By David Rogers. September 12, 2017. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Impassioned, as well as well-articulated testimony on both sides of the issue may have consumed more than an hour of Tuesday night’s regular September meeting of the Blowing Rock Town Council, but the Board of Commissioners didn’t take long to reach a unanimous decision. Not surprisingly, they voted to deny a request for a rezoning overlay district that would permit short-term rentals on two parcels at 486 and 488 Ransom Street.
COVER IMAGE: George Gilleland received a standing ovation from the Town Council audience after receiving a Certificate of Appreciation from Mayor J.B. Lawrence for his family’s gift of land at the former entrance to Mayview Park. All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News.
The parcels are currently zoned R-6M, a designation that is intended to be higher density with two-family and multi-family residences constituting the predominant use in such a zone. While town code prohibits short-term rentals within the town limits except in the central business district, in May 2000 the then sitting Town Council adopted a Short-Term Rentals Overlay District (STR) that could be requested by property owners in R-6M and R-10M zoning districts. At the same time, the Council also imposed certain adoption criteria to be met if one or more parcels were to be considered for Short-Term Rental Overlay District approval.
R & R Builders (the applicant), along with supporting testimony by attorney Ham Wilson (di Santi Watson Capua Wilson & Garrett law firm of Boone), Scott McIntosh (Blowing Rock Investment Properties), and Billy Rich, Jr. (Carolina Cabin Rentals) offered well-documented arguments for approving the overlay district request, particularly with regards to the marketability of the recently constructed townhouses on the parcels and the impact on Town finances, as well as statistics suggesting that there is an upward bias in Blowing Rock property values where short-term rentals are allowed.
Now no smoking!
However, neither the economic benefit to the developer wanting to sell his townhouses nor any financial benefit to the Town via increased sales or occupancy taxes was enough to sway members of the Board of Commissioners.
Unlike the Planning Board meeting of August 17th when not a single resident from Ransom Street appeared to protest the STR request, three Ransom Street residents (a husband and wife and another unrelated resident) appeared before Town Council to argue against the request’s approval.
Although zoned R-6M, suggesting that the predominant use of the neighborhood properties might be multi-family or two-family housing, most of the properties along Ransom Street have single-family homes. Over the past few years, many of those have been gutted and renovated by full-time resident owners. The glaring exceptions are the Royal Oaks condominiums (which are allowed to be rented short-term) and what was described as “HUD apartments” (low income housing) across the street from the new townhouses.
I have a problem with that.
The objecting Ransom Street residents’ argued that permitting short-term rentals would grossly change the character of the neighborhood-developing “journey” that they have been pursuing, pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into the single family home purchases and renovations. The fourth standard among the adoption criteria outlined in the Land Use Code that must be met in considering a short-term rental overlay district states, “The proposed short-term rental use must be compatible with established land uses in the immediate vicinity of the lots or parcels designated to be STR (short-term rental).” A deciding factor in the Commissioners’ decision to deny the request appeared to be that the idea of short-term rentals is not compatible with this “immediate vicinity” clause.
While other Ransom Street residents rose to say they had no problem with the two parcels being approved for short-term rentals, there was an obvious bias among the Commissioners against STRs to begin with (obvious when no one offered a viewpoint that would argue against Commissioner Jim Steele’s motion to deny approval). That bias was reinforced when the neighboring owners of single family homes argued that not knowing who their neighbor was going to be from one week to the next was not complementary to their neighborhood-building objectives.
The money is in the bank. The plans are being finalized.
During the discussion period among the Council members, Steele started to raise the question about rental platforms such as AirBnB and VRBO, but Mayor J.B. Lawrence advised the Board of Commissioners to stick to the issue at hand, that Mr. Steele’s question is a separate issue and should be addressed at a different time. For the full room of citizens in the room, however, it was obvious that the issue of short-term rentals is not as simple as saying “yes” or “no” because of Steele’s question.
In a second public hearing, Bob Lovern’s request to amend a previously approved conditional use permit (CUP) for renovations to the Moody Building he owns won unanimous approval from the Board of Commissioners. His amended plans for the property include a simplified, more scaled down approach to repurposing the property as a restaurant-retail establishment. The only reluctance or concern expressed was by Commissioner Sue Sweeting, who expressed disappointment that even after the original CUP was approved by the Council in October 2015, as well as a later amendment, that the development had still not gone forward. Lovern admitted “embarrassment” that the project had not been able to progress, but said, “The money is in the bank, the plans are (being finalized), and we are ready to go (by November 1st).” With that assurance, the board voted unanimously in favor.
