Asheville City Council

A jam-packed agenda ensured that the last Council meeting for outgoing Mayor Charles Worley and Council member Joe Dunn was no mere formality. The ceremony would have to wait until Dec. 6, when the new Council will be sworn in; in the meantime, it was all business. The five-and-a-half-hour Nov. 22 formal session touched on issues spanning the spectrum of Council responsibilities, from homelessness to development to water matters to political ideals.

Bank on it

After some of the most cordial back-and-forth between developers and community residents seen in recent memory, City Council unanimously approved a conditional rezoning that clears the way for a new two-story office/bank building to be constructed on Merrimon Avenue.

The development, to be built on the former site of a Burger King restaurant at Fenner Avenue, was controversial due to a proposed drive-through window. (A 1997 rezoning of the area prohibited drive-throughs; the Burger King was grandfathered at the time.) And looming over the debate was the recent stink over a new Staples building farther south on Merrimon that some say conflicts with the character of the thoroughfare.

But on Nov. 22, attorney Patsy Brison (representing developer Greg Edney) and residents of the neighborhood immediately behind the site said they’d worked through most of their differences and reached a mutually satisfactory conclusion. In outside meetings, the developers had agreed to a list of conditions requested by residents, including sidewalk improvements, lighting issues and landscaping concerns.

The building, said Brison, incorporates traditional architectural design and is a far cry from the “big box” shopping-center model that residents often object to having as a neighbor.

“We do feel that this is setting a good bar. Not necessarily the highest bar, but maybe a higher bar for design on Merrimon,” Brison observed.

In fact, by the time the issue came before Council, only one discrepancy remained (and it was more a matter of wording than anything else): the hours of operation for a drive-through window at the back of the building. While the staff report recommended allowing the drive-through to be open 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, a letter from the residents wanted it to be limited to “regular banking hours.” The residents also wanted an ATM placed at the front of the building, rather than in the drive-through.

Some on Council clearly preferred giving the bank more flexibility, rather than specifying the actual hours.

“When we get into operational issues, I have a problem with that,” said Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower. Council member Jan Davis, who owns a tire store, agreed. “Even if they are agreeable to that, we are restricting their business,” he noted.

But residents worried that while bank hours are reasonable, a future business on the site (such as a restaurant) might have extended hours of operation.

Billie Buie, one of three neighborhood residents who spoke, told Council members she’d felt encouraged by the negotiations.

“I think it was really tough for the neighborhood to [agree to] the drive-through,” she revealed. “But we were willing to say, ‘Let’s negotiate this.'”

Buie emphasized that although she was representing the Grace Neighborhood Association, she couldn’t speak for the entire neighborhood. And she speculated — perhaps only half-jokingly — that more people might have attended if they’d been able to find their way to the front door of City Hall (an exercise currently complicated by the ongoing construction work in City/County Plaza. Other neighbors, while conceding that the agreed-upon design was an improvement, worried that it might open the door to more rezoning — and/or drive-throughs — along Merrimon.

“My greatest fear is the precedent this building might set,” said Mike Lewis, calling for a comprehensive corridor plan for Merrimon Avenue. “I think we could live with this development.”

Not all project neighbors were as welcoming as the residents, however. The owners of a shopping center next door, represented by attorney (and former Asheville Mayor) Lou Bissette, had previously submitted a protest petition claiming that the bank building would exceed the maximum size allowed in the area. In addition, Bissette argued that the drive-through would further complicate the existing traffic problems on Merrimon.

“This is totally out of character with the neighborhood,” he asserted. “A number of developers have come up in this area looking for drive-throughs, and they didn’t get it. Why are we changing the rules in this particular instance?” Bissette asked Council to either deny the developer’s request outright or send it back to the Planning and Zoning Commission for revisions. (According to the staff report, the project already enjoyed the support of both city staff and P&Z).

But the fruitful negotiations between the developer and residents inspired Council members to try to get past the last remaining hurdle themselves, rather than further delaying the project. So they asked the parties to meet during a break to iron out the discrepancy between the operating hours spelled out in the staff report and those submitted by the neighborhood.

In the end, it was agreed to limit the drive-through to 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, and the rezoning was approved.

Drop by drop

City staff will analyze a consultant’s capital-improvements plan designed to fix the city’s ailing water system, but City Council held off on approving the rate increases recommended to pay for the work.

For two years, the engineering firm Brown and Caldwell has urged the now-defunct Regional Water Authority to implement a plan to pay for major upgrades and repairs to the water system, but the Buncombe County commissioners (who, like the city, had veto power over the Water Authority’s budget until recently) repeatedly blocked attempts to raise water rates. With the Water Agreement dissolved (as of June 30) and the city now in sole charge of the water system, however, the consulting firm is once again urging action.

“There’s a number of reinvestment needs,” Brown and Caldwell engineer Richard Stahr pointed out. “The current budget supports no sustainability.” (See “On the Water Front,” Nov. 23 Xpress.)

But concerns about public perceptions and fairness made some Council members reluctant to push ahead with a quick increase. With a new storm-water bill set to show up in city residents’ mailboxes in January, Council member Holly Jones said she hesitated to ratchet up water rates without first doing some extra public outreach.

