Brilliance, blindsided by dysfunction

Brilliance, blindsided by dysfunction
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By David Rogers. February 14, 2019. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Brilliance was blindsided Tuesday night at the regularly scheduled February meeting of Blowing Rock’s Town Council.

A study of Blowing Rock history suggests that the Board of Commissioners’ predecessors frequently over the years faced the need to re-evaluate the Town’s various Land Use ordinances and their restrictions in light of current demographic trends and market demands.

If they had not, then we would still be a quaint little village with a Main Street paved with dirt — and livestock freely roaming the transportation arteries, the parks, and residents’ yards in Town. I suppose that the natural fertilization of Memorial Park with cow patties and sheep droppings would save money in the Parks & Recreation Department’s landscaping budget, but I am not sure that today’s residents and visitors who use the park and streets on a daily basis would have very pleasant experiences (even if something to write home about).

Where’s Frank Zappa when you need him?

Change happens, continuously, in virtually every aspect of our lives. Sometimes changes happen slowly, other times rapidly. Sometimes change is welcome, other times we would rather not see it, but it is going to happen anyway.

Charles Darwin once said, “It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.”

As someone who grew up in the 1960s and came of age in the 1970s, I witnessed firsthand one of the most turbulent, even changing times in American history. In fact, like a lot of folks, I lived those times.

Rock n’ roll music of the day produced some of the most iconic performing artists we could ever imagine. Many like Bob Dylan (remember his classic, “The Times They Are A-Changin'”?), Don McLean (“American Pie”), John Prine (“Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore”), Stephen Stills (“For What It’s Worth”), and Neil Young (“Southern Man”, a condemnation of racism), among many others that articulated the questions we all shared. It was music that fueled our challenging or at least questioning the many issues facing us, from the Vietnam War, the Kent State massacre, Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, Environmental Awareness and, of course, The Military Draft, among others.

Frank Zappa was widely dismissed by The Establishment of the day as a long-haired “hippie freak” radical, but he was actually a pretty bright guy. He attended Pomona College (one of the private Claremont Colleges where I was putting my way through school), so he had to have had some redeeming academic qualities. At the time, I had a girlfriend who was accepted at Yale, Harvard, and Stanford, but was put on the “waiting list” to get into Pomona.

The Planning Board Recommendations

In writing his music and talking about society, Zappa had an interesting way of articulating searing insights in comedic form. For instance, attributed to him is the observation, “A mind is like a parachute. It only works when it is open.”

That thought of open-mindedness has particular relevance this week because in very close-minded fashion the Board of Commissioners unanimously dismissed the very open-minded, labor-intensive, and months-in-the-making proposed amendments to the Land Use Code by the Planning Board as pertains to commercial development in Blowing Rock’s Town Center and Central Business zones.

Throw them under the bus.

They didn’t say, “Hey, there are some good ideas here but some things are troubling people, so we need to take a closer look and table this for a later decision.”

The Commissioners gave lip service to thanking the Planning Board members for their effort, then moved to deny the proposed amendments altogether. Because a bunch of people, mostly rallied by or speaking as members of the Blowing Rock Civic Association had gotten up to talk passionately against the proposed amendments — arguments based mostly on far-fetched hypo-theticals, misinformation, and distortions of the facts — the motion to summarily dismiss the recommendations was seconded and passed, unanimously.

Other Business?

More on the Planning Board later in this essay, but for now…

Tuesday night’s Town Council meeting lasted four and a half hours. Roughly two hours of it was about the public hearing focused on the Planning Board amendments. Most of the rest of it was a reversion to the kind of dysfunctional governance we have come to expect from this collection of elected officials.

ANOTHER two and a half hours AFTER the Planning Board-related mayhem and the ordeal we call a town council meeting was finally over. One of the only good parts of that second half segment was a presentation by Town Auditor Misty Watson, CPA, on her audit of the Town’s financial record-keeping. Then there was an equally cogent presentation by Finance Director Nicole Norman with a year-to-date status report on the Town’s financial condition. That was all great stuff, clearly and professionally presented.

Travesty and Tragedy

But it quickly broke down with this Board’s inclination to micro-manage things.

