Asheville City Council

As the Asheville City Council continues incrementally reworking the Unified Development Ordinance, some proposed changes drive the discussion toward Council’s broader vision for the city. But with three Council seats up for grabs in November, the very ground on which City Council is building these amendments could shift.

Five UDO amendments were on the agenda for Council’s June 19 meeting. Four were approved (though one of those is still being tweaked by staff), and the fifth one was put on hold till Council decides what overall approach it wants to take toward development in the city. In this, the meeting recalled the May 8 session, in which Council members postponed a decision on steep-slope regulations so they could more fully consider the bigger picture (see Asheville City Council, May 16 Xpress).

Cart before the horse?

Sparking the debate was a proposed amendment that would reward developers whose projects meet a list of specified goals by reducing the amount of city oversight. Presented by outgoing Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford, the proposal targeted developments involving more than 100 residential units or 150,000 square feet of space. Satisfying a certain percentage of the city’s development goals—such as affordability, green building, promoting transit alternatives, infill development, and preserving community space and natural areas—would exempt such developments from oversight by the Planning and Zoning Commission and City Council.

But while most Council members applauded the proposal as a good beginning, removing those safeguards was cause for concern.

“Conceptually, I think there is a lot to like,” said Council member Brownie Newman. But he wondered whether the prospect of waiving two key parts of the approval process should apply to all areas of the city or only to those where Council wants to encourage large-scale development. Newman also suggested adding the use of renewable-energy options such as solar power to the list and giving it “a lot of points” toward reaching the threshold that would trigger the exemption.

Council member Bryan Freeborn sided with Newman, agreeing that the city should determine where it wants development to take place but also noting, “This is a good first pass. This is a good foundation.”

A larger concern was the removal of the public input that’s now part of both P&Z and City Council meetings. But Shuford reminded Council that the Technical Review Committee, which also hears public comment, would still have a look at such projects.

That wasn’t enough to ease Mayor Terry Bellamy‘s mind, however. “I don’t think we have enough public trust with the ordinances we have,” she said, adding that the proposal was “too big too soon,” considering the other changes Council has in mind for the UDO.

In the end, Council members voted to send the proposal back to the Planning and Development Department for another round of tinkering. But a comment by Freeborn set the tone for what followed. Calling for a “broad community discussion” about development and the future of Asheville, he said the city needs to start a dialogue aimed at determining what the community wants. “We need to say what we want to do,” urged Freeborn.

Vice Mayor Holly Jones pointed out that the city has held several community forums in the past couple of years designed to answer that very question, and the new budget includes $170,000 for a potential new downtown plan, in case Council decides it wants one.

“It’s back to the future,” lamented Jones.

Meanwhile, Council Member Jan Davis worried that the very question goes beyond Council’s jurisdiction. “What you are opening is the question of how much development is enough,” he observed.

These concerns carried over into the public-comment period, with Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods President Joe Minicozzi taking Council to task for its choice of Planning and Zoning Commission members, citing the lack of planners and architects on the body that scrutinizes development proposals before sending them to Council.

“Are these the kind of people that can give you the most bang for your buck?” asked Minicozzi, himself a city planner by trade. He also worried that too much development is happening too fast, wondering, “Are we letting too much out of the barn?”

Not all UDO amendments proved so thorny, however, and Council approved changes applying grading requirements to single-family and duplex homes, revising the open-space requirements, allowing residents to build small “cottage” structures on their property without special permission, and creating retaining-wall regulations, (staff is still working on spelling out height limits).

The 2 percent solution

Amid Council members’ congratulatory sentiments, the 2007-08 budget was approved on a 5-1 vote. (Robin Cape was in Samour, France—one of Asheville’s sister cities—as part of an organized tour.) Council member Carl Mumpower cast the dissenting vote, criticizing the $129.9 million budget for its lack of the drug-interdiction funding that he has long championed.

Newman, however, pointed to new officers on the street and a record level of law-enforcement funding as evidence that Council had taken law enforcement seriously in considering its spending priorities for the next fiscal year.

But it was the Asheville Fire Department—many of whose members were in attendance—that dominated the budget discussion. (At 7 p.m., a moment of silence was observed in the Council chamber to honor nine Charleston firefighters who’d died in a warehouse blaze that day.)

For the first time in decades, the city will budget matching funds to help establish a retirement plan for its firefighters. Until the 1950s, police, firefighters and non-emergency city employees were on three separate retirement plans, fire Chief Greg Grayson told Xpress. When Asheville’s other employees voted to join Social Security, the firefighters stuck with the city plan until it was canceled in the 1970s. In several votes since then, the firefighters have continued to opt out of Social Security, citing concerns about penalties for people who haven’t been in the system throughout their working lives. The latest vote, in 2003, was the closest yet, with 40 percent of firefighters supporting joining Social Security, Grayson explained.

In the interim, Fire Department staffers have been part of a mandatory state retirement plan to which the city does not contribute. The department has repeatedly asked the city for matching funds, and in a change of heart, the city was now offering to match the firefighters’ contributions up to 2 percent of their salaries.

“It’s hard to sell it to the taxpayer that we need to pay money for a plan, but we need to do that,” said Freeborn. “I applaud you for coming in tonight. It would be great if the firefighters could vote for Social Security, but that’s not what you did.”

For his part, Grayson said the general mood around his department is positive, even though the firefighters are getting a smaller contribution from the city than the 6 percent they’d hoped for. “They are appreciative of having something they didn’t have before,” he said. “This was probably one of the most afffirmative moves an elective body has done to try to do something.”

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