Later on, council received a report from the Mayor’s Development Task Force. As in Hendersonville, the mayor had convened a group of architects, developers, realtors, contractors, and board members to identify actions the city could take to become more development-friendly. Oddly, presenter Brian Moffitt said in all the discussions, he had heard nobody complain about the UDO. Instead, people asked for more efficiency in turnaround times, more consistency throughout design reviews and permitting, and greater community education. Moffitt recalled how at a recent meeting of architects, eight groups were asked how to get a permit in Asheville, and they all came up with different answers.
As a result of the task force meetings, the city will now accept credit card payments for fees handled by the Water Resources Department. It is also looking into purchasing electronic lobby queuing systems as well as software to allow developers to submit plans electronically. Organizationally, it is undergoing restructurings and working on internal education programs to get everybody on the same page.
Councilman Bothwell vouched for the UDO. In reading it, he found it to be complex but clear. Moffitt, drawing from experience working in six Southeast states, said the UDO is no more onerous than other development ordinances with which he works. In fact, the UDO is preferable to governing documents in some places. Mayor Esther Manheimer said she had just been talking to developers kicking around an idea for “interesting work” in Asheville. They said the design review process in Asheville was much better than that of an unnamed coastal South Carolina city that begins with a C.
Next, Manheimer provided a speed-read of highlights from the current legislative session. “The good news is Asheville isn’t currently singled out for any damaging legislation, so that’s a change for us. . . . Woo hoo!” she began. There were, however, a number of bills targeted at weakening the power and revenue streams of North Carolina municipalities in general.
The most impactful bills to date, according to Manheimer, were proposing: (1) allowing a petition signed by 5 percent of registered voters to block local governments from floating debt; (2) exempting new development from increased property valuations for five years or until the property sells, whichever comes first; (3) eliminating the protest petition, which imposes a requirement for a supermajority vote on unpopular developments; (4) prohibiting cities from regulating beekeeping for owners of five or fewer hives; (5) restoring historic tax credits, a move Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger vehemently opposes; and (6) changing the state’s redistribution of property tax revenues to counties from a point-of-sale basis to a per capita one. Elaborating on the last bill, Manheimer said Buncombe County alone would lose an estimated $19 million. Its municipalities, fire districts, and school districts would sustain additional losses.
“The only thing that works in the favor of cities in North Carolina this session,” she said, “is the absolute animosity that exists between the house and the senate and the governor’s office for that matter that might result in lots of bad legislation not moving.” To that, Bothwell chimed in, “Hooray for gridlock.”
Next up, council heard how the developers of the city center project, at the intersection of College, Charlotte, and South Valley streets, has run afoul of the UDO. They put up a construction fence and then screened it with white tarp advertising the project. The city’s ordinances only allow two signs per street front, and the white tarp was covered with ads. For whatever reason, an amendment was proposed by staff that would allow the screening with advertising, but it would require ads to be twenty feet apart, rather than eight to ten feet as on the existing setup.
“That seems like such a strange concept –“ began Manheimer. She, Gwen Wisler, and Jan Davis mentioned some alternatives that could be worse. Manheimer continued, “I mean of all the things we have to enforce in this city, it seems a little bizarre to have staff out there measuring the illustrated panel portion of a super-long construction plastic temporary sign. I’m inclined not to regulate this.” Developers working in multiple cities, she said, would “not even anticipate this.”
Development Services Director Shannon Tuch said a lot of municipalities just look the other way at advertisements on construction screening. If council approved the amendment, the signage would still be out of compliance. The developer had been issued a notice of violation, which meant he would start accruing daily fines as soon as he exhausted all recourses, and the amendment was just about at the end of the line.
Smith did not want to support the developer. He had created “visual clutter,” and he was advertising in a manner to which others did not have equal access. Smith knew sign ordinances were messy territory, but deregulation to him “sounded like a terrible idea.” Bothwell concurred, saying he had to pay a sign fee for putting a banner up on his campaign office. The developers were not paying anything. They were just, “draping it over the fence.” Either way the vote went, the developer would lose, and he did.
Lastly, during public comment, Todd Stimson, who was found guilty of marijuana trafficking two days later, appeared before council to ask members again to sign a resolution supporting House Bill 78, which would legalize medicinal marijuana. After asking council the first time, he had had second thoughts, assuming anti-Asheville sentiment would cause his plans to backfire. However, he recently returned from making an educational presentation in Raleigh. He had a chance to bend the ear of Lt. Governor Dan Forest, who told him, “’I believe everybody in Raleigh already knows Asheville backs the legislation.’”