AshevilleCity - County Gov.HendersonvilleLeslee KulbaNews StoriesOpinion

Let’s Gentrify and Say We Didn’t

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By Leslee Kulba- It has been said that zoning is for poor people; wealthy investors can afford to change it anytime they want. An example would involve the storied Ferry Road property, first tied up in the Water Disagreement of 1995, when it was traded to Henderson County as a sewage treatment site in exchange for Asheville’s water system obtaining rights to intake water from the Mills River. Then, in a whirlwind of closed and special meetings, Henderson County and the City of Asheville agreed to sell the land to Buncombe County and construct a law enforcement facility with the proceeds. There was no time for public scrutiny. The county needed the land ASAP to court Deschutes Brewery, but Deschutes went elsewhere.

Since then, the 137 acres of hilly woodland serviced by narrow, winding roads sat, deed restricted and zoned for industrial use. Now, however, the county has a prospective buyer for the property, appraised at $6,815,000, and it appealed to the city to lift its deed restrictions so it could rezone and sell the property to somebody with that kind of money for building affordable housing. Contrast this to the small-potatoes Ashevillian who is intimidated, whether by cost or uncertainties about navigating bureaucracy, out of building a shed in the yard for his tools – or the couple trying to stay in their home by renting out an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) for extra income.

Asheville City Council unanimously decided to override staff’s recommendation to allow persons in the Haywood Road form-based code district to rent out detached structures as Airbnbs. What started as a housekeeping amendment to address issues that were recurring with the first iteration of the overlay district shifted emphasis when Councilor Brian Haynes suggested council remove all lodging facilities as a use by right. Bed and breakfasts, boarding houses, and homestays will still be allowed because they presumably will have an owner on premises.

During public comment, people spoke for and against the change. Mike Butrum, representing the Land of the Sky Association of Realtors, said the city was diminishing homeowners’ investments by limiting what people can do with their property. Of course, if the city wanted to buy up all the homes for some public project, it would be to its advantage to devalue them with zoning so it could purchase them at a discount. Butrum, however, asked the city to look at the ordinance Goleta, California had drafted that allows residents and the city to profit off short-term rentals. “Whatever is decided,” Butrum said, “there are going to be clever people circumventing it in about thirty minutes, which is, unfortunately what’s going on right now with the current plan.”

Councilor Gordon Smith spoke of the problems with short-term rentals as a price the city pays for being a Beer City. In some parts of Asheville, a vacation means going out of town to help with a sick or injured relative or newborn; pay one’s respects at a funeral or wedding; or sign some legal papers. Listening to Smith, it seemed people were coming to Asheville to drink beer and yuck it up riotously all night like frat boys. It would appear the problem was with drunk and disorderly conduct, against which there are already ordinances, and not with giving visitors an option besides paying hundreds of dollars at a ritzy hotel or staying home.

Council was flexing the muscle of fatal conceit to address the affordable housing crisis instead of allowing innovation to follow demand. Airbnb, Uber, and WeWork define and facilitate the growing gig economy. Another market success is Starcity, a San Francisco venture profitably converting hotels to dormitories – with an 1800-person waiting list.

Regardless, Haynes emphasized council wasn’t banning ADU’s; parties interested in renting one could ask permission at any time. An inquiry placed with the city for information on the procedures, costs, and timeframe for obtaining a lodging permit was not answered.

A visit to the city’s hip, new website proved awesome for somebody wanting to see pictures of what a cool Beer City looks like, but constant organizational restructuring and website upgrades stood in the way of hierarchical search, and reasonable search terms returned null results. The website at least says use-by-right homestays – not ADU’s – require a $208 annual fee along with floor plans detailing the use and dimensions of each room and the location of all smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, for starters. Fire inspections cost $75.

Folks working two jobs don’t have legal departments to determine if the process starts with the Board of Adjustment, Planning & Zoning, or City Council. Does one call the mainline and follow the red tape until the money runs out? Councilor Cecil Bothwell at least indicated that if Indiana Jones ever made it to the finish line, the incoming council would likely approve his request.

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