Tags:With nearly two dozen annexation foes on hand, many sporting red shirts in a show of solidarity, the Asheville City Council spent a good portion of its marathon Feb. 27 meeting examining its ability -- or rather inability -- to lawfully expand the city limits.
Beset by restrictions on growth that other Tar Heel cities don't face and a proposed state law that would further hamstring Asheville, Council members said the city's future hinges on the outcome of the thorny issue.
Although the policy debate was the last item on the packed agenda, the annexation question cropped up much earlier in the seven-hour session when Council members postponed a decision on a conditional-use permit for phase II of the Northview at Biltmore Lake development. The plan calls for building 257 apartments on 33 acres in Candler -- just outside the city limits but within Asheville's extraterritorial jurisdiction.
Council members generally approved of the project, which would create much-needed "work-force housing," but they balked when Wyatt Dixon of the Charlotte-based Faison Northview LLC, the developer, would not agree to voluntary annexation. A two-week delay will buy time so city staff can find out whether Asheville could make annexation a condition of approval, and the developer can work with staff on potential solutions.
"I would tell you right now: Unless you agree to voluntarily annex, I am going to vote no," said Council member Bryan Freeborn.
Council member Brownie Newman also said he would support the project if the developers agreed to annexation, adding, "but my understanding [right now] is we just don't have that authority" to make annexation a condition for approval.
Council member Carl Mumpower, who said he strongly supports removing the limits on Asheville's ability to annex, nonetheless blasted the postponement, calling it "municipal blackmail." "I'm ashamed of our approach on this," he declared. "I think this is a terrible indulgence on the part of this Council."
Fellow Council member Jan Davis wasn't comfortable with it either. "I really feel like we're doing the wrong thing," he said, noting that the project was already far along in the approval process. Planning staff had recommended approving it, and the Planning and Zoning Commission had already unanimously approved the plans.
The developer's attorney, Craig Justus, was visibly peeved, saying, "We prefer not to be put into a corner." If Council tried to forcibly annex the site, added Justus, the developer would probably challenge the move in court.
When the focus shifted to the city's overall annexation policy later in the meeting, Planning and Development Director Scott Shuford emphasized how little Asheville has relied on annexation for growth compared with other cities in the state. In the past 15 years, he said, Asheville's population has grown by 8,000, a figure dwarfed by other cities' growth during the same period. The discrepancy, said Shuford, reflects both specific restrictions placed on Asheville by the state and the city's reluctance to forcibly annex.
The old Water Agreement with Buncombe County restricted Asheville's ability to make annexation a condition for providing service. Sullivan Acts II and III, which apply only to Asheville and were passed by state lawmakers in 2005 the day before the Water Agreement expired, maintain that restriction and also prohibit the city to charge customers outside of Asheville more for water. Without that threat, such areas are less likely to agree to annexation.
The city subsequently sued both the state and the county and recently lost round one, but is now taking the suit to the state Supreme Court for consideration.
And now, another bill aimed exclusively at Asheville would amount to a virtual ban on involuntary annexation by the city. Sponsored by state Reps. Bruce Goforth and Charles Thomas, the bill would require a referendum vote if 20 percent of the residents of an area targeted for annexation opposed it. Only residents of the targeted area would be allowed to vote.
"As a consequence, Asheville likely has the most restrictive annexation rules [of] any city in North Carolina," Shuford said of the various impediments facing the city.
Shuford and Council members said Asheville's inability to grow and expand its tax base penalizes city residents, who must subsidize infrastructure and amenities enjoyed by county residents who don't pay their fair share. Unless areas agree to be annexed, the city's only remaining option is forcible annexation, which can lead to bad feelings as well as lengthy -- and costly -- litigation.
Council agreed to craft a resolution calling on the city's legislative delegation to give Asheville the same annexation powers other cities have. Only Mumpower dissented, saying the resolution should also include a promise to temporarily halt forced annexations as a show of good faith.
Meanwhile, there was acrimony aplenty in the audience, with repeated, exasperated sighs and derisive snorts heard during Council's discussion. A handful of opponents rose to speak against forced annexation, which they deemed undemocratic and an affront to their liberty.
By allowing forced annexation, said Biltmore Lake resident Mike Thompson, "North Carolina ... has corrupted the process of expanding people's liberties ... to live in peace wherever they choose." Calling those who are forcibly annexed "unwilling servants," Thompson told Council, "You have embraced an unwitting form of tyranny.
"Put simply, are you on the side of freedom or not?" he asked.
Other speakers voiced similar sentiments, some adding that Asheville is not a fit place to live. That drew a rebuke from Mayor Terry Bellamy, who proclaimed: "I'm not ashamed to say I'm from Asheville. ... I love Asheville."
County resident Carol Keiler offered a possible solution: consolidate the city and county into a single entity that could deliver better services at lower cost, while eliminating some current rifts and giving the area more political clout.
