Council: Yes to RAD zoning, no to short-term rentals

Graphic provided by the city of Asheville

For the second time in as many months, the city of Asheville’s grand vision for the future of its riverfront has run smack into some hard realities. On the heels of a June 23, meeting of Asheville City Council that saw elected officials agree to a reduced scope for the $56-million River Arts District Transportation Improvement Project due to higher-than-expected construction costs, the Council on July 25, deferred proposed zoning changes pending additional public comment and deliberation.

Over two years in the making, the planning and public process surrounding the zoning changes appeared to be proceeding fairly smoothly until recently. While owners of industrial property in the district had expressed concern about the impact of the changes on their business interests from the beginning, worries about allowed lodging uses — especially short-term rentals — in four of the seven proposed zoning districts only became an issue over the past two months.

Though four members of the Council — Mayor Esther Manheimer, Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler, Julie Mayfield and Gordon Smith — voted to approve the zoning code minus the possibility of short-term rentals anywhere in the district, City Attorney Robin Currin advised that such a substantial change in the proposal requires routing the matter back through the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission.

Voting against the motion to eliminate short-term rentals, Council members Cecil Bothwell, Brian Haynes and Keith Young said that excluding the short-term rental use from commercial districts in one area of the city while continuing to allow it in other areas zoned commercial didn’t make sense. The three also advocated excluding the area between the Norfolk Southern Railway tracks and the French Broad River from zoning changes until new infrastructure is in place and the long-term viability of commercial rail shipping is better understood.

Form and function

Map of proposed form-based code for the River Arts District. Graphic provided by the city of Asheville
Map of proposed form-based code for the River Arts District. Graphic provided by the city of Asheville

City planner Sasha Vrtunski gave an overview of how a form-based zoning code differs from traditional zoning. In a form-based code, she said, the ordinances place more emphasis on defining a building’s form and its relationship to its surroundings. In conventional zoning, the emphasis is on controlling the uses that are allowed within the buildings.

Downtown and West Asheville now use form-based zoning. Mayfield noted that the city’s draft Comprehensive Plan update calls for creating form-based codes along major transportation corridors and other areas of dense development.

In addition to the goal of embracing form-based zoning to guide new development in the River Arts District, Vrtunski said, other major issues considered during the development of the draft code included the 100- and 500-year flood plain areas and large parcels either owned by Norfolk Southern Railway or located within its right-of-way. “Zoning doesn’t apply to railroads the way it does to anyone else,” she pointed out.

Right side of the tracks

Real estate appraiser Mac Swicegood kicked off the public hearing on the proposed code with comments on behalf of industrial property owners. “Businesses along the river have operated for many, many years, adding millions to the economy of the area and providing a substantial number of good-paying jobs,” he said. “Now, to burden these businesses down with more zoning regulations could put these businesses in peril with nowhere to go with these irreplaceable amenities.” Swicegood said the zoning proposal was based on a “political whim” that might look good on the face of it, but would “hurt the community since there is no place for the business to go.”

“This is the only viable place for rail,” said property owner George Morosani of the unique role the industrial area in the river district plays in the city. “With the new highway, we don’t really know what can happen here. We don’t know what can be used there, or how it’s going to affect the neighborhood,” he said, asking Council to delay the rezoning of the area between the railroad tracks and the river for two to four years.

Calling himself the “unelected, unpaid, president-for-life of the River Rats,” a loose coalition of industrial property owners along the river, sometime-Xpress columnist Jerry Sternberg described the river area as a “living, breathing, economic, dynamic property” alongside and part of a vital transportation corridor. Unlike the riverfront areas in Chattanooga and Knoxville, he said, Asheville’s riverfront is not protected by dams that can minimize flooding.

Sternberg took issue with the new code’s use of seven different zoning areas, which he called “an insidious scheme to balkanize the river.” He asked Council to “exclude from this form-based zoning this area between the rail and the river zone, and if you can’t do that, then please just defeat the motion and let’s start all over.”

Bothwell asked rhetorically, “We hear this won’t change the uses between the river and the railroad. If that’s true, then why change the zoning?”

Asheville resident and mayoral candidate Jonathan Wainscott argued the opposite point, saying that industrial businesses in the river area are “economic remnants” that should be removed. He suggested that if Silver-Line Plastics were moved, there would be no need for rail service to the area. Silver-Line Plastics is located in the town of Woodfin, over which the Asheville City Council has no jurisdiction.

