Development glossary

Mountain Xpress Development Guide

Attending a government meeting where development issues are on the table can sometimes feel like visiting a foreign country. The metal detectors one must pass to enter Asheville City Hall or Buncombe County’s Board of Commissioners meeting room are reminiscent of airport security. Public comment comes with strict rules of etiquette different from those of normal American conversation.

And when lawyers, planners and elected officials get into the weeds of jargon and legal minutiae, it can seem like they’re no longer speaking English.

Here’s a list of some of the most commonly encountered — and commonly confused — terms that come up in development discussions. More definitions are available through the city of Asheville’s Unified Development Ordinance (, Buncombe County’s Land Development and Subdivision Ordinance ( and North Carolina’s Chapter 160D local planning and development regulations (

Accessory dwelling unit: A separate and complete space for occupancy by one family, containing toilets, sleeping rooms and a kitchen, that is located on the same lot as a single-family dwelling or business.

Administrative decision: Any choice made in the enforcement of development regulations involving the determination of facts and application of objective standards, mostly handled by government staff.

Affordable housing: Any residential units provided for people earning at or below 80% of the area median income for a given jurisdiction (currently $60,100 for a family of four in Asheville).

Annexation: The incorporation of land into an existing municipality; North Carolina law prevents cities from adding new property without the approval of voters who would be annexed.

Appurtenance: An accessory added to a main structure or land, such as a stone wall.

Buffer: A planted area, sometimes combined with fences or walls, meant to separate two areas or land uses.

Central business district: The major commercial downtown center of a community, with boundaries set by the municipality.

Compatibility: The characteristics of different uses or activities that permit them to be located near each other in harmony and without conflict.

Complete streets: Streets designed to safely accommodate all modes of travel, including walking, biking, driving and public transit.

Comprehensive plan: The official public planning document adopted by a government as a long-range advisory guide addressing the community’s general, social, economic and physical development.

Conditional use: A specific type of activity on a property that, because of its potential impacts on the surrounding area, require individual consideration to ensure appropriateness at a particular location and protection of the public welfare.

Conditional use permit: A special allowance given to a property for a conditional use after a quasi-judicial public hearing; approval of a permit does not change the property’s zoning.

Conditional zoning: A legislative change to a property’s land use rules incorporating site-specific regulations.

Deed restriction: A legal limitation on the use of a property as outlined in real estate records.

Density: The number of dwelling units per acre of land.

Development: The construction, erection, alteration, enlargement, renovation, substantial repair, movement to another site or demolition of any structure; the excavation, grading, filling, clearing or alteration of land; the subdivision of land; and the initiation or substantial change in the use of land or the intensity of use of land.

Easement: A grant of property rights, such as permission to build a greenway, given by a property owner to another person or entity.

Extraterritorial jurisdiction: The area within 1 mile of a city’s limits that can be regulated according to that city’s development rules; Asheville, Boone and Weaverville have been stripped of this area by the N.C. General Assembly.

Frontage: The length of a building or lot that runs parallel to a public street or alley.

Gentrification: The process of neighborhood redevelopment accompanied by a shift in demographics and the displacement of longtime residents.

Hardship: A practical difficulty in carrying out the requirements of a government’s development regulations; unless specifically noted, financial difficulties alone do not constitute a hardship.

Highest and best use: The activity on a property that will bring the greatest profit to its owners.

Impervious surface: A roof or paved area through which water cannot penetrate, creating the need for drainage facilities to handle increased storm runoff.

Inclusionary zoning: A locally adopted requirement that a specific percentage of housing units in a project remain affordable for a certain length of time, the legality of which is disputed in North Carolina.

Infill development: New construction or changes to existing properties in established urban areas that are currently vacant or being used for another purpose.

Level of service: A scale measuring the amount of vehicle traffic a road or intersection can accommodate, ranging from A (relatively free flow) or F (unsatisfactory stop-and-go conditions).

Light industrial use: Activity involving the assembly, packaging, processing, production and manufacturing of goods conducted wholly within an enclosed building and without external effects such as smoke, odor or noise.

Legislative decision: The adoption, amendment or repeal of a development regulation made by a governing body, including the rezoning of property, based on pubic opinion and the best interest of the community.

Lot: A tract or piece of land with fixed boundaries as designated on a plot or survey map.

Major subdivision: In Buncombe County, a proposed splitting of land that will result in 11 or more lots.

Minor subdivision: In Buncombe County, a proposed splitting of land that will result in four to 10 lots.

Mixed-use development: A project that combines multiple activities in one or more structures on the same property, such as residential units above offices and a retail storefront.

