Candidate Questionnaire: Sierra Club

Office you are seeking: Asheville City Council

1)  Would you like your candidacy to be endorsed by the Sierra Club and why? 

Yes. I believe the City of Asheville can be a leader in environmental advocacy, and I would like to work with the Club to advance those efforts.

2)  Are you a member of the Sierra Club or any other environmental group?

No.

3)  What environmental issues have you been involved with?  Did you achieve any success?

As a financial advisor, I run a 100% socially- and environmentally-responsible investment practice. I have been involved in successful efforts by the City of Asheville Greenway Committee and Multimodal Commission to preserve land along the Swannanoa River and French Broad, helping to complete the Wilma Dykeman Riverway Plan. I am part of a working group on city policy to protect easements on future greenway corridors, as well as giving input as a city commission member on the transportation and environmental aspects of the draft Comprehensive Plan. I was past chair of the Bountiful Cities project, which helped create many of the city’s community gardens.

4)  What do you anticipate will be the most important environmental issues you will face if elected? What actions do you plan to take to address these issues?

The next council will rewrite the city’s zoning, with the potential to greatly affect development patterns throughout the area. Our current zoning has not been successful at protecting the tree canopy and creating healthy sustainable high-density nodes of development suited to the transportation (and other) infrastructure on the ground. Development patterns will drive everything from access and use of transit, to traffic congestion, to stormwater management and the availability of natural habitats for birds and other wild fauna. Yet there’s every indication a new zoning code could be unsuccessful at reining in the sort of bad, sloppy, inefficient development we frequently see here. I plan to work closely in conjunction with individual neighborhoods to develop zoning that’s tailored to each unique part of the city, applied through zoning overlays, and to insist on environmental protections throughout the process. There’s no reason the city should be painted with a broad brush of a few, vague zoning regulations.

5)  Do you consider urban sprawl to be an issue in Asheville, and if so, what would you do to minimize it?  Would you support the continuation of the current “density bonus” for new development in the city?

I do consider urban sprawl a problem, even for those of us who live and work close to the city. We all deal with the traffic congestion caused by 40% of Asheville workers living outside city limits, not to mention the flooding implications of runoff from impervious rooftops and parking lots in Black Mountain, Swannanoa, and other outlying areas. I support density bonuses in general, but ours have been ineffective. Not one project to date has utilized the increased density bonuses on urban corridors passed by council two years ago. We may be past the point where bonuses and other market incentives are effective inducements for smart urban density.

What other ideas do you have to increase density in Asheville?

I would like the city to use affordable housing funds to create a zero-interest loan pool for accessory dwelling units – ADUs, e.g., basement and backyard apartments – for individual homeowners. I think these are one of our best ways to achieve diffuse urban density and affordable rents, but financing is difficult, even with the equity trapped in local homes. Ultimately, I believe we could produce more housing units this way for less than we currently spend on cash grants and tax rebates to big institutional developers, and diffuse infill with ADUs would create less traffic congestion to boot. I would also use Affordable Housing bond money to begin a city-owned and -managed affordable housing project in the near-downtown ring, either at Kmart Plaza on Patton or Innsbruck Mall on Tunnel, rather than using those funds to move and remediate the Public Works facility on Charlotte Street.

6)  How would you protect open space in Asheville?

As mentioned, a group of us is working on a policy to require easements for greenways along rapidly-developing corridors like Thompson Street and Broadway. This would protect the land from being built on as we await funding for design and construction. In conjunction, we’re working with the city’s legal and transportation departments on a policy allowing volunteer trail-builders to get to work on interim or permanent natural trails (e.g., the Hominy Creek Trail in West Asheville) that may extend to neighborhood-generated parks and parklets too.

7)  Asheville City Council has done a great deal regarding public transportation. Would you support a dedicated source of funding to expand public transportation? 

Yes.

What do you think we need to do to make it more effective?

Expand service into the county and increase frequency on existing routes, including 15-minute service on Merrimon and Haywood. The new Transit Master Plan should have some other guidance. I would support bus rapid transit or satellite transit hubs on Patton at Kmart, Tunnel at Innsbruck, and Biltmore at I-40 as ways of trying to reduce the long routes to the west, east and north.

The city has a multi-modal commission to better address the mix of transportation modes in the city.  Where do you think that commission should focus its efforts?

