The final ballots are counted, the last yard signs have been returned to their rightful owners, and now — finally — most Asheville residents can begin putting the 2020 election cycle behind them.
Not Asheville City Council newcomers Sandra Kilgore, Sage Turner and Kim Roney. As the three embark on a new chapter of civic leadership following a close race, they inherit controversial priorities from the outgoing Council that will likely dominate the first few months of their term.
The three women will be sworn in to their new roles on Tuesday, Dec. 1; a week later, they’ll join Mayor Esther Manheimer, Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler, Sheneika Smith and Antanette Mosley for their first public meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 8. But government transitions hardly ever come “wrapped up with a neat little bow,” warns outgoing Council member Julie Mayfield.
From hotel regulations to reparations, the lingering loose ends will ultimately be transformative issues for the community. “‘I expected there to be ongoing projects and I’m ready to get to work,” Turner says.
Hotels on the horizon
Asheville’s hotel moratorium, originally scheduled to run out in September but extended by five months in light of COVID-19, will expire in February. Two work sessions were held in October to bring Council up to speed on new guidelines that would allow developers to circumvent conditional zoning approval; the final proposal is tentatively slated to return for discussion at Council’s meeting of Tuesday, Jan. 26, with a vote in early February.
It’s the one unfinished project Mayfield says she isn’t sad to step away from. “It’s a very challenging topic,” she says. “When the moratorium lifts, I’m guessing we’ll see a lot more hotels try and come through. Maybe not as many right now because of the pandemic, but it’s going to remain a big issue.”
Kilgore says she is “very impressed” with the hotel zoning overlay district developed by the Charlotte-based Urban Land Institute, who was contracted to help evaluate Asheville’s current lodging ecosystem. Under that proposal, hotels could be built by right in certain areas if they met set city criteria. She also supports the steps city staff have taken to streamline the conditional zoning process, although she feels “a little tweaking” is needed to ensure new standards meet the needs of the community.
Roney, the most progressive of the newly elected Council members, says the city must leverage future hotels to get the infrastructure Asheville needs. She objects to the proposed overlay map, which she claims would place new lodging development exactly where housing should go.
“Otherwise, we’re going to keep seeing resource extraction, and I mean people, power, water and land,” Roney says. “If we just fill the city up with hotels, we won’t have land to build affordable housing and we won’t have land to attract other industries, grow our small businesses and support our entrepreneurs.”
And absent of an overhaul of the county’s occupancy tax funds, which was supposed to go before the N.C. General Assembly before the COVID-19 pandemic dominated state legislative focus, Turner says she will “struggle to support” new hotel procedures, review bodies or ordinances as proposed by city staff before the lodging tax is discussed. “We need to take our time and get this right, then cross it off the list of open initiatives and move forward,” she says.
Asheville’s historic commitment to reparations for the Black community was the crowning achievement of outgoing member Keith Young: He helped draft the July resolution that formally apologized for the city’s role in slavery and pushed Council to allocate $4 million to a reparations fund before his departure. A last-minute change took a $1 million funding proposal off the agenda at Council’s meeting of Nov. 10; Mayor Esther Manheimer explained that she had been asked by “more than a majority” of Council to hold a work session on reparations with the incoming members.
Despite community frustrations that no action was taken, the delayed discussion makes sense, Turner says. The way the resolution came about was “fast and not fully vetted,” she claims, and Council hadn’t fleshed out what the money would specifically support.
“I recognize the community is seeking action and I understand and empathize with the frustration of all words and no actions to date,” Turner says. “I can assure you there will be action, but time is needed.”
At an October work session, Council member Mosley suggested hotel developers could earn extra points toward project approval by contributing to a reparations fund. Roney proposes taking that idea further by requiring all developers seeking conditional zoning approval, whether for a hotel, condos or a grocery store, to contribute to the fund.
“I want to see if we can operationalize reparations so it’s a fund balance that’s tied to our city growth and increased property tax revenue, so it’s not contested year after year whether it should be included in the budget,” Roney says. “We could set it up similarly to the One Buncombe Fund so that it’s not just for the city, but for the city, the county, nonprofits and individuals to participate in.”
The reparations resolution calls for a new commission to steer future investment in Asheville’s Black community. As of press time, no information about this commission had been publicly released. However, Kilgore says she’s looking forward to partnering with the appointees to ensure the immediate and future needs of the Black community are met.
Listening to others
Also up in the air is future funding for the Asheville Police Department. Activists, many of whom had called for 50% of the APD budget to be reallocated to community services, balked when City Manager Debra Campbell recommended just a 2.5% cut in September; Council ultimately voted 5-2 to approve that budget. A public engagement process to reimagine public safety prior to that vote drew responses from more than 5,700 community members.
Since June, the APD has reported the resignation and retirement of at least 45 officers, a trend Turner says she is closely monitoring. “As we lose senior officers, we may need to look at increasing some funding to retain tenured officers and attract lateral transfers, more diversity and officers with more restorative and community-based training,” she notes.
And following the June creation of a joint city-county task force to explore the removal or repurposing of Asheville’s Vance Monument, the 12-member group will present its final recommendations to Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners on Thursday, Nov. 19. The 65-foot obelisk is named after Zebulon Vance, North Carolina’s Civil War governor and a prominent slaveholder.
Turner, Kilgore and Roney all say they want to hear the task force recommendations before making any decisions.
“I have my personal opinions and I have a responsibility to listen,” Roney says. “What I am hearing from the community is that we haven’t gotten yet to a place of imagining what should be in place of the monument when it’s not there anymore. There are still some questions to be asked.”
If the incoming members can work through the issues the previous Council has left on the table, each has her own ideas for new action.
Kilgore, who topped the results at 25,909 votes in the Nov. 3 election, cited oversight as her top priority, followed by improvements to the education system to address “many of the issues that are causing minority and marginalized students to fall behind.”
Also on her personal docket is addressing the city’s lack of affordable housing, partnering with the Chamber of Commerce to bring clean and renewable companies to the area and promoting vocational training programs for community members who opt not to attend college.
Turner, who placed second with 24,813 votes, says she’ll focus on realistic policy proposals. Her first priorities include updates to the city’s Unified Development Ordinance to help alleviate high building costs, advancing stalled bond projects and assisting with COVID-19 recovery efforts. She also plans to work closely with staff to assemble a list of ongoing initiatives and project timelines to determine what can be accomplished in the coming year.
Roney, who snagged a third-place finish with 22,952 votes, touts an ambitious agenda to address the overlapping COVID-19 pandemic, climate emergency, systemic racism and economic instability during her first 100 days in office. She plans to collaborate with community mutual aid groups, ensure all transit routes are running smoothly and pass budget amendments to create more affordable housing.
“If there’s ever been a time where we need to think about our needs as a community, it’s now,” Roney says. “We’re going to have to move the money in the direction of our values. We need to pick up the baton and run with it.”