Woodfin neighbors cry foul over $500M, 1,545-unit blended improvement

A Florida developer hoping to construct more than 1,500 residential units, a 250-room hotel, a 59,000-square-foot office space and 30 1,000-square-foot buildings on 92 wooded acres in Woodfin will go before the town’s Planning and Zoning Board on Feb. 1 for its one and only needed approval from the town.

But neighbors say the project is being quickly shuffled through during the holidays when it’s difficult to make their voices heard, and that the huge project is not a fit for the small, quiet neighborhood that abuts Asheville’s popular Richmond Hill Park and serves as a wooded, natural buffer for the French Broad River.

The quasi-judicial hearing before the Planning and Zoning Board, originally scheduled for the board’s normal Jan. 4 meeting, has been postponed to Feb. 1, Woodfin Planning Director Adrienne Isenhower said in an email, due to COVID-19 concerns and the manner of quasi-judicial hearings. 

But the postponement comes after an attorney hired by nearby residents of the project site objected to the original hearing date on several grounds.

According to an email from attorney John Noor to Isenhower Dec. 30, the notice originally listed the wrong year in the date, didn’t provide a passcode for the Zoom meeting and the virtual meeting format constitutes “unlawfully limiting access to the meeting.”

Noor’s email also challenges that the proposed meeting doesn’t meet any of the qualifications of state law that allows virtual quasi-judicial hearings in an emergency.

Developer John Holdsworth did not respond to an email request for comment Dec. 30 but spoke to the town’s planning and zoning board at its Nov. 2 meeting, giving some details and answering a few questions about the project.

According to the plans submitted to Woodfin by Strategic Real Investment Partners LLC, Holdsworth founded Commercial Management of Florida in Tampa in 1991.

The plans also include a packet on Miami-based First Florida Constructors, which lists its 87 developments, all but one in Florida, completed or in the works since 2010 that total 14,154 units and nearly $1.65 billion.

Submitted plans say this project, dubbed The Bluffs on River Bend, will total 1,545 residential units.

When Holdsworth went before the planning board, the project was set for 83 acres in Woodfin with plans to annex another 10 into the parcel with an additional 5 in Asheville, according to minutes from the Nov. 2 meeting.

In the minutes, Holdsworth tells the board the project is estimated to cost $500 million and net the town of Woodfin $1.5 million per year in property tax revenue.

According to the town’s 2020-21 budget, its total expected revenues this fiscal year are just over $9 million, meaning the Bluffs project could constitute a 16.6% increase in Woodfin’s budget.

According to the plan, the project “will consist of multifamily luxury apartments, office, retail, a church and a 250 room lodge” and “has over 4,000 feet on the French Broad River with elevations as high as 250 feet above the river.”

The summary notes that the town is developing a park on the other side of the river, and that Woodfin and Asheville have designated $18 million for a riverwalk and whitewater waves attraction there. 

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“This development will take advantage of Asheville’s high rates of growth for population and health care jobs,” it continues, and the apartments are “designed to fill a need in the market, which has a shortage of both new apartments and, more specifically, apartments located near the core downtown business district.” 

It says the strategy is to develop luxury apartments with high-end finishes and amenities that are a 10-15-minute drive from Asheville and its business district. 

Plans show five phases of construction, starting with two of the residential buildings for a total 390 units.

A rendering of The Bluffs on River Bend from plans submitted to the Town of Woodfin, which developers hope to construct on 92 acres near Richmond Hill Park along the French Broad River.

Phase 2 continues with three residential buildings, totaling 660 units, then Phase 3 will finish the residential side of the project with two more buildings on the river with amenities, another 495 units.

Phase 4 includes 30 one- and two-story 1910 Victorian style buildings, 1,000 square feet each, a hotel with 250 units in a five-story Victorian style and a two-story church, also in Victorian style 1910 architecture.

The final phase constructs the 59,000-square-foot office building.

Plans also call for an amphitheater and a 1,000-foot-long and 100-foot-wide park along the river, Holdsworth told the planning board, where he anticipates festivals and a variety of events to attract people to the area.

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The latest plans update that to say the park will be along the site’s total 4,000 feet of river frontage.

He told the board that plans are to keep as many trees as possible, and that he’s walked the entire site and anticipates keeping trees higher than buildings and using low voltage lights that cast shadows on the landscape.

Each floor will have an attached parking garage, and each building will have amenities. The 10-acre parcel will be set aside for the hotel.

He told the board that initial projects will take 10-15 months, but the actual finish time will depend on the approval of the location for the new bridge across the French Broad River. 

Renderings included with the plans show the bridge would connect to Riverside Drive at Woodfin Avenue, leading to a couple of roundabouts and the proposed buildings spread over the site, near Robin Lane and Rolling Oaks Drive, close to the river.

A Dec. 12, 2019, letter from Young and McQueen Grading Company in Burnsville to Holdsworth gives a price estimate of $26.5 million for the construction of the new bridge and related work, spanning 450 linear feet using standard NCDOT designs of two travel lanes and a pedestrian walk/bike path.

The bridge has presented a problem for developers, though, according to the minutes of that Nov. 2 meeting. 

