Appearances can mean everything.
Take the case of a duplex proposed for a corner lot at London Road and Shady Oak Drive in Shiloh: The developer, Emory Mitchell, plans to install and refurbish a unit that was once part of the West Terrace Apartments off Patton Avenue. But residents — noting the unsightly appearance of several similar units recently placed in their neighborhood by another developer — don’t want him to do it.
“Come to Shiloh, and see what they have put out there. It is a shame! We want houses we can be proud of,” Shiloh resident Helene Green told Asheville City Council members during a June 9 public hearing on allowing the duplex. She referred to a number of old West Terrace units, recently trucked in and set on lots on Brooklyn Road, as “trash,” and told Council members, “None of you would want to go in there. Not one of you would want to live there.”
“I’m offended when you call them trash,” Council member Tommy Sellers interrupted. He told Green that he grew up in west Asheville, knew kids who had lived at West Terrace and had been inside the units.
But Shiloh residents say some units have been installed on Brooklyn but not yet refurbished: Several have chipped and cut abestos siding, two have been placed sideways on a lot — making them face a different direction than other homes on the street — and at least one has a wall covered in plastic sheeting, because it’s one-half of a larger unit, cut in two.
“Would you want one of these next door to you?” Jesse Ray Jr. asked Council members. He urged them to deny Mitchell’s request to install a duplex.
Council member Barbara Field asked if Mitchell was the developer of the Brooklyn Road units residents kept referring to.
“No,” he replied. Mitchell insisted that he intends to completely redo the used units, refurbishing the wiring, replacing windows, covering the old abestos siding with vinyl, bricking the front of the duplex, creating one external entrance so that it appears to be a single-family home, and landscaping the property. “People just need to give [me] a chance,” he urged.
Mitchell said that he has installed other West Terrace units elsewhere in Buncombe County. He offered to share pictures of the refurbished units with residents.
Council member Chuck Cloninger asked Mitchell if he had met with neighbors to address their concerns.
Mitchell replied that he hadn’t. “I didn’t think there’d be any opposition,” he explained.
“The fact that there hasn’t been dialogue seems to lead us to this point,” Mayor Leni Sitnick observed. The city’s Unified Development Ordinance doesn’t require developers to meet with residents and adjoining property owners, she pointed out.
“Mediation and dialogue is what we need,” said Shiloh resident Freida Nash, who stressed that her neighborhood is being pressured on all sides by commercial development. “We want rental properties and affordable housing, but we want certain standards.”
“We’re trying to upgrade our community,” agreed fellow resident Pauline Seabrook. She mentioned that Habitat for Humanity had also built affordable homes in the neighborhood — but not before meeting with residents and addressing their concerns about safety, traffic and designs that would blend with the surrounding homes.
The Brooklyn Road units, several residents stressed, were moved in at night or in early morning, with no attempt to contact residents beforehand. “They just honked their horns and said move your cars!” resident Charles Williams reported. “These units are substandard. … [Our] property values will fall. … We strongly request that this conditional use be denied.”
Resident Catherine Proctor argued, “This is basically an issue of power. … It’s a question of whether [Council members] feel that the developer’s interests are greater than the community’s.”
Council members opted not to decide the issue, just yet. O.T. Tomes called for a “meeting of minds” between Mitchell and residents.
“I agree,” Proctor responded to his suggestion. She asked Council to postpone any action on the Mitchell duplex.
And Sitnick reiterated that Mitchell is not involved with the Brooklyn Road units — which, she noted, have not yet been finished and brought up to city code. She asked city staff to investigate whether the asbestos siding — particularly where it has been cut or chipped — poses any health risk to neighboring residents.
Vice Mayor Ed Hay said he was disappointed: During UDO hearings last year, the idea of requiring design standards for such units was brought up … but failed to garner enough votes among then-Council members. “Maybe that was a mistake,” he said, suggesting that Council and staff review the issue when they sit down, later this summer, to evaluate the UDO.
Council members voted unanimously to postpone action on the Shiloh duplex until July 14, directing staff to work with Mitchell and residents in setting up a meeting.
Trimming the tax rate
How low will Asheville’s new tax rate go?
Get out your old slide-rule, and dust off your cyrstal ball.
Several weeks ago, city staff recommended a rate of 52 cents for every $100 worth of property — a 5-cent drop that would, for most taxpayers, ease the burden of Buncombe County’s recent property revaluations. Initially, the revaluations resulted in a 27-percent median increase in property values, Budget Director Ben Durant reported.
After the County hears appeals, he noted, the median increase was expected to level off at about 17 percent.
But the county Tax Office just revised its numbers: Assessors now expect a 22-percent median net increase, Durant told Council members on June 9.
That means Council could approve an even lower tax rate — 51 cents — and still have a “revenue-neutral” budget, Durant said.
At least two members of the audience seemed to sense the fluid nature of these numbers — and one questioned the city’s definition of revenue-neutral.
Buncombe County resident Jerry Rice mentioned that the county commissioners’ definition doesn’t factor in any projected growth in the tax base, as the city seems to do. The county’s “revenue-neutral” budget is based on a tax rate that brings in the same amount of tax revenues as in fiscal year 1997 — nothing more, nothing less, Rice pointed out. “What is [Asheville’s] definition of revenue-neutral?” he asked City Manager Jim Westbrook.
Revenue-neutral, Westbrook replied, means that city tax revenues will remain about the same as last year, given an anticipated 3.2 percent growth in the tax base.
Council of Independent Business Owners representative Albert Sneed took in Westbrook’s figures and countered that Council members should consider a still lower rate — say, 48 cents.
That, he asserted, is truly revenue-neutral. “We’re urging you to be very hard and honest with the numbers,” said Sneed. Instead of raising taxes, the city should look at ways to encourage economic growth and increased wages, he recommended. “Asheville’s not wealthy. [Taxpayers] can’t afford all the things you want,” Sneed said.
He and Westbrook bounced some numbers back and forth — subtract motor-vehicle and utility taxes, multiply the proposed tax rate times the estimated total property values that will result after all revaluation appeals have been heard, then add in the growth factor — and concluded that they were both saying the same thing: The tax rate can go down and still provide about the same amount of revenue as last year — but it’s up to Council to decide how big a decrease it wants.
Asheville resident June Lamb suggested several ways Council members could avoid raising taxes: “Begin by eliminating $1.8 million in professional services — that is, consultants’ fees,” she said.
Council made few direct responses to these comments, with Mayor Leni Sitnick indicating that members will vote on the budget during their June 23 formal session. No one indicated what rate they’ll choose, but staff have reported that a 1-cent addition to the new rate is needed to hire 16 additional firefighters, in order to satisfy new federal labor laws concerning fire emergencies.