By D.X.D. Hall. October 15, 2017. BLOWING ROCK, NC — All six candidates for the four open Town Council seats, one mayoral and three commissioners, offered pertinent answers to hard-hitting, issue-oriented questions, but separating the contenders may still prove difficult. That seemed to be the consensus among those surveyed of the more than 80 attendees at the Blowing Rock roundtable discussion on Thursday at the American Legion Post 256 Building.
COVER IMAGE: A well-attended Candidate Roundtable featured focused responses to “hard” issue-oriented questions in the first segment. Here, Doug Matheson, second from left behind the table, offers a different viewpoint to a question about Sunset Drive streetscape and gateway project.
VIDEO of Event Below
Co-hosted by Blowing Rock Civic Association and Blowing Rock News, the event offered a refreshing format designed to spark discussion and, at least to a point, it achieved that objective. The candidates randomly drew numbers for their order and then randomly drew again for an issue-specific question to answer extemporaneously as the primary respondent to that question, all of which have not been seen by any candidate. After his or her response, the other candidates were invited to offer an opposing opinion or materially different viewpoint. Because none of the candidates had seen any of the questions in advance, the questions tested both incumbents and challengers alike . These unreleased questions tested each candidate, incumbents and challengers, and shined a light on how prepared they were to address issues currently at the forefront of town business.
Mayoral challenger Charlie Sellers drew first and drew a thought-provoking question to jump start the roundtable event.
1. “When the primary town limits are near the Blue Ridge Parkway on the north, below Green Park Inn on the south, and out near the Horse Show Grounds on the west, what is the justification for spending taxpayer money to identify the Sunset Drive and Valley Blvd. intersection as the ‘gateway’ to Blowing Rock?”
Sellers acknowledge the importance of each entrance to Blowing Rock, saying “They are the first thing people see. We need signage and a greenway at each entrance. At Sunset Drive, I feel like we need a more conservative approach.”
In expanding on his thoughts for a more conservative approach to Sunset Drive, Sellers said it needs to be cleaned up and made to look nice, but at the same time bury the utilities. Continuing, he said each entrance needs improved signage as the first impression.
Virginia Powell is challenging the three incumbents for one of the three open Commissioner seats. She reflected her concern about some of the drawings she had seen (by Boone-based planning firm Destination by Design), comparing Blowing Rock in some respects to villages in Europe. “The (tourists) visiting those villages in Europe could go to Disney World,” Powell said.
She suggested that people coming to Blowing Rock weren’t looking for a Disney World type of experience.
“I want people to feel like they are coming to a mountain village,” she said.
Incumbent Mayor J.B. Lawrence reported an on-going Town Council discussion for taking the current signage on the south end, freshening it up, and moving it to a location near the Valley Boulevard and South Main Street intersection.
Regarding Sunset Drive, he cautioned attendees of Thursday’s roundtable, “None of this is approved, you all need to know that, but we are a tourist town and a resort town. What we are looking at, at Sunset Drive, is something with a wow factor. We want people—when they come to Blowing Rock and then they leave—we want them to say ‘Wow.’ That’s where we are on that.”
Doug Matheson, an incumbent commissioner running to retain his seat, pointed out that with plans for the Sunset Drive/Valley Boulevard intersection by the North Carolina Department of Transportation, it might enable the town to cut back on some of its plans and expenditures, “But the plans look gorgeous to me,” Matheson said.
Matheson was second in the order, and drew the next question:
2. What is the justification for holding a retreat at taxpayers’ expense for Mayor, Commissioners, and at least some of the department heads two hours from Blowing Rock over an almost three-day period when votes are taken and policies considered at these meetings. Don’t these become de facto closed meetings when residents and business owners and media outlets must pay their own travel and lodging expenses and take time away from their other responsibilities?”
Matheson said he didn’t care whether Town Council stayed in Blowing Rock or went somewhere else, but added that he understood why they did go on retreat.
“It gets you away from all of the distractions that you have here in town. We are able to go [away] and patch in two days of working long hours, [including looking at] a year’s budget, and stay uninterrupted . . . What we are doing is our main focus.”
Incumbent Commissioner Sue Sweeting added, “There has been a lot of concern for our going to Asheville. I am in favor of bringing it back to Blowing Rock so people can attend.”
Powell put the issue on personal terms, saying, “I am running for Town Council for approachability, availability, and transparency. This question addresses [those concerns].”
The primary respondent for the third question was Powell.
3. What are the methods used to determine whether or not a Town Council member has a conflict of interest on an issue? If a conflict is present, what are the alternatives for handling the conflict?
Powell answered that she thought the term was “abstaining” from the vote if there is a conflict of interest.
“When I was on the school board in Alabama, we would abstain if there was a conflict issue and explain why,” she said, answering the question.
Sweeting said they would normally talk with the town attorney ” . . . to see if they thought there was a conflict, then we would recuse ourselves . . .”
Lawrence added, “Not only can you not vote, you can’t even listen in on the discussion. I encourage [council members] to recuse themselves if there is even a mere appearance of a conflict . . . In some cases there is an obvious conflict and you don’t need the town’s attorney to decide that.”
Matheson observed, “If someone does step out, then the Mayor or whoever is in the Mayor’s position that night to break any tie vote.”
