EDITORS NOTE: The county announced on Nov. 16 that Turi has withdrawn his application for text amendments to the Steep Slope/High Elevation and Protected Ridge overlay. The public hearing that was scheduled for the Board of Commissioners meeting on Nov. 20 has been cancelled.
Robert Turi wants to build a boutique resort in the mountains outside Asheville — a place where visitors can have immediate access to nature.
“They don’t have to meet and pack into a couple cars and drive to go hiking,” he says. “They just have to walk out the door of the resort on this ridgetop.”
The Las Vegas-based developer hopes to pave the way for his vision by pushing for changes to parts of the county zoning ordinance that restrict development in steep, hilltop areas. The proposed resort would be located on three parcels totaling 182 acres in the Emma’s Grove area of Fletcher; vehicle access would be on Bob Barnwell Road.
Turi says only 18 acres of that property would be used for the resort itself, with about 5 acres cleared for the building, water reservoir and treatment plant. The rest would be set aside for parking, a pool area, a spa facility and a location for a wedding altar.
Opponents, including staff in the county planning department, are concerned the requested changes could open the floodgates for more intensive land uses in areas that have been limited to low-impact development like single-family housing.
“This would be a very radical approach to regulations that have otherwise worked really well,” says Buncombe County Planning Director Nathan Pennington.
He says the restrictions exist to preserve the region’s natural landscape, mitigate risks of erosion and steer developers toward areas already served by utilities.
The proposal has gone in front of the Buncombe County Planning Board twice and has been denied both times. The Board of Commissioners will have final say over the fate of the amendments during its meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 20.
Planning staff have issued a forceful recommendation that commissioners deny the request, writing that the changes have the potential to “erode sound planning practices” in fragile parts of the local environment and “set a precedent for preference over reasonable accommodations.”
Bob Oast, an Asheville attorney representing Turi, says the proposed amendment does contain controls that would limit the scale of development in protected areas. “We don’t want to put a factory on top of the mountains here,” Oast says, “or any other kind of use that’s incompatible.”
The amendment would lump steep slopes and protected ridges into a category called a “scenic resource area.” Any development located entirely or partially in a scenic resource area would comprise a minimum of 100 acres, and at least 90 percent of the property would have to be conserved.
In other words, only 10 percent of the land could be developed. Impervious surfaces like concrete would be limited to 6 percent of the land area, and vegetation would have to hide the developed area so it would not be visible from below. Developers would also be prohibited from building in steep slope areas and moderate to high hazard areas.
Oast says he and his client are also open to limiting the permitted range of uses in these areas if the county calls for it.
Specific plans for the resort are still imprecise, but Oast says the development would be small with the intention being that the building blends into the natural landscape. The proposed location, he says, is in a flat part of the property — inside a protected ridge overlay but not on a steep slope. He says the location is also shielded from view by a screen of trees.
Turi says he originally explored the idea of putting a major subdivision on the property but concluded it would be an intrusive and inefficient use of the land. “I saw an opportunity to produce a much smaller footprint,” he says.
Dana Bell lives in South Asheville and attended a planning board meeting in August to voice her opposition to the amendment. Although she doesn’t live close to the area in question, she’s concerned that the changes could spur rampant development in similar protected parts of the county.
“What about all of the other developers that come?” she asks. “We’re not stupid. We know that every developer is not going to be this way, and we’re going to have to stay here and live with the havoc that is wreaked on our schools and our roads and infrastructure.”
She also resents that Buncombe County residents should have to live with changes suggested by a single out-of-state developer.
“Yes, he’s from out of state,” Oast says. But, “that doesn’t mean he’s going to swoop in here and do something that people won’t like.”
Brownie Newman, chair of the Board of Commissioners, says he’s willing to learn more about the proposal, but he’s skeptical. He understands the argument that additional types of development would be allowed in those areas in exchange for preservation of a significant percentage of land.
“But I think that’s offset by the fact that it would open up steep-slope areas to different kinds of development that are not allowed now,” he says. As of Nov. 7, he’s opposed to the change.
What the county is trying to do with these restrictions, Pennington says, is keep commercial and multifamily development out “ecologically sensitive” parts of the county.
“If you take away the mountains,” he says, “how are we very different from Kansas or one of the other Plains states?”