A plaque with a quote from former Woodfin Town Administrator Jason Young sits a couple of feet behind Mayor Jerry VeHaun’s desk in Woodfin Town Hall.
“Growth is not a four-letter word in Woodfin,” it reads.
VeHaun, 80, decided against seeking another term in this year’s town election, so he will be packing up the plaque and other memorabilia when he vacates the office at the end of 20 years as mayor. The sentiment behind the plaque may not disappear entirely, but it is fading.
Only a couple of years after VeHaun took office in 2003, developers were lining up to bring new housing to the town. In 2005, five projects alone promised about 1,100 new homes, many of them luxury properties selling at prices the mostly working-class town had never seen before. There appeared to be little opposition.
But less than three years ago, plans for a huge development sparked a political earthquake in the town. The Bluffs would have included as many as 1,545 apartments, a hotel, and retail and office space on land just west of the French Broad River. The plans, later reduced to a little fewer than 1,400 apartments, were ultimately shelved in the face of strong public opposition. In 2021, the uproar helped three newcomers who said the town needed tougher rules on development oust three longtime members of a seven-member Town Council in a landslide vote.
The result reflected how Woodfin was changing. None of the three winning candidates had lived in Woodfin longer than five years at the time of their election, but that didn’t matter so much to voters — many of whom were relatively recent arrivals, too. The town’s population jumped 27% from 2010-21, according to census data.
Voters will be choosing among newcomers for mayor in November, too. Jim McAllister, now vice mayor, and Jason Moore are vying for the post. Four others, only one an incumbent, are running for three Council seats.
“People coming here without knowing the full history of [Woodfin] were probably surprised to find out how little land-use regulation existed,” says Eric Edgerton, one of the three elected in 2021.
Three months later, Council appointed two allies of the newcomers to replace members who had resigned for health reasons, giving proponents of more controls a majority. They later adopted an ordinance limiting construction on steep slopes, rules to curtail the growth of short-term rentals and expanded Council’s power over large development projects.
Edgerton says the changes mean Woodfin has shed its status as “the landing spot for any developer who didn’t want to comply with the more stringent requirements of other municipalities.” Council’s “progressive and responsible actions” have created more of a balance between growth and desires to preserve the environment and Woodfin’s small-town feel, he says.
Debbie Giezentanner, one of the three incumbents who lost their Council seats in 2021, said Edgerton is exaggerating the degree to which town rules favored developers. But, she added, she likes some constraints on development the new Council has adopted: “I don’t know that Woodfin was totally ready for The Bluffs.”
VeHaun, who as mayor only votes if the other six members of Town Council are deadlocked, said the way Council handled development over the years reflected the desires of its citizens at the time. Before The Bluffs, “I don’t know that we really had a lot of opposition” to any development, he says.
Home prices jump
From 2000-22, Woodfin’s population more than doubled to 8,072 due to development and annexation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Clara Redden can see signs of the changes from the front porch of the house she and her late husband, Clyde, bought in an older neighborhood in town in 1978. The couple, who met when they worked together in a textile mill, raised two children there.
One house a few doors down rents as an Airbnb. Another in the opposite direction has been extensively renovated. A house in between was built two years ago, one of many new homes that have popped up in Woodfin neighborhoods recently.
Newer arrivals in Redden’s neighborhood “paid a lot more for them than they used to” for housing, and tax values have risen accordingly, she says.
Tax values for homes on Skyland Circle closest to Redden’s jumped by an average of nearly 50% from 2017-21, the dates of Buncombe County’s two most recent mass appraisals. Two nearby houses sold last year for more than double the prices they brought five and seven years ago.
Despite those increases, houses in Redden’s neighborhood are still valued at only a fraction of those in Reynolds Mountain, an upscale development that’s brought million-dollar homes with million-dollar views to a high ridge on the eastern side of Woodfin. Proximity to Asheville has been one of Reynolds Mountain’s primary selling points — a 2002 ad called it “North Asheville’s Premier Development” even though almost all of it lies outside the city.
Pausing outside his Reynolds Mountain home while detailing his Porsche sports car, Mark Levan gives a similar explanation when asked what prompted him to buy there two years ago.
He and his wife “liked the Beaver Lake area, access to the services … and the proximity to downtown” Asheville, says Levan, a retired CEO of a manufacturing company in upstate New York. “It meets all of our needs.”
