Asheville City Council

The Asheville City Council narrowly shot down a proposed revision to the Unified Development Ordinance that would have allowed cell towers in high-density residential areas. The new language, said Urban Planner Shannon Tuch, included provisions that the towers be disguised and not be too close to residential buildings. But affordable-housing advocates on Council maintained that land zoned RM-16 is too precious to waste on cell towers.

The UDO already allows towers in 10 zoning classifications, mostly business and industrial areas, but the city must approve each new tower individually. Companies must prove that a proposed tower would not be redundant. The amendment would also have required companies to show that they’d exhausted all other options before siting a new tower in a residential area.

Council member Bryan Freeborn questioned the need for more towers, saying, “I’ve only been unable to receive cell service on one block in Asheville.”

Council member Brownie Newman supported the amendment but said he’d like companies to do a better job of defining the areas not adequately served by existing towers. “We want there to be good quality [reception],” said Newman, “but we want as few of these things in our community as possible.”

Others on Council worried about the loss of land suitable for moderately priced residential development. “I am concerned that we are utilizing places where we can do high-density housing,” said Vice Mayor Holly Jones. Besides combating sprawl, higher-density development is better suited to affordable housing, because the per-unit land cost is lower.

Mayor Terry Bellamy said the proliferation of cell towers in RM-16 districts alters the classification’s traditional role as a buffer between business/industrial and residential areas. “I am not convinced this is the best use for RM-16,” she said.

As cell towers have proliferated nationwide, so have attempts to conceal the metal structures. Strategies have included joining them to existing structures such as water towers and church steeples, but an emerging trend involves disguising cell towers as trees.

“Up close it doesn’t look quite like a tree,” Tuch said. “But from a distance it does.”

But a majority on Council remained unconvinced, and the measure failed on a 3-4 vote with Freeborn, Jones, Bellamy and Robin Cape opposed.

The decision does not affect a West Asheville church’s attempt to site a cell tower on its property (see “Rising from the Grave,” Aug. 30 Xpress), Tuch said later.

What about us?

As promised at their Sept. 19 work session, Council members reduced water fees for residents with unusually large meters. The adjustment came mere months after the city had introduced a new meter-based charge to fund water-system repairs. For most residential customers, the fee is a modest $3.50 per month. But residents with larger-than-normal meters suddenly found themselves facing monthly increases ranging from $48 to $140.

Most homes in Asheville have a five-eighths-inch water meter, but about 150 single-family residences have 1- to 2-inch meters, according to the city’s Water Resources Department. Irate customers were quick to bring this fact to the city’s attention after receiving their water bills for July. The city will retroactively charge all single-family residential customers the standard $3.50 fee.

City Manager Gary Jackson told Council that staff is working on ways to make up the $80,000 hit the city will take in the deal. Meanwhile, disgruntled owners of condos, apartments and mobile-home parks served by larger meters are piping up. Although such developments are residential, Jackson noted that they would not be covered by the fee reduction. “A condominium is not a residence — it is a grouping under one structure,” he said, adding that he had not yet worked out a solution.

Water Resources Director David Hanks explained that condo owners often divvy up water bills, typically saving money along the way.

Bellamy insisted that Council’s intention in its previous discussions had been to provide relief for all residential water customers, whether they live in single-family homes or condos. The mayor directed Jackson and Hanks to move in that direction.

Chris Johnson, who owns a Deaverview Road mobile-home park, told Council members that his water bill had increased by 140 percent, and that he was considering replacing his meter at considerable expense. Jackson assured Johnson that he would be bringing a proposal to Council in October to ensure that multiple-unit residences are treated fairly.

In the meantime, Council members unanimously approved the fee reductions.

Pooling resources

On a 5-1 vote, Council members agreed to open negotiations with Mountain Housing Opportunities on a collaborative affordable-housing project planned for two city-owned parcels in East Riverside. The city would give the developer the land in exchange for expanded input into the building plan and oversight of the ultimate cost to buyers.

Under questioning by Council member Carl Mumpower, the city manager said the city had extended its offer to other developers besides MHO, a nonprofit specializing in affordable housing, but that few others had come forward. Jackson chalked up the meager response to cold feet by developers confronted with a new way of doing business — calling it a “reluctance to be the first bird off the wire.”

Once developers see that such a collaboration can work, more may be interested, he said.

Bellamy, who is marketing-and-development manager at the nonprofit, recused herself from the vote; the move was approved 5-1 with Mumpower opposed.

New advisory group

A new city-appointed group, the Sustainable Energy and Environment Advisory Committee, will help chart a sustainable future for Asheville. A handful of cities nationwide have appointed similar groups, noted a report by Cape, who co-sponsored the proposal with Newman (see commentary, “A Sustainable Agenda,” Sept. 20 Xpress).

“I think Asheville has been going in this direction for a long time,” she said.

Mumpower and Council member Jan Davis objected, saying it would further clog an already cumbersome city bureaucracy. “I sense the development of another layer we don’t need,” said Davis.

But Bellamy emphasized that the group would merely make recommendations to Council, much as several other advisory committees already do. The measure passed 5-2.

SOS on mental health

With the New Vistas-Mountain Laurel mental-health facility due to close Oct. 31, City Council approved a resolution asking state and federal representatives for financial and other help to address the problems caused by the loss of the nonprofit center, which has more than 10,000 current patients and employs about 700 people.

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