After the retreat

by David Forbes February 1, 2015

Concerns, fears, mutual applause and setting the stage  for the biggest political fight Asheville’s seen in a long time, all at this year’s Council retreat

Above: Council members’ notes, on the banquet room wall, about what accomplishments they’re proud of.

This past Friday, Asheville City Council, several ranks of city staff, a table of journalists and a smattering of members of the public (many representing local non-profits or advocacy organizations) gathered in the U.S. Cellular Center for the annual retreat, one of the most under-watched and important meetings of the year.

As the event lasts for most of the working day and generally involves discussions that hit the same points repeatedly, it rarely produces easy soundbites or pithy exchanges (though there are notable exceptions). At the same time, observing how frequently certain ideas come up — or when Council members align behind a big change — gives some important idea of what’s coming up. The Asheville Citizen-Times coverage focused on pedestrian and bike safety, the Mountain Xpress’ on affordability, mostly. For those urban policy masochists out there, there’s a handy collected edition of the Blade‘s live coverage of the day.

So what are the big changes that came out of Friday’s retreat, especially some that haven’t received as much attention? Here’s some things to watch.

• The city is going to overhaul development rules, setting the stage for Asheville’s biggest political fight since the late ’90s Amid the discussion about affordability, development and the economy, Council members as a whole got on board with overhauling the city’s Unified Development Ordinance (or UDO). The UDO is a dense doorstop of a compendium of rules governing building and development within the city of Asheville, passed back in 1997.

It’s hard to overstate how big a fight — and change — this will be if it goes forward.

Just days before the retreat, Council witnessed a lengthy battle over a dense apartment complex on Fairview Road, with residents of the Oakley neighborhood strongly objecting. A piece on the significance of that particular fight is forthcoming, but to make a long story short, Council passed the development 6-1 (Council member Cecil Bothwell objected), citing the city’s dire housing shortage, the developer’s offer to build more sidewalks and the need for more density and housing to counter that.

Council also closed out last year approving some contentious developments. Right now, the biggest local political battles Asheville has are over development. This has been the source of the biggest rift in the city’s governing progressive coalition since the late 2000s.

Multiple times over the past years, Council members and staff have criticized the UDO as meant for a very different time in the city’s history. Asheville, despite the attention given to places like downtown and West Asheville, remains a largely suburban, low-density city even by North Carolina standards even as it struggles with skyrocketing cost of housing. That suburban level of density was how things were when the UDO was passed, and it’s the state most people who live and own property here are used to.

The UDO, despite its bland name, is one of the most important parts of local law: it governs what can and can’t be built in Asheville, everything from how much parking has to be included to how much housing can go on an acre to if a business location (or AirBnB, for that matter) are legal. It’s an area where city government has a particularly large amount of power to determine what does and doesn’t happen on the ground and there is no area of the city, or local political cause, that it doesn’t touch in some way.

It’s also not uncommon for projects proposed by developers (and often backed by staff or Council) to not fit easily within its rules. This means the developer has to go to Council for an exception, setting up fights with neighborhood advocates who believe the new development will infringe on the perceived character of an area or harm their own properties and livelihoods. Even the process of going to Council, as it adds expense and uncertainty, can act as a deterrent on a project coming forward unless it fits within the old rules (whether that’s good or bad depends on whom you ask).

This is how many of Council’s biggest fights happen and the questions at the heart of the matter — what does a city look like, who gets to live in it and how does it develop — are at the heart of Asheville’s future, for better or worse.

The city’s tinkered around the edges of changing this, passing new development rules for downtown and the Haywood corridor in West Asheville, giving the Planning and Zoning commission more power to approve developments, recently allowing more housing in commercial areas and, in the last few years, generally siding in favor of developers wanting rules changes for more density and housing. But despite expressing occasional frustrations, local leaders mostly stayed away from any concrete steps to overhaul the massive set of rules.

That changed Friday, as multiple Council members agreed to add overhauling the UDO to the city’s priorities, and none objected.

This won’t be completed for awhile, of course. Sometime, probably later this year or early next, staff will come back with an estimate for a consulting firm to hire on drawing the skeleton. So Ashevillians are looking at two years, probably, before the old rules are swept out and the new ones put in. if this goes forward.

After several of her colleagues raised the possibility of a UDO overhaul, Council member Gwen Wisler noted “I think everyone agrees that’s going to be important.” However, that while most of the Council members endorsed overhauling the UDO, Bothwell put a different emphasis, asserting the need to end “pockets of bad zoning” before they became issues and then sticking largely to the current code.

If the current Council (or new members sharing their views) remains in place, the UDO’s successor would probably allow for more density in multiple areas of the city, with the hope of the more urban development the majority of Council favors no longer needing to go to them for approval at all.