Plans for The Bluffs on River Bend from submissions to the Town of Woodfin, which developers hope to construct on 92 acres near Richmond Hill Park along the French Broad River.

Holdsworth tells the board that the property developers are trying to acquire for the bridge was titled to the railroad in 1840, and current owner Silverline has turned down the developers’ offer and a land use agreement. 

“Need to get elected official involved with talks with owners of Silverline,” the minutes show Holdsworth saying, with a secondary site for the bridge at Republic Waste, a short distance downriver.

The actual finish time of the project depends on the approval of the bridge’s location, he says, and the bridge will be themed for the community and set the tone for the community. 

A letter included in the plans from Asheville engineering firm Mattern and Craig gives information about permit requirements from the state Department of Transportation, which requires traffic studies for projects expected to generate more than 3,000 trips per day.

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“The Woodfin Project will generate far in excess of 3,000 trips per day,” the letter says, adding that increased traffic often requires improvements like traffic signals or turn lanes.

Developers are seeking a conditional use permit for the property, currently zoned under the town’s Mountain Village Zoning District, said Isenhower. 

The Mountain Village Zoning District was modified and a moratorium on it lifted by the Woodfin Board of Commissioners at its Dec. 15 meeting, the day after the Bluffs on Riverbend plans were submitted and a little more than a week after the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission recommended the move. 

The move was not related to this project, Isenhower said, and the change limited the density in the district from 17 units per acre to eight units per acre. 

But because this development was introduced before the change, the developer has the right to choose, she said. 

A 1,545 units on 92 acres, this plan comes in at 16.79 units per acre.

The conditional use permit requires a quasi-judicial hearing before the town planning and zoning board, and is the only approval needed from Woodfin, Isenhower said. The project will still need other permits from the state before construction.

The developer has been working on the project for about a year and a half, she said, and the the timeline from the project worked out to have the hearing at that meeting. 

The town issued notices as required, Isenhower said. The requirement is notices be given no less than 10 and no more than 25 days before the hearing. 

She said the town mailed the letters on Dec. 17. 

But neighbors who only recently learned of the project feel that it has been presented during the holidays on purpose, in what nearby business owner Shellie Stanback called a “bully move.”

“It seems like it’s being pushed through,” she said. “It seems like it’s very much a bully tactic.”

Neighbors are challenging the development and have already hired an attorney, saying it threatens water quality, will overload traffic and infrastructure in the area and be a detriment to the small neighborhood’s quality of life. 

“Woodfin residents deserve a fair hearing process that doesn’t violate open meeting laws and should not be forced into a review process that minimizes legitimate community concerns,” Stanback said. 

The project is one of the biggest ever proposed for the town of Woodfin, she said, and situated on property that currently serves as a wooded buffer for the French Broad River. 

“We have a quality of life that’s very pedestrian-friendly, and that’s at high risk,” Stanback said. 

This new development will “channel tens of thousands of gallons of untreated stormwater” into the river, she said, posing a threat to water quality and the multimillion dollar plans for a whitewater park there. 

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Many in Asheville have worked to regain pedestrian access along the river, said Stanback, who’s worked toward that goal for 20 years, and “it’s finally happening. Then a proposal like this comes along.”

Dustin Riddle and his fiancé Felicia Shelton moved into their home at 15 Robin Lane in May, and received their letter in the mail about the project on Christmas Eve, 11 days before the scheduled meeting.

Riddle and Shelton went door-to-door in the neighborhood on Dec. 30, and every person they talked to was against the project, they said. 

Only two of about 25 they were able to reach even knew anything about the proposal, Shelton said, adding that generally the reactions they got were of shock.

“Of all the neighbors I’ve spoken to today, and I feel very confidently that I stand and speak for them,” Riddle said, and that whether they’ve been residents there since the ’70s or just bought their homes this year, “none of them want this development to enter this community.”

Riddle said he’s been in the city for about 16 years and has been working hard and saving for the right home to buy. When he purchased the house on Robin Lane, a huge part of that decision was the surrounding woodlands that he was told at the time were protected due to the hellbender salamander. 

If this plan goes through, he’ll now have luxury apartments in his backyard, saying that “feels like a real letdown.”

Autumn Pittman also lives on Robin Lane and started doing some digging on the project after learning about it. 

If approved, the “five-story hotel will be 100 feet from my back door,” she said, in what’s currently an undeveloped plot.

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Galen Wilcox is another adjoining property owner against the proposal, pointing out that even though the large site abuts the French Broad River, there’s no environmental assessment mentioned in the proposal.

Also, with the virtual meeting format, the town is leaving out the input of many older folks in the neighborhood, he said, with many of the houses in Richmond Hill still occupied by those who bought them in the 1960s when they were first built. 

“(It’s) just the idea of using the COVID crisis and the Christmas vacation to run this thing through without notice,” Wilcox said. “They’ve really been effective at stifling input from the people who will be impacted.”

When the hearing was still scheduled for the planning board’s Jan. 4 meeting, Isenhower said the meeting will held virtually, but “we’re not going to turn people away at the door.” 

She said officials would have a sign-up sheet and let members of the public into the building one at a time to speak.