Tomorrow’s Blowing Rock: A Sign of the Times — or A Sign of the Times?

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By David Rogers. January 14, 2015. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Voter reactions to public policy decisions are sometimes amused, sometimes angry, sometimes befuddled, occasionally overjoyed, and very often annoyed and frustrated.

Our reaction, as for most others that attended Tuesday night’s public hearing on Appalachian Ski Mountain’s request for special signage approval (at its new Welcome Center), was bewilderment and, yes, quite a bit of annoyance.

Some folks suggested that the Blowing Rock Board of Commissioners made a proverbial “mountain out of a mole hill” (pun intended). Still others scratched their respective heads, and wondered if the Commissioners had unwittingly absorbed lessons in unwarranted micro management from a nearby town’s board of commissioners (which is why their meetings go far longer than necessary).

A couple of attendees excused the Blowing Rock policy-making body, though.  They suggested that the Board undoubtedly felt it was under a lot of scrutiny of late because of the controversies surrounding an early autumn approval of the Mountainleaf development on Main Street.  Maybe, they say, because of newly pending legal action questioning whether the Commissioners had adequately performed the duties for which they were elected — and whether they had followed the proper decision-making processes when they collectively passed the Mountainleaf project — maybe with Appalachian Ski Mountain’s signage request the Board is now redoubling its efforts to at least make it look like, “Yes we are.”

This decision was an insult to so many constituent interests and on so many levels.

After Tuesday night’s meeting, NO ONE was heard to say that the Commissioners got it right in punting App Ski Mtn’s request for a larger sign (than is currently permitted by the Town’s Land Use Code) back to the Planning Board.

Whether just looking at the facts superficially, or looking deeper into the circumstances and ramifications of the matter — including what they have asked the Planning Board to do — this decision by the Board of Commissioners is:

  • an insult to the Town staff that worked with the Moretz family to fashion a solution for a problem not of their own making;
  • an insult to the Planning Board members that considered the request and required some conditions or modifications before recommending the sign’s approval to the Commissioners;
  • an insult to the 10 business and civic leaders who stood up before the Town Council and praised the sign in support of the solution, including the Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce, the Blowing Rock Tourism Development Authority, the owners of at least four competing businesses, two architects, two members of the planning board, and the president of the adjoining homeowners association;
  • an insult to the Moretz family that has been Blowing Rock’s generous partner in so many things for the nearly 50 years of Ski Mountain’s existence. Their billboard being torn down is just bad luck. Things change. Let’s move on and adapt to changing circumstances. But to reject the signage proposal in the manner in which it was done is disrespectful and an undeserving “slap in the face.”  Most of Town Council wasn’t even around Blowing Rock 50 years ago.

Pickett & Co. Advance an Alternative

With Commissioner Ray Pickett leading the charge — eagerly supported by Commissioners Sue Sweeting and Doug Matheson, and with Dan Phillips jumping on the naysaying bandwagon for his own head-scratching reasons — the Commissioners instead instructed the Planning Board and Town staff to pen a Land Use Code amendment that applies uniformly to all signage along a roadway where the speed limit exceeds 35 miles per hour (It is 50 mph on U.S. 321 at Edmisten Rd.).

Mr. Pickett acknowledged that the proposed sign was attractive, but stated that he was uncomfortable making an exception for one business. Mr. Phillips chimed in, concerned about opening a can of worms by setting a precedent for other signage requests that might follow. Ms. Sweeting and Mr. Matheson were about all of that, and more. None of them liked the size. Commissioner Albert Yount was reticent to vote against the sign as presented because of the expressed public support and absence of objections, he said, but admitted that he didn’t like the size, either.

…it is an elegant solution to a problem not of their own making.

Well, none of them “get it”, either. Only Mayor J.B. Lawrence, who doesn’t have a vote, seemed to grasp the full magnitude of the moment. At a cost of approximately $900,000 — not to the Town, but to the Moretz family — the 20-foot tall welcome center and its proposed, 18-foot ground-based signage replace an iconic billboard that stood for some 46 years on the other side of U.S. 321. The billboard will soon be torn down, making way for a bigger bridge across the South Fork Middle Fork of the New River and a completion of the Edmisten Rd. intersection. The bridge will provide access to the Chestnut Ridge post-acute care healthcare facility currently under construction.

Tearing down the sign was not in the Moretz family’s control. It had to happen.  To replace their lost billboard, the Moretz family has worked with NCDOT, Blue Ridge Parkway, and Town of Blowing Rock regulations to fashion a novel, but very expensive solution. In December, the Commissioners unanimously approved a conditional use permit (CUP) for Ski Mtn to build a welcome center, including two variance requests: a less severely sloped roof and use of their corporate color, orange, in the building trim and signage.  The actual size of the signage and any required variances had to be considered separately from the welcome center’s CUP since signage is covered under a different ordinance.

