Asheville Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer made a presentation in 2012 to legislators studying the city's water system. Lissa Gotwals/Carolina Public Press file photo

On May 16, Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer announced the formation of a special task force to look at the city’s development processes, reduce barriers to private investment and promote “sound growth.”

“What this is really focused on is the experience a developer has during the regulatory process,” Manheimer said.

She added that the commission won’t be looking at what kinds of construction the city allows. Rather, it will be concerned with the logistics of permits and inspections.

“We’re trying to streamline it and make it more user-friendly,” she told Carolina Public Press. “It’s important to hear from the folks that go through this experience and hear about their suggestions for improving it.”

The processes the task force will review affect entities ranging from residents putting an addition on their home to major businesses looking to expand.

The move comes as new construction in Asheville is shaking off the doldrums of the recession, with new building permits at their highest level since 2008. Also, several highly publicized developments, including Katuah Earth Market and Korean House, hit stumbling blocks over the past year. An investigation conducted by the Asheville Citizen-Times in March found that the city’s existing process can pose obstacles to business. Those issues, Manheimer said, are very much on city officials’ minds.

“Those are examples of where we had great businesses with great intentions, but they simply weren’t in the business of development,” she said. “The state building code is complicated. There are professionals who know it backward and forward, but you and I would be amazed at some of its requirements.”

Consequently, Manheimer said, she’s particularly concerned about how issues with the city’s development process impact smaller local businesses that are looking to expand.

“In general, I don’t hear complaints from bigger developers, because they’re pretty seasoned at this,” she said. “From what I hear, it’s folks that aren’t in the development business, that don’t do this all the time, but want to expand or open a second location. There’s a lot to think about if you haven’t done it; we’re trying to reduce that frustration.”

Manheimer emphasized that the task force is still very much a work in progress, and she expects it to come together over the next two months. Last week, city staff released a document revealing a little more about the development task force, including the matter of its likely membership. (See the document below.)

Potential members include representatives of the Asheville-Buncombe Board of Realtors, the Green Building Council, local architectural societies, utility companies, the Asheville Design Center, the Economic Development Coalition, the Council of Independent Business Owners and members of existing city commissions representing downtown, neighborhoods and historic preservation, among other groups.

“We’re asking these local groups to designate someone to serve on the task force,” Manheimer said. “It will be a finite process.” After several months of deliberation, she expects a list of policy recommendations that Asheville City Council and city staff can examine.

Up to the task force?

Such a group isn’t particularly unusual: The city of Asheville alone has mayoral task forces on affordable housing, veteran’s affairs and people with disabilities. A 2011 “blue ribbon” task force on the city’s health insurance system led to several major changes in how much employees had to pay and what programs were available.

That’s actually the model Manheimer hopes to use: a group of experts that comes together for a specific time period to overhaul a specific area of city policy.

Of course, who those stakeholders are, and which ones get a chance to shape policy recommendations, can prove a source of controversy. Some policy changes in Asheville’s Downtown Master Plan, such as new development rules and a proposed Business Improvement District, proved to be significant areas of dispute, with critics asserting that the plan and the committees who wrote it left out the views of significant portions of the local community.

But in using such task forces to play a major role in shaping policy, Asheville joins many other growing cities across the state. Major cities like Charlotte, Greensboro, Raleigh and Wilmington set up task forces to handle complex issues like development and economic growth, especially when it involves cooperation between different governing bodies.

While larger cities tend to use the model most often, they’re not alone. Similar issues affect local governments throughout WNC, and several have turned to the task force model to solve them. In 2010, Hendersonville used a task force to find ways to improve its parks and greenways, and a 2013 Haywood County task force tackled the administration of local social service agencies.

Sometimes major issues are dealt with through existing channels rather than by forming a new group. Jackson County, for example, has used its existing Planning Board to tackle a potential overhaul of its steep slope development rules.

Manheimer said that Asheville’s abundance of task forces — and those in other local governments — represent a move away from more haphazard methods of administration.

“The way cities and governments run has evolved over time,” she said. “It used to be that someone would get elected and, based on their experience, they would unscientifically say, ‘We need to do this or that.’ Or they would hear the loudest cry from one specific neighborhood, so they would do something about that.”

When she first arrived on City Council, she said, a former member asked if Council still picked which 10 roads would get paved in the upcoming year.

“That’s ridiculous; that’s not how you run a city,” she said. “You’ve got to be strategic, since we have a finite amount of revenue. We can’t make smart decisions unless we study it. To do that, you need input from the community and from professionals. That’s why you see the number of boards and commissions and task forces, but we try to be pretty focused about it. I think it’s a good system.”

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David Forbes is a former contributing reporter to Carolina Public Press.

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