By the time Mayor Esther Manheimer adjourned City Council’s Dec. 13, meeting at 9:45 p.m., only Council members, city staff and media remained in the room.
A report of the city-appointed Accessory Dwelling Unit homestay task force began at 6:23 p.m. and spurred a discussion that lasted over 90 minutes. After voting to 4-3 to leave the existing ban on using ADUs as homestays in place, Council went into closed session and most of the crowd took its leave. That attrition set the stage for the consideration of some other significant issues largely without fanfare or public comment.
At 9:06 p.m., Council heard a summary of renovations slated to begin on Jan. 15 at Pritchard Park. Landscape architect Steven Lee Johnson of Sitework Studios described the project as “not a redesign, just improvements.” The $230,000 in improvements will increase security, protect landscape plantings and upgrade the park’s appearance, he said. Roderick Simmons, director of the city’s Parks and Recreation department, said that groups including the Downtown Commission, Downtown Asheville Residential Neighbors (DARN), the Tree Commission and the Recreation board had reviewed the plans and supported the upgrades.
One element of the plans — fencing that Johnson described as necessary to protect the parks’ trees roots and proposed new plantings — drew Council member Cecil Bothwell‘s attention. The proposed fences, Bothwell said, seemed to be designed to exclude people from “the park part of the park.” Council member Keith Young asked whether the areas to be protected by fencing are spaces people currently use.
Describing the need for fencing as a “standard urban boundary situation,” Johnson said that “plants and foot traffic don’t work.” The fencing, he explained, would be a 40-inch-tall black steel railing. According to the drawings Johnson showed Council, the fencing would separate pedestrians from all non-paved areas in the park. “If pedestrians need to get closer to the trees,” he said, “we need to add more paving.”
Manheimer said she understood the need to achieve a balance between access and protecting planted areas. Referring to the bare-dirt state of the plaza in front of City Hall (which was replanted with new sod earlier this year), Manheimer commented, “It’s hard to enjoy a dirt park rather than a green park.” At the same time, she continued, Council hears from groups not consulted by the planners. And the groups that had been consulted, Bothwell said, are the ones who generally want to keep people out of Pritchard Park.
Council member Julie Mayfield suggested that the Homeless Initiative Advisory Commission review and comment on the plans. City Manager Gary Jackson offered that a rendering showing the railings from eye level might be helpful; Manheimer said she would like to see a rendering in addition to obtaining additional public comment.
In sending planners and city staff back to the community for additional input, Manheimer noted, “We’re probably messing up the construction schedule, but that’s how we are.”
ADU Homestay task force
As expected (see ADU task force recommendations clouded by process concerns), a city-appointed ADU homestay task force presented two recommendations to Council: one in support of maintaining the city’s existing ban on using accessory units as homestay short-term rentals and the other advocating for an 18-month pilot program to allow a limited number of homestay permits in ADUs.
Task force member John Farquhar also presented what he called “the Portland solution,” based on the program and experiences of Portland, Ore. In Portland, he said, allowing ADU owners to use those units as short-term rentals has led to an increase in the number of new ADUs constructed. Portland has observed that many property owners who initially rent their ADUs on a short-term basis eventually convert those units to long-term housing, he said. The same scenario could reasonably be expected to play out in Asheville, Farquhar predicted.
As in previous Council discussions that explored the effects of short-term rentals on the city, many of those who commented expressed concern about the impact of renting out separate living units on the city’s shortage of affordable housing. Others pointed out that rental housing vacancy rates have recently appeared to rise to what would be considered a healthy level at or above 6 percent, according to some market reports. Those who advocate ending the ban said that the proposed pilot program, along with possible concessions the city might be able to negotiate with online short-term rental site Airbnb, would reduce the risk of implementing a test of the practice to a low level.
Concerns about the task force process and voting got a hearing. In the end, Council voted as its members had said they would in a Nov. 25 article in the Asheville Citizen-Times, with Manheimer, Mayfield, Smith and Gwen Wisler in favor of upholding the exiting ban, and Bothwell, Brian Haynes and Young opposed.
South Asheville affordable housing award
Speaking for Hathaway Development, civil engineer Chris Day asked Council to approve incentives under the city’s Land Use Incentive Grant program for a planned 290-unit apartment complex on Miami Circle off Long Shoals Road in South Asheville. Land Use Incentive Grants reward developers of affordable housing with tax and fee abatements based on how well the project meets city criteria for affordable housing located close to schools, jobs and transit. The same project was the subject of an emotional Council hearing in June, at which some of the 55 residents displaced from a mobile home park on the property by the project explained the impact the loss of their close-knit community and affordable rents would have on their families (see Council approves South Asheville apartment complex, expresses regret, June 14).
Wisler questioned why the funding request had not been included in the package presented to Council in June. At that time, Council granted the developers’ conditional zoning request based, in part, on the company’s pledge to designate 29 units (10 percent of the project) as affordable units reserved for families earning less than 80 percent of the area median income.
Jeff Staudinger, the city’s assistant director of community and economic development, said that existing rules don’t require the requests to be made together. He also said that combining regulatory concessions (in this case, conditional zoning) with economic incentives is emerging as a national best practice for encouraging market-based affordable housing solutions.
