Asheville Adopts More Inclusive Pre-Development Rules - TribPapers

Asheville Adopts More Inclusive Pre-Development Rules

Paula Coughlin was glad to see the city giving renters more say in pre-development meetings. Screenshot.

Asheville – Members of Asheville City Council were presented with a proposed amendment to the Unified Development Ordinance that would regulate the meetings developers of large projects are required to hold with neighboring property owners. Changes included extensions to both the geographic area and the timeframe for noticing neighbors about the meetings, as well as requirements that the developers register their meetings with the city and use city templates for advertising and reporting the meetings. Additionally, the city has developed a best practices guide for developers and neighbors.

Concerns were raised by members of council that the city has traditionally only contacted property owners. They thought that in the interest of equity and inclusion, it should notify renters. There was also disagreement among members of city council over how difficult it would be to notify property owners. Councilwoman Sage Turner said she just clicks a button, and a spreadsheet is produced. One citizen, Paula Coughlin, would later explain that a lot of properties are often listed in the name of an out-of-town trust or estate, for example.

When the floor was open for public comment, many who spoke described what Turner would later refer to as a “horrible” meeting. Representatives came to council not to complain about traffic, habitat, and property values. This time, the problem was the neighborhood meeting hosted by Amarx Construction just one week prior in the Beaverdam community. Amarx is the developer of a townhome development that expanded in scope from 28 to 42 units. The Beaverdam Valley Neighborhood Association is opposed to high-density development, like this project, in their community.

According to remarks, the meeting was advertised on signs along Beaverdam Road, where traffic is too fast and there is no place to pull over to scan the QR codes. As it turned out, the first advertisements listed the wrong location for the meeting. City staff intervened and made them readvertise, at which time they canceled the meeting. The developers then opted to change formats to a Zoom meeting, but it was argued that this wasn’t equitable, as many seniors who don’t have internet access and who had been prepared to attend the in-person meeting were excluded. Others were excluded by the confusion caused by having to register for the meeting the day of the meeting.

But that wasn’t all. The meeting was capped at one hour, and the developer’s representatives spoke for about half the time. Under ideal circumstances, an adept moderator would have been able to give each of the 124 people who had registered about 10 seconds. Unfortunately, “the software wasn’t working.” The raise-hand feature on a lot of participants’ links was not working. For many who could raise their hand, when they were called upon to speak, the moderator was unable to unmute them. Others complained they were cut off before they were finished speaking. A total of 15 people did get to speak, but no chat feature was provided to give voice to the muted. A request to continue the meeting was declined.

“We looked like we were hapless people,” said Nancy Clarke. She asked that neighborhood meetings be held in a manner that puts neighbors on equal footing with the developers. She said in this meeting, the neighbors, particularly those unfamiliar with Zoom technology, were “in the hands” of the organization running the meeting. Other speakers voiced support for expanding the radius for notifying “adjacents” from 200 feet to 400 feet and including renters among those invited to neighborhood meetings.

Patrick Gilbert, vice president for government relations for the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods (CAN), provided some history on the development of the amendment under consideration. Back in 2020, several neighborhood meetings hosted by developers “went wrong.” So, he reviewed complaints from neighborhood associations and individual residents and met with then-Development Services Director Ben Woody and then-Site Planning and Development Manager Collins. They agreed “there needed to be a better way,” and this led to three years of work on the amendment as well as the best practices guide.

When the microphone was returned to council, deliberations ensued on how to quantify multivariate and interdependent qualities in order to regulate them. Following a line of questioning from Mayor Esther Manheimer, it appeared that the developers, with the exception of publishing the wrong address, had acted in accordance with existing codes and that the amendment would give the city more power to intervene should the situation repeat. Council ended up unanimously adopting the amendment, with an amendment to notify renters as well.