- Council still not ready for tethering ban
- Mumpower pitches his own solution to water stalemate
Going into the Asheville City Council's May 26 meeting, the big question was what sort of reception Council would give the long-awaited Downtown Master Plan. The team from consulting firm Goody Clancy had presented its work to Council members on May 12, but public comment and Council discussion were put off until the next meeting.
Now the item was back on the agenda in the form of a public hearing, but it wasn't clear whether Council would deliberate it. And if they did take action, they faced a range of options: adopting the plan outright, accepting it for later consideration, breaking the weighty document into pieces, or even sending it back for more work. In the end, Council members went with adopting it "in concept," indicating their desire to move the plan forward while recognizing that city staff would now face the extensive task of fitting its ideas into the Unified Development Ordinance (which will require further Council decisions) and addressing the more controversial plan components.
"I think staff has a lot of work ahead of them," said Vice Mayor Jan Davis. "There are substantial portions of this plan that will require legislation."
But one group, at least, has most of its work behind it at this point. Over the past two years, the Downtown Master Plan Advisory Committee worked alongside the consultants at the Boston-based Goody Clancy (mostly via telephone conference) to ensure that the plan addressed the concerns of city residents and other stakeholders, and committee members accounted for the majority of the 20 or so people who spoke at the meeting.
A running theme was that the 30-member committee's unanimous support for the plan in fact represented a fragile "treaty" between opposing sides of the development coin.
"The need for a master plan comes from all sides," said committee member Jesse Plaster, pointing out that the group's often polarized factions represented conflicting viewpoints in the city's continuing development debate. "No single party got exactly what they wanted. Our feeling is that if anyone did, it would be a skewed plan."
The upcoming presentation to Council had been a concern at recent Advisory Committee meetings, with some emphasizing the need to show Council members and the general public that the plan has unanimous support.
Committee member Pat Whalen (who recently stepped down as chair of the city's Downtown Commission) said the master plan will go a long way toward fixing an approval process for downtown development that all parties have characterized as confusing. "Sitting on the Downtown Commission, I saw a development process that was, depending on your perspective ... badly broken," he noted. The attention previous City Councils paid to downtown, said Whalen, was geared more toward reviving and restoring the comatose central business district of the 1980s and early '90s rather than the new construction so prevalent these days.
But several committee members exposed the frailty of that united front, taking the opportunity to express their continued reservations about the plan.
Attorney Albert Sneed decried the level of restriction it would impose. "I urge you to have some humility and restraint," he said. "You may come up with a plan that makes it impossible to use downtown."
And former Asheville Mayor Lou Bissette, who's also an attorney, said the plan's design guidelines create a labyrinth of rules that, when he tried to apply them to a downtown lot he and several partners own, made it "a mind-boggling task to determine what, if anything, can be built there."
Jenny Bowen (who, earlier in the evening, had been unanimously appointed to the city's Public Art Board) also served on the Master Plan Advisory Committee. Noting that committee members had very mixed attendance records and levels of involvement (but refusing to name names), she asserted that the final product allows too few opportunities for public notification and input during the approval process for proposed developments.
"This is an error, it is a tweak, it is something I am absolutely asking Council to look at and to take into high consideration as the plan is moved forward," Bowen urged.
Activist Steve Rasmussen, meanwhile, warned that giving Council-appointed commissions more power to approve development without incorporating an adequate appeals process undercuts city residents' ability to contest decisions they think are wrong.
"Some claim that these changes are intended to take the politics out of the process," said Rasmussen. "But the reality is that politics will always play a role in decisions in which millions of dollars and the quality of our lives are at stake."
City staffer Sasha Vrtunski, who served as project manager in developing the plan, reminded Council members that it's intended as a framework to be built upon and that their acceptance of it would not, in itself, implement any new laws. She also emphasized that they would be adopting only the broad-brush plan, not the more detailed and specific appendix, about which much noise has been made.
"You are not painting yourself or the community in a corner," she declared.
And though some Council members had closely followed the plan's development, this was the first time they spoke about it in the Council chamber.
"I believe we've come up with a plan that is a good place to land," said Council member Robin Cape, "and we owe it to our community to adopt [it]."
