Snow day

by David Forbes March 1, 2015

Council gives controversial Craggy subdivision the go-ahead, some gentry throw a fit about ‘undesirables’ and the police buy more surveillance equipment

Above: City-County Plaza, with the Buncombe County Courthouse and City Hall on the snowy morning of Feb. 24

In the morning hours before Asheville City Council’s Feb. 24 meeting, significant snowfall hit the city. While the outside of City Hall looked quite picturesque, schools and most of Council’s own committee meetings closed down accordingly.

But that evening the wintry mix held off for a bit, though it would come back just a day later. Council usually holds its formal meetings even in relatively bad weather because cancellation can lead to a mess of legal re-notifications, among other issues. Indeed, local government continued on, as about 40 people showed up to the meeting despite winter’s intervention.

Most were there to comment on the controversial Craggy Park subdivision, a proposed array of homes in a swath of the Falconhurst neighborhood of West Asheville that some neighbors either wanted developed less or, due to its proximity to a nature preserve, not at all. That battle was delayed at the last Council meeting, but this time critics showed up ready to contest the developers despite the weather.

That wasn’t all. Council gave the go-ahead to a major expansion to Buncombe County’s downtown Department of Health and Human Services building, despite some local gentry and luxury hotel developers bluntly asserting they wanted the facility moved somewhere else so the “undesirables” among those accessing services won’t be near expensive real estate, tourists or potential new hotels. The departments in the building provide assistance to about 100,000 people a year including the working poor, elderly, disabled, homeless, families, veterans and many others.

Council also saw a vote on buying new surveillance equipment for the Asheville Police Department with drug seizure funds. While placed on the consent agenda reserved for minor items, this saw increasing controversy in the days before the meeting, amid ongoing concerns about surveillance of peaceful protests and other issues with local law enforcement.

Here’s how Council’s busy snow day unfolded.

Standard practice

As noted in the Blade‘s last Council report, at the beginning of each meeting the elected officials tackle the consent agenda, a list of usually minor, usually uncontroversial items that Asheville’s elected leaders approve in one single block

The day before the meeting, one of those items attracted some particular interest, as a story in Carolina Public Press detailed that the APD was set to buy $14,000 in unspecified surveillance equipment (later revealed to be microphones) with some of the state’s drug seizure money, specifically to target narcotics and prostitution.

This happens after investigations by the Asheville Citizen-Times last year revealed that the APD was recording peaceful protests with no clear policy for retaining or disposing of those records. City officials have since promised to fix the issue and craft rules that will protect civil liberties, but are still embroiled in a lawsuit with the Citizen-Times after city staff provided contradictory explanations about the tapes’ purpose and denied that the videos are public record.

After the Public Press story broke, there were some attempts online to organize people to show up and express their dissatisfaction with the purchase and the role such equipment played in the war on drugs and surveillance by the police in general.

As Council was considering the consent agenda, Mayor Esther Manheimer acknowledged the reaction and the questions that the public had, noting that “I know that everyone is eager to hear the city manager, or his designee, talk to us about the budget amendment” for the surveillance equipment.

“The nature of this equipment is criminal surveillance,” City Manager Gary Jackson said. “These are the kind of tools we use in stings and those kinds of operations. These are not to be equipment used in monitoring protests or training activities,” but instead only for “routine criminal investigations.”

“These are closely monitored already,” he asserted, claiming the use of this equipment is overseen rigorously by APD commanders and the District Attorney’s office.

“These are used mostly in narcotics transactions,” interim APD Chief Steve Belcher also told Council, though he asserted it could be used to catch kidnappers as well. “It’s nothing to do with demonstrations or free speech issues. These are strictly criminal investigations.”

“This is standard practice in every police agency across the United States,” he continued.

Council member Cecil Bothwell asked about the federal government’s recent change on using seizure funds to equip local and state police agencies. That program of using seizure money to fund police departments has been widely condemned by civil liberties advocates as incredibly prone to abuse.

In this case, Belcher said, the funds for the surveillance equipment came from state drug seizure money rather than the federal funds that would be affected by the new rules.

“There’s clearly a lot of keen community interest right now on the other end,” Council member Gordon Smith said, but noted that this piece of equipment was, per Belcher, not related to the larger controversies over surveillance. “I’ve appreciated the community’s interest in this and it’s my hope going forward that we’re going to have a very public process about civil liberties and about what’s going to be appropriate in the community so we can make sure everyone’s as safe as we can make them and make sure we’re protecting their civil liberties. I’m grateful for the community being here tonight.”

