Asheville City Council delays a major hotel battle, expands (very slightly) the city’s borders and mulls what input on local election districts might look like
Above: Asheville City Council member Julie Mayfield. File photo by Max Cooper.
For awhile, it looked like Asheville City Council might begin 2017 like it began 2016, with a big political fight over a downtown hotel. Then it was the overhaul of the former BB&T building. This time the battle lines at the Jan. 10 meeting were set to revolve around the 185-room Embassy Suites, located on the former site of the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, This potential future hotel would be located across from another hotel which in turn is located next to another hotel, all constructed within the past decade.
The hotel explosion is a major local political flashpoint and the 2015 election results revealed Ashevillians were ready to vote their long-running frustrations. So one could expect more debates over the industry’s brutally low wages, ties to gentrification, the desperate need for housing instead of more amenities for tourists and more. The fact it’s an election year for most of Council was set to compound the intensity of the debate. It remained a serious question if the “McKibbon standard” — the conditions a majority of Council roughly agreed on last year for any future hotel approval – would hold.
It didn’t happen. As the day of the meeting rolled around, word came that particular political fracas would have to wait another two weeks. Council member Brian Haynes, generally an opponent of new hotels, would miss the meeting, and requested that the matter be delayed until he could vote on it. Following its standard practice, the rest of Council acceded.
The meeting that followed was — as one might expect — a good deal shorter and less controversy laden. Its debates revolved around boundary lines a more concrete than the shifting political parameters of the McKibbon standard. The borders of Asheville expanded, though very slightly, a once-controversial project saw its nature change again and Council agreed to gather input on potentially changing local elections to a district system.
An annexation agreement
Annexations aren’t something Asheville witnesses very much these days, a big change from the latter half of the 2000s. At that time North Carolina cities, including Asheville, could involuntarily annex an area if certain conditions were met. While elected officials at the time generally took a more conservative approach on expanding city boundaries compared to some of their municipal peers around the state (and Asheville faced some additional constraints due to some state laws affecting it specifically), the occasional controversy still erupted over the periodic expansions that did take place. The issue saw divides between those who swore the practice was a predatory grab for a bigger tax base versus defenders who said that without it many areas that were functionally part of a city would use its services and infrastructure without paying to support them.
But in 2012 the now Republican-dominated General Assembly ended the practice. That made annexations a lot more rare, but on Jan. 10 one did happen. Developer Eagle Oak Industrial sought to join nearly five acres of its South Asheville property on Airport Road to the city to avoid having its retail development on the site straddling two different jurisdictions.
“Occasionally the city of Asheville is asked to extend our municipal boundary to include properties that lie on the edge of our corporate limits,” Principal Planner Shannon Tuch said.
No one spoke at the public hearing on the annexation and the matter passed 5-0 without major public discussion (Haynes was absent and Mayor Esther Manheimer was recused from this matter because the developer is a client of her law firm). Council member Gordon Smith welcomed the developer after the annexation passed, but from there it was on to a somewhat more complex issue.
Now that the development was technically within the city it was time to assign zoning and on that front, the developers were requesting some exemptions from city rules, mostly less tree islands and less sidewalks than the city’s standards normally require. The latter, Tuch noted, was because the area is largely industrial and had little pedestrian traffic.
But Council member Julie Mayfield used this as a moment of leverage, pressing for improved crossing signals and a transit stop.
“Absolutely, no problem,” developer Greg Edney agreed, noting he’d worked well with city staff in the past.
Again no one commented during the public hearing, and the zoning — with Mayfield’s conditions – passed 5-0.
No such pressure, however, was exerted on the next item. For years developer Harry Pilos has sought to develop the former Dave Steel site in the River Arts District into a mix of apartments and commercial space. In 2014 Council initially gave it the go-ahead, despite considerable opposition over Pilos receiving considerable city incentives despite a minimal amount of affordable housing. The project was updated in May 2015 in the midst of a major debate about if the city should change its incentive policy to prevent projects like Pilos’ from getting the same level of tax write-off due to having more expensive “workforce housing” rather than affordable units. The city’s development incentives were later changed accordingly to only give major incentives for factors like affordable housing and connection to transit and staff claimed the current incentive deal is based on the newer policy.
