By David Rogers. January 17, 2018. ASHEVILLE, NC — Sitting through Day 2 of the Blowing Rock Town Council annual retreat was an intense lesson in municipal government, getting down and dirty in a number of issues relating to Planning & Inspections, as well as Water & Sewer (where things can get really messy).
COVER IMAGE: Doug Chapman of McGill Associates discusses sewer issues for parts of Chestnut Hill and Laurel Park neighborhoods. All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
Monday’s session was not only interesting, but brought a new appreciation for the issues Blowing Rock’s elected officials and Town staffers must deal with on a regular basis, even if there is an implicit tendency toward micro-managing and not giving Town staffers sufficient free rein to do the jobs they were hired to do. It was also fascinating to observe the skillsets and perspectives that each of the Town Council members, through their dialogue with and amongst each other, bring to the task of town government.
A topic that generated a mixture of emotions ranging from outrage and consternation to genuine alarm came late in the day when Town Engineer Doug Chapman of McGill & Associates engineering firm outlined various needs in Water & Sewer. He showed pictures of the inner workings of the Water Plant, pointing out various aging components, from rusting flange bolts to valves and pumps that have nearly achieved antique status. He then pointed out what he described as the most pressing problem the town faces from an engineering standpoint, and that is the installation of a water main valve just south of the water plant to “isolate” the facility, if the need arises.
There was even a sense of outrage when the Council members learned that if something occurred to interrupt operation of the Water Plant, such as one of those older pump failures or a leak at one of the connective flanges, then at least all of the water in the line from Possum Hollow Road would flow back to the Plant and cause flooding in and around it, even possibly raising havoc on nearby U.S. 321. Consequently, they vowed to make consideration of this replacement a top priority for a potential decision at the February regular Council meeting.
“Of all the things we have talked about today,” observed Commissioner Jim Steele, “this should be our #1 priority. This is serious.”
PLANNING & INSPECTIONS
Planning Director Kevin Rothrock was on hand to discuss a number of topics relevant to his sphere of influence.
- The issue keeps coming up, with several requests for a variance from the density restriction in the Land Use Code of no more than five units per acre for multi-family housing projects, such as the two recently proposed Morningside Dr. developments.
- Rothrock referred to the Comprehensive Plan adopted by the Town Council in 2014 that suggested the Town consider an increase in density to AT LEAST eight units per acre.
- Albert Yount expressed an opinion that there be NO increase in density, noting that the inability of a developer to make money at five units per acre was not the Town’s problem, but the developer’s. “You knew what the density requirement was when you bought the property,” Yount declared, “or at least you should have known. Don’t whine about it now!”
- Rothrock will ask the Planning Board to review the issue and make a recommendation, without any suggestion by the Council body as to any number for density. “I’d like them to look at this issue without any kind of preconceived (or arbitrary) standard,” said Steele.
- Multi-Family Development Administrative Process
- On behalf of Town staff, Rothrock asked the Council to consider revising the process by which multi-family developments get approved or disapproved, specifically where a development is permitted by right through zoning, allowing for streamlining the process. Currently development project proposals go before the Planning Board and then Town Council, which can hear proposals whether or not the Planning Board recommends approval or denial.
- Under this proposal, approval or disapproval, including administering changes to a development in order to comply with the Land Use Code and other Town ordinances would fall to the Planning Director and staff.
- While Commissioner Albert Yount conceded there are some benefits, especially to the developer for fast tracking the process, he later expressed reservations “I see a loss of control. What overview do we have?”
- Commissioner Virginia Rothrock: “I don’t know why we need to speed it up”
- Commissioner Sue Sweeting: “A three or four-month process is not a burden.”
- Moody Building
- Rothrock reported that the building roughly half a block down Sunset Drive from Main Street remains unoccupied, even though Town Council approved a CUP request at least a year and half ago. According to statements made by Commissioners, the Council has approved an amended CUP, and has given owner Robert Lovern at least two extensions. Commissioner Sue Sweeting noted that the building is increasingly an eyesore, currently painted three different colors.