Sweeting was the primary respondent for the fourth question:
4. Blowing Rock, like many towns and cities, has seen a dramatic increase in short-term rentals by homeowners using online platforms such AirBnB, even where Blowing Rock zoning does not permit short-term rentals. When (those online platforms) send checks for occupancy taxes charged on those rentals, what is the Town’s justification for even cashing those checks? Does this make the Town complicit in the illegal activity?
Sweeting pointed out that there are areas in town where short-term rentals are permitted and some other places where short-term rental opportunities are “grandfather in.” She asked, rhetorically, “So the question is, if we take the money should everyone be [allowed to rent short-term]?”
She said during the event that one of the steps being contemplated by the current Town Council is to consult with a company in California that will look at who is renting short-term and talk to them if they are not in the permitted area and discuss with them the occupancy taxes due.
“So where we are making money and short-term rentals are not allowed, why are we not enforcing it? One of the ways to enforce it is to engage this company to help us,” Sweeting said.
Lawrence said, “My question to that question is, if you are doing short-term rentals illegally, why would you give a check to the town?”
Powell alertly pointed out that it wasn’t necessarily the homeowner engaged in the illegal activity that gives a check to the town, saying “AirBnB (the online platform facilitating the rental) gives a check to the town, as does [Vacation Rentals By Owner].”
Sellers added, “First and foremost, we [already] have guidelines. Let’s enforce them. Each person that is renting property should have to get a permit. $10.00. Then the Town knows who is renting what. Now we have places in town that rent and they are not supposed to be renting, just for weekends. That is not fair to the hotel and that is not fair to the people we have told ‘you can only rent on a [28-day or more] basis. We need enforcement.”
Sweeting came back into the discussion to highlight what she called, “the gray area.”
She shared that she lived on Chestnut Drive where there is a 28-day requirement. She said she could rent her home for two weeks and then not rent it for the next two weeks, and still be compliant. “That gray area is what we are going to have to look at; just what does [the term] short-term rentals [mean]?”
Lawrence observed, ” . . . about the only way to enforce it is that the neighbors have to enforce it. They have to let the town know when someone is [renting illegally].”
Ray Pickett, incumbent commissioner, was the first respondent to the fifth question:
5. Automated water meters have been advertised as effective conservation measures for the Town, as well as for residential and business users. If it is decided that the Town, its residents and its businesses would all benefit, what is the best way for the necessary upgrades to be implemented, paid for, and any cost to the Town, if any, to be recovered?
Noting that the current Council had done a lot of research and working on the prospective opportunity for at least two years, Pickett noted that he was part of the pilot program and said, “It can help, if you have a problem . . . It is something that is new and a lot of people don’t quite understand it, which is why we are doing much more research on this, [including] research on how the town can be reimbursed . . . We are looking at all angles and we haven’t made a decision yet. We haven’t gotten the information back. To implement it will most likely be to hire the company that we buy them from . . . They can get it done much faster than we could [using town staff] . . . People across the nation are moving to [automated water meters] because it does work. It has saved me a lot of money already [in the pilot program].”
Matheson said, “I recognize the possible savings in some of these situations, but for the majority it is a lot of money that a lot of us would rather choose not to afford.”
Sellers recalled that he was at the Town Council meeting when it was brought up and his impression was that, “It was going to be forced upon the citizens of Blowing Rock and they were going to have to pay for it. I disagree with that. I like electronic water meters. It is a great idea. I am willing to pay for it, but not be forced to pay for it. It goes back to transparency. Us as citizens need to know what is going on, when it is going on . . .”
With only one question remaining in the hat, moderator Burroughs quipped to Lawrence as he presented him with the opportunity to draw a question, smiling, “Mayor, you can have any of the remaining questions that you want.”
6. What are your thoughts on moving the Town government, including administration, police, planning and inspections and other offices to a new site on Valley Boulevard, either selling the existing property for its high commercial value or repurposing them for downtown economic revitalization?
Lawrence admitted that it is a great idea, in some respects, to move to Valley Boulevard because it is valuable property.
“As we know, Main Street property is very attractive. Again, it would be an expense to the town provided that the new building and acquisition of land cost more than what we could get for the Town Hall [and other buildings],” he said.
The current Mayor continued, “There is something nice, though, about having the Town Hall downtown, right beside [Memorial Park]. It is very ‘small town-ish.’ I like where it is at. It may not be the best place, but there is something nice about having your Town Hall right in the middle of town.”
Sweeting responded, “I like having it downtown. I wouldn’t want to go to [U.S.] 321. It is convenient for citizens to get there [downtown]. The kids [from Blowing Rock School] see it when they go on tour.”
Matheson shared his opinion, saying, “Growing up here, one of the things that parents felt in having their children [downtown and in Memorial Park] in the evenings [after school] was having the police department right next door.”
Pickett said, “Having [town government offices] downtown gives it a small town feel and having the police department right there, [officers] can walk around downtown and people see them . . . I don’t think it would be worth a few bucks to take that away from downtown.”
See the full video of the Blowing Rock Candidate Roundtable here, produced by Steve Frank of Social Media Works as contracted by Blowing Rock Civic Association.