Do apartments and neighborhoods mix? Waynesville to revisit zoning

·6 min read

Jul. 13—Waynesville residents sounding alarm bells over the rash of apartments and large-scale housing projects in the pipeline have finally gotten some welcome news.

Waynesville leaders have decided to revisit whether three-story apartment complexes should be allowed in traditional residential neighborhoods, and if so, which ones. Currently, apartments are allowed just about anywhere in town except save a handful of neighborhoods — with the most affluent neighborhoods of Waynesville Country Club and Eagle's Nest among the exempt.

The pro-apartment zoning dates back to the early 2000s, but perhaps it's time to revisit that, Alderman Chuck Dickson broached at a town board meeting last month.

"I think we should go back and decide, 'Do we want three-story buildings in these neighborhoods? Do we want multi-family housing? Do we want this much density?'" Dickson posed.

That's exactly what members of the public have been asking for nearly a year now. Public hearings over apartment complexes, condos and high-density subdivisions have been packed with concerned citizens. But since the projects were allowed under the letter of the town's zoning rules, none were turned down.

"I think it's pretty clear our ordinances were insufficient to handle the pace of development we've seen in the last 18 months," Alderman Jon Feichter said. "We've now seen how these ordinances held up in the face of this avalanche of development, and it exposed some holes for sure."

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See related article Waynesville leaders weigh how much power to wield over developers.

To that end, the Waynesville planning board has rolled out a suite of new development rules that impose tougher criteria on large-scale housing projects. Developers must now do traffic studies to determine if roads can handle the additional volume, plant more vegetation for screening, provide more civic space and hold a community meeting to present their plans, among other changes.

But the underlying complaint from the public — whether apartments and high-density housing is a good fit for existing residential neighborhoods — hadn't been addressed yet.

Feichter agreed it's time to take a deep look at that issue.

"I really believe the residents of a particular neighborhood ought to have a big say in how that neighborhood is developed," Feichter said. "This is the latest example of us taking what we've learned from these big developments and using that knowledge to tighten up the ordinances so everybody has a say in the process."

The process will be neither quick nor simple, however.

"It's going mean taking a big look at the larger tracts of land and each of the neighborhoods and saying 'Do we want to allow an apartment building here?'" Dickson said. "We need to designate whether there are areas in town where we don't want multi-family dwellings."

The town board will rely on the planning board to do the heavy-lifting on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood review. While the tightening up of development rules thus far has been driven by the planning board, its work stopped short of tackling the larger philosophical question surrounding apartments — which is more a matter of public policy for the town board to provide guidance on.

The town board will hold a joint meeting with the planning board in coming weeks to discuss the goals and map out a process for the review to get underway.

Growth landscape

There are nine developments currently under construction or in the planning phase that will amount to more than 800 new units if they all come to fruition — not counting two more projects with another 250 units that have already come online since 2020.

"We recognize it's been a challenging year-and-a-half in terms of development, with a lot of change happening really fast," Waynesville Development Services Director Elizabeth Teague said.

Meanwhile, Waynesville's population grew more in just one year than the previous decade combined, according to state population stats. The town added only 271 people between 2010 and 2020. But between 2020 and 2021, it grew by 354.

Members of the public who've pushed back against the unprecedented growth are pleased the town board has signaled its intention to review the zoning rules.

"With all these apartments coming in so quickly, people are afraid Waynesville is going to turn into Asheville," said Sherry Morgan, one of the concerned citizens.

Morgan spearheaded a petition formally calling on the town to revisit the scale back of the allowed density of housing units, which is up to 16 units per acre in some neighborhoods.

"The density is sky high," said Morgan. "We need to look at the neighborhoods on a case-by-case basis."

The current zoning rules date back to the early 2000s, when a sweeping new land-use plan opened the door for three-story apartment complexes, condos and high-density developments in just about every neighborhood in town.

Two decades passed, however, before large-scale development actually came to pass. Demand for housing — due largely to overflow from Asheville creating unprecedented pressure on the local housing market — has spurred developers to set their sights on Waynesville.

Silver lining

The town finally has some breathing room from developers knocking at its door, however. Waynesville is currently under a de facto moratorium for any new large-scale housing projects due its beleaguered sewer plant.

State environmental regulators imposed a cap on additional flow coming into the poorly-functioning plant in December 2020. The onslaught of development projects permitted over the past year have whittled away that allotment, bringing the plant to its allowed threshold. Now, no new big development can be permitted pending a rebuild of the plant — which won't be completed until late 2024.

The window provides a golden opportunity to dive into the complex issue of where apartments should be allowed and whether density should be reined in, said John Baus, a town resident who serves on the zoning board.

"We are under a de facto moratorium on the sewer plant issue, so we don't have anything coming up in the next two years," Baus said, speaking at a public hearing before the town board last month.

The public hearing centered on the planning board's process for approving or denying development proposals (see related article). But Baus said the underlying issue of density needs to be fixed first.

"The biggest public objections to some of these subdivisions didn't apply to the process, they applied to the density," Baus said. "Development needs to be done in a smart manner that maintains our quality of life. I don't think we should rush into anything, but should take our time to come to a good plan together."

Feichter agreed.

"Let's get this right, particularly since we are kind of in a holding pattern right now," he said.