By David Rogers. August 13, 2019. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Blowing Rock’s Town Council was in a “deny” mood Tuesday night. Once again ignoring a unanimous recommendation of the Blowing Rock Planning Board, by a 4-1 vote the Commissioners rejected an application by a group of five homeowners along Valley Blvd. to rezone their properties from R-15 (residential) to R-6-M (multi-family) with a short-term rental overlay.
The public hearing on the matter was the centerpiece of a light August agenda for the regular monthly Town Council meeting.
Commissioner Virginia Powell advanced the motion to deny the rezoning request and it was quickly seconded by Commissioner Sue Sweeting. After public comment and commissioner discussion, the lone “nay” vote (which favored the applicant) was by Jim Steele, who seemingly agreed with Planning Director Kevin Rothrock’s assertion that if the request was for any other group of properties along Valley Blvd. and possibly within the entire town limits, it is unlikely that it would have even made it to the Planning Board for consideration.
But, Rothrock explained to the Town Council members, this grouping of five contiguous parcels is unique. On their front side runs a busy, four-lane U.S. highway. Behind their houses, the land drops off precipitously into “the gorge”, rendering that acreage unlikely to be developed because of the terrain and limited access point(s).
Blowing Rock deserves better than ill-founded, spurious outbursts that defy logic, intelligent thinking, and research that often waste considerable amounts of time.
To the north of this grouping is a large vacant lot owned by North Carolina Department of Transportation (also with terrain challenges for development) and beyond that a short distance, other multi-family developments where the property is zoned R-6-M.
To the south is a vacant, 40-foot strip of land that represents the right-of-way onto the acreage that falls so steeply into Caldwell County behind this five-house group. And past that narrow strip is a large, sloping parking lot serving the needs of Ridgeline Inn, a restaurant and bar.
“It is unique,” declared Rothrock. “There is nothing else like it in town with these characteristics.”
It was pretty clear as soon as the public hearing was closed and the commissioners starting voicing opinions that the request would be denied, the most vocal negative position initially being offered by Commissioner Powell.
Powell, whose family owns a short-term rental on Main Street that may or may not become her family’s full-time residence, argued vociferously that the five property owners knew when they bought their houses that the land was zoned R-15 and that short-term rentals were not permitted. She suggested that approving this rezoning with the short-term rental overlay would be a disservice to the current Blowing Rock property owners that are in areas where short-term rentals are already legal (town center and central business).
During the public hearing portion of the deliberations, South Main St. resident and Southmarke shopping center owner Karyn Herterich called out Powell’s potential conflict of interest in that approval of any additional short-term rentals in Town meant increased competition for Powell’s business interests.
Irony continues to abound with this Board of Commissioners, as currently comprised.
Mayor Charlie Sellers explained to Herterich that the law governing Council members’ conflicts of interest required the elected official to have some sort of direct compensation, so in this case did not require Powell’s recusal from the public hearing.
That wasn’t good enough for at least some in the audience. As one observer said later to Blowing Rock News, “It may not or may not be sufficient enough of a direct conflict of interest for requiring Ms. Powell to recuse herself, but it is still a conflict and she was clearly biased, even to the point of insulting our intelligence.”
Powell also mysteriously drew comparisons for short term vacation rentals in Blowing Rock to her family’s recent trip to Yellowstone National Park and their exiting the park through West Yellowstone. In her comments, she seemed to blame whatever municipal ills from which the small Montana town suffered on short-term rentals.
- EDITOR’S NOTE: West Yellowstone is similar in size to Blowing Rock, with a population of approximately 1,300, but that is pretty much where the similarities end. Both are highly impacted by tourism, but very different kinds of tourism. Blowing Rock is primarily a seasonal resort and retirement town (with periodic special events) whereas West Yellowstone has an economy that is almost purely driven by traffic to and from one the nation’s most popular national parks. Some of the residents are full-time National Park Service employees, while many others are seasonal, often even minimum wage service employees, including college students. Many of the residences serving their needs are, in fact, mobile homes. Whether from Powell or any other commissioner, Blowing Rock deserves better than ill-founded, spurious outbursts that defy logic, thinking, and research that often waste considerable amounts of Town Council meeting time and are off-point.
Commissioner Sue Sweeting feared that if the Board approved this request, however isolated or unique, that it would unleash a barrage of other requests from groupings of homeowners in other neighborhoods, from Mayview to Laurel Park to Green Hill. She stated that it would be unwise to set this precedent.
- EDITOR’S NOTE: In taking this position, Sweeting plainly rejected the Planning Board’s stated (unanimous) recommendation and rationale that approval of this property would not be precedent-setting. Perhaps she didn’t read the Planning Board minutes or speak with any of the advisory board’s members (which she is allowed to do since this was a Conditional Rezoning application and not a Conditional Use Permit process [which is a quasi-judicial proceeding and ex parte communications are forbidden]. We find it ironic that as one of the commissioners seeming to favor the conditional rezoning process over the more restrictive CUP process that she is not aware of its features and advantages. As we understand it, one of the features of conditional rezoning is that every project that comes before the Board of Commissioners is looked at on its own merits, and is not considered precedent-setting for future applications. Moreover, if approval of this unique enclave of homes unleashes a “barrage” of other requests, then there is a potentially larger message: maybe Blowing Rock’s Board of Commissioners should reconsider current restrictions on less than 28 day vacation rentals because such a “barrage” in various neighborhoods would indicate that a large number of their constituents have an interest in change. Irony continues to abound with this Board of Commissioners, as currently comprised.
Other residents spoke against the application suggesting that short-term rentals would increase the amounts of trash and potentially the number of cars parked on the properties.
Another audience member speaking to Blowing Rock News did not agree.
“That argument just doesn’t hold water,” she said. “It would be rare that a visiting family produces any more trash to be picked up than a family living there 24/7/365. Because the tenants are on vacation, it is also likely they will eat out at restaurants during their stay, so they may actually produce less trash than a full-time resident. As for the number of cars, I know a great many full-time, as well as seasonal residents in other neighborhoods who host extended family members and friends throughout the year for holiday parties, as well as family get-togethers and celebrations. Is that any different? Well, I suppose it is because in other neighborhoods those guests often park in the street, obstructing other through-traffic. Visitors to these five homes will be parking within this small area, NOT on the adjacent, busy U.S. 321 we know as Valley Blvd.”
In other business, Maurice Ewing of the Blowing Rock Charity Horse Show Foundation and the Broyhill Equestrian Preserve introduced representatives of a new charity equestrian event planned for September 21st at the Blowing Rock horse show grounds. The officials from the Grand Prix event and the James Fisher Foundation gave a presentation on the event, which will have an international flavor to its charitable purposes benefiting Asheville-area and High Country food banks. Blowing Rock News will offer a subsequent feature dedicated to this event.
Town Manager Shane Fox outlined the July financial report. As the first month of the fiscal year, there has been relatively few revenue receipts to date and only about 5% of the budget expenditures.
The Board also briefly discussed parking on the south side of Park Ave. They tabled discussion of parking, including the potential for parking meters or kiosks to facilitate paid parking downtown to the January retreat.
After a 10-minute recess, the Board went into closed session and was not expected to make any kind of decision was they came out of closed session to formally adjourn.