Getting on the same page

Getting on the same page
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By David Rogers. January 1, 2018. BLOWING ROCK, NC – The recent meeting of the Blowing Rock Planning Board was disturbing for a couple of reasons: (in)consistency and hypocrisy.

Don’t get us wrong. We appreciate the work that every member of a volunteer board serving the Town of Blowing Rock (or any other municipality, for that matter) performs. Most are friends, or at least respected acquaintances. For the Town, they represent a needed level of supporting due diligence for a Board of Commissioners that is sometimes overwhelmed by Town issues, needs and demands.

That said, even the volunteer jobs still require thoughtful research, analysis, and deliberation, as well as a clear-thinking perspective.

The Central Issue

By a 4-3 vote, the Planning Board voted “no” to a conditional rezoning request by Grand Dakota Development LLC (“Grand Dakota”). If approved by the Board of Commissioners, the request would result in the rezoning of the 0.905 acre parcel immediately to the west of Speckled Trout, from Central Business (CB) zoning to Conditional Zoning-Central Business (CZ-CB). In our opinion, for whatever that is worth, the majority got it wrong in what they are recommending to Town Council.

This is not a new concept, not even for this property.

Grand Dakota’s development plan, which actually combines three contiguous parcels (two with addresses assigned to Rainey Street and one on Morningside Drive) is to demolish two, relatively small, older residential structures on the properties and, in their place, build a 12-unit multi-family townhouse complex.

Background and Precedent?

This is not a new concept, not even for this property. Supporters advertise multi-family housing on the fringe of the downtown central business district as a much needed transitional land use between the starkly different commercial and single-family residential zones of development.

Back in its April 20th meeting, the Planning Board members had concerns about a conditional rezoning request aimed at a similar townhouse development.  That project design by a different developer was 33% more dense: a 16-unit townhome development as opposed to the Grand Dakota proposal of 12 units. 

That’s not what the 2014 Comprehensive Plan actually says.

During their April deliberations, Planning Board members expressed concern about the density, as well as parking and height issues.  In reviewing the minutes from that meeting (which we also attended), most of the board members seemed to like the quality of the project, but noted that the 2014 Comprehensive Plan adopted by the Town stipulates that in some areas the density requirement should be increased from its current five (5) units per acre to eight (8). However, they noted, the April developer wanted to double even that more generous density. 

Editor’s Note: Increasing the density requirement from five units per acre to eight per acre is NOT what the 2014 Comprehensive Plan actually says. Keep reading for the answer below.

Although one Planning Board member held that any higher density project would be unacceptable, the general sentiment in April among the other board members was that the project might be acceptable, even with height and parking variances, if the density could somehow be reduced to 13 units.  One member even pointed out that downsizing the number of units also helped alleviate the developer’s challenges in meeting the parking requirements. 

That developer, a Coldwell Banker group led by Rob Pressley, eventually decided that they could not work with a lower density configuration because, given their cost of property acquisition, the economics simply did not work for the market opportunity they had identified. 

Fast Forward

So now here comes Grand Dakota with a design not for 16 or even 13 units, but 12 units. Based on what was expressed at the December 21st Planning Board meeting, even the lower density configuration — below what the majority had expressed as acceptable in April — is now unacceptable eight months later. 

Besides the inconsistency with which they are communicating to property owners looking to improve their land holdings, the Planning Board members voting against the Grand Dakota conditional rezoning request are really turning their respective backs on the 2014 Comprehensive Plan, which not only calls for more infill development within the Town limits, but also suggests (Chapter LC-3 of Section Two) the need for an expansion of housing options.  In the most intensive residential zoning districts, the Comprehensive Plan even suggests that the Town “…amend the Land Use Code to increase the density allowed…to allow AT LEAST (emphasis added) eight multi-family dwelling units per acre by-right.” 

They used the developer’s request for the rezoning to allow short-term rentals as the reason for rejecting it.

Let’s make this perfectly clear. The Comprehensive Plan, which is adopted and modified every few years, does not say that density should be increased from five units per acre to eight units.  It says “…to allow AT LEAST eight units per acre.”

