By David Rogers. September 11, 2020, 2020. BLOWING ROCK, NC – They didn’t say “no,” but they didn’t say “yes,” either. Instead, Blowing Rock’s Board of Commissioners punted at Tuesday night’s regular September meeting of Town Council.
At issue was Chetola Mountain Resort’s request for the Town to contribute $19,431.60 to offset the costs for dredging behind a “cofferdam” on the New River just before it empties into Chetola Lake. The cofferdam’s purpose is to minimize the amount of silt, debris and mud flowing into the larger lake. Especially because of the torrential rains Blowing Rock has experienced in recent years, the area behind the cofferdam is almost completely full. So now, instead of settling behind the cofferdam, the silt, mud and debris are flowing over the top — and settling into the larger lake.
Still, the commissioners waffled.
Kent Tarbutton, a principal owner of Chetola Mountain Resort, made it as easy as possible for the Commissioners to approve the relatively small outlay. After reminding the Council members that Chetola Lake, though privately owned, acted as a reserve water supply resource during periodic droughts over many years (at no cost to the Town), Tarbutton presented studies that showed close to (if not) 100% of the sediment settling in the lake came from upstream sources along the banks of the New River within the town limits.
In his June 26, 2020 letter to the members of Town Council, Tarbutton suggested a value on that support by noting former Public Works Director Johnnie Lentz calculated some 750 million gallons of water had been drawn by the Town from Chetola Lake over a 20-year period, adding, “At the current posted Town of Boone water consumption rates of 20,000 gallons outside city limits at $14.30, that equates to a savings (to the Town of Blowing Rock) of around $536,250 without connection and pipeline fees.”
Water, although flowing freely into Chetola Lake from upstream Town environs, is not free. Perhaps because of a legal contract that Chetola signed to formally serve as a Town water resource, Tarbutton recalled a dam breach study that the State of North Carolina required to insure Chetola Lake was not a high-risk threat to the state. Moreover, extraction of the water to supply outside interests comes at a cost, too.
Understanding the significance of the Town’s responsibility for the problem is important. For the aforementioned dam breach study, the Army Corps of Engineers included in the data collected a determination that 84% of the Town’s storm water runoff goes through Chetola Lake. Put in other words, 100% of the silt, mud and debris flowing down the New River into Chetola Lake is from upstream Town sources.
Once again, the Board’s inaction threatens to make a problem much worse or more costly.
Tarbutton also reminded the Board members that there was precedence for the requested outlay in that a differently comprised Town Council approved a $200,000 expenditure to help defray the costs of dredging equipment at Chetola and training the resort’s support staff to operate it.
This, as it turns out, was a virtual bargain for the Town since the cheapest bid for outsourcing the dredging project in 2014 was more than $578,000. The resulting Town-supported dredging project expanded the lake’s capacity significantly, increasing the reservoir’s depth from just three feet, to an average of seven feet in depth and in some cases 10 feet. A properly functioning cofferdam protects that investment and delays the time when a larger outlay will be required sometime in the future.
Tarbutton even showed sensitivity that this request was coming mid-fiscal year with the Town’s financial reserves already allocated to projects through June 30, 2021. He offered to finance the Town’s suggested portion until it could be budgeted and paid from the FY2021-2022 town budget.
Still, the Commissioners waffled.
Over two decades, Chetola provided as much as 750 million gallons of water to the Town from Chetola Lake, when needed, without asking for compensation.
Commissioner Albert Yount said he was open to compromise to anything except “…doing absolutely nothing and leaving Chetola hanging,” and argued that the Town should feel a “moral obligation” to absorb some of the expense given the Town’s historical access to the water during a drought at little or no cost, as well as the fact that Chetola Mountain Resort is the municipality’s largest payer of property taxes and one of the most significant generators of sales and occupancy taxes. Yount also pointed out that when the Town and Chetola collaborated to dredge and deepen the lake several years ago, the lake waters cooled and help restore the spawning environment for the fish downstream
Still, the Commissioners balked.
Commissioners Doug Matheson and Virginia Powell paid lip service to Chetola being “a good neighbor,” but then offered reasons why the Town’s participation would be problematic.
“Not during a pandemic,” said Powell, as if Mother Nature ceases to challenge the Town’s infrastructure and pushes “pause” during a healthcare crisis.
