The people of Asheville gained more power over development in the city with two unanimous votes of City Council at its Valentine’s Day meeting on Feb. 14. In the works for over a year, the two votes enacted changes that will bring more projects — and especially more hotels — before Council for review, as well as providing community members with more notification of proposed projects and increased opportunities to weigh in on the plans.
Council member Cecil Bothwell said he believes voters expect their representatives to exert some control over development. “I think we are elected to oversee what goes on in the city, and I think people believe we have approved every hotel that’s been built here. The truth is we haven’t,” Bothwell explained. The City Council chamber, he continued, is a much more public venue for discussing large projects than the Planning & Zoning Commission, which until last night’s vote approved most projects up to 175,000 square feet and 145 tall.
The Planning & Zoning Commission voted on Feb. 3 to recommend that City Council deny the proposed changes.
Saying she supported changing the size of the projects Council reviews — “That really makes sense to me” — Council member Julie Mayfield added that she was “torn on the hotel piece.” The changes require Council review for any hotel over 20 rooms anywhere in the city.
“The public sentiment about hotels is part of a much larger picture that includes bigger concerns about tourism, wages, occupancy taxes, traffic and affordability of our city, and the changes that we make tonight I think are going to do very little to address that,” Mayfield said. She proposed increasing the size of the hotels Council would review to those with 50 rooms or more.
When Mayor Esther Manheimer asked for a second to Mayfield’s motion, the response from other Council members was, as Mayfield noted, “Crickets.” Mayfield said she thinks Council inadvertently risks aggravating problems like traffic and parking by pushing hotel development outside the city.
Bothwell pointed out that bringing more projects before Council for review doesn’t necessarily mean that fewer projects will be built. “We’re not going to be turning down projects left and right because they come to City Council. We’re going to have longer Council meetings,” he said.
Council member Gordon Smith reiterated his request from last year to the tourism industry, as represented by the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, to collaborate with city and county government on a comprehensive study of the impacts of tourism. The study would examine issues like wages, parking, the cultural impacts of tourism, how much money remains in and leaves the community and the impact of tourism on crime and policing, he said. Smith framed the conversations that need to happen in terms of “community benefit,” saying that Council encourages investment in the city as long as the investments have an overall positive effect on the community.
Downtown Commission member and realtor Byron Greiner commented that his group supports the expanded public notification requirements included within the zoning changes. He said the Commission believes it’s important for developers to know what Council is looking for before they go to the expense of designing and proposing a new project. The Downtown Commission voted last year in support of maintaining the previous development review standards.
Timothy Sadler asked Council to require renewable energy, such as solar power generation, in new hotel projects.
But Bothwell explained that state law prevents Council from spelling out specific expectations around things like wages or renewable energy. He said Council will have to use “moral suasion” to encourage developers to include those components in building projects.
WNC Green Party Co-Chair Camille McCarthy said her group is concerned about gentrification in Asheville and the low wages common in the hotel industry. People don’t want to see Asheville become like Venice, Italy, she said, which has 60,000 daily visitors and last year saw 1,000 young residents permanently leave the city.
Bothwell said he believes the changes will lead to better projects in Asheville. “I think it’s going to improve development and the sense of the people in the city that they had a say in it,” he said.
Council member Brian Haynes said he’s been waiting a long time to vote in favor of the changes.
March 1-7 will be “Southern Conference Basketball Championship Week” in the city of Asheville.
In its consent agenda, City Council approved measures including:
- New parking fees at metered street spaces and city parking decks, which will go into effect on April 1. The new fees represent an increase of 25 cents per hour.
- A new fee schedule for use of the city’s Aston Park Tennis Complex, which aims to increase the facility’s users’ contribution to the cost of maintaining the complex and to decrease the city’s subsidy. Fees paid by city residents are lower than those for non-city residents.
- Reduced speed limits on a number of city streets
- The Asheville-Buncombe Homeless Initiative Advisory Committee’s Five Year Strategic Plan on Homelessness in Buncombe County
Jade Dundas, the city’s Water Resources Department Director, came before Council in his additional interim role as Capital Projects Director to explain budget amendments related to the creation of a new Capital Projects Department and $74 million in bond referendum funds.
