By David Rogers. October 23, 2019. BLOWING ROCK, NC — First and foremost, candidates for public office are people — each with a background not just in Blowing Rock, but past experiences that most voters don’t have a chance to become familiar with.
All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
Blowing Rock News is pleased to present these transcripts of hour-plus interviews with each of the four candidates for the two open seats on the Blowing Rock Board of Commissioners. They are intended as a service to the community, going well beyond the scope of either of the earlier candidate forums. Our purpose with these interviews is to get to know the person, his background, and his qualifications for the job of commissioner, all wrapped up in a discussion of key issues that we think are of interest to Blowing Rock voters — and we give each candidate an opportunity to articulate his views.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Neither the order in which these interviews is presented nor the interviews themselves is intended as an endorsement of any candidate.
The Other Candidate Interview Links
AY: Since 1995.
BRN: Where were you before that?
AY: Newton and Hickory
BRN: What did you do down there?
AY: Well, I went to Lenoir-Rhyne College after my time in the Navy. My first job out of college was working as a state probation officer. I started that in 1967. When I took that job I was assigned to Hickory. At that time, Catawba Valley had two probation officers. One in Newton and one in Hickory. I was the one in Hickory.
BRN: Did you grow up in Catawba County?
AY: In Newton.
BRN: So you basically got a chance to start working close to your hometown.
AY: Yes. Hickory is only about eight miles from Newton. I was a probation officer for 12 years and during that time I got married. During that 12 years, everybody that I dealt with had been in trouble of one sort or another with the court. The crimes ranged from murders to bad check writing. It was really the whole spectrum of jurisprudence. I had one guy who was a former All-American football player at Lenoir-Rhyne University. He married a very wealthy girl and couldn’t handle alcohol. He shot up her father’s house. Her father was one of the richest men in Hickory. There are all kinds of stories like that. What it does…well, after awhile I started losing confidence in mankind.
BRN: Did you do something to restore your confidence before you got too far gone?
AY: Yes. During that time, I received an offer from a fellow I had known all my life. He ran a commercial plumbing operation. His son and I finished Newton-Conover High School together and his son by that time was an OBGYN physician and a Duke graduate. He had no interest in his father’s plumbing business. So, he said to me one day, “Why don’t you come to work for me? I want you to work in the ditch and learn plumbing from the ditch out. And in three or four years, the (business) is yours.”
BRN: Sounds like a good opportunity.
AY: It was. So I did that and in three years got my plumber’s license and he turned the place over to me. I ran it for quite awhile.
BRN: Were you still working for him when you were running it?
AY: No. After I got licensed, he moved out. He rented me the shop. He didn’t sell me any blue sky, just the inventory that he had. Ultimately, he just retired. That’s what he wanted to do.
BRN: What was that experience like?
AY: As I said, I ran that plumbing business for quite awhile. We mostly just did commercial plumbing work. Everett Chevrolet was one of my customers. Churches, schools, stuff like that. Those were my customers.
BRN: So big contracts?
BRN: So, not so much Mom & Pop residential plumbing work.
AY: No, not so much residential. For instance, I think I did the plumbing work for 48 units in Valley Hills Mall and I did the irrigation work for Valley Hills Mall. That’s the kind of work I did.
At one point, we reached a crossroads of sorts. There were going to be large plumbing companies and small plumbing companies. The smaller companies weren’t profitable. I was sort of in-between, so faced with having to get either bigger or smaller. I went down from 10 plumbers to four and made more money, actually, but there always seemed to be labor problems.
You can’t fault a person for wanting to better himself or herself. Just think how hard it is to find a good plumber to come work at your house. Well, extend that to thinking about how hard it is to find a good plumber to work for you knowing that he can make more money by passing the licensing test in Raleigh and putting a sign on his truck. That is what was happening. I had a chance to sell the business at a huge profit, so that is what I did.
BRN: What did you do after that?
AY: Well, I got darn close to losing my mind!
BRN: How’s that?
AY: I had nothing to do. You can only count your money so many times!
