Asheville City Council

“Asheville needs to double its single-family-home production, and one-third of those need to be [sold for less than] $100,000,” Charlotte Caplan told City Council members on Oct. 13.

As Asheville’s community development director, Caplan urged adoption of the city’s new Housing Action Plan — which recommends nearly 40 strategies for supporting affordable-housing projects in the city. Some are “small steps … that we already do,” said Caplan: forming partnerships with the private sector, for example. A recently created Homes for Asheville-Buncombe Task Force — backed by the Chamber of Commerce and the Affordable Housing Coalition –is bringing together housing advocates and developers, she mentioned.

An even bigger step, Caplan said, would be to create a housing trust fund to provide much-needed support for programs that would increase the city’s affordable-housing stock by 1,130 units each year (including renovating or building 300 single-family homes). That, though, won’t happen right away, she added.

And it might not happen at all, unless the city leads the way on other, related issues, Council member Barbara Field pointed out. She asked city staff to investigate how much land or property is available in the city for building new affordable-housing units. “If we don’t have the land, what are we talking about? Where are the places where we can [locate] these … 300 homes we need?” Field asked.

What’s more, she continued, the city must overcome NIMBYism and the perception that affordable housing brings low-income people into a neighborhood. Maybe the city should spend money on mediation between opposing parties in the many zoning debates Council hears each year, Field argued. Many of those debates have centered on neighborhood opposition to multifamily developments.

H.K. Edgerton, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, urged Council to investigate local lending practices before endorsing the plan. He noted that African-Americans and other underprivileged residents are “underrepresented in the home-buying market” in Asheville.

David Lee, president of the local Mortgage Lenders Association, pledged support for the Action Plan and the housing trust fund. At Council member Earl Cobb‘s urging, Lee agreed to look into what percentage of local mortgages go to low- and moderate-income home buyers.

Caplan explained that, according to federal Housing and Urban Development Department standards, $32,400 (80 percent of the median household income) would be considered a moderate income for a family in Asheville. Such a family, she noted, could reasonably afford a $100,000 home. Low-income families are those making less than 50 percent of the median income. Affordable-housing programs would target those two income groups, Caplan said.

But without funding for specific projects associated with the plan, “We can’t move ahead on this issue,” noted Mountain Housing Opportunities Executive Director Scott Dedman, urging joint-funding efforts by the private and public sectors.

To that, Council members agreed, but didn’t yet have definite solutions. Said Cobb, “You don’t build houses without money, [or] the jobs [people] have to have to pay the rent or buy a home.”

On a motion by Field, seconded by Vice Mayor Ed Hay, Council members unanimously endorsed the plan.

No parking lot for Tolula Lane

The vote was as tight as the philosophical differences.

In a 3-4 split, Council member Tommy Sellers‘ motion to rezone a vacant Tolula Lane property from residential to institutional failed. Mountain Neurological, which owns adjacent property, had offered to buy the 2-acre lot from the city — if it were rezoned Institutional, so they could build a parking lot on it. At Council’s request, they agreed to deed restrictions that would prevent any other use allowed in that designation. They also consented to landscaping and buffering restrictions that would leave most of the trees along a creek through the property and create a grassy parking lot.

But Tolula resident George Young summed up a point that even the best intentions couldn’t overcome. “No matter how pretty you make it, it’s still a parking lot in the middle of a residential area,” said Young, urging Council to deny the request.

“This is the absolute lowest-[impact] use of the property that can be made. … We want to be good neighbors. We will be good neighbors,” declared Mountain Neurological attorney Phil Carson, noting that the doctors’ complex on McDowell Street shares parking with a nearby church and had agreed to the deed restrictions.

But Council member O.T. Tomes complained that the proposed development was another sign of a historical pattern of commercial encroachment on African-American neighborhoods and businesses, which eventually leads to their demise. “Asheland Avenue used to be residential — look at it now,” he said. And South Charlotte Street used to have African-American businesses lining it; now, the city’s Public Works facility is there. “It’s a broader economic picture for me,” said Tomes, explaining why he couldn’t support the rezoning.

And Mayor Leni Sitnick remarked, “The lowest use [of this property] is to leave it natural.”

Sitnick, Tomes, Cobb and Chuck Cloninger voted against Sellers’ motion to rezone; Hay and Field voted in support of it.

Here comes the bond

The fate of Asheville’s newest parks-and-recreation plan now rests in the voters’ hands: On Oct. 13, Asheville City Council members unanimously endorsed a proposed $18 million parks package — and directed staff to arrange a spring bond referendum.

“It’s what the city needs,” said Brian Peterson, who vice-chaired a 75-member citizens’ committee that trimmed the city’s $57 million parks wish-list down to a slate of top priorities, such as creating a ballfield-and-nature-park complex at Richmond Hill. The plan also includes pumping $3 million into greenway development and renovating existing parks-and-rec facilities to the tune of $6.6 million.

Peterson, who also heads the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods, added that “most neighborhood leaders will support [the bond referendum].” He cautioned, however, that holding a special election next April or May will cost the city about $15,000.

Scott Dedman of Mountain Housing Opportunities praised the plan and suggested that it become part of a “quality of life” package that would also include affordable-housing projects. “Homes and parks should be connected,” said Dedman. Parks and greenways boost home values, which increases tax revenues for the city, he pointed out. Dedman also mentioned that the city’s new Housing Action Plan — which Council members unanimously adopted, that same evening — is not yet funded.

And Geraldine Melendez, president of the West End/Clingman Avenue Neighborhood, asked Council whether the city’s parks-and-rec maintenance facility would be enlarged to keep up with the increased workload that will result from making all the park improvements proposed in the plan. The facility, located on Clingman Avenue, “already infringes on my neighborhood,” said Melendez.

Parks and Recreation Director Irby Brinson replied that there are no plans to expand the facility. He said staff are working on ways to improve its appearance and better buffer it from the neighborhood.

Pitching in another bit of caution, Field remarked, “It will be the public who votes [the parks bond] up or down.” If it passes, voters will face a tax increase, she pointed out.

On the other hand, parks, greenways, walking and biking trails, waterway protection and upgraded community centers all contribute to economic development, claimed Mayor Sitnick. She also asked Council to consider a pet idea of hers: create a “parks in perpetuity” zoning designation that would protect Asheville’s green spaces.

Cloninger made the motion to adopt the parks plan and set up the bond vote. Sellers seconded the motion, which passed.

Brinson — who has presented several controversial park proposals that were suggested by previous Council members yet voted down by the current Council (such as buying the French Broad Golf Course, or selling Memorial Stadium to fund Richmond Hill development) — said nothing more. But immediately after the parks vote, he smiled.

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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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