Asheville City Council

The odds against SBA Incorporated were almost as high as the telecommunications tower they proposed building on Merrimon Avenue.

The first strike against them was the fact that the Asheville City Council is on the verge of revising the city’s telecommunications-tower ordinance (and the Buncombe County commissioners won’t be far behind with one of their own).

The second was the weight of neighborhood opposition to so much as the thought of having a 175-foot-tall pole thrust up the midst of their mountain-and-city views.

And the third was Council members’ assessment that a new tower wouldn’t entirely solve the gap in digital wireless-telephone service for north Asheville and, therefore, wasn’t necessary (especially with satellite service waiting in the wings).

That’s not to say that SBA didn’t pitch their case, hard. With a court reporter hired by the company’s attorney to record every word of the quasi-judicial public hearing on the issue, SBA’s urban planner, Steve Lewoksky, argued, “We have met all the city [ordinance] requirements. … If we can’t site our [tower], you’re creating a barrier to competition.”

SBA plans to build the tower and lease it to Bell South Mobility, who will provide digital cellular-phone service, which — unlike traditional wireless telephones — can transmit data as well as voice, Lewoksky explained. With 55 million wireless customers in the country, and probably 24,000 in Asheville, digital phone service provides a valuable tool for business people and residents, he added. “It’s the next generation [in cell-phone service],” Lewoksky declared.

But there’s a gap of almost three-quarters of a mile in the company’s digital-service coverage for north Asheville. With most of the area residential — and current city regulations forbidding telecommunications towers in those districts — that limited the company to considering the Merrimon Avenue corridor. Asheville’s terrain also limited where a new tower could go: To use an existing tower farther up Merrimon Avenue (near Stein Mart), or to put one on the Jones Elementary School smokestack wouldn’t work, Lewoksky continued, because signals would be blocked by the hill between those locations and downtown. “We had no choice but to go to sites adjacent to residential zones,” he said.

But Council members remained skeptical. Vice Mayor Ed Hay noted that not all 24,000 of the city’s wireless customers would necessarily opt for digital service, anyway. He also said he wasn’t hearing an overriding demand for digital service in north Asheville.

And Council member Barbara Field pointed out that the proposed tower wouldn’t completely fill the service gap, anyway. She asked whether SBA had considered using two shorter antennae instead of one tower — perhaps placing them on church steeples.

Not economically feasible, company staff replied.

They also contended that placing a tower near residential districts doesn’t lower property values, according to a study commissioned by the company. Homes near towers in Oakley and Richmond Hill didn’t lose value during the past year, local appraiser Jay Marlow reported.

But no argument could have swayed north Asheville residents. “The best possible site is no site,” proclaimed Graceland Road resident Mike Lewis. “[SBA] makes it sound like they’re doing us a favor.” The proposed tower, which is 75 percent taller than an existing one at Stein Mart, would “perpetrate a travesty on the neighborhood,” said Lewis, adding that satellite telephone service can’t be more than 5-10 years away, and could solve problems with gaps in wireless service. He urged Council to deny Bell South Mobility’s request.

So did nearly a dozen other residents. Dennis Hodgson said the real-estate study is “suspect,” noting that, if a 175-foot tower were built next to his home, he’s sure it would have an adverse effect on his property’s value. Hodgson also estimated that it would take about 47 cars like his own sedan, stacked one on top of another, to equal 175 feet.

“I’m going to have to look at [that tower] 365 days of the year — that’s why I don’t want it,” said Sandon Circle resident Sidney Feldman.

“This is my first home,” observed a Mount Vernon Circle resident, adding, “I’ll now look off my porch at a 175-foot-tall tower.” He urged Council to delay action on the issue until the revised telecommunications ordinance is in place.

Other north Asheville residents called towers “visual pollution,” said the tower would “interrupt” their view and “serve few but impact many.” “They add to ugliness and generic urban sprawl,” complained Asheville resident David Thundershield Queen.

“This is the only place [the tower] can go,” countered the company’s attorney, Katherine Wilkerson. She repeated Lewoksky’s assertion that the company has met all conditions of the existing ordinance.

But Council members weren’t swayed. Longtime tower opponent Chuck Cloninger made a motion to deny Bell South Mobility’s request, which Tommy Sellers seconded. Cloninger said he wasn’t convinced that the company had sufficiently considered other sites, commenting that a 175-foot tower would add to “visual blight” along the Merrimon corridor.

Hay remarked that he wasn’t convinced the proposed tower would match the scale of other structures along Merrimon (where buildings are limited to 40 feet in height), nor did it fit with the area’s predominantly residential character.

