Vigorous debate helps keep the body politic healthy, feeding it with life-giving, dialectic nutriment. Such sustenance will undoubtedly be on the menu when City Council considers revising the Unified Development Ordinance to either allow or prohibit soup kitchens in certain areas of town.
At their Dec. 10 formal meeting, Council members turned their attention to a facility run by the nonprofit Asheville-Buncombe Community Christian Ministry at its headquarters on Cumberland Avenue in Montford. According to a memo prepared by city Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford, his office began investigating the soup kitchen after receiving a complaint in mid-October about an “unpermitted activity” at the ABCCM facility. An initial investigation determined that there “was indeed a soup kitchen operating at 24 Cumberland Avenue and that there was a large number of junked or unlicensed vehicles being stored on an adjoining residential lot.” A letter was then sent to ABCCM Executive Director Scott Rogers, who responded by informing Shuford’s office that the soup kitchen had been in operation at the location for “some time” and that the cars would be removed.
Dripping through the cracks
After researching the issue, Shuford’s office determined that the only permits ever granted for the ABCCM facility were a 1995 zoning permit to allow expansion of a waiting area and porch for an “office/warehouse” and a 1985 Certificate of Appropriateness for an “office/warehouse.” When the UDO was adopted (after years of work) in 1997, the property in question was assigned the “office” zoning designation. “Neither of these permits document a soup kitchen at this location, but they do not rule it out,” notes the memo, adding, “However, we have received telephone calls and correspondence from neighbors who have indicated that the soup kitchen use was recently established by ABCCM.”
During the Dec. 10 Council session, Rogers testified that his organization has been operating the kitchen “since the very first day” the Montford facility opened some 17 years ago. “This is not a recent event,” he stressed, adding that the kitchen serves “70 to 75 meals a day.”
Whatever the soup kitchen’s history, the present situation does highlight a flaw in the UDO: The lengthy document makes no mention of soup kitchens. So Shuford took it upon himself to, as his memo puts it, make “the following interpretation about how such a use should be permitted:
“Soup kitchens are ancillary uses associated with ‘shelters’ as defined in the UDO. The UDO defines ‘shelter’ as a ‘non-profit, charitable, or religious organization providing boarding and/or lodging and ancillary services on its premises to primarily indigent, needy, homeless, or transient persons.’ … However, please note that the Office zoning that ABCCM is currently in does not currently permit shelters. Civic, social service, and fraternal organization facilities are permitted uses in the Office zone, but these have not been interpreted to include soup kitchens, and we believe that the soup kitchens that currently exist in the city are in fact part of shelter operations.”
In other words, in Shuford’s view, the Elks Club can set up shop in Montford’s Office district and feed themselves — but not the poor. Restaurants are also permitted under Office zoning.
Dissatisfied with Shuford’s interpretation, Council member Brian Peterson quickly introduced a motion to direct the Planning staff to “begin as soon as possible the process for a text amendment to Chapter 7 of the UDO to allow for greater flexibility in locating social-service establishments that disperse dietary essentials to the needy in office/commercial districts.”
During public comment on Peterson’s motion, an Asheville resident who identified himself as Brother Christopher, a Franciscan, defended the ABCCM soup kitchen, noting that “part of the Gospel is to feed the poor” and that “some of the people who live down there [in Montford] also eat there.” He then linked the evening’s debate with the recent revision of the panhandling ordinance, telling Council that the perception on the street is that “the board wants to run the poor out of town.”
That feedback didn’t sit well with Council member Joe Dunn, who lashed out at Christopher (decked out in a full-length, hooded cape). “I’d like to say something to our brother who’s a monk,” said Dunn. “This city gives millions of dollars to the poor; I have a problem with you making it sound like we don’t care.”
Asheville resident Sharon Martin immediately rose to Christopher’s defense, saying: “Personally, I perceive there is a war against the most vulnerable in our community. When you make the votes you’re making and then tell us you can’t be flexible on a soup kitchen, that’s the perception people are going to have. … If you don’t want that perception, then maybe you should consider making different decisions.”
Council members then debated the matter among themselves. Clearly, they all wanted more information about both the kitchen and the amendment process, though they disagreed on how best to proceed.
Council members Carl Mumpower, Jim Ellis, Dunn and Mayor Charles Worley argued that Peterson’s motion would initiate a complex amendment process entailing a series of procedural steps (including required hearings by both the Board of Adjustment and the Planning and Zoning Commission) before Council could take further action on the issue. Instead, Worley proposed taking a more informal approach: asking staff to research the issue further and allowing Council a more active role in the early stages.
“Let’s not jump in in the heat of the moment. Let’s get more information and then decide if it’s appropriate to consider an amendment,” urged Worley, underscoring the complexity of amending the city’s comprehensive land-use ordinance. Earlier in the evening, however, Worley had given some indication of where he stands on this issue, saying: “Frankly, I’m inclined to oppose [Peterson’s motion]. All of us are sympathetic with ABCCM and their mission. … .But I’m not inclined to make a special case for the situation that has arisen. We have an ordinance for a reason; I’m not inclined to make an exception, no matter what the organization is that finds itself in the situation.”
Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy, however, seconded Peterson’s motion and questioned Shuford about the possible ramifications for churches and other groups that want to feed the poor but don’t operate a shelter. Council member Holly Jones asked Rogers how long the ABCCM soup kitchen has been in operation.
“From the very first day we’ve had a pot of coffee, some sandwiches and some cans of soup going on a hot plate,” he replied, reiterating his earlier assertion that the facility has been in continuous operation.
Peterson’s motion to formally amend the UDO was defeated on a 4-3 vote, with Worley, Dunn, Mumpower and Ellis opposed and Peterson, Jones and Bellamy voting in favor. Council members did agree on one point, however: asking staff to continue to research the issue and report back with their findings.
Pending that staff report and further Council action on the matter, the ABCCM soup kitchen will be permitted to continue serving meals.