The Buncombe County Board of Adjustment slogged through a raucous, more than five-hour meeting Wednesday, May 10. The meeting was peppered with crowd outbursts, applause for anti-development comments and had a theme that housing expansion projects are changing the character of rural Buncombe County.
As the noon meeting marched toward 5 p.m., the board approved plans for a contentious 54-home subdivision in Riceville, a 255-unit apartment complex and other agenda items that had members of the standing-room-only crowd waiting to speak against.
The atmosphere of the meeting can be summed up by a Black Mountain resident who acknowledged the futility of her comment. But after waiting five hours, she still wanted to get it off her chest. “This county has gotten to point we are destroying the quality of life here. Where does it stop? It’s time the county do something different,” she said before the board approved a 100,000-square-foot manufacturing facility for Avadim Technologies.
Board members expressed sympathy while explaining that issues such as traffic and zoning overlays are largely controlled by the state Department of Transportation and the county Board of Commissioners. And Chair George Lycan repeatedly lamented traffic in his neighborhood of South Asheville while stressing the importance of contacting DOT. “You are the experts, better than people in a DOT office. You know what problems and solutions are. They want to hear from you,” he said.
One of the major projects getting approval was a mixed-use, 54-home subdivision in Riceville. Its developer, David Case, was at the center of another controversial project in the area known as Coggins Farm. Case’s current project drew the majority of people at the meeting and tallied about 20 people speaking against it, with one homeowner association speaking in favor of it. In addition to the homes, plans call for a community center, an agricultural goods market and the reservation of open space areas for farming [and] agricultural uses.
Bob Ward, speaking on behalf of the Buffalo Mountain Homeowners Association, said his group believes the property will eventually be developed. The subdivision plans propose to not disturb 75 percent of its nearly 40-acre footprint, and Ward said that’s desirable. “We are asking for approval contingent that they preserve farmlike character.”
Those opposed to the development cited concerns about traffic, flooding, noise, light pollution, septic failure and more.
Riceville resident John Halding said it’s not just the increased volume of cars, but the fact there is no way to mitigate it. “Any development that continues to occur in the area of Riceville Road will create access problems because of the inability to widen Riceville Road,” he said, noting that part of the road runs under the Blue Ridge Parkway. “I don’t see a way the [parkway] tunnel can be widened. Traffic is often already backed up for a half-mile. I understand DOT handles road issues, but I’m asking you to consider these massive problems.”
Bull Creek Road resident Jim Murphy said this type of growth is not why people live in his community. “Adding 54 homes, 128 parking spaces … in effect changes the Riceville area to a thriving suburb. It’s the New York-ification’ of a country road,” he said to thunderous applause.
Meanwhile, nearby resident Danny Arnold had concerns the septic field won’t be able to handle an influx. “Where will the drain field go, and what we do with the poop when it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to? I think it’s too much pressure on the system,” he said.
The board noted that its job is to ensure septic systems have appropriate space, but, ultimately, the development will have to get septic permits from the state.
Another major theme that arose during the public hearing was that the undeveloped land stay that way and the potential for future homeowners to use their properties for short-term rentals.
In response to the myriad issues, the developer said he was asking for a conditional use permit to cluster the homes to preserve 75 percent of the tract’s overall space. “The hardest part about being a developer is days like this. We understand not everybody loves it. We understand people want to preserve this land,” Case explained.
“We could do wider lot sizes and 100 or 150 homes and not even come to this board. We really love what we are doing and we put our heart and soul into it. We reach out to neighbors as best we can. We are not trying to create an insular community with gates. We’ve gotten to know neighbors and are trying to build community to touch larger community.”
Lycan complimented the plans while raising another concern. “I have a problem with the vacation rental aspect. Vacation rental is unpredictable and could be the worst part in regard to impact of noise, traffic, etc. If every house in there has a vacation rental running … that puts it into a serious problem.”
County Planner Debbie Trumpie confirmed those homeowners would be allowed to rent to vacationers as long as it meets a two-night minimum.
“Most people interested in this development are Asheville residents and want to be in a community,” Case said in response the vacation rental concerns. “We’re leaving the option to do it according to what the law says. But my sense of the people that will be moving in is they want community.”