BRN: Okay, so how did you solve that problem?
AY: An architect lived beside me, where we were living in Hickory. He told me that on the side he was doing home inspections and asked if I wouldn’t help him do that.
It didn’t take very long for me to figure out that the home inspections business is potentially very litigious. You don’t know what is behind a wall, but if you inspect a house and something goes wrong behind that wall you are supposed to have known.
So, I was soon looking for something else. I had a good friend getting out of the Army would told me that the government was starting to get into appraisals and require that everyone doing appraisals be certified, taking courses and all. He told me that I would be getting in on the ground floor.With that tip, I went to Catawba Valley Community College for about three years at night. You know, it takes longer to get an appraiser’s certification that it does a lawyer. I was an appraiser for 28 years. I just closed it up.
BRN: Overall, was that a pretty fulfilling occupation?
AY: When I sold the plumbing business, I told my wife, Martha, that from now on if I could do the work then I would do it. I didn’t want to have anyone else working for me. The appraisal business was just about perfect. No overhead except a computer.
BRN: You didn’t have to hire an HR (human resources) person…
AY: I didn’t have to hire anybody. The only benefits I paid were to myself, and I made pretty good money doing that. Anyway, that is my background.
BRN: Good. That is very interesting. Now let’s begin talking about the Blowing Rock Board of Commissioners, starting with some more general questions. From your perspective, what is the role of the Board of Commissioners?
AY: To establish policy and make plans for the future. It has never, ever occurred to me that its role was to manage day-to-day business of the town. That’s what we have the staff for.
I meet with the Town Manager every two weeks for about 30 minutes. He brings me up to date and I present any complaints to him that have come to my attention. Otherwise, I do not bother him on a daily basis.
BRN: How often do your exchanges with the Town Manager result in some eye-opening issues or observations?
AY: Well, just about every two weeks!
BRN: Is meeting with the Manager every two weeks a common practice among the commissioners?
AY: I think Sue Sweeting meets with him every week. I don’t know about the others. The Mayor, Charlie (Sellers) is really closer to the town manager than any of the commissioners, as he should be.
BRN: What do you feel are your qualifications for being a member of the board of commissioners?
AY: Well, to begin with I am one of only two people on the entire (current) Town Council who has ever made a payroll. The other is Charlie Sellers. Sometimes that is not easy, running your own business. I recall times in the plumbing business that if I didn’t have a check come in from Hickory Construction I would be in trouble. That is always going to happen because the economy always goes up and down. If you are up, you better get ready for the downs and I think that is an important lesson for town government, too. I served a hitch in the Navy which was life-altering for me.
BRN: In what way, life-altering?
AY: I left Newton as a young man thinking that was the universe and when I got in the Navy I learned quickly that it was far from the universe, that there was a bigger world out there than Newton.
BRN: What else did you learn from your Navy experience.
AY (laughing): Well, there was the right way, the wrong way, and then there was the Navy way. Guess which one they operated by? There are no deviations.
BRN: Is the Navy way always the right way?
AY: Maybe not always, but they have been in business for a little over 200 years. It is the same if you are in San Diego, California or Norfolk, Virginia. There are Navy regulations and they go by it, strictly. That is how they maintain control.
BRN: What other qualifications do you feel you have?
AY: I served 24 years on the Catawba Valley Board of Elections. The interesting takeaway from that is over the 24 years we had a potpourri of members. At any one time there were three members on the Board of Elections at that time. If you were a registered (political party) member of the sitting governor, there were two of your party as members and one of the minority party. If the governorship turned over to the other party, then that other party had the majority of members (two) on the Catawba Valley Board of Elections.
That happened twice during those 24 years I was on the Board of Elections.
BRN: So you were the surviving minority member all those years, as well as one of the majority members when the governorship switched to a different party. What happened to the other guy when you got to stay on as the sole minority member.
AY: Well, he went away! Each party meets once a year and selects its nominee or nominees for the county board of elections. The state board does the actual appointment. I survived 24 years.
BRN: Is that because you reached across party lines better than the others?