Short-term thinking

Other members of the public commented on the possible impact of allowing short-term rentals as a lodging use in four of the seven zoning areas in the district. The city’s Planning Department has heard that particular areas of concern include portions of Craven and Roberts streets where short-term rentals are not currently allowed, but would be under the new code, Vrtunski said.

Craven Street property owner Hannah Choueke said she spoke for herself and 11 other property owners in asking Council to let Asheville residents to share in the proceeds of the tourism economy by allowing short-term rentals in the zoning code. “No commercial zones in the city of Asheville currently prohibit short-term rentals,” she said, and the River Arts District should not include a unique exception.

Real estate agent Mike Figura said he recently purchased property on Craven Street in expectation of Council’s approval of the new form-based code. In light of the two-year process that led to the development of the code, he said, “I ask City Council not to vote tonight unless you vote to approve the new code in its entirety.”

Other issues discussed included the allowed height of buildings in Lyman Hollow bordering Vernell Street. Currently, building heights up to 80 feet are allowed in the area, Vrtunski said, but the new code would reduce that height to 65 feet. Residents of Vernell Street and South French Broad Avenue argued that was still too high and would block views from their property.

Eddie Dewey, one of the owners of the 13-acre Foundation property at 339 Old Lyman St., urged Council to slow down the implementation of the new zoning code due to recent changes in the scope of the River Arts District Transportation Improvement Project. With funding for some of the promised public amenities removed from the project, he said, he’d “like to hit the pause button” to make sure “we’re all walking down this road together” on plans for the area. Manheimer focused intently on Dewey as he spoke and, judging from her facial expressions, she appeared pained by his comments.

Staking positions

Saying he anticipates “massive investments” in the River Arts District over the next several years, Smith continued, “That’s why it is important that we make these zoning changes now, because once all that money’s poured in, these buildings are built, we won’t be able to unring the bell.”

“This broad community effort has brought to us something that I’m really grateful that I can support almost in its entirety,” Smith said. However, the possibility of short-term rentals creating “party houses” next to residential neighborhoods led him to move to take “any lodging facilities up to 20 rooms” out of the table of permitted uses in the district. Bed and breakfasts, inns and homestays could remain as permitted uses, he clarified.

Young responded that he’s enthusiastic about the changes that are taking place in the River Arts District, but that “I’m just uncomfortable moving forward. I think there’s a few tweaks.” He said he’s not sure the proposal to disallow short-term rentals in the district makes sense, and industrial property owners need more chance to have their say on the changes.

“I’m uncomfortable with taking what we declared a commercial zone and taking lodging from it, when that’s not true elsewhere in the city,” agreed Haynes.

“I think the whole point of the form-based code is to look ahead and to envision what it is in the future,” said Wisler. “And I think just going with what we have as the status quo is not really the appropriate way to look at this. I clearly believe that adding more short-term rentals, or even having short-term rentals anywhere in a residential area, is inconsistent with our vision for the River Arts District and inconsistent with the comprehensive plan.”

Growth is inevitable

The tools available to local elected officials in North Carolina for influencing economic growth, Manheimer said, are limited. Some people, she said, “think we can actually stop growth in some areas and allow it to happen in others. It doesn’t work like that. But we can shape growth. We can help guide growth through a framework that better reflects the vision of the majority of the community.”

“It would be a shame,” Manheimer continued, “for us not to be able to take advantage of all of the work that’s happened here  — all of the momentum that we know is happening, all of the community input — so that we can ensure that the future of the river district better reflects what folks want.”

“Because the growth of this area is inevitable,” the mayor said.

Manheimer concurred that short-term rentals represent a real threat to the city and, therefore, “It’s safer to proceed with caution.”

Council voted 4-3 in favor of Smith’s motion to approve the zoning code following additional public input on removing short-term lodging uses from the district at the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission. Bothwell, Haynes and Young were opposed.

Currin clarified that Council should direct the Planning and Zoning Commission to focus on the lodging question, but that members of the public will be free to raise concerns about any part of the proposed zoning change. After the commission hears public input, the matter will return to City Council for another public hearing and vote. No date has yet been set for Council’s next hearing on the matter.





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19 thoughts on “Council: Yes to RAD zoning, no to short-term rentals

  1. Mike

    ” until the long-term viability of commercial rail shipping is better understood.” It should be obvious that rail shipping is “viable” indefinitely. So are Bothwell and friends referring just to the east bank spur than serves Silverline and connects to the Craggy Mountain line that runs up Beaverdam creek… or are they projecting a complete loss of NS service to Asheville (because of the sale of the Murphy Branch and whats left of the W-line to BLU)???

