Asheville City Council Nov. 9 meeting
- “Transformational development” incentives narrowly approved
- Enka Center rezoning OK’d
For a proposal to allow cell-phone towers in residential areas under certain conditions, the third time was not the charm. An amendment to the city’s cell-tower ordinance, coming before the Asheville City Council for the third time Nov. 9, once again failed to gain approval. U.S. Cellular, in particular, needed the change in order to proceed with a planned tower in Beaverdam. Council members did approve other amendments to the ordinance, however.
The rejection came despite a warning by attorney Patsy Brison that preserving the current rules could prompt a lawsuit. U.S. Cellular claims the city's current rules are overly restrictive and that expansion into some residential neighborhoods is necessary to avoid gaps in service, which are prohibited by federal and state law.
Before the unanimous vote, Beaverdam residents pleaded with Council members to continue the ban.
“The economy stinks, jobs stink, the city's got financial problems: What's still standing strong are our neighborhoods,” Beaverdam resident Andy Glatstein declared. “People have said they will move away from our neighborhood if a cell tower goes up. It will destroy our neighborhoods.”
Council member Esther Manheimer, who’s also a lawyer, said she found the legal rationale for the proposed changes unconvincing. “I am extremely wary of placing cell towers in residential areas,” she said. “The purpose of zoning is to protect the value and enjoyment of the individual's land. By allowing cell-phone towers into residential areas, we open the door for residential property owners to lose the value and enjoyment of their land.”
Indeed, another Beaverdam resident, retired developer Tyler Martin, noted pointedly, “If they build that tower, it costs me money.”
Manheimer made a revised motion incorporating other changes, such as requiring companies to demonstrate that they’d been unable to make arrangements to share an existing tower, while retaining the residential ban.
But Brison, who’d already given Council members a pointed warning after they postponed a decision for the second time on Oct. 26, wasn't happy. “If Council passes this, it will be in violation of both state and federal law,” she asserted, adding that she'd want a written statement from staff citing legal justification for the city's position.
Mayor Terry Bellamy voiced some hesitation about the move, noting the possibility of a lawsuit and cautioning Council members against placing too much weight on statements by residents of a single neighborhood. “I've received e-mails from residents of other neighborhoods in support of cell-phone towers,” the mayor noted. But after Manheimer agreed to add language indicating that the city would explore other options for expanding cell-phone service, Bellamy voted for the motion.
Asked after the vote if a lawsuit might be in the offing, Brison merely said: “The ball's in the city's court. … We'll consider our options.”
Another returning issue was the question of expanded incentives for “transformational development” projects, defined as those that, besides being sited along major transit corridors, meet sustainability guidelines and/or provide affordable or work-force housing. Failing to agree on the specifics of some of the criteria, Council had previously sent them back to staff for clarification.
The new rules wouldn’t guarantee incentives (typically in the form of tax and fee waivers) for developers of such projects but would allow them to apply for those benefits. The city’s current criteria for such incentives are much more restrictive. The changes grew out of a request for city assistance by the Montford Commons project. Although Council felt the project would be a boon to the area, it didn't meet the current guidelines; eventually, the incentives were narrowly approved anyway (see “Softening the Blow,” Nov. 3 Xpress).
And on Nov. 9, Bellamy moved the incentives vote up in the agenda, figuring that after so much previous discussion, her colleagues would now be ready for a quick vote.
She was mistaken: The debate lasted almost an hour. Vice Mayor Brownie Newman raised a number of concerns, mostly about conditions he felt were too vague. He particularly questioned the idea of requiring a company to demonstrate a need for the incentives in order to apply for them and to substantiate the proposed project’s financial viability.
“Can we really verify that?” wondered Newman, adding, “It seems subjective.” But Economic Development Director Sam Powers said that staff has a process for assessing both criteria.
Council member Cecil Bothwell, who added that he's uncomfortable with incentives for developers in general, joined Newman in taking issue with some of the energy-saving requirements.
“Does this just mean they're energy-efficient if they have an Energy Star refrigerator?” asked Bothwell.
Newman once again said he believed additional revisions were needed, but by this time, Bellamy wasn't having it. “Look, let's approve this and direct staff to refine it further if they need to,” she suggested, adding that the financial-viability provision could be removed and reconsidered separately later. “We already have Montford Commons as a test case.”
In the end, the incentives were approved 4-3, with Bothwell and Council members Bill Russell and Jan Davis dissenting.
Enka Center rezoning approved
In other business, Council members:
• Unanimously approved a rezoning needed for the Enka Center, a mixed-use commercial/industrial development at the former BASF site, to proceed. They praised developer Martin Lewis for cleaning up the former brownfield site and trying to transform it into a commercial linchpin, though Lewis noted that, due to the economy, the project's future is uncertain.
• Heard a report on the city's carbon footprint. Although Asheville’s energy costs total $5.3 million annually, a variety of measures (many of them building-related) have cut that figure by more than $300,000. Due to keeping older vehicles in service longer, however, the associated energy expenditures have risen.
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at email@example.com.