South Asheville resident Vijay Kapoor submitted remarks on the funding request via email; his remarks were entered into the meeting record but not discussed during the session. City Clerk Maggie Burleson provided Kapoor’s email at Xpress’ request:
As you will remember, Hathaway sought a conditional zoning change in June 2016 to build his property in the way he saw fit. Prior to the matter getting to City Council, a group of parishioners and a deacon from St. Barnabas Church in Arden worked to try to obtain some help for the residents to assist with moving costs. These residents, many of whom spoke little English, lived in mobile homes and paid approximately $225 per month in rent. Initially, the parishioners were told that nothing could be done, but subsequently the developer agreed to contribute $250,000 to the residents. The group then learned that the developer had also agreed to contribute $40,000 to the City’s housing trust fund. Ultimately, the developer agreed to shift that $40,000 to the residents for a total of $290,000 – or approximately $5,273 per family (less than the $8,000 estimate needed to actually move a home that could even be moved). The developer’s representatives were adamant that they could not afford to give any more and told the parishioners that the developer could simply walk away from the table and they would received nothing. Even at the City Council hearing, they refused Councilmember Wisler’s suggestion to waive the residents’ rent during the transition period.
The possibility that tax breaks were available never came up during discussions with the St. Barnabas parishioners, at the Planning & Zoning Board or at City Council. As a taxpayer, it outrages me that my tax dollars might subsidize a project that displaced poor, vulnerable families with young children – the same families that the City’s affordable housing programs are trying to help. It’s one thing to reluctantly allow such a project to happen because you don’t have the power to stop it; it’s entirely another to allow taxpayer dollars to subsidize it. That money could be either saved or used for other important needs facing the City – including affordable housing.
Furthermore, this was a conditional zoning matter. The possibility of tax breaks should have been discussed at the hearing – not 6 months later. In granting the conditional zoning, City Council permitted the developer to do something that he otherwise would not have been able to do. He agreed as a condition to provide the affordable housing component. The developer is essentially asking the City to give him tax breaks for something that he is already obligated to do. The developer contributed $290,000, after claiming he could afford no more, and he potentially stands to receive $528,000 in tax breaks. I cannot believe that Hathaway did not know that he could qualify for tax breaks through the LUIG program.
I do not fault City Council for voting to grant the conditional zoning in this matter because it truly had little leverage to help these families. But that doesn’t mean we should be providing tax breaks to a developer for doing something that he is already obligated to do and that, in the words of Councilmember Smith, resulted in the “destruction of a community.”
Council voted 6-1 to approve the incentive package, with Smith opposed. The grants will be worth $528,171 over three years, which equates to a $18,213 subsidy per affordable unit ($6,071 subsidy per unit per year).
Asheland Avenue rezoning
Seven parcels along the eastern side of Asheland Avenue were rezoned to Central Business District and included within the intermediate height zone. Council voted unanimously to approve the rezoning, which had previously received the approval of the city’s Planning & Zoning Commission.
Preschool planning funding
Council considered a request for $4,000 in funding from the Asheville Buncombe Preschool Planning Collaborative, a partnership established to explore expanding access to quality preschool programming for 3- and 4-year-olds in Asheville and Buncombe County. Other project underwriters include the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina and the Buncombe County Partnership for Children.
Jennie Eblen, a co-chair of the collaborative, got her chance to answer Council’s questions about the initiative after four hours of waiting through other agenda items. Responding to Young, Eblen said the collaborative would also be seeking the same amount of funding from the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners. The details of what support the group will need for its next phase aren’t clear now, Eblen said, but the current effort revolves around creating a plan for moving toward universal access to preschool for all children in Buncombe County. Funding the implementation of a future program, she said, would involve “very large amounts of money” and would be separate from the planning efforts.
The first hurdle on the way to opportunity and equity, Young commented, is birth; the next is preschool. Having worked at Asheville City Schools Preschool, he continued, he has seen both the waiting lists for a spot and also the benefits of quality preschool. Young then suggested Council make up a $2,200 funding gap by increasing its contribution to $6,200.
Noting that there is “strong support at the County for this,” Smith said he looks forward to “this being a broad and enduring partnership.” The $6,200 funding measure passed unanimously. Wisler was recused from the vote, as she holds a position on the board of one of the convening partners for the collaborative.
Planning for the I-26 connector project is underway, and work on “the major construction project” will commence in the near future, said Manheimer. She recounted a suggestion at a recent public input session held in Montford that the city retain a consultant with technical expertise and experience in the wide range of issues that could benefit from close scrutiny. Those issues include roadway design and engineering, noise modeling and mitigation, traffic forecasts and assumptions, construction-related lane closures, blasting, greenways, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure and stormwater mitigation, among others, she said.
Council voted unanimously to move forward with a request for proposals process to identify a consultant.
African-American Heritage Commission
Council voted to match $10,000 in funding from Buncombe County for a process to determine a community vision for honoring the history and contributions of African-Americans in Buncombe County.
Homeless Initiative Advisory Committee
Council appointed Gene Bell, John Rakes and Dale Davidson. The search to fill the seat reserved for someone who is currently or formerly homeless will be reopened.
Council adjourned at 9:45 p.m.
City Council’s next regular meeting will take place at 5 p.m. on Jan. 10, 2017 in Council chambers on the second floor of City Hall. Items scheduled to be on the public hearings agenda, per Burleson, include (but are subject to change):
Public hearing to consider an amendment to Chapter 7 of the Code of Ordinances to establish requirements for utility substations. This public hearing will be continued until June 13, 2017.
Public hearing to consider the voluntary annexation of 12 Loop Road.
Public hearing to consider the conditional zoning of 12 Loop Road, 352 Airport Road and a portion of 360 Airport Road from Highway Business District to Highway Business District/Conditional Zoning for a 7.5 acre commercial retail development.
Public hearing to consider an amendment to a previously approved conditional zoning Ordinance (Ordinance No. 4414) in the Urban Place District/Conditional Zoning for changes to the conditions for development of a mixed use project at the property located at 146 Roberts St.
Public hearing to consider the construction of an eight-story, 185 room, 178,412 square foot hotel with on-site parking located at 192 Haywood St.