- Rothrock noted that Lovern’s problem is that he doesn’t currently have a tenant business, so is reluctant to invest any more money in the building until he does. The plans of at least one and possibly two such tenants have fallen through.
- Commissioner Virginia Powell: “Is he being realistic on the rent he is charging them?”
- Commissioner Jim Steele: “If he does nothing, is it a fire or safety hazard?”
- Town Manager Ed Evans: “The building is nowhere near a point where it can be condemned.”
- Mayor Charlie Sellers: “What can WE do to help him develop it?”
- Commissioner Doug Matheson: “Just about the only thing we can make him do is mow the grass…The State has gotten very strict on towns telling property owners what they can or can’t do.”
- Trash and Recycling
- This is issue was brought to the agenda by Commissioner Sue Sweeting. She stated that she continually observes piles of garbage left for days at a time in front of a neighbor’s house, presumably left for pickup and recycling, but sometimes days before the service comes around. A bear in the neighborhood mauls through the garbage, and occasionally high winds contribute to the garbage being scattered about and “shared” with neighbors. Sweeting wondered whether there is a timing problem with when pickup is scheduled so far after a weekend. She did not know whether the problem was caused by owners coming up part-time, i.e. for a weekend, or whether short-term rental tenants were dutifully putting out the garbage after a weekend.
- Rothrock suggested that included in an ordinance should be a requirement that garbage only be brought out the night before pickup is scheduled, at the earliest.
- Some of the Commissioners requested that additional research be conducted to see how other towns address the problem and ask the Planning Board to review it.
- Sunset Drive and Gateway Entrances
- By request, the gateway entrance discussion was merged with discussion re: Sunset Drive since the topics are related.
- Commissioner Virginia Powell noted that the Sunset Drive and Valley Blvd. intersection is not the only practical entrance to downtown, that for people coming from the west, they are entering town on U.S. 221 near the Horse Show Grounds; that for people coming from Boone, they are entering downtown on North Main St., by Chetola and the Tanger Outlet; that from the south, they are entering downtown via South Main St. People getting off the Parkway are using the west entrance or the north entrance.
- Mayor Charlie Sellers: “Sunset Dr. is not the only entrance to downtown. Citizens don’t want to spend millions of dollars when we don’t have to.”
- In discussions about undergrounding utilities, there is a question for where the “big green boxes” (transformers?) are going to sit. There was one suggestion that they could be placed underground near the intersection.
- Commissioner Jim Steele noted that Sunset Drive looked like a Third World country “because we keep tearing it up.” Acknowledging that there needs to be attention given to cleaning up Sunset Dr. and improving it, he said, “This is simple. We can do ‘A’, which is some sort of basic improvement (costs the least), or we can do ‘C’, which is the Full Monty (costs the most). In between, there is ‘B’, which is something in between. Let’s define A, B, and C, have a big public meeting to lay out the alternatives (and their respective costs), and get a sense of what the people want.”
- Commissioner Albert Yount observed that the way the intersection at Main St. and Sunset Dr is laid out and the present signage, it is a major source of downtown congestion. It was pointed out that the Department of Transportation had some plans in the works that would help remedy that.
- The Commissioners hoped to finalize Sunset Dr. plans by the June retreat.
- Chestnut Drive Development
- According to statements made by Commissioners Sweeting and Powell, there has been a significant backlash or cries of surprise and alarm at the size of the wall on the northeast corner that was formerly a parking lot.
- Rothrock noted that everything that has been built so far has been exactly as in the plans submitted with the conditional use permit application, reviewed at the neighborhood meeting, and approved by the Board of Commissioners. He suggested that the perception of the site may be more dramatic because that area of the property was previously a parking lot and the hospital and medical clinic buildings were more set back from the street.
