By David Rogers. October 14, 2015. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Among the the development focus areas adopted in Blowing Rock’s 2014 Comprehensive Plan was the “infill” of development within Town limits of vacant land and buildings. Thanks to the Board of Commissioners’ approval of two conditional use permits (CUPs) Tuesday night, Blowing Rock appears to be well on its way toward checking that one of the list — or at least making progress.
After more than two hours, the Town Council had plowed through two public hearings and one item on the discussion agenda, but at least a few of the nearly two dozen residents and business owners attending Tuesday’s regular October meeting left feeling that the Commissioners didn’t ask all of the right questions.
We scored the highest of anybody who has been inspected under this new system.
The meeting started on an upbeat note, with Emergency Services Director Kent Graham receiving an enthusiastic round of applause after reporting a new (higher) fire insurance rating that, he said, should result in property owners seeing reductions in their fire insurance premiums. He placed credit for the rating improvement squarely on the shoulders of the citizens who provide his department with the resources needed and what he described as “an incredible job” for training by staff and volunteers. The analysis, Mr. Graham outlined, is based on “…where your stations are, how many road miles within five miles of a station are covered within a mile and a half.”
Graham added, “They changed the rating system, so we were a little unclear on what the optimums were going to be, but because of the organizational culture of this fire department with our credentialing efforts and public education, we scored the highest of anybody who has been inspected under this new system.”
“It depends on the insurance carrier,” Graham explained to the crowd, “what your discount will be on your premium. Generally when you get to a Class 6 or below, residential (fire insurance) will definitely depend upon your carrier. We’ll be notifying all of the insurance companies in the area (about the change in our rating).”
“We’re proud of (the rating),” concluded Graham. “And we’re proud of you as the entire community for supporting (us). The fire department will only ever be as good as the community will allow.”
The Consent Agenda passed without much comment, although Commissioner Sue Sweeting generated the most laughs of the evening when she pointed to the second item requiring budget ordinance amendments to account for various items, including various donations. She deadpanned, “Is it St. Mary’s Episcopal Church giving us money or St. Mary’s Catholic Church?” The agenda description identified the landmark church as “St. Mary’s Catholic.”
- Caldwell County Side of Blowing Rock Municipal Election Agreement. For more information, CLICK HERE
- Budget Ordinance Amendment to Account for Various Items. For more information, CLICK HERE
- Agreement for Art in the Park Beginning in 2016 (will move the series of juried art events from the American Legion parking deck to Park Ave.). For more information, CLICK HERE
Ransom Street Townhouses/Duplex
The first public hearing focused on a conditional use permit (CUP) request by R&R Builders of North Carolina for two, 2-unit townhouse style buildings (separated by a common courtyard) on Ransom Street in Blowing Rock, a request that was unanimously advanced to Town Council by the Planning Board after deliberations at its September 17, 2015 meeting. The Commissioners heard about the many features of the project and its design first from Kevin Rothrock, Planning Director, then Planning Board chairman David Harwood offered some perspective for the Planning Board’s unanimous approval of the project.
Because the Commissioners had the benefit of information in the CUP packet and Mr. Rothrock’s testimony, Mr. Harwood declined to go into the specifics about the various features of the projects or the talking points in the September 17th Planning Board meeting, “…unless you desire to do so,” he smiled, then delineated how the development was in keeping with the priorities outlined in the 2014 Comprehensive Plan for refocusing growth toward infill development within the Town limits on properties “…that are not being used for their highest and best use. That is a high priority of the Comprehensive Plan,” Harwood reported.
We keep running into this size of setback or buffer.
Harwood continued, “We also felt the project protected the neighborhood character and expanded housing options in town. The price points may be achievable for young families or older couples that are downsizing and wanting to remain in town. Although (under restrictions recently passed in state legislation) we can’t dictate architectural quality or character, (this project) does preserve that in Blowing Rock fashion.”
Mr. Harwood concluded his remarks by noting that there were no neighbors that had any opposition to the project. In follow-up questions, Mr. Phillips had questions about the trees at the front of the property relative to the smaller landscape buffer, as well as asked whether the development would be subject ot short-term rental restrictions. Mr. Rothrock interjected that it is in a zoning area where short-term rentals would be permitted, “…if an overlay district was established for this piece of property.”
In answer to a follow-up question from Commissioner Phillips, Rothrock offered that there did not appear to be a drainage issue (in the event of storm water).
Commissioner Albert Yount asked one of the most intriguing questions when he said, “It has nothing to do with this project, but we keep running into this size of setback (requirement) of 16 feet.” He was referring to instances in the last couple of years where waivers to the Land Use Code were being requested by CUP applicants that would permit them to incorporate smaller landscape buffers in their development designs. Most recently, a similar size reduction or elimination of a landscape buffer was requested by the developer of the Blowing Rock Medical Park at the August Town Council meetings.
It wouldn’t be time wasted.
Yount asked Mr. Harwood whether the Town Council should look at modifying the Land Use Code, wondering whether the 16-foot buffer requirement was too much. Harwood replied that he thought it a subject that perhaps should be reviewed by Council, “…but as far as any changes, it probably (should continue to be) on a case by case basis. I don’t think it is necessarily needed…but it wouldn’t be time wasted.”