But two years is a long time, especially in local politics, and if recent fights over development are any indication, that approach has plenty of opponents. Three Council seats are up during the election this year and three more (along with the mayor’s seat) in 2017, around the time of the old UDO’s 20th anniversary. Given recent defeats, one could see neighborhood advocates, especially drawing strength and resources from some wealthier, low-density areas with high voter turnout, organize to contest these elections and push instead for a UDO that even more strictly curbs the kind of development they oppose while fortifying against any possible intrusion on their version of local character. It wasn’t that long ago that a proposal to place a moratorium on all new development in the city had serious traction and given recent defeats, it’s entirely possible to see that political faction push back against the current Council.

Either way, the city’s looking at a major battle over the shape of its future, a huge years-long undertaking to change its most important rules and what will likely be a big issue over several election cycles. Without much fanfare, Council took the first step on that path Friday.

• Despite a year of controversy Council and staff are close allies who believe they’re on the right track — The last year’s had no shortage of controversy around the operations of the city, especially with the departure of the police chief amid ongoing turmoil at the Asheville Police Department, looming fights over the Civil Service Board, controversy over everything from graffiti to a big exception to the city’s living wage policy. During this, Council has often not only refrained from criticizing the upper echelons of staff, but in many cases actively defended them.

As usual, Council members (and staff) started out with what accomplishments they were proud of, and Mayor Esther Manheimer and Vice Mayor Marc Hunt (along with just about every other Council member at some point during the retreat) said that less division on Council (split votes are far more rare these days) and closer cooperation with staff was, in their view, a major positive. City Manager Gary Jackson noted “we’re all aligned” and Wisler expressed her view that the media had driven too much of the public dialogue and city government needed to do a better job of telling its side of the story about its accomplishments.

The message coming loud and clear out of the retreat was that despite any controversies, including amid several bouts of mutual applause, Council supports and defends the conduct of its upper management and believes its approach of close collaboration rather than criticism or skepticism is the best one. Expect that stance to continue through any upheavals this year, especially going into the election if criticisms emerge about actions taken by local officials.

• Expect more deals to sell or lease city property — Some of this is tied to the previously-mentioned affordability topic (which did come up a lot during the retreat) as the city could use its property to cooperate with other organizations (collaboration also came up a lot, especially from Manheimer) and create more affordable housing around the city. Council member Gordon Smith, in particular, worried that the city is becoming a place where only the privileged can afford to live, and asserted the city needed to use its resources to ensure affordable housing throughout the area.

Some of it’s also tied to the “return on investment” approach advocated by the current Council, seeking to find ways to use its property to encourage private business or its other goals. Last week, for example, the city agreed to lease a building on Charlotte Street to biotech yeast manufacturer White Labs for $1 a year.

This isn’t the first time the city’s tried to see what it can get for what it has. The late 2000s saw attempts to find new uses for city property, and the course was not always smooth. A big fight over developing property across from the Basilica of St. Lawrence into a hotel led to a big fight over what should go there, and ended with the McKibbon hotel group backing out and a large gravel lot going in the spot pending further plans.

Wisler also repeatedly asserted that the city needs to inventory its parks and recreation facilities and come up with “exit plans” if it’s not meeting Council’s goals. That could mean that the city’s parks and facilities are also on the block for getting turned over to private companies to manage, or sold entirely. Either way, multiple members of Council were interested in changing how city land is used.

* Tensions and disagreements exist over open data and open records — An important moment of dissonance happened when the topic of open data and open government records was raised towards the end of the day. Communications Director Dawa Hitch asserted she wanted to see open data (the city releasing some of its data for companies or individuals to use) and open records (like police reports or documents about city policy) separated in Council’s push for open government. Hitch is normally in charge of handling open records requests made by media or the public.

But Chief Information Officer Jonathan Feldman disagreed, noting that he believed the push should include making both data and records accessible to the public without them necessarily having to go through a request to Hitch’s office. Feldman is a major figure in the local open data push, a movement that includes .

Open records, and the city’s handling of them, are currently a bit controversial. The Citizen-Times sued the city over denying a request for police videos of peaceful protests, and over here, we’ve been critical of considerable delays in request to obtain basic records like email exchanges between public officials and basic information about city workers. The brief exchange indicated some potential divisions within city staff over how to handle the broad goal of “open government,” and showed that, once again, the city faces no small amount of tumult going into 2015.

• Will those city workers see a raise? Maybe — Since December, the Blade has highlighted the fact that about 140 city workers tagged as “temporary or seasonal” make under, sometimes well under, the living wage most of its employees make. Despite the name, this category includes any employee working 20 hours or less a week for the city, regardless of how long they’ve worked in the job or if their hours are consistent throughout the year. A majority of Council members have indicated they’re open to changing this.

But at the retreat’s afternoon discussion, only Smith raised it as a priority during their discussion of big goals for the coming year, so the public (and the workers involved) will have to wait as the city forms its budget this Spring to see if a raise is in the cards.

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