Dodging the Z-word

“If you want to preserve neighborhoods and communities, you have to allow the people who live there to make the decisions.”

— Ron Holster, Waynesville Downtown Association

Leave those traditional notions about zoning in a box of old ordinances: This summer, Waynesville residents have launched a land-use plan that promises walkable communities, development opportunities and flexibility for all.

And unlike Asheville’s decade-long overhaul of its development-related regulations, which culminated in the passage of the Unified Development Ordinance in 1997, it’s happened with almost no controversy. The land-use plan passed by a unanimous vote of the town aldermen, and passage of the ordinance to support is expected to proceed likewise.

“We’re a main-street town,” says Ron Holster, director of Waynesville’s Downtown Association. “But we recognized [that] for the town to survive, the neighborhoods had to be healthy.” The plan, says Holster, “was a move that needed to be taken.”

Waynesville, a town of about 7,000 nestled amid Haywood County’s mountains, retains a Mayberry charm. Highway 276 narrows to two lanes when it becomes Main Street; here, you’ll find an old-fashioned newspaper stand, numerous park benches, a pub, galleries and crafts shops, the town hall, the police station and a hometown bakery. Visitors and residents alike stroll the street all year round, while traffic proceeds at a leisurely pace.

But another stretch of 276 — Russ Avenue — is five lanes wide with no pedestrian crossings. A map of the area shows a broad expanse of asphalt lined by a string of big-box developments and fast-food restaurants.

That reminds Town Planner Drew Powell of his small West Virginia hometown after that state’s Department of Transportation replaced Main Street with a five-lane highway that ran parallel to the historic thoroughfare. Along the old Main Street, “everything died,” Powell recalls. The new road was one long strip-development “that looked like everywhere else,” he says.

Which of those divergent options represents what Waynesville residents want for their town’s future?

Over the past two years, town leaders and staff have held more than 50 forums, workshops, hearings and meetings. “It was wide open,” says Philan Medford, a member of the citizens’ committee that spearheaded the effort. Town residents and nonresidents alike huddled over maps, aerial photos and plans, she notes: “They discussed what they treasured, what they’d like to change. …Their concerns were heard [by town leaders and staff] and turned into a vision for the town,” says Medford.

One piece at a time

The resulting land-use plan lays out 28 districts — neighborhoods, commercial areas, downtown and so on. “We’re throwing all the old development ordinances out,” says Medford. “Each [district] has its own character enhanced [in the plan], and its own guidelines. … We’ve gotten out of the box,” she maintains.

“Instead of the traditional zoning, which many people don’t like and say is too restrictive, we’ve broken the town into districts [that] have [their] own vision statements, [their] own regulations and [their] own plan. … The community has a buy-in — [because] it’s their district, it’s their community, it’s their town. They can change the regulations in their own district without changing the rest of the town,” Powell explains.

For developers, the plan offers great flexibility: “We’re saying you have to give us great public spaces [with] good sidewalks, nice facades, good streetscaping. What you do behind [the facade] is of no concern,” he continues. There are no building-size limits, few setback requirements and broad landscape/buffer requirements — such as “no parking space can be more than 30 feet from a shade tree,” the plan reads. But development must fit the scale of the neighborhood, include ample public space such as sidewalks … and look good: “Instead of traditional zoning, we’re saying we’re going to regulate how your building looks and how it contributes to the public space. … We’re encouraging regional architecture instead of franchise architecture,” Powell points out.

Says Holster of the Downtown Association: “If you allow Tunnel Roads everywhere, pretty soon you lose your sense of identity as a town. You increase congestion and air pollution with traditional zoning.” On the other hand, by steering away from strict setback, building-size and density requirements, “developers have more of an opportunity to make use of their property and an opportunity to be creative.”

But what kind of protection does this approach give neighborhoods?

“You allow each district to make [its] own choices in how [it] wants to develop,” says Holster. He, too, mentions the limits of scale — no Super Wal-Mart plopped down among Hazelwood’s small, World War II-era homes, for instance.

And though few sections of town can hope to emulate the charm of Waynesville’s Main Street district, each can have its own focal area or public amenities such as greenways, muses Holster. And each can choose to grow (or not grow) according to what its residents and property owners want. “If you want to preserve neighborhoods and communities, you have to allow the people who live there to make the decisions,” he asserts.