“We have frozen all of the departments since March on spending,” said Matheson, including how the Town froze salaries.
Tarbutton made it easy for the Commissioners to say “yes” to Chetola’s request for help.
He spoke as if he was oblivious to Chetola’s own revenue shortfall this year because of the coronavirus-driven, total economic lockdown. Using back-of-the-envelope, less formal calculations, Blowing Rock News estimates that at first the total lockdown, then moderately expanding occupancy of restaurants, hotel rooms and vacation rentals to 25%, then 50% occupancy has probably cost at least a 30% reduction in Chetola sales vs. the same period a year ago. And it could be even worse since many area hospitality businesses have been forced out of businesses or at the very least made severe cuts to their staffs.
Rather than discuss the request openly Tuesday night, it seemed far too easy for three of the Board members to quickly agree on tabling any deliberations about the Chetola request until the Board’s winter retreat, most likely in January. We have no way of knowing for sure, but it appeared that two or more of the commissioners – some combination of Sweeting, Matheson, and Powell, we suspect – had already reached agreement on such an outcome before Tuesday night’s meeting. We hope we are wrong in this speculation, because if true they are violating state open meeting laws, as well as the public’s trust.
Commissioner David Harwood offered one of the most rational suggestions of the evening in suggesting that when the proposal is discussed, the board members should also have at their fingertips reports and analysis of the upstream stormwater management problems and possible solutions. That was insightful thinking, but irrelevant to the Chetola request seeking to resolve an existing downstream stormwater threat: the silt buildup behind the cofferdam that is allowing an increasing amount of silt and debris to wash over the cofferdam and into the larger body.
A $19,431 expenditure is not immaterial but consider that just before Tuesday night’s Council meeting the Board members helped cut the ribbon on a $600,000 town investment (half paid by grant) on a new playground in Memorial Park. Because the old playground was outdated and in disrepair, we have far less of a problem with that capital outlay than when last year this Board authorized a $20,000 expenditure for a “visioning” study of the Valley Blvd. corridor.
Understanding the significance of the Town’s responsibility is important.
The consulting firm completed their assigned task in timely fashion, but in our view it was still mostly an unnecessary waste of capital resources. Ironically, the most significant added value provided by the consultants’ report has direct bearing on the Chetola Lake problem: their suggestion that stormwater management studies be conducted as they relate to extending the Middle Fork Greenway at least to Sunset Dr. That set in motion discussion about that topic by the ad hoc committee and, subsequently, a proposal by Blowing Rock Civic Association, we understand, to study remediation steps in collaboration with the New River Conservancy.
The most disconcerting thing, perhaps, about Tuesday night’s Council consideration about the Chetola request is that it is yet another example of this currently comprised Board of Commissioners to not take on an identified problem and instead kick the proverbial can down the road. They apparently fail to comprehend the gravity of a problem and implementing a solution. We are not privvy to the financial resources of Chetola Mountain Resort, but consider that with a commitment from the Town to carve out $19,431 from next year’s budget, Tarbutton could negotiate external financing, if needed, to get the work done NOW before the problem gets any worse.
In recent years the current and previous Boards have waffled or balked at the Sunset Drive renovations, undergrounding or relocating utility lines on Main Street, downtown parking, and more. When they have finally acted, they suffer “sticker shock” because the costs rise over time, with each delay.
This decision on Chetola Lake should have been made Tuesday night. The members of Town Council received Tarbutton’s information in late June, so they have had plenty of time to study it and “own” the problem. There was precedence, there is clear evidence of Town responsibility, there is a threat of much larger financial liabilities down the road if the more immediate cofferdam remedies are not funded and pursued, and the Town’s collaborator in this issue made it easy to say “yes” by accepting reimbursement from next fiscal year’s Town budget. Instead, the Board’s inaction serves to potentially make the problem much worse.
In other business, letters from Blowing Rock Country Club (read by BRCC board president Ron Curtis) and Blowing Rock Civic Association (read by BRCA president Tim Gupton) reignited the concerns of several constituent interests, including some of the Town Council members, that Blowing Rock is not being adequately served by the Emergency Management Services (read, ambulance arrival and transport to the hospital, where needed) facilitated by Watauga County. But we will take up that issue in another article.