Asheville City Council

Sometimes city officials have to dig a little to get results: They dug up a Brotherton Avenue water line and found — contrary to popular opinion (not to mention, city-staff guesstimates of five years ago) — that it’s 6 inches in diameter, not two.

“We exposed the water main … at both ends of the street — and at both locations, it was a 6-inch line,” Asheville Planning Director Scott Shuford reported at Asheville City Council’s Nov. 23 formal session.

Five years ago, city staff had estimated the line to be a mere 2-incher, basing their guess on prevalent low water pressures in the neighborhood. At Council’s Nov. 9 work session, West Asheville residents raised that point, arguing that a 2-inch line wouldn’t support the pressures needed for fire emergencies or for the city’s proposed development of a 7.3-acre lot on Brotherton Avenue for affordable housing.

That concern — and several others — forced Council members to delay purchasing the lot from the Asheville Housing Authority. “You challenged us to answer four questions,” said Shuford, who answered them, one by one:

• The water line is large enough to provide sufficient water pressures; it consistently tests at an average delivery rate of 500 gallons per minute. That’s enough for the 20-30 single-family homes that city staff propose to develop on the site — but not enough to supply fire-emergency flows for a community-services building, which would need 1,000 gpm.

• However, a sewer line serving the property is an old 2-inch clay pipe. The Metropolitan Sewerage District has agreed to replace it, at a cost of approximately $40,000, Shuford added. “That’s a reasonable development cost,” he said.

• The widening of Interstate 240 and the realigning of the Amboy Road interchange may infringe on the lower portion of the lot, but will not hamper the development of its upper, less steep portion.

• Traffic on Virginia Avenue will likely increase by about 300 vehicles per day (it currently handles approximately 1,700). Shuford argued that the road could handle the increase, but added that it might make the road eligible for the city’s traffic-calming program. However, the city has other, higher-priority needs for traffic calming measures, he noted.

Shuford also expanded on two other questions raised on Nov. 9: Why hadn’t other developers considered buying the land in the past several years, and what would the proposed development look like? “Quite honestly, the Housing Authority asked us first,” he said in answer to the first question.

As for the design issue, Shuford placed a rough sketch on the overhead projector: The city could partner with a for-profit or nonprofit developer to build 26 homes, laid out in a standard subdivision pattern — each home situated on its own 50-foot-wide lot and facing a new city street that would wind its way through the property. Then Shuford laid another sketch on the overhead, showing a co-housing concept, with homes clustered together; this plan would allow most of the property’s wooded area to remain undeveloped. Using this approach, development costs would be reduced because there would be less (if any) new roads to build (parking would be shared by homeowners using one lot), explained Shuford.

“We’re hoping to do something a little different,” said Asheville’s Community Development Director Charlotte Caplan, an advocate for the co-housing concept. Caplan showed Council members an example of a more traditional single-family, affordable-housing development in Asheville: Twin Springs, which uses a standard subdivision design. The cost of building two streets with sidewalks and storm-drainage systems for that development was approximately $500,000, she reported.

But design details will be determined later. “The only thing we’re voting on tonight is [whether to] purchase the property,” clarified Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick. She asked if anyone in the public wished to comment on the proposed purchase. Using federal Community Development Block Grant funds, City Council has set aside $120,000 for purchasing the property (its latest appraised value) and $10,000 for initial development costs.

West Asheville resident Richard Nantelle commended staff for taking the initiative to provide affordable housing in the city. “There are two things an industry [looking to locate in Asheville] investigates: schools and affordable housing,” said Nantelle. City schools are in fine shape, he assserted “But our housing situation is … desperate.”

Voicing his support for the proposal, Nantelle emphasized that speeding traffic on Virginia Avenue — which links the Brotherton property to Haywood Road — still remains his top concern with the proposal. There have been accidents and at least one traffic fatality in recent years, he emphasized. Since Virginia and Brotherton residents will be welcoming new people into the neighborhood once the project is completed, the city should be able to assure them a measure of safety, he urged.

Safety was on retired firefighter William Cogburn‘s mind, as well. Upon hearing that the water line is, indeed, 6 inches in diameter, he remarked, “That’s wonderful. But it doesn’t matter [about] the size. It’s how much water you can get through it.” The pipe might be rusty or partially obstructed, adversely affecting water pressure in times of emergency. Cogburn also repeated his Nov. 9 concern that clustering the homes together increases the fire risk. However, he continued, “I know [we] need the housing. But it will take some improvements [in the neighborhood].”

“Don’t let infrastructure be a problem,” argued Affordable Housing Coalition Director Beth Maczka, who urged Council to purchase the land. She noted that local non-profits working to improve affordable housing in the area often have difficulty finding suitable land. Maczka asked Council and city staff to work cooperatively with the Regional Water Authority and MSD to improve the water and sewer lines in the Brotherton neighborhood.

