Deciding what gets built on an empty lot down the street should, according to state law, begin with decisions about what gets built across an entire city or county.
Counties and municipalities that want to have zoning in their jurisdiction first need to write a comprehensive plan that looks at big questions like which areas are best for growth, what types of development should go where and how government services like water, sewer and roads should be improved, a 2019 revision of land-use laws says.
Asheville answered many of those questions when City Council adopted “Living Asheville: A Comprehensive Plan for Our Future” in 2018. The document says the city should become denser, with much of that growth contemplated in or near downtown and “urban centers” scattered around town.
Buncombe County’s current land-use plan, last updated in 2013, meets state requirements but is both less detailed and less prescriptive than the city’s plan, perhaps reflecting a historic aversion to zoning in the county’s rural areas. That’s likely to change soon. In the second half of 2021, the county began writing a new comprehensive plan in a process scheduled to take two years.
Areas near but outside Asheville city limits, and thus in the county’s jurisdiction, are seeing significant growth. With the city’s ability to annex property sharply limited by the state General Assembly in 2012, Buncombe County will have to look at whether to offer traditionally urban services in some places, says county Planning Director Nathan Pennington.
“The county historically has not been in the sidewalk-building business, but with the annexation law having changed so much,” the county might decide it should provide pedestrian facilities, Pennington offers as an example. “We have to look at how do we provide amenities on an urban level and a rural level” in less populated parts of the county, he adds.
Asheville’s 2018 plan says repeatedly that the city must allow construction of more housing to accommodate residents at various income levels and push back against the environmental impacts of sprawl. Some recommendations have been implemented, while other steps called for in the plan are on the way, says city Planning Director Todd Okolichany.
Results that have emerged from the Living Asheville plan, Okolichany says, include recent rezonings of property at Innsbruck Mall and around the Merrimon Avenue-Beaverdam Road intersection to encourage mixed-use development, adoption in September 2021 of an ordinance to make it harder to cut trees on private property and the city’s new rules on where and how hotels are allowed.
Guidebook, not law book
Comprehensive plans can look at broader issues, such as a community’s quality of life, in addition to choices more closely tied to land use and zoning, says Adam Lovelady, a professor at the School of Government at UNC Chapel Hill. Done well, he continues, these plans can engage residents to make decisions about what they want, help officials decide where public dollars should be spent, spur structural changes in local government and hold local officials accountable for progress toward community goals.
Comp plans may also inject the wishes of the community at large into decisions on specific properties. If a developer proposes a large apartment complex, and the plan identifies a need for more housing and flags the neighborhood as a likely area, it’s easier for officials to approve the project — even if those living next to it are opposed. If the property is more rural and someone wants to put in a large shopping center, plan goals for open space and a more centralized growth pattern might tilt a decision against a project.
However, Lovelady points out, a plan’s recommendations do not bind the officials who make zoning decisions. If a major development like a large manufacturing plant is proposed, leaders can approve it even if the comprehensive plan doesn’t contemplate such a project for the area.
“In North Carolina, [a comprehensive plan] is a policy document. It is not a regulatory document,” he says.
In some situations, applicants for land-use permits are required to show that their proposals comply with a city or county comprehensive plan. And governing bodies must consider the plan’s provisions when considering a rezoning, Lovelady says, even though they don’t have to follow them.
Plans can also come into play when a land-use decision is contested in court. If the decision is consistent with the plan, it will likely be harder to overturn.
Making plans can be easier than implementing them. For instance, a previous Asheville comprehensive plan said the area around the Merrimon-Beaverdam Road intersection should become one of several nodes of denser development around the city, but the development pattern there has changed little.
Most local governments have comprehensive plans, Lovelady says. State legislators gave those that didn’t a shove in that direction in 2019 as part of a consolidation of the state’s land-use laws. Counties and municipalities that haven’t adopted a comp plan by July 2022 won’t have the legal authority to enforce their zoning ordinances. The state won’t take any steps to penalize those that don’t comply, he says, but governments won’t have a leg to stand on if anyone challenges their ordinances in court.
That 2019 law has sparked steps in Woodfin to comply after it was discovered that a plan drawn up several years ago was discussed but never formally approved by the town Board of Commissioners. The board adopted a placeholder plan in September 2021 to comply with the state requirement, and the town has begun developing a new plan, with completion scheduled sometime in 2022.
While Buncombe’s current plan does comply with the law, the county hired consulting firm Clarion Associates on a roughly $375,000 contract and appointed a 23-member committee of county residents in 2021 to guide an update. Meetings and other efforts to get the public involved are scheduled to run through summer 2022, and a final plan is to be approved in 2023.
County Planning Director Pennington says it’s much too early to predict what the plan will say. But it’s clear that its authors will have to grapple with “the scarcity of land” to build on and what he calls the county’s “popularity problem” – the desire of so many people to live here. He says he expects “policies and recommendations that would change how development is going to be regulated in the county in the future.”