Asheville – The time had arrived for Asheville City Council to vote on their new hotel ordinance. The matter had been discussed at their last meeting, but due to general statutes governing Zoom meetings, a vote could not be taken until a later date. That gave staff some time to massage some of the council’s more viable recommendations into the document.
Repeating explanations from the last meeting, City Attorney Brad Branham reviewed reasons why the city would not be able to legally defend extending its hotel moratorium any longer and repeated that the state did not allow other possible strategies. So, to manage hotel growth, staff proposed allowing hotel plans to bypass council review if the developer could earn enough “points” for promising social and community benefits. Most notable was the addition of options for contributing to either the city’s affordable housing trust fund or a new reparations fund.
Holding Developers Accountable
On behalf of constituents, Councilor Gwen Wisler asked how the council would hold developers accountable if, after getting expedited-review incentives from the city, they opted not to deliver. Branham answered that normally city councils can bind developers in the conditional zoning process, but in those situations, conditions must be site-specific, like installing buffers, instead of communitywide, like paying reparations.
Without the new program, the city would have to receive a contribution to the housing trust fund as a gift, but that would leave the city little legal recourse should the developer skip town. The incentives program, in contrast, puts developers in the position of voluntarily giving as their part in a legally-enforceable agreement. What’s more, the agreement can be attached to a project’s zoning and thus subject to zoning enforcement.
As for arguments that the council should review all hotels, regardless; Branham said the politicized and high-risk process would cancel any incentive for participating in the expedited review process. Courts could also rule the community benefits were inappropriate if the process closely mirrored conditional zoning.
Planning Director Todd Okolichany next reviewed the staff’s interim revisions. The most significant was the discounting of green and economic community benefits, like paying living wages and supporting minority- and women-owned businesses; to incentivize more contributions to housing and reparations. Now, points for housing and reparations wouldn’t even start to accrue with less than a $3,000-per-room donation. Hoteliers also had the option of creating affordable housing in the amount of one-tenth of a unit per lodging room constructed. Another revision halved the acreage of land zoned to allow hotel construction.
This was not enough for Councilor Kim Roney. She spoke of putting Asheville “on the top shelf,” as Sarah Benoit would later during public comment. She asked that the green and economic incentives be added back to the table. “I’m hearing from black, brown, and indigenous youth who reached out and reminded me that economic justice and reparations are intertwined with climate justice and right relationship with the planet,” she said. She often repeated a request to “double the points.”
She even made a motion to support reparations, doubling the points. Her motion was not worded as staff had recommended in their reports published with the council’s agenda; and Mayor Manheimer wanted to be careful Ronoey hadn’t, intentionally or inadvertently, slipped Pandora’s box in there somewhere. Councilor Sage Turner objected that she had heard about Roney’s map on the news, but she had yet to see a copy.
Okolichany asked for specificity on “doubling the points,” and, after he was satisfied, Wisler asked what that would mean to developers in dollars. According to the old table of community benefits, a developer of a 100-room hotel would pay around $400,000 in reparations. Wisler asked if he would now be paying $600,000, and Okolochany said it could go up to $800,000.
Economics of Reparations
Manheimer, Wisler, and Councilor Antanette Mosley politely hinted that those numbers were unworkable. This time, it was Councilor Sandra Kilgore who gave the economics-in-one-minute lesson. She said in developing the plan, it had been difficult to get investors to support making even small concessions. With payments that high, it would be more profitable for them to build elsewhere; perhaps even just outside the city limits, where they could add wear and tear on city infrastructure and benefit from city services without paying Asheville property taxes.
Kilgore added that high costs of doing business marginalize the little guy, and that wasn’t a good idea if the council wanted to support entrepreneurship and not be overrun by big-name chains. The more small lodging places entered the arena, the more competition there would be to keep prices down, be better neighbors, and offer employees competitive compensation.
Still nonplussed by “an industry based on extraction,” Roney said she would propose, since property taxes were going to increase, subjecting the increment in revenues from properties in areas zoned for resorts to participatory budgeting for reparations. That, she said, “might get to the spirit of leading us from a contentious relationship with each other and the planet into a different direction that leads us toward a cause to celebrate.”
When it came time to vote, Roney and Councilor Sheneika Smith were outvoted. Smith had advocated for “shooting for the moon,” a phrase Benoit would also later repeat. Council, instead, approved the staff’s proposed motion, with fewer areas zoned to allow hotels, and community benefits on average about 30% higher than they were in the February 9th proposal. Council will review the ordinance in six months or earlier if they see the new ordinance needs to be reexamined.`