Last fall, Council member Robin Cape and I ran a guest commentary in Mountain Xpress (see “A Sustainable Agenda: Proposals for a Clean and Green Asheville,” Sept. 20, 2006) outlining some of our ideas for making Asheville an environmentally sustainable city. Since then, City Council has taken a number of concrete steps: established a new Sustainable Energy And Environment Advisory Committee, committed to making all future city buildings “green”-certified, committed to reducing the city’s air-pollution and global-warming footprint, and signed Asheville onto the Cities for Climate Protection Campaign. But when it comes to neighborhoods and the environment, the question I hear people asking the most is, What are we going to do about all the development?
Philosophically, I don’t believe that simply adding more people to our population makes our community more healthy, happy or financially prosperous. That said, however, I believe the Asheville area is going to continue to grow in the foreseeable future. If that’s the case, then a lot of that growth should occur in Asheville rather than sprawling across more of the county’s remaining rural land. More intense development should be focused in the downtown area and along our primary transportation corridors, not within our residential neighborhoods.
Here is my top-10 list for 2007 in response to the question, What should we do about development?
1. Create better planning tools. The Planning Department’s current “traffic analysis” methods review one development at a time, providing little meaningful information. We need a more far-reaching picture of how future development will impact our transportation system so we can adjust our underlying zoning accordingly. Transportation modeling can help us better understand which areas can support more intense infill development and which cannot.
2. Make zoning policies more predictable for developers and the community. City Council sometimes grants requests from developers to rezone property because the underlying zoning does not reflect our vision for a sustainable pattern of development. Rather than rezoning the city piecemeal, Council should provide clear, simple “density bonuses” for the types of development we want to encourage (such as using green building elements and incorporating affordable-housing units), but otherwise make it much harder to rezone property.
3. Adopt a strong steep-slope-development ordinance. This will be one of the most important votes Council takes this year. We need to get this right and protect our steep slopes from overdevelopment.
4. Invest funds to preserve natural areas. Council member Cape is working with city residents to preserve a beautiful tract of land on Beaucatcher Mountain overlooking downtown. We need to support and expand such efforts.
5. Make it green. We should encourage green building by providing strong incentives such as enhanced fee waivers and tax rebates to offset the somewhat higher up-front costs. If we had started this effort 10 years ago, there would not be a case for building the new oil-burning power plant in Woodfin, because our community would be using significantly less energy.
6. Make it affordable. As with green building, we have some affordable-housing incentives now, but they should be expanded as well.
7. Make it walkable and bikeable. Our regional Metropolitan Planning Organization is poised to invest up to $2.8 million annually in local projects such as sidewalks and greenways. Local governments are required to provide a 20 percent match. Asheville should do that and more.
8. Create a more viable transit network. City Council has implemented a successful marketing campaign for our transit network and extended transit service into the evening. Ridership is growing. We need to place shelters and benches along all the key transit routes so people have a safe, comfortable place to catch the bus.
9. Rein in big-box development. A loophole in the Unified Development Ordinance allows developers to get around the 75,000-square-foot cap for large, big-box developments. We should close that loophole to help ensure that new commercial development fits the scale and character of the community.
10. Create a plan for Asheville’s most troubled neighborhoods. Many of our public-housing neighborhoods are impacted by levels of unemployment, school-dropout rates and crime that would be unimaginable in other parts of our city. Too many families and kids are falling through the cracks. As a community, we need a plan to make these neighborhoods safer and better places to live—and be prepared to back it up with the resources to make it happen.
Thanks for letting me share some ideas for improving community planning in Asheville. For more information, or to share your own ideas, please visit www.brownienewman.com.
[Brownie Newman serves on the Asheville City Council.]