Other pressing questions were asked by Ms. Sweeting regarding the applicant’s request for a variance on the landscape buffer from 16 feet to 8 feet. In response, Mr. Jones pointed to the architectural drawings and noted that the plans call for a buffer that ranges from 14 feet in the front of the building to about 9.5 feet toward the back, the difference explained by the shape of the property not being square, but somewhat diagonal or slanted.
After the public hearing was closed and just before the commissioners voted, Mr. Yount reminded his fellow board members that he is a North Carolina certified residential appraiser. He stated, “North Carolina is one of the only states that investigates every single complaint they get (about the approval of CUP requests). There is a statement here, ‘The use of the development will not substantially injure the value of adjoining or abutting properties.’ There is no proof of that. There are no studies done. As an appraiser, I have nothing to hang my hat on… It is a three year job to become a certified appraiser, so I take it seriously. But there is an out for an appraiser in this situation by identifying the statement (that the development does not injure the value of adjoining or abutting properties) as an ‘extraordinary assumption.’ That means, to the appraisal board, that I can’t prove this, but I believe it. So I want it inserted in the minutes that I am considering that statement as an extraordinary assumption. And I really want it carried over to the next issue, too. I indulge the Board to allow that to be inserted. I need proof that I (as a certified appraiser) considered that in an open public meeting to be an extraordinary assumption.”
With that, the Board voted unanimously to approve the CUP request after almost 20 minutes.
The Former Moody Furniture Building
The second public hearing also centered on a CUP request, this one by an entity identified as RWL 1, LLC, owned by Mr. Bob Lovern, to convert the old Moody Furniture building into a restaurant/retail establishment. The subject property will be a combination of 125 Sunset Drive, which is the Moody building, and the adjacent property to the rear and side of the building where the old Moody house, now removed, was located.
When water starts running through there, it is going to cut a ditch.
After the customary descriptive report by Mr. Rothrock on the various features of the project and its design, a significant amount of discussion centered on the water drainage, capture and discharge from adjacent buildings and vacant land, as well as the ingress and egress to and from the property. Mr. Rothrock carefully explained that the initial design had called for ingress and egress to both be achieved from the same driveway from Sunset Drive, but he noted that Town staff had suggested that egress from the rear parking lot take customers out of the property through an exit to the Town’s public parking lot popularly called, “the Maple Street parking lot.”
While Ms. Sweeting expressed concerns about the increased traffic on Maple Street and how the flow is already impaired when people park in certain places, Commissioner Ray Pickett countered that there is already traffic because of the parking lot “…and two or three extra cars an hour emptying into the lot from the Moody property isn’t going to be a big deal.”
Lead architect and engineer for the project, Michael Trew, was called upon to address various storm water drainage concerns raised by neighboring property owners
Mr. Rothrock reported that waiver requests included:
- the requirement for eight feet of street setback along Sunset Drive to allow expansion of the existing porch and the addition of a dining terrace
- a portion of the western property line buffer in lieu of building an access sidewalk from the rear parking area to the front of the building
A considerable amount of time was spent on the relationship of the project to its neighboring properties to the west, namely the large vacant lot between what was formerly called “The Capel Building” and First Citizens Bank, as well as the Capel Building, the building on the northwest corner of Sunset Drive and Main Street, and the gravel area, easement and alleyway that provides access to the large vacant lot, which is owned by Dr. James Brown. Dr. Brown stated that while this was a good project, he had some concerns regarding storm water drainage and the ingress and egress to his vacant lot.
Of the commissioners, Doug Matheson articulated his concern, “I just can’t help but worry about that (gravel) driveway. When water starts running down through there, that it is going to cut a ditch.”
After a significant amount of time was spent on this issue, Commissioner Dan Phillips brought the discussion back on track when he asked Mr. Harwood and Mr. Rothrock, “Does this project stand on its own? Do the merits of the project stand on their own vs. these other easement and (other drainage issues) for us to make a decision whether or not to approve this CUP?” When he was told “yes,” the discussion and public hearing quickly came to a close and the project was passed, unanimously, after consuming well over a full hour of the Council’s time and attention.
Curiously, although there was mention of a new outdoor dining terrace included in the plans for the redevelopment of the Moody building, there were no questions or concerns asked nor expressed by the Commissioners about the hours of operation and the potential impact on neighboring residents within nearby earshot of the planned new business and its outside terrace, whether for eating or beverage service.
There was only one item on the Discussion Agenda, and it focused on a bid award for the water and sewer project to serve the Chestnut Ridge development. The meeting agenda packet provided little or no information about this agenda item, but the real issue arising from the discussion was a revelation that the actual cost would be almost $400,000 more than the budgeted amount by the Town. McGill & Associate’s Doug Chapman reported that the bids for the project were opened last Thursday, and the low bid was more than $1.5 million, which is more than the $1.1+ million budged by the Town, so they set about finding cost savings for the project. His summary recommendations (and savings):
- Remove a water booster station ($240,000)
- Make piping change reductions [cast iron to PVC] ($109,000)
- Transfer $70,745 utility fund balance
- Establish a $40,000 contingency
- Increase construction budget $30,745
- Award project to Thomas Construction for an adjusted about of $1,169,435
While Mr. Yount questioned the mis-estimate and how it had occurred, the Commissioners unanimously approved the recommendations of Mr. Chapman.
The meeting went into closed, executive session at approximately 8:14 pm.