ASHEVILLE — During a more than three-hour meeting, a nearly standing-room-only crowd waited as the Buncombe County Board of Adjustment deliberated two housing development projects on Wednesday, Nov. 8. Amid crowd jeers, pleas to halt development and the usual frustrations about traffic, a 62-townhome project in Arden moved forward, while a 296-unit apartment complex in the north Asheville area will return for consideration in December.
Achy breaky traffic
A proposed 296-unit apartment complex will ultimately need a jump-start from a North Carolina Department of Transportation study if it wants to get back on track. The project comes from Atlanta-based Hathaway Development and would sit on 29.5 acres of land near the intersection of Aiken Road and Country Oak Drive, just south of Weaverville.
Before the hearing got underway, board member James Wilson recused himself from the agenda item. “Hathaway is a business partner of mine,” explained Wilson to a resounding chorus of boos.
Board Chair George Lycan addressed the throng of people waiting to give public comment: “One or more of you will be speaking about traffic. We’d like to not be repetitive.” With that, the procession of traffic woes left the station.
Stanley Aiken identified himself as being the road’s namesake and noted that speeding is a “significant” issue and that he worries for his grandchildren. “I’m concerned about traffic safety, because there is insufficient sight distance due to the curvature [on Aiken Road]. My driveway … I’ve got less than 100 feet of sight distance. It doesn’t even give you reaction time,” he lamented.
“The decision you make today could very well impact our lives for 15, 20 years. It could impact my children’s lives for as long as they’re there. I don’t want them to sell their land because they think they need to get somewhere safe,” Aiken said.
Nearby resident Richard Unanue stated, along with traffic concerns, that high-density development is not simpatico with the rest of the community. “The mandate by the Planning Board is to maintain the character of our community. This would be a disaster. And the property north of this is four times larger and is also open for development. If you give this permit, it would set a precedent making it impossible to stop development of high-density apartments,” he argued.
Marilyn Ball, whose home is off Aiken Road, told the board the thoroughfare is the most dangerous she’s ever seen. “I would say, on a 35-mile-per-hour road, these cars are going 50-60 miles per hour all day long. When you get to end of Aiken [Road] you can’t even see if cars are coming,” she said, piggybacking on previous speakers’ concerns about limited vision on parts of the road.
“I can tell you this is just wrong. It’s going to disturb all this residential area where people have acres. This is not a development type of area, and I’m pleading for you to consider not allowing this to happen,” Ball concluded, to a round of applause.
The public comment period lasted more than 90 minutes and saw people pile on traffic, safety and other concerns with about 40 people in attendance, many of whom were there offering silent support.
Chris Day, the project’s civil engineer, noted that the NCDOT was already engaged with a traffic study. “Data is underway now to account for school traffic, and it should wrap up in three weeks. Most multifamily projects of this size that we’ve worked on, NCDOT has typically required turn lanes, and turn lanes appear feasible based on rights of way,” he noted.
Day also acknowledged other concerns and said they would be taken into consideration. “My job is to take your concerns, convey them and navigate the process. It’s input like this that helps us get to the best design going forward,” he said.
Members of the board then deliberated among themselves, with a trend of traffic woes becoming a major sticking point. Board member Keith Levi noted the neighborhood has legitimate concerns. “We all see impact of traffic and sense changes in the county. … At a minimum, I would like to see a traffic analysis and hear a traffic expert speak and give us more information. I can’t feel comfortable supporting this, that I’ve done due diligence.”
Lycan concurred: “There’s so much unknown surrounding this, like traffic and general safety. I need more information.”
Day advised the board that he would be happy to oblige. “I have no problem requesting a continuance and coming back. We’ll put the missing pieces back into this conversation,” he said.
With that, the board unanimously approved a motion to have the hearing continued to its December meeting with the caveat it would only focus on findings from the traffic study and testimony from an expert.
It’s the first time Xpress has seen the board not defer traffic issues to the NCDOT’s portion of the permitting process, commonly referred to as the driveway permit.
Arden will be getting 62 townhomes that local developer Ken Jackson has dubbed as “close to affordable housing.” The project is slated for 7.2 acres of land at 67 Baldwin Road.
“Regarding affordable housing, this project comes as close as possible to it,” said Jackson, noting the price range would be in the low $200,000 range. “If you search South Buncombe, you won’t find something close to [these prices].”
And while affordable housing might be welcomed by some, the influx of cars was of concern to a number of people in attendance. Ira Palmer, president of the nearby Baldwin Cove Cottages homeowners association, said safety concerns about increased traffic and speeding prompted the association to ask the county engineer to look into the issue. “The determined average speed was 49 miles per hour and [the county engineer] said very little can be done about that,” said Palmer, adding the NCDOT recently lowered the speed limit from 35 to 30 miles per hour. “But, as suspected, it’s had little or no change to actual speed. It’s an accident waiting to happen.”
Lycan then advised the crowd waiting to speak against the project, “Traffic is bad all over Asheville. We want your opinion, but not a sequence of one after another describing bad traffic. If it’s just about traffic, we’ve heard it before.” The advice mostly fell flat.
“I’m concerned about safety issues. With addition of 160 new cars, in this new subdivision, the effect is going to negatively affect noise, traffic and disturb the neighborhood,” said Baldwin Cove resident Peggy White.
Robert Zimmerman, whose property is adjacent to the proposed development, stated: “All the neighbors I talk to say they’ve almost been rear-ended [on Baldwin Road]. It’s an awful lot of homes in a small area and little attention is paid to how it interacts with surrounding area.
“I think you’re going to be seeing some wrecks there. I really fear that. I ask you to implore how [the developers] arrived at the conclusion there won’t be traffic problems,” Zimmerman added.
Two other nearby residents spoke against the project, both citing increased traffic as a primary concern.
“Thank you for the comments. What I keep hearing is traffic is an issue,” said Warren Suggs, the project’s civil engineer. “We’ve submitted to NCDOT for driveway permit, so NCDOT will handle things involved with that. We aren’t in control of speed limit,” adding they are looking into adding additional landscape buffers to mitigate noise concerns.
Board member Andy Ball said he wasn’t satisfied that traffic wouldn’t be unduly cumbersome and mentioned the effects of noise and pedestrian and auto safety. “I think we need more detail,” he said, wondering how developers arrived at the conclusion that increased traffic would not be an impact.
With that, the board approved the project 6-1, with Ball casting the dissenting vote.
Last month, Xpress took an in-depth look at who is responsible for traffic studies, mitigation and more. See “Buncombe residents call for brake on traffic growth” here.
The Buncombe County Board of Adjustment will next meet on Wednesday, Dec. 13.