Asheville – Asheville City Council approved a five-month extension to its hotel moratorium, previously set to expire September 24. The council imposed the moratorium last year in response to public outcry against proliferation. Over the four years preceding the implementation of the moratorium, 2,761 new hotel rooms had been approved for construction, representing an annual growth rate of 4%, or about four times the estimated growth rate of the local population. The reason for not meeting the deadline, of course, was COVID.
City staff explained the timeout was needed, among other reasons, to restructure land-use policies so hotels wouldn’t interfere too much with taxpaying residents, amend the design review process with more appropriate standards and flow charts for approval, and develop “legal” methods for requiring developers to fund “community benefits” in exchange for approval. Developers, it was said, would benefit because staff would create less whimsical standards for approval, and this would also reduce the city’s exposure to lawsuits.
Negative impacts council hoped to remedy during the moratorium included the overutilization of infrastructure by a daytime population double the city’s residential population; sub-living wages paid to maids, maintenance personnel, and other hotel staff; devaluation of and disruptions to neighborhoods; opportunity costs, in terms of affordable housing, for using limited downtown land for hotels; and missed opportunities from not extracting from developers everything from payments-in-lieu for affordable housing to jobs for local artists. Asheville Councilman Brian Haynes explained when he was appointed to serve on the Downtown Commission, having won a city council bid as an
anti-hotel candidate, he unpopularly told the other board members he wanted anybody building a hotel to provide living wages, solar panels, environmentally-sensitive construction, green roofs, etc.
In discussing the extension, members of council paid particular attention to what former Asheville Councilman Gordon Smith called the McKibbon standard. Back in 2016, Smith said he would only approve a hotel if it paid living wages, gave preference to local businesses and artists, contributed to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, and lobbied for the allocation of a portion of the local occupancy tax toward the city’s general fund. John McKibbon, who at the time was seeking approval to turn the BBT building downtown into an Arras hotel, responded that he already paid living wages, local artists would help with the décor, no national chains would rent the hotel’s retail space, he would make a $250,000 donation to the Affordable Housing Task Force as well as enter into a partnership with Mountain Housing Opportunities to create more affordable housing, and he would spend $750,000 on sidewalks and public space near the hotel. A member of the Tourism Development Authority, McKibbon disagreed that discouraging tourism was advisable for the city but added he had advocated for the reallocation in the past and would again.
During the moratorium, the city had contracted with the Urban Land Institute for a study, which involved gauging public sentiment about market questions normally answered by trade – such as how many hotels the city should have and where they should be located. Through education, outreach, meetings, and a public survey, staff determined the majority of concerned citizens would like hotels to be located away from residential areas, out of viewshed corridors, and in a manner not disruptive to historic districts. In addition, staff converted the city’s Public Benefits Table to a weighted point system; with developer incentives to be awarded for green construction, providing free transit passes to employees, and supporting affordable housing, among other things. Branham reminded council they did not have the power to fully ban hotels citywide, as they could for public health nuisances like asphalt plants.
Asheville Councilwoman Julie Mayfield asked if staff had held recent hotel projects up to the proposed changes staff is considering to see if any proposals would have been denied, and Planning and Urban Design Director Todd Okolichany said McKibbon’s Arras would have been approved because of its community benefits, but the repurposing of the Flat Iron Building, which included residential and commercial displacements, would not have.
Asheville City Attorney Brad Branham explained the state’s view on the duration of a moratorium was, “Take no more [time] than you shall need.” He believed the city could justify the extension, as the tasks it first defined were still in the works and not, as Asheville City Manager Debra Campbell described it, because leadership was “dragging its feet.” Campbell said as long as staff diligently work on developing innovative standards, the extension should hold up in any court. Branham, however, cautioned, “There’s certainly indication that the longer you go, the more suspect the legal basis for your moratorium becomes.”
In Other Matters
City council voted 4-2 to appoint civil rights attorney Antanette Mosley to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of former councilor Vijay Kapoor. An Asheville native, Mosley had taken on several high-profile cases as an attorney with Atlanta’s Alston Bird, and began her transition back to Asheville in 2016 with a position at MHO. Councilors Haynes and Keith Young cast their votes for Rob Thomas, one of the organizers of Black Asheville Demands.
Mosley also currently chairs the Vance Monument Task Force, the group deciding what to do with the downtown landmark now described as a constant reminder of white supremacy. Following the George Floyd protests, the monument was shrouded until the community could reach consensus on its disposal or repurposing. The shroud was destroyed in a storm, but Campbell said the scaffolding, which is still standing, is sufficient to communicate the city’s intentions.