"The answer is staring us right in the face," she said. "By presenting a united front, more could be done [for the area] at the state and national level."
Down by the river
In a bid to accelerate redevelopment of the River District, City Council unanimously agreed to rezone 11 properties, as requested by their owners, to allow for higher-density development. According to the staff report, the zoning change (from River District to Urban Place District) would support The Wilma Dykeman Riverway Master Plan, adopted by the city in 2004 to create a vital, mixed-use urban district.
Although Council members expressed concern that denser development might increase the potential for devastating floods, city staff said that any new development would have to adhere to flood-zone rules and that such development would actually reduce the risk of flood damage. The zoning change would affect properties located on Riverside Drive as well as Craven, Roberts, West Haywood and Thompson streets, reported Urban Planner Alan Glines.
Several property owners said the change would not only help them realize their property's economic potential but would help advance riverfront revitalization, enhance the environment, expand the city's tax base and remove blight.
In response to Council members' concerns about "spot zoning," Glines said the rezoning request represented a start, and that other property owners would be contacted later.
The Dykeman Plan envisions improved access to the area, mixed-use development that encourages economic development and strengthens the district's evolving arts community, and enhanced environmental protection and recreational opportunities along the Swannanoa and French Broad River corridors.
New plans for local law enforcement
Both Asheville Police Chief Bill Hogan and new Buncombe County Sheriff Van Duncan made presentations that literally wowed Council members. Hogan focused on drug interdiction, and Duncan outlined how his administration will differ from that of his predecessor, Bobby Medford.
Besides drawing praise, Hogan's multifaceted plan to combat drugs helped heal a rift with Mumpower, whose recent criticism of Hogan's administration made headlines. Mumpower drew the ire of both the Police Department and City Manager Gary Jackson, who viewed the Council member's actions as inappropriately meddling in police affairs.
"You bring a dedication to the drug issue that's appreciated," Mumpower told Hogan, adding, "This is a new day."
Hogan said his department would be dedicating more patrol time to known drug hot spots, especially in the city's public-housing complexes, where Mumpower had mounted a campaign to spotlight blatant drug dealing.
The chief also said the city's Drug Suppression Unit would get a 25 percent increase in staff, who would work more closely with federal authorities. That would include increased training in identifying federal drug offenses, which carry stiffer penalties.
"We want to prosecute as many cases under federal drug laws as possible," said Hogan. Dealers, he said, are aware of the difference in sentencing and are apt to ply their trade elsewhere. Hogan also promised increased community policing and neighborhood-outreach efforts. Most of these changes can be done within the department's current budget, he noted.
Duncan, meanwhile, said his department will move from five squads to four, boosting the number of officers per squad from 12 to 16. The Sheriff's Department will also reassign existing staff to put eight more investigators in the field.
In addition, Duncan outlined a change in the focus of the Metropolitan Enforcement Group, a partnership involving the Sheriff's Department, the Drug Suppression Unit and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Instead of focusing on the "big fish," he said, his officers will go after street-level dealers, who pose the most immediate danger to county residents and cause the most concern.
Finally, the sheriff emphasized the importance of school resource officers and giving school administrators a say in who is hired to patrol the schools. More importantly, said Duncan, those officers won't be put back on patrol during summer vacation but will focus on reaching out to and mentoring at-risk youth. A pilot "On Track" program will target youth ages 14-17.
Keep on truckin'
The long-running kerfuffle pitting Greenlife Grocery against neighboring residents may finally be nearing an end. Council signed off on a proposed resolution to complaints about truck traffic on the residential street. Under the proposal, Greenlife would reconfigure its parking lot to make room for a buffer between the existing loading dock and Maxwell Street. A second loading dock would enable large delivery trucks to access the store from Merrimon Avenue instead of Maxwell.
Although residents complained that some smaller trucks would still use Maxwell, Council members said the plan is probably the best that can realistically be achieved. It now goes to the Planning and Zoning Commission for approval.
And on a 6-1 vote (with Mumpower opposed), City Council approved a resolution urging P&Z to consider including a ban on gated communities when the group meets March 7 to propose changes in the city's subdivision ordinance requirements. The controversial idea drew groans from some in the audience, many of whom were Biltmore Lake residents.
Some Council members cited traffic, safety and other concerns for wanting to ban gated communities, while Mayor Bellamy said that kind of exclusivity is detrimental to the city's sense of community and contrary to its character. Any changes recommended by P&Z and city staff would require final approval by Council, which would also be free to add its own restrictions.
On Feb. 13, Council tabled a decision on a proposed 162-unit gated community in Beaverdam. At that meeting, scores of residents near the site filled the chamber to overflowing to protest the development, citing traffic concerns. Gates at all entrances would limit access to the property.