AY: I don’t know. They just sort of liked me in Catawba County. They are a very conservative people. Very conservative. There is no “liberal” Democratic Party down there. Like the old days, like the Southern Democrats used to be. Republicans and Democrats were actually pretty close together.
I say we had a potpourri of people serve on the board. There were men, women, wealthy individuals and more economically disadvantaged people. We even had a couple of crazies, who managed to work themselves out of a job. But in 24 years, that board of elections had one split vote. As it happened, I voted with the minority member (Republican) and all hell broke loose in the Democratic Party. It was a trivial issue, but at the county convention I did not get re-selected. The chairman of the county party was an attorney. He said to them, “Well, if you don’t want Albert, who voted the right way and voted the way I would have voted, then you don’t want me, either.”
But 24 years and one split vote. The way we got along, sort of the Navy type thing, if it said it in the statutes, that is what we did. If the statutes didn’t say it, then we did not do it. Catawba County is a pretty wealthy county. They had three staff attorneys and one of them attended every meeting we had. We did nothing that a staff attorney did not review the decision or give us an answer. We just kept it straight.
BRN: And these were basic policy issues, policy decisions?
AY: Oh yeah. These were statutes.
BRN: Well, why we are on the subject of split votes, let me ask you this: Is it more important to vote your conscience or to vote with the majority?
AY: It is lonely to be in the minority, but the only way I vote is how I feel. You probably haven’t seen any member of the Town Council vote in the minority more than me. Whether I vote yay or nay, it is what I feel is in the best interest of this little town we know as Blowing Rock.
BRN: Before you first got elected as a commissioner on Blowing Rock’s Town Council, did you participate in anything like the Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Challenge program?
AY: No, but I was a volunteer on the Board of Adjustments, then I went to the Planning Board. Then the late Ginny Stevens recruited me to run for Town Council.
BRN: Other than what we have talked about, have you been on any other boards, either governmental, non-profit or corporate?
AY: I was on the Hickory Regional Planning Board for six years.
BRN: Why is a unanimous board vote, if it comes out that way, better than a split vote?
AY: I wouldn’t say that it is any more important, but it projects an image that there is a total consensus of a board or council. That is easier for people to feel there is a lot of merit to the decision that was made, for or against.
BRN: A potentially sensitive question…several people have pointed out the age difference between one pair of candidates, you and Jim Steele, the incumbents, and the other pair of candidates, David Harwood and Ray Pickett, who may be as much as a generation younger. One of the questions I have heard is, what justification is there for a 70- or 80-year old to make policy decision that are going to impact the long-term future of Blowing Rock?
AY (chuckles): Well, one way to answer that is to note that the fastest-growing segment of the world population is age 85-plus. The other answer is that there is some merit to having experience.
BRN: What are some of those insights?
AY: Beating dollars out of the ground. Coming from working class parents. My mother ran a business in downtown Newton for 42 years. My father was a deputy sheriff in Catawba County and actually died in the line of duty. Nobody ever backed up to our house and unloaded money. Age is a figure. That is all it is.
BRN: In this technological age that we are living in, is there something that a younger candidate brings to the table that an older candidate can, or do you feel like as one of those older candidates you have kept up?
AY: I have a website. It is www.AlbertYount.com! It is all about Blowing Rock, and I hope you put that in your transcript of this interview.
BRN: What do you feel are the main things that the Board of Commissioners and Town Council address?
AY: The single biggest thing the Town Council does is approve the budget. This year’s budget (process) was very interesting. The original draft budget was prepared by the interim manager, Jim Freeman. He was at our budget discussions, as was our new Town Manager, Shane Fox, although the Mr. Fox was not a party to the earliest discussions.
After Fox was hired, we had a session where we discussed the proposed three-cent property tax increase. That was cut to one-cent in about an hour and a half budget discussion with the new manager giving his input as to where we could cut what he saw as too much. Basically, he cut $240,000 out of the budget. Shane Fox is a manager that gets it, and he gets it quick. He has a way about him to present his position in a very professional way.
