Woodfin – The second part of a video hearing on The Bluffs at Rivers Bend project came to an abrupt end Monday night (April 5th) when a Woodfin Planning & Zoning Board member made a “slip of the tongue” statement.
The board was in the sixth hour of a hearing that started back in March after being postponed from February about the 80 plus acres in Woodfin adjacent to Richmond Hills in Asheville. The developer John Holdsworth, who wants to build a 1,500 unit apartment project on property designated as an Opportunity Zone, is asking the board for a variance on a height restriction on his project. Holdsworth is trying to get the board to grant that he can build five stories at the height of 55 feet instead of 33, which is what his zoning allows.
Why does he want the other 22 feet? Holdsworth says it is to leave nearly half the land in trees and grass rather than take most of the land and making it into an impervious surface. The numbers of units would not change whether he builds 33 feet high or 55 feet high.
The meeting got underway normally enough, and while Attorney John Noor, representing those against allowing the height variance on the project and the project entirely, drilled Scott Burwell, civil engineer for the Buffs project, Bluff’s Attorney Derek Allen countered with objections to Noor’s line of questioning saying it was not germane to the height variance before the board. Noor’s questioning centered around health and safety.
A problem arose when Allen objected to the line of questioning of Bluff’s traffic engineer, Jeff Moore, about the impact of the height variance on traffic. Moore said he said it would have none, as it would be the same number of units. Noor said he had a traffic engineer that would say that it did, and he wished to continue his questioning. Planning & Zoning Board Chairman Kenneth Pazza sided with Noor as he had done in most of Allen’s other objections during the evening. Allen asked the board to be polled on Pazza’s ruling.
After some input from Board Attorney Albert Sneed, and while unusual, Pazza allowed the polling, resulting in a 4-2 poll to allow the questioning to continue. During polling, Board Member Barbara Lamb, confused about what was being voted on, made the statement, “In my opinion, if you increase the height of the buildings, you will also impact the health, safety and welfare of the neighborhood. The appearance will be out of character with what is now there, and I feel like until an analysis is done, that I would not be in favor of increasing the height.”
Lamb’s comment appeared to give the impression that Lamb had made up her mind on denying the building height request with the hearing still in progress. Sneed tried to clarify to Lamb that she was being asked whether the line of questioning should go forward and not as to what her final vote would be. After several moments, Lamb confirmed, when Sneed asked, that she did need more information to make her decision.
After the poll, someone from Allen’s office, off-camera, made a disparaging remark (something about scumbags) toward the board. “Wow…wow, Mr. Allen, can you tell us what we just heard,” asked Pazza. Allen said he asked, “our crowd to leave the room.” He made apologies and told the board it wouldn’t happen again.
Noor said he heard it too and called for a recess which Pazza granted. After the break in the meeting and the testimony of Moore concluded, Allen asked that Lamb recuse herself from the hearing and the vote. “There were some comments by one of the planning and board adjustment board members, I believe it was Member Mrs. Lamb, that sounded like to me like…[a] conclusion. I would ask this board to consider her recusal at this point,” said Allen. Noor didn’t think it was necessary. “I don’t think her recusal is necessary.”
Chairman Pazza asked Sneed to help in the matter. Sneed questioned Lamb again. “I was just going by what they’d been saying,” Lamb replied. Sneed inquired, “What you’re saying right now is you expressed an opinion like you had made up your mind, and if you’ve already decided, then they’re asking you to recuse yourself because you’re not supposed to make a decision before the hearing is over.”
“No, I was just stating my opinion that, from what I was hearing, I felt like it could make an impact,” declared Lamb defending her comment. Sneed asked if she heard additional comments, “could you change your mind?” Lamb hesitated then said, “Well, if they present evidence or something.”
Sneed asked Allen if he was more comfortable with Lamb’s comment now, to which Allen explained that he only had to ask this once or twice in 23 years, but his request that Lamb recuses herself stood. Sneed then addressed Pazza and said Lamb could recuse herself or asked the board to vote on excusing Lamb from the meeting.
“If they prefer, I do this, I’ll just excuse myself, but I haven’t made up my mind,” declared Lamb.
“It’s not what they prefer, it’s…we got to do this correctly. It’s your call. If you feel like your opinion is insusceptible from change, then you should recuse yourself,” Sneed explained.
Lamb said she didn’t want to cause a lot of grief. Sneed said, “Don’t think of it as causing grief as much as not having the board make a decision that is out of line. Does that help you to analyze it?”
Lamb again paused and said, “No, because I don’t understand all this stuff.”
Lamb’s removal from the meeting caused a lack of a quorum and threw the hearing into limbo as the hearing was already over six hours into a case. Allen argued, citing a statute that he said would allow the meeting to go forward, but Noor and Sneed were doubtful. Razza called for the three lawyers to look into the matter more and then continued the hearing until the board’s May 3rd meeting.