Asheville City Council

They’ve drafted resolutions, petitioned the state legislature and cut the budget, but the Asheville City Council is not yet ready to jump on the lawsuit wagon.

At Council’s Oct. 1 work session, there was general agreement that despite the state’s seizure of funds designated for local governments the last two fiscal years, which plunged Asheville and other municipalities around the state into budgetary turmoil, no one wants a lawsuit.

“I don’t want to see everybody suing everybody,” declared Council member Holly Jones near the end of the meeting.

Cabarrus County, N.C., filed a lawsuit against the state last month in reaction to the financial fracas. About a dozen other North Carolina counties and cities have joined in so far.

Mayor Charles Worley, praising City Council for its handling of the past year’s financial problems, agreed that now is not the time for a legal battle with the state. “The downside is,” said Worley, “If you win, you lose. If the lawsuit succeeds, where does the money come from?”

But some on Council, including the mayor, didn’t rule out the possibility of a lawsuit in the future. Council member Jim Ellis wondered whether Council might be “singing a different tune” if the state seizes utilities-franchise money — worth about $4 million annually — at the end of the year. Like some of the other withheld moneys, utilities-franchise funds (paid by utilities as compensation for the use of public rights of way) are collected by the state and then distributed to cities and counties twice a year, leaving the money vulnerable to seizure.

It was perhaps that same sense of vulnerability that prompted Ellis to mention another financial concern: the newly approved half-cent sales tax. Effective Dec. 1, the tax is expected to generate as much as $1 million for the city by the end of this fiscal year (June 30, 2003). And with forbidding clouds massing on the fiscal horizon, Ellis suggested that the city hold onto that money until things clear up a little.

Worley agreed, saying, “Anybody who looks down the road can see a huge deficit in the state [budget].”

Getting it right the first time

Zoning-and-development regulations are always a sensitive topic, and tinkering with them can be politically perilous. But city planners involved in redesigning the Broadway corridor appear to be going the extra mile in consulting all interested parties up front in an effort to avoid problems later. Since first presenting the new zoning plans to Council, city staffers have met again with neighborhood residents, business owners and developers to negotiate compromises and changes to the original proposal.

Chief Planner Gerald Green gave Council a rundown of the new ideas developed from those meetings. Heading the list was a ban on bars and nightclubs. Green explained the distinction between such late-night operations and pubs (which have earlier hours and serve food as well as drinks). The change was made at the request of area residents, he said, who feared they might end up living next to clubs that stay open till the wee hours. Parking decks are also prohibited, and the Broadway plan calls for parking lots behind buildings.

Another change is the addition of variances that give developers incentives to tailor their projects to fit the city’s vision for the corridor. In general, development is restricted to 24 units per acre; but that number can be increased to 32 units per acre if the developer earmarks 20 percent of the space for retail or office use or sets aside some of the residential space for affordable housing. Similarly, individual buildings are limited to 24,000 square feet and three stories, but both can be increased if 25 percent of the building is devoted to residential space.

“As the building gets bigger, it must be mixed-use,” Green explained.

Expanding on that, Jones said she would like to see more incentives to build affordable housing included in height and square-footage regulations.

As a visual aid, Green showed pictures of planned development areas in Charlotte and other cities where storefronts and apartments line the streets, with only sidewalks and landscaping between the road and their doors. Charlotte, noted Green, is leading the state in this sort of planned development.

Council member Joe Dunn, who had previously registered objections to some of the corridor plan’s restrictions, once again aired his misgivings — this time about aesthetics.

“I don’t see anything personally beautiful about buildings right against the road,” said Dunn, adding that he wants to “make sure we’re not burdening developers.”

One of the project’s main objectives, Green replied, is encouraging pedestrian access while limiting vehicle traffic.

Inspired by the evolving vision for the Broadway corridor, planners are already setting their sights on other areas of the city, including Haywood Road and sections of Merrimon Avenue. (Green took pains to explain at the meeting that there is no desire to try to fit existing commercial strips such as Tunnel Road and Patton Avenue into this mold.) And some Council members expressed hope that the final Broadway plan could be applied to other areas as well, thereby avoiding the need for more tinkering and modification. But not everyone on Council appears ready to approve a blanket plan that would cover all city neighborhoods.

Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy said she doesn’t want a “cookie cutter” plan that leaves no room for future public input. Neighbors in other areas, she commented, will want to be just as involved in the planning process for their communities as the Broadway residents have been in this one.

A public hearing on the plan scheduled for Council’s Oct. 8 formal session has been postponed to give Council members more time to discuss these new ideas.

Come one, come all

A public meeting will be held on Tuesday, Oct. 29 at 7 p.m. at the William F. Wolcott Jr. Building (161 S. Charlotte St.). Council members and city staff will be on hand at this open forum to answer any and all questions from the public.

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