However much the Board of Commissioners got it right in December, they got it wrong at Tuesday night’s public hearing, and on more than one level. There is no need to re-write the Land Use Code. This variance should have been approved and here’s why:

  1. Exception and Exceptional. Appalachian Ski Mountain is unique and it should be an exception to EXISTING Land Use Ordinances.
    1. Few, if any Blowing Rock businesses have been around under the same ownership as the Moretz family’s 46-year-old ski business, purchased out of foreclosure in 1968 by Mr. Grady Moretz and four entrepreneurial partners who all thought they could “make a go of it.” And they have, to Blowing Rock’s great benefit. This makes it exceptional.
    2. The signage serves Blowing Rock’s largest employer and one of the area’s foremost attractions, which is roughly three miles up a meandering Edmisten Rd.  This is the only access to the attraction. This makes it exceptional.
    3. In fact, the proposed signage not only serves App Ski Mountain’s business interests, but it is in the best interest of the many out-of-town visitors coming to Blowing Rock to ski, as well as other drivers in the area.  Many, if not most out-of-towners are not familiar with the area. Clearly visible signage helps point the way, eliminating or reducing driver confusion.  Driver confusion results in public safety concerns. This makes it exceptional.
    4. This sign is 10 feet shorter than the billboard it replaces. The Commissioners should instead say, “Gosh, this is an exceptional set of circumstances with your legacy billboard having to go, but ‘thank you’ for fashioning an elegant, artful replacement solution.
    5. Few, if any Blowing Rock businesses have the willingness and the ability to dress up a hospitality and greeting facility with a $900,000 investment. That alone makes this proposed sign exceptional.
  2. Shortypants. At 18 feet in height, this proposed sign is shorter than all other (approved) signage serving other area attractions. The Blowing Rock’s sign is over 19 feet. Tweetsie Railroad is about 24 feet high. Grandfather Mountain, also a ground-based sign, is 28 feet tall.
  3. The Sign IS Blowing Rock. The proposed sign is representative of Blowing Rock.  This isn’t a neon billboard, but a wood and stone “warm greeting” on the north side of Town to off -the-mountain visitors.  As such, the Moretz family has gone out of their way to fashion not just a sign promoting their business, but in combination with the Welcome Center to make an investment in Blowing Rock and its character as a resort and vacation destination. One Blowing Rock resident and businesswoman asked Blowing Rock News on Wednesday after hearing about the Commissioners’ decision, “Oh my goodness! Do they understand the investment required to make this proposed sign so quintessentially Blowing Rock? Brad Moretz rarely asks for favors and, really, volunteering to invest almost a million dollars in a welcome center and sign so they have the look and feel of Blowing Rock is NOT asking for a favor, it’s doing the Town a favor. “Are the Commissioners that crazy? Are they that stupid?” she asked.
  4. Economic Impact. Suppose that no one knew about App Ski Mtn, couldn’t find it if they did know about it, and so nobody came or they just kept going past an unknown attraction, on to say Beech Mountain or Sugar Mountain. The Moretz family MIGHT enjoy skiing on their runs in relative quiet and solitude, alone on their empty slopes and no crowds to fight getting into their chair lifts — but they wouldn’t have a business. Of course, that also means that dozens of Blowing Rock folks wouldn’t have wintertime jobs after closing things up for their summer employers in the late autumn. It means that many restaurants would have even fewer diners in the winter and so couldn’t stay open. It means that a lot of lodging establishments wouldn’t have heads in beds during the slowest time of the year. App Ski Mtn is definitely worth making an exception for, especially for one this minor.
  5. You Want a Can of Worms? Talk about opening a can of worms: the Board of Commissioners voted to permit significant exceptions to the much bigger Mountainleaf project — in downtown Blowing Rock — on building height (15 feet higher than the 40 feet height stipulated in the Land Use Code), number of parking spaces (13 fewer than Code requires), and the in the percentage of impervious surfaces. This, for a developer previously unproven in Blowing Rock, with little history in Town.  But they are unwilling to accommodate a request for what we calculate will be but a 4-foot variance on the height of App Ski Mtn’s welcome center sign? For a business that has had a positive economic impact on Blowing Rock and the High Country for almost half a century?
  6. Expressed Public Support. Nine of Blowing Rock’s leading business and civic leaders rose Tuesday night to voice support for the App Ski Mtn proposed signage. A 10th person, representing the App Ski Mtn welcome center’s nearest neighbor, reported unanimous support for the signage from his homeowners association while admitting, “…it is nearly impossible to get our members to agree on anything!” Other business owners and residents have claimed to Blowing Rock News that they emailed each of the Commissioners beforehand, urging them to approve this sign. No one ventured forth to Blowing Rock News with an opinion that the signage variance should be disallowed. John Q. Public in Blowing Rock gets it: App Ski Mtn’s proposed signage is beautiful, even artful, and should be a welcome, even more valuable replacement to the Town landscape than the billboard it replaces.
  7. Precedence Already Set. Section 16-17.5 of the Land Use Code provides that certain signs may be excluded from the normal regulations and stipulations in the Land Use Code because of their historical significance, so long as the signs do not pose an imminent safety hazard.  This section refers to signs — plural — meaning that more than one may be included in this exclusion.  The only sign currently listed as eligible under this exclusion is the one serving The Blowing Rock attraction, which is a 19+ foot sign at the start of the attraction’s U.S. 321 entry road. Presumably, the attraction needed a bigger sign because the business itself is quite a ways off the main highway (one-quarter to one-half mile). The message of this section is clear: there are some business or attraction signs that are special and they can be designated as such by the Board of Commissioners — and  more than one may be recognized in this way.  This section of the Land Use Code permits the Board of Commissioners to make an exception while still preserving the integrity, spirit, and intended goals of the Land Use Code regulations.
  8. “Too Big”: In the Eye of the Beholder. You may say “two-MAY-toe”, but I say “tow-MAH-tow.” Judging size and visual impact is totally a subjective, personal preference. It is a right every individual enjoys, even Town Commissioners. But as elected representatives of others, commissioners should be influenced by their own values and preferences, but should also be sensitive to the expressed views of others.  It is very possible that EVERYONE in the Town Council chambers Tuesday night, including the Mayor, Town staffers and Planning Board members who helped craft the proposed ordinance permitting the signage, LOVED the sign, including its design, character and even its size — with the exception of the sitting five Commissioners, who might just as well have been sitting in left field of Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park.
  9. In the ETJ, Not the Central Business District. The App Ski Mtn welcome center is in the ETJ, not the downtown Central Business District.  An 18-foot high monument-style sign would be out-of-place and largely unnecessary in front of a Main Street building or bordering Memorial Park, but it serves a valuable purpose in also directing traffic as proposed, as well as solving the Moretz family’s marketing problem not of their own making.
  10. A Special “Uniform” Amendment is Unnecessary, Unworkable and Unwise. In #4 above, we already have noted that previous boards have provided in the Land Use Code for special and historic situations and circumstances when it comes to signage. It appears to us that the Appalachian Ski Mountain welcome center should simply be listed along with The Blowing Rock attraction as an exclusion, and little more need be said. We grant, however, that the Planning Board, Town staff and Town Attorney may have specific reasons why they crafted the submitted amendment the way they did.  But more importantly, for the Commissioners to pursue a remedy along the lines of Mr. Pickett’s suggestion is not only “silly,” it is unwise because it will have unintended consequences that open more “cans of worms” for future commissioners.
    1. What “uniform” height are you going to impose on ground-based signs employed by businesses along roadways where the speed limit exceeds 35 mph? Six feet? 10 feet? 14 feet?
    2. If 18 feet isn’t acceptable, what is? To whose “eye” for what is “right” are we beholden?  Is this something new Commissioners might change in the years ahead? Yeah, they could make it 20 feet.
    3. Do you really want a business landscape where every sign jumps up to that arbitrarily imposed level for all businesses?
    4. Wouldn’t you rather make an exception for one specific and historic business with special circumstances rather than allow other businesses to automatically be granted permission to increase the size of their signs currently permitted under the Land Use Code?
    5. What happens if the higher speed limit areas are, in the future, formally annexed into the Town instead of being in the Town’s jurisdiction by virtue of the ETJ?
    6. What happens to the sign requirement permitting the uniformly larger signs if the speed limit is reduced to 35 mph or lower?
    7. If the speed limit is lowered to 35 mph, will the business owners with larger signs (presumably permitted by a uniform ordinance that approaches the App Ski Mountain request) be bombarding the Commissioners with variance requests, requesting to be “grandfathered in”?

