“Ashemart” rules deny citizens’ right to be heard

Bill Branyon’s [Jan. 5] commentary, “Welcome to Ashemart” thrashes on a denial of citizen rights that is not new to Asheville. Asheville City Council seems to be embarked on a systematic policy to deny redress to the people who elected it. Last fall, City Council voted to adopt the “Sustainable Development” amendment to the Unified Development Ordinance. The stated objective of that amendment was to promote affordable housing, a laudable goal. Whether it will actually achieve that goal is yet to be seen. With only planning staff approval, the change would allow construction of up to 70 apartment units with no public hearings.

Granted, the Sustainable Development amendment was significantly modified when it passed through the Planning and Zoning Commission. As a layman with one major objection (emphasis on “major”), I was pleased with the result. Denying the public the opportunity to be heard before elected officials on these matters robs citizens of a basic constitutional right. It is unclear why a Council, most of whom call themselves “progressives,” chose to curb a basic right of the people it serves. It is speculation, but had the Sustainable Development amendment allowed for open, public discussion, one of two things would have happened: Despite the restrictions the amendment placed on the development it authorizes, every NIMBY in Asheville would show up at public hearings that would last well into the night; or nobody would show up at all, and the projects would be approved with no controversy.

In the first case, Council would be required to once again endure an uncomfortable truth — democracy is messy. In the second, Asheville would have the opportunity to allow for development of a much-needed segment of the housing market. But it seems that a majority of Council thought the opportunity for affordable housing trumped the constitutional right of the people to redress grievances before their elected officials.

The means justified the ends. Quick-and-dirty is better than slow-and-deliberate. That’s a dangerous path.

The public seemed generally unconcerned about this infringement on its rights. At the first reading and vote on the Sustainable Development amendment, not more than a dozen people on both sides of the issue were in attendance. Given our historic voter turnout and other indices of public participation both here in Asheville and nationwide, I suppose that should not have been surprising. However, the result of this apparent apathy is that we are passively watching our hard-won democracy slip through our fingers like dry sand. We seem to be quite content to let “Big Brother” decide our fate, whether Big Brother stands to the right or left.

To their credit, Mayor Bellamy and Councilman Davis voted against the amendment on grounds I cited above. Councilman Bothwell voted against on the first reading, but by the second reading he voted to pass the amendment without the requirement for hearings before City Council.

— Mike Lewis

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4 thoughts on ““Ashemart” rules deny citizens’ right to be heard

  1. J

    Mike raises a good question. If you have concerns about a project that is slated for automatic review, just where are you supposed to complain?

    I guess you can post at ScruHoo and see if ol’ Gordy notices.

  2. J

    Just to be gabby, Mike’s letter also demonstrates just why lobbyists are so effective.

    Without public hearings, and public input, how is the public supposed to communicate? Especially when they have jobs and families, they can’t hunt down elected and appointed officials. If they want to he be heard, they can hire someone like a Lou Bisset (former mayor) who has gravitas and insights.

    We abhor lobbyists, but our progressive led city council creates situations for them to thrive.

  3. While I’m largely in sympathy with Mike’s (and many others’) view of the Sustainability Bonus as an incursion into citizens’ right to be heard, the issue isn’t all that simple. (Which is why I changed my vote on the second hearing—though I didn’t need to, since it would have passed anyway. And while I’m mentioning votes, it’s worth noting that both Terry Bellamy and Jan Davis reversed themselves when it came to the vote described in the Ashemart commentary.)

    The problem I faced with the Sustainability Bonus, is both practical and historical. From a practical standpoint, if we hadn’t guaranteed a builder the bonus if certain criteria were met, it amounted to no incentive at all. As things stand, any builder can apply for a zoning variance, face a public hearing, and perhaps get approved. If the condition were the same under a “bonus” plan, what’s the difference?

    And, historically, Asheville has had very pro-development Councils and consequently has had a pro-sprawl zoning plan for years. You can look at the Sustainability Bonus as some kind of back-door, insider deal making, or as a more progressive Council correcting bad zoning in the past. This vote pitted the green agenda I ran on against the transparency I have long advocated. Not an easy choice, but in the end I had to vote for what I deemed to be the most progressive policy choice.

  4. J

    All of Asheville certainly looks forward to your actions that will restore the public comment to the building approval process, Cecil.

    We know that you would never do away with public comment, leaving us silenced, and then walk away.

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