    • Virginia Daffron

      Really good questions, Mike, and I’d be fascinated to know more, too. Maybe Cecil will chime in here, but it seemed to me that he was saying, when coal is no longer being shipped from West Virginia to the Duke Energy plant at Lake Julian (that is, when the new gas-powered plant comes online), the average lengths of trains will be shorter and that might actually make rail transport more viable and attractive. I’m pretty sure that anything that could take gas-powered vehicles off the roadways is something Cecil favors and wants to preserve. He mentioned the possible sale of the line, but I didn’t have enough context to follow that all fully.

      • Mike

        Cecil used the word “shipping” and you used the words “shipping” and then “transport”. I presume Cecil is referring to freight. Are you suggesting a return to passenger transportation?? I rode the trains in the 50’s (from Asheville to Midland TX) and would like to see an Amtrak connection but major passenger traffic is not going to happen.

        I do think it possible that NS will unload the rest of the S-line (Morristown TN / Salisbury NC) in the next few years, but if that happens, I think Watco/BLU will pick it up. It sounded to me like Cecil and the others were contemplating complete abandonment of rail service to Asheville opening up the present rail cooridor to some form of redevelopment. Time will tell.

    • cecil bothwell

      As you’ll note in my longer comment below, my view is that rail is absolutely viable and necessary. Only Mr. Wainscott seems solely concerned about the Silverline spur. (Though Council is concerned about the bicycle hazard posed by that spur where it crosses Riverside, and it is being addressed.) I am projecting a potential INCREASE of freight service to Asheville as coal dwindles and the necessity of carbon emission reduction sinks in. Hence my view that it is better to hold off on tightening zoning regulation of Asheville’s only “rail yard”.

  2. Jonathan Wainscott

    Dear Xpress,
    It is true that Asheville City Council has no jurisdiction in Woodfin.
    Economic development in our area is not crafted by Asheville City Council. It’s crafted by boards and commissions that include officials from the City, County, and local business owners from all over Buncombe County. Look at who sits on the Boards of the EDC, the AARRC, and the BCTDA.
    In regards to RADTIP and development in the RAD, consider that Ricky Silver CHAIRED the AARRC (Asheville AREA Riverfront Redevelopment Commission) and was instrumental in the transformation in the RAD.
    That’s why his uneconomic remnant is relevant to the conversation.

    • Virginia Daffron

      Thanks for the annotated version, Jonathan. Now I better understand the point you were making.

      It’s my understanding that Carleton Collins is serving his second term as chair of the AARRC, so Silver’s tenure must have been a few years ago. Is he an Asheville resident? If not, it seems likely that he was appointed by an entity other than Asheville City Council. The Woodfin Board of Aldermen, Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, Chamber, RiverLink and CIBO all make appointments to that board.

  3. cecil bothwell

    Mr. Wainscott is as uninformed as ever. However close to the RAD he may live, he obviously misses the coal trains, since he imagines that Silverline pipe is the only recipient of rail freight.

  4. cecil bothwell

    On the larger question, yes, I believe that rail transport is about to change dramatically.
    At the macro scale, if there is any prayer of reducing carbon emissions to the point where we preserve a planet habitable by humans, we are going to have to return to shipping more goods via rail. The efficiency of rail versus road transport is massive and absent subsidy to fossil fuels, and indirectly to the auto industry via highway construction, would never have diminished. On level ground an adult can move a fully loaded box car.
    At the local level, as I noted during the meeting and in a press release Monday, rail traffic in Asheville is poised to change soon. Duke is replacing its Lake Julian coal plant with gas fired turbines. The coal trains headed there will be gone. (I don’t know if coal trains through Asheville deliver to the Duke plant out east near Salisbury, so I can’t say if ALL coal transport through here will go away.) Coal trains are a significant impediment to other uses of the rails, since they tend to be quite long and there is no passing room on much of the line through the mountains. I was told many years ago that the biggest reason we do not have passenger rail in Asheville is coal. (I heard that from what I deemed to be a knowledgable source, but can’t utterly vouch for it.)
    Meanwhile, N&S is poised to sell or lease the rails here to WATCO/BPU, which has the potential of changing both rail traffic and related commercial use.
    If one combines the necessity of reducing carbon emissions, Duke’s shift, and rail control, I think it’s pretty difficult to know what could happen in Asheville. Precluding possible beneficial results by tightly regulating development in our only “rail yard” seems premature to me.

