Asheville City Council members are preparing for what could be one of their longest meetings ever. They speculate that the public hearing on the proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter on the old Sayles-Biltmore Bleacheries site could last as long as seven hours, so they are taking measures to ensure the process is completed in one sitting.
At their Aug. 22 meeting, Council members debated for 30 minutes on whether or not to plan an extra night to finish the hearing, which is tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 19, at 5:30 p.m. in the Stephens-Lee Community Center gymnasium (provided the city Board of Adjustment approves a necessary variance for the project at a specially scheduled Sept. 5 meeting). The city Planning Department reports that the project has generated the most public interest in recent memory — in the form of faxes, phone calls and letters — and turnout for public comment at the hearing is expected to be huge.
With the elderly and folks with children at home on his mind, Council member Brian Peterson suggested the goal should be to finish the meeting in one night, but be prepared to go another night if it gets too late. But Council members’ conflicting schedules could postpone that second date until mid-October.
“All the more reason to plow on,” declared Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger, who advocated staying as long as it takes to resolve the issue. “Regardless of how we vote, [the public] want[s] us not to let it drag on.”
Council member Barbara Field was optimistic that seven hours would be sufficient for the hearing. She pointed to a past nondiscrimination-ordinance hearing where 1,800 people showed up.
“I think everybody had a chance to speak,” she said of that hearing, which ran less than seven hours.
Not taking any chances, however, Council recommended several ideas for speeding up the public-comment portion of the hearing to City Manager Jim Westbrook. Traditionally, speakers representing a group are allowed 10 minutes at such hearings, and individuals get three minutes. That will not change, but Council will encourage people representing groups to speak first, with hopes of limiting some of the repetition. Also, two microphones will be available, and City Clerk Maggie Burleson will try to have participants sworn in before the hearing begins.
“Maybe we’ll have a better-organized meeting,” said Council member Ed Hay. “It’s a good opportunity for experimenting.”
A special UDO amendment
At the meeting, Council approved an amendment to the Unified Development Ordinance (recommended at Council’s Aug. 1 work session) that would, in special cases, allow commercial uses in districts zoned as residential.
City Planner Dan Baechtold explained that properties located behind commercial developments are often zoned for residential use but are really too small and/or steep for that purpose. “It may not be appropriate to rezone property from residential to commercial, but it might be appropriate to allow parking, landscaping and storm-water detention in a residential zoning district,” he noted.
Baechtold cautioned that allowing the special commercial uses does not offer an opportunity for commercial expansion, and he laid out the standards for the amendment: Lots will be limited to one acre in size and must be adjacent to the applicant’s lot. Further, the lots will not be allowed to have structures, or derelict vehicles or goods for sale, and the area must not extend more than one lot deep. Each applicant, he continued, would have to go before the Technical Review Committee. Council would have the final say, in a public hearing, to determine if the suggested use is appropriate.
“I thinks it’s a very positive step,” Field said of the amendment at the Aug. 1 work session, noting that such landscaping and parking areas could serve to clean up derelict lots.
But not everyone was enthralled with the special-use amendment.
“I’m concerned that businesses can come in and destroy wetlands and the quality of life in our neighborhoods if we don’t have some of the checks and balances,” commented citizen Lola Lafey. Lafey said she thinks the wording of the amendment is too ambiguous — possibly opening residential areas to unwanted development in the future. She wanted to know who instigated the proposed ordinance.
The issue has come up before the Planning and Zoning Commission many times, Baechtold replied. That commission originally proposed the amendment to the UDO and recommended it unanimously on July 20.
Peterson, who often votes against UDO amendments for uses that might infringe on neighborhoods, stood alone against this one. He suggested that the conditional-use rezoning process might be better suited in this case because the amendment allows applicants to skip the Planning and Zoning Commission phase, which offers the opportunity for a citizen-protest petition provision. In rezoning issues, a protest petition requires the City Council to vote with a supermajority — meaning two votes in opposition would defeat the permit. Overall, Peterson seemed to be most critical of the allowance of parking for commercial uses.
But Cloninger, Hay and Mayor Leni Sitnick disagreed with Peterson and suggested that the amendment offered future protection for neighborhoods. Principally, they said, it limits the plots to landscaping, parking and storm runoff. If the amendment allowed for conditional rezoning, any kind of development could be approved — particularly if future Council members are more sympathetic to development.
“That would open [such areas] up to any kind of commercial development,” reasoned Hay. “This [amendment] is an in-between kind of thing — as far as compromise and common sense goes — so that down the road [the property] can’t become a hamburger stand.”