The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: A year on Council

This week marks one-year since I took office on Asheville’s City Council, and it has proved to be educational, surprising, torturous and fun—not necessarily in that order. As a citizen and then a candidate for office, there were and are issues that matter deeply to me, that comprise the reasons I chose to seek the job. A year later, some have been addressed, some are pending and some new ones have popped up on my expanding horizon.

Perhaps the hardest lesson has been the discovery that when push comes to shove, and a vote must be cast up or down, two strongly held beliefs can be in direct conflict. (Thanks to Councilman Gordon Smith for compiling the voting stats listed below.)

The Ugly (The two hardest votes I’ve cast this year concerned development and annexation.)

• Sustainability Bonus: We approved a plan to permit builders up to a doubling of zoning density in areas within 1/8 mile of designated transit corridors, if they met certain green building and/or affordable housing guidelines. To make this a “use by right” we had to eliminate public hearings on such projects. This pitted my overall green agenda against my insistence on transparency and accountability in government. In the end, I voted “yes,” increasing density along transit routes and incentivizing green projects won out over the public input argument. (5-2, Bellamy and Davis against)

• Annexation: NC law and specific restrictions on Asheville (alone among cities in the state) make voluntary annexation almost non-existent here—unless a development project wants to sell liquor, or unless the developer receives significant near-term tax incentives. (We are forced to provide water outside city limits at the same rate as inside, so why would anyone want to pay city taxes if they could choose not to?)

Asheville is consequently the slowest growing city in the state, and has the largest day/night population change in the state due to commuting. We 80,000 city dwellers provide infrastructure and services to 40,000 non-taxpayers every day (not including tourists). So involuntary annexation of residential areas that meet certain density levels is allowed by state law, and is the only way to achieve tax equity. But one big annexation proposed this year, Royal Pines, includes a large proportion of working-class/affordable homes and rentals. I was faced with the question of raising costs for people currently in affordable housing at the same time that Council was offering developer incentives to create affordable housing. I ended up voting against the annexation, but am not at all sure I made the right choice. (5-2, Newman and Smith voting yes).

****************

The Good and the Bad: Easier votes, varied outcomes

Development

• I proposed that Asheville enact an ordinance to require new development to pay the full infrastructure cost to the city. Studies elsewhere have shown that fees and permits come nowhere near to covering the actual cost to taxpayers of subsidizing new development. The 2010-2011 Budget  includes full cost for fees and permits, but not for the wider costs imposed on the community as a whole.

• Density along transit routes: As noted above, I’m in favor of this, and the Larchmont project was a case in point. We approved a zoning change for an affordable-housing project. While some nearby residents opposed the change, the building will be smaller and the population density no greater than could have been built under the previous zoning. (7-0 vote)

• Downtown Master Plan —I challenged the original DTMP guidelines that would have put the tallest buildings in the highest parts of town, and the plan we passed did impose nominal limits. We approved new form-based code guidelines (Good, 7-0 vote) and raised thresholds or eliminated rules on height and size (Bad, 6-1 vote). Developers can go up to 195* feet tall or 175,000 s.f. in the downtown business district without Council approval. (Basically a 14-15 story building, or a very large footprint.) In the greater downtown area (Tunnel to Smoky Park Bridge, I-240 to the hospital district) Council relinquished all responsibility, permitting any building whatsoever, up to 315* feet tall, that met approval with Planning & Zoning, only reserving “site plan review”—a meaningless exercise. (I proposed and Councilman Davis seconded an amendment to extend Council oversight to the greater downtown, it failed 5-2).

*I am still trying to make clear sense of the height rules, which are not at all clear. It seems Council can grant variances in both areas, meaning that there are not actual height limits.

• Accountability for development: One urgent improvement proposed by Councilman Smith and which I supported, is that all future P&Z appointees will be interviewed in full Council session, permitting public input and observation of the process. Given Council’s abdication of oversight over most development downtown, the makeup of P&Z (historically dominated by developers) is now critical. (7-0 vote)

• Subsidy for non-green, non-affordable Montford Commons project. I continue to oppose taxpayer subsidy of all projects that do not further clearly stated City goals `(and am leery of most forms of goverment subsidy of development—governments often get burned). A five-year tax rebate for Montford Commons was approved 4-3, myself, Russell and Smith opposed.

Transit and parking

• I remain opposed to public financing of parking decks. In cities where the cost of parking is allowed to rise to meet the market, private companies build decks. When a city subsidizes parking, it drives private companies out of the market and encourages auto traffic, while diminishing demand for transit. There is nothing “green” about such municipal subsidies. I was the lone dissenting vote on continuation of a deal approved by the previous Council, that will put ALL of our parking/transit money, for at least 10 years, into a single parking deck project downtown. (And a diminishing percentage out to 25 years.)

• I have proposed that we use the often-empty McCormick Field parking area when large events downtown create overflow, together with a shuttle to the Civic Center, Orange Peel or downtown. Unfortunately, given Council’s approval of the above, there is no money left for a shuttle.