The bids for the long overdue Sunset Drive Streetscape project came in significantly greater than the original estimates. Instead of instructing Town Staff to find places to save without greatly compromising the quality of the project, accepting Staff’s already proposed savings, or simply bearing the greater costs with Staff’s solutions for paying for the project, these commissioners ventured quite far into the proverbial weeds. They even went so far as to laboriously calculate and re-calculate each line item in front of the media and public that had not already left. And the one commissioner leading the charge even proudly blurted out a calculation of her savings plan — a back of the envelope calculation that turned out to be off “only” by a hundred thousand dollars, or so.

Then it got worse. Since there was no discussion about the various applicants’ qualifications for the Volunteer Board positions (i.e Planning Board, BRAAC, TDA, Board of Adjustments, ABC Board) — that was done at the January retreat in Asheville — all these commissioners should have had to do was submit their votes (they have had the names for awhile now), have Town Clerk Hilari Hubner total them, and if there were any ties, have Mayor Charlie Sellers cast the deciding vote (as provided for by Town Code). At most, 10-15 minutes would have done the trick.

It was like they were seeing these calendar dates for the first time.

But no, this group of commissioners looked at their ballot sheets like they were seeing the names of the applicants for the first time, pondering who they should vote in for each board, and painstakingly put pen to paper for each name. And when a tie materialized — which at least one commissioner couldn’t understand how that could happen with five commissioners voting (but you got to vote for more than one applicant) — they went through the whole process again (instead of having the Mayor quickly cast a deciding vote).

And then this train wreck got even worse. With a good planning policy in mind, Freeman displayed the same proposed calendar of Town Council meetings and budget workshops that he gave them during the January retreat. Again, it was like they were seeing it for the first time.

They have had three weeks to compare the proposed calendar to their personal, vacation, and occupational plans. They SHOULD have individually communicated any conflicts to Mr. Freeman during that three week period and suggested to him that they needed a different date for a Council meeting or workshop — and the interim town manager could have offered a revised suggested calendar.

But no, these commissioners (with remaining members of the public and the media still looking on) commenced to say, “I’m going to be gone on vacation from this date to this date.” And another would say, “Well, I am going to be gone on that day.” “How about moving the middle budget workshop up into April? Oh, that’s Easter holiday? How about moving into March? Oh, there are state statutes that govern the time frame in which these meetings can be held?”

And so on. A full 45 minutes later, the conflicts still had not been resolved. It wasn’t clear, but I think they finally decided to submit their conflicts to Mr. Freeman and let him figure out some common ground!

I’m not sure I was successful in restraining my snoring through all of this.

Returning to Topic

But back to the Planning Board’s and Town Staff’s exceptional work and the first two hours of this confab.

Back in June, the Commissioners charged the Planning Board with reviewing the land use ordinances for Town Center and Central Business zones and asked for recommendations for any perceived needs to revise them. The reason, they said at the time (and we agreed, CLICK HERE to read our May 16, 2018 editorial, “Water forming overhead on the ceiling…time to fix the roof?”), was because so many development projects over the last few years were requesting some of the same variances or waivers, including for density, parking, building height, impervious surfaces, setbacks, and green space.

In looking at this issue, we have to wonder whether our Town ordinances on development evolved too far in their restrictiveness over the years, especially in light of the numerous requests for waivers or variances by developers.

I have written editorials about this before, but under current Land Use codes, iconic structures that have been important to the history of our quaint little village, such as Mayview Manor and the Watauga Hotel could not have been built. They would not have met the limitations on building height or even restrictions on density. Without Mayview Manor, Annie Oakley would have had to find somewhere else to fire her blunderbuss over the gorge.

As someone who pays commercial property taxes in town, I, for one, want to applaud the work of the Planning Board and its sub-committee and thank them.

Frank Zappa would be proud. Reflecting the professionals that they are, the Planning Board approached this study with open minds and came up with some exceptional insights and what really amount to “tweaks” more so than radical changes — no matter what the CCAVE crowd (Citizens Complaining About Virtually Everything) might be saying.

But the Planning Board, after careful deliberations, realized that there are some redundancies in the ordinances.  They realized that for town center to remain socially vibrant and economically viable we need to eliminate those redundancies — because they are stumbling blocks to projects that increase our tax base (duh, without the need to increase property tax rates).

