How to participate effectively in land-use decisions

Mountain Xpress Development Guide

An email sent to Asheville City Council in October 2021 opposing a proposed apartment building for Charlotte Street begins this way: “Are you people insane?”

A few sentences later, the writer asks Council members, “Where are your brains?… In your well-padded pockets?”

How did that work out for the writer, who argued that the 186 apartments proposed for a former Fuddruckers restaurant property would overtax neighborhood streets and other infrastructure?

Not so well. Council approved the project 6-1. The only “no” vote came from Council member Kim Roney, who was concerned not over infrastructure but about whether the building would include enough affordable housing.

It is highly unlikely that one intemperate email among many other, more reasoned messages persuaded Council to back the project. Nonetheless, the example illustrates what local attorney John Noor says is an unproductive approach for convincing decision-makers to see things your way: Personal attacks.

“I think that just allows people to tune you out,” says Noor, who has represented residents in several high-profile land-use battles in recent years.

The following guidelines are best practices for getting public officials to tune you in if you are involved in a development issue. With apologies to self-help author Stephen Covey, let’s call them the seven habits of highly effective public involvement. Each piece of advice is based on interviews with people who used to turn thumbs up — or thumbs down — on development projects and others with experience in the field.

Don’t be a NIMBY 

Among the objections former Asheville City Council member Chris Pelly heard most often during development debates was his least favorite: when people said, “I’m all for affordable housing, but this isn’t the right location.”

That objection amounts to a resident saying, “I’m not a part of the solution here. … This is something for somebody else to figure out,” Pelly says. “The fact is, we’re all in this together,” he continues, and a shortage of affordable housing is one of the area’s most pressing problems.

Several other officials made the same point. They say local governments must allow residential construction — often at densities greater than some citizens would like — to attack the problem.

“Your personal interests still have to be weighed against the collective,” says Laura Hudson, a former chair of Asheville’s Planning and Zoning Commission. “Think about future generations. Think about people that would love to have an opportunity to live in this neighborhood.”

“Not-in-my-backyard thinking should be recognized for what it is, selfishness, and not confused with constructive contribution to a decision-making process,” adds former City Council member Carl Mumpower.

Communities around the country are debating the extent to which zoning should keep residential neighborhoods the same or allow more construction of apartments and condominiums. Critics say strict zoning, especially rules that allow only single-family homes in certain areas, can keep people of color or those with lower incomes out of wealthier, whiter neighborhoods.

Hudson says residents can get too invested in keeping their neighborhoods as is. “I think [neighborhood] character evolves. It’s not static,” she says.

Shape the big plan 

When a developer proposes a shopping center a few blocks from your home, the battle may already be half won — or lost, depending on your perspective. If the comprehensive plan and zoning map for your area identify the site as suitable for retail development, it will be more difficult to persuade a governmental body to block the project.

In some cases, approval might come at a staff level and be virtually automatic. If the project meets the standards for things like building size, vehicle access and stormwater facilities, a government employee might OK it without a public hearing or even public notice.

Governments often struggle to get citizens involved in drawing up comprehensive plans or providing feedback on new land-use rules. The process isn’t so interesting to many people until something is proposed near their home that they don’t like.

But decisions made at the macro level shape those made on specific projects. Nathan Pennington, director of the Buncombe County Planning Department, says a comprehensive plan often plays a major role in elected officials’ decisions on questions like rezoning. Involvement in drawing up a plan, he notes, may also help residents understand why a particular property is zoned a certain way to start with.

Start early 

Many jurisdictions require developers who propose projects greater than a certain size to hold informal meetings at which neighbors can learn more. Sometimes, says Noor, those events are held just to meet the requirement. In other cases, they can result in a real dialogue between developers and neighbors that shapes what ultimately gets built.

A development project often goes through several governmental bodies before reaching the board that makes the final decision. Noor says it’s worth attending as many of those meetings as possible instead of voicing support or opposition at the last minute.

Otherwise, he explains, “The advice that City Council is going to get from the staff and the developer is that this is not controversial.”

Prepare to negotiate 

Developers are often willing to change their projects to assuage neighborhood concerns. Some aren’t, but officials may hold that against them when it’s time to decide whether to give a project an OK – or make granting some concessions a condition of approval.

Those changes can include everything from the size of a project to the location of roads and sidewalks. Noor says it’s not realistic to expect a developer to cut a project in half: “This is a business just like any other,” he points out, and developers need to make a profit. But there’s usually some flexibility if neighbors or government ask, says Noor, who has also had developers as clients.

Mumpower says talks between developers and residents often become just “a PR opportunity for one side or the other,” but others say they see great value in the dialogue.

“The input on how to make [a proposed project] better is very helpful, very useful and usually more impactful” than outright opposition, says Hudson.

Focus on facts 

When development projects came before Asheville City Council for public comment during the tenure of former Mayor Terry Bellamy, she says, “The most impactful presentations were individual stories … and they had specifics.”

People who could document issues that a development might exacerbate or help with were more likely to affect debate and the outcome, she says.

Mumpower agrees: “New and credible information about problems that may have been missed by the developer or staff are always helpful.”

Be civil 

Speakers at public hearings sometimes say they will turn officials out of office if a decision goes against them, or they’ll demonize those on the opposite side of an issue.

Elected officials realize a particular vote may affect their political futures. And when a governmental body has considerable discretion as to how it decides an issue, contacts from the public can make a big difference, Noor says. But threats or rude behavior can allow decision makers to discount a speaker as simply unreasonable.

Former Buncombe County Commissioner Ray Bailey says he focused on what was best for the county as a whole when making decisions. “If somebody threatened me with the fact that they wouldn’t vote for me, that would be fine,” he says — but it wouldn’t change his vote.

Bellamy notes that when anyone in a debate before Council is belligerent or makes negative comments about others, that “really takes the focus off the issue they were hoping to support.”

Remember the basics 

Government boards usually ask anyone making a public comment to share their name and where they live, and most have a time limit for each speaker. Three minutes is common.

It pays to give some thought before a meeting to what you want to say and how to say it in the allotted time. Speakers can usually also submit written documentation or extended remarks after their comments. Simply repeating at length what others said doesn’t help your case, Mumpower says. Brevity, however, might at least draw a sympathetic smile from a weary official about to cast a vote.


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