Council member Kelly Miller agreed, saying the plan would make the development process more "predictable and actionable."
Council member Carl Mumpower, on the other hand, branded the document an "ill-advised, expensive indulgence by the city" that would actually increase the political tension surrounding development. As for empowering the Planning and Zoning Commission and the Downtown Commission to approve proposed development, Mumpower said he's "uncomfortable with the idea that we use an appointed body to basically do our job."
Council member Brownie Newman, meanwhile, took a cue from the Advisory Committee, saying, "The whole downtown 'treaty' thing is hysterical; I think we should seriously consider calling it that." The concept of compromise, he continued, gets to the heart of why the plan was envisioned in the first place. As for worries about tightening the screws on downtown developers, Newman observed, "There is such a thing as overregulation that hurts development, but I don't think this is it."
And looking ahead, Mayor Terry Bellamy said she'd like city staff to develop a detailed process for implementing the Downtown Master Plan.
After that, City Council adopted the plan "in concept" on a 5-2 vote, with Mumpower and Council member Bill Russell opposed.
Planning and Development Director Judy Daniel said staff would immediately start working on the requisite changes to the UDO but would most likely seek Council's guidance on some of the plan's stickier elements.
All tied up
Back in April, Council members amended the city's animal ordinance to ease restrictions on raising chickens, but they voiced doubts about a proposed prohibition on tethering dogs (see "Chicken Coop for the Soul," May 6 Xpress). And it appears that recent weeks haven't done much to alleviate those concerns.
The current law allows dogs to be tethered provided that the leash is at least 15 feet long and the dog has access to food, water and shelter. Animal activists, particularly the group ChainFree Asheville, are pushing for an outright ban on the practice. But despite a staff report outlining potential methods and concerns about implementing such a ban, Council members found themselves no closer to pulling the trigger than they were in April.
"I am not ready to say 'no unattended tethering,'" Newman revealed. "I'm not prepared to take that step." Many people, he said, can't afford to fence their yards, and he wanted to explore the possibility of establishing a fund of donated money to offset those costs before outlawing tethering.
Assistant City Attorney Curt Euler cautioned that offering assistance only to the financially needy could invite lawsuits.
Newman also asked about the ability to grandfather current dog owners and apply the ban only to newly acquired dogs, which police Chief Bill Hogan said could be accomplished using registration records. But enforcing a tethering ban, Hogan warned, would require hiring another animal-control officer, which might not be possible under the current tight budget.
Bellamy, meanwhile, said she wouldn't support the ban, especially since it would include the T-runners used in many Asheville yards. Eliminating all those forms of restraint, she predicted, would lead to more loose dogs, which would conflict with the city's leash law.
"There needs to be some sort of tethering in the yard to protect the greater neighborhood," Bellamy maintained.
In the end, Council members once again sent the issue back to staff for possible inclusion in the budget for the new fiscal year, which begins July 1.
Mumpower pitches water plan
The last time a compromise on Asheville's water problems came up, Mumpower stalked out of the room. This time, he stood at the lectern.
In April, Mumpower had vigorously opposed a proposal by Newman that Asheville accept an appeals court ruling forbidding the city to charge differential water rates but asking state legislators for a limited ability to use access to the water system as an annexation tool. Before leaving the room that day, Mumpower called the proposal a "surrender document."
This time, however, he came forward with his own idea, though it didn't generate much enthusiasm on Council. Mumpower proposed separating Asheville's reservoirs from the delivery system. An independent authority would oversee the system, but the city would retain ownership of the actual water, which it could then sell to the authority.
Bellamy, who pushed for the multimillion-dollar repair of the city's water lines that's now under way, was immediately resistant, arguing, "It would be a disservice to give that over to a group who can do whatever they want."
Vice Mayor Jan Davis also took a dim view of the idea, noting that the decades-long deferral of basic maintenance happened while the system was being overseen by a water authority. "I have a long way to go to get where you are," said Davis.
Newman, meanwhile, said he didn't think the plan was "politically viable." He also pointed out that even if other cities were represented on the proposed authority, it wouldn't alter their desire for cheap water.
Mumpower persisted, trying to drum up enough support from others on Council to request more information from the city attorney's office, but not enough of his colleagues were interested enough to advance the idea.