Development and land-use issues tend to generate some of the Asheville City Council’s most convoluted discussions and often result in controversial decisions. Not infrequently, those decisions expose Council members’ conflicting positions on seemingly unrelated matters such as crime and jobs — hot-button topics that can determine whether an individual petitioner gets his or her property rezoned.
That was the case at the Oct. 12 formal session, as Council tackled six public hearings on proposed development projects in five hours of public hearings and related wrangling.
It began with the owners of 31 acres near Enka/Candler, who wanted their property rezoned from industrial to residential. That got Council members talking about the need for assigned zoning to preserve a place for new businesses to sprout up. Residential neighborhoods wrap around about half of the parcel in question (the remaining adjacent land is primarily agricultural). And even though neighbors showed up to support the rezoning, Council members Holly Jones and Brownie Newman objected — drawing fire from their Council colleagues.
“It’s a tough thing to sit here and tell you that you can’t develop the land the way you want to because we want to put an industrial site there,” observed Council member Jan Davis.
Jones, however, argued that the available space for industrial development — which is needed to create jobs — is dwindling. “We’ve got to preserve the little bit of acreage we have,” she declared. A staff report backed up Jones’ statement, noting that several city master plans call for preserving potential industrial sites.
Council member Joe Dunn disagreed, saying: “We don’t have it. It belongs to someone else.”
But Newman fired right back, saying that if zoning designations are going to be eliminated piecemeal, perhaps the city should simply rescind zoning altogether.
The change from industrial to residential zoning was approved on a 5-2 vote, with Jones and Newman opposed.
The tables turn
If job growth was enough of an incentive for Jones and Newman to oppose a rezoning request, drug-related crime and alleged police shortages served the same purpose for Dunn and Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower.
Property owner Roberto Espinosa came to Council to get his State Street property rezoned to allow low-cost, high-density housing. Neighbors came out against the project, saying it would merely increase the already-prevalent drug activity on the corner of State and Hanover in West Asheville, which is just down the street from the Pisgah View Apartments and across from a boarded-up neighborhood grocery.
“If you permit the rezoning, the property values will drop significantly,” predicted neighbor Mary Steiner. “The entire area will be surrounded by drug dealers.”
Espinosa defended his request, saying, “Just because you have affordable housing does not mean criminals are going to live there.”
But Mumpower refused to support the change, citing the area’s high crime rate. “We are not protecting that neighborhood by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “To add more housing, we have surrendered to the bad guys.”
Dunn agreed, reiterating his oft-repeated belief that Asheville needs more police. “We don’t have enough police officers,” he said. “Adding more people to the mix is not going to solve the problem.”
Objecting neighbors, meanwhile, had submitted a valid protest petition, triggering a state requirement for a supermajority — six of the seven Council members — to approve the rezoning. But when it became apparent that the votes weren’t there, Espinosa heeded Mumpower’s advice and withdrew his request so he could re-submit it later.
Does it or doesn’t it?
The evening’s longest discussion — and biggest turnout — concerned a proposed affordable-housing development off Brotherton Avenue in West Asheville. The property has a difficult history; the city bought it in 2000 and made some infrastructure improvements using Community Development Block Grant moneys. But the developer who was working with the city, Morse Properties, withdrew from the project in 2003 after failing to get acceptable financing.
The current developer, NHS/Hunter Group, wanted to increase the project’s density by building more units (44 instead of 32) within a smaller area. But that involved changing the site plan, which requires Council’s approval.
Neighbors have been vocal in opposing the development, showing up at both the Oct. 12 Council session and a September public hearing to complain that Virginia Avenue, which would provide access to the development, can’t accommodate the additional traffic. It would also endanger pedestrians, they maintain, due to the lack of sidewalks.
“I don’t know anyone on Virginia Avenue who supports this project,” said neighbor Marsha Hammond.
Some also feared that the development would lower surrounding property values. “No matter how nicely designed, this project is not in keeping with our neighborhood,” said Patrick Stacey, calling it “a good idea in the wrong place.”
Several Council members raised concerns about the property. Citing traffic problems and design issues such as limited recreational space, Dunn said the development wouldn’t fit Council’s guidelines. Mumpower concurred.
But Newman disagreed. “I believe it does meet the criteria we have for these projects,” he argued, making a motion to approve the changes.
Council member Terry Bellamy, who works for the nonprofit Mountain Housing Opportunities, said she was leaning toward supporting the project but wanted to tack on conditions requiring more recreational access to the surrounding woods and directing city staff to look at putting in sidewalks on Virginia Avenue.
The amended site plan passed on a 4-3 vote with support from Bellamy, Newman, Jones and Mayor Charles Worley. Bellamy’s motion was then approved on a separate vote.
Council members approved a budget amendment reallocating $50,000 to fund the city’s lawsuit against the state, filed Aug. 10. The city filed the suit in response to the General Assembly’s passage of laws known as Sullivan II and Sullivan III, which limit Asheville’s ability to charge customers outside the city limits more for water.
Claiming that the legislation is unconstitutional, the lawsuit could cost the city up to $100,000 depending on how long it lasts, said City Attorney Bob Oast.
In other business, Mayor Worley will continue to serve on the newly created Civic Center Task Force. Worley was one of three Council members named to the task force, but his loss in the Oct. 11 primary election means he’ll soon be stepping down as mayor. Nonetheless, Council members unanimously supported keeping Worley on the task force.