Council: Add Solar & Bike Lanes - TribPapers

Council: Add Solar & Bike Lanes

Asheville City Council has taken several measures to encourage the construction of more affordable housing, but when proposals are submitted, they tend to request cost-adding modifications like solar panels and multimodal infrastructure.

Asheville – At their April 25 meeting, members of Asheville City Council again attempted to use their jurisdiction over land use to force reductions in carbon fuel combustion. The first public hearing considered a request from Mountain Housing Opportunities to create 60 units of affordable housing on a parcel behind the Mountaineer Inn on Tunnel Road.

Councilwoman Kim Roney stayed true to her personal commitment to ask every developer of low-income housing coming before council to consider adding renewable energy features. “I learned that when we don’t ask this question early enough, folks just spread air conditioning units all over new development,” she said.

Presenter Clay Mitchell replied with a grin, “I have anticipated this question from you, and I appreciate it.” Aware of council’s zero-emission goals, he explained that North Carolina law currently does not allow a nonprofit or tax-exempt organization to contract with a third party to own a renewable energy system and allow tax credits to benefit the host organization.

The Inflation Reduction Act, he said, changed all that. It increases tax credits to 30% of the cost of installation and extends them through 2032. It also allows organizations that don’t pay taxes to enjoy the same benefits via direct payment. Furthermore, installing organizations can receive another 10% in tax credits for using domestic hardware and another 10% for servicing affordable housing. Another 10% is available if the construction occurs in an Energy Community, and Asheville has four of these due to the retirement of Duke Energy’s coal-fired plant at Lake Julian.

“The problem is,” said Mitchell, “we don’t know what the rules are. Treasury is struggling to get that information out. Nevertheless, given MHO’s track record, he said he was confident they would capitalize on this.

Next, Roney wanted the developer to provide bike lanes. Mitchell indicated that wasn’t practical. The city typically does not make decisions about bike lanes within projects. Besides, the project didn’t have any internal roads; it was” just a square parking lot that opened onto a private road, over which the city had no control. That road led to Beaucatcher Road, which fed into Tunnel Road, both of which were considered dangerous for cycling. Mayor Esther Manheimer, also expressing interest in requiring bike lanes on all properties, asked City Attorney Brad Branham what could be done legally, and he was of the opinion that little could be done without amending municipal codes. Council unanimously gave the project the go-ahead.

The next public hearing was a request to rezone three parcels on Long Shoals Road, just east of Lake Julian, from Residential to Highway business. Presenter Will Palmquist said this was just a straight rezoning request, so mention of intended uses was neither submitted nor required. When the presentation was over, Councilwoman Sage Turner offered, “I do want to share just my input that we have a housing crisis. I don’t think we have a medical office space crisis, but maybe we do, but just to encourage you to try and get some housing in there for us.” Only Roney voted against the rezoning.

The third rezoning request came from the developer of 77 units of affordable housing on Sweeten Creek Road. Like other developers, he had to find ways to cut costs after having his project approved. In this case, it would now cost $1.5 million more to build the approved split-level design than to grade out the entire footprint and build a 38-foot retaining wall. Since terms specific to the conditional zoning permit but not the Unified Zoning Ordinance limited the retaining wall height to 20 feet, the matter had to come before council.

Some members of council objected to the project’s prohibition on bike lanes. Roney, with anger in her voice, listed off a number of city plans advocating for multimodal transportation. She was of the opinion that bike lanes were required in new housing developments and that developers kept getting special exemptions.

Palmquist explained the city’s ordinances indicated the property “should” include bike lanes. Manheimer explained that legally, “should” was a discretionary term, and after some runaround, Councilwoman Sandra Kilgore indicated her discretion was leaning in opposition. She asked if council was trying to encourage cyclists to ride on Sweeten Creek Road, where there was no cycling infrastructure, and if so, if they were trying to use steep ramps to incentivize it.

As the debate continued, Branham beckoned Palmquist over for a confab. Calling for a point of order, Branham interjected, “This particular request is an amendment to an already approved conditional zoning. In the original conditional zoning that was approved by council, the exception was already approved to not have bike lanes, which means that that’s already a vested right for this particular development. Your consideration in the legal framework should be limited to the changes from the existing, already approved conditional zoning.” After serious discussion about painting a mural on the retaining wall, council approved the changes unanimously.