Any one of these issues could be expected to grab front-page headlines and spawn debate all over town. But in one fell swoop — albeit a six-hour one — the Asheville City Council dealt with three such high-profile subjects at its Aug. 22 formal session.
The main event
After months of research, community commotion and a slew of media attention, David Owens of the School of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill formally presented to Council the results of his detailed review of three controversial recent development projects. In his June 23 report, undertaken at the city’s request, Owens considered whether the city had failed to enforce its Unified Development Ordinance in connection with the Staples, Prudential Lifestyle Realty and Greenlife Grocery cases. He now stood before Council to answer questions and make whatever recommendations he felt he could.
During Owens’ presentation, Council members — who would eventually have to decide how to deal with those cases — weighed in from time to time. Mayor Terry Bellamy, meanwhile, pushed for hiring more staff for the city’s Planning & Development Department.
And though Owens said he’d found inconsistencies and vagueness in the UDO, he was generally complimentary of Asheville’s ordinance, which he said compares favorably with what other cities do.
“Few spend the kind of time and attention to try to get it right,” said Owens. “I think you are ahead of the curve. It is a better ordinance and better implemented than most.”
But Owens, a specialist in government and law, also found troubling ambiguities in the city’s regulations concerning building design and sign size and placement.
“There is some uncertainty and lack of clarity” as to what is allowed, he noted. Owens also advised the city to “be clear about what is mandatory and what is merely suggested.”
Over the past year, critics have pointed fingers at both planning staff and business owners, but Owens was quick to absolve everyone involved, blaming the whole mess on imprecise language and unclear procedures. Anyone who came to the meeting expecting to see heads roll would have been disappointed.
“I did not see any intentional wrongdoing on any side of this, including staff,” said Owens. But he added that during the planning process, staff had granted variances that only Council is legally empowered to make. The UDO, he noted, does not contain the specific, defined parameters that would enable staff to exempt a project from certain provisions of the law in exchange for other concessions. “You cannot delegate that kind of decision,” said Owens.
But he had little advice for Council on how to handle the specific cases in question. Citing case law, Owens noted that builders have sometimes been forced to alter or even move noncomplying structures — even if the local government had erroneously approved them. In the case of so massive a structure as Staples, however, this might not be feasible.
“Once it is built, your ability to take it back is limited,” said Owens. But he added that Council still has an obligation to deal with those mistakes.
The planning staff is already at work on proposed UDO revisions it will present to Council in December. But that left the question of how to deal with the troublesome three.
“What do we do about it now?” asked Council member Brownie Newman. “Do we need to get a variance, or do we just say mistakes were made?”
Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods board member Joe Minicozzi suggested that Council impose a moratorium on new signs until the offending signs are removed or the UDO is officially changed, and that Greenlife extend the existing screening to shield its delivery trucks from neighboring houses.
But Greenlife Grocery co-owner John Swan asked Council to take his store’s value to the community into consideration as well.
“When you look at the influence we’ve had on the city, I’d ask you to balance it out,” he said, adding that the store has spent $107,000 so far to try to resolve the ongoing problems with its Maxwell Street neighbors (see “The (Non)enforcers,” July 12 Xpress, and “Now What?” Aug. 16 Xpress).
“We’ve shown we are willing to go way beyond what anybody else in the community is asked to do,” asserted Swan.
And Council member Carl Mumpower said he was hesitant to penalize a local business for mistakes made by city staff. “We’re talking about backtracking in time,” he observed.
But with most of the major players in the room, and Owens available for questions, Bellamy wanted to take Council’s temperature on these touchy situations. And for one long moment, it seemed as though the three flash points might be dispensed with then and there.
“It’s time to take the next step,” Bellamy declared. “I think we have a good idea what the community wants.”
Council members quickly found consensus on what is probably the easiest of the three cases, instructing staff to have Prudential either remove its second sign or open a currently locked entrance on that side of the building.
Meanwhile, the Greenlife and Staples cases proved more difficult to hash out. Under questioning, Owens was clear that Staples’ sign and Greenlife’s loading dock are in violation. But Council members were not prepared to lower the hatchet.
Bellamy maintained that neighborhood activists had pushed the issue enough and that the ball was now in Council’s court. “We’re taking ownership of this process,” she proclaimed. “We are elected officials who represent the community.”
