By Leslee Kulba- The City of Asheville has pretty much banned the start-up of any new Airbnbs by requiring anybody interested in operating one to submit an application and win the approval of city council, a feat Councilor Keith Young noted when council approved the restrictions would have a snowball’s chance, given the sentiments held by the current board’s members.
Council had before them an application to create two Airbnbs. The city’s staff report noted, “The petitioner [Reid Thompson, not Greenlife] has been cited for illegally operating short-term vacation rentals on the site and is seeking this zoning change to legitimize this infraction.
In the city’s application materials, it is stated that the conditional zoning tool, ‘is available to promote land uses and activities that benefit the public in general. If there is only private benefit, the tool should not be used.’
There is no community benefit noted by changing the zoning of these two properties; furthermore, there is anticipated to be a negative impact due to the increase in intensity of use without compliance with mitigating standards such as off-street parking, landscaping, and density.” The report also said Thompson had accrued about $1 million in fines for operating the STVRs this past year.
The report skirted around the motivating dynamics, but the story behind the application was no secret. Thompson has been battling the city for fifteen years. He used to own and rent several properties on Maxwell Street until Greenlife built its grocery store in what used to be office space.
Thompson complained for years that trucks weren’t obeying the signs telling them to stay off the road. They were beeping at all hours of the night and blocking sidewalks and the road. The city has not acted to force the store to provide the required five-foot vegetative buffer, and Thompson might have supplied adequate on-street parking for his STVRs had it not been co-opted to accommodate illegal truck traffic.
Neighbors and Thompson spoke about what life has been like while the city has turned a blind eye to Greenlife’s violations.
They told of cars being rammed or totaled by trucks trying to negotiate what was designed as a residential street. They told of rats, trucks going beep-beep-beep between 3AM and 7AM every day, and of the sound the grease truck makes in the wee hours. Some said they moved out because they couldn’t take the noise.
Thompson displayed a panorama that contrasted his “business,” a nicely decorated porch, with the acceptable residential context provided by trucks that are such a normal part of life now they’re even on Google Earth.
Pat Whalen asked, “Isn’t there community benefit in doing the right thing, in making a gesture for fairness and equity?” He told members of council nobody was blaming them for the original decisions, but they were the people elected to fix injustices.
Jonathan Wainscott asked for evidence of the $1 million in damages Thompson had purportedly inflicted on the community. He reminded council of the $20 million government and the chamber of commerce spend to bring tourists to town. He asked why people staying at Thompson’s STVRs wouldn’t generate the same trickle-down multipliers government claims will always come from its pet projects.
Thompson, looking as if chosen by Central Casting to play the role of the guy long suffering injustice at the hand of his government, snarked, “Joe Minicozzi put in my application. By his peers, he’s ranked as one of the top 100 urbanists that have ever lived. He works with governments across the country and around the world. It puzzles me that he was unable to complete an application that was acceptable to Shannon Tuch.”
Others claimed the city was corporatist, putting money and plans before people. Jeff Bezos owns Greenlife, and Representative Brian Turner’s family owns the property.
Council voted against the measure 4-1. Councilor Brian Haynes was sympathetic, Mayor Esther Manheimer was recused, and Councilor Vijay Kapoor was absent. All agreed the problem had to be fixed, but Councilor Julie Mayfield said this was not the way to do it. Of the Bezos angle, she said, “They obviously have the resources to solve this problem, and we need to push them to do that.”
During general public comment, Minicozzi had the last word. “I have faith in governments, I work with governments, I try to help governments, and I see my own community melt away in front of me. I’m just disappointed. You’re looking at somebody that’s lost faith, has his heart broken, and has witnessed an unbelievably low level of decision-making.
This is not leadership. This is not courage. This is not doing the right thing. This is not who we are.
We continually aim for the bottom. And good luck with the solutions. I look forward to the NOV being delivered to Greenlife tomorrow.”