Asheville City Council

A rare double-header played out in City Hall on Sept. 28, as the Asheville City Council convened 90 minutes before the scheduled start of its 5 p.m. formal session to tackle items left unaddressed at the previous week’s work session. But unlike when the Tourists play two at McCormick Field, scant few showed up to catch the action. And in any case, Council members plowed through the remaining agenda items in short order.

Interim Water Resources Department Director David Hanks kicked off the work session by presenting the latest version of a controversial watershed-management plan, seeking permission to issue a request for proposals from companies interested in doing the work. When Hanks introduced a conceptual plan for managing the city’s 22,000 acre North Fork watershed during a three-hour public hearing back in July, a host of local environmental groups attacked it for being too vague, saying it could open the door to logging. But a sharply divided Council approved the plan on a 4-3 vote (with Council members Terry Bellamy, Holly Jones and Brownie Newman opposed), and now Hanks was back with what he called “the second phase.”

Hanks’ report to Council outlined both what the city is looking for in a watershed-management firm and what the chosen company would be expected to do. The 20 points spelled out in the draft RFP range from conducting an inventory of trees and plants on the watershed to identifying potential sites for re-establishing the American chestnut tree.

Newman peppered Hanks with questions about the document, beginning with how much the city would have to pay for all this. “A lot depends upon the level and scope of the project,” said Hanks. But that answer didn’t seem to sit well with Newman.

“We need to prioritize some of these things,” he said, adding, “What we really need is a plan to maintain an adequate road network and address invasive species.” Newman also questioned why the city needs to get involved in re-establishing the American chestnut.

And as he continued probing, it became clear that Newman’s concerns about the multipoint RFP had less to do with the planting of new trees than with the harvesting of old ones. “I don’t see forestry as a tool to accomplish these management goals,” he said, fearing that the city’s extensive wish list could substantially increase the cost of the operation, bolstering the argument for logging on the watershed.

At Newman’s request, the issue was moved from the consent agenda to “new business,” ensuring that there would be discussion and a separate vote during the subsequent formal session. During that discussion, Newman asserted, “We’re being unnecessarily vague about the future of logging in our plan.” Holly Jones agreed, noting that once the RFP is issued, “The horses will be out of the gate.”

But when it came time to vote, Council was once again split. This time, however, it was Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower who joined Newman and Jones in opposing the measure, while Bellamy aligned with Mayor Charles Worley and Council members Jan Davis and Joe Dunn in voting to approve the RFP.

“It’s a pretty elaborate RFP,” Mumpower told Xpress after the meeting. “I agreed with Brownie; his points are compelling.”

Buddy, can you spare a solution?

Also during the abbreviated work session, Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford presented a report on what it would take to implement the host of recommendations made recently by the Downtown Social Issues Task Force. The group spent a year researching ways to address such thorny problems as public intoxication, panhandling and graffiti in the city center.

But when they reported their findings and suggestions to Council in August, their ideas were met with a healthy dose of skepticism, questions and criticism. The recommendations include creating alcohol-free zones in certain parks, banning people with multiple arrests for public intoxication from certain areas, fining business owners who don’t remove graffiti from their buildings within 48 hours or allow it to be done by volunteers, and installing donation boxes (which would also be maintained by volunteers) to give people another option besides handing money directly to a panhandler.

Shuford’s message to Council was simple: Enacting these ideas won’t be easy. His report ranked the various recommendations on a scale of one to three, with one denoting those that the city could most readily implement and three indicating items that would require legislative action in Raleigh, raise the specter of legal challenges, or entail other complicating factors described by Shuford as “outside our immediate control.” Most of the task force’s recommendations scored a two or three on the Shuford scale.

“Some of these are going to require quite a bit of research” as to whether they would pass muster in a court of law, cautioned City Attorney Bob Oast. And City Manager Jim Westbrook chimed in, “Our cup is full; we need some help prioritizing.”

Accordingly, Council asked Shuford to continue researching the matter and report back on what implementation might cost.

