A government must protect its citizens. In principle, this tenet seems simple enough. The practical application, on the other hand, is anything but.
At the Nov. 28 regular Asheville City Council meeting, theory met reality in the form of a public hearing on whether to order a Merrimon Avenue boarding house vacated and closed. Multiple housing-code violations, according to Asheville Housing Code Coordinator Jeff Baker, have rendered the house (located at 135 Merrimon Ave.) unfit for human habitation. In his testimony, Baker described the century-old house as a “firetrap” with “serious, life-threatening violations.”
But for the 33 residents of the dilapidated house, many of whom are on fixed incomes or are faced with physical or mental challenges, 135 Merrimon is home. A handful of these residents attended the hearing in hope of keeping the boarding house open.
Walter Guinn, who lives at the house and serves as its assistant manager, defended one of the owners: “One of the reasons Mr. Janney couldn’t fix the place up was because he was broke, and he was broke because he had such a kind heart. He would never evict someone when they couldn’t pay; he’d let them stay,” Guinn testified. Another resident, Paula Simonton, who is on partial disability also testified. In an interview after the hearing, Simonton stated that her goal in speaking before Council was “to make sure everyone [in the house] finds a safe, warm and affordable place to live and not leave here with a sense of failure.”
In a catch-22 dilemma, Council was faced with the difficult choice of allowing the boarding house to remain open, despite its dangerous state, or to follow the recommendation of city staff to vacate and close the building — a decision that could leave many of the residents homeless.
In a Dickensian twist, the drama was heightened by the specter of putting these people on the street in the cold of winter — and in the midst of the holiday season, to boot. At one point during the hearing, Mayor Leni Sitnick read aloud from the list of violations, her voice a mixture of shock, dismay and disgust. Upon finishing, she looked out upon the chamber and uttered, in an incredulous tone, “Merry Christmas.”
Baker pointed out that the city had made numerous attempts over the past year to get the owners, Robert Janney and Sara Krueger, to repair the house. The owners, to date, have not done so. They have also defaulted on their mortgage, and the title has been assumed by T.M. Equities of Hendersonville (which has no intention of continuing the boarding-house service and has asked the residents to vacate), according to Baker.
For the residents, finding single-occupancy housing is a large challenge. Ironically, there are enough vacancies in Asheville public housing to accommodate the displaced residents, but most of them do not meet the criteria to qualify for assistance. Some of the residents have criminal records, which would preclude them from certain aid programs. Several residents are employed, making just enough money to disqualify them for public assistance but not enough to afford the up-front money involved in renting a living space. Asheville Director of Public Housing Gene Bell commented that his office is “grossly restricted due to the bureaucracy in H.U.D.” Council member Barbara Field pointed out that this segment of the population, the working poor and single adults, is often overlooked when affordable-housing options are discussed. There’s a pressing need to address this problem, she added.
Baker and his staff, in a proactive move, have formed a task force consisting of representatives from the Asheville Affordable Housing Coalition, the Blue Ridge Center for Mental Health and several local affordable-housing nonprofit agencies to address the residents’ needs. To underscore the urgency of the problem, both Baker and Affordable Housing Coalition Director Karen Kiehna appealed to members of the public to help provide housing for the residents.
In the end, the overriding need to ensure public safety and enforce the city’s building code prompted Council to unanimously adopt the ordinance to vacate and close the building. The motion, made by Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger and seconded by Council member Charles Worley, included a 90-day sunset provision that will, in theory, give the residents time to find new homes. Council member Terry Bellamy, expressing her frustration over the plight of the residents and her anger toward Janney and Krueger, flatly stated, “This is disgraceful. [Janney and Krueger] give affordable housing a bad rap.”
[Editor’s note: For an in-depth look at the residents of 135 Merrimon, see our cover story on page XX.
In the second public hearing of the evening, Council entertained a proposal from the Planning Department to amend the Unified Development Ordinance to revise the procedure for reviewing Level III development projects. “Level III development” refers to large projects, such as commercial, office and institutional development proposals involving more than 100,000 square feet. The Planning Department drafted the proposal after Council had requested the amendment, in an effort to streamline the public-hearing process and provide additional opportunity for public input. These changes, though, should not result in increased cost or time for the applicant. City staff hopes that, with the new procedure in place, problems can be resolved early on — avoiding lengthy and contentious public hearings such as the one held on Nov. 14 regarding the proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter at the old Gerber site. With these goals in mind, city staff recommended several changes.
