By Leslee Kulba- The economy could grow in leaps and bounds if only businesses put up bigger signs. At least, that is what members of Asheville City Council implied in ruling it would be “unfair” to let Ingles have bigger signs than other grocery stores in the city. Following a failed attempt in July, Ingles returned to city council to this time ask less drastic exemptions from the city’s sign ordinance for its store across from Asheville Outlets.
When Ingles first came before council, they asked for 403 square feet of signage. That’s the amount on the new Candler store, which was built in compliance with Buncombe County’s sign ordinance. They returned Tuesday with a plan for 320 square feet and a fall-back plan for 246 square feet, which Wyatt Stevens, representing Ingles, said was neither as attractive nor as functional. Stevens said when Ingles first asked for 403 square feet, they weren’t, “trying to put one over” on council. They were only asking for the same package approved for the Skyland store.
Stevens argued the ordinance would allow more signage for the same frontage if, instead of being a big box, the store were a strip mall. The architect articulated the façade to emulate rows of stores. Side-by-side pictures were shown of the sign plan. Stevens said neither was garish. In fact, he believed the signs looked better than blank walls.
Reasons for requesting more square feet of signage included the fact that, while being a single tenant, the store has franchises like Starbuck’s that have corporate rules for signage. Wayfinding signs could help customers pull up to the right door of the large store. Comments were made about how some people struggle to find things. The parking lot, unlike the last one, would be disrupted with islands of landscaping. Stevens said people entering the lot will want to know if they should turn right or left. Especially functional would be a sign showing drivers who need a pharmacy drive-thru where it is.
The store also has a gas station, and the USDA requires gas stations to post their prices. Stevens said Ingles could get more square footage for its signs by doing what it has in the past; that is, it could subdivide the property to put the gas station on a separate lot. In other words, redrawing the lines on a map would legalize adequate signage without needing approval for a special package.
Councilwoman Gwen Wisler made a motion to approve the 246-square-foot signage plan for the building and let Ingles parcel off the gas station. Julie Mayfield was prepared to second the motion, but she was interrupted. After a few more comments, Cecil Bothwell made a motion to deny the application. “Rules are rules are rules,” he repeated. He said he buys gas at Ingles, and has, “never confused the fact that ten pumps and a little station there were anything but a gas station.”
Bothwell kept saying Ingles was violating the sign ordinance, but Principal Planner Shannon Tuch said twice the ordinance has a clause that allows for special sign packages with council approval. Ingles was merely exercising that option. The city had approved sign packages for UNC-Asheville, the airport, and Mission Health. The only commercial operation to receive approval for a special sign package is Asheville Outlets.
When Keith Young seconded Bothwell’s motion, Wisler’s had to take a back seat. After discussing options with City Attorney Robin Currin, it was determined that if the motion to deny were to pass, Ingles would not be able to return to council with a sign package for 365 days. Stevens could, however, withdraw the application and return to council’s next meeting with revisions. Since job creation is all the rage these days, Stevens pointed out taking the second option would postpone the hiring of 150-160 people for one to two months. To that, Young said if Ingles would just get its signs in compliance the store’s representatives would not have to endure another round.
Councilman Gordon Smith acknowledged Ingles was a great community partner, but he couldn’t support bending the rules for them. Seeing he likely didn’t have the support of a majority on council, Stevens withdrew the application.
In Another Matter –
David Nash, COO of the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville, informed members of city council the application for NC Housing Finance Agency tax credits for overhauling Lee Walker Heights was not funded this year. He said the application process had been highly competitive, half of the projects being rejected. The City of Asheville had already agreed to contribute $4.2 million for the effort; HACA, $2 million.
Nash maintained a very democrat input process had resulted in a “pretty awesome” plan, but it failed two criteria. For one thing, the state thought the timeline would be too compressed. For another, the project only supplied one parking space per unit instead of two. Bothwell interjected, “And just so people can be really clear about how screwy the rules are, you’re telling us that a downtown development for affordable housing requires that there be two car slots for every unit even though people who live downtown in affordable housing may not have two cars.”
Nash said that wasn’t exactly the case; a lot of HUD construction takes place in suburban areas these days. The housing authority had erroneously assumed meeting the zoning requirements would suffice. Now, they know they must make a stronger case with the next application. Mayor Esther Manheimer said developers tell her they are only required to provide ¾ of a parking space per apartment elsewhere in the country. The South, remaining reliant on the automobile, still requires two spaces. Not too long ago, two spaces was the norm for apartments in Asheville, the assumption being if a household didn’t have two cars, there would be guests.
Nash said HACA will regroup and submit another request for tax credits. It will try for 9 percent again, but if that proves unworkable, it will try for the 4-percent option. Going the latter route, HACA will not ask more from the city but will reach out to Buncombe County for financial assistance. Manheimer said the city is holding the funds in reserve for whenever the project becomes viable. Mayfield told Nash not to be a stranger should HACA decide to try the 4-percent option.