Asheville City Council

Asheville City Council members voted unanimously on Oct. 12 to approve a new zoning overlay that sets the stage for a new Chamber of Commerce facility to be built at the head of Montford Avenue. Council’s action elicited “cautious optimism” from concerned Montford residents, who have traditionally been leery of (if not downright hostile) toward large-scale commercial development in their neighborhood.

Before Council voted, long-time Montford resident and community advocate Myra Fuller said, “We’re just sort of holding our breath and hoping it all turns out.” She’s still concerned about “commercial intrusion,” she told Council members, but is encouraged that the Chamber has volunteered to work with the city’s Historic Resources Commission in designing a Chamber/Visitor Center facility that blends with the character of Montford, Asheville’s oldest residential neighborhood. (The overlay requires HRC’s approval of the site plan; but the Chamber went beyond that, working collaboratively with HRC members during the preliminary stages of design, which is not required).

Nevertheless, concerns about traffic remain. The Chamber’s initial traffic-impact study, Fuller pointed out, excludes the traffic volumes that will be generated by a Neighborhood Housing Services project, also planned for the head of Montford. “How the traffic’s going to work — [that] needs to be thought out before [the] groundbreaking,” Fuller urged.

And another Montford resident, Mary Jo Brezny, complained that the process seems to be moving too fast: A study of the 4.3-acre area that the Chamber is planning to buy (nine lots bounded by Montford Avenue and Hill and Gudger streets) was done by city staff in a mere six weeks, she said, and residents weren’t apprised of the results. “What is this plan? The residents are not aware of it,” declared Brezny.

Staff did study the area in question, “documenting its characteristics,” responded city planner Mike Matteson. The Planning and Zoning Commission was provided with a copy of the study before their September vote on the proposal (they unanimously supported it), as were Council members. The study provides such details as the existing zoning classifications in the area (a melange of residential, office and commercial) and the existing structures (the Peddler Restaurant sits at the front edge of Montford).

Vice Mayor Ed Hay asked staff where “traffic concerns fit into the process.”

At this stage — with Council merely considering creating an overlay district and applying it to the 4.3-acre area — a traffic study isn’t required, but the Chamber has provided a preliminary one, city traffic engineer Michael Moule replied. He noted that he’ll be asking the Chamber for additional information — specifically, about the impacts of the NHS project. Moule also indicated that he is concerned about the Montford Avenue/Hill Street intersection — in fact, he already has a consultant reviewing that, to determine whether a new signal light will be needed. Overall, he said, the intersection of the Interstate 240 ramp, Montford Avenue and Hill Street “should operate at an appropriate level of service. … I don’t expect significant changes in the level … but that remains to be seen.”

Hay asked if creating the new overlay district, in and of itself, would create additional traffic.

The existing zoning classifications have more potential to generate increased traffic volumes than the proposed overlay, said Moule, mentioning that the Peddler’s Commercial Business I classification allows such development as a gas station/convenience store.

Despite these reassurances, Brezny said she was “disappointed” that the community wasn’t included in the “so-called study,” and expressed concern that the overlay allows buildings up to 45,000 square feet in size. “It just wham! sets a big building [at the head of Montford],” she complained.

And West Asheville resident June Lamb (an unsuccessful primary candidate for City Council, in a field of 18) blasted Council members, saying, “This is too similar to the way you decided to locate a mega-church [Trinity Baptist] in a neighborhood. … It seems to be preferential treatment.”

But Council members, with few direct comments or questions, elected to approve the proposal. Barbara Field made a motion to create the proposed overlay district. Tommy Sellers seconded her motion, and Council passed it, 6-0 (Chuck Cloninger was absent, due to the recent death of his father).

On Hay’s motion, seconded by Field, Council also approved applying the new overlay district to the nine lots at the head of Montford.

Hay said he remembers the day the Coleman House — a historic structure once located where the Peddler now stands — was torn down. The new Chamber facility, which must meet stringent design guidelines, just might “redeem” that loss, he argued. And, Hay pointed out, without this overlay, a number of other things could be built on the nine lots (drive-through restaurants, for instance).

Sitnick added that, no matter what the property is ultimately used for (if the Chamber backs out of buying the lots, any subsequent buyer must adhere to the overlay requirements), buffering, landscaping and traffic issues should be discussed with the community “as early as possible.”