“I like to get away from [telephones],” confided Field, noting that she has avoided getting a cell-phone for years. Nonetheless, Field said she could understand the need for a tower — but didn’t think one was warranted in this case, because “it does not fill the hole in service.”

Council member Earl Cobb said, “We need the service, but we’ve got to find a way to provide [it] without building a 175-foot tower.”

Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick said she also questions the results of SBA’s study of property values and would vote against the tower, despite the company’s pledge to landscape and buffer it as much as possible. “A buffered telecommunication tower is an oxymoron, if ever I heard one,” she remarked, before calling for a vote.

Cloninger’s motion to deny passed, unanimously.

Keep Sweeten Creek residential

Sore butts didn’t deter ViewPointe and Beverly Hills residents from waiting three hours on Nov. 10 to argue against a proposed rezoning near their east Asheville homes.

They shifted in their hard oak (but historically correct) Council-chamber seats during the two-hour discussion of the Merrimon Avenue tower proposal and other, shorter public hearings. They laughed at Council members’ dry attempts to leaven the often-technical details with humor. But when the residents finally got a chance to speak, they made their feelings clear: Deny property owner Wade Hall‘s request to rezone his 0.8-acre Sweeten Creek Road lot from a residential, multifamily classification to Neighborhood Business — which allows pedestrian-accessible, small-scale commercial development in residential areas.

Hall was visibly stunned by the opposition, since few residents had spoken out against his request , or even attended the Planning and Zoning Commission’s Oct. 7 meeting, when P&Z voted 6-1 to approve the change. Hall promised ViewPointe and Beverly Hills homeowners that he wouldn’t “put anything there they wouldn’t be proud of … just small little businesses.” He mentioned insurance offices, a pizza place or a drug store as possibilities. Buildings in NB zones can’t be more than three stories high or bigger than 3,000 square feet. “I’m not going to put a Nieman Marcus [store] there that would draw thousands of people,” Hall said.

ViewPointe residents countered that they had missed the meeting because the city hadn’t notified them about it. The city’s property data base hadn’t included them as affected property owners, because their retirement community — located uphill from Hall’s lot, near the Nature Center — is less than one year old. The data base is compiled from information provided by the Buncombe County tax assessor. ViewPointe resident Robert Born urged city staff to update the system. Tax assessors, water-service providers and other agencies, he noted, “all know where we are, because they send us bills.” Jokes aside, he urged Council to deny Hall’s request.

So did Tom O’Keefe. When Mayor Sitnick offered to let him speak for 10 minutes, representing the ViewPointe group, he replied, “I’ll do the three [minutes]: My butt’s sore.” O’Keefe raised concerns that any business development would increase traffic on Sweeten Creek Road, pointed out that the city’s 2010 Plan calls for residential development in that portion of the corridor along the Swannanoa River, and mentioned that most of ViewPointe’s elderly residents wouldn’t (and probably couldn’t) walk the steep hill to get to any businesses Hall might develop there. Urging Council to keep the area residential, O’Keefe remarked, “We chose to live in the city, rather than the county, because we want zoning consistency.”

ViewPointe resident Herb Gallinger, mentioning the existing traffic hazards on Sweeten Creek Road, said, “If you rezone that [lot], you’ll have to put a medical center next door, to handle all the accidents that will happen.”

Other residents, including Beverly Hills homeowners, also opposed Hall’s request, saying they don’t need a drug store or other businesses there, because several major commercial establishments are located nearby on Tunnel Road and at River Ridge. Both ViewPointe and Beverly Hill residents presented Council members with petitions signed by people opposed to the rezoning.

Council members seemed poised to deny Hall’s request — but when Sitnick first asked for a motion, no one said a word. Vice Mayor Hay looked up and down the row of silent members sitting behind the Council dais. He noted that NB is designed for pedestrian-friendly, neighborhood-scale businesses, but if adjacent homeowners say they don’t need them and wouldn’t walk to them (that part of Sweeten Creek Road has no sidewalks) … “I guess we’re all going to vote against the rezoning,” Hay said, trying to move things along. “I know this puts Mr. Hall in a bad way,” he added apologetically. Before the Unified Development Ordinance was passed last year, Hall’s property and some adjacent ones were used and zoned commercially.

Hay made a motion to deny Hall’s request, seconded by Council member Field. She remarked, “It seems like we’re eating away at our multifamily [districts] in this city.” Hall’s lot, zoned RM-16, could be developed to provide 12 housing units, she stressed.

Hay’s motion passed unanimously.

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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