Asheville City Council

The first formal session for Asheville’s new City Council was also their last one of 2005. But despite what looked like a cut-and-dried agenda, the Dec. 13 meeting played out before a Council chamber crowded with people waiting to speak on a controversial rezoning request that stood between City Council members and a holiday break.

“This, on the surface, seems quite innocuous,” Beverly Hills neighborhood resident Debbie Applewhite said later, referring to a proposed home-to-office conversion. But her statement could just as easily have applied to the entire agenda.

And despite Mayor Terry Bellamy‘s assurance at her swearing-in the previous week that planning-and-zoning appeals would not dominate the new Council’s agenda, some already-scheduled items still had to be dealt with. Bellamy wasted no time taking charge of the discussions and firmly enforcing time limits — on her Council colleagues as well as on members of the public.

Like a good neighbor

The owners of property adjacent to the Beverly Hills subdivision on Tunnel Road were seeking permission to nearly double the size of the building on the site — a house that they want to convert into an office for their company, MindSpring Consulting — and add parking. Previously used as a residence, the property is wedged between the high-traffic Tunnel Road business corridor and Governor’s View Road, a residential street.

Attorney Ronald Sneed noted that the property has been vacant for two years while bouncing on and off the market. Representing property owners Terry and Hayden Hasty, Sneed trotted out an extensive presentation in defense of the project — bolstered by the owners, the project’s architect and a real-estate agent — all aimed at heading off the arguments of neighbors opposed to the project.

“This will mean very little invasion into the neighborhood,” Sneed allowed. “It doesn’t open the door for other zoning.”

And Ms. Hasty was quick to point out that the office wouldn’t have a lot of impact on traffic in the area, and the only access to the parking lot would be via Tunnel Road. “We don’t work evenings or weekends, so the traffic we have is very focused,” she reported.

In all, about 20 people showed up to speak, with opinions split fairly evenly.

“What we most fear is intrusion into the back of the neighborhood,” said Haw Creek resident Barber Melton, who is vice president of the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods. Charlie Campbell, meanwhile, said he would “welcome [the office building] as our neighbor.”

Project opponents, on the other hand, argued that the expanded structure and resulting traffic would have a negative effect on nearby residents. And some worried that, even if this business has a low traffic volume, future occupants of the property might not.

“You cannot tinker with one little property in the neighborhood without affecting the entire neighborhood,” Diane Hankins declared.

Hankins also challenged Bellamy’s promise to Sneed that he would have a second turn at the lectern to rebut the arguments mounted by residents. Professing familiarity with the rules governing public hearings, Hankins said she was unaware of any rule allowing project applicants to have the floor back following the conclusion of public comment.

After some discussion with City Attorney Bob Oast, the mayor granted Hankins a second chance to speak following Sneed’s closing comments. But that decision proved to be more dramatic than the actual concluding comments from either side. Sneed declined to speak again, saying he thought his side had made its case. And Hankins said only, “The whole city is on tiptoe to see what you are going to do with neighborhoods.”

Some residents opposing the project, including Applewhite, maintained that the conditional rezoning would amount to illegal “spot zoning.” Such arguments have have hovered just below the surface of many zoning discussions since the city adopted its conditional-use-rezoning policy in 2000. Questioned by Council, Oast said the term is inappropriate in this case, noting, “Much of the law on spot zoning was written before there was such a thing as conditional zoning.”

Residents also worried that approving the request would lead to more and more rezoning in the area. But Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford said the specialized and low-key nature of the business, and its unique surroundings, make this unlikely. “This does not create a precedent situation,” he asserted.

As Council took up the discussion, it became apparent that the rezoning was going to pass. Council member Brownie Newman made a motion to approve the rezoning with staff-recommended conditions defining the size of both the structure and the parking area. Council member Robin Cape asked for, and got, an amendment that would increase the required landscape buffering behind the building. The proposal passed unanimously.

The MAIN thing

The year-end Council session also included a hefty consent agenda packed with resolutions and budget amendments. All of them passed, though some sparked discussion and thus required individual votes. Council member Carl Mumpower once again opposed charging the Mountain Area Information Network a reduced fee for leasing space on a city-owned communications tower. The agreement will enable the nonprofit to offer low-cost, wireless Internet service in most parts of Asheville. Mumpower has consistently objected to giving MAIN the same deal offered to other nonprofits because of political content on the group’s Web site and MAIN’s relationship with low-power radio station WPVM. The agreement was approved 6-1.

Council member Jan Davis asked for clarification on the city’s payments to nonprofits providing housing assistance to Hurricane Katrina victims now living in Asheville. Community Development Director Charlotte Caplan explained that up to $100,000 will be disbursed to nonprofits as specific requests come in. The city expects to be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for these expenditures.

City Council also approved the following items: a $100,000 budget amendment for new sidewalk construction, the purchase of an easement along the French Broad River for the Hominy Creek/Amboy Road Greenway, and an agreement with the state Department of Transportation that it will reimburse the city for its share of the cost of bus service between Black Mountain and Asheville.

Vacancies galore

The following boards and commissions have vacancies: the Board of Adjustment, Community Relations Council, Downtown Commission, Economic Development Advisory Committee, Fair Housing Commission, Greenway Commission, Metropolitan Sewerage District Board, Noise Ordinance Appeals Board, Public Art Board and Tree Commission. The deadline to apply is Jan. 12, 2006. For more information or an application, call 259-5601.

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