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For Morningside Townhome Development, Size, Density and Variances Matter To Blowing Rock Planning Board

By David Rogers. April 20, 2017. BLOWING ROCK, NC — When it comes to property development in Blowing Rock, “size matters.” That — and density — were the overriding themes during Thursday night’s Planning Board meeting in Town Hall, in front of a jam-packed audience filling the Council chamber.

COVER IMAGE: Rob Pressley of Coldwell Banker Commercial MECA offers descriptive comments about his proposed Morningside Townhomes development. Photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News

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RELATED STORY: https://blowingrocknews.com/neighbors-morningside-townhomes-blowingrock/

At issue was the proposed development of the 0.913 acres bounded on three sides by U.S. 221 (Yonahlassee Rd.) on the south, Morningside Drive on the west, and Rainey St. on the north, with Speckled Trout restaurant backing up to the parcel on the southeast.

Both Wes Carter (left) and George Ellis (right) were impressed by the Morningside project, but agreed that tweaks were needed.

A group led by Robert A. Pressley, CCIM, President of Charlotte-based Coldwell Banker Commercial MECA seeks conditional zoning for the parcel from CB (Central Business) to CZ-CB (Central Business, but with several variances granted the applicant under the conditional zoning process).

Even those critical of the project as presented were quick to praise Pressley and his team for the general conception of the project, its positive impact on Blowing Rock and adding to the tax base, as well as its overall architectural design, but increasing the density to 16 units from the 8+ suggested for in-fill projects in the 2014 Comprehensive Plan proved a stumbling block for the Planning Board and, ironically, is at the center of most of the variance or waiver equests.

The back portion along Rainey St. needs to be finished up as nicely as the front and side.

Town Planning Director Kevin Rothrock was first to address the Planning Board to describe the project and listed seven zoning conditions or variances from the Land Use Code.

  1. Maximum Allowable Density — The Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) currently allows for five development units per acre.  The Morningside Townhomes developer requested 17.7 DU/acre in order to get the planned 16 townhomes into the parcel.  Pressley stated that the density was dictated by the desired price points in serving the firm’s studies of market demand, balanced by the economics of the project.
  2. Minimum Distance from Street Trees to Edge of Pavement/back of sidewalk
    Don Hubble, left, was sworn in at the start of the meeting by Tammy Bentley. George Ellis, in the background, looks on.

    The UDO minimum is eight feet (8′), but the proposed condition was three feet (3′) from the back of sidewalk(s).  As presented, not all setbacks would be narrowed to 3′, but the provision would allow for the tighter configuration.

  3. Required Sidewalks — The UDO requirement is for all streets, but the proposed condition was to provide sidewalk along the majority of Morningside Drive, with none along Rainey St. However, the development plan adds curb and gutter along Rainey St.
  4. Required Street Setbacks — The UDO requirement is 15′, but the proposed variance would allow for a 1′ setback from the U.S. 221 right of way to allow for inclusion of what Pressley described as community areas and stairs, including a retaining wall made of natural stone; 7′ on Morningside Dr., and 5′ from the Rainey St. right of way.  It became readily apparent that the request for a 1′ setback along Yonahlassee Rd. (U.S. 221) was a bit deceptive because the actual building would be well back from the right of way. The requested setback was to provide for the aforementioned “community area”, staircase, and retaining wall improvements.
  5. Minimum Required Parking — The UDO requires four guest parking spaces in addition to the identified 32 spaces planned for (16 garage spaces and 16 driveway spaces).   The conditional zoning application proposes no additional parking spaces for guests other than the driveways of the units.
  6. Maximum Building Height — The UDO requirement is 30′ from the front of the project on Main St., but the zoning request is for “no greater than 50′”.  Pressley stated that when the property has a 20% upward slope it is unfair to impose a maximum building height for the front of the property to the units to be built at the back of the property. He also stated that they were actually raising the front units as much as 10′ in order to reduce the impact of the 20% slope throughout the whole project, but from each unit’s base the maximum height would be 35-37 feet.
  7. Access Drive Curb Radii — the UDO requirement is for a 20′ entry radius, but the proposed condition is for a 10′ entry radius.
Planning Board members Joe Papa (center) and Kim Hartley (far right) hear Jim West’s admonitions to the Board about paying attention “to the edges” of the development.

Former Blowing Rock Planning Board chairman Jim West, who served as a board member for 18 years, spoke from the floor and pointed out the need for both the planning board and the developers to pay attention “to the edges” of the project, for the the impact not just on the project itself but also on the neighboring properties in the immediate area.

It’s hard to imagine a 15-foot long car fitting into a 13-foot long space.

For many in the audience and on the Planning Board, that “edge” or perimeter included the part that bordered Rainey St., where a number of problems seemed to surface in the project design. Beyond the absence of a sidewalk, the fact that the design utilized a significant portion of the right-of-way to provide for driveway parking was of concern.

Planning Board member Mike Page read from the Land Use Ordinance in pointing out, “…The code for parking says that every vehicle accommodation area cannot extend beyond the front of the area onto adjacent properties or (into) public right-of-way.”  After reading that, he asked Rothrock whether the proposed parking spaces on Rainey St.  extend into the public right-of-way, to which Rothrock replied, “Yes, every one of them.”

Mike Page (far right), gets smiles from (left to right) fellow Planning Board members Kim Hartley, Don Hubble, and David Harwood.

Page later pointed out that not only are the developers of this project asking for the seven identified conditions in the application, but also for other variances in the Code, including the extension of parking into the public right-of-way on Rainey St.

