Asheville City Council

Are you willing to shell out three more cents on your tax rate for better parks-and-recreation facilities in Asheville?

City Council members hope you are. City staff and a citizens’ committee presented them with an $18.2 million parks plan on Oct. 6, that hinges on voters’ passing a bond referendum to provide the cold, hard cash. Here’s the breakdown: $6.4 million to build new facilities; $6.6 million to upgrade existing ones; $3 million for greenway projects; and $2 million for land acquisition.

“What we’re proposing today is a realistic plan for the next five to six years,” said Asheville Parks and Recreation Director Irby Brinson. Earlier this year, consultants ballparked the city’s 20-year parks-and-recreation needs at $57 million.

But Council members told staff to set their sights a bit lower, aiming for a phase-one base hit.

So Brinson and his staff teamed up with nearly 80 city residents on a mega-committee that included business owners, neighorhood advocates, environmentalists and parks specialists. Together, they whittled the $57 million wish list down to a short list of top priorities: A baseball/softball complex at Richmond Hill in northwest Asheville (to be complemented by a 150-acre passive-recreation facility featuring trails, picnic tables and bike paths); soccer fields at the former Lake Craig site in east Asheville; a public swimming pool at Asheville High; a $1 million upgrade for Memorial Stadium; numerous community-center renovations and playground improvements; and a Sister Cities park at the old White Fawn Reservoir — a wooded, ridge-top property owned by the city and offering 360-degree views of the area.

Just thinking about the possiblities, the gleam in Council members’ eyes shone so bright, you would have thought they’d died and gone to heaven.

“Asheville … can be a model for North Carolina,” declared Council member O.T. Tomes. “We’re on target, [and] I hope I live long enough to see it completed.”

Committee members, too, say they’re ready to see the plan through. Quality Forward Director Susan Roderick, who chaired the committee, told Council, “We’re trying to present a balance of new and upgraded facilities.” A longtime advocate for green spaces, she toured Asheville recently and saw just how dire the city’s need for better facilities is, as well — no air conditioning at the Burton Street Community Center; lack of parking at the Montford center; a shortage of soccer and baseball fields all over town; old playground equipment at neighborhood parks. The system has been “underfunded for years,” Roderick told Council members. “We’re ready to push for a bond referendum.”

The plan includes creating two miles of greenways every year, starting with Reed Creek along Broadway Avenue, Haw Creek and the Swannanoa River in east Asheville, the Haywood Road corridor in west Asheville, and the French Broad River through town, Trust for Public Land consultant Will Abberger told Council members. “This is something the citizens of Asheville very much want,” he observed.

In a recent survey commissioned by the Trust (which was hired by the city to work on greenway projects), 92 percent of the respondents said they participate in some type of recreational or greenway-related activity,.such as walking, biking or boating. And 88 percent said they support the expansion of parks and recreational facilities, as well as establishing a greenways system, Abberger explained. Of particular interest to Council members: 62 percent agreed to this statement on the survey: “$3 per month ($36 per year) is a small price to pay to preserve land for parks and greenways.”

For a $100,000 home, a 3-cents addition to the existing tax rate would add $30 per year to the owner’s tax bill.

Bolstered by the survey results, Council member Chuck Cloninger made a dash for first base: “When should we proceed with a bond referendum?” he asked.

Spring of 1999 is “doable,” Abberger replied.

Council member Barbara Field suggested that staff factor in the recommendations of a soon-to-be-completed pedestrian-and-bikeways plan — which could raise the $18.2 price-tag.

Council should formally adopt the plan during their Oct. 13 session and direct staff to prepare for an April or May bond referendum, Cloninger concluded.

“We hear so many negative things,” said Council member Earl Cobb, praising the committee’s collaborative effort. “Here’s something that’s doable.”

Next stop: Affordable housing

The irony may have slipped right past Asheville City Council members: On the verge of adopting a plan to boost affordable housing in the city, they still face continued opposition to multifamily development that could provide lower-cost housing in Asheville.

