By David Rogers. January 6, 2020. BLOWING ROCK, NC — While most of Monday’s annual “planning retreat” of the Blowing Rock Town Council was pretty routine, if not mundane, discussion became a little more animated in the late morning and afternoon sessions around three topics: volunteer board appointments, short-term rentals, and the traditional conditional use permit process vs. the alternative conditional zoning method for approving or disallowing potential development projects.
COVER IMAGE: Commissioner Doug Matheson, center, explains that getting rid of the conditional use permit process might make the Town more vulnerable to litigation by developers. Photographic image by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News.
Credit Town Manager Shane Fox and his staff for their organization and preparation for this three-day meeting hosted at the Blowing Rock Art & History Museum, in the facility’s Community Room. Fox opened the business portion of the meeting by reviewing the various topics and goals discussed at the 2019 retreat. The Council members as well as the nearly dozen citizens and media representatives in attendance were brought up to date on the Sunset “streetscape” project and its near completion, the Bass Lake sidewalk project, the Town’s relationship with Watauga County, debt and bond issuance, landscaping challenges on U.S. 321/Valley Blvd., a proposed merit system for compensating Town employees, and a request by some community members to improve conditions at the Town’s Cone Rd. site along with other topics.
In time and under budget.
The 2019 Review
- The Sunset Dr. streetscape project really started with the passage of the 2014 Community Improvement bonds. While various proposals were considered, things didn’t really get started in earnest until the Council members decided at last January’s retreat that Sunset Dr. could not be ignored or delayed any longer, casting aside some of the more elaborate improvement ideas in favor of a more affordable, basic plan to improve curb and gutters, as well as repaving while addressing various water and sewer issues. The $2.3 million project was started in April 2019 and mostly finished by December, led by contractor Iron Mountain, who received plaudits from the commissioners and staff for working with the Town. Fox pointed out that Iron Mountain showed great patience at times with sometimes trying conditions in working through the busy summer. Commissioner Virginia Powell complimented Iron Mountain’s special efforts to protect the students attending Blowing Rock School during the construction period. Fox noted that the project was on time and under budget, including installation of 1,440 linear feet of 6″ and 8″ water lines; 1,180 linear feet of 6″ sewer line; 100% new service taps; improvements to stormwater drainage; all new manholes; all new curb and gutter, as well as paving; and sidewalks, trees and other streetscape features. A ribbon-cutting is planned for January 14th, 4:00 pm
- Fox noted that staff efforts to bring short-term rentals into compliance resulted in 125 applications being sent out in mid-2019 to property owners identified by the new software purchased in conjunction with the Blowing Rock TDA. Of the 125, approximately 100 applications have been returned and the $100 application fee paid, with staff in the process of following up on the rest. He also noted the attempts to pass legislation in the North Carolina state legislature to approve short-term rentals in all jurisdictions within the state, and shared efforts of Blowing Rock and other resort-type communities to retain local control
- Fox reported that the proposed sidewalk from Main Street to Bass Lake has been delayed by right-of-way, easement, permits, and other challenges, but the $1.2 million project that was begun in 2013 may soon come to fruition. Some 80% of the funding is coming from an EFLAP grant, matched by a 20% contribution from the Town. While two bids were received, both were about 30% over the estimate calculated by McGill Associates in collaboration with NCDOT engineers, so a careful ine item study is being conducted to ascertain differences and potential misunderstandings. A second bidding process should be completed by January 31st
- Fox and members fo Town staff are working closely with Watauga County are joint interests. Blowing Rock continues to have the only town-funded elementary school School Resource Officer (SRO). Three other SROs are funded by the County and “float” among the eight other schools. On April 11, 2019, the Town sent the County a notice letter to terminate the current dispatch relationship. Town staff is working with the County on a modified plan that will include leaving 9-1-1 dispatch with the County, but providing for a 7-day, 24-hour local answering service in Blowing Rock for non-emergency matters. The proposed arrangement will have someone staffed at the Blowing Rock Police Station every day from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm to handle non-emergency matters, and an answering service during the night time and early morning hours for people calling 828-295-5210 (Blowing Rock’s non-emergency phone line). Fox also indicated that the Town is seeking to reclaim control of scheduling for Davant Field to Blowing Rock Parks & Recreation. Under the current arrangement, scheduling is controlled by Watauga County Parks & Recreation, but that has led to event conflicts in the past
Don’t borrow funds except where needed for specific uses.