Finally, board members stated that while largely on board with the project, they wanted to safeguard the 75 percent that has been earmarked as undeveloped. However, County Attorney Michael Frue advised it couldn’t legally stipulate that clause. “I don’t think it’s within the authority of the board. You’ve voiced your desires; sometimes you have to take a leap of faith.”
To that end, Case said, “I will give you my word.”
Earlier conversations about placing that portion of the project into an easement by Case’s development team suggested the land was too small, and not contiguous to other properties, to make it desirable, or worth the money and effort, for an easement. However, Case said he will look at deed restrictions and is open to any easement groups that might want to consider working with him.
With that, the board unanimously approved the project.
Case told Xpress he plans to break ground in the fall and the entire project will take “a couple of years” to complete.
Paved with good intentions
The other large project getting approval was a 255-unit apartment complex on Brevard Road, just north of Long Shoals Road. It’s an area already in the throes of traffic woes, and many nearby residents are struggling to understand how it will be mitigated. The project, known as The Villas at Avery Creek, will price 30 percent of its units for workforce housing.
Developer Shane Abraham said it will be primarily a townhome community. “We’ve been doing this for about 20 years. We are the developer, contractor and property manager. We have a long-term commitment,” he said.
Talk then turned to foot and automobile traffic. Adjacent property owner Jonathan Guest said he’s not adamantly opposed to the project, but he’s “sorry the developers couldn’t be bothered to contact him” as he expressed frustration that his yard would be used as a pedestrian cut-through by tenants looking to walk to nearby amenities.
Pivoting to car congestion, Guest said, “To call it a traffic problem is a stretch because that connotes movement. People spend more time sitting than moving. It’s really untenable. From everything we are hearing, the correction from the DOT is years out.”
Piggybacking on traffic concerns, nearby resident Nancy Newlane noted she appreciates the commitment to workforce housing but said existing infrastructure can’t handle a development of that size. “There are already four traffic lights in eight-tenths of a mile. There’s gridlock at different times of the day,” she said, adding that she has doubts about emergency and law enforcement personnel’s ability to navigate that stretch of road. “If this is workforce housing, considering the traffic situation … how will this workforce get to work?”
Adjoining property owner Mike Brown also lamented the lack of communication. “No one ever contacted us. We could probably have solved [some of these issues] with a conversation,” he said. “Are you going to put up a fence? I think you might want to, or we’ll be talking several times a day. I’m going to have ‘No trespassing’ signs, and if I catch them in there, you know. … You need to put a fence there to guide kids out.”
Abraham addressed the lack of communication and apologized for not reaching out to everyone while noting, “It’s our first rodeo in North Carolina.” He said some traffic relief will come in the form of a 400-foot turn lane for southbound traffic turning onto Long Shoals Road. That project, according to the developer’s engineering team, is set to be in place before the apartments are completed, noting, “There will be a net improvement. It’s going to get better.”
Abraham said he also reached out to Asheville Transit about adding a bus line and noted that high-density projects like this make those routes more attractive.
Lycan asked Abraham to gather residents’ contact information so they could work out other issues, not within the Board of Adjustment’s purview, as the project moves forward.
The board unanimously approved the development.
Overall, the Board of Adjustment approved seven of the eight projects on its agenda. All but one received comments against it. Most comments against development received applause from the crowd as angst for specific projects seemed to aggregate into frustration about overall development.
Solutions to the many traffic issues raised may by years away, and citizens seemed dismayed by having to comment at the Board of Adjustment, contact the DOT and reach out to local elected officials. “We don’t have the ability to take the long political view of where our world is going to go. That’s not us,” Lycan said of the board’s sphere of influence.
Board member Cindy Weeks noted, “I have concerns about losing our farmlands, but it’s the commissioners that zoned the county and provided the zoning plan for us to consider. It’s our charge to look at development projects and see if they meet requirements.”
At the end of the meeting, there were only two members public left, waiting to express their concerns about the Avadim project. The Black Mountain residents lamented the changing of the community and pondered, “Where does it stop?”
“It’s a good question, it’s valid,” said Lycan. “You won’t find the answer here. Please contact your elected officials. It’s the only way you have input.”
The Board of Adjustment’s next meeting is set for Wednesday, June 14.