A lot of smart people, including Planning Board members, Town Council members, Chamber of Commerce members, and many independent individuals and community leaders from both the business and residential sectors, as well as the professional planning and consulting firm responsible for the final draft, worked on the 2014 Comprehensive Plan, which in addition to other goals is supposed to be a sort of blueprint for the Town’s needs and its development in response to those needs.

We could find nothing in the Comprehensive Plan that would impose density restrictions for multi-family housing in a commercial zone, which the subject parcel is currently zoned and would remain so with the rezoning petition.

Bubbling Under The Surface

To be fair, at least some of the Planning Board members who were concerned about density of a 12-unit project on the parcel(s) in question appeared to begrudgingly accept the higher density, but used the developer’s request to include allowance of short-term rentals as a reason for rejecting it. 

One apparently misinformed Planning Board member even claimed that allowing short-term rentals on a property diminishes its value, but offered no documentation or evidence to back up his statement. It was just his bald opinion.

Rightly or wrongly, Blowing Rock’s economy depends on tourism.

The impact of what is now known as the “Sharing Economy” using Internet-based peer-to-peer platforms such as AirBnB and VRBO in the housing market and Uber in the personal transportation industry is just not that simple. There is an abundance of academic research now that explores all facets of this modern-day economic phenomenon, including both positive and negative perspectives.

If not hypocrisy, then at least making a misinformed decision plagued the majority of Planning Board members on this night. Consider: 

  • Directly west of the subject property (even further into residential areas), across Morningside Drive and on Shady Lane, we understand that a three-story apartment structure was previously granted a variance that allows for short-term rentals 
  • Less than a month ago, Town Council approved construction of a 21-room inn (short-term lodging) at the corner of Main Street and Cornish Road on a combined two parcels which together represent a little more than one acre – and a large portion of it lies in a river flood plain. That conditional rezoning permit from CB to CZ-CB was approved, even though this higher density project just down the street from the entrance to Chetola Mountain Resort (much of which is short-term lodging) will undoubtedly see more traffic and a higher rate of tenant turnover than the 12-unit townhouse development proposed by Grand Dakota. Both are potential transitional properties on the fringes of the downtown commercial district
  • Almost directly across the street from the proposed Grand Dakota development is Ridgeway Inn (short-term lodging).  The neighboring properties to the west of Ridgeway Inn are single-family residential housing structures.Without the benefit of transitional development, they seem to be getting along fine

In a word, short-term rentals are just another phrase to describe short-term lodging.  Given the surrounding properties and recent decisions, to use short-term rentals as an excuse not to approve the Grand Dakota project is highly inconsistent, if not the height of hypocrisy.   

The Grand Dakota developers even devised a parking scheme to make seven “finished” public spaces available on the Town’s Rainey Street right-of-way to satisfy a small part of their own parking requirement. Rather than fulfill the Town’s parking mandate by creating the requisite spaces in an unrelated satellite area elsewhere in town, they offered to improve an area that borders the north edge of their project’s property for the benefit of all, including themselves. 

Tourism Means Business 

Rightly or wrongly, Blowing Rock’s economy currently depends on tourism.  Without tourism, the village character we collectively cherish would more likely evolve as a bunch of boarded up former storefronts.  The folks who have grown up here or retired here even collectively cannot support the Town’s economy. The seasonal folks with second homes where they often stay from late spring to mid-autumn help, but they cannot support the Blowing Rock economy all on their own, either. 

Maybe a long time ago, the so-called “tourists” would come to the High Country to escape the heat for months at a time, but those days are long gone. With the advent of air conditioning (helping survive the heat of the Low Country), improved (faster and more fuel efficient) modes of transportation, the evolution of two-income families, and a much greater variety of recreational alternatives (and at more venues), vacation days are used for shorter trips to a diverse number of destinations. 

As a town, Blowing Rock has yet to come to grips with the reality of AirBnB and other peer-to-peer transaction platforms, as well as the real economic potential for part-time homeowners to realize economic gain when they are not using their properties — but that day is coming sooner than one might think. 

