By David Rogers. May 30, 2015. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Invoking an image portrayed in Our State magazine of Blowing Rock and Beaufort serving as historic and precious “bookends” to North Carolina, one in the mountains and one on the coast that must be protected, keynote speaker Mr. Don Reid applauded the formation of the new Blowing Rock Civic Association (BRCA) as a non-profit, community rallying point in Blowing Rock.
COVER IMAGE: Former Charlotte city councilman, advertising executive, and more recent community activist in his seasonal hometown of Montreat, Don Reid kept the BRCA audience laughing, even while offering thought-provoking insights and perspective to the importance of citizens organizing. All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News.
Headlining the agenda for the organization’s “introductory meeting” held at The Blowing Rock attraction on Gideon Ridge, Reid offered words of both encouragement and insight — while lacing in just the proper dash of tongue-in-cheek, sardonic humor to keep everyone listening, if only to hear what he would say next.
Mr. Reid served on the Charlotte City Council for eight years, is a prominent advertising executive in the region, and has emerged as a veteran community activist in his adopted seasonal “hometown” of Montreat, North Carolina.
Blowing Rock is increasingly going to become a suburb of Charlotte.
Learning the Process of Activisim
Blowing Rock’s hastily formed “Concerned Citizens” group recently lost a challenge of the town-approved conditional use permit (CUP) granted to Charlotte’s The Catellus Group for its Mountainleaf development project on North Main Street in Blowing Rock. Led by George and Betsy Wilcox, the Concerned Citizens group declined to appeal the mid-March ruling by Superior Court Judge Marvin Pope, Jr. that the they did not have legal standing to bring litigation aimed at getting the Board of Commissioners to reconsider its August 2014 approval of the CUP. The Wilcox-led group lost the battle, but in the process learned a great deal about the challenges of community activism and perhaps a better, long-term way to voice citizens’ concerns about their governance.
Mr. Wilcox explained to Blowing Rock News last week, “We are not anti-development, but we do want the Commissioners to do the job right and require developers to satisfy the findings of fact requirements stipulated in our town’s Land Use Code, especially for a project of this magnitude and with the public outcry that had rallied against it during the public hearings. We didn’t get a chance to outline the main issues in our court appeal because the judge said we didn’t have legal standing. We subsequently consulted with a couple of high profile law firms in Charlotte and they both think he erred in that decision, that there is a high probability that we could win an appeal to a higher court, but there are larger things at stake here. An appeal would drag this thing out for perhaps another year and, according to what we are hearing, the lack of a definitive decision on Mountainleaf could have an adverse impact on all development in Blowing Rock. That is not our goal and that’s not fair to otherwise good projects that may well be important to the town.
“We may have lost the battle,” added Mr. Wilcox, “but in the process we have learned some things. With our many friends similarly concerned about things getting done right by our elected officials, we have formed the Blowing Rock Civic Association to work with local and regional governments; zoning, voting and election agencies; health care providers; and other non-government organizations to keep residents aware and educated on the critical issues facing Blowing Rock.”
If you want a seat at the (planning) table, then you better get cracking.
Wilcox went on to note that those issues include protecting the unique beauty of the area, taxes, public safety, environmental protection, and any other matters that either threaten the community or might enhance it.
Reporting that the role of the BRCA is not just as a protest group, Wilcox said the goal is to remain engaged with the Town staff, as well as elected officials at a very early stage of evolving issues, to avoid what he described as the sort of crisis response that resulted after the Mountainleaf CUP’s approval. “For instance,” Wilcox recalled for the Friday night audience, “I sat down with Town Manager Scott Fogleman and had a very constructive conversation about our willingness to work WITH the town in addressing challenging issues and problems. He asked if there was anything we could do to speed up the construction on U.S. 321. Well, it just so happens that our group includes people perhaps not of influence, but certainly who have the ear of people in high places. We’ve started to work on that.”
Veteran Community Activist Speaks
In his prepared remarks, Mr. Reid kept the approximately 60 attendees at the inaugural meeting laughing, as well as thinking about their respective roles and responsibilities in Blowing Rock’s governance. He emphasized that organizing early, ahead of the issues and keeping abreast of the issues coming before the town and community is increasingly important because of the expected growth in the region over the next couple of decades.
“This may shock you,” Mr. Reid offered, “but Blowing Rock is increasingly going to become a suburb of Charlotte…Charlotte is bursting at the seams. This is the most building I have seen and I have been (in Charlotte) all of your lives and some of mine! (laughter)…As the growth continues and with it the congestion, traffic and stress, more and more people will be looking for a weekend retreat or vacation homes and of course Blowing Rock is a prime prospect for that.
“If you anticipate this growth and plan for it,” he added, “this could be an opportunity for Blowing Rock. If the citizens and residents want a part in this planning, if you want a seat at the table, then you had better get cracking.”
Turning sardonically serious he continued, “Of course, you can forget all of the anticipated growth and begin your town’s shutdown if the DOT continues its blazing speed over on the U.S. 321 bypass.”