Now the project chucked any office space in favor of just retail and residential space. Five of the 209 units are affordable, unchanged from earlier. Smith pointed out that he still preferred if the developer would add a grocery store, as the area is a food desert. City manager Gary Jackson and Council both noted that it was unclear whether the developer would have to come back for approval of a new incentive deal.
This time, there were no protests from any member of Council, and the new terms for the project passed 6-0.
The other major issue of the evening involved the boundary lines of Asheville’s own elections. Right now, there aren’t any. All Council members and the mayor are elected at-large, or by any eligible voters in the city limits.
However, historically many Council members are North Asheville residents. That’s perhaps not surprising as the area contains some of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, and money and connections help politicians of any stripe win office. During the past decade that’s shifted a bit as more West Asheville residents have won seats but the dearth of Council members from the East or South has remained an issue in several elections.
While the issue of shifting to some form of district elections had been occasionally broached during that time, there hadn’t been a major push for a such a change. However, in 2013 then-state Rep. Tim Moffitt drafted (though never formally introduced) a bill to carve Asheville into a district system, a move some local conservatives cheered as their electoral prospects under the current system diminished with each cycle. Last year, state Sen. Tom Apodaca went a step further, proposing a last-minute bill to gerrymander city elections with no local referendum.
Ironically, the heavy-handed approach of the legislature actually hardened support for the current system among many locals previously ambivalent about it. A local outpouring of opposition, concerns of some conservatives in the state House that the bill was a step too far, resentment at Apodaca’s procedural overreach and the example of a recent federal court ruling striking down state-imposed changes to Wake County’s election system all contributed to an upset: the district elections bill went down in defeat.
Manheimer noted that the bill’s surprise defeat was “amazing” but that when Ashevillians contacted state legislators to thank them, they were told that the chamber might take up the issue again if local government didn’t assess the matter itself. So the city was starting a process to gather input from locals on what changes, if any, they might want to see for local elections.
Local governments, she added, could either pass a new system itself or put a specific proposal to a referendum.
“We have had some interest in the community for examining this,” Manheimer continued. “I don’t really see a downside to try to gauge community interest in districts.”
“I don’t see any problem with having a community discussion,” Council member Cecil Bothwell said. “I remain convinced, personally, that we’re too small a city to break everything up into little districts. Our principal interests are in common across the 85-90,000 people here. I don’t think we’ve treated different areas of the city disparately in apportioning sidewalk money or parks or rec centers. Where things have needed fixing we’ve fixed it.”
A district system, he continued, would result in less local election news coverage, but he was open to public feedback if a majority of Asheville disagreed.
“I feel it’s appropriate to open it up and figure out whether people really want this or, if it’s a minority, what kind of minority that wants,” Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for Council to weigh in right now on whether we personally think districts are appropriate. That’s really not the question tonight.”
“I’ll just be interested in making sure the process can accurately gauge this,” Smith said. “A lot of times if you say ‘hey, do you want districts?’ everyone who does shows up and everyone who doesn’t, maybe doesn’t. I’m not sure how we get something we’re confident is the will of the electorate.”
“One of the questions I would want to ask if the community would prefer if they want Council to put in districts or whether they want to put in on the ballot,” Manheimer noted.
Mayfield suggested the city could do polling, as it did with the bond referendum, “that wasn’t tremendously expensive and it provides and more scientific basis and another piece of evidence one way or the other.”
But Smith noted that polling the district issue, due to the array of issues involved, could be more difficult.
“I’m not hearing anyone say no,” Manheimer continued.
“Yeah, it sounds like it’ll be helpful for the legislature to know that the city has considered this option so should they decide to deliberate about this again we can give them the information,” Smith said.
“Yes, at the very least,” Manheimer replied.