Dundas outlined a budget amendment of approximately $200,000 to the current year’s budget for salaries and expenses for the new department. Barbara Whitehorn, the city’s finance director, said the allocation should have “no material effect” on the city’s general fund balance, which she said was in good shape based on current sales tax revenues.
Dundas also asked Council to approve a budget amendment that accepts $74 million in funding from a city bond referendum passed by voters in November. The amendment allows the city to avoid multiple smaller amendments, he said, but the bond funds will actually not be issued all at once. And bond-funded projects will be subject to the same Council review thresholds and processes as all other city projects, he explained.
Council approved the motion related to the budget amendments unanimously.
Of 27 applicants who met city requirements for seats on the Asheville City Schools Board of Education, Council selected six to interview on Feb. 28: Yvette Jives, James Lee, Amy Ray, Joyce Brown, Patricia Griffin and Mary Ellen Lewis. Each Council member selected their top five candidates after reviewing applications and responses to essay questions, Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler (who chairs the city’s Boards and Commissions Committee) explained.
Roderick Simmons, the city’s parks director, presented an update on plans for renovations at Pritchard Park, a quarter-acre site at the intersection of Patton Avenue and Haywood and College streets. Council originally heard a report on the proposed improvements at its Dec. 13 meeting, but the officials asked the Parks and Recreation Department to seek out additional public input on the plans.
Simmons detailed the state of a large tree closest to College Street and showed photographs of wires installed between the trees’ branches in an attempt to halt splitting that he said was first observed several years ago. He said that pedestrian traffic around the tree had compacted its roots. The city’s plans for the area surrounding the tree were unchanged from the previous presentation: a 40-inch-tall wrought iron fence will separate all non-paved areas along College Street from pedestrians. Inside the fenced area, mulch, grass and other plantings will be installed under and around the tree.
The measures, Simmons said, might give the tree two or 50 years more life: “There’s no guarantee.” Fencing along Patton Avenue also will be installed as previously proposed, while additional boulders and mulch will be added to an area along Haywood Street where designers had previously specified fencing.
Bothwell asked if a wooden platform — “like a deck” — could be constructed around the large tree to relieve pressure on its roots while continuing to allow the public to use the area around it. Bothwell said he was worried that the drum circle will not have enough space if that area is fenced off. Simmons responded that that idea had not been studied.
Council voted 4-3 to approve the plans, with Bothwell, Haynes and Keith Young opposed.
Sue Robbins of Downtown Asheville Residential Neighbors said she supports the compromise plan and that she is glad that “we don’t have to wait another five years to see something positive happen in the park.”
Former City Council candidate and downtown resident Christopher Chiaromonte expressed appreciation for the city’s efforts to consider the needs of homeless residents in plans for the park. “Asheville has a heart, I know,” he said. He suggested installing an erasable whiteboard for travelers to leave messages letting others know they had arrived in town. Providing a dedicated area for such messages, he said, would reduce graffiti.
The livestream video of the Council meeting was interrupted at some point during the evening. Former City Council candidate Rich Lee broadcast the meeting via Facebook Live from his cellphone until his battery ran out. According to Bothwell, the meeting was being videotaped despite the problems with the online broadcast, and the recording will be made available after the meeting in accordance with the city’s usual practice.
City Council went into closed session at about 7:15 p.m. and later adjourned from closed session.
City Council’s next meeting will be held at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 28 in Council chambers on the second floor of Asheville City Hall. According to the City Clerk, the following will be on the public hearings agenda for that meeting:
The following is a City Council public hearing scheduled for February 28. This listing is for information only and is subject to change. Please call City Clerk Maggie Burleson at 259-5601 if you have any questions.
1. Public hearing to consider a land use incentive grant for 338 Hilliard Avenue (Tribute Companies).
2. Resolution authorizing the sale of City-owned property at 338 Hilliard Avenue to the Tribute Companies for an affordable housing development.
In Council’s Governance Committee meeting earlier on Feb. 14, the committee decided to put a plan to poll Asheville residents on their views on introducing districts into City Council elections to a vote of the full Council on Feb. 28.
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