Reid related that Charlotteans have a lot of sympathy for the pain suffered by Blowing Rock residents and business owners during the U.S. 321 widening project. “The I-485 outerbelt (freeway) is scheduled to be completed in early June of this year. It took 27 years. That is, of course, 67 miles, but I think the Great Wall of China was built (faster).”
Blowing Rock citizens have every right to determine how their town is run.
Besides the transportation-related “elephant in the room”, U.S. 321, Reid touched on other issues that should be of concern to the Blowing Rock Civic Association:
- “The current property tax in Blowing Rock is 31 cents and the proposed budget increases that to 34 cents. That doesn’t sound like much but it is a 10% property tax increase if it passes.”
- “There is a problem: the NC Sales Tax is 6.5%. Two cents of that sales tax is collected by the state and distributed back to counties and cities that collected it. The distribution is 25% based on population and 75% based on where the sales took place. Right now, the state is considering new legislation that will change this formula to use population as the only basis for these distributions. If this legislation passes as proposed, Blowing Rock will lose $975,000. Without cutting spending or finding other sources of revenue, it will take at least an eight cent property tax increase to make up the difference. That would be more than another 23% tax increase. That’s another reason for the Blowing Rock Civic Association to exist.”
- “When people are elected to office, even the smallest of offices, the trustees of power (get) addicted. The longer they are in office the worse it gets and the more willing elected officials are to compromise in order to stay (in office). The results are never good. Government grows numerically. (Government) activities increase in scope. The elected bodies become more distant and unresponsive to the people and more vulnerable to special interests, such as to developers. Taxes increase on the successful and the responsible and the hard-working, while government spending increases.”
Montreat, Reid said, shares some demographic similarities with Blowing Rock. He reported that more than half of the homeowners are seasonal in what he described as “the sleepy little town”. But Montreat became a hotbed of controversy when the Town Council proposed to build a new 8,000-square foot Town Hall costing taxpayers some $2.5 million.
“We simply want to enjoy Montreat,” said Reid. “The last thing on our minds is Montreat politics. We never dreamed the Town Council would propose that big of a building for our little town of just over 700 people.
Be reasonable…and begin early.
“Just like you are doing in Blowing Rock, we formed a new organization. We asked for a re-study of the issue, bringing as many as 200 residents to town council meetings. Did the town council listen? Yep, they sure did. Did they respond? Yes they did — they doubled down and continued with their plans while blaming the citizens for causing the controversy. They even lectured us for not having paid more attention to what was going on at City Hall.
“Our organization had no options short of a lawsuit. Finally one person stepped forward and said, ‘I am suing. I hope some of you will help me. If not, I will do it myself.’ With an email list of about 500, we immediately raised about $47,000.
Our only option was a lawsuit, but that should be a last resort.
“Blowing Rock citizens have every right to determine how their town is run,” Reid observed, “including how it grows and how it retains the unique qualities that make it such a special place, while still respecting property rights — which is the bedrock of our republic. You MAY require developers and others to conform to the rules and regulations that protect these qualities. You can do that. This organization is vital if you want a seat at the table in determining how Blowing Rock will change and grow in the future. You need to publicize and grow your organization and include all of those who care about retaining these unique qualities that we all know.”
- “Define yourself. This is pretty important. Make everyone aware that you are not anti-development, you are not anti-business, and you are not anti-Chamber of Commerce. You just want things done right. Formalize common goals with all of these entities. Go visit towns that have faced similar problems. See how they have successfully dealt with these situations.
- “Be reasonable…and begin early. I imagine, George (nodding to Mr. Wilcox), that earlier intervention might have resulted in some modifications to the Mountainleaf project that could have made it acceptable to most of the town. You waited until it was too late. That is my guess.”
- “Reject those who will reject anything. We have folks in Montreat who basically say, ‘I have mine, so let’s put all of the remaining property in a forest conservatory. That’s what a few people want. At the other end of the spectrum, you have some folks that, if given a chance, would build low-income housing on Main Street. Those are the two extremes.
- “Most important of all, your greatest protections will result from elections of officials who share your Blowing Rock vision. As a 501(c)(3) your organization cannot support individual candidates, but you can promote candidate forums and you can solicit and distribute candidate questionnaires. You can identify problems and opportunities for the town and state your positions regarding them.”
- “Getting quality candidates is a problem. It is a problem in Charlotte. It is a problem here. It is a problem everywhere. Responsible people are out working. They don’t have time to be on the Town Council, but you have to change that. Some of you should consider running for office. Ultimately, your mayor and board of commissioners will decide the fate of Blowing Rock.”
- “A lawsuit should be a last resort. Our system of government is supposed to allow citizens to protect their rights through the courts. Unfortunately, this route is often very disappointing. For a lawsuit to have any chance of success, you must be able to raise some money and you must hire the best, most high profile lawyer available. Don’t take a knife to a gunfight.”
One Man’s View
While membership in the BRCA is open to individuals representing any and all constituent interests in Blowing Rock, Friday night’s meeting was dominated by folks from the “seasonal” demographic, especially members of the Blowing Rock Country Club.