We genuinely like each and every one of Blowing Rock’s Town Commissioners. They have a tough job because on many issues that come before them, whatever decision they make is going to upset a large block of voters. In this case, they ignored the overwhelming support of this proposed sign and that support was all rationally and reasonably expressed. This time, they have chosen a course of action that was poorly thought out and may carry significant unintended (adverse) consequences.

Message to the Planning Board: Send the request back to the Commissioners with exactly the same recommendation, except add Appalachian Ski Mountain to the exclusion list in Section 16-17.5 so that it is right there, with The Blowing Rock. We didn’t see that  provision with your supporting documentation that accompanies the January 13th meeting agenda.

Editor’s Correction: In our initial review of the Land Use Code, we misread (so miscalculated) the amount of the requested variance). After another review, we calculate that the proposed variance is 10 feet vs. the overall height of 8 feet permitted in the Land Use Code. This correction does not change our view that the App Ski Mountain signage should be excluded from the Land Use Code limitations, per the arguments outlined above.
Full Disclosure: Blowing Rock News does NOT have a sponsor relationship with any of the businesses mentioned in this editorial. We do have a sponsor relationship with Appalachian Regional Healthcare, the parent company of Chestnut Ridge.

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2 Comments

  1. Shelly Jackson

    I cannot believe the Board of Commissioners is micro managing to this degree….the amount of business the Moretz family has brought to the area cannot be understated here. Just think about all the dollars brought to WATAUGA county from them. Are we really so small that we have to try to “punish” a business because of a screw up (permitting the mountainleaf project) and feel we have to make life difficult for others now. Fix the problem you already screwed up…don’t punish others to make up for your mistake. Unbelievable….

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