New Urbanism: A design philosophy intended to create a strong sense of community by incorporating features of traditional small towns or urban neighborhoods, such as compact commercial areas with active, walkable streets.

NIMBY: An acronym for “not in my backyard,” often used to characterize opponents of development projects.

Nonconforming use: An activity in a building that existed prior to the adoption of a development rule that would otherwise forbid the activity.

Open space: An area that is intended to provide light and air and is designed for either environmental, scenic or recreational purposes; this does not include parking lots or other surfaces intended for vehicles.

Overlay district: A type of zoning that applies supplemental or replacement rules to those of an area with another zoning.

Permitted use: Any activity explicitly allowed by a property’s zoning.

Quality of life: The degree to which individuals perceive themselves as able to function physically, emotionally and socially, as influenced by all aspects of a community.

Quasi-judicial decision: Any choice made in the enforcement of development regulations made via an evidentiary hearing that involves both the finding of facts and discretion in applying the rules.

Regulatory taking: The result of a development rule becoming so restrictive that it has the same effect as the physical appropriation of land, such as zoning private property as a public park without the owner’s consent.

Residential: Land designated by a government plan or zoning regulations for buildings consisting only of dwelling units.

Rezoning: An amendment to the map or text of an ordinance to change the nature, density, or intensity of uses allowed on certain property.

Right of way: An area or strip of land dedicated for use as a street, crosswalk, electrical line, water main or other special purpose.

Road diet: A reduction in vehicle lanes on a street meant to improve safety and access for other modes of travel, such as walking and bicycling.

Setback: The required minimum distance between a building and its closest property line.

Smart growth: A theory of community design with 10 principles, as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: (1) mix land uses; (2) take advantage of compact building design; (3) create a range of housing opportunities and choices; (4) create walkable neighborhoods; (5) foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place; (6) preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty and critical environmental areas; (7) strengthen and direct development toward existing communities; (8) provide a variety of transportation choices; (9) make development decisions predictable, fair and cost effective; (10) encourage community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions.

Special subdivision: In Buncombe County, a proposed splitting of land that will result in three or fewer lots.

Special use: Any activity permitted by right that must meet additional requirements beyond those of an underlying zoning district.

Spot zoning: Allowing the use of land in a way that is detrimental or incompatible with uses of its surrounding area, particularly to favor a particular landowner.

Sprawl: The spreading of a city and its suburbs over rural land at the fringe of an urban area, often linked to negative health and environmental impacts.

Streetscape: The scene as may be observed along a public street composed of natural and man-made components, including buildings, paving, planting, street furnishings and miscellaneous structures.

Strip development: Commercial and higher-density residential development located adjacent to major streets, characterized by shallow depth, street-oriented layout and multiple vehicle access points.

Subdivision: Any split of a property into two or more lots or sites for sale or building development, including all divisions involving a new street or change to existing streets.

Substantial improvement: Any repair, reconstruction, rehabilitation, addition or other change to a structure equal to or greater than a certain percentage of the structure’s fair market value before construction.

Sustainable development: As defined by the United Nations, a pattern of land use “that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Universal design: The practice of constructing spaces and buildings to be usable by everyone, including people with disabilities.

Variance: An exception to development regulations given to a specific person or business that allows construction in a way that would otherwise be prohibited.

Viewshed: The area that can be seen from a defined observation point.

Zoning: The division of a jurisdiction by legislative regulations into areas that specify allowable land uses and size restrictions for buildings.


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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the News Editor of Mountain Xpress, coordinating coverage of Western North Carolina's governments, community groups, businesses and environment. His work has previously appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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2 thoughts on “Development glossary

  1. R.G.

    I wonder if you might also add Opportunity Zone (and some deeper explanation) here or wherever it might be appropriate. It seems to me that there is often a wide discrepancy between the ‘stated intent’ of this 2017 Trump tax act maneuver that enables developers to reap federal tax money by building in an area that perhaps *should not* have been designated an Opportunity Zone in the first place. My understanding is that, after politicians nominate sites, the IRS designates such areas based on income of residents when *debt-to-income ratio* and whether or not the area is truly a ‘blight’ are not taken into account. For instance, you might have a great neighborhood of teachers living within their means in owner-occupied ‘affordable’ homes that they have paid off over time. It seems to me that Opportunity Zones tend to punish those folks and allow predatory ‘extractive’ development of condos without adding anything to the very community that OZs are supposed to improve. Is there any local oversight if, say, the wrong area has been inaccurately placed in OZ? If not, why not? Have OZs ever been reversed?

    • Thanks much for reading! Yes, Opportunity Zones are on our radar for a future story. I agree that it’s worth examining their local impacts and whether they’ve actually furthered equitable economic development.

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