- Fox reported that Phase III of the 2014 Community Improvement bonds ($4.37 million) had been successfully issued and sold, receiving a AA+ bond rating in November 2019 and sold on December 10th with a 1.9117% interest rate, well below what staff had originally budged at 5%. He shared a comment from the State Treasure’s office that “…this might be the lowest TIC 20-year bond we have (seen)”
- The U.S. 321/Valley Blvd. landscaping program began in late April, with an NCDOT contract awarded to Piedmont Landscaping, LLC. Many of the early planted trees died because of the June 2019 drought, resulting in a joint “task force” to be formed that included not only Piedmont and the NCDOT, but also Town staff and local resident David Goodson, who Fox commended for his tireless contributions. The final scope of the project will include 624 trees planted, 7,000 perrennials, and 85,000 feet of (grass) requiring mowing, edging, etc. The Town is scheduled to take over maintenance in July 2021.
- Fox stated that before any sort of employee-based merit system for compensation can be implemented there must first be a uniform evaluation sytsem designed to ensure fairness to all employees. He expects the new scoring system by June 2020 and the town employee handbook updated for the new fiscal year
- For the Cone Road Public Works improvement initiative advanced by local resident Tim Gupton and the Mayview Homeowners Association, Fox reported that $60,000 had been budgeted
POWELL: A “resident” means that you are here full-time.
- Fox shared that other 2019 initiatives included the $850,000 Sourwood Lane water line project that included 5,000 linear feet of 2″ and 6″ water line, ditch line work and road widening, stormwater drainage improvements, and needed new fire hydrants. He outlined the new commercial developments that had been completed or approved, including Cornish Inn, Blue Ridge Hotel, Rainey Lodge, and the 1150 Main Street project, among others. He also noted progress on the Middle Fork Greenway section from Tanger Outlets to Chestnut Ridge, and reminded the council members that during 2019 they had hired a new Town Manager, promoted a new Police Chief, and promoted a new Public Works department head.
Finance Director Nicole Norman provided a very thorough report and analysis of the Town’s financial position, including each phase of the Community Improvement bonds:
- Phase I (2016): $4,635,000
- Phase II (2018): $2,300,000
- Phase III (Current): $4.370,000
- Remaining Authorization: $1,695,000
She provided additional information about the expected uses for the future debt that are authorized and scheduled, and added information on the estimated debt service.
In answer to a question by Commissioner Albert Yount about why all of the bonds could not be issued at once to take advantage of the historically low interest rates, Norman and Fox stated that one of the fiduciary requirements for low ratings in municipal finance is to not borrow funds except where needed for specific uses.
Norman also outlined that of the overall General Fund budget, the sources of revenue included:
- Property taxes (52%)
- Sales taxes (21%)
- Occupancy taxes (5%)
- Other (10%)
Norman went on to provide extensive detail on each item and where the Town is at the mid-point of the fiscal year vs. the previous fiscal year and the budget, including for expenditures.
Volunteer Board Appointments
Things got more animated when the Council members began to discuss Volunteer Board appointments for the ABC Board, Planning Board, Blowing Rock Appearance Advisory Commission, Board of Adjustment, and Tourism Development Authority. It quickly became obvious that the Board of Commissioners in conjunction with the Mayor and Town Manager have some work to do in determining who exactly qualifies for the various positions.
Commissioner Virginia Powell argued that being a resident means living in Blowing Rock year ’round, implying that seasonal residency does not qualify. “You live here, have kids that go to school here, and play here,” Powell declared.
Commissioner Sue Sweeting expressed a different viewpoint, as did fellow commissioners Doug Matheson and David Harwood.
There are nine open board positions and 18 applications received as of the retreat, with new applications potentially to be received.
Planning topics bring more heat
As might be expected in a town with a demonstrated history of economic development and preservation often proving battleground conflicts, during the Planning section of Day One led by Planning Director Kevin Rothrock, discussion got even more animated at times.
Rothrock reviewed the “Top Ten” priority projects from the 2014 Comprehensive Plan that included:
- Planning for Downtown Overhead Utility Relocation
- Middle Fork Greenway Extension (through town)
- Multi-use Path from Downtown to Bass Lake
- Valley Blvd. Gateway Enhancements
- Illustrated Architectural and Site Design Solutions
- Complete Downtown Streetscape Project
- Continue Utility Facilities Plan Implementation
- Expand Culture/Arts Use of Town Facilities
- Develop Arts/Cultural Center on Park Avenue
- Middle Fork Greenway Completion (to Boone)
Rothrock noted that some of those projects were well underway (i.e. Bass Lake, Greenway) while others had been modified, dismissed or delayed (i.e., Park Ave. cultural center, utility relocation, Valley Blvd. gateway) in the interim. He went through the Comprehensive Plan implementation section line by line to provide a status of each recommendation or initiative.
Chapter 160D will require each local jurisdiction to modify their land use regulations.
The Planning Director reported on what he described as sweeping changes for Land Use Law in North Carolina, as passed by the North Carolina General Assembly in 2019, including new Chapter 160D in the North Carolina General Statutes. He stated that these statute changes require each local government in North Carolina (city and county) to modify their land use regulations. He included a checklist of the types of changes (required or suggested) the NCGA expected to be made to local land use ordinances in the coming months, with an effective date of January 1, 2021.
