In a brief meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 23, Asheville City Council gave its blessing to city planning staff’s proposal to update zoning ordinances to encourage higher-density residential development.
Or perhaps “update” isn’t quite the right term, since planner Vaidila Satvika explained that older versions of the city’s zoning code allowed for denser development than current standards. “Asheville’s history included a lot more flexibility for multi-family housing in the forties than it does today,” Satvika said.
While current development focuses on detached, single-family homes on the one hand, and large apartment complexes on the other, Satvika said, “We’re missing the duplexes, triplexes, quads and smaller apartment buildings mixed in with our housing and that’s partially due to the rise of automobiles and planning practices that changed over the last 50 years. We believe that we can potentially go back to a form where more varied housing options are permitted.”
Today’s Asheville, continued Satvika, is experiencing a “very tight housing market” with a vacancy rate of below 1 percent. Not only is the supply of housing scarce, but the cost is high relative to residents’ means. While 25 percent of city homeowners are considered burdened by housing-related costs, 43 percent of the city’s renters are paying more than 30 percent of their incomes for shelter. “It’s close to what Detroit sees,” he said. “We have a very large number of households paying out a large percentage of their incomes for housing.”
To reduce that burden and to accommodate the city’s growth, the city’s planning department wants to draft wording amendments to Asheville’s Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) to reduce barriers to small-scale “infill” housing that can increase the density in residential neighborhoods.
Satvika outlined seven areas identified for potential updates or changes:
Though the city introduced this zoning category in 2007, only six projects of this type have been permitted since then, and not all of those have been built. Cottage developments combine multiple homes on a single parcel and typically share some common open space. Satvika proposes studying the elements of the zoning category to understand what features have limited its use, such as the number of units allowed and the areas where they are permitted.
Current UDO standards favor the development of single-family homes by limiting the number of units that can be placed within a given area. The 1948 Asheville code allowed multi-family units in all residential districts. Thus, Satvika explained, ” You could build a lot more of them without having to double your square footage.”
Asheville’s current standards reflect a “one-size-fits-all” approach that doesn’t allow flexibility in considering oddly-shaped lots or those which are just slightly too small to qualify as building lots or for subdivision.
“Currently anybody can build a tiny home on a foundation in Asheville,” said Satvika. “It is permitted. You can buy a lot and you can build a 300 square foot home. There’s no problem with that. The issue is minimum standards for lot size.” Current standards require a minimum of a 5,000 square foot site, regardless of whether you are building a 4,000 square foot home or a 300 square foot home. The planning department would like to explore the potential for overlay zones in which lot size and width standards could be reduced as the size of the house becomes smaller.
“There’s a large market of people who want to live with less. They don’t want so much area,” said Satvika.
Higher-density residential zone
While the city’s current highest-density zoning is RM-16, planning staff would like to consider a higher-density transitional corridor separating residential areas from higher-intensity uses like industrial and manufacturing. At present, requests for higher density must all be considered through the conditional zoning process.
A conservation development classification would provide developers with a means for grouping housing to protect a portion of a piece of property as a park or open space. “This would basically give more flexibility for developers who have an interest in doing the right thing on the property,” said Satvika.
Sustainable development bonus
A sustainable development ordinance on the books today hasn’t been used, according to Satvika. The ordinance requires affordable housing, green standards and proximity to transit corridors. Satvika said the planning department would like to look at the ordinance to see how it can be made more viable and attractive to developers.
All of the seven of the strategies he presented, added Satvika, are inherently more sustainable than development that contributes to sprawl.
Satvika said that the planning department believes it can realistically address four of the strategies outlined during 2016. After drafting new amendment considerations, the department will develop an implementation schedule that incorporates Planning & Zoning Committee review and public input.
Commenting in support of the proposed infill development amendments were Teal Brown of Wishbone Tiny Homes and Kelly Palmatier of Asheville’s Tiny Home Association. Phyllis Pedersen, whose daughter owns a 100-year-old home in Montford, cautioned against developing parcels that serve to divert stormwater without proper engineering. She said her daughter’s home now floods after an infill home was constructed on a neighboring lot.
Other public commenters included Geoff Kemmish, who shared concerns about plans for the Beaucatcher Greenway, and Drew Davis, who asked city officials to look into noise issues associated with late-night and early-morning construction activity at the corner of College and Charlotte Streets.
The next meeting of City Council will be on March 8 at 5 p.m. in Council chambers on the second floor of City Hall.