And they realized that by increasing property values in the town center, we also increase property values in the neighborhoods around the center. Whether you are looking at your investment in a primary home or as a seasonal residence, it’s a much better investment if property values rise with change instead of decline with municipal stagnation.

The Planning Board didn’t suggest changing Town Code so that projects in Town Center and Central Business zones could be undertaken without the approval of the Board of Commissioners. So while there were doomsayers speaking of developers coming in and buying all the property between Morris Street and Sunset Dr. and erecting a concrete monolith like The Standard in Boone, it wouldn’t happen unless the Commissioners at such time approved it (just like now). However much the developer had spent on buying the land, demolishing buildings and designing his monolith, it still could not be built without the Commissioners concurring that the project fit the village character, quaintness, and charm that everyone seems to hold so dear.

One of the great ironies of the evening came when Commissioner Sue Sweeting stated that the Planning Board needed to call in a professional consultant to devise their recommendations and there was murmur of agreement among the other commissioners that it would have been a good idea. This is the same Board — with Sweeting, to her credit, being the lone exception — that pooh-poohed the idea of contracting with human resource professionals to help them with the hiring process for a new town manager.

In a word, the Planning Board’s recommended amendments to the Land Use Code are “brilliant” in their conception, in their open-mindedness and insightfulness. Their critics simply did not read and sufficiently comprehend the facts and realities of governance. Planning Board chairman David Harwood’s and Planning Director Kevin Rothrock’s explanations of density vs. mass fell on at least deaf, if not close-minded ears, even though it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to understand the concepts.

Just as importantly, the Commissioners failed to understand the relationship of these proposed changes to Code as they relate to the Comprehensive Plan commissioned and approved by the Board of Commissioners in 2014 — with a professional consulting firm (at significant cost to the Town) guiding the inputs of countless numbers of interest groups and individuals. Instead, like they did with the Planning Board, the Commissioners dismissed and ignored the Comprehensive Plan guidelines with this decision.

The second half of Tuesday’s Town Council meeting may well be described as a travesty in local governance. The first half? Well, that was a tragedy because they threw the hard work of the Planning Board (especially the sub-committee) and Town Staff “under the bus.” In doing so, they insulted a group of volunteers who donated their time and talents. Each of those volunteers is infinitely more qualified to consider these things than any one of the Commissioners.

And they wondered at the January “retreat” why so few people are volunteering to serve on the various advisory boards compared to past years.

Similar to the national political scene, the Blowing Rock Board of Commissioners’ decision on the Planning Board recommendations is a great example of misinformed emotion and opinion holding sway over logic and facts.

About The Author

As Editor and Publisher of Blowing Rock News, David Rogers has chosen a second professional career instead of retirement. For more than 35 years, he served in the financial services industry, principally in institutional equity research. He grew up in the oilfields north of Bakersfield, California and was a high school English major and honors student. From an economically disadvantaged family background, he worked his way through college (on grounds crew and in dining hall, as well as advertising sales for college newspapers), attending Johnston College at the University of Redlands, Claremont McKenna College, and California State University, Bakersfield. Other jobs to pay for college included a Teamsters Union job in South Central Los Angeles, a roustabout in the central California oilfields, and moving sprinkler pipe and hoeing weeds in the cotton fields west of Bakersfield. Rogers' financial services industry career took him from Bakersfield to La Jolla and San Diego, then to Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, Newport Beach and Charlotte before arriving in the High Country in 2000 to take a volunteer position coaching the rugby team at Appalachian State University and write independent stock market research. He spent three years as a senior financial writer for a global financial PR firm with offices in Los Angeles, New York, Shanghai, Beijing, Tel Aviv, and Frankfort (Germany). Rogers is the author of "The 90% Solution: Higher Returns, Less Risk" (2006, John Wiley & Co., New York). He is married to wife Kim (Jenkins Realtors), and shares in the joy provided by her three grown children and five grandchildren.

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1 Comment

  1. S.O.

    Is impeachment allowed for council members? Can the residents hold a vote for removal based on lack of confidence? They are an embarrassment to our town and to logic and reason. It’s time for Blowing Rock citizens to start taking vocal action at the council meetings during the Speakers From The Floor. Be heard that this ignorant governance is way past being acceptable.

    Reply

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