Virginia Avenue resident Laila Rentas seconded that plea — and added that Council should keep the cost of the homes truly affordable, noting that she’d heard an asking price of $100,000 being mentioned for the proposed single-family homes. “That’s not affordable,” Rentas remarked. She and her husband paid less than $75,000 for their home, using one of several state and federal programs available to first-time and moderate-income home-buyers. “And that was a stretch,” said Rentas.

Caplan responded that $100,000 is considered the most a family of four, with a household income of about $35,000, could afford, using federal guidelines (a low- to moderate-income household is one whose income is less than 80 percent of the area median). With the help of a variety of subsidy programs (and measures for keeping the development costs down) the Brotherton homes would, hopefully, fall closer to $75,000, Caplan concluded.

With that said, it was up to Council to come to a decision.

Council member Earl Cobb mentioned that he had voted against the purchase on Nov. 9, “because there were too many questions.” Now he was satisfied, even excited about the project. “Help [low- to moderate-income residents] become homeowners … and pay taxes,” he said.

Council member Barbara Field made a motion that Council approve the purchase of the property. O.T. Tomes seconded the motion, which passed, 7-0.

One last chance for Jones

The warning bell has sounded for Elijah Jones, but with a slight reprieve: Asheville City Council members — having been accused of singling out one of the few remaining African-American property owners on The Block — decided to delay asking the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission to audit Jones’ sales records for the convenience store he operates at 55 S. Market St. If it turns out that more than half his retail sales are alcohol, the ABC Commission will revoke his beverage license.

However, the ABC Commission is already investigating Jones on an unrelated charge, with a decision — due in early December — that could have the same result.

The city previously sought legal action against Jones in 1997, using the state’s public-nuisance-abatement laws to combat recurring alcohol-related crimes in the vicinity of the convenience store, City Attorney Bob Oast explained to Council on Nov. 23. Jones had countersued, claiming that the adjacent city-owned park is actually where illegal actvities on The Block eminate. Both actions were dismissed, on the understanding that Jones would deal with the problems. Does City Actually Own The Park??? “That has not occurred. Although the situation has improved some, we think that’s due to 24-hour police presence,” Oast reported.

Jones’ friends weren’t pleased with the process. “We’re talking about singling [Elijah Jones] out,” complained John Hayes, president of the Asheville chapter of the NAACP. He pointed out that Jones is one of the few remaining African-American property owners on The Block. He also emphasized that Jones has, indeed, attempted to improve his property and clean up the business — but plans for a restaurant found no support at City Hall, Hayes suggested. “How can this one businessman take the blame for what’s happening [on The Block]? … You cannot continue to single this man out. He’s an honest hardworking taxpayer,” Jones argued.

But don’t the sales of alcohol at Jones’ store influence what’s going on nearby? asked Council member Earl Cobb.

No, replied Hayes.

And are alcohol sales at Jones’ convenience store greater than 50 percent of total sales? asked Cobb.

Hayes again said no — but then said he wasn’t sure. Other stores within a mile of The Block sell alcohol as well — yet they’re not being singled out, he argued.

“We’re not trying to put [Jones] out of business,” Council member Field interjected. A new state law has declared that a retail business located in a redevelopment area such as The Block cannot earn more than half its sales from alcohol, she explained.

“You’re speaking with forked tongues,” Samuel Camp observed. It does appear that Jones is being singled out, he said. While city officials say they want to help minority businesses, they target someone like Jones. “[You’re] trying to go through the back door [to] take this man’s property,” Camp accused. He told Council members they should, instead, offer a fair market price for Jones’ property … “and take it, fair and square.”

The city can’t offer or pay more than the appraised value, and Jones has asked for substantially more, argued Field.

As the discussion grew more tense, Council member Tomes suggested Council take Hayes up on his offer for more mediation. “I’m not willing to give up,” said Tomes.

Oast said, “Let me point out: [You] don’t have to ask for [the audit] today.” A decision on the ABC Commission’s other pending case is due on Dec. 3, he mentioned.

Council member Chuck Cloninger — who had emphasized in a previous work session that Council appeared to be singling out Jones — asked, “Why don’t we just wait and see what happens in December?”

Mayor Sitnick latched onto that suggestion, but cautioned that the situation has been going on for some time. She added, “If we wanted to put [Jones] out of business, we would have been more aggressive.”

“Let me be more direct,” interjected Vice Mayor Ed Hay. At the urging of police, city officials have been seeking legal action for some time, with some reduction seen in the illegal activities occurring in the vicinity of the store. Directing his gaze toward Hayes, Camp and Jones, Hay offered them another chance to work out an effective way to address the problem: “Get to work,” he declared.

Tomes made a motion that Council table the issue. Seconded by Cobb, that motion passed, 7-0.

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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