BRN: Let’s get down to some specific issues. The major part of the town budget is funded by property taxes. Other than raising the tax rate, what can the town do to encourage increases in property values, which over time results in more property tax revenue?
AY: We have no control over valuations being increased or decreased. That is a county task.
BRN: I understand all of that, but looking at the larger picture, did you ever play the computer game, SimCity?
BRN: Well, one of the things that the simulation teaches, as well as anyone who has been through urban planning courses knows, there are certain things that a municipality can do to increase property tax values. A lot of real property valuations are dictated by broader macroeconomic or demographic trends, such as population shifts, improving access, such as widening U.S. 321 to and through Blowing Rock.
AY: Well that can work two ways.
BRN: In what respect?
AY: Some people didn’t want the highway to be widened and some people aren’t happy with the increase in noise. Many are not happy about the gridlock that appears to be happening downtown now on weekends. The ease of getting up here the way it used to be…plus, traffic is somewhat based on the growth of the South. Charlotte, I understand, is gaining 75 permanent residents a day.
BRN: Well, all of that is part of the larger macroeconomic and demographic trends that I am speaking of that are beyond a municipality’s direct control. There are some regional economists who have said that the High Country will soon be little more than a suburb of Charlotte!
AY: Yes, Charlotte has expanded just about as far as Newton right now, 40 miles northwest of Charlotte.
BRN: Well, if it is as far as Newton, then it is as far as Hickory because they all grow together down there. But getting back to my major question. Municipalities, urban planners and planning software simulations like SimCity tell us, can foster increased property values by doing things like increasing green space within and around their town, streetscape improvements, undergrounding utilities and of course upgrading infrastructure, generally. I don’t want to answer the question for you!
AY: I understand, but we really don’t have any control over tax values. Virginia made a good, interesting point. You might have a property that has a tax valuation of $300,000 but it sells in the open market for $700,000. And yet, its tax value remains at $300,000 until the next county valuation. So, some might say that cities, towns and villages are losing money. What is something worth? What somebody is willing to pay for it.
BRN: That may be true and, as a consequence of that reality, counties tend to step up the frequency of revaluation during rising markets and delay revaluations in declining market environments.
AY: I don’t know when the next revaluation is going to be, but most counties use something like an 8-year term. Often that becomes sticker shock for taxpayers because of their revaluations, but usually they are more in line with what the properties are actually worth. But revaluation is a county function and we don’t have any input.
BRN: So you don’t think there are some things the Town can do to help encourage rising property values, such as adding greenspace?
AY: You mean enhancements? Sure. Our landscaping department under Jennifer Brown and Chris Pate has created huge interest in Blowing Rock. There are people who maybe weren’t going to buy a house here until they saw how pretty the town is. That is what we don’t want to wreck.
BRN: OK. Then here is a somewhat related question: What is the role and responsibility of the Town in economic development?
BRN: I am not talking about just land development, but the business environment, too.
AY: All of that goes with it. It is size. It is mass. Whether you think a potential business will fail or succeed, well that is always a crap shoot.
BRN: Blowing Rock has always been viewed as a seasonal resort town dependent largely on tourism. And many would even lump our many seasonal residents into the tourist category. How much should the Town actively take steps to diversify the economy?
AY: That would be great. If we could find a way to supplement the Town’s expenses with something beyond tourism, it would be great. But I don’t know what it would be. Number one, we don’t have land for industry. To the south and west and east we have a thing called, “the gorge.” To the west we also have the national forest. So we are pinned in, confined, geographically.
That said, since 2012 the Blowing Rock Town Council $147 million worth of commercial development in the Town of Blowing Rock and we haven’t had a lot of business failures in that six or seven years.
BRN: Yeah, but a lot of that economic development has been tourism or at least somewhat seasonally related.
AY: They have. Restaurants, lodging. High end condos. Multi-family dwellings like up on Chestnut now.
BRN: Tourism places a lot of demands on municipal infrastructure, such as parking. On that subject, should the Town buy some land and build another parking deck?
