At one point during the Asheville City Council’s Oct. 14 formal session, a frustrated Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy sighed audibly, staring at the audience with a look that seemed equal parts “Can you believe these guys?” and “I should have known better.”
Only Bellamy, of course, knows how close she came to saying whatever she was feeling at that moment. But her moment of disciplined silence spoke volumes.
Earlier, Bellamy had sought to limit the hours of operation for an antiques business seeking a conditional-use permit so it could operate from a private home in a residential neighborhood. Her effort was rebuffed by Mayor Charles Worley and Council members Joe Dunn, Jim Ellis and Carl Mumpower, all of whom voted to nix Bellamy’s idea.
Commercial encroachment into residential neighborhoods has long been a hot-button issue in Asheville. It often plays out in a quasi-judicial public hearing in which a developer or business requests a conditional-use permit to exempt a specific project from zoning regulations. The key word here is “conditional”: Council can set conditions for granting the permit, such as restrictions on lighting or parking, or requiring extra trees and shrubs to buffer the project from neighbors.
Typically, residents from the affected neighborhood pack the Council chamber and try to block or mitigate the impact of the proposed project. In the case of the antiques store proposed for a garage adjacent to a home on Sand Hill Road, however, there was no sign of the opposition: No one from the neighborhood showed up. Nonetheless, Bellamy made a motion that the business be allowed to operate only between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. Council, she observed, has an obligation to provide a “safeguard for neighborhoods.”
But when it became apparent that Bellamy’s motion to approve the permit came with a caveat, Dunn shook his head in disbelief, asking why Council should support such a restriction — particularly when there is a church in the area that presumably could hold services or meetings outside those hours, and the neighbors “hadn’t complained about that.” Mumpower, meanwhile, characterized Bellamy’s proposed restriction as yet another example of City Council’s “persistent, habitual response” to conditional-use permit hearings. In the past, Mumpower has argued that Council’s liberal use of its power to set conditions has had a chilling effect on the local business climate. Once again, the two Republicans on Council were acting in tandem to promote a laissez faire approach to a business-related proposal.
And though Council members Brian Peterson and Holly Jones backed Bellamy, their support still left the measure one key vote short.
But the failure of Bellamy’s motion didn’t prove to be a deal-killer. Apparently, the lack of neighborhood opposition and the project’s limited impact on the neighborhood made it palatable to all, as Council unanimously approved the permit — without any added restrictions.
The disagreement preceding the vote, however, seemed to reflect the deep divisions on an increasingly polarized Council.
An apology — and a suggestion
Although most of this Council session was fairly standard, something highly unusual occurred during the public-comment portion of the meeting: Someone actually stood up and apologized for having made an honest mistake.
At the Sept. 23 City Council meeting, Beth Maczka, the former executive director of the Affordable Housing Coalition, had charged that Council member Dunn had a conflict of interest in voting to overhaul the City’s minimum housing code. A rental properties owned by Dunn, she said, had been in violation of the code for an extended period of time. Maczka later learned that her information was incorrect. And having made the accusation in a public forum two weeks before, she returned to the same venue to recant and offer Dunn an apology. “Thanks,” said Dunn, adding, “There’s no hard feelings.”
But Maczka wasn’t done. With one minute of her allotted time remaining, she chose to revisit the housing-code issue, reminding Council how chilly the chamber was that evening. (Many members of the public wore jackets and sweaters, and well before Maczka spoke, one city resident had even approached the lectern during a public hearing and, after noting that he didn’t have a comment on the issue, asked the mayor to turn up the heat in the room.)
Producing a thermometer, Maczka told Council that despite the chill, the ambient temperature in the chamber was 71 degrees. She then asked that the city require all municipal buildings to be kept at 65 degrees throughout the coming winter — a clear jab at the new, relaxed minimum housing code, which lowered the minimum temperature that heating systems in rental units must be able to maintain from 68 degrees to 65.
“If the people are uncomfortable, they can just put on a sweater,” quipped Maczka — echoing Mayor Worley’s comment several weeks earlier during the debate over changing the code.