I’ve been a member of the commission since 2015. As part of the process of prioritizing goals in the upcoming Comprehensive Plan, we proposed focusing on improving transit frequency and creating cross-connecting networks of streets around roads like Sweeten Creek and Sardis Road that become channels for congestion, as our top two priorities. In addition, we’re embarking on making Asheville a “Vision Zero” city (i.e., with a  goal of zero traffic fatalities) with a resolution and plan of action before city council by the end of this year. Increasing the safety and convenience of walking, biking, and transit is an important part of reducing car traffic and its environmental and community impacts.

8)  Given that Global Climate Change is with us, Asheville City council hasadopted a number of energy policies including: reduction of Asheville’s carbon emissions by 4% per year; adoption of LEED Gold Standard for green buildings; and is currently participating in the Energy Efficiency Task Force with Duke, the county and others to develop and implement measures to prevent building a gas powered peaking unit.

-Do you support the continuation of these programs?  Are you willing to continue to reinvest the savings from these programs into the Green CIP, the nation’s first municipal energy savings capital improvement fund, to continue to increase energy efficiency?

Yes and yes.

-What other measures would you proposed to reduce our carbon footprint?

 I support the next SACEE initiative to start a roof insulation program for qualifying energy-inefficient existing housing, to be rolled out in the coming year.

-Would you support increasing the goal to reach 100% sooner?  Why or why not?

Yes. What’s the danger of setting a more ambitious goal? Coming up short? I’m aware that the “low-hanging fruit” has already been done and future steps are going to be harder and more expensive, with incrementally smaller gains toward the target. But the city has the opportunity to be a national, if not global leader, in reducing its carbon footprint and, as importantly, the strong backing of its citizens. We should go for broke.

-Many large banks financially support pipelines and other fossil fuel investments.  If a smaller bank could provide adequate services to the city, would you support divesting from the larger banks that support fossil fuel investments?

Yes. I have advised citizen groups working toward this goal and believe it’s possible, despite resistance from city staff. Fears of a high cost may or may not be borne out, but depending on the circumstances, we can at least take the process piece-by piece (or account-by-account) with relatively easy moves to start with.

9)  Sierra Club members and City residents are gravely concerned about climate change.  While we are waiting for Washington to act to curb carbon pollution, communities all over the country are working with their electric utilities to transition off of their dependence on coal-- the primary contributor to climate disruption.  Duke Energy has announced the closing of the Asheville coal plant and converting to a natural gas powered plant with some solar.  As a member of council, will you use your leadership position to call on Duke Energy to invest more heavily in clean energy and energy efficiency? How will you use your leadership to make sure the City is investing in solar power directly?

The city has some leverage here as a large energy consumer itself and with its control over matters important to Duke, such as substation zoning. More importantly, we have willing local leadership at the company. Duke’s decision to use a more expensive, less land-intensive gas-insulated, enclosed substation at its new site on Patton Avenue downtown is an example of what the city’s relationship with Duke has already accomplished. For next steps, the city should invest in equipping more of its own facilities with solar panels, and should use its economic development programs to recruit and train local businesses that also install solar on-site or pursue renewable power purchase agreements (PPAs) with Duke.

-Would you support putting Solar Panels on city buildings and/or putting solar farms on city owned or leased property?  Would you use your leadership to have the City issue a request for proposals to test these idea with real data?

Yes.

10) Would you be willing to lobby the Tourism Development Authority to help fund Greenways and Parks in Asheville?

Yes. I have already been a part of this process on the River Arts Transportation project and Beaucatcher Mountain.

Would you support funding for the proposed Overlook and White Fawn Parks overlooking the city to give Asheville a destination park near downtown?

Yes, although it seems for the moment the city will allow the proposed Beaucatcher Greenway to remain a natural trail with some improvements for accessibility.

11) What are the major challenges facing the city of Asheville and what are your top priorities if elected?   

Affordability is really changing the demographics of the city, and traffic congestion and unfavorable development patterns are changing what it feels like to live here. One of my first priorities is to begin an incentive program to small landlords who are struggling to rent at lower-than-market prices, and to use a position on council to push the state Department of Transportation to make delayed and much needed improvements on state-maintained roads like Sweeten Creek, Tunnel and Brevard. It’s no longer acceptable to just wait for Raleigh to get around to our dangerous, congesting roads, leaving neighborhoods to deal with DOT on their own. The city needs to be our champion on this. I have lots of other proposals, but those are the top two. See the rest at www.richworksfor.me/issues.