“The [town] zoning as it is now is pretty academic, [with] rules and regulations that apply across the whole grid, regardless of neighborhood differences,” says local inn owner Robert Zinser. In Asheville, he notes, there’s a world of difference between the various neighborhoods: the thriving downtown, West Asheville, Montford, Clingman/West End and Tunnel Road. Each area has its own character … but not its own custom-tailored plan. Waynesville, he explains, is trying to create little communities that are also part of the greater whole.

Another goal for the town is eliminating some of the conundrums created by zoning. More than 10 years ago, for example, Zinser and his wife Cindy bought and restored the ramshackle Old Stone Inn. The town, however, still “considered our inn a ‘nonconforming use.’ … A commercial venture in a neighborhood — that’s a faux pas in traditional zoning,” he notes. And as such, it couldn’t be rebuilt [in the event of a fire or other disaster] or replaced.”

But the new land-use plan, says Zinser, “legitimizes us. We’re no longer a nonconforming use — [we’re] a use they’d like to see continue.”

He also praises the open process that birthed the new plan, though he notes that there were some grumbles, particularly from residents and property owners in adjacent areas falling under Waynesville’s extraterritorial jurisdiction. “No one likes to be told what to do with their property, but [land-use] planning is necessary when you’re part of a community,” Zinser observes.

Shaping your own future

Haywood County — like Buncombe — has no zoning or land-use management, notes Holster. Nonetheless, he says, what happens in Waynesville does affect the surrounding area.

Perhaps the care the town took to avoid using the word “zoning” in developing its plan helped defuse the situation. But Holster also emphasizes the efforts made by town staff and leaders to educate outlying residents/property owners: “It doesn’t make sense to spread out and gobble up land. It costs more to provide water, sewer [and other] infrastructure, especially in mountainous communities,” he says.

“Growth issues are something you have to work out every day,” observes Medford. And because Waynesville owns the water and electric-power systems that serve the town, managing growth becomes that much more important as a way to hold down costs (and, thus, property taxes).

If a given district, such as an outlying area along Highway 276, adamantly opposes growth (or annexation), it makes no sense to extend water lines and other infrastructure, says Medford. Instead, she maintains, it makes sense to respect their wishes, so that “a neighborhood or district can shape its own future.”

That aspect of Waynesville’s plan apparently reassured those residents living outside the town but within its extraterritorial jurisdiction: When town aldermen unanimously voted to adopt the plan about a month ago, there was no virtually no opposition. The plan was adopted, says. Given the experiences of the Buncombe County commissioners and the Asheville City Council in attempting to address their own zoning woes, Alderwoman Elizabeth “Libba” Feichter says she was a bit amazed, adding, “We expected resistance but encountered very little.”

There was some early “hot rhetoric” from some dissenters about economic development, job creation and preserving farmland, Feichter reports, “but we worked it out.” The dissenters, she says, were reassured “that these districts actually allow more freedom with what you do with your property, as long as you come along with the design [requirements. And] we convinced them that one of the things we had planned was to maintain as much green space and farmland as we could,” she adds.

In the process, town leaders also convinced themselves “that we couldn’t keep making decisions on individual properties without having a plan,” says Feichter.

The next step — a challenging one, concedes Medford — is turning that vision into a workable ordinance. The individual district plans are short and sweet — approximately five pages long (a boon for developers and homeowners alike), she mentions. In those documents, residents and property owners in each area have expressed what they treasure, what they want improved, what they want retained … and distilled it all into the motto, “Our heritage, our future.”

“Now will the [town aldermen] have the political courage to deliver?” wonders Medford. And the real test, she muses, will come when the first request for a variance comes along.

Powell, meanwhile, emphasizes the desire to build a community, downplaying buzzwords like “traditional neighborhood development” and “urban village.” “We are an urban village,” he declares. And words like “density,” he continues, shouldn’t stir up immediate fear — because what counts, Powell maintains, is “the design of [a building] and how it fits on the lot, how it fits in the neighborhood. There’s a lot of trendy ideas … [but] that’s not what we’re about. We want this [plan] to be functional; it’s not some trendy move.”

In the end, says Powell, “We’re talking about our existing town and exploring the design [it] has and the character.” There’s also an economic-development angle: “Create a great community, and jobs will come,” he argues. And, as if convinced by his own logic, Powell observes, “It’s a good experiment.”

For more information about Waynesville’s land-use plan, contact Powell at 452-0401 or drewpowell@primeline.com.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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