Asheville City Council

It’s official: Asheville has a brand-new slogan! At their Oct. 22, formal session, with smiles all around, City Council members quickly approved the fruits of 25 city-employee forums over the past year — a revamped mission statement.

“The city of Asheville is committed to delivering an excellent quality of service to enhance your quality of life.”

In the current fiscal climate, it was perhaps surprising that there was no discussion of how much it will cost to implement the new slogan. But there was general agreement that giving employees lapel buttons displaying the new slogan will have a positive effect. “At least they didn’t try to add the word ‘sustainable,'” one wag in the audience observed later.

The agreeable spirit continued through a nine-point consent agenda before foundering, once again, on the barnacled shoals of conditional use, where it quickly became apparent that agreeing on the congenial idea of “enhancing quality of life” is far easier than agreeing on what “quality of life” actually means. About two dozen citizens had gathered for the ensuing public hearing.

Meanwhile, however — and despite rumblings from the public — Council voted 7-0 to approve every permit up for consideration, giving the nod to plans made by staff and already approved by the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission, after going through the motions of the formal hearing process.

The first issue involved rezoning property on Merrimon Avenue and issuing a permit for a proposed pharmacy. The parcel is now home to an Advance Auto Parts store. Zimmer Development Company proposes razing the structure and building a CVS pharmacy on the site.

Urban designer Alan Glines presented the city staff report, explaining that the 10,622 square foot Advance Auto building is in poor condition and likely to be razed or extensively remodeled by any new tenant. Under the existing zoning (commercial building I), a new one-story building on the site would be limited to 6,000 square feet (12,000 square feet for a two-story structure). The existing building could also be expanded to 12,000 square feet. Zimmer’s proposed 10,880 square foot structure would require rezoning to CB II, which allows structures up to 45,000 square feet, larger signage, drive-thru windows, and other related features. In August, inconsultation with the city Planning and Development Department, Zimmer formalized a plan that included a drive-thru window, CB I signage restrictions, a new bus stop and shelter, and features to mitigate traffic congestion, as well as landscaping and stormwater improvements.

A few weeks ago, there was some effort to engage neighborhood residents in discussion of the project, and a public meeting was held — although even the extent and earnestness of that effort soon became a matter of contention. Opposition to the rezoning quickly coalesced around two issues: the drive-thru and the impact on local traffic. Opponents circulated a petition signed by hundreds of neighborhood residents opposing the plan. In response to community concerns, the drive-thru had already been eliminated from the plan presented to Council.

Early in the Council discussion, Council member Holly Jones asked whether the plan would result in a net gain or loss of trees. Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford assured her that there would be a gain.

Council member Carl Mumpower asked why the drive-thru had been dropped — a theme he would revisit throughout the proceedings, at one point all but insisting that the feature be added back into the plan. Glines described the change as “a good-faith compromise to assuage community resistance.”

Council member Joe Dunn inquired whether the decision to eliminate the drive-thru had been made by the developer or staff. “Is there any statistical proof that a drive-thru creates more traffic?” he asked.

A drive-thru, Glines explained, would create a paved loop around the building, presenting more possibilities for pedestrian/vehicle accidents on crosswalks.

Kelley Bradley, the traffic engineer who prepared the vehicle study for the developers, explained that, based on trip-generation data in manuals published by the Institute of Traffic Engineering, there would be no statistically significant difference with or without a drive-thru window.

Former Asheville Mayor Larry McDevitt, an attorney for the developer, described the plan as a boon to both the city and the neighborhood. He pointed out that anyone who bought the property could expand the present building without any input from Council. Instead, McDevitt argued, by seeking the rezoning, CVS is submitting to conditional-use restrictions that would: enhance the neighborhood; increase the amount of permeable surface; pay for a new bus stop, shelter and pedestrian waiting area; bring the front of the building closer to the street; and include a large area of glass in the facade — thus making it more pedestrian-friendly.

McDevitt also said, “I note that the Orange Peel is about to open: You could end up with a bar on this site,” apparently referring to the new club opening up on Biltmore Avenue downtown.

Neighborhood resident Keith Thomson expressed concern about the projected traffic on adjacent Edgewood Road, which he said is already a problem. He urged Council “to hold developer traffic studies to a higher standard.” Katherine Fisher sounded a similar note, observing that there’d been no discussion of the traffic on Edgewood east of Merrimon.

William Sabo heatedly characterized the community meeting, previously held by the developer, as a “sham.” He questioned both the project and the process by which it was approved, suggesting that the process tends to favor developers while excluding public involvement. Laura Chase agreed, saying, “There is a prevailing feeling that CVS and the city staff made compromises without neighborhood involvement.”

The grace note of an otherwise tedious meeting came from Melanie Schiller, who noted that “the biggest problem with the Unified Development Ordinance seems to be sticking with it.” She then told an allegorical tale that likened relaxing building standards to a girl acceding to an ardent boy “just this once.” “It’s likely to lead to unplanned development,” said Schiller.

Realtor Dwayne Conner, asserting that he was one of the 35 original instigators of the UDO, said, “The proposed CVS is the best idea we’ve been able to come up with for the property in two years.”

A second attorney for the developer, Craig Justus, argued that rather than representing a failure of the UDO, this is an example of how it is supposed to work. “If we hadn’t submitted to this rezoning process, you would have no control over what happened on this site,” he noted.

Mayor Charles Worley agreed, pointing out that zoning is a dynamic rather than a static process, and it must remain flexible.

During the ensuing discussion, Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy pressed for traffic-calming measures on Edgewood to be paid for by the developer, but only Council members Brian Peterson and Jones voted with her on an amendment to that effect. Mumpower and Dunn revisited the drive-thru issue, but Peterson cut to the chase, observing that the reason for the elimination was that McDevitt “can count votes.”

The next unanimous vote came on a conditional-use permit for The Gables at Biltmore Lake, authorizing 258 residential units in a gated community. Peterson voiced concern about traffic, and Jones wondered aloud whether a gated community would fulfill UDO condition no. 5, concerning “smart growth.” After developer Will Dooley explained how the gate plan would work, Bellamy wryly observed, “By that definition, Hillcrest is a gated community.” In the end, the trusty aphorism “increase the tax base” carried the day, based on the observation by Asheville resident Sylvia Farrington that a pricey retirement community would pay into the system without requiring expensive amenities such as schools. Jones opined, “I hope you make those darn gates as friendly as possible and keep them open,” emphasizing her point by flinging her arms apart.

The final two unanimous votes played out before a virtually empty room, the audience and other media reps having made their escape (presumably choosing to follow the rest of the Council-chamber drama on TV). The subdivision of a landlocked lot on Bellhaven Road and the rezoning of traditionally commercial property on Emma Road (which had, perhaps accidentally, been zoned residential some years ago) were quickly approved. The owner of the latter property, attorney Leslie Stevens, told Council she plans to restore two historic builidings on the narrow plot (which sits between Emma Road and a railroad track) and raze the third. Stevens plans to establish Salvadore’s Bohemian Market — an arts-and-crafts space that she hopes will contribute to the revitalization of Emma.

Worley then turned over the meeting to Bellamy who presided over the appointments of Dan Breneman and Sylvia Farrington to the Civic Center Commission and Carol Ann Pothier to the Recreation Board. The meeting was adjourned at 10 p.m.

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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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