters] and other workers who provide the essential services for our city.” Those units, according to Caplan, would sell for approximately $70,000.

But neighbors of the proposed project began voicing opposition last year. Citing concerns over traffic and safety, opponents argued that the infrastructure in the neighborhood could not handle the addition of more housing. And they had proof on their side: In 2001, they presented Council with evidence that the water lines in the area could not produce sufficient flow to meet the city’s minimum standards for firefighting water pressure. Hydrant tests conducted in the area indicated a flow of 300 psi, well below the city’s minimum requirement of 500 psi.

Remarkably, though, while water woes plague the entire city, the water pressure problems in the West Asheville neighborhood were corrected in the intervening months. Fire Marshal Wayne Hamilton explained that a water-line improvement program brought the hydrant pressure up to 600 psi — an acceptable level, according to Hamilton.

The sudden improvements led one opponent to quip that he thought it was quite convenient that — while he and his neighbors had been complaining for more than a decade about inadequate water pressure, and never seeing any improvements — the problem was quickly resolved when the city needed to develop their property. Resident Silvia Montgomery went further, stating in a harsh tone that the improvements were still insufficient and that there could be ramifications. “If this addition causes the pressure to go down and there’s a fire that damages my property, I’ll sue,” she warned. “If you take my fire flow away, I’m holding the city of Asheville responsible.”

There’s nothing like a cold threat of litigation when you’re trying to convince city leaders to vote in your favor.

Satisfied that the water-line improvements would meet firefighting and residential needs, Council seemed ready to vote for the rezoning and the conditional-use permit. But the question of traffic impact still lingered in the minds of Council members Brian Peterson and Carl Mumpower. The two suggested adding a condition that would require the developer to pay for traffic-calming measures — an ironic stand for Mumpower, who has consistently argued for a reduction in bureaucratic red tape.

Their argument was met with a simple observation on the part of Mayor Charles Worley, who noted that the existing zoning classification of RS-8 would still allow for up to 56 units to be built on the 7-acre site if the land was parceled out in pieces. Moreover, the city could not have control over it. Including a condition such as the one advocated by Mumpower and Peterson, Worley reasoned, would also add to the overall cost of the units — seemingly counterproductive when trying to build affordable housing. Philosophically, Worley also added that it was the city’s responsibility to pay for traffic-calming measures.

Council member Joe Dunn delivered a similar sentiment, but without the verbiage. “I think we’re micromanaging again,” he noted succinctly.

In the end, Council voted unanimously to grant the rezoning. The second vote to approve the conditional-use permit passed on a 6-1 vote, with Mumpower in the minority.

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