Asheville City Council

City Manager Jim Westbrook was the first to use the word “tweak” during City Council’s first annual review of the Unified Development Ordinance. Council members quickly followed suit at their Aug. 4 work session, weaving the term throughout their discussion — even, at one point, calling the behemoth master plan “tweakable.”

The implied message was that Council would not “fix” the UDO (the ordinance was passed in May 1997, after years of debate, meetings and public hearings); instead, they would “tweak” it — an approach advised by efficiency experts, who recommend that seemingly insurmountable tasks are best split into smaller, more manageable efforts.

“It’s a balancing act,” said Council member Chuck Cloninger, summarizing the problem inherent in reviewing something as unwieldy as the UDO. “On the one hand, we want to get all the good ideas … that we need to take another look at. On the other hand, we don’t want to open the thing back up to square one, where we’re analyzing every big issue that we went through with the UDO process.”

The first step entails deciding exactly what needs reviewing. “What we were hoping to come up with was a list [of items] that Council [could consider] … over a period of the next 12 months,” said Westbrook. The list, he emphasized, must be “finite,” with no last-minute additions creeping in. Mayor Leni Sitnick concurred, adding that it was her impression that city staff would continue to respond to residents’ specific UDO-related problems as they arise in the future, just as staff have been doing since the plan took effect.

Finite or not, the preliminary list is “substantive,” remarked Sitnick, leafing through a seven-page handout distributed by Asheville City Planner Gerald Green. The list that included city staff’s recommendations, as well as those suggested two weeks before by representatives from the Council of Independent Business Owners, the Asheville Board of Realtors and the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods.

The goal of this work session, it was quickly agreed, would be to trim the list, keeping only those items deemed by all members to be in need of review — before hearing the public’s recommendations in September. (Prior to that session, a list of “consensus” items will be published in City Works, an informational advertisement carried in both this newspaper and the Asheville Citizen-Times.) After receiving public input, city staff will compile a final list for Council to vote on.

The fact that it will take more than a month just to create a list of items to be reviewed (not passed, necessarily, but reviewed) underscores the cumbersome nature of the UDO. And as Council, under Green’s guidance, moved through the recommendations already at hand, it quickly became apparent that not all the Ghosts of UDO Rancors Past are at rest.

The tweaked and the untweaked

Council quickly approved all of city staff’s recommendations for review — with few comments and no changes. Among those items are: Revise the ordinance to include a medium-sized-office district classification (currently, there is no intermediate category between offices with less than 4,000 square feet of first-floor space and those with more than 30,000 square feet); create a mixed-use, planned-unit-development (PUD) district, which would allow a mix of residential, commercial and office buildings; create an open-space or park classification; make minor revisions to the landscape ordinance; and broaden the definition of permitted uses in a community-business district, to allow, among other things, mini-storage facilities and automobile dealerships.

A few things won’t be considered: Staff recommended — and Council concurred — that there be no review of zoning on Merrimon Avenue and in the Emma Road/Louisiana Road area.

There was little debate or discussion of these items at the meeting, because Council had already gone over many of them at its July 21 session.

However, Cloninger and fellow Council member O.T. Tomes protested a request that “churches be limited to one sanctuary building and one classroom building per parcel of property in residential districts,” deeming it too inflexible. “The new thrust of today is holistic ministry,” argued Tomes, himself a clergyman, describing the modern church as a conglomerate of services (including day care and counseling), all operating under the auspices of the ministry.

“It’s a fine line,” responded Green, saying that, while he understands the need for churches to grow, his priority is to ensure that the growth does not “adversely impact” nearby neighborhoods.

When the discussion moved to those items more recently recommended, debate become more heated, as Sitnick and Council member Barbara Field sparred over a request that architectural-design guidelines be created for areas outside local historic districts. Sitnick said she would like to investigate that idea, but Field quickly objected. “If we were to require mandatory design review of anything that is not a historic district, then we would basically have to abolish the Historic Resources Commission,” Field said. Only one such “appearance commission” is allowed in the city by state statute, she argued.

“But this [item] doesn’t say anything about ‘require,'” replied Sitnick. “This could be the same as we have downtown: Mandatory review and voluntary compliance. Design seems to be the biggest problem …” she was saying when Field cut in.

“An an architect,” Field said, “I will not limit how people design. People’s taste is people’s taste. It may not be yours, and it may not be Asheville’s, but we cannot legislate people’s taste.”

Sitnick remarked quietly that, as the topic did not have consensus, they would move on, but she later circled back to the issue of design in the UDO. “To me, the biggest impediment in this community … for affordable housing or for any kind of subsidized housing has to [do] with design,” she said, adding that much of the UDO already includes such design-related regulations as setbacks, buffering and landscaping. “I don’t think there’s any harm in discussing it,” she said, and then added pointedly, “But if the Council doesn’t want to discuss it, I would certainly hope that members of the community bring it up during the public meeting.”

Council regained its harmonious tenor when its members went on to consider other items for review, including: the re-evaluation of zoning in the River District; the creation of perimeter buffers around neighborhoods; a look at advertising on buses and taxis, in light of the strict sign ordinance recently passed (one could almost see the light go on in the eyes of Council member Earl Cobb, as he considered taking up arms against pesky signs); and consideration of a requirement to build sidewalks (or dedicate easements) in new developments (a measure backed by Cloninger).

All in all, it was a full roster of items to be tweaked — even before the public gets a word in.

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