The Asheville Planning & Zoning Commission last week voted to reject a set of new rules aimed at curbing Asheville’s hotel construction boom, with one member calling the regulations a fear-based reaction to growth.
The rules proposal has been in the works for more than a year, following the 2015 Asheville City Council. One of the hot topics that dominated public discussion during that election was the impact of the local tourism industry on city residents. The construction of new hotels, several of them in downtown Asheville, was a particular point of debate and discussion. Three new City Council members were elected – Brian Haynes, Keith Young and Julie Mayfield – with Haynes and Young specifically noting that they wanted to do something to slow the hotel building boom.
Council put city staffers in motion. An online survey was posted on the city website, presentations were made to various stakeholder groups, and two public forums were held. Last September, staffers brought the results of all that work back to City Council, which then directed staff to draft new zoning rules.
The new regulations, at their core, reduce the size of buildings that get reviewed and approved by City Council. That’s a move to undo the loosening of city development rules approved in 2009-10, when City Council at that time aimed to spark downtown development in a sluggish economy.
The new regulations also clearly target hotels. One of the new rules calls for any proposed lodging facility with 20 to 25 rooms or more anywhere in the city (not just in the central business district) to go up for City Council approval.
Alan Glines, assistant director of city planning, delivered all that background to Planning & Zoning Commission members during their monthly meeting last Wednesday. After brief public comment in which three people offered their thoughts (local architect Peter Alberice; Jack Thompson, head of the Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County; and David Nutter, a retired city planner), commission members wasted no time in speaking up.
“I’m not sure this is the right tool,” said Kristy Carter, the commission’s vice chairman. “And I’m not sure I agree there’s a problem.”
Jeremy Goldstein, the commission’s chairman, agreed, adding that “I have so many problems with this on so many levels I don’t know where to begin.”
Goldestein said he appreciated city staffers’ work on the issue, then noted his own personal history working through city bureaucracy. Goldstein, noting that he’s now in his sixth year as a Planning & Zoning Commission member, said he’s attended countless retreats, meetings and discussions on growth and development. He noted that rules changes were put off, adding that the city is currently in the midst of updating its comprehensive planning document.
“I think there’s an emotional response to growth, to tourists,” Goldstein said. “I don’t think we can raise the drawbridge” and cut off the city to hotel development, he added.
“It’s not going to stop tourists from coming.”
Commission member Laura Berner Hudson said there were some useful points in the proposal for new regulations, and questioned others.
“You can’t really stop growth. You can respond to it,” she said.
Carter added that the new regulations would make the cost of construction increase, including the cost of building new housing in the city, including affordable housing. “My gut is I think this is a fear reaction,” she said.
Goldstein moved to deny approval of the new regulations. In his motion, Goldstein said the new rules aren’t consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan because they politicize the planning process, discourage development, contribute to sprawl and can potentially discourage the development of new housing.
The commission voted 6-1 to deny approval of the regulations, with Hudson dissenting. Goldstein, surprised at Hudson’s vote following her comments, asked why she dissented.
“I’m expressing my support of the intent” of the regulations, she replied.
The proposed regulations will go on for consideration by Asheville City Council, along with the commission’s recommendation against them. City Council is scheduled to discuss the rules at its Feb. 14 meeting.