This week, Jerry Sternberg was given ten minutes to speak on behalf of industrial businesses west of the Norfolk Southern railroad. “My name is Jerry Sternberg,” he began. “I am the unelected, unpaid president for life of the River Rats. We are a group of river property owners and businesses located in the French Broad and Swannanoa River basins who are dedicated to preserving our property rights and business operations.”
Sternberg said there were two types of businesses in the area subject to the form-based code. There were the artists and the industrial manufacturers. He asked that the manufacturers, who had more pragmatic concerns than the artists east of the river, be removed from the plan. Many were established and had been operating since rivers and railroads were essential to the manufacturing scene.
Things have changed, but the industrialists are now happy with their current River District zoning, which, according to Sternberg, allows anything but “LULUs (large, undesirable land uses such as chemical or asphalt plants).” The businesses work in the flood zone where other operations may not fare so well, and they’re not exactly something NIMBY’s are going to want to move next-door.
“Why not move all these objectionable recycling and manufacturing facilities off the river?” he asked sarcastically. He then suggested the recycling plant, Asheville Waste Paper, which saves the city loads of money by diverting trash from the landfill, move to various neighborhoods where council members reside. “Forget moving them to the county. They already rode two recycling operations out on a rail in the last six months.”
The plan promises to allow existing uses to be grandfathered, but they’re in a flood plain. Any substantial rebuild required after a natural disaster could force them to relocate or just go out of business. The manufacturers would furthermore not be able to expand or change significantly to keep up with technological innovations or shifting customer demands.
Sternberg noted, “The ordinance expressly states that a recycling plant is a non-permitted use. On the other hand, a recycling operation would be permitted. This prompts the question, ‘Are there bad recyclers and good recyclers?’ This ordinance is the poster child for subjective interpretation and enforcement.”
In a follow-up conversation, Sternberg told how recycling is a growing industry. In other locations, materials recovery facilities (MRFs) have set up operations to accept waste or recycling, and sort and clean it for reuse by other manufacturers. The form-based code would not allow such an environmentally-friendly asset in this community. Arbitrary aesthetic codes should not be preventing Asheville Waste Paper from investing in industry-wise decisions.
The proposed code would allow “River Manufacturing” and “Light Manufacturing,” but not “Heavy Manufacturing on the riverfront west of the railroad. Sternberg reminded members of council how they objected profusely to a proposal from Industries for the Blind to rezone land they owned to Residential to build housing for employees. Council argued manufacturing land was at such a premium, they could not justify converting land zoned Industrial in spite of months of compromises by people trying to create workforce housing.
Sternberg asked where the city would put a large manufacturer like Caterpillar if they were to come to town seeking economic development incentives. The code would eradicate places for high-paying manufacturing jobs near the river with rail siding. Sternberg said he and other industry leaders down on the river fought a “very restrictive zoning ordinance” proposed by RiverLink twenty years ago. “Had that zoning prevailed,” said he, “even the New Belgium plant would have been prohibited.”
Zoning is usually described as a tool for protecting land uses. Sternberg said this was not so with the current zoning. He presented members of council with a resolution that concluded, “The Asheville Area Riverfront Redevelopment Commission expresses its desire to support the River District property owners and remove the part of the property, contained in the [form-based code] lying west of the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks and fronting and/or adjacent to the French Broad River, . . . from consideration for any zoning changes at this time.”
Sternberg also presented council with letters signed by 70 percent of property owners in the area requesting exemption. “I have additional letters from river property owners whose properties are not affected by the current proposal but are certain that this form-based zoning will metastasize and go north to Broadway, then east to Biltmore, and all the way up the Swannanoa to Bee Tree.”
Also after the meeting, Sternberg criticized the process. He said an expert was anybody with a briefcase from more than fifty miles away. The form-based code project was led by Code Studio, based in Austin, Texas; with help from Nashville’s Third Coast Design Studio, and Atlanta’s Nelson\Nygaard and Noell Consulting Group. They were trying, in Sternberg’s words, to “amuse pedestrians.”
The rule-makers consisted in the usual suspects who, “having no skin in the game,” have leisure time to make rules for others. The plan would eventually be approved by people Sternberg said had nothing better to do than, “sit up at city hall and fold fingers at each other and say, ‘I don’t think that fits.’”
Neither the consultants nor the active visioneers who contributed to the meetings had the “peculiar knowledge” acquired by, in some cases, four generations of running a business in the river basin. Sternberg said those he was representing were hard-working small business owners without a lot of interest in or savvy for public forums. In describing their apprehension about participating in the process, he used words like “petrified” and “abused.”