Asheville City Council

At the dawn of the 20th century, Italian educator and physician Maria Montessori introduced to the world her revolutionary pedagogical approach. The Montessori method, as it is now known, helps young children learn and develop initiative and self-reliance through doing by themselves the things that interest them — within strictly defined limits.

Montessori schools have thrived throughout the United States for decades, but a local one was the topic of a contentious three-and-a-half-hour public hearing at the Oct. 10 Asheville City Council meeting. The hearing was held to consider rezoning property on Sycamore Road in Beaverdam. The property in question — a house on a 1-acre lot — is owned by Gayle Rayfield, who operates the Blue Ridge Montessori Preschool there. But because of the neighborhood’s RS-8 zoning, she is limited to eight students. Seeking to expand her school to 25 students, she asked that her property be rezoned RM-16, and also requested a conditional-use permit to build an 1,100-square-foot classroom adjacent to her house and a circular driveway to accommodate parents’ vehicles. The project would also involve widening a driveway shared by Rayfield and several other neighborhood residents.

But many of Rayfield’s neighbors oppose the project (37 residents signed a petition against it), fearing that expanding the school would lower property values and forever change the character of the neighborhood. And to underscore the gravity and complexity of the matter, both Rayfield and the opposing neighbors hired lawyers to argue their cases before Council in the quasi-judicial hearing. Patsy Brison Meldrum represented Rayfield, and Lyman Gregory represented those opposed to the project.

More than 20 exhibits were entered as evidence, and much of the debate focused on the need for quality daycare in Asheville. Jane Douglas, Rayfield’s assistant at Blue Ridge Montessori, said that many local preschools are already filled to capacity and some have waiting lists, but Gregory reminded Council that “This is not a referendum on daycare.”

After hearing the testimony and reviewing the evidence, Council members voiced their opinions. Chuck Cloninger cited concerns about traffic and safety, and noted that the preschool would not be serving neighborhood children. Terry Bellamy stated, “Great idea, bad location.” And Edward Hay also sided with the neighbors who feared the project would lower property values.

Council member Charles Worley‘s motion to grant the rezoning and approve the conditional-use permit, seconded by Barbara Field, was defeated on a 2-4 vote (Brian Peterson was absent).

Mayor Leni Sitnick clarified her “no” vote by saying that the evening’s hearing was about “property value vs. the value of property.” She explained that the former is usually just a number, whereas the latter is a more subjective concept, adding that the neighbors’ testimony had shown how much they value their community’s unique nature. Sitnick quickly added that she did not want her vote misinterpreted by the city staff who had approved Rayfield’s request. She reminded City Planner Gerald Green that although the proposal had been voted down, it was still an example of smart growth, and she encouraged Green and his staff to continue to work on similar projects.

Ironically, the hotly debated issue involved initiative, self-reliance and strictly defined limits — the very elements that characterize the Montessori approach.

The road less traveled

The second public hearing dealt with sidewalks — specifically, a request by physician Keith Black that Council waive a requirement in the city’s Unified Development Ordinance that sidewalks be installed as part of new construction projects. (In some cases, applicants can pay a fee in lieu of building a sidewalk.) Black is developing a medical office on Reed Street in south Asheville. The project occupies a corner lot with frontage on Yorkshire, Margaret and Reed streets. The developers plan to put a sidewalk on Yorkshire Street and will pay a fee in lieu of building one on Margaret Street. The city can use this fee for other sidewalk projects in the surrounding area. Black and project architect Carroll Hughes, seeking permission to landscape the area instead of building a sidewalk, argued that Reed Street is too narrow, has little pedestrian traffic, and has obstacles (such as a telephone pole) that would make building a sidewalk there difficult. Black also said that the site’s neighbors want “more greenways and less concreteways.” Nevertheless, Council member Worley made a motion to waive the fee, but no one seconded it. Mayor Sitnick explained to Black that though pedestrian traffic may be light now, the city’s sidewalk policy is geared toward the future.

New wheels, new digs

In a brief public hearing, Council members approved issuing $670,000 worth of bonds to pay for a new fire truck. Council also authorized the city manager to proceed with the purchase of a 2.1-acre parcel on Eastview Circle in West Asheville, to accommodate a combined fire-and-police station. The new facility, which will replace the aging Haywood Road station, will help Emergency Services achieve its goal of a four-minute response time on calls from outlying parts of West Asheville. Fire Department officials say the Louisiana Avenue station will be able to handle emergencies in the Haywood Road area.

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