Zoning, pro and con

Asheville City Council members had agreed on Sept. 28 to give “equal time” to opponents of countywide zoning. And on Oct. 12, they did — but they also heard a presentation from a pro-zoning representative.

“We’re dealing with something … that’s serious,” said local attorney Albert Sneed, representing Citizens for Property Rights. He urged Council members and other city residents to consider “the larger issues.” Last year, 60 percent of the new housing units in Buncombe County were mobile homes, a sign of the lack of affordable housing in Asheville and the surrounding area. “If [people] could afford something else, they’d buy it,” said Sneed.

He argued that affordable housing is one of the first “victims” of zoning, which “artificially increases the cost of [building].” Zoning also increases property taxes, in part because it takes more professional staff to administer — and, in contested cases, lawyers to deal with the issues.

Zoning is also very divisive “in this environment,” continued Sneed. He pointed out that the Buncombe commissioners had originally proposed a simple land-use plan — which a committee of citizens worked for a year to create. But within months of unanimously adopting the plan in March, a majority of commissioners came out in support of zoning. “To turn around and apply zoning will create significant divisiveness. You don’t just exercise your power and crush people, and expect them to forget,” Sneed warned.

Zoning is also not the way to promote industrial development in the county, he went on, mentioning Sonopress, Volvo Construction, Schwitzer and other major employers who chose to build on unzoned land when they picked Buncombe as a site. “If [we] pass zoning, we’ll probably never see that kind of new industry again. [Zoning creates] too many obstacles, too many fees, too many delays.”

Instead, Sneed urged support for the land-use plan. “There is a better way to deal with these land-use issues. … We ought to take the time to go through [the committee’s recommendations,” Sneed concluded. “We don’t need zoning.”

The counter-argument came from Fairview resident Ted Cabaniss, representing the group Citizens for Buncombe’s Future. He showed Council members’ slides depicting Buncombe County’s natural beauty, homes and family farms. “Why do we need zoning today?” Cabaniss asked. “Growth,” he said, mentioning that the county is expected to grow by tens of thousands of people in the next few decades.

“What your neighbor does can radically affect your property values,” Cabaniss said, and showed a picture of a home dwarfed by a neighbor’s large garage. The owner of the affected home had opposed zoning — until his neighbor’s new garage loomed next door.

And, Cabaniss argued, unplanned growth results in a loss of recreational areas, creates urban sprawl, encourages development patterns that he likened to “roadside clutter,” and decreases the available farm land. He showed a slide of the extensive development along Highway 25 and said, “If [that’s] the model, new businesses can line our [roads] like kudzu.” Smart, planned growth is the key to Buncombe’s future, and zoning is the tool, Cabaniss argued. “Good neighbors consider their impact on others.”

He urged adoption of countywide zoning, pointing out that Buncombe is the largest rural county in North Carolina without it.

Council member O.T. Tomes — who’s up for re-election on Nov. 2, among a field of six candidates for three seats — noted that Council had heard one view of “negativity” and one that was “positive. Bring those together, and give us another scenario,” he suggested to Cabannis and Sneed, urging them to look for common ground.

Cabaniss laughed.

Sneed replied, “That’s what we tried to do, in the land-use plan.” That plan used incentives, not regulations, along with such tools as restrictive covenants, relocation grants, tax benefits for donated green space, and more. He observed that there’s one thing zoning foes and advocates can agree on — Buncombe and the surrounding mountains are beautiful and should stay that way.

Cabaniss countered that zoning advocates see zoning as a tool for implementing the land-use plan — with more reliability and consistency than incentives, alone, can provide.

After that, Council member Barbara Field asked the city’s new Planning and Development director, Scott Shuford, to comment. “You’re from out of town,” she noted, as he made his way to the podium.

Shuford responded that incentives are a good idea, and that city staff are proposing some to be added to Asheville’s Unified Development Ordinance. Noting that zoning and planning are not, necessarily, mutually exclusive (nor entirely compatible, on the other hand), he concluded that zoning is “a necessary tool” when an area begins to experience urbanization. As for added administrative costs — which could, potentially, result in higher property taxes — “the incentives Albert Sneed proposes cost, too.”

As the discussion wound to a close, City Manager Jim Westbrook noted that Volvo Construction’s land is zoned — “and they’re expanding.”

Council took no action on the issue.

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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