The current Level III review process involves the following: A detailed site plan is submitted to the Planning Department for review. The plan is then reviewed by the Technical Review Committee at a public meeting. The TRC provides Counil with recommendations regarding technical approval of the site plan. City Council reviews the plans and holds a public hearing on the issue. If the plan is approved, a conditional-use permit is issued for the development.
The proposed amended process would work like this: A conceptual site plan would be submitted to the Planning Department for review. (Conceptual plans are basic drawings with dimensions, as opposed to detailed architectural and engineering plans.) The conceptual plan would be reviewed by the TRC, then forwarded to the Planning and Zoning Commission for review. The Planning and Zoning Commission would hold a public hearing, where concerns and issues could be identified and addressed. City Council would then review the conceptual site plan and hold a public hearing. If the plan were approved, a conditional-use permit would be issued for the development, followed by a review of a detailed site plan by the TRC.
According to the staff report, this would provide additional opportunity for public input and enable issues and concerns to be identified and resolved before Council reviewed the site plans. Final approval would remain with Council, and political approval (by elected city officials) could be granted or denied before the applicant incurred the expense of having detailed plans prepared.
Several members of the public rose to speak about the proposed changes to the Level III review process. Nearly everyone agreed about the need for increased public input. Some, however, questioned the reliability of “conceptual” plans.
Ned Guttman, a local scientist, asked the city to look beyond the site of a project and to consider the impact it could have on the larger community. He also raised a point that didn’t sit well with some Council members. “Not everyone in the city trusts the city staff,” Guttman declared. He was quick to point out that his comment was general in terms, historical in context, and that his dealings with staff had been positive. But, he noted, he still felt the need to express an opinion shared by some.
Cloninger and Sitnick took umbrage at Guttman’s statement. “Questioning the honesty and integrity of this city staff [is] very unfortunate,” Cloninger noted. Sitnick added, “I think we have the best city staff in state, if not the entire Southeast. It’s sad that people don’t trust them.”
Mike Moody, a local engineer, expressed concern over the ambiguous nature of conceptual plans, stating, “We need to know details early.”
After closing the public hearing, Cloninger made a motion to adopt the amendment. His motion, seconded by Council member Ed Hay, passed unanimously.
Commissions and cabs
In other business, Council discussed a revision to the Civic Center Commission Ordinance. The revision, in the form of a draft prepared by city staff, is an attempt at improving communication between the high-profile commission and Council. The only point of contention was over who would have the authority to appoint the commission’s chair. The members of the Civic Center Commission feel strongly that they should be allowed to name their own chair. City Manager Jim Westbrook, in a memo to Council, recommended that Council appoint the chair. Council member Hay proposed a compromise, wherein the commission would select the chair and Council would have final approval of the selection. Council member Brian Peterson pointed out that this strategy could be divisive, should Council disagree with the commission’s selection. Hays’ proposal found no support.
After some discussion, Cloninger stated: “The members [of the Civic Center Commission] are appointed by us. We should have confidence in them; they are the ones who are best able to judge who should lead.” Hay then made a motion to adopt a revised draft of the ordinance that would allow the commission to select its own chair. Seconded by Cloninger, the motion passed unanimously.
In addressing some unfinished business, Council finally approved a revision to the City Taxicab Ordinance, including a new rate table, in an effort to bring the code up to date. The rate increase, the first since 1987, is a result of increased insurance costs for the cab operators. Asheville taxicab companies were collectively represented by State House District 51 Rep. Martin Nesbitt, who appeared before Council, as he put it, “in [my] lawyer suit,” and not as an elected official.
The amended ordinance would also authorize Council to establish a Taxicab Advisory Board for the purpose of conducting periodic reviews of local cab service. While the motion passed unanimously, Cloninger said he was reluctant to adopt it — citing questions over the adequacy of the $30,000 minimum liability insurance coverage stipulated in the ordinance. “I’m troubled by the fact that people can be injured by a cab and limited to $30,000 in compensation … but we don’t want to run these [cab operators] out of business,” he concluded.