Billboard alley

Not a single person showed up for a public hearing on a perennial source of friction: the city’s ongoing efforts to regulate its 190 billboards (which were listed in the agenda as “off-premise signs”). The city attorney introduced a proposed ordinance he’d drafted (with assistance from Scott Shuford) to replace a 1997 law struck down by the state Supreme Court in 2002.

The issue, Oast explained, has a lengthy history in Asheville, beginning with the first billboard ordinance (passed in 1977). Since then, he said, the city has adopted several ordinances governing the size and placement of outdoor advertising. The most recent version, passed in 1997, prohibited the placement of new billboards within the city’s zoning jurisdiction and declared existing billboards nonconforming unless they were smaller than 6 feet by 6 feet.

A companion ordinance, passed the same year, called for amortizing the nonconforming signs. In other words, the city gave the owners seven years to either bring their signs into compliance or remove them; during that time, the companies could continue collecting revenue from the signs. But the billboard companies challenged the law, and in a precedent-setting 2002 decision, the state Supreme Court struck it down.

Meanwhile, Oast reported in a memo accompanying the draft ordinance, the city was still trying to “undertake enforcement proceedings with respect to some billboards that were made nonconforming by a 1990 ordinance and should have been brought into compliance — and in some cases removed — in 1995. … We have been to court at least twice on issues related to this enforcement effort, and the matter is still unresolved.”

What’s more, the General Assembly recently adopted a law (which took effect in August) requiring cities that want to get rid of billboards to compensate the companies for any signs removed, according to a specified formula based on annual revenues. Clearly, the sign companies were winning the battle. “The all-or-nothing approach of traditional billboard regulation … has, in some cases, hampered the ability of cities and sign owners to come to some mutual accommodation with respect to signs, frequently resulting in litigation,” Oast’s memo observes.

What Oast was proposing was, essentially, a shift from litigation to negotiation. Other cities, he noted, are successfully using a “cap-and-replace” approach that “freezes the number of billboards … but allows them to be removed or replaced [within] certain limitations.” The city, added Oast, should encourage the companies to relocate their signs to designated corridors such as Brevard Road, Hendersonville Road, the Leicester Highway, Merrimon Avenue, Patton Avenue (in West Asheville), Sweeten Creek Road and Tunnel Road. Billboards, stressed Oast, would not be permitted in any area that’s subject to the Blue Ridge Parkway Overlay District, or in any area zoned residential. “In other words, you won’t be seeing billboards near Beaver Lake,” he said.

“The sign companies have won,” Terry Bellamy said sadly. “This is where their lobbying has paid off for the industry — they do it hard and they do it often.”

But Vice Mayor Mumpower said there are deeper issues at stake, pointing out that some people consider efforts to curtail billboards an “assault on property rights and personal freedoms.”

Both Mayor Worley and Brownie Newman, however, commented that the property taxes on such signs are often dramatically out of proportion to what companies say they’re worth. “It seems like they want it both ways,” noted Newman, asking city staff to discuss the matter with the county tax assessor.

According to Beth Warren of the Buncombe County Tax Department, billboards are considered personal property, not real property (such as land and buildings). The assessed value of the signs, she said, is based on what the owner reports having paid for them — not on how much revenue they generate or the value of the land they sit on (which is often owned by someone else). The county, said Warren, uses the state Department of Revenue’s depreciation schedule.

In a later interview, Worley said: “Sometimes, these companies wanted five times the annual income of the sign as compensation — an astronomically high amount. And typically, their property-tax assessment is very low. So you could have a sign valued at $500,000 for the city to take it, and an assessed tax value of only $15,000. The debate [about the legislation] in Raleigh really raised awareness of this, and counties are now looking at how they assess these signs.”

In the end, however, Oast reminded Council that the proposed cap-and-replace ordinance would enable the city “to find a middle ground with the companies … and [provide] another tool in … negotiating with the companies.”

Council unanimously approved the ordinance.

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