Everyone interviewed by Blowing Rock News afterwards voiced a complaint common to seasonal residents: even though they represent the lion’s share of property taxes paid to the Town of Blowing Rock — and property taxes contribute roughly 60% of the Town’s revenue — they feel they are virtually ignored when it comes to the Town’s governance because most have their voter registration at another, primary residence.
We also know…there must be economic development.
One person interviewed spoke candidly with Blowing Rock News on condition of anonymity. He explained, “I would speculate that every single one of us have what is best for Blowing Rock at heart. Obviously, that means different things to different people, but that is the meta-goal, if you will — what is best for Blowing Rock, this special slice of heaven in the High Country?
“We also know,” he added, “that in order for this town to survive and thrive there must be economic development. Things and times change, and with more people moving to the High Country, whether because of an expanding enrollment at Appalachian State University or new businesses or developments like Chestnut Ridge, there will be both internal and external pressures for Blowing Rock to grow, too. Mr. Reid described an external, mostly tourism-related force, too, and that is the anticipated growth down the mountain in the more urban areas of the state.
“Growth and change are unavoidable, but we can either be proactive in managing those forces the right way, responsibly, or let them run willy-nilly over us like they have in so many other places.
“Blowing Rock is a municipality with a special set of political circumstances,” he added, “although certainly it is a set of circumstances shared by similar tourist and resort towns. Seasonal residents like us pay a big chunk of the town’s property taxes — which I understand represents over half of the revenue to fund the town’s growing budget — but because we are not voters the elected officials tend to discount what we say, whether it is about development, about infrastructure, well just about everything. They may pay lip service so they can say they are listening, but as a group they really don’t listen to the concerns of the people. They have their own ideas, and that is good, but in public service you must have an open mind because your preconceived notion about what is a best solution may not be when it all comes out in the wash at the end of the day.
“The current composition of the Board is dangerous because you have a majority of commissioners that seem to be pre-deciding things, even before the public hearings,” he observed. “The danger is that instead of listening in what is supposed to be a public hearing they will mentally try to defend and justify their already orchestrated solutions to the problems or issues at hand. They may perceive that pre-orchestrating the solution as more efficient, but it is a disingenuous, deceitful and irresponsible form of governance in a democratic society, even forgetting for a moment that it runs counter to North Carolina’s open meeting laws.
This civic association may not be a cure-all for protecting the interests of all constituent groups, but it is a start.
“Mountainleaf is just one example,” recounted this longtime seasonal resident. “Blowing Rock has among both its full-time and seasonal populations an amazing, highly intelligent collection of skillsets, experience, and educated perspectives perhaps not found like this anywhere else in the state. And yet, in the end the Board of Commissioners ignored the concerns of so many residents — voters and non-voters — about the project. They discounted the opinions expressed by their own citizens in the public hearings as non-expert testimony.
He continued, “Just about every statement coming out of the mouths of the developers was taken as expert gospel. Well, the so-called experts they had testifying were on the payroll for the project. They were offering far from independent testimony, whether it was expert or not, because they had a vested interest in the project to go forward.
“For a project this size, there SHOULD have been an independent study done about the impact on public safety, especially with regard to increased traffic. There SHOULD have been an independent study done about the impact on surrounding property owners, not just the immediately adjacent ones, although that wasn’t done either. There SHOULD have been an independent study done regarding the impact on the downtown Central Business District. Given the periodic heavy rainfall up here, there SHOULD have been an independent study done on a variance granted for more impervious surfaces. With the parking issues that we already have in town, how can the commissioners justify granting a parking variance for 13 spaces with only the developer’s rationalization as supposed expert testimony, especially when the town has charged other new businesses tens of thousands of dollars for parking? (emphasis added by Blowing Rock News to reflect the spoken emphasis)
150 newly re-registered voters may not mean much to a Charlotte election, but in Blowing Rock it would have great impact. That’s what we need to be working towards.
“Like a lot of people, I feel that some kind of development is needed on that parcel,” he observed, “but for a project of this magnitude I don’t think we can take at face value the statements by the developers that their design and plans are the only expert opinions needed. There are a myriad other possibilities for developing that parcel, but they may not represent the business uses or elements important to that specific developer. So were they holding a gun to the heads of the three Commissioners that voted for approval, the findings of fact required by the Land Use Code be damned? ‘You let us build THIS design or we’re not going to bring our money to town’?
“This civic association may not be the cure-all for protecting the vested interests of all constituent groups, but it is a start,” he concluded. “As Mr. Reid suggested, more of us need to change our voter registrations. A hundred and fifty votes in a Charlotte or Raleigh or Winston-Salem election probably has little impact in those large cities, but in Blowing Rock, where the biggest vote getter last election got a little more than 400 votes, that same 150 votes — if the registration is changed to Blowing Rock — could have a significant impact. We need good, thoughtful, and independent candidates for elected office and we need to vote for them.”
For more information about the Blowing Rock Civic Association, interested parties should call 828-295-3199 or email email@example.com.