Economic trends, demographics, technologies…things change.

The growing number of resort towns in the mountains of North Carolina, as well as in other nearby states along the coast are having to face the same demographic and economic trends and realities.  West Jefferson, Highlands, Cashiers, even other mountain resort towns like Lewisburg, West Virginia are having to deal with areas of town that represent transitional zones (usually multi-family residential) between commercial and single-family residential.  

In Lewisburg, WV, for instance, our review of the town’s land use code reveals that it permits multi-family developments up to 16 units per acre in one residential zoning district.  Although Lewisburg is three times the size of Blowing Rock, it frequently receives high praise for its vibrant downtown village character, perhaps aided by its location just a stone’s throw from the historically famous Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs. Lewisburg is also served by Interstate 64, with far more intense and rapid traffic patterns than Blowing Rock’s widened Valley Blvd.

Getting along in life is often about compromise.

As for short-term rentals, a quick look at the AirBnB website reveals 58 properties within the Lewisburg town limits available to rent short-term, from private rooms, bungalows, apartments, townhomes, cottages and cabins, to large modern houses. 

Lewisburg has managed to preserve its more quaint village charm downtown, even though served by large brand lodging establishments like Fairfield Inn by Marriott, Holiday Inn Express, Super 8, Quality Inn, Hampton Inn, and of course nearby, The Greenbrier.

Economic trends, demographics, technologies and more. Things change.

At some point in the future, whether sooner or later, Town Council is going to approve development on that 0.905 acre site west of Speckled Trout.  Before it became a mostly vacant lot with two small residential structures, various parts of the CB-zoned parcels were home to Cheeseburgers In Paradise (fast food) on the side facing U.S. 221, and a collection of shopping center type structures going up the hill.

Being proactive in managing change leads to less conflict between various constituent interests and stakeholders.

While some nearby residents may not want to look out on a landscaped townhome development, would they rather look out on a strictly commercial development? How about another restaurant and bar, with trash bins out back?  Have you heard the crashing noise they make when workers at the end of a busy night throw out all of the beer, whiskey and vodka bottles after “last call” finally comes? How about a big concrete block of offices, or a small shopping center?  Would one of those alternatives be any more preferable than a carefully planned and landscaped townhouse development?

As the region adjacent to and around Blowing Rock grows and develops, there will undoubtedly be increased pressure for even more infill development in the village, the kind called for in the 2014 Comprehensive Plan.  Property owners have a right to maximize the economic value of their investments to every point reasonably acceptable that does not infringe on the rights of others. Sometimes those rights conflict, but getting along in life is often about compromise.

Buying a house in the middle of a a residential area with a view of Grandfather Mountain such as Mayview is not necessarily the same as owning a house next to parcels of land that are zoned commercial.  If the property next to you is commercial and you want to protect your view, for example, then your best alternative is to also buy the adjacent properties. Some folks might have the resources to do that and create their own mountain estate, but most probably can’t so must reach some sort of compromise.

The conditional rezoning process adopted by the Town in recent years is at least partially conceived to help facilitate the construction of these kinds of transitional developments, as well as to help nearby neighbors of a project to understand it and offer input on how it affects them.  These kinds of projects help soften any kind of abrupt transition from commercial to residential zoning, in this case using a multi-family development.

It would be nice, perhaps, if Blowing Rock was home to businesses that operated full tilt boogie all year ’round, but right now that isn’t a reality. At the very least, having townhomes within walking distance of downtown, whether lived in year ’round by a single owner or rented out as short-term lodging to vacation tenants, could help even out some of the seasonality in Blowing Rock’s economy.  As one local resident pointed out in support of the project at the Planning Board meeting, where more permanent type housing is created in close proximity to downtown, more businesses will spring up to serve those residents.

Blowing Rock can choose to be reactive to change, or more proactive in managing change.  In our opinion, being proactive leads to less conflict between the various constituent interests and stakeholders.

 

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