GIFT FROM GILLELAND
A highlight of the meeting came early, when Mayor J.B. Lawrence presented George Gilleland with a Certificate of Appreciation and the promise of a future plaque for the Gilleland family’s donating ownership to the Town of a parcel of land being landscaped by The Village Foundation of Blowing Rock. Once serving as the entrance to Mayview Park and the gateway to the historic Mayview Manor Hotel, the property is part of Village Foundation’s beautification plans, including a “history walk” encompassing both sides of Laurel Lane and its median, from Wallingford St. to Main St.
In accepting the certificate, Gilleland received a standing ovation from the near capacity audience. In response he said, “And I have something for you, too: a (collector’s item) ashtray from the historic Mayview Manor for the Town to put anywhere it likes.”
Gilleland earned funny-line-of-the-night honors in turning to the Council members and admonishing, “Now no smoking!”
Under Old Business, the Council voted to approve an $18,000 bid from Greene Construction for repairs to the foundation of the old storage and recycling building behind the water treatment plant. Approval of the expenditure also included roof and siding repairs, “…as long as the whole thing does not cost more than $30,000,” said Mr. Steele in his motion.
The Commissioners also voted to approve a Public Arts Policy resolution, except that they want Blowing Rock Appearance Advisory Commission (BRAAC) to be the body to make recommendations to Town Council instead of a newly created Public Art Commission. “We don’t need another government advisory board,” declared Commissioner Albert Yount. “BRAAC is the appropriate board because they are not just about art, but also about the overall appearance of Blowing Rock.”
Commissioner Ray Pickett was heard to suggest that BRAAC might consider having an ex-officio member who is a public art expert.
Five New Business items were discussed, but decisions were reached on only two of them. The Board unanimously declared that July 2018 will be “Round Up for the Middle Fork Greenway Month,” where local businesses are asked to request customers to round up to the nearest dollar their purchases for donating to the Middle Fork Greenway project.
The other decision under new business was to grant relief to resident Nancy Briggs from a high water/sewer bill earlier this year. In a letter to the Town, Briggs claims that for no apparent reason her bill for a month ballooned from what is normally approximately a $100 bill to more thant $1300 in a month that she was not in residence. She stated that her maintenance person had turned the water off and that she had found no other leaks on the property. After the large month, the usage returned to normal. Town Manager Ed Evans reported that town staff had investigated her claim, had the water meter independently tested and it was found to be accurate, suggesting that the Town had no grounds to honor her request. Commissioner Jim Steele observed that in the same general area two other homeowners had brought similar complaints, though no one seems to have figured out why the unusual numbers. Both he and Commissioner Albert Yount argued that they were empathetic with Briggs’ request for relief, at least in part because of the previous instances. Commissioner Sue Sweeting moved that the Town grant relief on half the bill. Commissioner Doug Matheson seconded the motion, but added an amendment that Mrs. Briggs pay for the independent test of the meter ($25) as stipulated in Town Code in such instances. The amended motion passed, unanimously.
George Brudzinski, representing the High Country chapter of the Military Officers Association of America and its proposed Watauga County Veterans Memorial (to be located next to the Boone Town Hall on King Street) requested that the Town of Blowing Rock consider a gift of $10,000 to the project. The Council thanked Brudzinski, and said they would take it into consideration when they met for budget talks next spring.
- Nicole Norman brought information previously requested by the Board at its Mid-Year Retreat concerning the possibility of the Town purchasing and leasing dumpsters in serving certain commercial businesses. She brought the information before the board to think about, not expecting a decision.
- After going into closed executive session, the Commissioners re-opened the meeting to essentially table a decision for further review of an opportunity to acquire the corner lot at the corner of Sunset Dr. and Valley Blvd., currently a used car lot.
The Consent Agenda included adoption of an amended lease agreement with Blowing Rock Art & History Museum to update the former lease, a budget amendment ordinance, and certain tax releases and refunds brought to the attention of the Town by Watauga County.
The meeting was adjourned shortly after 9:00 pm after coming out of closed session.