AY: We need more parking, NOW. But it becomes an issue of the bang for your buck. Property is so expensive. Given the acquisition cost of land, one-level parking doesn’t seem to be getting enough parking for the money you are spending.
BRN: Is there any way to retrofit the existing decks to include more levels?
AY: No, there is not and that was a huge mistake by the then sitting Town Council. And, by the way, I did not vote for the American Legion parking deck for that very reason. I thought it should have been four levels. When I found out that wasn’t going to gain support – there was one other commissioner who was like-thinking as me on that – we pushed for at least building the foundation so that it would support two more levels. But that didn’t get done either. I didn’t think that parking deck was cost effective, but we would be in a helluva shape without it right now.
BRN: When did you first get elected?
AY: 2007, 12 years now.
BRN: Thanks in large measure to Doug Matheson’s work, we now have a relationship with AppleCart. What do you think of the idea of building one or more parking decks out on Valley Blvd. and expanding AppleCart’s shuttle service from the decks to downtown and other areas around?
AY: Well, that might work and it might not work. We don’t have any proof positive one way or the other that people would adapt to that. If you wanted to roll the dice, I suspect it might be a draw, but people who are using the current shuttle are being picked up at hotel sites. The mistake that was made a year ago was that the shuttle didn’t go to the Green Park Inn or the Holiday Inn, for whatever reason. This year it did and proved very much more successful with increased ridership.
I simply don’t know if you could build a large parking area off of U.S. 321 and people would cotton to the idea of catching a bus uptown and coming back that way. A lot of people even today complain that our parking decks now are too far from downtown and they are basically one block away! We actually get that as a complaint.
BRN: Related to infrastructure…a lot of the investments in infrastructure since the passage of the Community Improvement Bonds have been to catch up on deferred maintenance. They are projects or problems that previous boards kicked the proverbial can down the road, claiming they didn’t have the financial resources or they had other priorities. Going forward, does the Town have any detailed plans with stated priorities regarding, say, adding sewers to all neighborhoods, paving streets, or monitoring and dealing with stormwater.
AY: For streets, we have a plan that is in place. You can go down to Town Hall and see it, when streets will be paved or repaved. Right now it goes out 10 years I think. We don’t get as much life out of streets and roads here as they do in Hickory or other places off the mountain, because of the weather and salt.
Sewer…forget sewer to the whole town. It is impossible, mechanically and engineering-wise, it is impossible to get sewer to the whole town unless you own a mint that allows you to print money because that is what you will need to go through so much rock in many areas of town. Solid rock. There is too much for everybody to get sewer. Water is easier. With sewer, either you pump it or you gravity feed it.
BRN: If that is the case, should the residents not getting sewer receive some kind of financial consideration or rebate on their property tax?
AY: Why should they?
BRN: Well, the critic would say they are not receiving the same municipal services but are paying the same municipal taxes.
AY: True, but they made a buying decision to purchase that property – or they should have had that disclosed by a realtor. The facts are, sewer will probably never ever get to every single dwelling in Blowing Rock. It is just too cost prohibitive. That said, county departments that oversee and approve septic systems have started addressing those situations with different onsite sewage disposal technologies. It’s much more advanced now. Used to be, you just received a flat “no”, you can’t have a septic system here. That is not so much the case anymore.
BRN: Looking at the budget, how much has the town done meaningful comparisons to other similar sized towns with similar demographics?
AY: We are probably right in line with any others, maybe even better.
BRN: There are a number of people in town who believe the old fire station is a colossal waste of real estate asset because of its location in being used primarily as a storage shed for Parks & Recreation. What is wrong with repurposing that property?
AY: The property is certainly not large enough to put what some of the complainers want to do, to put a stage company or cultural center there. The space just isn’t large enough. They know it. I know it. But they won’t admit to it. That is a lot of money if we have to move out of there and move those operations somewhere else. The Town would have to buy the property and build the building just so they could say we were right and you were wrong. Is there a need, number one, for a cultural center? Probably, but we have tried the old Blowing Rock Performing Arts Center, now called Samaritan’s Purse. We tried that and it did not work. There were one or two or three reasons for it not working, but it didn’t work. You have to admit, that failure does linger in your mind. Somebody lost a lot of money there.