• I-26: I continue to oppose 8-laning of I-26 and support the broad outlines of the Asheville Design Center proposals. Fortunately, under Gov. Perdue, the state has attempted to depoliticize road construction by ranking highway proposals based on an objective scoring system and I-26 is so far down the list that we may well have 20 years in which to re-evaluate traffic and watch the effect of post-peak oil on transportation. We may well be able to stick with 4 lanes through town.

• Sidewalks: Part of enhancing multi-modal transit is to use all the pedestrian facilities we already have. Together with Asheville PARC, I initiated Z-Link, a volunteer sidewalk recovery effort that has cleared more than 1.5 miles of obstructed pedestrian routes. Council voted to strengthen the existing law concerning property owner maintenance of sidewalks, including fines. (7-0 vote)

• Opening the Hillcrest pedestrian bridge—another piece of existing infrastructure that has been unused for over a decade, we have reopened the bridge and are working on plans for enhancement of the surrounds. (see below concerning a potential Mountain Bike Skills Park.) (6-1, Davis against)

Campaign Finance

• I continue to push for public financing of Council elections. This year we voted to ask the legislature for permission to implement such a plan here (5-2, Russell and Davis opposed) (Chapel Hill was the first NC city to do so in 2009) The legislation passed in the General Assembly and I will advocate adoption of such a plan during 2011.

Citizens

During the campaign I argued against the City and County practice of calling citizens “customers.” Citizens are owners, not customers of government. Thanks perhaps to my insistence, and very much thanks to City Manager Gary Jackson, the pendulum has swung our way. More and more staff documents refer to we, the people, as “citizens.”

I have long made it clear that all of us in the middle and lower classes owe a tremendous debt to the labor movement: minimum wage laws; 40 hour weeks; weekends; unemployment insurance; health coverage (to the extent that it exists); banning child labor; Social Security; Medicare; parental leave and more. Not that any of those things are universal, and surely many are under attack both by ideologues and the recession. But unions raised many people into the middle class. The North Carolina League of Cities (of which Asheville is a member), and the Chamber of Commerce (ditto), are anti-labor. I have and will continue to challenge those bodies on this and other anti-worker positions they routinely embrace.

Pending proposals (either from my campaign or initiated this year)

Minimum housing code—I’ve consulted with experts including reps from Pisgah Legal Services and find that the need to reimpose the minimum code is more urgent than I thought last year. Will press for this again in 2011.

• Three-strikes law—to prevent the City from doing business with any company that has been thrice convicted of fraud, tax evasion, labor or civil rights violations.

• Civil Liberties—I’ve worked all year with lawyers, community groups, the Asheville Buncombe Community Relations Council, the ACLU, Amnesty International, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee (Washington, DC) and area churches to create a resolution which I’ll introduce early next year.

New Proposals

• I have asked the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce to withdraw from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce following the national body’s huge participation in the recent elections. (It spent upward of $100 million, largely supporting Republican candidates.) If the Asheville Chamber does not withdraw, I will attempt to convince Council to withdraw all financial participation with the local Chamber on the grounds that it is diverting taxpayer money to partisan elections. (I would hold this position regardless of which party the national had supported.)

• Tree-topping ordinance—my liaison position with the Tree Commission has convinced me that Asheville must enact a tree-topping ban. Arborists have been outspoken in the need to protect our trees from a practice which deforms and kills shade trees.

• Bike skills park—I’ve been meeting with local cyclists, neighborhood reps and transit experts as well as consulting with White House staffers to create a mountain bike park adjacent to the recently opened Hillcrest pedestrian bridge, and under the Smoky Park Bridge. Seattle has built a wildly popular facility in a similar location.

• Increase availability of ESL classes for adults. Assimilation of immigrants has been a hot-button issue in America since Ben Franklin railed against the threat posed by Germans, yet immigrants have always been an irreplaceable source of labor, innovation and economic growth. Learning the language is the shortest route to inclusion for the benefit of all.

• Raise parking rates—Asheville parking is unreasonably cheap, particularly given the high number of commuters. I’d like to see garage rates doubled, while retaining “first hour free” and then give City residents a steep discount. That way, we’d help offset the tax burden placed on City taxpayers by the ban on differential water rates.

Other Activities

International Code Conference—I was one of Asheville’s delegates to the international building code summit on energy efficiency (held every three years). The international code is the model for state codes. The 2012 rules we adopted will increase building efficiency by 30 percent, generating energy savings for a century (buildings last a long time.) State codes lag behind, but are modeled on the international rules. This was a huge step forward that had been blocked by commercial interests at the 2007 meeting.

• National League of Cities Congress—I was Asheville’s representative at the annual NLC Congress of Cities, a venue for education, seminars and exchange of ideas about best practices. I came home with numerous ideas and solutions that I have already begun to explore. (The English language courses and a path to federal funding for our Mountain Bike Skills Park are just two of many.)

Advertisements

One Response

  1. On the super cheap parking garages. Its not super cheap if you have to commute to work downtown on lexington for a $9 hr or less job. please consider the underpaid working class ( otherwise known as my employees). If you dont pay to park you clog up a street side in near neighborhood, drive around you will see. Other than that I totally agree with all your good work and thank you!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: