By David Rogers. July 10, 2014. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Clearly between a rock and a hard place — and with a lot of developer information and public outcry to digest — the Blowing Rock Board of Commissioners punted Tuesday night, voting unanimously to table discussion and any decision regarding the Mountainleaf conditional use permit (CUP) request until its August Town Council meeting.
Few in the crowded Council Chambers at Town Hall actually expected a decision. After consuming four hours at the June Planning Board meeting and over two hours of developer presentation and public hearing at Tuesday evening's Town Council meeting, the Mountainleaf development proposal has weighed in as one of the most eyebrow-opening project opportunities in recent memory. Whether or not public opinion is galvanized against the project or open to understanding its merits will play a large part in its fate.
Then, of course, there is the issue of what could be a make or break condition for approval recommended by the Blowing Rock Planning Board…
The July meeting of the Blowing Rock Town Council meeting was called to order promptly at 5:30 pm, Tuesday night in the Town Hall Council Chambers by Mayor J.B. Lawrence. All Commissioners were present. After approving previous meeting minutes and Town Manager Scott Fogleman's Consent Agenda (FY2013-14 Tax Settlement Report and Order to Collect FY2014-15 Taxes; Consideration of Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce Event Dates for Calendar Year 2015), the Board quickly got past the expected formality of approving the final draft of the 2014 Comprehensive Plan Update. The process that began in 2012 with a Comprehensive Plan survey went through a series of public workshops and steering committee meetings before the Benchmark Planning-led effort resulted in the 131-page draft, with most of the Commissioners participating in the various sessions so there were no surprises in the final document and no public comments.
Mountainleaf is the planned 7.35 acre commercial development on North Main St., between Hill St. and the entrance to Chetola. Outside estimates peg the development at "…more than $30 million", including a 112-room hotel complex (with in-house bar, restaurant, spa, a 250-seat banquet/conference facility and other amenities). The project would also feature four multi-use buildings for retail on the lower levels and residential space on the upper levels of each.
Whatever their decision, the Commissioners are likely to disappoint someone. In one corner of Tuesday night's public hearing were business interests suggesting that the local market needs a project like Mountainleaf and the developers requesting approval of their project concept. In another corner were "keep the quaint village a quaint village" adherents expressing concerns that a project of this size would adversely impact the current Main Street businesses, not integrate well into the existing social fabric of the community, and create a "new town" vs. "old town" environment, completely changing the identity of Blowing Rock as a quaint little village in a picturesque mountain setting to something very different.
This week's CUP request is one of the very early steps in a sequence of events leading to Mountainleaf's prospective completion. The developers simply have an idea — a concept — for how the now vacant 7+ acre lot can be developed and make a positive contribution to the local economy and better connect the adjoining Chetola development and Tanger Outlets with the downtown's central business district. The developer, the Catellus Group (Charlotte) has preliminary financing interest, but needs to know it has Town approval before it can finalize and secure financing.
"Everything in real estate development is sequential," the Catellus Group CEO Steve Barker explained to the Town Council in response to a question from Commissioner Dan Phillips regarding financing. "Certain things have to happen before something else can happen. Finance is an important ingredient. We have approached financing sources and we have gotten some interest. That is a long way from getting them to jump on board with the project. Money — the capital markets — are interested in projects that are ready to go. They don't want to be fooling around with you if you don't have some of your proverbial ducks in a row.
"So basically what we have is," the Charlotte-based executive continued, "I have invested capital to get us to this point. I have hired some great people to assist us to get to this point. We have a very strong feeling that the capital will come, but we need to go through the process and the preliminary steps before we even enter that arena. For those (negotiations) we will have to increase their velocity, too, in terms of construction drawings and such. To tell you today if we have financing in our hand, the answer is 'no.' But going through this process (approval of the CUP request from the Board of Commissioners) is part of the process of getting to that point."
Before more significant investments of time and capital are made by the developers, they are seeking Town approval of the conceptual plans in order to secure the overall, much larger financing commitments. Then with each step of construction for each of the individual buildings and design elements in the project they would come before the Town Planning Director, the Planning Board and, ultimately, the Board of Commissioners for approval.of the project details.
The larger town identity questions aside, the project as conceptually presented by the Catellus Group and partners, all from Charlotte, faces at least one major hurdle.
The Blowing Rock Planning Board advanced the CUP request to the full Town Council with five conditions. Based on their testimony in the public hearing and confirmed in an interview with Blowing Rock News after the Council meeting, the developers are amenable to four of the five conditions, but the fifth poses a big stumbling block.
As presented, the Mountainleaf project calls for the hotel to be situated toward the back or northern boundaries of the parcel, some 200 feet off of Main Street in most places. West of the hotel and in the northwest corner of the property would be an "upper parking lot" capable of accomodating an estimated 80 automobile parking spaces. However, because of the elevation changes wiithin the property, the plans require access to the parking lot to come by way of a Hill St. entrance.
One of the conditions imposed by the Planning Board in advancing the CUP request to Council is that all parking areas need to be accessible from within the property, implying that the upper parking deck entrance could not be from Hill Street. This condition gained Planning Board support after nearby residents expressed concerns that a Hill Street entrance to the parking lot would result in a dramatic increase in commercial and hotel customer traffic on what has historically been their residential street. The Planning Board agreed with those concerns and further felt that access to the the different elements of the project be "internalized."
- Because of the elevation changes within the property, as well as the significant rock formations in that upper section, the prospect of "grading down" an extra four to six feet for the parking lot to be accessible from the primary street that runs in front of the hotel building is highly problematic; and
- In speaking with Blowing Rock Emergency Services Director Kent Graham, the Mountainleaf principals represented that a "straight in" access route (facilitated by a Hill St. entrance) to the back of the hotel is a better choice for large fire trucks needing to arrive on the scene rather than a more circuitous route from within the development that would include extremely tight and perhaps unmanageable turns. At the very least, the development principals offered, such a route would hinder response times by emergency services personnel and equipment.
Several Blowing Rock residents spoke out during the public hearing, predominantly against the project. Highlights:
- Resident Susan Linenberger, whose "…family has occupied Chestnut Hill since 1899…" expressed concerns that the finished development would be rather "self-contained" with a full service hotel, convention facilities, dining establishments and retail shops, with little need for hotel guests to venture into other parts of downtown. "They would be encapsulated, not integrated into the local economy." She also urged the developers, if approved, to use local construction workers where at all possible to have the most favorable impact on the area's economy. While she also expressed concern about the salvage of as many native trees on the property as possible, Mayor J.B. Lawrence noted that only a relatively few trees on the property were worth saving because of disease and decay. Mr. Lawrence added that he would hope that the hotel guests would want to "…visit all of Blowing Rock" including the shops downtown, not just the 25,000 square feet of retail shops and food services on the property. Kevin Rothrock, the Town's Planning Director, noted that anyone wanting to cut down a tree greater than eight inches in diameter is required to get permission from the Planning Department. He also noted that given the diseased condition of many of the trees, as well as tree density, cutting down some of them would likely enhance the tree canopy on the property over time.
- Identifying herself as a 30-year resident, Ginny Stevens blasted the project and its developers as trying to fix a village that doesn't need fixing ("We don't feel like we need to be madeover. We are pretty happy with where we have been. We have gone through this process one other time and found it not successfully finished. I am very perturbed that all of your descriptions include (just) the buildings and physical hardscape. This community is not made of physical hardscape. It is made of people and feelings, including people of families that have been here for over 120 years. It is very hard to have someone come in and say 'We are going to make you over.' We don't feel we need to be made over. We didn't feel like we needed to be made over before, and that was with a friend of ours….What we feel is that you are coming in here like the finest Disney World architects and people, and you have all these great and wonderful ideas, but we really do not need a makeover. People here have worked hard to keep their hotels and motels open. We don't want you to come in and take over the hotel (business of the area). We have a lot of people here who are part of a 5th or 6th generation Blowing Rock family. I don't see much concern (in your development's plans) for them. I see a lot of concern for your company's (profits), which is probably what I would do, too, if I were you. But our community is not waiting for someone to come in here and improve us. We are pretty happy with the way we are and if you had never shown up we would have been very successful in continuing for another 125 years. I am not trying to insult you. I am trying to tell you that your studies are flawed in many ways because you have not taken the major portion of the feeling of Blowing Rock with you. You can't just come in here, take over, hear what people say and think that you have the community because I think, as do others, that you have lost that ability…We are prideful of our old buildings. We don't want them camouflaged, hidden or covered. We like your new buildings, but they are all too new, too fresh and too wonderful all at once — and they are taking up a huge section of town…We don't feel that bigger is better in this case…It sounds to me like you are coming here to make (Blowing Rock) a new and different kind of Disney World…"
- John Aldridge, former President of the Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce and a retired attorney, spoke on behalf of himself in saying that he agreed with the hotel aspect of the project, especially the "high end nature and the ability to welcome small conventions and meetings," but questioned the inclusion of another 25,000 square feet of retail space, even if as much as 8,000 square feet might be used as restaurants. "Sometimes the best laid plans don't work. The 25,000 square feet of restaurant/retail to me is of extreme concern if that is built first and the hotel never came. That would be a big problem. So I ask the Council to take a good look at the phases of this project…It also concerns me that you are calling it Main Street. I have been here 12 years and we have a Main Street already. I don't like the idea of competing with our Main Street. I would hope that you would have some flexibility to perhaps include more residential (rather than retail). I believe there is a market demand for upscale, in-village residential. One bedroom condos will not meet that market (need). There is a market demand for people downsizing, in-village, wanting to walk to restaurants and entertainment opportunities. If your development had more of a residential bent, you would not be competing with our Main Street. I am not sure we want a 'new town' and an 'old town.'" Mr. Aldridge also urged the Commissioners to not permit a five year development plan, but what he felt was a more standard two year plan.
- Kent Tarbutton, representing his position as Chairman of the Tourism Development Authority and as owner of the proposed project's neighboring Chetola Mountain Resort, addressed a number of different issues:
- suggested that the research shows that the Town "…can't get to where it wanted to without more upscale hotel (rooms)" in order to attract higher end tourists.
- Mr. Tarbutton endorsed the plan for the hotel as a real important link and asset for the Town…
- "Architecturally, they have done a pretty good job. It is conceptual and they haven't provided a lot of detail, but they will go through this process twice (to get approval for the detail)….
- The general features of the design are pretty positive.
- I frequently use the word 'absorption' (in describing new lodging businesses). Our estimate is that in 3-5 years this property will be absorbed (by the town)… How long will it take before it takes away occupancy from other rooms that are already here?… And then the related question: how long it will take before it has a positive impact on the (other lodging establishments) that are currently here? We're estimating 3-5 years before the new hotel is absorbed. As far as Chetola's business is concerned, we will be (adversely) impacted, but at the same time, to use the old phrase of 'a rising tide lifts all boats', at the end of that absorption period, now they are attracting more people to the Town.
- In fact, that conference space will be a lure in less than three to five years because (the High Country) doesn't have a lot of conference space. When the former Broyhill Center (on the Appalachian State University campus) went under, that resulted in a market demand that has not been (met yet)." Tarbutton noted that other existing businesses in the region will not accomplish the kind of conference or convention space that Mountainleaf is proposing to bring. With seating in the big conference room for 250 and only 112 rooms in the hotel, Tarbutton suggested that other lodging businesses would benefit from any convention business developed by the hotel operators.
- With a nod toward Tourism Development Authority executive director Tracy Brown (in the audience), Mr. Tarbutton also suggested that an increase in and differentiation from existing lodging facilities will result in a new source of occupancy taxes for the Town, especially once that period of absorption had passed.
- The TDA chair reinforced Mayor Lawrences earlier comments about the condition of the trees on the subject property, "Most of them are hemlocks, which the Park Service has told me are all going to die (all over the High Country)….You are going to keep a few, but most of them will die."
- Citing investments by Chetola and Tanger Shoppes on the Parkway, including donations of right of way, in facilitating the extension of the long sidewalk along North Main St. running adjacent to the Chetola development, Tarbutton appeared critical of plans to direct pedestrian traffic through the Mountainleaf property and not around the property with an extension of the Main St. sidewalk. "If the sidewalk (beside Chetola) deadends there, you have a problem…You need to make sure that you connect the town."
- The Chetola developer also addressed the retail space question, recalling that the Tanger operators have turned away several businesses because they simply don't have the room. "This was back in 2006 and 2007, admittedly a different (economic environment), but he showed us a list of top name brands that wanted to open stores, but he didn't have enough space." Tarbutton recounted an earlier retail study that indicated Blowing Rock could accomodate more retailers. "We're a shopping town," he said. He admitted that the current lodging occupancy had not fully recovered yet, but that "…the demand for retail will come back with (occupancy)."
- Acknowledging an earlier compliment by Catellus Group CEO Steve Barker in referring to the high quality of the Bob Timberlake Inn and Restaurant at Chetola and that Mountainleaf would be aimed at the higher end market, Tarbutton thanked Mr. Barker, and suggested that that kind of development would not be taking much from other businesses outside of his Timberlake business because there aren't many lodging establishments in Blowing Rock addressing that demographic and price point. "At those rates, (Mountainleaf) doesn't take much money out of anybody's pocket and it does bring a different kind of client base to our town that we are looking for. If you want (visitors) to spend more money in our restaurants and retail shops on Main Street, certainly you want that kind of a (customer).
- Tarbutton suggested that the Town had quite a bit of meeting space, from the Fire Station, to Blowing Rock Art & History Museum, to the American Legion Hall, "So I think you will find that the (community) meeting space component of the development is not really necessary."
- Tarbutton addressed the stormwater issue, including a special intensity allocation provision in their CUP request, advising the Town Commissioners to be sure and understand what standards they are setting given the experience of 2013's "200-year floods" that sent a "chocolate river" into Chetola Lake. "You have a lot of concrete and such that can't absorb (the rainfall). You talked a lot about the rate (of water flowing into the planned lake near the entrance to Mountainleaff), but you didn't talk about the peak flood (levels). That is important because the soil is taking that water and filtering it before running off. You have to make sure that the (lake capacity) is sufficient."
- Keith Tester, a former Commissioner, resident and business owner for 18 years said, "I have seen things come and seen things go, but two things trouble me. I am not here to tell (the Commissioners) how to make your decision and whether it is a good thing or a bad thing, but I want you to make sure that you take the time to (carefully) look at this before you make a decision.
- "First, the entire presentation is about those seven acres. I didn't see anything that integrated (the development) with the rest of the village. Keep in mind that the thing that makes Blowing Rock unique and desirable as a place to live and visit is that it is a small village, situated in a very picturesque place. It is a small village. It is not a 'town', and not a 'city'. This project will essentially double the size of this village and disconnect it while we are desperately trying to find ways to make it connect. When you get this project done, you may find that you are no longer a small village in a very picturesque part of the country, but instead are a small town with all of the problems of a small town and not so unique anymore…Is this a concept that integrates (well) with the village?
- "Second, the whole discussion tonight has been about how many people you can bring to town, how much retail you can support, and how much additional activity. The whole idea (discussed) is 'more people, more money.' If you look at the budget that you manage (as Commissioners), that budget does not come from the retail businesses and the hotels in the community. It comes from the people who own property here. I would ask you that when you look at this total concept and lay it over the rest of this town, ask yourself what does it do to property values around here. With this project, people will not be buying homes next to a small picturesque village, but buying a home next to a small mountain town."
- Jake Jackson, a commercial developer and resident, was critical of the request to make an exception for the number of parking spaces required per Town Code, the plans for using timber frame and wood, and emphasized that the Planning Board had gotten it right when establishing the condition, "You really have to internalize the hotel." He suggested that "…it runs counter to reason to approve construction of a hotel that operates on Hill Street. The concept of mixed use is important and the whole key is internalization to make it function well. I think it is a good project, but the sacrifice of eight or ten parking spaces and a reallocation to the front of the hotel to make that accomodation…would probably help guarantee a good site."
In an abbreviated discussion period after the approximately two and a half hours of public hearing, Commissioner Dan Phillips admitted, "I am so brain dead right now. This is a lot to digest to make a decision even within an hour…if I am forced to vote tonight, I am going to vote no (because there is too much to digest)….Given what the developer said and what the public has said, we have to (have time to) put it all together."
Commissioner Sue Sweeting: "I appreciate the Planning Board's work on several issues, but there are concerns….I would really like to see a phase plan. That concerns me. I would really like to know what they are going to start with. I am also concerned about storm water management and coordinating with Chetola the volume of water that is going into their lake, and when (the silt) gets to a certain level, who is going to pay for the dredging. Because you are asking for a higher (percentage) of impervious surface, where is the (runoff) going (in detail). Finally, what I heard from the (residents), is how are you going to integrate this project into the village? We need to make the town feel better about this project. How are you going to make it part of the town? We want it to be part of the town. We don't want it to be a walled off entity (unto itself)."
Commissioner and Mayor Pro Tem Albert Yount bluntly stated, "I am concerned about the scale….I don't share the concerns about the water, because their pond slows it up and filters it before it goes to Chetola. It would end up in Chetola Lake anyway. For me, the scale is the whole problem. I am not prepared to say whether we want to do this or not do it right now."
(Commissioner Ray Pickett recused himself from this agenda item because he owns Blowing Rock Inn, an adjacent lodging business next to the proposed Mountainleaf development.)
