Despite a large turnout and vocal opposition, Mardell Circle residents did not get to weigh in on a new daycare center proposed for their West Asheville neighborhood. And though the developers say they’re hoping the delay will enable them to work out a compromise, project opponents remain skeptical. Council members, meanwhile, once again devoted a substantial chunk of their meeting to a development issue that wound up not getting resolved.
A scheduled public hearing on the issue morphed into a debate over whether Council should make a final decision or hold off. About half of the dozen or so city residents in attendance spoke, and only one — representing a church that is partnering with the developers — supported the wait. The rest (mostly neighbors who opposed the project) wanted full discussion — and a Council vote.
Dubbed a “playcademy,” the planned “early learning center” would serve children ages 5 and younger, according to materials provided by the developers. And the building itself would conform to U.S. Green Building Council standards. The best and safest location for such a facility would be in a residential area, the developers maintain. But some neighbors of the proposed site oppose both the project and the rezoning it would require.
Developers Amica Venturi and Ken Huck attended the Oct. 26 formal session but let attorney Patsy Bryson do the talking. She asked Council to send the request back to the Planning and Zoning Commission rather than voting on it. (In September, P&Z voted unanimously to reject the rezoning, according to a staff report.) If the commission rejects the revised proposal, it could land back before Council — with or without a protest petition — in December, said Shuford.
The delay, noted Bryson, would give the developers time to work out a compromise. “We think there are ways to adjust this proposal to address [the community’s] concerns,” she said. But residents who spoke against the project called the move an attempt to circumvent the opposition.
“We’ve worked very diligently,” Jeff Makey told Council. “I feel like this is really an attempt to dodge those of us who are opposed to the rezoning and wear us down.”
Back to square one
The postponement request is the latest such move by developers seeking to defuse neighborhood opposition and avoid getting shot down by Council.
In August, after failing to block a neighborhood protest petition, the developer of a proposed Beaucatcher Mountain retirement village asked Council to postpone voting on the matter because a Council member was absent. And last month, another developer voluntarily withdrew his rezoning request for a planned affordable-housing project on State Street after it appeared likely to be voted down by Council.
Mardell Circle residents had also produced a valid protest petition; under state law, that means a supermajority (or 6-1 vote) is needed for City Council to approve the project. But City Attorney Bob Oast told Council members that if they chose to send the issue back to Planning and Zoning, the neighbors would have to generate a new petition.
In the earlier cases, opponents didn’t aggressively protest the delays. But Bryson’s request was met with groans of disbelief. “It is hard on the community to go back and do this dance one more time,” declared Sharon Marshall.
On the other hand, Vivian Conley of Mount Carmel Baptist Church supported the delay, arguing that there’s still room for fruitful negotiations. The church, which plans to share a parking lot with the daycare center, has been involved in providing information to the community about the project, according to the developers.
“We know there is a lot of opposition,” said Conley. “If anything is important, it is worth taking the time. We want to do some mending and healing.” Conley also wanted Council members to wait until a city traffic report is finalized.
The neighbors, meanwhile, argued that both the Planning and Zoning Commission and city staff had recommended denying the project. “It’s really something that has to get out of the way,” said resident Andy Askew. “It’s gone on and on; it was voted down unanimously [by P&Z] — that’s why it’s here tonight.”
But after Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower made a motion to send the project back to P&Z, both Council discussion and public comment were confined to that issue, rather than considering the project’s overall merits or drawbacks. And despite vocal protests, the motion passed unanimously.
“For us to make a reasonable effort to allow them to fix the problems is the right thing to do,” Mumpower told those in attendance.
That didn’t placate some protesters, who faced off against developers in the hallway outside the Council chamber. Several heated arguments degenerated into shouting matches, leaving the prospects for compromise in doubt.
And as this issue went to press, Amica Venturi told Xpress that her car had been vandalized; the distraught developer said the windshield, front windows and a headlight had been smashed, adding that she would have to consult with her advisers before deciding what to do next. “Nothing is worth violence,” she said.
A green light
On a less-contentious note, Council approved a 136-unit affordable-housing complex at the corner of Fairview and Stoner roads, despite some discussion about the amount of open space, traffic concerns and noise issues (which centered on an adjacent railroad line). The Biltmore Point development will consist of a ring of townhouses that are expected to cost between $120,000 and $135,000 apiece. Council approved the project in 2004, but financial issues delayed construction, and the application permit eventually expired. Council member Brownie Newman wanted to explore ways to ensure that the housing would remain “affordable.”
“What if they get down the road and say, ‘We just can’t do it?” wondered Newman.
If the project failed to meet the city’s affordable-housing guidelines, the developers would lose financial incentives (such as a 50 percent discount on city fees), Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford told Council. The discounts amount to more than $1,000 per unit, Shuford told Xpress. He also said the city could consider imposing a fine if the units proved to be too expensive.
“We can’t control economic forces,” noted Council member Joe Dunn. “This conversation gets us nowhere.”
Nonethless, Council instructed the city attorney to look into the possibility of attaching conditions to the permit. And in the end, the project was approved 6-1. Vice Mayor Mumpower registered the lone dissenting vote, citing traffic concerns stemming from the development’s single entrance/exit road and gated emergency-access road.