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Mills River cautiously eyes affordable housing

MILLS RIVER—Mills River Town Manager Jaime Laughter says developers are showing increased interest in higher density housing, given the growth expected from the new Sierra Nevada brewery, a new supersized Ingles and a new sewer line serving the Jeffress Road area off N.C. 280.

"We're blessed to be a retirement community," Laughter told a joint meeting of the town's planning board and Town Council this month. "On the flip side it does create somewhat of an issue with affordable housing, which can be remedied by density. The key there is what kind of density and where? It doesn't make economic sense at four to an acre. In fact I had one call today. Whenever we say the max is four to an acre immediately the conversation ends."
The Planning Board asked for the meeting joint meeting with the governing body so the advisory board could get direction on whether to pursue land-use code amendments that could open the way for affordable housing.
Mills River's land-use ordinance allows a house on 30,000-square-foot lots — or three quarters of an area. A landowner can build up to four units an area with a special use rules requiring public water and sewer, 200 feet of frontage on a public street and a set-aside of open space. The town also permits eight mobile homes per acre in some zones but mobile home parks are not developers are demanding, Laughter said.
Mills River has limited flexibility, though, because county watershed rules limit density and the covering of ground with pavement, driveways or rooftops in a broad area that feeds the drinking water supply for much of Henderson County. Watershed restrictions cover about two-thirds of the 22½-square-mile town area.
"It's intended to prevent impervious surface that would degrade the water quality because the Mills River is the water supply for the city of Hendersonville," she said. "The other intake we have is at the French Broad just outside the city limits, so Mills River gets hit by the fact that we have two intakes within our watershed."
Beyond watershed restrictions is the town's strong desire to preserve its rural character. Since the town was founded 10 years ago, Mills River leaders have resisted permitting cookie-cutter developments with quarter-acre lots.
"We had a developer that wanted to come in and do something like that.
I remember it very well, first six months" after Mills River incorporated, said Councilman Wayne Carland. "I lost a farmer friend."
Planning Board chairman Jim Humphrey said permitting only single-family homes on large lots limits the town's affordability.
"Housing is expensive," Humphrey said, "and some of our sons and daughters can't afford to live in the community we want them to live in."
The Town Council directed the Planning Board to further look into multi-family, condominium or townhome options in areas outside the watershed that have water and sewer. One likely nomination is N.C. 280 north of Jeffress Road. That stretch of highway has neighborhood commercial, industrial and mixed-use zoning.

Carland expressed a view shared by other council members, too.
"That type of housing across the French Broad from our town was my biggest fear after incorporation, and within six months it came," Carland said. "And the council said no, this is not the rural character Mills River wants to see. If we're going to try to promote agriculture, high density development is tough for us to do."