Set of demands

by David Forbes May 5, 2015

Council runs into multiple demanding situations, including the housing crisis and a public irate about the actions of a power giant, in a packed meeting

Above: Asheville City Council member Gordon Smith. File photo by Max Cooper

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If Asheville City Council had grown used to a string of short meetings (though not without their share of controversy) over the past few months, April 28 certainly marked a change of pace.

Starting two hours prior to the meeting, Council deliberated over its annual budget, laying out the possibility of a tax increase and an garbage fee hike, something some city leaders claimed was necessary to offset the loss of revenues due to state legislation.

That set the tone heading into Council’s longest meeting in months, as did about 50 people gathered outside City Hall with signs protesting Duke Energy’s plans to build a substation next to Isaac Dickson Elementary. Like the budget planning, it was an evening marked by competing demands: the demands of transit riders and the public, the demands of a housing crisis, the demands of wrangling over developments and the demands of local parents taking issue with the largest power company in the country.

A step back

The meeting started with Council changing its mind. Two weeks before, it had unanimously approved changes to the city’s fees after an incredibly short presentation and discussion.

But the move came in for considerable criticism, not over the lion’s share of the fee changes to things like water, development and stormwater, but because the changes ended the fare-free bus zone downtown. That zone allows people riding from one part of downtown to the other to do so for free, and is intended as an aid to low-income, disabled and elderly city residents.

Before the last meeting was over, Sabrah n’haRaven, a member of the Homeless Initiative Advisory Committee, had already criticized the move, pointing out that the city’s own Transit Commission had delayed the matter for more public discussion (n’haRaven later elaborated on her objections to Council’s decision further in an open letter).

Two weeks later, Council seemed to agree that the step was too hasty, and a vote to take back its previous action was on the consent agenda, a list of routine items Council usually approves unanimously on a single vote.

“The Transportation Department had asked that that fare free zone be eliminated because of operational issues; drivers are having a hard time managing,” Council member Gwen Wisler said. “Unfortunately, the Transit Committee didn’t feel like they had enough time to study it and had asked to look at it further. So I think given all of this we agree it should go back” to the committee.

But Wisler also raised the possibility of future changes or hikes to transit fees, saying it was time to “re-look at all of our transit fares in totality and come back with some kind of report or recommendation on those fares.”

“That’s a great suggestion and we should make it a priority in the coming year,” City Manager Gary Jackson said. Staff, he promised, would review any changes in the charges to bus riders with the relevant city committees before bringing it to Council.

“I’d like to avoid surprises in the future,” Jackson noted.

More with less

Every five years, the city of Asheville has to adopt a plan for using federal grants intended to help with housing and community development. Some of the funds are allocated across the region, while others focus on the city itself.

This time, however, consideration of the plans for the next five years worth of grants comes as city officials look for new solutions to what they increasingly see as a full-on housing crisis. A report by a national firm that revealed a severe housing crunch throughout the area, especially in Asheville, was part of this process.

“The greatest supply gap throughout the region is quite clearly affordable rental housing for households earning 80 percent or less of median income,” Assistant Director of Community and Economic Development Jeff Staudinger said, noting that forums on developing the priorities for the next half-decade of grant funding had attracted far more interest and attendance than five years ago.

The plans expect a combined $10.5 million in grant funds through different programs over five years, though Staudinger noted that assumes funding will remain level throughout that time period. Council approved both the five-year plan and the first year of expenditures unanimously.

But “in the past five years these programs have been buffetted by changes in funding,” he admitted, noting that one of the programs had $1.5 million a year available five years ago, but funds have since dwindled to around $850,000. “We’re asked to make the assumption of level funding, I don’t know if that’s reasonable.”

While the federal funds are often not sufficient to complete projects by themselves, Staudinger asserted that they’re a major help in securing funding from other sources public and private. The plans hope to use the funds to help create 1,170 units of affordable housing, 200 sustainable jobs and three economic development projects, among other goals.

Throughout the region, rental housing for people making about 60 percent of median income is the top priority, along with housing for special needs households, housing near transit and encouraging affordable homeownership.

