The Buncombe County Commissioners canceled their retreat on Tuesday because of the snow, but Asheville City Council trudged ahead. Mayor Esther Manheimer explained she had toyed with the idea of cancelation until she learned from City Clerk Maggie Burleson that the last time council canceled a meeting was when the Storm of the Century hit, March 2, 1993. Manheimer said she wasn’t going to wimp out for a couple inches of snow.
The agenda was amazingly light, and the meeting didn’t even last twenty minutes. The president was scheduled to perform the State of the Union act at 9:00 that night, and an all-Democrat board would look very bad pre-empting it. Council had business to consider in closed session, but they continued that portion of the meeting until the following day.
Cecil Bothwell didn’t make the meeting, and nobody offered a reason. More significantly, since all votes were unanimous anyway, only one member of the public braved the snow to say hello. That was Jason Walls, representing Duke Energy Progress as the company’s local district manager. In jest, council referred to him as “Member of the Public.” Walls merely wanted to thank the city for being reasonable in its decision to make its lighting ordinance doable with existing technology.
The city’s Chief Sustainability Office Maggie Ullman was unable to attend the meeting, so Development Services Director Shannon Tuch stood in. Tuch, in not so many words, explained how the city, in its ambitions to be super-green, had written its lighting ordinance so as to require the use of technologies that were not exactly a good idea. As Tuch described it, the ordinance required BUG (backlight, uplight, glare) ratings so low that several lights would be required to achieve a decent number of lumens. In some instances, technology existed to meet the standards, but it could only be purchased at an unreasonable price.
Staff saw the need for a change after Buncombe County Schools, Plasticard-Locktech, and AB Tech all came before the Planning and Zoning Commission with grievances. They could not find lights that lived up to the city’s requirements. Furthermore, the city wanted to promote the use of energy-efficient LED lighting, but its codes restricted their use. Duke Energy Progress has a list of only four approved manufacturers for supplying LED’s for street lights, and only two of those companies made compliant products. By approving the loosening up of the standards, council increased choice for environmentally-conscious builders while abiding by the recommendations of the National Dark Sky Model Lighting Ordinance.
Also absent from the meeting was Assistant City Attorney Jannice Ashley. Planning and Development Director Judy Daniel filled in for her. Ashley was supposed to present a request to amend the city’s ordinances to make them consistent with legislation passed in Raleigh last year that governs boards of adjustment.
Among other changes, council approved requiring that only people with legal standing may appeal zoning decisions. In the past, any “aggrieved party,” a term which remained undefined, could challenge. Conditions legitimizing a request for a variance were also lightened somewhat. Appeals of zonings and conditional use permits must now be registered within thirty days of the decisions, rather than sixty. Appeals may now be approved by a majority vote, rather than a 4/5 vote.
Following a third public hearing, terms of future Conditional Use Permits and Conditional Zonings will be recorded with the Buncombe County Register of Deeds. Presenter Daniel said the change was applauded by neighborhood groups and real estate agents. At that, Manheimer joked she was excited any time people were excited about recording records with the Register of Deeds.
The flip side is the convenience will be made possible by a filing fee of “less than $50,” to be picked up by the property owner. Councilman Chris Pelly spoke as if the change was a long time coming, and asked what would happen to CUP’s and CZ’s already granted.
Staff’s plan was to wait until newer software went live, and then provide links to documents through the city’s online GIS map. Pelly did not think most real estate agents would think to look at the GIS map. They all go to the Register of Deeds. Daniel said the city could look into the cost of an interim measure if that would be the wish of council. Staff disagreed about how many hundreds of properties this would affect.
The fourth public hearing was withdrawn. Physis pulled out of plans for an infill, Smart Growth affordable housing development near jobs and public transportation on East Chestnut Street. In their withdrawal letter, representatives Richard Fort and Chad Roberson cited “unreasonable appeals” from neighbors, who had been egged on by the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County.
The letter continued, “The unpredictability of the development process, minimal qualifications required for protest petitions, and the potential for further delays present risks that small developers such as Physis can ill afford. Enough is enough.” It closed with recommendations for how council might in the future respect the limited design budgets of developers, as they try to satisfy council’s contradictory goals and ordinances, by making the development approval process more predictable and reining in the currently illimitable powers of neighbors to obstruct development.
Coincidentally, on council’s consent agenda was the approval of the receipt of a $30,000 grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and the Dynamic Governance Institute “to facilitate the development of training materials and process [sic.] to enhance partnerships to . . . strengthen effective neighborhood participation in policy and planning decisions.”