Asheville City Council

Size has always mattered. And for West Asheville residents around Brotherton Avenue, the difference between a 2-inch and a 6-inch water line could determine whether there’s enough water available to save the neighborhood, in the event of a fire.

At issue at Asheville City Council’s Nov. 9 formal session was whether the city should add to the demands on the area’s water-supply infrastructure by developing 20 to 30 new affordable homes on a 7.3 acre parcel bordered by Brotherton and Virginia avenues. The project would entail using federal grant funds to buy the land and develop a subdivision of single-family units for low- and moderate-income citizens.

The controversy had statistics and misperceptions flying.

Former Virginia Avenue resident Dick Rice pointed out that there’s considerable debate over the exact size of the water line that serves the neighborhood: Five years ago, city staff speculated that a mere 2-inch line brings water down Virginia Avenue to Brotherton. Now, they’re claiming it’s a 6-incher, Rice noted skeptically. “We would be glad to dig a hole and find out how big [that line] really is,” offered Rice.

He also took a moment to counter the Nov. 3 remarks by Council member Barbara Field about neighborhood NIMBYism. “The issue is not racism. The issue was, and still is, safety. … If the water supply was improved and one- to two-bedroom homes built, and [housing for the] handicapped provided, new homeowners would be welcome in our backyard.”

Virginia Avenue resident Richard Nantelle added traffic concerns to the mix, urging Council not to “solve one problem [affordable housing] only to create another.” Nantelle emphasized that he supports affordable housing, provided that it blends with the character of the surrounding neighborhood and doesn’t overburden the infrastructure.

Another West Asheville resident, retired firefighter William Cogburn, remarked, “I have seen houses on Virginia Avenue burn down, for lack of water.” He urged the city to reconsider, and suggested that the best use of the steeply wooded property would be a park, with maybe eight to 10 single-family homes on the flatter portion.

Confusion about the proposed development’s so-called “cohousing” approach was evident when Cogburn mistakenly said the homes would be attached to one another.

“[Cohousing] has nothing to do with communes,” Asheville Community Development Director Charlotte Caplan explained. The cohousing design has more in common with a condominium complex: Home-buyers share the ownership of common areas, such as open space and a community building. She cited Westwood — a cohousing community on Vermont Avenue in West Asheville — as an example (except that the city’s project would target low- and medium-income families by keeping the average home price between $75,000 and $90,000). Caplan also cautioned that the proposal “is just a concept,” and this stage.

The development would also require that Council overlay the area’s existing RS-8/zoning classification (single-family, eight units per acre) with a Planned Unit Development classification. PUDs don’t change the underlying zoning, but they do allow developers to exceed the density restrictions by up to 20 percent — in exchange for following strict design standards. Since much of the lot is too steep to be developed, a PUD would allow the proposed 20-30 homes to be clustered near the street-level portion of the lot, with the lower-elevation wooded area left intact, Caplan explained.

Council member Tommy Sellers remained skeptical, however, asking if the units would be duplexes.

The homes would not be attached, Caplan emphasized.

When Council member Earl Cobb asked for a detailed definition of cohousing, Caplan added, “Each unit would be a normal, self-contained house [with a single owner], but [residents] would share ownership of the common areas.”

Under the RS-8 classification, Cobb calculated, a developer could build 50 units on that property. “Who would control the number of units built?” he asked.

“We can. We’ll own it,” replied Caplan.

“I’m still confused about cohousing,” Sellers interjected. “Is this one family under one roof?”

Yes, Caplan answered, adding that the units would likely resemble townhouses.

Then Sellers revisited the size controversy: “In 1994, Council was told [the Virginia Avenue water] line was 2 inches [in diameter] and couldn’t support fire-emergency needs,” he said. On that basis, Council had subsequently turned down the Housing Authority’s proposal to build multifamily units on the property.