- Town Manager Ed Evans suggested that renderings to scale were now much easier to produce because of computer-aided design software. Future projects may be required to submit more detailed renderings to scale with different views, including incorporation of vehicles and people.
- Tax Revenue Added for New Completed Projects
- Town Manager Ed Evans and Planning Director Rothrock discussed the impact of new construction on property tax revenue.
- Rothrock presented a table to the Council and staff present indicating that 2017 was a record breaker when it came to the value of new construction applications. Upon request from Blowing Rock News, he sent us additional historical data that pre-dated the 2008 financial collapse. Here is the summary Construction Value for each year since 2003:
- 2003 — $15,200,000
- 2004 — $10,813,450
- 2005 — $25,408,700
- 2006 — $24,674,000
- 2007 — $20,468,616
- 2008 — $30,573,286
- 2009 — $21,469,141
- 2010 — $9,251,800
- 2011 — $9,379,589
- 2012 — $7,282,812
- 2013 — $30,761,222
- 2014 — $20,318,433
- 2015 — $14,209,352
- 2016 — $13,269,851
- 2017 — $39,515,725
- Town Manager Evans and Planning Director Rothrock explained to the Commissioners and Mayor that the construction value does not equate to the tax valuation for calculating property taxes, that the tax valuation is usually a much lower number. Evans indicated that the timing of tax revaluation is up to the County Board of Commissioners, but noted that during a period of rising real estate prices the revaluation, historically, has been more frequent and longer between valuations when property values are perceived to be in decline.
PUBLIC RECORDS & SUNSHINE LAWS
- Town Manager Ed Evans spent a considerable amount of time reviewing what each Council member is required to keep in terms of public records and reminded them that no more than two of them could meet together to discuss Town business without requiring notice of a public meeting.
- He stated that all emails that they send must be retained, however any email received from a citizen about a Town issue or complaint does not have to be retained if they do not respond to it.
- Commissioners Doug Matheson and Virginia Powell, as well as Mayor Charlie Sellers pointed out certain items relating to this issue based on what they learned at recent state workshops.
- Among the interesting items brought forward by Town Manager Evans is the North Carolina statutory requirement of Commissioners (and Mayor in the event of a tie vote) to vote “yes” or “no” on issues brought before the Council. Any abstention is counted as an affirmative “yes” vote. Said one member, “The citizens elected you to make decisions, to vote, not to abstain.” The only exception is when a commissioner or mayor recuses himself or herself because of a direct financial interest or direct involvement.
MEMORIAL PARK TREES
- Discussion about the upcoming tree replacement project and opportunities for citizen donations or sponsorship of trees and benches.
- Major concerns included how such a program would be implemented, as well as maintenance of trees, benches and memorial items.
- Alternatives discussed included plaques or labels on either a bench or tree, or on a wall or kiosk. Various commissioners discounted the idea of putting memorial recognition on the restroom wall.
- Commissioner Jim Steele said, “The main thing you want to do is to keep it simple.”
- Added Mayor Sellers, “Less is more.”
- Town Manager Evans, based on his research, “An attractive kiosk type sign is $5,000.”
- Suggestions included reviewing what Blowing Rock Art & History Museum has done to recognize donors, as well as the special restrooms built at Bass Lake thanks to individual donations.
- Regarding the removal of trees, Town Manager Evans held out the possibility of some trees being removed by Blue Ridge Energy because of their interference with utility lines.
DOUG CHAPMAN, McGILL ASSOCIATES
- SCADA – Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition
- Chapman discussed what the technology does and why the Town should adopt it, with relevance to a lot of town infrastructure issues, including water, wastewater, sewer, water treatment plant, pump stations
- “It gives the Town the ability to monitor the water and sewer systems.”
- “Cost benefits to using an Internet-based system vs. a radio-based system.”
- “Monitors components within your facility, providing alarms and notifications.”
- Commissioner Virginia Powell: “Why is this being brought before us? Are there problems?”
