The chamber where the Asheville City Council meets, with its high ceiling and wood-paneled walls, clearly looks the part. Upon entering, one's eyes are immediately drawn toward the front of the room, where a dais is adorned with a large, curved desk backed by seven chairs facing seven microphones. The occupants of these seats look out on neatly ordered rows of high-backed, unpadded oak chairs. When the room is empty, the silence seems to contradict the very nature and purpose of the space. For this chamber is not a place of silent study, but a hall where voices are heard -- a place for discussion and debate.
But is it the best place to hold a Nov. 14 public hearing on the Wal-Mart Supercenter proposed for the former Gerber site in south Asheville? Council visited and revisited this question at their Oct. 24 formal session.
The discussion began as a simple attempt to formally approve the date for the public hearing, but it quickly grew complicated when Council member Brian Peterson suggested that the hearing be held in the auditorium of T.C. Roberson High School in south Asheville. Peterson suggested the move because of the school's proximity to the proposed project and the high number of senior citizens in the surrounding neighborhood and retirement centers who might not be able to attend a public hearing held at City Hall. To emphasize his point, Peterson commented: "It's not just for us to get information. These meetings are held to inform the people. If we have the meeting [in Council chambers], it'll be inconvenient. If it's [in south Asheville], they'll be able to attend."
Council member Charles Worley asked city staff to comment on the logistics of such a move.
City Manager Jim Westbrook replied that the expense might be a problem. The city does not own the auditorium at Roberson and, in addition, the Nov. 14 session is scheduled to be broadcast live on city government's cable-TV channel. Relocating the hearing could prohibit or complicate the live broadcast, Westbrook said.
Mayor Leni Sitnick mused: "Will we hold meetings in every neighborhood where there is an issue? It's setting a precedent. ... We need to be consistent in our public hearings."
After further discussion among Council members, Peterson made a motion to hold the hearing at T.C. Roberson. His motion failed due to lack of a second. Council then voted 6-1 (with Peterson opposed) to hold the Nov. 14 hearing in Council chambers on the second floor of City Hall.
With the issue seemingly laid to rest, the meeting proceeded to other business. But Council hadn't heard the last word. At the end of the evening, the mayor opened the session to informal discussion and public comment: Adam Baylus and Bill Evans, two local activists who oppose the Wal-Mart Supercenters proposed for both the Gerber site and the Sayles-Biltmore Bleacheries site (in east Asheville), expressed their disappointment with Council's decision to hold the Nov. 14 hearing in Council chambers. Baylus said that many citizens would be attending the hearing, and, due to the limited seating, people would be forced to stand in the hallway.
Sitnick told Baylus that she didn't think many people would be attending, because Council has received few letters and calls on the issue. (During the debate over the Sayles site, their offices had been inundated with comments from the public.)
Baylus quickly said he understood that, due to the quasi-judicial nature of the hearing, Council members are prohibited from taking calls or letters on the issue. Therefore, Baylus and others involved in organizing opposition to the proposal asked people not to contact Council about it. He added that the lack of letters and calls by no means implies a lack of interest.
Council again discussed where to hold the hearing. Sitnick commented: "I would like to reconsider this. I'm not happy conducting meetings with 50 or 100 people in the hallway."
Council member Worley added, "I'd be happy to consider [the] Stephens-Lee [Recreation Center] or the Civic Center."
After some discussion, Council agreed that a larger (but still centrally located) venue would be more appropriate. The mayor then asked city staff to choose an appropriate location. City staff later decided that the hearing will be held in Council chambers on the second floor of City Hall. The overflow crowd will be seated in the first floor north conference room, where television screens will broadcast the proceedings. Those wishing to speak will be allowed to go upstairs Council chambers. According to City Clerk Maggie Burleson, City Council will make every effort to accommodate the public.
B.B. Barnes to relocate
On Oct. 24, Council held a public hearing to consider rezoning 7 acres at the corner of Sweeten Creek Road and Rosscraggon Road from RM-16 (residential, multifamily, high-density district) to CB II (community business district) and issuing a conditional-use permit.
The issue was brought before Council by Ned Gibson, one of the owners of B.B. Barnes Garden Center in east Asheville. Gibson said the company has outgrown its current location on Fairview Road and would like to relocate to the Sweeten Creek site. Working with city staff, the owners developed a plan for a multiuse facility with greenhouses, retail space, a cafe and apartments or condominiums. Such projects are not allowed in RM-16 districts.
No one in attendance opposed the project and, after Council discussed the matter, Vice Mayor Chuck Cloninger made a motion to approve the rezoning. His motion was seconded by Council member Terry Bellamy. The motion passed unanimously. The motion to grant the conditional-use permit was made by Council member Ed Hay and seconded by Cloninger. It, too, passed unanimously.