BY PERRIN de JONG
We’ve all seen the damage Asheville’s recent building boom has wrought on our quality of life. Now city planners have big plans for accelerating this change and transforming our town into a place you may not recognize.
The name of the proposal is the “open space amendment,” and the goal is to dramatically slash, and in some cases, eliminate, the open space that developers are now required to provide with larger construction projects. It’s more complicated than this, but for the sake of conversation, you can think of open space as anywhere on a piece of property where developers can’t put a building.
A lopsided task force
Early this year, city staff from the Planning and Urban Design Department assembled a task force to help shape the proposal. I got a sense of what the final product would look like when I saw that most of the task force participants selected were developers, employees of developers or people who work closely with developers in their daily jobs and positions throughout city government. A lopsided minority of the task force was made up of me and other members of the city’s Urban Forestry Commission, along with other community advocates who aren’t aligned with developers’ interests.
When the work of the task force got underway, the first thing we asked of staff was to inform the public of the proposals being discussed and solicit public feedback on those plans. It really stuck in my craw when this idea was rejected, as though local residents have no place in shaping the future of their own community. Things got worse when staff kept their thumbs on the scale to ensure that developers got nearly everything they wanted, despite strong opposition from other task force members. They also kept their thumbs on the scale to ensure that the only objectives community-minded advocates on the task force could achieve were those the developers didn’t feel inconvenienced by.
Slashing open space
So it came as no surprise when my concerns about the end result of this imbalanced process were realized. Relative to Asheville’s existing open-space laws, the proposal would slash the minimum size of open space by up to 80% and cut the total amount of open space required by up to 50%.
As if that weren’t bad enough, the proposal contains many loopholes that allow developers to avoid even those meager requirements. For example, it would:
• Relieve some developers from providing up to 80% of their required open space due to the use of stormwater mitigation measures that are legally required anyway.
• Relieve developers that provide a percentage of temporary “affordable” housing units from having to provide up to 80% of the open space that would otherwise be mandated.
• And relieve developers from providing an extra 10% of the open space that would otherwise be required in exchange for providing a flat, rectangular spot with pedestrian-accessible seating, resulting in a total potential discount of 90% of the open space required.
What’s worse, the proposal contains provisions to allow developers to meet their open-space requirements without producing any added benefits to city residents. For example, 100% of a developer’s open-space requirements could be met using mandatory property line buffers that are separately required under law. Also, separately required building setbacks could be used to satisfy up to 50% of a developer’s open-space requirements.
Funds for future parks
Slashing Asheville’s open space means that residents and visitors lose access to the greenery and views of the mountains and sky that undeveloped land provides. But while seeking to aggressively accelerate development and make our community unrecognizable to its residents, this proposal also hobbles Asheville’s efforts to acquire new land for public parks and conservation areas.
Currently any developer may avoid providing 100% of their required open space on-site by paying a “fee in lieu” of open space. This money is set aside by the city to purchase land to provide open space for residents to enjoy elsewhere, such as in public parks. The city attorney’s office recently recommended that Asheville not spend any of its open-space fee in lieu funds due to ongoing litigation about the proper use of these funds. City staff used this opinion as a reason to deny the open-space task force the opportunity to define exactly how and when the city should use the funds. As a result, Asheville is expected to sit by and watch — potentially for years — as developers gobble up the best remaining tracts, which could otherwise become our favorite new spot for a stroll with friends, a hike in the woods or a birdwatching outing.
All of us who have watched the march of the developers across our city understand intuitively what’s at stake when trees are felled for new high-rises and open ground is sealed forever under a shell of concrete. Flooding, the most significant climate change impact predicted to harm us here in Asheville, is made worse. Waterways are choked with sediment from construction, hurting local aquatic wildlife and the species that feed on that wildlife. Asheville’s urban tree canopy, which was slashed by 1.4 square miles between 2008 and 2018, continues to fall faster by the day, making our town hotter, our air dirtier and our streets noisier. Wildlife is killed and pushed out of town as habitat is destroyed. And all of these changes to our living environment threaten public health, increasing the likelihood that we’ll fall ill with heatstroke and respiratory diseases while our mental health and sense of well-being suffers under the escalating racket.
And as for “affordable housing,” we know that unrestrained development is the primary driver of the affordability crisis, not its solution.
Time to be heard
Planning and Urban Design staff claims that dramatically slashing the amount of open space is the “solution” to Asheville having greater open-space requirements than other cities in the region. Do you agree? I believe that our unique character is what makes Asheville so beloved to so many.
Planning and Urban Design has had its say. It’s time for City Council to hear your vision for the future of our community. The open space amendment goes before City Council for a public hearing and a final vote Feb. 8. Let them hear us roar.
Perrin de Jong, an 11-year Asheville resident, is a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity and a commissioner on the city of Asheville’s Urban Forestry Commission.