“I’ve talked to news media folks today and when I explained what it really was they go ‘oh, everybody uses those,’” Belcher replied. “If I’d worded it a little bit better in the first place I might not be standing here.”

With Belcher and Jackson’s statements assuaging Council’s curiosity, they unanimously passed the funds for new surveillance equipment along with the rest of the consent agenda. No member of the public commented on the issue.

Making sausage

The lion’s share of the meeting was devoted to the latest in a series of battles over controversial developments during the past few months. These have seen some neighborhood residents in a given area oppose a planned development, usually citing concerns with traffic, infrastructure, density and changing local character in a way they believe will harm their “quality of life.”

Council, in these recent debates, has generally sided with the developer, citing a dearth of housing across multiple income brackets and often approving the zoning necessary for the projects to go through unanimously or 6-1, with Bothwell the most frequent dissenter. In some cases, they’ve asked for staff or the developer to find funds to address infrastructure concerns like traffic and a lack of sidewalks.

The debates have brought up major issues over the future direction of the city, as development within its borders is something local government has a potentially great deal of power over. At its annual retreat Council started to reach a consensus around overhauling the city’s development rules wholesale for the first time since 1997.

This time, however, rather than denser housing or apartments the proposal was a subdivision of 45 single-family homes, known as Craggy Park, in the Falconhurst neighborhood of West Asheville. The site is next to two pieces of property owned by the city itself: the Falconhurst Preserve — a piece of wilderness protected by a conservation easement — and a U.S. Army Reserve center.

To the developer, East West Craggy Estate, and city staff (who endorsed the proposal), it was a good way to develop the area with new homes nearby existing infrastructure and amenities without disrupting the neighboring piece of wilderness. In fact, the developers were promising to help improve the city’s greenway system in the area and protect the preserve, as well as raising the possibility of working with Riverlink to restore nearby streams.

“This isn’t exactly high density development, but it is infill development and given the proximity to commercial and mixed-use along Patton Avenue, access to transit and the character of the surrounding neighborhood, the residential development proposal seemed appropriate,” Interim Planning Director Alan Glines told Council. He also said that the developer could already do a similar project without going before Council at all, given the existing zoning, but was seeking smaller lots and a number of other exceptions to the usual rules to preserve more of the existing wilderness.

“Since we started this project, we committed to transforming this property into a neighborhood where people who care about green living can aspire to live,” Brian Nelson, speaking for the developer, said. “We have a low-impact development that takes into consideration a careful balance of the environment, the community and the economic realities of infill development in the city.”

“We also recognize the word ‘development’ causes unsettling feelings,” he added, but said the company sent out mailers, met with neighbors and held hearings to communicate with locals, and that 45 homes in “a market that’s scarce” is a boon to the city.

The neighbors, however, were less keen on the whole idea. Enough of them had filed formal protest petitions that the project needed a six-vote supermajority on Council to proceed. Catherine Morris, speaking for some of the residents, told Council to vote it down.

“I admit, I’m very prejudiced in favor of this property not being developed,” Morris, who was involved in the foundation of the preserve, said. She added that she doesn’t share the city’s commitment to infill and density, asserting leaving the space undeveloped would make an “invaluable asset to the city” when combined with the existing wilderness.

“Part of government’s responsibility is to protect our natural environment,” Morris continued. “The visitors who come here don’t just want to see concrete and houses, they want to have some places to recreate. If we don’t have sufficient places to enjoy nature, they will go elsewhere.” If the city wouldn’t stop the development entirely, she wanted to make sure that the existing preserve was protected and warned that “it wouldn’t take much to degrade and destroy it.”

“Quality of life is perhaps our biggest concern,” she added. “It’s not just about density, it’s about quality of life and providing that for those of us who live here and pay taxes.”

“I strongly disagree with the contention that the development fits with the existing neighborhood,” resident David Dvorak asserted, citing the changes to the usual zoning the company was requesting indicated otherwise. “The developers have assured us this development is preferable to any one another developer might do. I want to remind us all that that is pure speculation.”

He asserted that the city had to strike a balance between the needs of people moving into a neighborhood and the wishes of people who already lived there to keep what made it appealing to older residents in the first place.

There were also a number of worries from neighbors about the traffic from the additional homes, combined with other incoming development in West Asheville.