In the end, Council members agreed to sit down with Greenlife’s owners and try to reach agreement on how to address the problems on Maxwell Street. They will also ask Staples to discuss how to mitigate the issue of the office-supply store’s oversized sign. If the company fails to respond, said the mayor, the city could still send a notice of violation.
But a core issue, Bellamy continued, is a shortage of staff in the city Planning & Development Department. “We need more planning staff,” she said. “We need to pony up and put more people in that department.”
Money, she noted, had been proposed for that purpose early in this year’s budget process, but it did not make the cut. City Manager Gary Jackson will draw up a report on how much additional planning staff is needed and what it would cost.
Crossing the line
The continuing hot potato of illegal immigration prompted a procedural battle that yielded surprising results.
Playing to a house packed with citizens wearing stickers bearing the notorious “Had Enough?” logo broadcast by two controversial local billboards, Mumpower proposed a resolution urging the federal government to crack down on illegal immigrants. But a last-minute wording change forced Mumpower to ultimately vote against the resolution himself.
The resolution’s language was carefully crafted to recognize the contributions of legal immigrants while chiding the federal government for failing to secure U.S. borders and track down illegals. Not surprisingly, the discussion prompted passionate responses from all sides of the issue.
“Folks are coming to this country because they are living in situations that are dire,” declared Bill Cavallaro during the public-comment period. Another speaker reminded Council members that the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants could lose their parents to deportation.
Others, however, favored playing hardball. “Let’s make Asheville an unpleasant and unfriendly environment for those who break our laws,” urged Kathy Lack, president of The Action Club, the local Republican organization responsible for the “Had Enough?” campaign. “If enough cities turn them away, they will be forced to return home and apply for legal citizenship.”
But just when it seemed Council was about to vote, Robin Cape raised an objection. Although the proposed resolution drew on one approved by the National League of Cities in July, Cape said Mumpower’s version did not address one of its key aspects. Besides talking about enforcement, she said, the league’s statement also focuses on programs to help illegal immigrants already in the U.S. obtain citizenship.
Mumpower agreed with Cape’s assessment but said he would not support adding such language.
Newman made the required motion, however, Cape seconded it, and the amendment passed quickly on a 6-1 vote.
But such a hot-button topic would not be so easily put to rest. Freeborn scolded Mumpower, City Council’s lone Republican, and his entire party for using the immigration issue to create partisan division. “For six years, the Republicans have been in control of this issue, and they have done nothing,” Freeborn seethed. “They are rolling this out to pit citizen against citizen in an election year.”
Mumpower countered that he isn’t running for office. “I simply think the situation has gotten out of control,” he said.
The fix is on?
Noting that the city could identify the Asheville Civic Center’s most immediate needs without outside help, Council members vetoed paying a consultant $20,000 to analyze the options for repairing or replacing the 32-year-old facility and the associated costs.
The proposal called for hiring Conventional Wisdom, headed by Ian Vingoe, who in 2001 produced the Heery Report, which covered similar ground. But the prospect of yet another Civic Center report and the obvious need for some immediate repairs led City Council to take a different tack.
“We know we need a roof, and we’ve made that step already or are in the process of making [it],” noted Council member Jan Davis, who chairs the Civic Center Task Force. “There’s been a lot of public feedback [on the proposed report]. It’s $20,000, but I think it might be the straw” that breaks the camel’s back.
Others on Council readily agreed. “I think we know what needs to be done,” said Newman, noting the possibility of private support for some of the more ambitious plans that have been discussed, such as a separate performing-arts center.
The current facility, agreed Freeborn, “is viable. It isn’t broken; it just needs some housecleaning.”
The real problem, said Mumpower, is money. And the options for addressing that are limited, due to inaction by state legislators on the city’s requests for a funding mechanism such as a tax on hotel rooms and restaurant meals.
Meanwhile, things appear to be looking up for the Civic Center. Since the departure of sports teams from the facility, noted Civic Center Commission member Bill Lack, other bookings have picked up dramatically. Without those extensive, fixed schedules competing for space, the facility is able to schedule more acts that draw larger crowds.
City staff will consult with Civic Center officials and report back to Council with a plan for making the most urgently needed repairs.
Leaks and cracks aside, Davis emphasized the Civic Center’s need for a new image. “The biggest problem it has is its stigma,” he asserted. “We have to change the image … of that place.”