First, the latest proposal: Asheville’s new community-development director, Charlotte Caplan, presented a Housing Action Plan, which calls for creating 1,130 housing units per year. About one-third of them would be new, single-family homes, and more than half would be rental units. The need is acute, particularly for the city’s low-income residents, Caplan reminded Council: “With the market rent for a two-bedroom unit around $500 to $600 [per month], that’s simply nowhere near being affordable for someone making $7,000 a year. It just doesn’t compute.”

Asheville is among the most expensive places to live in North Carolina, due in large part to housing costs. The federal Housing and Urban Development Department defines “affordable” rent and housing costs (including essential utilities) as those that do not exceed 30 percent of the household’s income.

And for those on fixed incomes, such as the elderly and disabled, “affordable” is hard to find in Asheville, noted Council member Barbara Field.

Caplan added that finding affordable housing is also difficult for the “working poor” — those who work full time at minimum wage. The gap between high-end housing and affordable housing “is very large,” she stressed.

Council members didn’t debate Caplan’s assertions, detailed in a housing study they reviewed earlier this year. They praised her work and unanimously supported the Action Plan. Said Council member Earl Cobb, “This is a community problem, and the community needs to get involved.” Urging churches and businesses to sponsor affordable housing in the city, he remarked, “Housing is crucial, [but] not something government can resolve alone.”

One way Council members can make a difference, according to the plan, is to use city zoning policies to encourage the development of affordable housing.

But there’s a long-standing philosophical obstacle to that strategy, which became clear later in the meeting: Some neighborhood advocates insist that single-family and multifamily housing don’t mix.

Residents in the Woodland Hills subdivision have asked for a small-area zoning study that would include their single-family neighborhood and two adjacent, vacant properties that are zoned for multifamily use, reported City Planner Carl Ownbey. “There is some concern about plans for a duplex on one of the vacant lots,” he said.

The owner of one of those lots has recently requested a building permit for a duplex, which is allowed on property zoned RM-6 (residential, multifamily, six units per acre), but only under certain conditions on RS-4 property (single-family, residential, four units per acre) — the classification for Woodland Hills.

But even if staff determined, after conducting the study, that the entire area in question needs to be zoned RS-4, the duplex project wouldn’t be halted, noted Council member Chuck Cloninger.

“That’s correct,” Ownbey replied. But for the larger of the two vacant parcels included in question, it would effectively nix future multifamily development. The owner of that parcel has joined with Woodland residents in asking for the study, Ownbey explained.

It’s a common enough request for Council members, who have generally been sympathetic to neighborhood concerns in zoning issues, over the past few years. But Mayor Leni Sitnick and Council member Chuck Cloninger pointed out that city planning staff already may be overburdened with hot-button projects (the definition of churches in the Unified Development Ordinance, for starters). They recommended postponing considering the study.

Field said she couldn’t support it, either. “We just heard from our staff that we need [hundreds] of new [housing] units per year,” Field pointed out. The affordable housing study — completed earlier this year — recommends building or renovating 195 rental units and 313 owner-occupied units per year — more available units could ease high housing costs in the city. Field said she wouldn’t support a zoning study that might ultimately decrease the amount of land zoned for multifamily use in the city.

“We should do the study,” Cobb countered. Development behind Woodland Hills will create problems for residents, since the only access to the property would be through their neighborhood.

“Are you saying that people who live in apartments shouldn’t be allowed to drive through neighborhoods?” Field interrupted.

“I’m not saying that,” Cobb replied. Stressing that “homeowners have rights,” he argued that Woodland residents would have “all those apartments” right behind their homes, should the larger vacant parcel be developed.

“I’m saying everyone has rights,” Field contended.

The two didn’t resolve the issue — and neither did their fellow Council members.

Looking to Council for direction on the issue, City Manager Jim Westbrook observed, “I don’t guess we need to put this on the consent agenda.”

Council members will vote on the Woodlands request during their Oct. 13 formal session.

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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