Asheville City Council

“On this piece of paper somewhere is the future housing code.”

— Building Safety Director Terry Summey

It’s been just over a year since the Asheville City Council appointed a 21-member citizen task force — in response to complaints that the rules were too strict — to determine what, if any, changes should be made to the municipal housing code.

But fundamental divisions among task-force members — specifically, between supporters of the current mandatory housing inspections and those favoring a complaint-driven system — prevented the group from finding consensus.

After nine months, the task force came back to Council as divided as ever, presenting city leaders with two fundamentally different proposals. Council then passed both documents on to Director of Building Safety Terry Summey, instructing him to come up with a recommendation to bring back for a vote.

That was four months ago. Since then, Summey and his staff have been seeking a way through the chaos, talking with city staff and consulting with various Council members.

At the July 15 Council work session, Summey presented his findings. But it soon became apparent that he had more questions than answers.

Armed with an overhead projector and a four-page document filled with charts, Summey dissected no less than eight different proposals (two from the task force, plus six others made by combining and tinkering with different parts of each).

“On this piece of paper somewhere is the future housing code,” Summey declared. But it’s up to Council members, he continued, to debate and decide each of the many issues covered by the code, such as the frequency of inspections, fines for noncompliance, and what percentage of a multiple-unit development constitutes a meaningful sample for inspection purposes.

Currently, all owner-occupied homes must be inspected each time they’re sold; rental units must be inspected every five years.

Summey’s report (based on his seven years of working under the present code) has mostly positive things to say about the 1994 code. Today, he notes, 90 percent of the city’s rental units and 25 percent of the owner-occupied homes are known to be in compliance with the city code. The report concedes, however, that the code should be amended to address the legitimate concerns of those landlords and homeowners who are following the rules, and to make the whole inspection process less cumbersome.

And judging by the banter in the Council chamber, it appears that some city leaders are eager to roll up their sleeves and start amending.

Among the proposals on the table, for example, is hiring more city staff to handle the mandatory inspections. That, said Council member Joe Dunn, increases the city’s costs. And if more revenue is required to run the system, he continued, inspectors might be inclined to find more violations in order to pay the bills.

“If they have to produce more fines, there’s a potential for abuse,” Dunn observed. He also argued that, since no home can ever be completely safe, it does not behoove the city to make such a guarantee based on its inspections.

Council member Holly Jones, however, countered by pointing out that prevention may be cheaper than the fighting fires that might result from a less rigorous inspection schedule.

Both Mayor Charles Worley and Council member Carl Mumpower, meanwhile, appeared disappointed that the report did not contain a final recommendation from Summey and his staff. Although he conceded that such a recommendation would still be open to tinkering by Council, Mumpower said after the meeting that city staffers are better informed about specific issues and therefore better able to come up with a concise plan than he is. By asking Council to craft the code, he continued, Summey was “trying to dodge a bullet.”

For his part, Summey told Council he is “not inclined to make a political decision” on the matter.

Dunn, however, seemed unconcerned, saying he would not base his decision on a staff opinion. And in a separate interview, Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy downplayed the need for such a recommendation, since Council would probably dissect it anyway.

That surgery will begin when Council hears public comment on the issue at its Aug. 12 formal session.

Eye of the beholder?

What began as a proposal by the city’s Public Art Board to buy a sculpture quickly morphed into a surreal take on Art Appreciation 101.

“What is it?” wondered Dunn. And when the room broke out in chuckles, he smiled but pressed on, repeating, “What is it?”

Public Art Board Chair Barbara Cary gave the only answer a good art instructor could, asking, “What does it look like to you?”

A banana, Dunn answered matter-of-factly.

Undaunted, Cary kept the tone positive and encouraging, saying, “I can see how you might see that; there’s some yellow there.”

But she had her own theory (though she admitted that she couldn’t confirm it, since the artist died in 1997). “I see it as a male and female,” said Cary.

Then Worley chimed in. “I was going to say it was a couple walking down the street,” said the mayor.

The subject of all this speculation was “Conversation Piece #4C” — a large, abstract, brightly colored sculpture by Ida Rittenberg Kohlmeyer. The glistening pair of festively colored spires is the last available large sculpture by Kohlmeyer, whose work graces the collections of major museums across the country, according to board member Betty Clark. It’s also the first major acquisition recommended by the Public Art Board for placement somewhere in the city. And even before its arrival in Asheville, the sculpture has already begun living up to its title.

Setting up her presentation, Cary cited a U.S.A Today article heralding the rise of the “creative class” — professionals who can live anywhere and do the work they do — and the economic benefits they bring.

“We hope that this will attract the kind of people who can make a positive impact on this city,” noted Cary.

Art, of course, doesn’t come cheap: The sculpture carries a $55,000 price tag. Most of the money would come from grants and fund-raisers, but about $18,000 would be city funds — which, Art Board Vice Chair Pam Myers was quick to remind Council, had already been allocated for public-art purchases.

And though the tone of the discussion remained light and humorous, Council members didn’t hesitate to weigh in, confirming the adage that everyone’s a critic.

“I have concerns about our investment in this piece of art,” said Mumpower. “This is a bit of a reach,” he continued, adding that he would not support the purchase.

Jones challenged Mumpower to defend his position, asking him what he didn’t like about the sculpture.

“It’s not my job to like it or not like it. It’s my place to decide how we invest in art,” Mumpower replied. “It is unique beyond the scope of appreciation by most people in this community.”

Mumpower admitted, however, that he may find himself in the minority when the time comes to vote on the matter (at the July 22 formal session). And judging by his colleagues’ comments, Mumpower may be right: Worley, Bellamy and Council member Jim Ellis all voiced support for the purchase, and Jones also seemed favorably inclined toward it.

But the art class wasn’t over. And the ensuing discussion dug deeper, delving into the “energy” in art, the concept of “nonrepresentational” work, and city residents’ diverse tastes.

David Mitchell, the city’s superintendent of cultural arts, also gave his take on the piece: “What it represents to me is change. Everything isn’t as straight and narrow and as perfect as you would like it to be.”

And in the gallery where the Public Art Board sat, heads nodded in solemn agreement.

“He gets an A+,” Bellamy remarked.

Coming to a community center near you

City Council and staff will hold a community meeting Tuesday, July 29 at the Shiloh Community Center (121 Shiloh Road). Beginning at 6:30 p.m., Council members and staff will be available to answer questions; the meeting starts at 7 p.m.

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