- Town Manager Ed Evans: “There are much more efficient and cost effective ways for our staff to do things and it gives us early warnings of problems. The trend all over the U.S. (among municipalities) is to move toward electronic monitoring.”
- Chapman: “There are several different manufacturers”
- Evans: “This is just general discussion about SCADA, with no recommendation to adopt any one of them.”
- Chapman: “Internet based systems allow you to get in at a lower cost, but there are longer term costs.”
- Chapman recalled several incidents for the Commissioners and Mayor where an early warning would have helped prevent damage, as well as increased cost.
- When asked by Commissioner Steele how many towns he works for has this technology, Chapman replied, “I wouldn’t say all of them, but probably about 70%.” Steele replied, “So we are behind the times.”
- Village Drive
- In November 2016, the Town paved Village Dr., which runs from Green Hill Rd. to Goforth Rd., behind Village at the Green Park and New Village of the Green Park condominiums. By doing so, they elevated the street level some one and half inches, which prevents rain and melting snow or ice in the condominium parking areas from draining, which also means that ice forms in the parking lot when it gets cold enough. The Property Owners Association at New Vil
- lage of the Green Park is requesting that the Town solve the drainage problem they have created.
- Chapman and Town Manager Evans shared that all of the options for fixing the problem have issues of their own. Kipp Turner of Maymead has consulted on the issue and may have a solution that will work.
- Commissioner Albert Yount: “We caused the problem, so it is our problem.”
- Road Paving
- Chapman reported on the stages of road paving relative to the general obligation bond phases, including the scoring process by which they chose which streets and roads to pave first. The road condition accounted for 90% of the score, with the volume of traffic on the road accounting for 10%. Based on the score, the roads and streets were ranked A,B,C,D, and E, with A being best. The scores were reviewed with Town staff.
- They have begun with streets ranked E and D, walking each street to measure and mark needed repairs, including cut and patch, milling, surface treatment, resurface, drainage, shoulder backfill, striping, manhole risers, valve box risers, and curbing.
- After determining costs, they review the estimates with staff and to maximize the budget evaluate additional streets to include in the current phase.
- Initial scoring is complete, as are the detailed evaluation of the E’s and D’s, and they are finishing the targeted C’s. They are currently preparing bid documents and will begin advertising for bids on January 19. Bid opening is February 6th, with the bid award on February 13 and the notice to proceed on March 12th.
- Sidewalk to Bass Lake
- Final revisions have been submitted to the NCDOT, awaiting last approval
- February 5th — Advertise for bids
- March 6th — Bid opening
- March 13th — Bid award
- April 16 — Notice to proceed
- October 15 — Projected completion
- Sourwood Lane and Water Line Replacement
- Extensive discussion about Sourwood Lane, along with the water line replacement.
- The street problems include lack of a shoulder, being too narrow for two cars, road bed failures, drainage, resurfacing, and the dangerous intersection with Green Hill Rd.
- One suggestion to be discussed with residents for feedback is to make Sourwood one-way going west from Green Hill Rd. to Oak St.
- Laurel Park and Chestnut Hill neighborhoods’ sewer connections
- Discussion centered around the number of homes that are not connected to the Town sewer line, as well as some who are connected and not paying for sewer service, it has been discovered.
- The status of some residents who have recently added or improved septic tank facilities
WATAUGA COUNTY VETERANS MEMORIAL
George Brudzinski and Doug May of the Military Officers Association of America High Country Chapter presented information about the progress and fundraising efforts for a veterans memorial in downtown Boone, on King Street, next to Boone Town Hall.
- While located in Boone, the Memorial is to honor all veterans in Watauga County, all branches of military service, and all of the eight conflicts in which the U.S. military has been engaged.
- Through in-kind contributions, the cost of the project has been significantly reduced, but the group is still roughly $33,000 underfunded. The MOAA chapter is seeking contributions from various municipalities, organizations, businesses, and individuals in Watauga County.