The total parcel size was 41.1 acres, but only 11.8 acres were in the city. The terrain was described as consisting mostly of 10 to 20 percent grades, with some steeper areas. In addition, the parcel was home to a wetlands and a utility right-of-way. Presenter Lou Bissette, representing the developer, said only about 5.5 acres of the land were developable.
Ben Teague, Senior Vice President and Executive Director of the Economic Development Coalition for the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce was practically turning somersaults to tell council the land was not suitable for industrial development. Bissette read from a letter written to the city in March, “Given the land in question, which has a slope, would be an unlikely industrial expansion opportunity and the project leaves room for the current facility to expand, I would suggest the council vote affirmatively for the zoning change.”
Bissette said that letter was somewhat dated, so he called Teague that day. Teague was in Disneyworld with his family, but he called back to say, as related by Bissette, “Number one, I’d like you to tell the council how much I appreciate their interest in retaining industrial property in the City of Asheville. You can also tell them that this is a terrible piece of property. It is totally non-competitive, and I still fully endorse the change in zoning.” As if that was not enough, Teague texted Bissette later and said, “We actually don’t even market that site as it’s graded below and ultimately uncompetitive for our clients.”
Director of Asheville Operations at Industries for the Blind Randy Buckner explained the IFB’s interest. They had launched a capital improvement campaign. They asked what the employees would like to improve working conditions. They suggested having a hot meal cafeteria, a picnic area, a walking trail, and other amenities. Their wishes were met as far as the funds could go, and it was determined that more could be met if IFB were to sell a portion of its land that it had no intention of ever using. Representatives argued there was plenty of room to expand on the land that would be retained.
Buncombe County had approved their portion of the project in 2008, but that approval lapsed. Approval for the Buncombe portion was renewed this August. In Asheville, the Planning and Zoning Commission approved the project on a 4-3 vote. Those opposed had wanted a number of units designated for use by the visually-impaired and rent amounts in print even though the project would not go online for two years. They further argued the industrial land should be preserved, and the current area lacked residential infrastructure.
City staff recommended denial in the technical review. They were, however, open to accepting the project if the developer would agree to a list of eleven conditions, one of which had 28 terms. The developer was amenable to all but four.
Asked to provide workforce rents, the developer indicated the rents he projected he would charge today would be well below the maximum for workforce housing. Bissette said rents today would be $846, $923, and $1409 for a one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartment, respectively. The city’s maximum workforce rates are now $1267, $1418, and $1563. Councilman Gordon Smith asked if the developer would commit to holding his rents at 87 percent of median, or starting out with the rents presented and raising them only 3 percent per year.
Representatives for the developer said their contracts forbade them to provide any kind of rent controls. He was creating a quality product and requesting no tax incentives from the city – but he would be open to accepting municipal funds for another project if the city wanted subsidize rent controls. Bissette argued that the creation of more housing stock would, by simple supply-and-demand forces, exert downward pressure on housing prices, but council wasn’t buying it. Members expressed disbelief that the developer would not be more accommodating.
A second condition was that the developer provide accessible units, and a third was that a path between the factory and the apartments be made accessible. Buckner, among others, explained there was a misconception in what blind people needed. They did not need ADA apartments. For the most part, they needed simple retrofits that could be added to any normal apartment. They did not need ramps, elevators, and wide turning radii. All they needed was stick-on Braille dots, talking thermometers, and other appliances that IFB sells on a sliding scale in its store.
A fourth requirement was that the buildings be equipped with an NFPA 13 standard sprinkler system. Patrick Bradshaw of Civil Design Concepts argued the developer had constructed numerous projects, but nowhere had he been required to install NFPA 13 sprinklers. There was no life safety difference between the coverage of NFPA and NFPA 13 systems. NFPA 13 systems provided greater coverage for property in uninhabited areas like attics, and they cost $750,000 more.
Councilman Chris Pelly argued that the location was not near residential amenities. If council were to approve the project, the residents would come back in a year or two demanding transit and sidewalks that the city could not afford to provide.
Vice Mayor Marc Hunt and Councilman Jan Davis were the only two members of the board who expressed an interest in supporting the project. Davis agreed with comments that had been made about the property being of more value on the tax rolls than fallow. The land was not on a transit line, but it would be more affordable for the blind to walk to work than to pay for cross-town paratransit. Enka-Candler needed more housing, and somebody had to be the pioneers. Most compassionately, he sympathized with the wishes of the employees at the IFB.
Then, breaking with his habit of never saying an unkind word, he offered, “Part of the things that are said about this council and Asheville being hard to develop in are probably coming true here this evening. It’s regrettable to get caught up in – like the vice mayor said, it causes him a great deal of difficulty. It does me, too. . . . What we’re walking away from here. It’s painful. Quite frankly, I can understand why people don’t want to come in front of this council. And I’ve never said that in going on eleven years. It bothers me.”
Realizing the project did not have the votes to survive the evening, and denial of the request would mean the developer would have to wait a year before presenting a similar plan, council recessed to allow the developer’s representatives to enter into a confab to see if they wanted to buy time to come around to council’s way of seeing things. They agreed, and another hearing was scheduled for October 14.