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Wednesday, 08 April 2009 16:06

Affordable senior condos spark opposition among downtown Waynesville neighbors

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Residents of a downtown Waynesville neighborhood are up in arms about a proposed three-story, 64-unit condo development that would provide affordable housing for senior citizens — and, they fear, also lower the property values of their homes.

The development, called Richland Hills, is under the wing of Asheville-based nonprofit Mountain Housing Opportunities, which has several developments in Buncombe County. Rent will range between $300 and $500. To be elligible, you have to be over 55. There is also an income cap.

“Low income is not going to fit here,” said neighbor Lela Eason, who is leading the opposition to the development. “This is a well-established neighborhood, and it will completely change the face of it.”

Mountain Housing Opportunities Project Director Cindy Weeks contends that the neighbors would like the development if they understood it better. The architect designing the building is the same one who worked on the Laurels of Junaluska, another senior development in the county, and the building will use green features.

At this point, there’s probably little Eason and her neighbors can do to halt the project, said Town Zoning Administrator Byron Hickox. The project has already been approved unanimously by the town’s planning board and community appearance commission. It meets all the required building, architectural and landscaping guidelines.

The development is located in the East Waynesville Neighborhood District, where high density development is allowed, said Hickox. Town zoning allows for 16 units per acre in that area, and though Richmond Hills will be three stories tall, it still falls just under the maximum allowed height of 35 feet.

None of that has deterred Eason and her neighbors from waging a protest against the development. Eason faults the town for not informing her community of the development sooner. She says her sister-in-law was the only person to get a letter notifying of the proposed project, and that only came last week.

“It’s kind of sneaky that the whole community doesn’t know about it,” Eason said. “There are people who can see it from their properties who are furious, and they have no clue it’s about to take their property values down.”

 

A poor fit?

A sheet of paper being passed around the East Waynesville district accuses the proposed Richmond Hills development of catering to low income individuals at poverty level. The paper states that drugs are sold out of similar communities in Asheville, and that the safety of the neighborhood may very well be jeopardized should this development be built.

The “low-income” stigma is one Mountain Housing Opportunities has battled many times in its 20-year history. The idea that the nonprofit builds housing projects is incorrect, says Project Director Cindy Weeks.

“People in their heads have some idea about public housing, but that’s not us,” Weeks said. “Nothing about this will be remotely related to public housing. We’re very selective about tenants, and we get background checks and even credit checks.”

Weeks is used to dealing with skeptics. Her answer? She tells them to check out the non-profit’s other developments.

“One-hundred percent of the time, they’ll come back and say it’s beautiful,” Weeks says. Contrary to the reported drugs sold in these complexes, “we’ve never had problems with neighbors; no complaints; no police problems,” she says. “Here in Asheville, it’s gotten to the point where we don’t have much concern over what we’ve built.”

But Mountain Housing Opportunities is dealing with unfamiliar territory in Waynesville. The Richmond Hills project is the group’s first outside Buncombe County. The town was picked based on the results of a market study the nonprofit conducted, which identified Waynesville and Haywood County as having a need for senior apartment homes.

“There’s a lot of seniors in the western part of the state that might be living in substandard housing, not close to medical services or shopping,” Weeks said. “This would be an alternative for them.”

Weeks said a downtown Waynesville location seemed ideal for its accessibility, among other reasons.

“What we liked about the location was that it was well-located to shopping and services in the downtown,” she said. “The site is relatively flat and easy to develop, and we can get access to utilities. Plus, it’s just a nice neighborhood.”

Maybe a little too nice for such a development, says Eason. A one-story, high-end apartment complex would be a better fit, she says — the Richmond Hills complex might be better suited to other areas of the county.

Downtown Waynesville Association Director Buffy Messer doesn’t agree. She says the development will be a good fit downtown.

“I think its actually a very good addition to the area,” Messer says. “We are encouraging more residential in the downtown area. The goal is to expand both shopping and residential.”

Messer says she thinks fear is the driving factor of the opposition to Richmond Hills.

“In many other cities with what is considered low-rent housing, there have been some serious situations with drugs, alcohol and domestic problems,” Messer says. “But we already have some affordable housing throughout the town of Waynesville that probably people don’t even know about.”

Messer says the development is a good way to get seniors living downtown.

“I think so many of our seniors are having to move outside the town and county because we don’t have affordable options,” she says.

With an income cap to qualify, however, it is unclear whether residents will be big patrons of downtown shops. Similar developments by the same entity in Asheville have an income cap of $22,000.

 

Too late?

Hickox says the residents of the East Waynesville district should have raised their protests earlier.

“The bottom line is that now is not the time to make the argument of if it’s a good fit for the community,” Hickox said. That should have been done more than six years ago, when the zoning guildelines were established that allowed for high density development in the district.

“If you wait until they’ve already proposed the project, you’re too late; you’re too far behind,” said Hickox. “If it meets the standards, the town doesn’t have the legal ability to deny it.”

The Richmond Hills project still has to go before the town Board of Adjustment — the final step before it’s approved. That meeting isn’t really for public comments, Hickox said. Those could have been given at the planning board and community appearance commission meetings. Someone making a case before the Board of Adjustment needs to present hard evidence of why the project shouldn’t be allowed. An example would be a history of traffic patterns in the area and evidence of why the project would clog traffic.

The Board of Adjustment meets on Tuesday (April 7), just after The Smoky Mountain News has gone to press. If Richmond Hills is OK’d — and there’s no indication it won’t — Mountain Housing Opportunities will start getting financing in place.

Construction of Richmond Hills is slated to begin within six to eight months — but not without a fight, vows Eason.

“We have a community crying out saying ‘no,’” she says.

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