By Barbara Durr, Asheville Watchdog
Just as the new reform-minded commissioners of the town of Woodfin — now a solid majority — have settled into governing, a fresh controversy is brewing. A new application for a housing development on the site of what was the highly contentious Bluffs proposal has been submitted by a different group of real estate investors.
The application from Concept Companies of Gainesville, Fla., submitted to the town Aug. 5, proposes a smaller development of 672 multi-family apartments with three clubhouses called “Mountain Village.” The controversial Bluffs at Riverbend, with some 1,500 rental units, a 250-room hotel, and commercial space, was vehemently opposed by residents of Woodfin and the Richmond Hill neighborhood of Asheville.
A coalition of neighbors from Asheville and Woodfin, called Richmond Hill and River Rescue, is gearing up for a new fight. Their GoFundMe page has raised $34,400 for potential legal costs. Robert McGee, a Woodfin property owner who has been leading the opposition, said in his funds request that even the smaller development is “still far too large for the location and the neighborhood.”
The coalition contends that the site, nearly 90 wooded acres adjacent to Richmond Hill Park, an Asheville public park, and the French Broad River, would suffer devastating impact and that storm run-off would further pollute the river. They also object to the additional traffic on Richmond Hill streets, particularly large construction vehicles that would need to navigate the neighborhood’s narrow hairpin turns.
McGee told Asheville Watchdog that the project “will surely blight and depress our neighborhood.”
Representatives of Concept Companies did not respond to requests for comment.
The original Bluffs controversy — including pickets and protests at town council meetings — galvanized Woodfin voters last year, who elected three new commissioners: Jim McAllister, Eric Edgerton and Hazel Thornton. Two other reform-minded commissioners, Judy Butler and Betsy Ervin, were appointed to fill vacancies.
The remaining old guard includes Jerry VeHaun, who has been mayor for 19 years, and commissioner Lonnie Lunsford, both of whose terms expire in November 2023.
Concept Companies’ application says that the proposed development “is consistent with the underlying zoning” and that it will be “on the sections of the property which are reasonably feasible for development while maintaining the character of a majority of the existing site for use as open space and recreation.” It acknowledges that the public wants to continue to use the property for recreation.
The investors will need approval from the town’s government, where stricter steep slope regulations and building height limits have been passed. The new commissioners were elected with promises to protect green areas and only allow environmentally sensitive development.
As part of Woodfin’s new approach for developers, Concept Companies will be required to hold a neighborhood meeting, according to Shannon Tuch, the Woodfin town manager. After that meeting, the proposal will undergo a technical review and be considered by the town’s planning board, which could attach conditions. The Town Commission will make the final decision.
The Concept Companies investors, Verso Sub IV, LLC, bought the property from the Bluffs of Riverbend, whose principal was John Holdsworth, for $9.64 million on July 27, according to real estate records. Holdsworth had purchased the property 10 months earlier for $7 million.
It remains unclear how the property would be accessed unless construction equipment and vehicles move through Richmond Hill or a bridge across the river is built, which would involve a complicated multilayer approval process.
With activists from the Richmond Hill and River Rescue ready to fight, the new proposal looks set to revive the Woodfin’s development controversy.
“We have won many battles, but the next stage is about to begin,” McGee said.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Barbara Durr is a former correspondent for The Financial Times of London. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.