But here we have the old fire station and we have the landscaping department in there. You know, we have lawn mowers in there that cost more than a pickup truck. Previous to storing them there, they basically sat out in the rain and snow, everything, up at the town barn. We built a new town barn, but it was just for the street department. They don’t have room at the town barn for the equipment being sheltered in the old fire station. If we abandon that now, we have to come up with a lot of money to replace it. That is the number one issue with me when it comes to saying, “Hey, you can have this building for a dollar a year and here are the keys. We hope you will be successful.”
BRN: Scientists around the world are saying climate change is a real future threat to mankind, despite what President Trump believes, and that the change largely stems from our longtime use of fossil fuels to provide energy for economies all around the world. As a result of most of the world recognizing that climate change is real, “sustainability” has become an increasingly popular theme. Should Blowing Rock establish sustainability as a priority in making public policy decisions?
AY: I have no problem with promoting the idea that sustainability is worthwhile. Right or wrong, it is how you look at it, I guess. There is (research) that the planet has gone through warm periods and cold periods. All I know is: used to be, 80 (degrees Fahrenheit) was a hot day in Blowing Rock.
That is now becoming more commonplace. So, it is getting warmer. I don’t think we can wait on it going back the other way. There must be something to it because what is the market saying? You have all of these car people saying they are going to build electric cars.
BRN: Other than electric cars, what other steps can we take to reduce the Town’s use of fossil fuels?
AY: Well, we could put some solar panels on Town Hall and light up Memorial Park! Shane (Fox), our new manager is looking into it.
That’s one thing. You know, it won’t be long before you can buy a Ford F-150 that is all-electric.
BRN: I’m waiting for the Jeep Wranglers to become at least hybrid!
AY: Hybrid may be a dead horse, anymore, and I don’t think it should be. I guess I have range anxiety. All-electric cars are still limited. I don’t care how much money you have, they still can’t get you from here to the beach without stopping to charge for awhile. What happens when you get to a certain point and there are 25 cars in line waiting to be charged? And it takes each one 15 minutes to an hour?
At a certain point in time, all-electric may be viable, but you just think of all the gasoline stations there are where you can buy gas. It’s about convenience and workability.
All-electric will also be the end of an industry, putting all of those gas stations out of business, as well as refineries and the whole supply chain.
BRN: Certainly, it would be disruptive, but one of the counter-arguments that people make is that to produce that energy with which you are charging the all-electric vehicle, you are still having to produce that electricity with another energy source, either nuclear, hydroelectric, or still in a vast majority of the world, with fossil fuels.
AY: Yes, SOMEONE is making that electricity.
BRN: The big exception being our friend Kevin Troyer, at 4 Forty Four Construction. Locally, at least, he powers his three Tesla electric vehicles with the solar panels producing energy from atop of his office building. So, his capital investment in the solar panels is not just providing electricity for his offices, but also for his vehicles during their daytime idle time.
Now, let’s look at solar technology. Currently, the Town’s Land Use Code, for a commercial building, restricts the amount of roof space to either 10% or 20% of the available rooftop, depending on the type of roof it is, to be used for solar panels. What is the justification for restricting it at all? Why not make it 100%?
AY: I can’t think of any reason it should be (limited), except that some people might not want to see a solar panel.
BRN: So it is an aesthetic objection. Haven’t those days come and gone?
AY: I would say so.
BRN: Has anyone on the current Town Council broached the subject of eliminating that restriction, which at least at first glance seems silly in this day and age?
AY: No, because nobody (from the public) has asked for more. Kevin (Troyer) has mentioned it, but he hasn’t asked (for the restriction to be lifted).
Personally, I don’t have an objection to solar panels, aesthetically, but I understand the people that do.
BRN: Related to this discussion…for Town employees where vehicles are provided, should the Town invest in electric or hybrid vehicles, whether to follow this sustainability theme or just to provide greater fuel efficiency?