Greg Borom, from local non-profit Children First, was the only speaker during the public hearing on the topic, and praised the plan’s priorities, noting the damage the high cost of housing inflicts on local families.

Council member Gordon Smith, who chairs both Council’s Housing and Community Development committee and the board that deals with regional issues and grants, said the funds are helpful but the obstacles are considerable.

“This plan does reflect the community need, but there will be not nearly enough money to meet all of these needs,” Smith said. “However, thousands of people will be helped as a result of these dollars.”

“The housing crisis is here, we’re in the midst of it and this is one of the tools that’s going to help us make some headway,” he continued. “But as Jeff pointed out, we’ve seen a dwindling amount of money coming from the federal government to address these needs. We’ve also seen a dwindling interest among some of our state legislators for addressing the needs detailed here. So we have dwindling resources for growing needs.”

Council member Cecil Bothwell, who also sits on the housing committee, noted its task was the most difficult, “because you confront so directly these serious needs in the community with not enough funds to do it” with the city facing hard choices about where to allocate its limited resources.

Houses on the hill

Indeed, the next major item involved a developer asserting that their project would help meet some of that need, as South Slope Partners brought forward a proposal for a 97-unit apartment building near Mission Hospitals. On a site once intended for a medical office complex, the developers now wanted to put the Beaucatcher Flats complex there, though they had to go to the city to get approval for the zoning conditions. That meant the project required a hearing to decide whether it met seven legal standards required for it to proceed.

Attorney Louis Bissette, representing the developer, read a letter from Mission Senior Vice President Sonya Greck noting their support and citing the need for more housing “as with most of the employers in our area, we find housing opportunities a challenge.” Further, he added that the project uses existing infrastructure and will have easy bus access.

But board members and staff of the nearby Helpmate shelter noted that they had concerns about the security challenges posed by the construction of the complex.

“We do not oppose the development of this housing opportunity, we are aware of the housing crisis we have in our city,” April Burgess-Johnson, Helpmate’s executive director, told Council, but “additional pedestrian and vehicular traffic directly impacts our shelter and the safety of those who reside in it.” She said the group was working with the developers to ensure a “win-win” and hoped that a no-parking zone and traffic improvements would help address the concerns.

Bissette noted that the developer would donate $10,000 to Helpmate to upgrade its security, consult on landscape, lighting and design, provide a discounted apartment to a law enforcement officer and did not oppose ending on-street parking nearby, though he added that last step was in the city’s hands.

Council members inquired if the city could require that the developer follow through on its promised improvements to meet Helpmate’s concerns, but City Attorney Robin Currin noted that the no-parking zone would require further review by staff.

Bissette asserted that changing a “desolate” area to one populated by the complex’s residents will improve security.

In the middle of the discussion, Burgess-Johnson stepped up to the podium to note she didn’t believe that requiring the developer to meet those conditions would be necessary, that Helpmate’s leaders believe they will follow through, but they wanted city support in better infrastructure and ending on-street parking on a nearby street “rather than make additional and cumbersome requirements on a small housing development.”

“Folks, this is how the sausage is made,” Manheimer noted about the extensive Council discussion on the specific details of the project.

Smith observed that while Mission’s nurses could probably afford units in the complex, many of its other workers could not and he was concerned about the price of the apartments: about $1,100 a month on average, with around $1,000 for a one-bedroom apartment. Bissette pointed out that they technically fell within the city’s price range for “workforce housing.”

But, while Smith has occasionally voted against projects that failed to provide some measure of affordable housing, he noted that due to the specific legal rules of this type of hearing, that concern did not constitute a valid reason to vote against it, as it wasn’t one of the legal standards the developer had to meet.

After a bit more wrangling about the exact details of potential traffic, access points and landscaping (“we’re getting complicated,” Manheimer cautioned) Council voted unanimously to approve the project, though with Smith noting his reservations on affordability.

Duke backlash

The biggest discussion of the night occurred over an item that wasn’t on the agenda, as parents and concerned locals mobilized against a proposed Duke Energy substation next to the new Isaac Dickson Elementary on Hill Street, the first school built in the city system in three decades, citing health concerns from the new power station’s proximity. Acknowledging the somewhat long agenda and the number of people who’d shown up to speak on this topic, Manheimer opted to move public comment on the issue up earlier than usual, as open public comment generally waits until the end of the meeting.

