The first idea was suggested by P&Z member Joe Minicozzi twenty minutes into a joint meeting of the board and Asheville City Council. It took about another hour for others at the table to come up with the idea themselves.
The unprecedented meeting appears to have been called to bat around ideas on how to deal with a backlog of construction projects that could be strengthening the economy downtown. Cathy Ball, who changes hats to head up departments just as fast as managers and department heads can leave, spoke this time on behalf of the city’s planning department. An executive search for a permanent director to replace Judy Daniel, who retired in May, is currently underway.
Those who spoke indicated construction was booming, and Ball agreed. She showed bar charts that showed the volume of new project proposals had actually decreased, in some categories seriously, compared to last year. The backlog, she said, was due to projects spending a couple of years or more in the approval process.
Ball had several suggestions, but the one that caught on best was “staffing up.” Mayor Esther Manheimer and Councilwoman Gwen Wisler expressed their wishes to follow through with that in a heartbeat and not wait for the next budget cycle, which will start in the public eye with council’s retreat in January.
Administratively, the Planning Department has been subject to a number of recent restructurings. One major change was transferring Jeff Staudinger, who works with government-subsidized housing programs, into the Economic Development Department. Another was pulling Assistant Planning Director Shannon Tuch out of the department to head up development “services.” The Development Services Department not too long ago was aggregated into a one-stop permitting center in the Taj Magraj at 161 Charlotte Street. The move delighted developers, but there is still room for improvement.
For example, a Mayor’s Development Task Force, which met four times and presented their findings “hot off the press” at the joint meeting, found developers would like to be able to submit plans electronically and pay by credit card. One of the higher-ranked complaints was worded, “too many rounds of submitting, receiving comments, responding to and making changes, and on and on and on and on.” Ball said sometimes developers must submit 24 sets of plans, and then resubmit them, perhaps more than once.
During the recession, when the city allowed certain employees to telecommute, it also transitioned the DSD to a four-day schedule to help employees contain transportation costs while the city managed its utility bills. Unfortunately, not being able to work with the city on Fridays was one of the most repeated complaints heard by the task force.
DSD staff would be very interested in identifying low-cost remedies for a general breakdown in interdepartmental communications. The consolidation has yet to remedy persisting stories about one inspector telling a builder to do something one way only to have the next guy tell him he has to rip it out. Another recurring annoyance was trepidation on the part of staff to pass off ideas for fear their supervisors would override their discretion once it was out of the gate. As an aside, Ball quoted members of staff explaining high numbers of redos to developers with, “We tell you what to fix, but you don’t.”
In response to stakeholder complaints, staff is working on extending digital services and working on informing developers about what’s new. A Business Process and Technology Specific Task Force is now in the works to listen to and search out state-of-the-art fixes for developers’ hang-ups. Ball said one goal would be to get planning and development documents in an updatable, searchable electronic format.
P&Z board member Kristy Carter expressed dismay that the city had no staff assigned for long-term planning. Form-based codes are in the hopper not only for pilot-project Haywood Road, but for the French Broad riverfront and Charlotte Street. Council has committed staff to broad-based planning for its urban corridors, and planners would like to change zoning codes to concentrate development in potential Smart Growth nodes, like the Patton Avenue Kmart and UNCA areas. A sense of floundering was attribute do the absence of a permanent planning director.
Ball told council twice about P&Z members communicating frustrations to her over recurring issues with the UDO. As an example, she said almost everybody who wants to build downtown needs to apply for alternative compliance because “it is impossible to meet the code for landscaping.” P&Z member Laura Hudson added to the list “unfortunate retaining walls.” Rather than starting with a demand for scrapping inoperable portions of the code, Ball politely suggested the city might create shortcuts for legitimately jumping around the “impossible” hoops.
Another thing that isn’t working is Level II reviews. P&Z has been in charge of them, but approval is a matter of technical compliance. Carter described the reviews as beyond the persuasive scope of the advisory board. P&Z member Holly Shriner added that, on the flipside, city staff felt it unfair that they should sit through meetings unable to interject their expertise. Ball is therefore trying to match the responsibility with defined roles.
Words were multiplied, and the meeting lacked focus until Councilman Jan Davis spoke up. “I’m concerned about what we’ve just been through. A comprehensive plan is OK, but it isn’t a magic book,” he said. “We’ve given the message to staff to fast-track, but I’m not sure we know what we want to fast-track.” He thought staffing-up could wait for the budget process, as business was about to slow for the holidays. The greatest problem, he urged, was to address was the bottlenecking in Development Services. He felt staff was doing an adequate job of identifying needs and amending the UDO for the near term.