“While the inn and the city stand to make millions on this project, what does the neighborhood get?”
— Clay Ballantine, Grove Park Neighborhood Advisory Committee
A Nov. 23 public hearing on the Grove Park Inn’s latest development plans began with a swarm of more than three dozen witnesses gathered around the Bible to be sworn in by City Clerk Maggie Burleson. But the litany of ominous forebodings recited by residents of what may be Asheville’s grandest old neighborhood centered largely on projections of increased traffic. And in the wake of City Council’s Nov. 9 approval of doubling of the urban-village component at the former Sayles-Biltmore Bleacheries site — which is projected to increase the traffic on Swannanoa River Road to 95 percent of capacity — the modest increase expected from adding 50 new homes and 57 new hotel rooms to the Grove Park Inn complex may have seemed like small potatoes. In any case, Council unanimously approved both the inn’s 10-year master plan and the requisite rezoning.
Condos and cottages
Although there were three public hearings on the agenda, it was the GPI’s five-phase, 10-year expansion plan that packed the chamber. At the outset, Mayor Charles Worley reminded those in attendance that the meeting was a formal, quasi-judicial hearing with all of the attendant legalities. And City Attorney Bob Oast announced that because a formal challenge to the proposed rezoning had been received, it would take at least a 6-1 vote to approve the change.
The inn’s ambitious plans, slated to begin in 2005, include: replacing the neighboring Battle House (perhaps most familiar to area residents as the former home of television station WLOS) with 30 condominiums, replacing the President’s Cottage with 20 hotel suites, building 20 condo cottages, converting the golf clubhouse into 11 guest suites, and building 13 duplexes housing additional guest suites. The proposal required rezoning the adjoining Bynum House property from RS-4 (Residential Single-Family Medium Density) to resort-conditional use. This would enable the developer to use the historic home — an upscale, 1920s-era stone residence — as a construction headquarters and to build cottages on the property. Once construction is complete, the inn intends either to sell the home as a private residence or to use it as a clubhouse for the condo development.
GPI development consultant (and former city of Asheville senior planner) Gerald Green described the proposal and the inn’s efforts to accommodate neighborhood concerns. More than a year ago, the city’s Historic Resources Commission recommended the Battle House for historic-landmark designation (see “Grove Park Inn Opposes Landmark Designation for Battle House,” Aug. 13, 2003 Xpress). Although the designation does not prevent demolition, it does mandate a one-year waiting period.
After Council rejected the HRC proposal, residents formed the Grove Park Neighborhood Advisory Committee. Over the past year, the group met with GPI representatives about a dozen times to discuss the development plans, which Green said have been extensively modified based on that input.
According to Green, the condominium structure that will replace the Battle House will be architecturally similar to it and will fit the scale of the historic Longchamps condos on the other side of Macon Avenue. Discussing the proposed cottages, he said, “We will limit impact by using 100-foot setbacks, whereas they could be six to 15 feet if this property were zoned residential.” Describing the inn’s conservation efforts, Green noted, “We have contracted with a forester/arborist … and with a stream-mitigation specialist.” Furthermore, he observed, “This development will result in a nine-trip-per-hour increase in traffic on Macon Avenue” — well within what the Unified Development Ordinance allows.
Next up was consultant Michael Moule, a former city traffic engineer who performed an analysis for the Grove Park Inn. “The new development,” he said, “will increase traffic by 2 to 3 percent. The models say 10 to 12 percent of existing traffic on Macon Avenue is GPI-related.”
There are two measures of road capacity, Moule explained: environmental and actual. Environmental capacity involves neighborhood comfort levels, and for Macon Avenue, “The threshhold is 1,000 trips per day. It already exceeds that level, but it isn’t anywhere near the actual capacity.”
Council members Holly Jones and Brownie Newman peppered Moule with questions about various details of the traffic impact, both on Macon Avenue and on side streets in the neighborhood.
Following the developer’s presentation, a series of members of the Neighborhood Advisory Committee spoke in succession. Joe Franklin set the tone for all but one of the ensuing comments when he barked: “Enough is enough! This project is too big, too long, too burdensome to our neighborhood!”
Gordon Pierce maintained that the planned development would violate the second conditional-use standard, which concerns compatibility with the natural features of the site. “This will violate the environmental integrity of our neighborhood. GPI intends to clear mature, stable woods on steep slopes.” Those slopes, noted Pierce, run from 30 percent to 80 percent grades and would be highly prone to erosion.
Clay Ballantine observed that there are three parties to the plan, asking, “While the inn and the city stand to make millions on this project, what does the neighborhood get?” The project, he continued, “will dwarf previous ones. … This is a safety issue.”
Perhaps recognizing that the plan might very well be approved, Bob Burgin urged Council, “If it occurs, we implore you to make sure all rules are obeyed.” The Grove Park Inn, he asserted, “has a terrible track record on past construction.”
After a half-dozen Advisory Committee members had weighed in, nearly 20 other speakers voiced their opposition to the plan, most emphasizing the traffic impact. Although neighborhood resident Kathy Scott opposed the project, she also offered a suggestion for mitigating the impact, presenting a map that showed a new road she said the GPI could build to pull most of the inn traffic off adjacent roads. The proposed road would bisect the golf course, however.