“What we’re dealing with right now are balancing the density goals of Council and the density needs of the city with the livability of the community that already lives here,” Smith said when discussion moved to the Council dais. “This project gives us another opportunity to examine density and livability.”

He praised the idea, raised by some of the project’s critics, of a more comprehensive look at the desires of neighborhoods across the city.

Council member Chris Pelly likewise noted this had “begun a discussion within the Falconhurst neighborhood” and encouraged them to think about changes they would find amenable, as well as ones they wanted to stop.

Both supported the project, with Smith praising it for increasing the housing stock with green homes. While not the dense, affordable housing he usually prefers, he observed that Asheville’s shortage is such that “even this type of housing can help to stabilize the market.”

Bothwell, however, said that the developer’s profits shouldn’t be the government’s priority. He had earlier expressed skepticism about the smaller lot size, asserting that bigger yards were preferable, as they mean more green space.

“I think that this conditional zoning is really to facilitate getting more money out of the property,” he said. “I don’t think it’s our job here to necessarily facilitate someone making more money; we need to protect the green space and we need to protect the neighborhood.” Instead, the developer “could do low impact and have fewer houses” if they really wanted to be environmentally sensitive.

But Vice Mayor Marc Hunt noted that another project might easily just develop the area in a less sensitive fashion without even having to go to Council.

“The protections to water quality and leaving woodlands intact in this proposal are really important,” Hunt said. “The demand for housing within the city limits is such that the people that would live in these houses if we didn’t approve them are going to find somewhere else to live. To the extent that we shove housing outside the city limits into the county — where the zoning regulations are much less restrictive — we’re doing something much worse, which is adding to suburban sprawl.”

That support for moving the development forward only left the matter of the exact wording of the developer’s commitment to helping the city supply greenways in the area (Hunt noted that without such a promise he was reluctant to support the project). Staff and the company’s representatives hashed out the wording of that rule in the middle of the meeting before Council voted 6-1, with Bothwell against, to approve the development.

“The sausage is complete,” Smith noted at the end. “That was ugly,” Manheimer added.

Gentry groans

After a quick break, Council returned to hear from Buncombe County officials on the $48.5 million expansion to the downtown Department of Health and Human Services building. This expansion includes a large new seven-story building alongside the existing brick one, as well as a 650-space parking deck.

Last month, the county approved the funding for the expansion. As the property’s within the city core, however, Council needed to sign off for the project to proceed.

Assistant County Manager Jon Creighton noted that the building provides services to a wide range of people in need, and that demand for those services has grown. He noted that last year 100,000 people from a wide range of populations walked through those doors to receive some kind of help and the county is severely pressed for space to adequately take care of them.

“We have 440 employees that work in that building and we’ve pretty much cut all our training space out to make it into cubicle space,” Creighton said. “We’re just in dire need of additional space,” to the point that in recent years the county’s had to lease out space in other buildings just to keep up.

“The demands for human services continue to rise,” he added. “One in five residents in Buncombe County receive food assistance, and the majority of those are working adults, the elderly and the disabled. One in five in Buncombe County also receive Medicaid; those are children, disabled adults and people that live in nursing homes. There’s a great demand.”

As for the location, “47 percent of those 100,000 live within a five-mile radius of that building. That was one of the determining factors.” With a parking lot adjoining the existing building, he added, the county’s also fortunate to have the space to expand without much difficulty.

Smith praised the move.

“Really great that the county’s chosen to expand here rather than relocate this building,” he said. “I think a lot of folks are real pleased about that decision. It was a big commitment to make to all the people that are served there to remain at the most accessible location you could have.”

But not everyone was so positive. Speaking during public comment on the move, realtor Byron Greiner noted to Council his positions on the city’s Downtown Commission and as issues chair for the Downtown Association, but said he was instead there on behalf of developers seeking to turn the Bank of America, S&W and Swicegood buildings into the Parisian luxury hotel. Adding that high-end hotel to downtown, he asserted, might not happen unless the county moved its social services facilities out of sight of the developers and the future hotel’s visitors.

“Their feeling is that if this building is built at this location it will increase the population of some undesirables we deal with every day in terms of the homeless and panhandling,” Greiner said. “I’ve been working with a number of homeless providers, talking with Asheville City Council members individually and county commissioners and with [Mission Hospitals] to locate a campus” somewhere else.