The Great Recession of 2007-09 shelved or curtailed many upscale housing developments proposed for Woodfin. Still, Woodfin’s population has shifted to become more like the rest of Buncombe County, Census Bureau figures say.
For instance, the percentage of Woodfin residents with four-year college degrees in 2000 was only 60% that of Buncombe County as a whole. By 2020, that difference was close to disappearing. Median household income — the point at which half are higher, half lower — in the town was two-thirds that of Buncombe County in 2000. Twenty years later, the figure for Woodfin was more than 90% of Buncombe County’s.
Where to live?
Woodfin was incorporated in 1971 partly because “people didn’t want to be a part of Asheville” and would rather control their own community, says VeHaun. He says his goal has been to “just give people good government at a fair price and don’t lie to them and help them if you can.”
Every town in Buncombe County, however, is affected by Asheville’s attraction for those looking for a new place to live, and the national jump in housing costs.
Cassie McIntosh says she and her husband had been trying to buy a house since January and had targeted Woodfin and Weaverville without success. “We pretty much looked everywhere” for something in decent repair that fit their budget, she says. They put in four or five offers above the asking price for homes but were outbid, then finally found a house in East Asheville’s Oakley neighborhood, she says.
“Woodfin is just growing by leaps and bounds with people moving into the area,” says Kaylynne Lanning, a lifelong town resident and McIntosh’s employer at Kaylynne’s Briar Patch Florist in Woodfin. The town was once regarded by some as “a no-man’s land” made undesirable by the proximity of the county landfill, a prison and the Metropolitan Sewerage District treatment plant, she says. The landfill has closed, the prison moved to an isolated location on the edge of town, and improvements at the treatment plant have dramatically reduced its smell.
“People coming to Asheville are finding Marshall and Woodfin and all kinds of outlying areas to be more interesting than they were years ago,” Lanning says.
A wave, and more hoops
Some residents worry that rising housing costs will push working-class people out of town over time. The percentage of Woodfin residents with incomes below the poverty line is 20.9%, nearly double that of Buncombe County.
“For people close to minimum wage and a little bit more, it’s got to be quite a struggle,” says retiree Richard DeAngelis. “I do feel sorry for the younger people” trying to buy a home.
Interest in Woodfin will likely rise as the town creates an artificial wave in the French Broad River designed as a playground for whitewater enthusiasts and adds 5 miles of greenway beside the river and Beaverdam Creek over the next three years.
The wave will be “a very cool, very fun destination” for residents and visitors, says former Asheville City Council member Marc Hunt, who helped start the effort to create the wave and is advising the town on the projects. He says similar efforts elsewhere have sparked economic development in the communities around them, and the same is likely to happen in Woodfin.
Existing greenways and other planned paths mean that in a few years, “a Woodfin resident that works in downtown Asheville will be able to take a very flat and very safe route” from home to work by bicycle, Hunt says. Commuters might outnumber recreational riders on weekdays, he says, and some will reduce their cost of living by forgoing having a second car in the family.
Edgerton says the town’s stricter rules will not have a negative impact on the availability of affordable housing — no one was building inexpensive houses on the steep slopes that are now more protected, he says. Some rules, like restrictions on short-term rentals, will slow the conversion of existing homes into vacation rentals, thus preserving more of the town’s housing stock for residents, he says.
All large projects are now subject to conditional zoning, a set of rules that allows the Town Council to require developers to take certain steps to obtain project approval. Council’s recent approval of a 300-unit development on Goodman Road with a requirement that 10% of the units meet affordability guidelines is an example of how that will work, Edgerton says. “We didn’t have to invest a dime” to get 30 affordable homes, he says.
But Mike Figura, founder and owner of Mosaic Realty in Asheville, says gentrification in Woodfin has already begun and some of the changes will make it worse. On a positive note, restricting short-term rentals will help preserve some homes in town for rentals and positively affect affordability, says Figura, who formerly worked as an urban planner.
On the other hand, putting Town Council in a position to negotiate details of a project will have the opposite effect, he says. The process opens a door for public pressure to stop construction of housing or for Council to demand features that make it more expensive, he says.
“Think about how many housing units have been proposed in Asheville that have not been built” because of resident opposition, Figura says. “That has a real impact in the marketplace.”