DAY ONE: Blowing Rock Town Commissioners, Mayor dive into tough issues

DAY ONE: Blowing Rock Town Commissioners, Mayor dive into tough issues
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By David Rogers. January 14, 2018. ASHEVILLE, NC – Not wasting any time in getting neck deep in tackling controversial issues, Blowing Rock’s Town Council members jumpstarted their annual retreat Sunday afternoon at the DoubleTree by Hilton-Biltmore with two early agenda items involving short-term vacation rentals.

Blowing Rock Tourism Development Authority (TDA) executive director Tracy Brown brought information to the Council providing details of a software application, STR Helper.  The TDA has already approved implementation of the software solution as long as the Town will help defray the cost, which was reported as $15,500 per year. Brown’s request was that the Town pay for half the cost.  If the Town does not approve a sharing arrangement, then Brown will take the opportunity back to the TDA board for its approval to allow the agency to pay for the whole thing.

Blowing Rock town government appears to have a vested stake in better ways to manage short-term rentals and “offenders” not complying with the Town’s ordinances restricting any rentals to be greater than 28 days.  Members of Town Council and town staff are concerned about residents within the Town limits renting their single-family residences for less than 28 days, with some suggesting that violations are rampant.

Brown reported to the Council members that TDA staff’s research indicated that there are 75 residential properties within the Blowing Rock town limits that are available for rent.  A report prepared by STR Helper — whose software is designed to “capture” nearly all residences being rented through a reported two dozen online platforms – identified a 125 such properties.

Brown noted that the software is layered with planning and zoning resources to determine whether individual parcels or homes should be rented short term, connects the properties with their owners, generates letters to the owners, and identifies bookings through the major platforms.  Most of the major platforms now not only collect the six percent (6%) occupancy taxes owed to Blowing Rock and the state 6.25% sales tax, but once collected sends each municipality a check for all of the properties, in aggregate, each month.  Blowing Rock Finance Director Nicole Norman shared that the Town currently receives occupancy tax checks from as many as 80 payers each month, including from many individuals, but that together these rentals do not equal more than about 10% of occupancy taxes collected.

Some of the selected points made during the discussion:

  • Commissioner Sue Sweeting – “If the Town only receives one-third of the occupancy taxes for infrastructure and the TDA keeps the other two-thirds to pay for marketing and promotion of tourism, then the Town should only pay for one-third of the cost of the software.”
  • Commissioner Doug Matheson – “No reason to buy this if you don’t have ordinances with teeth (and enforcement).”
  • TDA Executive Director Tracy Brown – “A concern of destination marketing groups around the country is that there are a lot of sub-standard homes being rented (damaging an area’s reputation). We don’t want that.”
  • Commissioner Jim Steele – “Several years ago we spent an inordinate amount of time talking with residents about short-term rentals. Most people it seemed didn’t want them. But that was several years ago and things change…Whether renting short-term or long-term, (a lot of people) are looking for a different kind of experience than a hotel room.”
  • Commissioner Albert Yount – “Right now we are looking at a small cancer, but it is growing bigger.”
  • Commissioner Sue Sweeting – “The reason for this (software investment) is to catch people not paying occupancy tax and (renting homes) where not allowed. We need to review our ordinances. We don’t have a lot of meat (in them) or consequences now.”
Town Finance Director Nicole Norman, right and Mayor Pro Tem Albert Yount look over documents relating to short-term rental management software.

Finance Director Nicole Norman was asked to research whether the Town could pay for a share of the total cost out of its portion of occupancy taxes intended for infrastructure expenditures. The current ordinances will be reviewed.

The Commissioners seemed hopeful that they could be prepared to make a decision about the related issues by the regular Town Council meeting in February.

PROMOTING YEAR ‘ROUND TOURISM

While Town Manager Ed Evans offered that staff had concluded there was interest in more short-term rentals in Blowing Rock based on the 2014 Comprehensive Plan and the Benchmark Company survey of residents before the compilation of the Comprehensive Plan, Commissioner Yount questioned that assumption.  Evans acknowledged that things change, and that the Comprehensive Plan is only a guiding document, such as a budget, that is subject to change.  He noted that the portion of the Ransom Street neighborhood that is currently zoned R6M (emphasis on multi-unit housing) has changed in the last three years, with many remodels of existing homes.  Mayor Charlie Sellers noted, “Whether 3-year, 5-year, or 10-year, my experience is that plans change (with the passage of time). The Comprehensive Plan is more of a wish list reflecting the point in time that it was written.”

VOLUNTEER BOARD APPOINTMENTS

A larger than usual number of town residents have volunteered to serve on the various boards, including Planning Board, Board of Adjustment, Blowing Rock Appearance Advisory Commission, Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, and Tourism Development Authority Board.

Town staff received several commendations from Council members on the preparation and organization of the documents presented for their review, including summaries of existing board memberships, attendance records, the number of seats whose terms are expiring, the candidates for each board, and copies of letters of interest from community members with their respective resumes, etc.

Given the large number of volunteer applicants, many of whom were unknown to Council members, the Commissioners were encouraged by Mayor Charlie Sellers to engage the candidates in one-on-one interviews.

We have buses and cars. We do not have trains or an airport.

COUNCIL MEETINGS, AGENDA PROCESS

Town Manager Ed Evans expressed concerns about the timing of items submitted to be on any given month’s meeting agenda and the need to not only prepare the agenda for publication, but also to prepare the related documents for each agenda item to be included in the Board members’ packets. There was general agreement that except in the case of emergency, all requests for being included in the meeting agenda should be made by the Monday of the prior week before a meeting.  Evans agreed to formulate an appropriate ordinance, to be discussed and voted on at the February meeting.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT OFFICER

Prompted by a letter received encouraging the Town to hire an economic development officer (the author of the letter), Town Manager Evans brought the issue before the Council members for discussion.

A sampling of commentary:

  • Mayor Charlie Sellers: “Blowing Rock is a tourist town.”
  • Commissioner Virginia Powell: “We can be more than a tourist town by encouraging Internet based businesses.”
  • Commissioner Jim Steele: “We are not going to attract industry. All we have are buses and cars. We don’t have trains and we don’t have an airport.”
  • Town Manager Ed Evans: “Economic development is about business creation and business retention.”
  • Unknown: “Trying to bring more people to town when we are already at full capacity on many weekends is frustrating.”
  • Commissioner Jim Steele: “There is not much of Blowing Rock left to develop, to put businesses once you attract them. When U.S. 321 is finished, there are a few small parcels that could be appealing to businesses and that will help…but then we have the problem of affordable housing.”
  • Commissioner Albert Yount: “The labor pool is horrible here. In Newton, they recently opened a Target and they had 6,000 applicants for the jobs that brought.  (Target management) could pick and choose.”
  • Town Manager Ed Evans: “Ironically, the best broadband service in Watauga County is in the western sections, where there is access to 1G. The worst is in the eastern sections of the county.”

While acknowledging the appeal of strengthening Blowing Rock’s economic base, there didn’t seem to be a lot of interest among Commissioners in creating and filling an economic development position because of the obstacles, including weather, seasonality, lack of critical transportation options required by industry, inadequate broadband (fiber optic) capabilities.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This report is not intended to be a full reflection of the four-hour work session, but highlights of important topics and commentary.

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