Asheville City Council Oct. 12 meeting
- Development-review changes on hold
- Sustainability incentives narrowly approved
- Handicapped-parking exemption ends
By the time Asheville City Council members reached the final item on their Oct. 12 agenda — appointments to assorted local boards — they were visibly drained. No trace remained of the engaged, highly attentive and seemingly enthusiastic mood that had earlier prevailed.
Council member Esther Manheimer slumped as she heard Mayor Terry Bellamy struggle to find the precise words she was looking for. After nearly nine hours of complex discussions and angry voices coming at them from both outside and inside the chamber, Council and staff alike were understandably fatigued.
The marathon evening began with a warm-up lap, a work session concerning Unified Development Ordinance amendments recommended by the 2009 Downtown Master Plan. A wide variety of changes were proposed, and while the presentation seemed generally well received, several Council members voiced concern about the long-term look of a downtown core shaped by these rules.
Addressing a proposed requirement that tall buildings have a much smaller tower area than their ground-level footprint, Manheimer said: "I guess that's the one thing that strikes me as bizarre. I've talked to one downtown property owner who said, 'Well, now all I get to build is a pyramid.'"
Changing the UDO’s development-review procedure also sparked discussion. The master plan aims to make it more "transparent, predictable and inclusive of community input," reflecting developers’ complaints that the current process is unpredictable, expensive and overly politicized. Among the changes staff proposed were altering the triggers for mandatory Council approval of large-scale projects.
Currently, projects encompassing 100,000 square feet must seek Council approval; the new rules would raise that limit to 175,000 square feet. Developments below that threshold would still require approval by staff, the Technical Review Committee, the Downtown Commission and the Planning and Zoning Commission.
"Why are we giving up up our review, other than developers want assurances that they'll get their building built?" Bellamy asked. "That's fine, but if we're [also] saying that we want [these developments] to be green and have some form of affordability, how do we get them to go in there and give up some of what we want?"
Bellamy’s concerns prompted a brief discussion about how much of a priority affordable housing should be in center city. "I think it's financially impossible to have affordable housing in our central business district," asserted Council member Bill Russell.
With many still-unresolved topics on the table, Council opted to continue the discussion at their Nov. 9 work session.
Housing incentives approved
During the brief break between the end of the work session and the start of the formal Council meeting, activists sporting red "Don't Annex Me" T-shirts rallied outside City Hall. Others packed the Council chamber and the overflow area.
But with five public hearings scheduled, these residents would have to wait their turn. Proposals to create a new "airport" zoning district and rezone the Asheville Regional Airport accordingly drew no public comment and were unanimously approved.
Staff then presented a set of proposed UDO amendments to encourage greener, denser, more affordable housing near major transportation corridors. Projects would be rewarded based on a points system and on environmental certifications.
But one seemingly modest change — raising the threshold for City Council review from 50 units to 70 — sparked serious concern from a half-dozen neighborhood activists.
"In general, the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods likes most of the ordinance, with one significant exception," said Mike Lewis, speaking for the group. "CAN opposes any ordinance or amendment that restricts or denies public input."
And though Vice Mayor Brownie Newman and Council member Gordon Smith both strongly supported the changes, their Council colleagues echoed many of the residents’ concerns. Even Mayor Bellamy, a staunch affordable-housing advocate whose 2008 task force was the driving force behind the proposed changes, had her doubts, noting, "When I think about the different proposals we've had over the last few years [concerning] affordable housing or large land-use projects, the ones that were outstanding stood in the midst of controversy.” And though she voiced support for density bonuses, the mayor stressed the importance of preserving significant Council oversight.
After nearly a half-hour of Council discussion, the motion was approved 4-3, with Bellamy, Cecil Bothwell and Jan Davis opposed.
Council then briefly went into closed session to discuss properties on Eagle Street and Shelburne Road before returning for the two remaining public hearings.
To put it mildly, Coopers Hawk Drive and Royal Pines residents gave Council members an earful. More than two dozen speakers railed against the proposed annexations, which would bring almost 700 people into the city. Most questioned the value of city services, stressing the hardship city taxes would represent for a community of retirees and working-class homeowners in a time of severe financial turmoil.
But it wasn't all negative.
"One of the unintended consequences of your action is the fact that you have brought our community together," said state House candidate Tim Moffitt. "Because of the city's desire to annex us … we have a sense of determination … coming together as a group to battle against something that we feel is an egregious overstep on the part of government. So I thank you for that."
Following the hearing, Council members queried staff concerning the rationale for the annexations and the logistics of road, sewer, water and trash-pickup services.
Russell moved that Council withdraw both proposals and declare a moratorium on annexation plans and policy. Smith, Newman and Manheimer also spoke at length about the city's reasons for annexation, trying to address residents’ frustration.
"I heard you tonight," Manheimer declared. "You made a very compelling argument for yourselves, and this may be the only time I ever vote against an annexation."
An amended motion to table the Royal Pines annexation for 12 months was approved 5-2, with Smith and Newman opposed. No action was taken on the Coopers Hawk Drive proposal.
Charge of the parking brigade
After another brief recess, Council soldiered on to the final major item: reviewing the downtown handicapped-parking policy (see "The Placard Stops Here," Sept. 22 Xpress). Currently, the city doesn’t charge or ticket vehicles displaying handicapped placards; the Asheville Downtown Association says this costs the city money while hurting merchants who need those metered spots for potential customers.
City Attorney Bob Oast presented various options, including: rescinding the handicapped-parking exemption; selling city-issued parking placards to handicapped residents to offset the lost parking fees; and establishing free handicapped-parking areas. But the late hour, Council members’ evident fatigue and the complex set of options (not to mention allowing comment by Battery Park Apartments residents who’d waited all evening to speak) made for some confusion.
"We are the only building you will live in where there are zero parking facilities that you don't have to pay for," asserted resident Clarence Gray. "When you come out of our building, there's a meter every 10 feet." Targeting Battery Park residents isn’t fair, he argued, since few of them actually use on-street parking.
ADA Executive Director Joe Minicozzi countered: "With 10 percent of the downtown parking supply in the street [occupied by cars displaying handicapped placards], that's about $160,000 a year that we're forgoing in those meters. This isn't just about the Battery Park … it's an issue plaguing all of downtown."
A motion to cancel the handicapped exemption within 30 days while postponing consideration of both the placards and free-parking zones was unanimously approved.
— Steve Shanafelt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.