    • Lulz

      They leave willingly because the area is belligerent to their industry. When the condos on Lyman go up, Riverpuke and its minions will be on their case.

  5. Jonathan Wainscott

    Oh Cecil. The only company that uses the rail line for operations that exist along the river is Silverline plastics. So, in the conversation about the properties along the rail lines, it is true that only one company uses them.
    I guess distribution warehouses that would need to merge on and off the mainline, delaying passage of the long hauling trains, and adding more tractor trailer traffic in the area will be great.
    There are reasons industry left the area. The train rails were here before the Great Depression and before the advent of the interstate highways. The industries that existed back then used the French Broad River for industrial water supply and waste removal. The floodplain is a barrier to modern industrial development. New Belgium did “Follow Their Folly” by building on a landfill in a floodplain due for another 100 year flood. The land continues to shift beneath it as repairs for poor drainage continue to be made.
    What damages the potential for economic development is having a very small group of people with their own interests at stake convince companies to build on a landfill…in a floodplain, by lying about the conditions of the land.
    Fortunately North Carolina is a buyer beware state and New Belgium can’t sue anyone for buying that lemon. Also fortunate, I guess, that New Belgium will never sell to Big Beer as it’s hard to imagine anyone buying the $175M facility built…on a lanfilll…in a floodplain.
    What the EDC should do is work with Silverline Plastics to RELOCATE to a better location and then remove the spur line that runs up Riverside Drive, affecting dozens of properties in Asheville. Imagine the possibilities for economic growth if those properties could be built up out of the floodplain. The spur line servicing ONE business is negatively affecting dozens of other properties, and taking space that could be used to route tractor trailers AROUND the “Festus” trestle.
    But this is Asheville and it is deemed wise to lower the road going under the trestle…at a point that already floods in common rain storms…because it’s already the lowest section of road. Yep. Make the low spot lower and more prone to flooding. Brilliant.

  6. Jonathan Wainscott

    Now, on the issue of special interests and how city council members can work for them, let’s go back to the origins of RADTIP. The grant writing for the TIGER money began with the East of The Riverway group and property owners in the RAD. This whole “transportation” improvement project was and is tied to economic development in the area. That development drives up the value of the land, and now the artist-owned properties are worth enough for those artists to retire on when selling at the new market rates. Of course artist owned properties were supposed to provide roots for the future artist to grow on, but a a sale is a sale and an artist, living poor most of his or her life, is gonna want to make bank like anyone else sitting on a million dollar property.
    So RAD property owner Pattiy Torno, owner of Curve Studios, helped get the dough from the feds, and help from river-loving Riverlink (which is a sham organization) were in bed with Ricky Silver, a riverfront plastics manufacturer. Money makes strange bedfellows.
    Pattiy Torno was on the boards of the AARRC along with Ricky Silver. Can’t remember the government officials on the board at that time (county commissioners and city council members).
    There is where City Council involves itself with special interests: quasi governmental authorities like the AARRC, the EDC, the BCTDA, Chamber of Commerce, etc.
    Council members sit in meetings with property owners who are writing grants that the rest of the city has to match…bringing us to the need to borrow money to pay for those specific projects affecting those specific property owners, all with the same no-so-special interest in making money through increased property values.
    I think…

    • Sean

      “and help from river-loving Riverlink (which is a sham organization)”

      Someone who is this dismissive of an organization with a track record like Riverlink’s, without anything to back it up, should not be allowed near public office.

      And his continued attacks on New Belgium are not only inappropriate for someone seeking office, but factually incorrect as well. For someone who seems so riled by their presence you’d think that he’d avail himself of the facts first. NB was fully aware of the engineering challenges with their site which is why we should be thankful they chose it. Not many companies have the deep pockets necessary to rehab that “brown” site and AVL is better off for it.

      And the fact that he was arrested for violating a restraining order involving his wife should send up major red flags for any voter with a conscience.

  7. Alan Ditmore

    short term rentals are a diversionary scapegoat. Asheville’s housing crisis is caused by ZONING AND NOTHING ELSE!!!!! IT IS A SUPPLY SIDE CRISIS!! In fact, if short term rentals can evade the TDA hotel tax, then they can reduce demand by reducing TDA national tourist advertising, thus helping the housing crisis. The state might not like that much but Ashevillian tenants should love it.

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