Once again, the Council chamber was packed to the gills. Once more, complaints about traffic congestion and public safety rippled through the room. It was an evening that pitted neighbor against neighbor and neighborhood against developer.
But for once, it wasn't about Wal-Mart.
The Aug. 13 formal session of the Asheville City Council was the scene of yet another controversial conditional-use permit hearing -- this one involving a proposed privately funded affordable-housing development in the Shiloh neighborhood of South Asheville.
For Council, it was an opportunity to make strides in meeting a goal set during its annual retreat back in December: to increase the city's stock of affordable housing. For families struggling to purchase a home inside the city limits, it was a vote that could change their lives.
To make things even more tense, City Attorney Bob Oast announced at the outset of the hearing that a valid protest petition had been filed by opponents to the project. Under state law, Oast noted, a vote to approve the project would now require a three-fourths majority of the seven-member Council. Raising the stakes even higher, Oast pointed out that Council member Jim Ellis was absent (he was on vacation). With Ellis' absence, the vote would have to be unanimous among the six attending Council members.
In other words, it was all or nothing.
The development in question was proposed for an 11-acre site on Brooklyn Road in Shiloh, currently zoned RS-8 (residential, single family, eight units per acre). The developer, Ron Hubbard, of Asheville, requested a rezoning to the city's highest density zoning -- classification RM-16 (residential, multifamily, 16 units per acre). If the rezoning passed, Hubbard would be able to construct 168 condominiums. Because of the density of the development (seven three-story buildings each housing 24 units), Hubbard noted that he would be able to market the one, two and three-bedroom residences for $69,000 to $100,000 each. When Hubbard rattled off the low proposed selling prices, jaws dropped.
Hubbard, though, wasn't finished. He continued to sweeten the pot by promising to keep two acres of the site as open space for use as a playground and recreation area. In addition, Hubbard described the site (which formerly housed a nursery) as an oasis, replete with towering, mature hardwood trees that buffer it from the surrounding neighborhoods. He noted that, at his own expense, he had hired an arborist to conduct a tree survey and promised Council: "I guarantee that not one major tree will be removed unless it is diseased." Hubbard explained that he had to make the same promise to the former owner of the land in order to finalize the sale.
The developer also noted that the clustering of the condos would allow him to build structures of "rock, brick and stone ... aesthetically pleasing, not plastic-sided buildings." But to do so and keep the starting price at $69,000, Hubbard pleaded, "I need density; I can't do it any other way. Density creates affordability. ... Anyone who dreams of owning a home can do so at these prices -- if you help me."
Jumping through hoops
An additional concession made by Hubbard was to stipulate in the condominium bylaws that all the units be occupied by owners -- a move that Hubbard indicated would contribute "to the sense of ownership and community." The stipulation would also prohibit the units from becoming rentals, which Hubbard indicated was at his sole initiative.
Above and beyond that, Hubbard agreed to a condition suggested by city staff that he pay the city $500 for each unit constructed, with the money set aside for use by the city for traffic-calming measures in the surrounding neighborhoods. "I realize I should be expected to contribute in some way," he conceded.
Yet not everyone was thrilled with the prospect of a 168-unit development plopped down amid a neighborhood of single-family homes. Norma Baynes, president of the Shiloh Community Association, argued against the development.
Baynes reasoned that such density could have negative impacts on Shiloh by "adding 500-700 people. The infrastructure can't handle it." Her neighbor, Sophie Dickson, added, "Traffic is a safety issue. It's' already a major deal trying to turn onto Brooklyn Road." Fellow Shiloh resident Johnny Walker took issue with the density of the development. "Density will cause more negative problems," he opined. "The higher the density, the more crime goes up."
Several other Shiloh residents added their voices to the opposition argument, with most reasoning that traffic created by the development would overburden Brooklyn Road -- a road described by residents as narrow and dangerous, due to blind spots and unmarked intersections. But their voices were drowned out by a steady stream of Shiloh residents and others in favor of the development.
Chief among the supporters were congregation members from Faith Tabernacle Christian Center. The church members explained that they had much at stake in the development, and a map displayed during the hearing showed why: It currently anchors one side of the property and, if constructed, the condos will form a semi-circle around the church. The Rev. William Robinson, pastor of the church, didn't mince words in his support of the project: "This is exactly the type of affordable housing we need in Asheville. Hubbard is a man of integrity. We are confident that this development will be beneficial to both the church and the surrounding community."
Robinson was followed by several speakers who rose in support, many of whom sported work shirts replete with name tags and insignias from the garages or factories where they worked -- a refreshing sight in a chamber that too often is filled with spiffy suits and scrappy activists. Many supporters simply spoke of participating in the American Dream of home ownership and creating an environment where their children will want to live and can afford to live.
Shiloh resident Chris Smith had strong words for the opponents who pitted traffic concerns against building affordable homes: "Tonight's debate saddens me about Shiloh. Most of the people opposing this are elderly and they are being selfish. I'm an honest young man. I make an honest living, and I want an honest home. They've had their opportunity. How about mine? All they want to talk about are petty issues like traffic.:
One of the strongest presentations was given by Walter Plaue, who represented a coalition of independent real estate agents. Plaue supported the development and applauded the efforts of Hubbard. "This is a milestone for Asheville," he declared. "It is the largest affordable housing development ever proposed by a private developer. Yes, Asheville, there is a Santa Claus."
But Plaue railed against the suggestion that Hubbard be required to pay $500 per unit for traffic calming. "This is nothing more than a $84,000 tax," he suggested. "Must he pay an entrance fee for doing business in the city? You might as well charge an entrance tax to Santa Claus!'
Traffic problems, however, are quantifiable. City Engineer Kathy Ball indicated that, while the roads in the area are narrow, a recent traffic study indicated that they are operating at "level A," the best grade given for traffic flow ("level D" indicates a road is at its capacity).
After the close of the public hearing, Council members debated among themselves. For Joe Dunn and Carl Mumpower, the city was asking too much from a man willing to do so much. Mumpower took issue with the traffic-calming fee, noting that it was more than was required of the Wal-Mart development, "and that was an 84-million-dollar project, and the roads surrounding it are at level D. This is a question about fairness and being equitable."
Dunn went so far as to suggest that Hubbard drop his self-initiated plan for restricting the covenants of the condo association to prohibit renting.
Council member Brian Peterson argued for keeping the fee as is, explaining that if intersections had to be reconfigured, the funds would be needed. Finally, after a lengthy discussion, it was decided to return to the question of traffic-calming fees at a later date, after city staff had time to prepare concise figures on how much the calming will cost.
With that one thorny issue put to rest for the time being, Council voted unanimously to approve the permit -- and in doing so, took one giant step towards a goal that Council member Holly Jones described as "the reason I ran for office." Taking that step with them are 168 families, who just might be able to buy a house inside the city limits, and grab hold of a dream.