“There’s a lot of good opportunity for negotiation.”
— Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford
Imagine neighborhood residents and developers routinely sitting down together in good faith to try to work out their differences. It might sound like fantasy in light of the increasingly contentious battles among the city, developers and neighborhoods, but a proposal floated at Council’s breathtakingly short Oct. 8 work session envisions just that. (The meeting had been postponed a day because of the City Council primary election on Tuesday, Oct. 7.)
The city Planning and Development Department is proposing to revamp the ways developers and residents interact when a construction project is planned. The new process would involve a meeting between builders and neighborhoods to hash out their differences and try to find as many solutions as possible before a planned development even makes its way into the City Council chambers.
“There’s a lot of good opportunity for negotiation,” said Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford.
To help keep the discourse productive, the meetings would be led by a trained professional mediator and attended by city staff. Both of those parties would submit reports to Council outlining the conflicts and any solutions found.
Although these meetings would be optional, there would be an incentive for developers (who would have to foot the bill for the mediator) to go this route: They could bypass the need to get approval from the Planning and Zoning Commission (which entails a separate public hearing) before coming before Council.
To some extent, the proposal has already been road-tested. This spring, stakeholders on all sides of the issue sat down in a similar mediator-guided format and came up with a list of complaints about the current development process. Two items topped the list: misinformation and lack of trust. Then, working in three separate groups, neighborhood representatives, development interests and Planning and Zoning Commission members each assembled a set of suggested ground rules for the proposed meetings. Delegates from the three groups then met to hammer out a final report, detailed in a memo to City Council. Among the key points are a willingness to listen to one another and to accept the need for compromise.
Developers wishing to take advantage of the meetings would have to wait at least 45 days from they time they submitted their plans to the city before a public hearing on their project could be held. The meeting with city residents could not be held less than 10 days before hearing. In addition to the usual media announcements, the city would send notices to homes within 400 feet of a proposed building site. And though Shuford said the meetings would focus on the concerns of those who would be most immediately affected by the proposed development, the sessions would be open to the public.
A public hearing and Council approval would still be required before a project could move forward.
“We of course know we’re going to have issues where [the participants are] not going to be happy,” noted Shuford.
And though City Council would retain the final say on development projects, it could still ask Planning and Zoning for a non-binding recommendation. P&Z has already unanimously approved the idea.
Council members will vote on the proposal (which would also amend the Unified Development Ordinance) at their Oct. 15 formal session.
Back to the future
Three City Council seats are up for grabs next month — enough, perhaps, to alter the course of the city’s governing body. Before the elections, though, some current Council members would like to see at least one more key initiative pushed through.
At the request of Council member Joe Dunn, discussion of the proposed 2025 Plan had been put off until January. The comprehensive document, an update to the 2010 Plan that addresses issues ranging from development to mass transit to pollution, has been in the works for more than two years. At the Aug. 26 formal session, Dunn said he needed more time to study the massive draft. The postponement, seconded by Council member Jim Ellis, passed unanimously.
According to Council member Brian Peterson, the move caused a stir among those city staffers who’d worked on the project. Mayor Charles Worley later told Xpress that, upon re-examination, he and others on Council had decided the delay was a bad idea. “In reflection, folks realized it probably wasn’t the best idea in the world,” he said. That prompted Worley to circulate a memo several weeks ago signaling his desire to bring the issue up for a vote before any new Council members came on board.
With Worley absent from the work session (he was returning from a visit to one of Asheville’s sister cities: Saumur, France), it was left to Dunn to ask that Council consider putting the plan back on the agenda.
Ellis and Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy, both of whom will be on the ballot Nov. 4, agreed that the issue should be revisited soon. In a separate interview, Peterson (who is not seeking re-election) told Xpress that he, too, supports bringing the matter up for a vote.
City Attorney Bob Oast said some procedural moves by Council would be needed, but one meeting would be sufficient to jump through the requisite hoops.