AY: Absolutely. I have advocated that for about six years, through three previous Town managers. Our current Town Manager is an exception.
BRN: Blowing Rock has for many years been a tourism-centric town, at least since the Moses Cone days at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century.
AY: True, it has not really been very many working stiffs’ place to live.
BRN: Yes, especially if you count seasonal, non-permanent residents as a special class of tourists. Well, a couple of questions here. First, the Middle Fork Greenway has been viewed as potentially a significant economic driver. If you feel that is true, what can Blowing Rock do to leverage that regional economic asset?
AY: That trail will only be an asset to a certain group of people, not the whole spectrum. I don’t see Blowing Rock igniting with growth because of that trail. It might be nice, but you really don’t see Boone doing a lot for the Greenway. By comparison, look at what Blowing Rock has already done. We have helped them get grants and a lot of stuff. I am all for the Greenway, but I don’t look at it as a panacea. It will be a really nice addition to what we already have.
BRN: Speaking of trails…what can the Town do to ensure that Valley Blvd., not that it has been widened, does not end up looking like U.S. 321 going through either Lenoir or Boone?
AY: Well, we have hired Benchmark Consulting, the planning firm that has worked for us in an exemplary manner before, to take a look at that. I don’t think the $20,000 we have budgeted is cheap and we have had some questions about it, but when you look at it, Valley Blvd. is a challenge. The topography out there and the depth of blocks or parcels, makes it a challenge (for development). We have zoning in place for the whole town and to this point has served us well, but the major over-riding issue is we don’t want it to look like Boone or Lenoir and it doesn’t have to.
On the east side of Valley Blvd. you have narrow lots. Someone has previously said, “Well, those narrow lots can’t really be built on.” But come on, today you can do just about anything. Someone might want to build up, with a taller building. A good engineer can build just about anything, anywhere.
BRN: That is, of course, if the Land Use Code permits it.
AY: Right. My position for out there is that the zoning should be less restrictive than for our core downtown.
BRN: What is the justification for spending that $20,000 for a consulting firm? What are they going to tell us that the Planning Director or the Planning Board can’t already tell us?
AY: Well, they are professionals in this type of work. They have done some extraordinary work along these lines in Wilmington, in some pretty tight places. It is worthy of note that they have done that. They are working all over the Southeast. A lot of cities and towns are finally realizing that they have competition. When you first start thinking about a town, the first thing people think is, “What does it look like?”
As you know, I am on the ad hoc committee about Valley Blvd. As you know, originally I was not in favor of the ad hoc approach. I did change my vote, which I had every right to do, to make it unanimous, but if we approve the consulting contract, I would bet that when this consulting firm comes back with their preliminary proposal, it will be referred from Council to the Planning Board. It is sort of a reverse osmosis. I thought it should have gone from the Planning Board and then to Council, but maybe the ad hoc committee is going to end up being the better of those two approaches. We aren’t asking the Planning Board to put their blessing on hiring the consultant, but I will be an advocate for getting feedback from the Planning Board on whatever the consulting firm comes up with.
BRN: Why are short-term vacation rentals a bad thing?
AY: They are not a bad thing. I just think we have enough of them. I am not against short-term rentals. I am against short-term rentals’ proliferation. Period. We have around 140 (legal) short-term rentals within the town limits right now. I think that is adequate. That counts the condos that are at Chetola and Royal Oaks.
BRN: Well, a lot of people would argue that their need is not to rent a condo, but a vacation home, which is very different.
AY: I said I am not going to say anymore about it. I am against a proliferation of short-term rentals. I think we have a good mix and let it go at that. I am not against taking away the right of anyone to do short-term rentals that has that right now.
BRN: You just don’t want anyone else to have that right?
AY: I don’t want to see proliferation of short-term rentals because there is a lot of evidence about the way they impact neighborhoods.
BRN: Can you cite some academic studies about what you are calling evidence?
AY: Right here is one from Sedona, Arizona that is fairly interesting. It is a letter to the editor in a newspaper. Evidently, short-term rentals have totally gotten out of control there, which it can do pretty quickly.
