AshevilleCity - County Gov.Leslee KulbaNews Stories

Council Still Shapes Downtown Development

 

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Among the highest-priority complaints was that developers had to resubmit plans too many times. Other problems included lengthy approval times, difficulties estimating turnaround times, and the unpredictability of additional “green issues, etc.” Solutions included standardizing procedures in the design review process with checklists, frontloading make-or-break criteria. The city also offers a one-hour training course for $40 to help weed out nonstarter projects before permits are purchased. The “green issues, etc.” problem was not yet resolved, as it is estimated adding staff, including an ombudsman, would cost about $100,000.

Other issues pertained to developers having to eat the costs of redos requisite for compliance with features approved that should have been denied and vice versa. Solutions would disseminate and preserve institutional knowledge. For example, staff is now subject to heightened training, and employees are specializing in different areas. Plans are being developed to reduce attrition and plan for succession. To address concerns that fees are too high and the schedule too complicated, the city will invest in a fee study this coming year. For general redress of grievances, an appeals process is under development

To improve customer service, Development Services will now be open five days a week. When Councilman Cecil Bothwell asked if the city hadn’t been saving money by running the department only four days, City Manager Gary Jackson said staff had been working five days anyway. Changes to the lobby include the addition of queuing and a drop-off line to cut down on waiting around time. The phone line now has an assigned Planner of the Day, and a twenty-four-hour turnaround goal has been set for messages left. For additional convenience, the city has expanded the number of permit applications that may be submitted via the internet to fourteen. Master permit numbers are now assigned to facilitate online tracking. A number of interactive electronic brochures for introductory overviews are in various stages of development.

With all the streamlining, Ingles didn’t manage to breeze through council’s review. In what is becoming a tradition, Ingles asked for special consideration for signage. This time it was for the store being rebuilt on Brevard Road across from Asheville Outlets. Bothwell said from the outset he would vote against the proposal as he had in the past. The city has a sign ordinance, and rules aren’t made to be broken. Ingles spokespeople, however, argued the store was exceptional in that it is large, with stores within the store. Strip malls of the same size, they argued, are allowed more signage. Bothwell, however, was concerned the city was playing favorites by not making similar exceptions for other grocery stores.

Although this was the fifth time Ingles had come before council with a sign request, the routine was foreign to new members. So, they voted, at Councilwoman Gwen Wisler’s instigation, to continue the hearing to give Ingles more time to get their signs closer to what the ordinance requires. Only Brian Haynes was opposed.

Council did, however, approve a performance-based Land Use Incentive Grant for Smith Mill Place. The applicant was Ward Griffin, whose praises Councilman Gordon Smith continues to sing. This time, it was because Griffin was one of the developers who explained to council that their initial LUIG could not allow developers to build at a profit any bank would take seriously. Griffin and others helped redesign the grant criteria to the point Griffin would be the first to use them in a project getting off the ground.

Smith Mill Place would be a 72-unit apartment complex off New Leicester Highway. Griffin would rent-control for fifteen years half the units as affordable to households earning no more than 60 percent of AMI. The other half would be rent-controlled for twenty years for households earning no more than 100 percent of AMI. Since the project was a quarter-mile away from an existing bus shelter, it was deemed “locationally efficient.”

All-told, the project racked up 95 points, qualifying it for 9.5 years of incentives, one year’s being equal to the difference between the property taxes the city will collect on the completed project and the current assessment. The former is estimated to be $33,009.24; the latter, $1,154.73. But in addition to this, the city would rebate 95-percent of zoning, building, driveway, grading, plan review, and water connection fees. This would bring the per-unit subsidy to $6,341. But that’s not all. The project is also receiving a $520,000, low-interest, twenty-year loan from the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

In another presentation, Nortz merely referenced a staff report and invited comment from council. The subject matter was enforcement of the city’s new homestay ordinance. The report reviewed the rescinded physical requirements and added operational standards that became effective last November. The city has since received 93 applications for short-term rentals and opened 68 cases against violators. With the passing of the budget, council appropriated $130,000 toward the beefing up of Airbnb enforcement staffing. Wisler asked what the city was doing to catch short-term renters who were turning their ads off during municipal office hours. Nortz said the city was looking into contracting with a third-party that specialized in Airbnb enforcement. They are aware of evasion tactics like that and had ways of dealing with them.

In Other Matters –

Council scheduled the public hearing on the bond referendum for August 9. This followed a glowing report from the consultants commissioned to test the waters for the bond issues via a representative sampling of citizens likely to vote in the November election. Following negative public comment, Mayor Esther Manheimer said if all issues were to pass, the owner of a $275,000 home would, absent any growth in the tax base, pay only $110 more a year in property taxes. She added that at $234 per person, the city’s debt service is extremely low, compared to other North Carolina municipalities. Charlotte, for example, owes $1800 per person. She then added that Asheville, by comparison, is not trying to build two stadiums.

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