While a new coastal seafood restaurant may appeal to local foodies and visitors, it’s not the best match for the banks of the French Broad River, according to members of Asheville’s Planning and Zoning Commission. In a 4-3 vote, commission members narrowly recommended denial of conditional zoning for Jettie Rae’s Fish n’ Such, a restaurant proposed for 144 Riverside Drive. Commission Chair Laura Hudson and commission members Tony Hauser, Joe Archibald and Guillermo Rodriguez voted against the project during the Sept. 4 meeting.
“I think it’s on the wrong side of the road, quite frankly,” Rodriguez said. “I would rather keep the integrity of the greenway and find some other adaptable use, like pathways and bike racks and other public uses.”
According to a staff report, the proposal was brought forward by Eric Scheffer, owner of Vinnie’s Neighborhood Italian on Merrimon Avenue, and commercial real estate broker Jim Diaz, and includes a two-story, approximately 5,500-square-foot restaurant and bar, as well as space for two travel trailers. The project also includes an open air pavilion, restrooms and a parking area, all of which would be open for public use, according to the project’s architect Robert Todd.
Using donated funds, nonprofit RiverLink bought the proposed project site in 2007. The land is currently designated as open space zoning, which allows for parking, recreation, restrooms and concessions but does not allow for restaurant use, triggering Asheville City Council’s consideration for conditional zoning. The organization, which promotes the environmental and economic vibrancy of the French Broad River and surrounding area, received pushback after it announced plans to lease and then sell the property in June. Eight people spoke out against the proposed restaurant during public comment over concerns that the land was originally purchased by RiverLink to serve as undeveloped greenway space, including Karen Cragnolin, RiverLink’s founder and former executive director.
Three people spoke in favor of the project, noting its local ownership, public amenities and potential to draw new economic opportunities to the area.
“It appears that we’re caught in the middle between the public and RiverLink,” said commission member Karl Koon, who voted alongside commission members Sandra Kilgore and Jim Edmonds in support of the project.
Archibald said that while the ongoing dispute among RiverLink and some members of the public may appear central to the issue, the commission must make its decisions based on the original intent of the city’s zoning regulations.
“The reason why we put these [regulations] in place is to give people who own private property, they have guidelines,” Archibald said. “Personally I’m looking at this and saying eliminate the kind of emotional aspects of it and look at it as ‘What is the zoning?’ and ‘How did we get to that zoning?’ I think we need to let the zoning stick.”
Commission members also raised concerns about flooding, increased traffic, growth and the project’s potential impact on Asheville’s greenway system.
“This is a beautiful project, and it’s absolutely thoughtful and well-designed. The only issue is with this one little special kind of continuous piece of land, I think we have to think long term,” added Hudson. “We’re just going to see so much density move into this area. I think we’ll be remiss in 20 years if we look back and we didn’t try to create this little bit of breathing room around the area.”
The proposal garnered mixed support from other committees and neighborhood groups. The city’s Technical Review Committee recommended approval, while the Asheville Riverfront Redevelopment Commission counseled denial. Council will make the final decision on whether the project receives approval.