Asheville City Council

At an astonishingly short July 25 meeting, Asheville City Council took less than hour to delay consideration of a proposed Wal-Mart superstore and hold two public hearings on conditional-use permits.

At the recommendation of Senior Planner Gerald Green, Council members indefinitely postponed their public hearing on the proposed Wal-Mart supercenter, to be built on the old Sayles-Biltmore Bleacheries property along the Swannanoa River in East Asheville.

The $50 million project, which would encompass a projected 355,000 square feet of floor space, has garnered a tremendous amount of media and citizen attention. Residents have bombarded Council members with e-mails, phone calls and faxes — most in opposition to the project — and the city had expected the public hearing (originally scheduled for Aug. 8) to draw such a massive crowd that they’d planned to hold it in the Civic Center.

Green urged Council to take a “wait-and-see” approach, in light of a July 24 Board of Adjustment hearing at which the project’s developer, JDN Development, asked for and received a continuance on a variance for development along the river; approval of the variance was necessary in order for the project to proceed. The city, Green revealed, would have rejected the variance request and recommended that the developer come back with some new design plans.

JDN is not expected to appear before the Board of Adjustment again until its next scheduled meeting, on Sept. 25. In the meantime, Green told Council members that any action they might take at a public hearing “may be perceived as putting pressure on the Board of Adjustment.” He advised against doing that, and Council members seemed to agree. Council member Charles Worley pointed out that City Council’s public hearing probably will not happen until late October.

While agreeing on the wisdom of holding off until the Board makes its decision, Council member Ed Hay also noted the community’s ongoing sense of urgency about the matter, and cautioned against waiting too long to hold the public hearing. “I would like to get this in front us as soon as we can,” Hay said. “There’s too much energy behind this. There’s too much community interest.”

Rezoning approved

City Council unanimously voted to rezone two parcels of land at their July 25 meeting, issuing conditional-use permits for a glass-blowing studio and a psychiatrist’s office.

The studio — which will also include a small gallery, a catering kitchen and three small apartments — seemed to fit nicely with Council’s recently adopted smart-growth definition. Senior Planner Gerald Green pointed out that the building (to be constructed on 1.65 acres off Roberts Street, now zoned medium-density family) will provide a mixed-use transition into a community-zoned business district.

“This is a good use of the conditional-use zoning tool,” Green said.

Only Council member Brian Peterson had concerns: He wondered what would keep the owner from turning the whole building into a commercial space sometime in the future. City Attorney Bob Oast replied that the applicant would again have to come before Council to make any changes in the conditional use.

“I’m hoping to teach my kids how to work and blow glass in this facility,” stated applicant Sam Stark, who said he had no other intentions for the building.

The second conditional-use permit — to convert a small parcel currently zoned multi-family high density into a psychiatrist’s office — ruffled Council member Ed Hay a bit.

The 1.64 acre tract on Carson Creek Drive is virtually surrounded by multifamily housing. Child psychiatrist Dr. Gerald Travis plans to build his practice in the neighborhood setting to put his clients more at ease, he told Council. Much of his design aims to preserve the large oak trees on the property; the neighborhood has supported the development, according to reports from the city Planning Department.

Planning Director Scott Shuford revealed that, because the lot is so small, developers have been reluctant to invest in multifamily housing there. He implied that, without the zoning change (to office district), the parcel might never be developed. Hay acknowledged the difficulty of establishing a multifamily development on the property, but said the situation still frustrated him. He fished around for support from other Council members.

“I’m going to vote for this, but it seems like a loss for housing here,” Hay said. “This project looks like a great development and fits in nicely. But we have zoned it multifamily, which is something we are struggling to find more opportunities for in town.”

Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger and several other Council members acknowledged Hay’s concerns about the need for multifamily housing, but, in the end, concluded that rezoning the property was the sensible thing to do in this case.

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