Mayor J.B. Lawrence: "The three things I see are the three items that require a variance from Town Code (parking, impervious surfaces, and building height)."
Eventually the Commissioners voted unanimously to pick up the discussion at the Council's regular August meeting.
Blowing Rock News caught up with Steve Barker, the Catellus Group CEO afterwards. A summary of his responses to our questions:
- Re: the lack of a decision: "We anticipated that there would be a lot of questions and we are very comfortable with the process. The Council has to do what it thinks is in the best interest of the community. We are there, right along with them. We want to develop a project that the Town appreciates and benefits from. So we are OK with having to go through the process. They should take the time to consider all of the ramifications. That is responsible governance."
- Re: the scale: "Economically, downsizing the project makes it unfeasible. We have looked at a variety of different applications. One of the prescriptions is how you deal with stormwater and the requirements for how you manage it, how you dispose of it. So if you start taking into consideration what the (physical) site is and what you can do with it, you then develop what your product is. You face various constraints that to one extent or another dictates what that product can be. In speaking to scale, compared to the proposed plans for this site in 2007 by other developers, we have already reduced the site by approximately 20 condos and reduced the retail space allocation from the approximately 40,000 square feet to about 26,000 square feet of retail. The hotel is a little bigger, but overall this has already been significantly scaled down from what the design was for the previous plan."
- Re: the access into the upper parking lot: "I understand the concerns, but it would be very difficult to reconfigure the project in a way that internalizes the access to the upper parking lot and also provides the kind of direct, straight-line access to the hotel that is preferred by emergency services. We would have to go back to 'square one' — and we have already been there. The site plan that you see now is the best one when you consider all of the conditions that are relative to the site. We certainly had to take into consideration the fire department and their access. If you take all of the ingredients that are ingrained in a site, to develop it you have to have some areas where it just doesn't quite fit. This is one of those areas. We have tried to limit as much as we can any adverse impact or discomfort for anybody else, but you have the fire department preference for that straight line access to the back of the hotel without all of the tight turns that would come from internalizing the access."
- Re: the potential for converting retail space into residential: "You have the storm water problem again. If you build more residential, you disproportionately allocate your ability to do that. Again, when compared with the 2007 project that we have studied thoroughly, Mountainleaf has roughly half of the residential allocation for this property. The reason we have designed it this way is because we want to have all of our stormwater retention on site, rather than take it off site. Keeping it onsite is better. More residential and less retail changes (our management of this important design element)."
- Re: connectivity: "People speaking during the public hearing were rightfully concerned about things like encapsulation of the project and whether or not it would be integrated into the rest of the village. Well, taking the sidewalk around the property along Main Street would actually isolate our property more. By providing for pedestrian access through our property, including the provision for public restrooms, we are actually opening up our property and making it more a part of the town — and not encapsulating it. Plus, we feel there is a safety issue with putting the sidewalk around the outside of the property. Cars zip around Main Street very quickly. We anticipate that there will be more pedestrian traffic in both directions to, from and through our site once it is completed, so we want to manage that traffic with pedestrian safety as the very highest priority. In the final analysis, that was one of our biggest concerns and it is alleviated by just bringing it through the property. Let's pose the question in another way, too: If you are at Chetola and want to walk to the downtown central district, would you rather walk through our development or all the way around that curve on the outside of the property? More than likely you would want to walk through Mountainleaf because it would ostensibly be a more interesting walk without the traffic racing by you, and it would be a shorter distance."
- Re: connectivity: "We really represent an opportunity to connect Chetola and the Tanger Outlet with downtown. Not only are we opening our property to pedestrian access straight through from North Main Street to Hill Street, but we are also enthusiastic about participating in the sidewalk construction from Hill St. to the Southern Comforts parking lot. Our approach is that this development contributes to an increased energy to downtown rather than create some kind of alienation. That access to downtown — not just from Mountainleaf but also from Chetola and Tanger — is part of what we want to incorporate. That access and integration into the village as a whole contributes to Mountainleaf being special. We are on the same level as most of the people interested in integration. We want our patrons to enjoy downtown just as much as they do. I'll go back and talk with my guys who are experts in addressing these concerns. We're getting people to the downtown area, where there really is not that ability now except by car or, to an extent, on the other side of the street. Right now, there is only limted physical integration, for example, from Chetola to downtown, so we are really filling a gap in the overall connectivity of Blowing Rock."