As Hillary Brown, executive director of The Steady Collective, sees it, Asheville’s city government doesn’t have a problem with her organization running a weekly needle exchange from the community space of Firestorm Books & Coffee in West Asheville. At a press conference in that same community space on Sept. 20, Brown said that Shannon Tuch, the city’s principal planner, had told the group her issue was with “not what we do, but who we serve.”
Libertie Valance, a Firestorm member-manager, explained that the clientele coming to the bookstore for Steady’s needle exchange every Tuesday afternoon consists primarily of “drug users, the homeless, neighbors who use syringes for legal medical treatment or transgender individuals like myself who are undergoing hormone replacement therapy.” By calling the needle exchange a “shelter” operation in violation of the Unified Development Ordinance, Valance contended, the city was discriminating against groups entitled to equal treatment under the law.
Firestorm and Steady announced that they had formally appealed their notices of violation on Sept. 17. The appeals will likely be considered at the next meeting of the city’s Board of Adjustment, which takes place on Monday, Oct. 22. If the board rejects the appeals, the groups face civil penalties of $100 for every day they remain out of zoning compliance.
Tuch initially issued the NOVs against Firestorm and Steady on Aug. 8 for establishing a needle exchange program in a zoning district where such activity was not a permitted use. However, the UDO does not include language defining or regulating needle exchanges, which were legalized at the state level only in 2016. On Aug. 17, Tuch amended the violations to specify that the problem was operating a shelter, defined as “a nonprofit, charitable or religious organization providing boarding and/or lodging and ancillary services on its premises to primarily indigent, needy, homeless or transient persons.”
In an Aug. 10 open letter, interim City Manager Cathy Ball said the city’s zoning actions came in response to community complaints about activity around Firestorm’s address, 610 Haywood Road. She wrote that specific issues included “finding hypodermic needles littered on neighboring properties, witnessing intravenous drug use in public, defecating on neighboring properties and harassment of neighboring businesses’ patrons, students and residents.”
But when Firestorm and Steady representatives made multiple requests to the city to receive specific complaints explicitly naming their organizations, Valance said, they were told no such complaints existed. Therefore, the groups believe that the city is citing them in an effort to show action on larger issues of drug use and homelessness.
“Rather than dealing with those problems directly, [city government] has chosen to target individuals and organizations that are already working with those populations to try and reduce the impact of the harm,” Valance said.
Brown noted that the city’s actions had already hindered her group’s ability to serve its clients. Steady’s insurance company did not renew its coverage due to the NOV, which in turn disqualified the needle exchange from a Buncombe County contract worth $25,000 over the course of the fiscal year (see “Less damage done,” Aug. 8, Xpress). The group is now relying on crowdfunding to support its regular operations, city fees for the appeals — $832 each for Steady and Firestorm — and ongoing legal costs.
Both of the appeals, authored by Asheville attorney John Noor, argue that Steady’s needle exchange takes place for just 3.5 percent of Firestorm’s total operating hours and that the “vast majority of community use within the space is unrelated to the exchange.” Because Firestorm’s primary purpose is retail sales, Noor wrote, the needle exchange is an accessory use “permitted in conjunction with an allowable principal use.”
A similar line of reasoning was used successfully to challenge NOVs against Kairos West Community Center and 12 Baskets Café, two other organizations cited for operating an unpermitted shelter at 610 Haywood. Speaking with Xpress after the press conference, the Rev. Milly Morrow of The Cathedral of All Souls, which sponsors Kairos West, said the city rescinded its action once she pointed out that just two of the 36 groups using the space in the past six months served primarily indigent populations.
“The city did no research before they issued the violations. They simply drove by and took complaints. If they did anything else, they have not told me about it, and I’ve asked them,” Morrow said. “When I sent that [usage information] to them, there was no way they could argue anymore.”
Morrow added that her church’s congregation had extensively pressured city officials, including Mayor Esther Manheimer, through a phone campaign. While she noted that Firestorm and Steady supporters are also civically engaged, she suggested that class differences had played a role in the city’s response.
“I think it’s also about the demographics of who my church is compared to who shops in this store,” Morrow said. Firestorm describes itself as using “an alternative economic model based on cooperative, libertarian principles” and “providing a hub for anarchist thought and culture.” Tuch could not be reached for comment on the city’s position.
Steady and Firestorm representatives said they will continue to combat the NOVs to the fullest possible extent. Should their appeals fail at the city level, they said the matter could go the N.C. Superior Court, the N.C. Court of Appeals and the N.C. Supreme Court. But if a final verdict upholds the city’s zoning interpretations, the groups will have no choice but to stop the needle exchange.
“We don’t have the financial resources to operate while being hit with punishing fines every day,” Valance said. “That’s not an option on the table for us.”