Water Resources Engineer Mike Brookshire replied that he and his crews had measured the line’s capacity that very day (Nov. 9). Water volumes consistently tested between 460 and 540 gallons per minute (residential fire-emergency needs require a 500 gpm average). “It’s impossible for a 2-inch line to generate that flow,” he declared.

Virginia Avenue resident Carlos Montgomery took umbrage at Field’s earlier remarks. “We resent anyone saying we don’t want affordable housing [in our neighborhood],” he said, reading from a prepared statement by his wife, Sylvia. “West Asheville is affordable housing.” Montgomery asked that water flows be tested, simultaneously, at various points along Virginia — and during peak-usage hours. He asked that the existing line (whatever its size) be evaluated for leaks and such.

Affordable-housing developer Steve Grueber said he was encouraged to hear residents’ general support for affordable housing. “But one thing: It would be helpful to see a design [before moving forward],” he said, emphasizing the persistent misperception that the homes would be attached. And, to help gain neighborhood support, the city should address the water-line issues and traffic concerns. He suggested that Council take out an option to buy the property, delaying the purchase until those issues have been reviewed. “I would hate to see [this project] fall apart for lack of more [effort by the city],” said Grueber.

Council took him up on the postponement idea — but crafting an acceptable motion proved difficult.

The motion also included a several other budget amendments allocating surplus Community Development Block Grant funds; but none of these was controversial ($50,000 for additional rent assistance; $70,000 for a Neighborhood Housing Services project at the head of Montford; and a $35,000 increase in planning funds for the West End/Clingman Avenue Neighborhood infrastructure improvements).

To break the logjam, Sellers suggested voting separately on the noncontroversial issues — otherwise, he said, he’d have to vote against the entire package.

And Cobb said he couldn’t vote for the Brotherton Avenue proposal — arguing, mistakenly, that the PUD would change local zoning. And, he remarked, “There’s just too many unknowns.”

Field said she supported the proposal, but added, “These folks aren’t going to be happy until they know it’s a 6-inch line. … We’ve got to be sure we’ve got the water.”

Vice Mayor Ed Hay, who supported the project, pointed out that the only part that Council was voting on that day was whether to buy the parcel. Infrastructure needs and traffic impacts would be addressed when there was an actual site plan, he explained.

Council member O.T. Tomes agreed with Hay. “I haven’t heard us talk about developing anything.” He said neighborhood concerns about water and traffic would be addressed “at the appropriate time.”

Cloninger, who also supported the project, took a politic approach, suggesting that Council go ahead and set aside the $130,000 needed for the purchase of the land and its initial development, and direct staff to report back to them on the water and traffic issues. Under the terms of Cloninger’s proposal, City Manager Jim Westbrook would not be allowed to close on the purchase until the 6-inch water-line question has been answered.

Cloninger first made a motion that Council approve the other, noncontroversial items in the CDBG package. Sellers seconded it, and the motion passed 6-0 (Mayor Leni Sitnick was out of town).

But for the Brotherton Avenue purchase, the vote got sticky: Field made a motion to set aside $130,000 for the purchase and initial development costs. Seconded by Cloninger, it passed 4-2, with Cobb and Sellers opposing.

Then Cloninger made another motion, which Field seconded: before the city closes on the deal, city staff must determine that the water-supply lines and sewer-line service are sufficient to meet peak demand. Additionally, staff would have to demonstrate that traffic-volume increases due to the proposed development would be acceptable..

Initially, Hay voted against this motion, arguing that those issues would be addressed as part of a site plan. That caused a 3-3 tie. But then, asking Council to reconsider the issue, Hay cast his vote in support of Cloninger’s motion. The final vote was 4-2, with Cobb and Sellers again opposing.

After the vote, Dick Rice invited Field to come to a neighborhood meeting and explain cohousing in more detail — if the city decides to buy the property.

And Fire Chief John Rukavina (who had speculated five years ago that a 2-inch line runs down Virginia Avenue) remarked to fellow staffers, “We’re going to have to dig it up.”

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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