BRN (reading): Well, it seems that the author’s chief complaint beyond the developing intruding upon a deer path behind her house is that “a once quiet street is now punctuated by the steady noise of construction.”
But that is going to happen whatever the construction is for. It is a temporary inconvenience.
AY: Yeah, probably for a year.
BRN (reading): One of the complaints here is that investors are moving in to buy land, building homes for vacation rentals, and driving up housing costs. Well, there are a lot of people claiming that vacation rentals are harmful to property values. Ironically, your author here is saying just the opposite. Unless she is a renter…if she is an existing homeowner, she actually profits from what she describes from the noise, which is temporary.
Most of this article is irrelevant to the question. One, it is talking about new construction specifically for the purpose of building vacation home rentals in larger areas of land. Blowing Rock doesn’t have much of that within the town limits. Two, the disruption this woman cites is temporary, from the construction activity. The only way you can stop that construction anywhere is to buy up the land around you. Otherwise, you are vulnerable to someone building next to you.
All this article is really doing, legitimately, is bringing up the same issue that Blowing Rock and other municipalities are already dealing with in North Carolina. Does the state, which charters municipalities, have the right to mandate the regulation of short-term rentals or should it be left up to local control? It is the same as the larger concept of state’s rights vs. federal rights.
AY: Well, it is one person’s viewpoint, but it appears to have wreaked havoc in Sedona, Arizona. I don’t anticipate that I would oppose new construction of neighborhoods specifically developed as shorter-term rental enclaves, but I do oppose it for existing neighborhoods any more than we already have it.
AY: Well, we really need to go to work on downtown traffic gridlock. I am not sure what we can do, but perhaps work with the NCDOT on the intersection of Sunset Dr. and Main St. People crossing, people turning left. It is a real downtown mess. That is not anything I pretend to be an expert at, but I know gridlock when I see it. It is real there and we need to work on it. We need more parking places, and we need them fast.
BRN: A few years ago, during peak season, you actually had a 9-year old girl hit in that intersection, by a car or truck.
AY: The other thing is that I don’t know whether I can, if I wanted it, get my hands on an up-to-date parking study on Blowing Rock. Everybody starts talking about it and the next sentence is, “The realtors take up all the (downtown Main Street) spaces. Well it may or may not be true, but where are the realtors to park? They are an integral part of the town, too. Just because you have a real estate license you can’t park here? You can’t say that. What I think the Town needs to do is have a real professional study done, with an inventory of parking that we have and ask the question: can we manage it better than we are managing it now? That might entail some European-type parking fees, with kiosks, managed by a private company so the Town doesn’t have to hire a special person. We have enough employees as it is.
BRN: Wouldn’t that parking study be more important and a better investment than spending $20,000 on Valley Blvd.?
AY: I wouldn’t rate (the tasks) one over the other. I will tell you, candidly, that $20,000 is a lot of money to pay out there (on Valley Blvd.). But when I look at for the long-term, it is not a lot of money for either of those studies. There are things we can do fairly quickly once we see the results of the study and someone says, “Man, you aren’t using your available parking as good as you could.” The parking enforcement patrol (for hours parked) is helping, but I am advocating that someone in the private sector conduct a study.
BRN: There have been instances of considerable delays – the Sunset Dr. streetscape project comes immediately to mind – where the Council has either kicked the can down the road or just not operated very efficiently towards a timely decision. The result is that the eventual cost gets inflated. It costs much more than it probably should have. What is your responsibility as an individual commissioner to tell other commissioners that the way they are conducting themselves is detrimental or counter-productive to the work as a whole.
AY (laughs): I wouldn’t tell another commissioner remotely what to do. We have done a lot of can kicking, but we need to come to grips with parking. We need to come to grips with what we want our town to look like not just in the next four years, but in the next forty-four years.
BRN: Well, on that note, thank-you Albert for your candor and insights, and the time you have spent with us today.
AY: Thank-you. If you are doing this the same way for all candidates for commissioner, it is a good service to the community.