“We owe it to the community to educate them,” declared Jones, making a motion that the city accept the Brown and Caldwell report but not implement the capital-improvements plan just yet. “If this Council has made a mistake in water over the past 18 months, it was not bringing the public along with us.”

Council member (and Mayor-elect) Terry Bellamy agreed, and Council member Brownie Newman seconded Jones’ motion. Newman also called for considering how the city might reconfigure water rates to encourage conservation.

Mumpower, meanwhile, pointed to the current lawsuit between the city and the state over Sullivan Acts II and III (passed by the General Assembly last spring, the laws prohibit the city from charging customers outside of Asheville more for water, among other things). “Personally, I have problems with moving forward with capital improvements until the larger picture is resolved,” he said.

But Mayor Worley urged haste. “This Council, two-and-a-half years ago, voted for this same fee and the county turned it down,” he noted. “A year ago, we couldn’t do it because the county blocked it again. We’re getting further and further behind.”

Davis agreed, saying: “This is not new. I think we need to move forward as quickly as we can.”

Perhaps most surprising was the position taken by Joe Dunn — who, as a Water Authority board member, had voted against the plan last year. This time around, though, Dunn had a different take.

“No one wants to see the water rates rise,” he said. “The fact is, it’s a fact. I think we implement this as soon as we can.”

In the end, however, Jones’ motion passed 6-1, with revisions requiring staff to produce an implementation time line and a public-education plan. Mumpower recorded the lone opposition vote.

In other water news, City Council unanimously agreed to hire Schnabel Engineering South to analyze the reservoir-and-dam system. The firm will create a computer model for analyzing flood scenarios and the downstream impacts of water releases. Schnabel will also update the city’s flood-preparedness action plan. To pay for the analysis, Council approved a budget amendment tapping $692,835 from the water-resources equity account. Results are expected in October 2006.

“Looking at this in the long term, this is necessary to the community,” said longtime Interim Water Resources Director David Hanks.

Help for Katrina refugees

While the city tries to figure out how to prevent future flooding here, Council members tackled the question of whether to fund relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina victims who are now living in Asheville, subject to reimbursement by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. According to a staff report, the local chapter of the Red Cross has been distributing FEMA funds, but that money is now running out.

FEMA can help Asheville house families displaced by the catastrophic storm for three more months, said Community Development Director Charlotte Caplan. But the program — which requires the city to put up the money and get reimbursed later — raised red flags for Dunn and Mumpower, while Jones was unhappy about FEMA’s last-minute regulations.

“This is bogus, to me,” fumed Jones. “Thank goodness you are ahead of the game; I am appalled at the federal government.” The funding, Caplan explained, would allow the city to partner with local nonprofit agencies to help find housing during those three months.

Jones’ anger concerned FEMA’s decision to extend funding for displaced Katrina refugees — but only those placed in housing by a local agency by Dec. 1. Nov. 30 is the deadline for contacting the Affordable Housing Coalition (259-9216), said Caplan. The AHC is one of several local agencies working on refugee housing.

Already, 30 families are working with the AHC and the Asheville-Buncombe Community Christian Ministry to find temporary housing, Caplan told Council members. She asked them to set aside $100,000 to cover interim shelter expenses. Under FEMA’s plan, the city would be reimbursed after 90 days.

As we move into winter, noted Caplan, agencies that serve the local homeless population tend to get overwhelmed anyway. And the presence of Katrina refugees increases the pressure on local facilities. Without added funding, she emphasized, these agencies may be less able to help other local people in need.

“It becomes a greater burden on the community if we don’t take this opportunity,” she warned.

Mumpower, however, wondered what would happen after the 90-day mark. “Are we preventing homelessness or just delaying it?” he asked. Although these are federal funds, noted Mumpower, the money still comes from taxpayers’ pockets.

But that didn’t sit well with Bellamy; interfering with displaced families’ ability to receive authorized federal funding is “un-American,” she said.

“Well by golly, if that’s un-American, then I’m un-American,” Mumpower shot back.

The $100,000 budget amendment passed 5-2, with Mumpower and Dunn opposed.

Other business

City Council approved a three-year contract with the Mountain Area Information Network, a nonprofit Internet service provider, to install three towers on city-owned land. The towers will enable MAIN to provide low-cost wireless Internet access in parts of Asheville. The city is charging the group $7,200 the first year, with 4 percent annual increases. That represents a significant discount over the rate charged commercial businesses, due to the group’s nonprofit status and willingness to provide discounted Internet access to its customers.

In July, the city had denied MAIN’s request for free antenna space in exchange for supplying free wireless Internet service to five city community centers. At the time, both Mumpower and Dunn cited the group’s political activity and sponsorship of low-power radio station WPVM (which bills itself as “the progressive voice of the mountains”) as reasons for their opposition. But Council approved the current deal on a 5-2 vote, with Mumpower and Dunn voting no.

In a separate action, Council members appointed Worley chair of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, with the mayor recusing himself from the vote. With support from Davis, Bellamy and Newman, Worley got the nod over two other candidates: Ken Kaplan and Barbara Field.

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