Duke plans to build three substations near downtown, citing increased power demand, and for one of them purchased a site next to the school from a private landowner. Manheimer asserted that she and Council shared the parents’ concerns and are working to find another site, but are also limited in their ability to prevent Duke from moving forward.

“The city has a limited role in this process,” Manheimer said. “We have some authority to require screening and buffering of a substation site.”

Council also had the city legal department research the issue extensively, she added, and “we don’t have the ability to zone them out, in summary.”

The remaining option the city (or, she noted, the county) had was to find some of its own land that Duke could use as an alternative to the Dickson site. On that front, she claimed the city had investigated if it had any suitable land to offer as an alternative.

“Please know that we have exhaustively looked to see if we do, and we do not,” Manheimer said. “But I appreciate that there’s a great concern about this. This is a very serious issue, we take it very seriously ourselves and we’ve tried very hard to see what opportunities we have to play a part in this situation.”

She had, to that end, brokered a meeting between city officials, school system and Dickson representatives and Duke executives to try to address the problem, “and it’s a very challenging issue.”

“Duke Energy’s plan to build a substation threatens the success of this great school,” Angie Everett, co-President of the Dickson Parent Teacher Organization, said. “Many prominent studies have concluded that these health concerns are valid. Additionally there are historical, archaeological, aesthetic, environmental and social justice issues at stake. Even the perception of health risk threatens to dismantle the great community that defines the success of this school.”

Specifically, multiple speakers noted that the specter of health issues would lead some parents, especially those with means, to move their children elsewhere, furthering socioeconomic divides in the area. Everett turned over letters against the substation from about 200 parents, gathered in a week’s time and asserted the PTO wanted to work with local government and push Duke to find another site.

“This exposure concern has prompted multiple countries across the globe to run hundreds of studies in the last several decades,” Calvin Tomkins, a pediatrician and Dickson parent, asserted. “The World Health Organization, through its arm the International Agency for Cancer Research and the American Cancer Society have classified exposure to electromagnetic fields as a possible carcinogen.”

“There’s no room to put a possible carcinogen next to a school of 500 children,” he added.

Other speakers asserted that, with time, finding an alternative site was possible with local government cooperation or asked if the existing substation near the Civic Center (built in 1976) could be upgraded or expanded instead.

“We asked them about increasing capacity on that site, and they say it’s reached its limit,” Manheimer replied. She later noted that in addition to concerns about Duke’s coal ash and emissions, the possible substation was another issue the city would try to press the power company on.

“I can’t express enough how much we’re pushing and hoping and doing what we can to help Duke find another solution to this issue,” she said. “Obviously, it is not ideal to site a substation next to a school when you have a community that’s ready to pull their kids out of that school.”

Vice Mayor Marc Hunt noted that the city and others had conducted extensive legal research and “it’s more complicated than I could have imagined” but that city staff didn’t believe the city had the authority to prevent Duke though “you’ve got a City Council that’s eager to find ways to intervene.”

Wisler suggested the opponents of the substation reach out the N.C. Utilities Commission, as they had occasionally checked or required changes to substations in the past.

Bothwell advised those angered by the decision to take the issue as public as possible, noting with ire over coal ash spills and air pollution, Duke’s public reputation isn’t in the best of shape.

“If Duke were looking to blacken their own eyes in any way in the public view, they couldn’t do worse than to put a new substation next to LEED-certified, net-zero school,” Bothwell said. “It almost looks to me like it’s an intentional slap in the face, though I know there’s been a big property search.”

“Probably the biggest weapon you have to help get them to stop is publicity,” he added. “They have a very bad environmental image and the stories you’ve told tonight will not play well in the news.”

It wasn’t the only time local objections to Duke’s actions came up during the meeting. Shortly after the substation opponents left Council’s chambers, the members voted unanimously to join a call by environmental groups for stricter air pollution controls on Duke’s local coal-fired plant.

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