Letter: Include zoning and development in climate policy

Graphic by Lori Deaton

Mountain Xpress recently reported that the city of Asheville has released its Municipal Climate Action Plan, just in time for Earth Month [“Green in Brief: Asheville Unveils Draft Municipal Climate Action Plan,” March 22, Xpress website]. It’s loaded with lots of good ideas, but one idea that’s missing is: “Audit our zoning and development regulations for their ability to support climate-friendly development patterns.”

Simply put, zoning/development policy is climate policy. And to the city’s credit, independent of the MCAP, the city’s Planning and Urban Design Department is taking a step in that direction with a missing-middle housing study. The study’s purpose is to review the city’s Unified Development Ordinance (i.e., our zoning and development rules) in relation to how its rules may help or hinder the creation of housing types like duplexes, town houses and small apartment buildings.

Older neighborhoods contain this spectrum of housing types, the “middle” between single-family detached houses and large apartment complexes, but they’re often “missing” among new housing construction because of local and state regulatory barriers, ranging from zoning to building codes.

The MCAP contains 22 recommended ideas, some of which continue or expand existing city policies, and the ideas were screened for their potential impact, feasibility and opportunity to advance equity. Ideas like electrifying city fleet vehicles, ranging from parking enforcement to ART buses, and looking for waste diversion opportunities via more recycling or composting are part of the climate change equation. But so is our approach to land use and its resulting transportation outcomes.

What’s the best form of land use and transportation planning? Give people options to live, work and play in closer proximity to one another, which enhances transit, walking and biking. As the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently stated, cities need to move toward more “compact urban form[s]” in order to reduce vehicle miles traveled. Yet, according to U.S. census data, the number of daily commuters into the city of Asheville increased from 46,000 in 2002 to 71,000 in 2019.

This trend is driven by a lack of housing availability and affordability. Zoning and development audits — ones like the missing-middle housing study offers — could positively impact long-term housing availability and affordability, both for existing and future residents, by updating policies that make it easier to live in the city rather than commuting from afar. Updating our zoning and development policies is certainly feasible — it’s political and social science, but it’s not rocket science. And the study presents an opportunity to advance equity to a wide range of renters and owners who look at housing not as “housing units” or a savings piggy bank, but as homes and shelter.

— Scott Adams

Editor’s note: Adams holds certification from the American Institute of Certified Planners and is a member of the city of Asheville’s Affordable Housing Advisory Committee and an appointee to the city’s Missing Middle Housing Study Working Group. He also volunteers as a lead organizer with the housing advocacy organization Asheville for All.


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One thought on “Letter: Include zoning and development in climate policy

  1. MV

    Car-centric mountain villages should be heavily scrutinized. If you’re a developer proposing such projects where there isn’t the proper infrastructure to reach thousands of residents and safeguard the health and public safety of current and future citizens, you must be held to the highest standards. (The contentious Bluffs proposal that threatens Richmond Hill Park, a multi-racial community of essential workers, and the French Broad River is just one example.)

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