Fellow Planning Board member George Ellis expressed concern about safety for some of the Rainey St. parking spaces, even if permitted to extend into the public right-of-way. Giving what he described as “real world” examples of the car lengths of a Honda Accord and a Ford pickup, he suggested that the vehicles would actually project almost into the street, if not actually into the street.

Ellis said, “On Unit 1 (near the intersection of Rainey St. with Morningside Dr.) assuming I don’t want to bash into my garage door and stop my Honda Accord, say, 18 inches (from the face of the garage door to also allow for walking space), I am going to stick out into the road about 6 inches. That’s where the back of the car is. If I park a Ford F-150 (pickup) there, I am sticking out in the road almost four feet. If someone comes down Morningside and turns (onto Rainey) and misjudges it, I’ll have an issue.”

Pressley reported that there are three basic types of floor plans designed for the project, “A,” “B,” and “C.”

It was pointed out by Rothrock that while the B and C units’ designs provided for seemingly ample garage specifications of 23′ x 11′ and 22.5′ x 11.5′, nine of the 16 units are designed as “A” floor plans, which only allows for a garage size of 13.5′ long by 11′ wide. The planning director drew chuckles from the audience when he said, “I just noticed this about 30 minutes ago, but it is hard for me to imagine getting a 15′ long vehicle (i.e. Honda Accord, which is fairly compact) into a 13′ garage.”

Engineer Jason Gaston noted that most normal parking spaces are 18′ x 9′

Several in the audience were residents of single-family homes either on Morningside Drive or Rainey St. and expressed concern about what the density meant for increased traffic both on Morningside as well as on Rainey.  Jeff Greene suggested that the developers were underestimating the amount of traffic already on Rainey St., especially in the summer.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Ellis seemed to sum up for a lot of people, “I think this project is a wonderful addition to Blowing Rock, but I also think we have to be concerned about collateral issues, including the impact for people who live on Green St. and the surrounding areas. At some point we are all going to sharpen our pencils, and we might as well begin doing it now. I have to ask what, if any, is the solution for this back portion? To me, this project looks wonderful. You’ve put a lot of work and effort into it, I just think it is the back portion along Rainey St. that needs to be finished up as nicely as the front and the side.”

Don’t get me wrong. I think this project will be a wonderful addition to Blowing Rock. We all just have to sharpen our pencils a bit.

John Aldridge noted too the Planning Board and the audience members that the parcel is currently zoned commercial business, intimating that instead of a nice in-fill residential development they could get a shopping mall.

Planning Board member Wes Carter may have offered an idea that, if implemented and can “…be made to make the numbers work…” by suggesting that the project planners eliminate units 16, 8, and 9.  “That way you can slide the whole back portion along Rainey St. down (southward) so that the entire project is inside the parcel boundaries and out of the right-of-way, with plenty of driveway room.”

Such a step also reduces the density, with its corresponding concerns relating to traffic and parking.  Based on earlier comments by Pressley, reducing the number of units necessarily results in an increase in the price points at which the townhomes will be offered for sale.  A “back of the envelope” calculation suggests that the selling price range might have to increase from $539,000 on the low end to about $646,000, and on the high end from almost $793,000 to approximately $952,000.

After a little more than three hours, which also included the Board’s installation of Don Hubble as a new member and the election of officers (David Harwood and Wes Carter were re-elected as Chairman and Vice-Chairman, respectively, the Planning Board refrained from outright rejecting the conditional zoning application in favor of tabling the discussion to give the developers an opportunity to revisit the design elements that seemed problematic for both the Board and several in the audience.

One local businessman speaking on condition of anonymity, told Blowing Rock News, “From a town planning standpoint, this is a really good project for Blowing Rock that creates a nice transition from the downtown business district to the single-family residential area. It will also contribute very significantly to an increase in the tax base.

The financial aspects are your concern, not ours. Our mission is what is best for Blowing Rock that adheres closely to the Comprehensive Plan.

“But that doesn’t mean that a good project, generally, can’t have correctable flaws,” he added. “This good project becomes a great project by reducing the density a little bit, say from 16 to 13 units along the lines of Wes Carter’s suggestion. That not only can bring the entire project into the boundaries of the parcel and allow them to do a much better job up on Rainey St, which right now looks to be more of an afterthought, but by reducing density you help alleviate at least a little bit of the parking and traffic concerns. Yes, they may have to increase the price points by 20% to make the numbers work, everything else being equal, but that still keeps them well below the expected price points of the Chestnut development at the old hospital site.  I think they still avoid the competition they are concerned about.

Planning Director Kevin Rothrock explains aspects of the site plan.

“I’m not sure what they can do about the 13′ garages,” he observed, “other than require those owners to also buy golf carts or very small cars, but I really hope they can get these issues addressed. In general, it is a very good in-fill development project. They just need some tweaks.

“This is a very strong planning board,” he concluded. “They are very receptive to ideas, but at the same time your project has to work for the town and, especially, not veer very far away from the Comprehensive Plan.  For instance, there were a couple of times when Mr. Pressley said this 16-unit configuration is what makes the numbers work, only to have Don Hubble say, ‘But the financial aspect is your concern, not ours. Our mission is in what is best for the town within the context of the Comprehensive Plan, not defending your numbers.'”

Rothrock told the Planning Board that the developers always have the option of taking the design, as is, directly to the Blowing Rock Town Council, but Pressley indicated that his team would take the feedback and return to the drawing board to evaluate a potential re-configuration.

“We may come back in three days,” he said, “and tell you that we have decided not to do the project, that we can’t get the numbers to work out. We might also come back to you at your next meeting with some modifications, seeking your blessing.  We just have to take a look at it.”

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