Asheville City Council

In the wake of massive flooding produced by the remnants of Hurricane Frances, City Manager Jim Westbrook reported at Asheville City Council’s Sept. 14 formal meeting that the city was suspending permit fees for all repairs and reconstruction of flood-damaged buildings. Westbrook also announced that city staffers were working on setting up an office in Biltmore Village to aid recovery efforts.

With city officials still struggling to assess Frances’ widespread damage, weather forecasts showed Asheville in the path of yet another hurricane. Dubbed Ivan the Terrible, the category IV storm was barreling its way up the Gulf of Mexico with its lone eye focused on the mountains of Western North Carolina. “FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] has told us to prepare for more flooding,” Westbrook said grimly.

As the city braced for the second storm, Council nonetheless waded into the business of the city — floodwaters be damned. The first public hearing of the evening dealt with a request from Jeff Baker, the city’s housing code supervisor, for an ordinance to close Countryside Apartments on Hendersonville Road. Baker explained that the owners (Elizabeth W. Tate and Charles D. Tate, according to a draft of the order) had failed to bring the nine-unit complex up to code — even though his staff had repeatedly tried to work with them to rectify the situation. Baker detailed a laundry list of safety violations — from rotted floors to faulty wiring — that his staff had first documented six years ago.

“We’ve been dealing with this since 1998,” Baker said. “I’ve been told that ‘there’s not enough time’ and that she’s making the repairs. But now she’s asking for more time — I’ve heard it all before.” And to underscore his point, Baker displayed pictures of apartments with numerous code violations. The images and information from Baker didn’t sit well with Council members: Joe Dunn scowled throughout the hearing and frequently shook his head in apparent disbelief. And Vice-Mayor Carl Mumpower queried Baker as to whether the owner of the complex fully understood the “seriousness of the issues” and that the city could move to forcibly close the dwelling and evict the tenants. Baker responded: “She is getting aged, and she’s stubborn in her ways and feels that the repairs have been done.”

The owners weren’t present at the hearing but were represented by Asheville attorney William Loose, who requested still more time for his clients to bring the dwelling up to snuff. Loose’s arguments, however, didn’t move Council. “The law is the law,” noted Dunn, adding, “She’s putting her tenants at risk, and we need to close the place now!” Dunn then made a motion to issue the ordinance that would close the apartments. Council member Holly Jones seconded it.

Mayor Charles Worley pointed out to his colleagues before the final vote that the goal of the ordinance was to get the apartment complex in compliance and back in the city’s housing stock. The measure passed unanimously.

Tax equity

The Council also tackled a public hearing to consider the rezoning of a 59-acre tract of land off Racquet Club Road in south Asheville from RS-2 (residential, single-family, two units per acre) to RS-4 (residential, single-family, four units per acre). Complicating matters further, the owner of the land, Biltmore Farms, also requested that 34 of those acres be zoned Institutional (a zoning designation typically given to schools, churches and other similar uses). Scott Shuford, the city’s director of planning and development, said that the rezoning would “enable the expansion of the [nearby] Deerfield Retirement Community.” Shuford further noted that 23 acres would fall into the RS-4 designation and would eventually be developed as private luxury homes, but he didn’t explain what function the 36-acre Institutional tract would serve.

Only three members of the public spoke during the hearing. Robert Harroff stated that he and his wife owned a home adjacent to the land in question and argued that the rezoning would lower his home’s property value. But fellow neighbors Anthony Longate and Robert Fitch supported the rezoning.

For the Council, however, the rezoning wasn’t as troubling as the lingering question as to what would occur on the land slated for Institutional rezoning. When Vice-Mayor Carl Mumpower asked Shuford if the rezoning and planned development of the land would “strengthen the tax base,” Shuford replied that it “was possible.” But Mumpower pointed out that he “had a hard time” with the request, adding that residents of retirement communities with religious affiliations “live in the lap of luxury and are asking the rest of Asheville to subsidize their city services. We need to draw a line somewhere.”

At this point City Attorney Bob Oast cautioned the Council from straying from the issue at hand. “This is a land-use question, not a tax policy question,” Oast said, explaining that any subsequent proposal for developing the land would trigger another hearing, which would be better suited for discussing taxation.

Council member Jan Davis, however, declared: “We have a responsibility to look at this. There must be a point that we look at it before we rezone. Once we do this [rezoning], the horse is out of the barn.” But again, Oast urged them to avoid the tax issue.

Council member Brownie Newman pointed out that when the matter returns to the Council for the development phase, it more than likely would come as a conditional-use permit hearing. Such hearings include seven standards for consideration of approval. Newman noted that none of those seven standards touch on tax equity issues — thereby making a discussion of the subject difficult.

Upon further discussion, Shuford suggested that city staff could present a report to the Council on how those standards could be changed to include tax issues, thus allowing for a “dialogue.” The suggestion seemed to appease the Council members who raised the tax issue. The vote to rezone passed unanimously.

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