- Asheville City Council meeting June 8, 2010
- City endorses public financing for local elections
- Social gathering or illegal meeting?
By the end of their June 8 meeting, Asheville City Council members may have grown tired of hearing the word "buffer."
The city's ad hoc Watershed Committee, which had drafted a new storm-water ordinance, was divided over the appropriate size of these required strips of undeveloped land along streams, intended to protect water quality. Instead, committee members settled on a formula for determining the width of buffers, which would vary depending on the land use. City staff, however, worried that this change would prove too difficult to apply; two alternatives proposed by staff called for 30-foot protective strips in most cases, increased to 50 feet in intensely developed or steeply sloping areas. Meanwhile, the city's Planning and Zoning Commission proposed more bare-bones guidelines closer to the state minimum requirements.
Depending on whom you asked, the various sets of buffer rules Council was considering as part of its overhaul of the storm-water ordinance were either urgently needed protections to head off environmental catastrophe or overly restrictive regulations that might stifle needed development and affordable housing.
"We'd like to see stricter rules on steeper slopes; we know runoff increases both in amount and velocity on slopes — we know growth in this region is going to happen; we welcome it. We also have to make sure that growth doesn't irreparably harm the environment," Julie Mayfield, executive director of the WNC Alliance, told Council. "We support tying buffers to zoning and intense development: That's a good idea."
"Your decision will have far-reaching results that will either open or shut the door for many residents," said Rod Hudgins, president of the Council of Independent Business Owners. "Large buffering requirements near streams can cause residential construction to become at best prohibitive and at worst unbuildable. … The state minimum requirement is the best choice." The state requires a 30-foot buffer for projects that will "disturb" at least one acre of land.
Scott Dedman, executive director of Mountain Housing Opportunities, agreed to some extent, citing businesses such as the Wedge Brewing Co. and some local affordable-housing developments as examples of projects that wouldn't be allowed under some of the proposed buffer rules. Property bordering rivers and streams, said Dedman, "is job central for our community: We need more homes in this area. This level of impact on development would not be wise for our needs as a community."
Watershed Committee member Barber Melton disagreed, however, saying stricter rules with appropriate exceptions and modifications are needed because of the dire consequences of overdeveloping slopes near the river. "We've got to start somewhere — we can't keep cleaning up these messes," she observed.
In the end, Council approved a basic 30-foot buffer for all properties on a 5-2 vote, allowing staff to grant exemptions for small homes on a case-by-case basis and making some exceptions for adaptive reuse of an existing structure.
"This ordinance really represents a compromise between those who wanted us to go the absolute state bare-bones minimum and those that wanted us to go far beyond what the state standards were," noted Council member Esther Manheimer.
Council members Bill Russell and Gordon Smith both voted against the measure, though for opposite reasons: Russell thought it too restrictive, Smith believed it wasn't strong enough.
A subsequent motion by Council member Cecil Bothwell calling for 50-foot buffers on steep slopes failed 2-5, with only Bothwell and Smith supporting it. But a motion clarifying that buffers must remain "undisturbed" (something Mayfield had suggested) was approved 6-1, with only Russell opposed.
As a bill that would allow municipalities to establish public financing for local elections winds its way through the General Assembly, it will have City Council's seal of approval.
"This is simply a resolution endorsing the idea that municipalities in North Carolina should be allowed to create public financing," Bothwell explained. "It doesn't specify the public-financing plan, and it doesn't say Asheville will have one. Across the nation, the only campaign-finance reforms that have really worked have been public financing." His motion of support was approved 5-2, with Jan Davis and Russell opposed.
Bothwell pointed to the state's judicial elections and Chapel Hill's municipal elections as examples of successful public financing in North Carolina.
"Publicly financed elections ensure that candidates can spend more time with voters about the issues rather than asking them for money," said Bruce Mulkey, president of the activist group WNC for Change. "We don't see this as a partisan issue: Recent focus groups have shown that voters across the political spectrum are angry about the influence of special interests in their politics." Mulkey was the only speaker to address the issue during the public-comment period.
Davis later told Xpress that he had concerns about how extensively the resolution had been vetted by staff. "If we endorse it at this stage, it's going to be looked at as an endorsement of the whole thing, and I'm not there yet. I think there's some merit to going out and raising money, especially at the local level."
Over a beer
After the meeting, Council members Smith, Russell, Newman and Manheimer repaired to the nearby Pack's Tavern for a beer.
According to state open-meetings law, anytime a voting majority of an elected body comes together, it constitutes a quorum and thus must be publicly announced if any policy issues are discussed. Manheimer, an attorney, told Xpress that the gathering was purely social and thus didn't violate the law.
Asked about the matter, attorney Amanda Martin of the North Carolina Press Association said: "They may be absolutely accurate that they're not discussing any public business — it's a little hard to believe, but maybe. If so, then that's legal." At such a gathering, she continued, Council members couldn't so much as mention official city business.
David Forbes can be reached at email@example.com or at 251-1333, ext. 137.