Proposed changes to Asheville’s zoning code discussed at the Aug. 2 meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission aim to ease the city’s shortage of housing, especially affordable housing, by increasing the density allowed in residential areas. The Commission recommended that the city adopt the changes.
In the works since a Feb. 24, 2016 City Council meeting, the changes would reduce the minimum width of lots and incentivize duplexes and neighborhood-scale multifamily development. Planner Vaidila Satvika explained the importance of creating a diverse range of housing options. The proposed changes, he said, would allow for a larger number of modest-sized homes than current zoning permits. The changes would help provide options beyond the single-family homes that make up a growing share of the city’s housing market, he explained.
The city’s Planning and Urban Design Department has collected public input through surveys and public meetings on the four aspects of the proposed changes, which include reducing the minimum lot width by 20 percent, incentivizing duplexes, incentivizing multifamily in RM zoning districts, and establishing neighborhood-scale multifamily design standards. Originally, city planners had also explored reducing minimum lot size, but that provision was eventually removed from the proposal.
That didn’t sit well with Barry Bialik and a few others who spoke at the meeting. Bialik, who chairs the city’s Affordable Housing Committee, said the current plan was much weaker than what was initially proposed. Removing the lot size reduction while keeping the minimum reduction of lot width doesn’t give developers enough opportunity for creating a larger number of lots in a given area, he said.
According to a staff report, the changes could result in a nine percent increase in the number of residential lots in the city.
Commissioner Laura Hudson commented that the changes wouldn’t have much impact on established neighborhoods. “So it really doesn’t affect where we’ve already built 80-foot-wide frontages; it’s where we haven’t developed,” Hudson said. “I think people are concerned that, all of the sudden, there will be some houses in between them and their neighbors.”
Planning staff and commissioners also discussed measures to establish a standard for impervious surfaces in all residential areas. Though planners had proposed such a standard in response to public concern about the impact of higher densities on stormwater runoff, the city’s legal department subsequently advised staff to remove those provisions, Satvika said.
Eliminating the proposed reduction in minimum lot area, Satvika explained, represents an attempt to minimize the stormwater impact of denser development. Commissioners asked planning staff to continue exploring options for including an impervious surface standard in the proposed changes. They also asked for adjustments to the proposed duplex and triplex standards, as well as additional flexibility for driveway width. With those conditions, the commissioners unanimously recommended that City Council approve the changes. Council is expected to consider the matter at its meeting on Aug. 22.
While gravel parking lots are currently prohibited downtown, some do exist as holdovers grandfathered in when zoning ordinances removed a 1995 provision allowing them. Principal Planner Shannon Tuch told commissioners a new proposal would allow gravel lots for one year, with an additional one-year extension possible. After the second year, the property owner would be required to pave the lot. They could then keep it as part of their property or sell it.
“One of the benefits of this wording amendment is, should we choose to pursue enforcement of temporary lots, it gives those property owners an opportunity to keep the lot and gives them some time to explore options, whether that’s improve the lot to a standard or sell the property for a different purpose,” Tuch said.
The Downtown Commission voted in support of the proposal, but Tuch said the body still has some concerns surrounding accessibility and whether or not this is a step in the direction of developing downtown to a higher standard.
“Once it’s become an established use and people are now relying on this as part of our infrastructure, how are you going to take that away each year once the permit has expired?” asked Hudson.
Commissioner Tony Hauser voiced concerns about increasing the amount of gravel downtown. “I just have a lot of skepticism as a civil engineer and a landscape architect, as a driver who has had my windshield replaced more than once, as a cyclist who — a stone that big, can cause a crash,” Hauser said. He also noted that promoting more cars downtown was contrary to how Asheville ought to be developing.
Downtown Commission member and realtor Byron Greiner said the gravel lots are intended for downtown employees who have a hard time finding parking. “We’re always going to have people coming in as tourists who need places to park, that’s part of the problem,” Greiner said. “But the biggest problem is that employees need somewhere to park.” He noted that gravel lots aren’t a perfect solution, but a positive one for now.
Hudson expressed a concern that the change might create a bigger problem in the future. “My issue with this is that it’s a very imperfect, temporary solution and once we implement it, it’s going to be very hard to take away,” Hudson said. “I feel like if we allow two years of Band-Aid it keeps us from doing the hard work.”
On behalf of the Downtown Commission, Greiner stressed that the proposal represents an immediate, necessary step in a positive direction. “The reason that we were so supportive of this is that if we don’t support this, then we’re forcing people to pave their lots, we’re pushing short-term parking,” Greiner said. “We wanted to encourage these lots to be used for employees or long-term parking.”
Stipulating that further discussion and research are needed, the Commission voted in support of the proposal 5-2, with Hudson and Hauser opposed.
For property at 421 Airport Road, the commission approved a zoning designation needed to allow construction to go forward.
At 49 N. Lexington Ave. (known as the Tyler Building), renovations are planned. While 10-foot wide sidewalks are required by the zoning code, that much space isn’t available. The developer requested relief from the requirement, which the commission granted.
Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church received approval to construct a 9,200 square foot office and classroom building at 47 Eagle St., and received variances related to window, door and other openings.
Planning Director Todd Okolichany gave a presentation on the city’s comprehensive plan update. While the original schedule had anticipated that the new plan would be presented to City Council in September or October, he said, planners now feel the need for more discussion and public input. The revised schedule projects an early 2018 date for the plan’s adoption.
Okolichany noted that feedback so far has been positive, but that the public wants more context and more information on how the plan will affect them. The plan, he said, also needs to be shortened from its current length of over 300 pages.
The next meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission will be held on Sept. 6 at 5 p.m.