Only one person spoke in support of the project during the public-comment period: Don Martin, who lives just west of the golf course. “I’d like to live in one of the new condos,” he said. “And if I do, I’d hope to be a good neighbor.”
Then it was City Council’s turn. Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower questioned city Traffic Engineer Anthony Butzek about how the development would affect the level of service on local roads. Butzek replied, “It is large enough to have an effect but not large enough to create a problem with level of service.”
Council member Jan Davis inquired, “Should the project go through, would we be able to limit construction traffic to certain roads?”
The problem there, responded Butzek, is that every potential route goes through a neighborhood.
Davis then asked Green, the consultant, about the road through the golf course that Scott had suggested. Green said the GPI had studied that option but had concluded that “it is not financially feasible to build a multimillion-dollar road in order to add 107 units.”
Council next discussed funding for off-site improvements that the inn had promised the city to make. After huddling with city staff, Green stood up and appeared to agree to the following proposed payments: $125,000 for traffic calming, $150,000 for sidewalks and $10,000 for bike paths, plus a 15 percent add-on to the sidewalk amount for engineering, right-of-way acquisition and administration if the GPI preferred to let the city handle those matters, and a 25 percent add-on to the traffic-calming total. All told, these amounts add up to about $338,000. After further discussion, however, Mumpower asked Green to consult with his GPI team and come up with the highest amount they would offer to pay for those improvements.
In the meantime, Council members discussed numerous other potential conditions city staff had recommended that they place on the permit, such as appointing an ombudsman to handle complaints from neighbors, and requiring buffer strips and design oversight.
Newman asked whether approving the plan would bar any further development at the Grove Park Inn within the specified 10-year time span. City Attorney Oast noted that the permit would apply only to those areas affected by the current development plan, not to other parts of the GPI property. Other staffers reported that under the UDO, any new project undertaken within 1,500 feet of a previously approved construction project and within three years of the prior project’s commencement would be subject to Council review. And given the extended nature of the proposed development plan and the physical shape of the GPI property, the only area available for such unregulated development would be the golf course — which city staff believe it’s unlikely the inn would want to tamper with.
At that point, Green came back with an offer of $325,000 for off-site improvements — less than what seemed to have been agreed to earlier in the meeting. No one mentioned the discrepancy, though Jones noted that the inn was being exempted from some $200,000 worth of sidewalk and other amenity charges that could be required under the conditional-use rules. Accordingly, she demanded that sidewalks on two more adjacent streets be included, pushing the total to $375,000. Green acceded, and the deal was soon sealed.
The other two public hearings played out without incident; both were unanimously approved. The first involved conditional-use rezoning of a house lot at 44 Ben Lippen Road from residential multifamily low density to community business. Homeowner David Ingram owns a machine shop on Amboy Road that suffered extensive damage during September’s floods; he sought permission to build a new one adjacent to his home. No one spoke against it, though Council placed the following conditions on its approval: no outdoor business operations between 9 p.m. and 8 a.m., no commercial outdoor lighting, and no delivery trucks larger than panel trucks.
The other hearing concerned an amendment to the Unified Development Ordinance to clarify two standards for bed-and-breakfast operations and bring the language of the UDO in line with the city Planning and Development Department’s de facto enforcement.
Earlier, Council members had quickly approved a consent agenda that included two items pertaining to former controversies: accepting $65,000 from River Bend LLC, the developer of the Sayles/Wal-Mart site, to pay for traffic-calming improvements in the area; and approving the management agreement for URTV, the public-access television station being developed for Buncombe County.
As easy as ABC
As the clock ticked toward 11 p.m., Council took up a series of appointments to six city boards. Although these are typically pro forma matters, the first on the list was the Alcoholic Beverage Control board, which has drawn considerable fire from City Council in recent years. Council member Joe Dunn, in particular, has spoken out frequently about an embezzlement case involving an ABC employee who’s now serving a prison sentence, as well as about alleged mismanagement and lax bookkeeping at the agency.
Vice Mayor Mumpower called for a vote on whether to reappoint or replace the current board members, starting with Chairwoman Deborah Holmes-Young. Dunn reiterated many of his concerns, complaints and allegations before voting against reappointing her. Holly Jones then mounted an equally passionate, if more concise, defense of the current board before casting a vote in support of Holmes-Young. That prompted Dunn to jump back in until Mumpower reasserted control.
Perhaps inspired by Dunn, the remaining Council members all felt compelled to offer a more or less lengthy disquisition on the tribulations and responsibilities of board membership, the demands of public accountability, and the merits of punishment for past errors versus credit for recent progress, until seemingly every aspect of the matter had been laundered, dried, pressed and folded into a vote of support for Holmes-Young, with Dunn and Mumpower opposed. In somewhat less protracted fashion, Council reappointed Barbara Field on a similar vote and added new appointees Duane Jarnecke and Kenneth Kaplan to the board.
In quick succession, Council then reappointed David Schulman, Lee Nesbitt, Steven Lutz and Diedra Smith to the Film Commission and added Vice Mayor Mumpower, Melinda Rains and Diane Vander Linden as new members.
Other appointments included: Robert Middlemas to the Board of Adjustment as an alternate; George Keller to the Civic Center Commission; Jerome Jones to the Planning and Zoning Commission; and Eleanor Campbell to the Recreation Board.
Following brief public comments, Council adjourned shortly before midnight.