Government Giveth & Government Driveth Up - TribPapers

Government Giveth & Government Driveth Up

To construct new, affordable housing, the developers of Redwood Commons must submit plans showing which trees they will save and where they will plant new species.

Asheville – The City of Asheville’s budget for FY2022-2023 includes a line item for a “missing middle housing study.” During a city council work session, Budget Manager Taylor Floyd explained the study would examine the city’s codes and ordinances to see which, if any, policies were driving up the cost or otherwise discouraging the construction of new middleclass housing. On first blush, one might be prompted to suggest that if the city wanted to stop the erosion of the middle class, maybe it could lower taxes a smidgeon and skip the study. On second blush, one might ask exactly how much exertion is needed to identify ordinances that promote neither health nor safety, but exert upward pressure on residential construction costs.

To get several ideas, one need only look back as far as last month’s council agendas. On May 10, two requests were heard for the construction of subsidized multifamily housing. One public hearing was for the first phase of overhauling the Deaverview apartment complex. The other was for a project called Redwood Commons, which was surprisingly approved without additional demands from the council. Councilwoman Kim Roney only offered that in the future she would like to see the council require developers to build sustainable energy projects into their designs.

Both projects were going to apply for 9% Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC). The process is described as competitive, convoluted, and subjective. It frequently requires the cobbling together of multiple large loans, usually from government entities. As a result, the “affordable” units are not built affordably; they are nice apartments borne by taxpayers, first through direct subsidies and then by picking up the difference, either through higher taxes or reduced services, for the tax breaks enjoyed by a few developers – or the investors to whom they sell their tax credits.To their advantage, neither project’s public hearing was riddled with 11th-hour councilmember whims that typically raise costs through delays, professional redos, and investment in more construction materials.

Focusing on just one project, Redwood Commons will be a four-story, 70-unit apartment building on Governors View Road. Through a deed restriction, all units will be rent-controlled such that the average rent will be affordable to a household earning no more than 60% of the area median income (AMI) for at least 30 years. To get an idea of the hoops through which developers must jump, one need only click on the link to the report from the Technical Review Committee.

A recurring concern with this project was tree canopy preservation. The land was described as having 100% canopy prior to breaking ground. The city’s Tree Canopy Preservation Ordinance required the developer to create a Tree Canopy Protection Plan. The developer had wanted to reduce the existing canopy to 4%, when the ordinance does not allow reductions below 15%. This did not win the support of Sharon Sumrall of the Urban Forestry Commission. The developer was further instructed that the street trees he was required to plant would not count toward tree canopy preservation.

A standard requirement for any project is, “All required plant material shall meet the plant specification and maintenance requirements of UDO (Unified Development Ordinance) Sec. 7-11-3(f).” Last modified March 17, 2022, the section on “Landscape and Buffering Standards” states the rules apply even to the long-defunct Extraterritorial Jurisdiction. It further advises that before taking action, developers should confer with staff, which is an admission that all that follows is either too lengthy, complex, or subjective for individual interpretation.

The rules are applicable generally, but a number of exceptions are made for different zonings. Tree-saving measures are required for residential projects of at least eight units, and tree preservation areas may be substituted for other landscaping requirements. To preserve trees, a developer must prepare a plot showing the location, species, and diameter at breast height of each tree to be saved. All trees must be native species, in good health, and appropriately spaced. In addition to the initial identification, developers must next prepare a plot showing the methods and extent of preservation they intend to use for each tree. Protective barriers could take the form of a fence made of traditional materials or orange polyethylene. They must be anchored by posts, not trees, and must include a sign identifying the area as a “Tree Protection Area.” No grading, filling, parking, storage, erosion control measures, or hazardous waste dumping may occur within one of these areas. 

One reason developers may choose the tree-protection option would be to avoid constructing a property-line buffer. A buffer’s width and density  depend on the difference in adjacent zonings, but they must run the length of the property without interruption. The UDO spells out how many coniferous, large deciduous, and small deciduous trees are required, as well as how many large and small shrubs. Appropriate species may be selected from the City of Asheville’s Recommended Species List. The exact placement of the trees is left to the discretion of the developer, subject to inspector approval. Buffers may also be required along a street to make for a more pedestrian-friendly atmosphere.

Then, there are street trees, which come with their own requirements for size and spacing. One year, due to a proliferation of crepe myrtles, city staff had to ask developers liking this type of tree to make another selection. Parking lot trees, which would be required for most large, residential projects, come with their own standards and calculations. Additional landscaping may be needed to soften the impact of a building’s façade or to screen unsightly fixtures, as well.

This article has only spoken briefly about tree requirements. Nothing has been said about ordinances governing sidewalks, access, lighting, window size and placement, construction materials, historical district requirements, environmental regulations, and more. It is left to the reader to estimate how much in materials and professional fees compliance will add to an affordable housing project.