Softening the blow

Asheville City Council Oct. 26 meeting

  • Cell-tower ordinance changes postponed again
  • Sustainability incentives pass second reading
  • Montford Commons deal approved
  • Coopers Hawk Drive annexation to proceed

“Let's be swift,” Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy urged her City Council colleagues early in their Oct. 26 meeting. Most of the agenda items, she noted, were things Council had previously seen but delayed taking action on to allow for further study or negotiation with an involved party.

Council members had approved the first item — charging those using handicapped placards for parking in metered spaces, effective Nov. 12 — at their Oct. 12 meeting. But a number of disabled city residents had maintained that, unless their access to parking was somehow improved to offset the changes, the new rules would constitute an unfair burden.

So, as Transportation Director Ken Putnam put it, the city had reviewed a number of options “to soften the blow.” They included giving residents of the Battery Park Apartments, many of whom are low-income and disabled, a discount at the Civic Center parking deck; allowing disabled people cheaper prepaid, on-street parking; and retooling or replacing the meters to make it easier for handicapped people to feed coins into them. A longer-term solution considered was freeing up parking at the end of Haywood Street for use by the disabled.

“I do a lot in downtown Asheville; I love Asheville, but I can't use a coin-operated meter,” reported Arden resident Bart Floyd. “I love the prepaid parking idea. … I want to work on possible solutions, but the first time I get a ticket for parking at a meter I can't feed … something's got to give.” Battery Park resident Rylan Hanson, using a crutch to approach the lectern, didn’t mince words in denouncing the city’s sudden policy change, which she blamed on gentrification.

“The residents of the Battery Park and the Vanderbilt were here long before this was a popular destination,” Hanson told Council. “I live at 80 percent of the federal poverty level; I know people in this building who live on less than that, and those people are all going to be forced to move out or sell their cars, and I think that's just disgraceful.”

Asheville resident Bernadette Thompson, who uses a wheelchair, said she needs at least eight feet of space to disembark from her specially designed vehicle when she comes downtown. Noting that she's “willing to pay; I don't mind,” Thompson said she’s physically unable to feed change into a meter and that a shortage of parking spaces remains an issue.
“We're a poor community,” noted Battery Park resident Clarence Gray, asserting that many residents are on fixed incomes and can't afford even reduced rates for parking.

“I'm pretty uncomfortable with abruptly changing this without fixing the underlying problem,” said Council member Cecil Bothwell. “We won't have the new parking available until 2011, yet we're suddenly wrenching this on the people who’ve been using the parking near Battery Park.”

Bothwell also questioned the feasibility of asking Battery Park residents to use the Civic Center deck. “I know, in the winter, that hill [on Walnut Street] can be hard to navigate for the able-bodied,” he pointed out.
“Well, they can go through the library and take the elevator,” replied Vice Mayor Brownie Newman, prompting skeptical laughter from disabled people in the audience.

Bothwell and Council member Gordon Smith floated the idea of waiving all parking-deck fees during the first month of the new policy for people displaying handicapped placards.

According to Putnam, only 50 of the 1,200 parking spaces in Asheville are presently designated handicapped. “You'd think we'd want more in downtown, considering the number of social services there,” Bellamy observed.

Council members unanimously approved the monthlong fee waiver, directing staff to work with the adjacent AT&T lot on freeing up some parking for the disabled and to explore reconfiguring the meters.

What the cell?

City Council also revisited modifying the rules governing cell-tower placement to allow them, on a case-by-case basis, on nonresidential property (such as churches or cemeteries) in areas zoned residential. Both federal and state laws prohibit restrictions that create substantial gaps in cell-phone service.

And due to the increasing number and capabilities of cell phones and the obstacles posed by the area's mountainous topography, that’s exactly what's happening, attorney Patsy Brison maintained. Representing U.S. Cellular (which wants to erect a tower in the Lewis Memorial Park in Beaverdam), she displayed a map showing cell-phone coverage in the city, with black spots indicating service gaps in Beaverdam and Haw Creek. Both are primarily residential neighborhoods.

“We believe your failure to act, due to the current state of service and the topography of the area, would constitute a violation of those laws,” said Brison.

But Council member Esther Manheimer (who’s also an attorney) noted that the Planning and Economic Development Committee is also considering additional rules concerning setbacks, colocation (different companies sharing the same cell tower) and a minimum lot size. She proposed forwarding those recommendations to staff, along with the expanded residential rules, so they could consolidate them into a single ordinance revision.

Meanwhile, staff said they'd told Beaverdam residents that Council probably wouldn't vote on the tower-placement rules tonight, few of whom had shown up to voice their concerns. One resident, Ian Harley, did speak against the proposed changes, wondering, “If we acquiesce to a requirement for this tower, where does this stop?”

After a good deal of discussion, Council voted 6-1 (with Manheimer opposed) to delay the matter once again. The Beaverdam question is now scheduled for Nov. 23.

But Brison, who’d already seen the decision postponed in September, wasn’t pleased. “In our view, this delay is not reasonable,” she said. “We've made our application: Council needs to act.”

Sustainability, incentives, annexation and sidewalks

In other business, City Council:

• approved a second reading of a sustainability-incentives ordinance 5-2, with Bellamy and Council member Jan Davis against. The ordinance, approved 4-3 on Oct. 12, allows developers to exceed normal density limits on projects near major transit corridors if they satisfy specific sustainability and affordability requirements.

Bothwell, who’d initially said he was put off by the fact that some larger development proposals would no longer come before Council, had announced prior to the meeting that he was changing his vote, convinced that the ordinance contains enough safeguards and that its passage would give sustainable development a major boost.

• approved an incentives package for the 250-unit Montford Commons development on a 4-3 vote. The deal includes a 50 percent fee waiver and a five-year exemption from property-tax increases sparked by the project. When the Frontier Syndicate first asked for incentives several months ago, Council members balked at granting a complete fee waiver and a 10-year tax exemption. Wanting to encourage work-force housing close to downtown, however, Council had directed staff to try to negotiate a more acceptable agreement.

That didn't sit well with everyone. Bothwell noted that though the project does satisfy the city’s criteria for work-force housing, it doesn't meet the affordability requirements. He was joined by Smith and Council member Bill Russell in opposing the incentives.

• approved the annexation of the Coopers Hawk Drive area on a 5-1 vote, with Russell (who opposes all forced annexations) on the short end. Manheimer did not vote; her law firm is handling related legal matters.

• unanimously approved an ordinance requiring property owners to clear adjacent sidewalks, and imposing fines for piling snow in a way that blocks a sidewalk. At Bellamy’s suggestion, Council added a clear appeals process for violations of the new policy.

— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at dforbes@mountainx.com.

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