Rothrock indicated that the anticipated changes included potential downtown coded amendments related to:
- Parking Credits
- Setbacks and building heights related to East and West Main Street
- And others
CUP vs. Conditional Zoning
The discussion eventually evolved to an interest expressed by some commissioners, principally Sue Sweeting and Virginia Powell, with some additional interest offered by Albert Yount, in changing how the Board of Commissioners approves or disapproves all proposed developments. Currently, a property owner/development applicant has an opportunity to choose between the conditional use permit process or a less formal conditional zoning process.
Getting rid of the CUP option could open the Town up to litigation where a proposed development satisfies all of the Land Use Code requirements but is rejected by a majority of the Council member just because of their whims or personal preferences.
The conditional use permit (CUP) process is a quasi-judicial proceeding that requires all of the commissioners to NOT engage in ex parte communications with anyone outside of the CUP public hearing and to only consider evidence and testimony delivered in the public hearing. This is the process that got Sweeting in “hot water” last spring when it was documented that she had engaged in communications with at least one other person outside of the CUP process even though she had been cautioned against such interactions by the interim town manager, Jim Freeman, as well as by Town Attorney Allen Moseley.
The conditional zoning process is a legislative process and the commissioners are permitted to talk with whomever they want. They may also approve or reject a development application based on their personal preferences or choices.
While Sweeting and Powell were adamant about having the freedom to talk with whomever they wanted, Commissioners Matheson and Harwood may have offered observations that will maintain the status quo.
Matheson pointed out that if a proposed development meets all requirements of the Land Use Code and the Board of Commissioners rejects or disallows the project, the Town may be more vulnerable to costly litigation. He said that just because a majority of the board members don’t like a specific development does not mean that it is a bad project. “What is one person’s jewel may be another’s thorn,” he said, adding that the Council should not put itself in a position where it can dictate on the basis of personal preferences when the proposed development satisfies all aspects of the Land Use Code.
Harwood reinforced that thought by saying that the Town Council needs to respect property owner’s rights and suggested that not giving the property owner a conditional use permit option is not congruent with respecting those rights.
Rothrock also pointed out that all previously granted CUPs still carry the CUP and any requested changes would still be subject to quasi-judicial proceedings.
A 28-Day “Loophole”
In the Planning segment of Monday’s session, the Council members also discussed what Harwood brought forth as a “loophole” in the requirement for vacation rentals in neighborhoods outside of the downtown and the central business district to be a minimum of 28 days. He said the way some property owners and their rental agents are interpreting the rule is that they can have one rental every 28 days, regardless of the length of stay. So property owners are blocking off 28-day periods, even though the length of stay may only be for, say, five days or even a weekend.
So if a renter stays only five days and the property owner allows family or friends to use the home without charge during that 28-day period, they are in violation of the ordinance.
Where this becomes a particular problem, Harwood and Rothrock pointed out, is where a property owner also permits other family members or family friends to use the house in a non-rental arrangement.
“The ordinance permits only one rental, lease, or use of the property in a 28-day period,” said Rothrock. “So if a renter stays only five days and the property owner allows family members or friends to use the home a couple of times without charge during the rest of that 28-day period, then technically they are in violation of the ordinance.”
One suggestion was for the short-term renter to sign a 28-day rental agreement that essentially makes the home unavailable for any other use during that period. Another suggestion was to have a lawyer carefully word the ordinance to clarify the intent.
Rothrock pointed out that having a short-term renter for five days, twelve times a year may actually be less intrusive for neighboring property owners than having twelve 28-day renters because, otherwise, the house sits empty. Both he and Matheson pointed out that whatever the restrictions, they are extremely difficult to monitor and enforce.
On Day Two, Tuesday, the Town Council members will hear from Matt Blackburn, Public Works Director and Doug Chapman of McGill Associates (town engineer) on plans for street paving in 2020, capital planning for the water plant and wastewater plant, as well as other town infrastructure improvements and capital planning, including pressure release valves and automated water meters.
Later on Day Two, the Council members will hear from Jennifer Brown, Parks and Recreation Director, who will lead discussions about Memorial Park, including capital planning for playground and restroom improvements and other areas, as well as a request from Blowing Rock Historical Society related to the 1888 Museum. Additional Parks & Rec topics include pickleball, access to the American Legion Building from Broyhill Lake, and the Broyhill Lake dam.
Other afternoon topics will include discussions about tourism and transportation involving the Town Manager (Shane Fox), Police Chief (Aaron Miller) and TDA Director (Tracy Brown). The scope of discussion will be fairly broad, covering capital plans for sidewalks and crosswalks, as well as parking-related issues and items related to the 4th of July and Christmas parades.
The Council will close the Day Two session with a discussion focused on a proposal to increase the Mayor’s term from two to four years, as well as steps by the Town to enhance its energy efficiency.