Another location, he claimed, would be more efficient than the current one. It also would mean, Greiner emphasized, that the now-valuable current site of the DHHS building could then be sold to private developers.

“If we were to come up with another location, we’re looking at over $10 million in property that could be put back on the tax rolls and refurbished so both the city and Buncombe County could get that tax revenue.”

Instead, with the social services expansion looking likely, the Parisian developers had decided to put their buildings on the market rather than turn them into a hotel.

“They’re pretty upset; they wanted to invest quite a bit of money in Asheville,” Greiner continued. “They’re continually panhandled when they’re in downtown. They brought that up to a number of you. There’s a lot of need for additional growth [in social services space], no question about that, but another location is what they would desire.”

Nancy Hayes noted that she works with MRK property development, the Miami Beach, Fla.-based developer that’s one of the partners involved in the Parisian deal, but was there as a private citizen in favor of moving the county’s social services programs somewhere else.

“I feel like we’re shooting ourselves in the foot with this,” Hayes told Council. “We have a lot of trouble with panhandling. I believe these people need all the help we can give them. I don’t think they get enough help. But do they need it in the 10 or 15 blocks of the most expensive real estate in Western North Carolina? Truly, what’s wrong with the Innsbruck Mall? You could build a building there and you would be doing a great favor.”

“I feel for them,” she continued. “But you can’t help them this way. You’re not helping them by bringing them downtown, you’re driving out business. Other people aren’t going to have jobs now because we [MRK] are going to build condos or something else in that building instead of the Parisian, instead of an event space.”

“I’m a taxpayer,” she added. “Why not sell [the social services site], make some money, go build something wonderful at Innsbruck Mall? That’s still within your client range; it’s on a bus line.”

Hayes had also asserted this opinion in an email before the Council meeting, later reprinted over on Ashvegas, trying to rally public support for stopping the social services expansion. In that email, she touted MRK’s role as one of the companies involved in turning the downtown Windsor Hotel from “a flophouse to the beautiful Windsor Boutique Hotel. It is truly an asset to downtown and all of Asheville.”

Notably, the Windsor’s redevelopment had its own history of gentrification controversy after its previous tenants were evicted in 2007-08 to make way for the boutique hotel. The controversy deepened after one of the former residents, 52-year-old construction worker Chris Allen Sewell, ended up homeless and brutally murdered just months after being kicked out of the Windsor.

After Greiner and Hayes’ remarks, Council member Jan Davis asked Creighton to clarify who receives services at the DHHS building and the size of the homeless population downtown.

Creighton replied that some homeless “are disabled, some of those people do get Medicaid. But I think that’s one reason why I touched on the fact that one in five people in our community get assistance of some sort. There are 25 people in this room, so that’s five people in here probably getting assistance. It’s more than just panhandlers or whatever, it’s working people who can’t make it.”

“I would say the chronic homeless are a very small percentage of your services,” Davis noted. “A large number of services are being provided to the whole.”

“Oh they are,” Creighton said. As he and Davis started to continue Hayes interrupted, saying “can I speak to that? Can I answer that? Because I talk to these people and they’re getting Medicaid, they’re coming from…”

Manheimer then stopped Hayes, noting that as Council meetings are televised, it’s important that the person at the microphone (Creighton, in this case) be able to speak without interruption.

“When you talk about 100,000 clients a year, the homeless population in Asheville is very small,” Creighton continued. “It’s a percent of a percent.”

Smith noted that local governments and non-profits have made considerable strides in reducing the local population of the chronically homeless through better connection to housing and services, though the city still faces challenges with the transient homeless population. He defended the placement of the expanded social services building.

“This building is at the epicenter of the bus system. This is the easiest place that you guys could put this, especially for families that are in need,” he said. “What draws panhandlers downtown isn’t services, it’s money. They come downtown because that’s where the money is. It doesn’t matter where we put this building, you’ll still have panhandlers downtown.”

“Ultimately downtown’s not just for the wealthy, downtown’s for everybody, this is where the whole city can come together,” he continued. “It’s for all of us. That may make some, or all of us, uncomfortable sometimes, but we don’t need to make an effort to sanitize it. We need to make an effort to open it up and make it as livable as possible for as many as possible.”

Bothwell had issues with putting another parking deck downtown, but supported the placement of the building and believed the project overall was a good idea. Council agreed on the expansion, and approved it unanimously. If the local gentry and hotel developers will manage to survive remains to be seen.

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