SPLIT DECISION: Planning Board votes “no” regarding approval of Grand Dakota townhouse project

SPLIT DECISION: Planning Board votes “no” regarding approval of Grand Dakota townhouse project
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By David Rogers. December 21, 2017. BLOWING ROCK, NC — By a 4-3 vote Thursday night, the Blowing Rock Planning Board decided NOT to recommend approval to the Blowing Rock Board of Commissioners regarding Grand Dakota Development LLC’s conditional rezoning request. If approved by Town Council, the request would lead to the development of a 12-townhome project on the 0.905 acre parcel to the west of Speckled Trout.

COVER IMAGE: Mike Paige, right, explains his concern about height and bulk of the Grand Dakota project.

Blowing Rock News coverage of Blowing Rock Town Government is made possible by a sponsorship from Blowing Rock Medical Park and PLUS Urgent Care, divisions of UNC-Caldwell Health Care System

While members of the Planning Board and a couple of speakers from the audience articulated good reasons for recommending approval of the project, in the end a majority of the board’s members could not get their arms around the inclusion of short-term vacation rentals, as well as other issues relating to density, parking and building height.

The Planning Board’s spit decision effectively ignores priorities established in the 2014 Comprehensive Plan calling for more in-fill projects within the Blowing Rock town limits that would result in in-village residential development, including multi-family structures.

Developer Steve Barker outlined challenges with developing this parcel and addressing concerns from previously proposed development.

By using short-term vacation rentals as the tipping point for disapproving the conditional rezoning application, at least the Planning Board members voting “no” ignored what are arguably both precedent and practice.  In research after the meeting, Blowing Rock News learned that a three-story apartment building approximately one block further west, on Shady Lane, earlier was awarded a variance to permit the short-term rental of its multi-family units.

The Planning Board deliberations consumed the better part of two hours.

Led by principal Steve Barker and associate city planner Walter Fields, the Grand Dakota group indicated that they had diligently studied the previous, similar request (last April by the Rob Pressley-led Coldwell Banker group) for developing the property.  The parcel is currently home to two small residential structures that would be demolished should this project gain approval.

Links to Blowing Rock News coverage of the earlier-proposed Coldwell Banker project:

  • https://blowingrocknews.com/neighbors-morningside-townhomes-blowingrock/
  • https://blowingrocknews.com/for-morningside-townhome-development-size-matters/
  • https://blowingrocknews.com/just-morningside-conditional-zoning-application-withdrawn/

With Planning Board chairman David Harwood (left) looking on, Wes Carter argues that short-term rentals diminish a property’s value

As a consequence, the Grand Dakota representatives noted that their design, among other things:

  • reduced the density by 25%, from 16 units to 12 units
  • scaled down the overall footprint, enabling the development to be fully contained inside the parcel
  • met all parking requirements of the project, plus one additional space, by adding seven PUBLIC parking spaces at the developer’s expense on the Town’s right-of-way along Rainey Street
  • reduced the visual impact of the project’s height with a garden-style landscaping approach that would especially be more noticeable along the U.S. 221 (southern) side

Plannng Board member Wes Carter asserted that nearly tripling the ordinance-required density from effectively four units (since the parcel is not a full acre) to 12 remained problematic for him, but seemed to have been willing to vote for the project had there not been the inclusion of short-term rentals.

A retired chief executive of Fortune 500 companies, Don Hubble suggested that Blowing Rock’s Land Use ordinances may be too restrictive compared to other, similar resort towns like Highlands, Cashiers, and west Jefferson.

Another board member, Don Hubble, used the occasion to remind fellow members of his contention that all of the Town’s Land Use ordinances could benefit from being reviewed and evaluated, especially comparing the development restrictions and limitations vs. other resort towns in the North Carolina mountains, such as Highlands, Cashiers, and West Jefferson.  He reported that his research indicated that Blowing Rock might well be too restrictive in its Land Use Code.

For member Mike Paige, the overall “height and bulk” of the project design seemed to be a swaying factor. After describing herself as an 8th generation Blowing Rock resident, Natalie Bovino offered that the project did not conform to the village atmosphere that she grew up with.

In voting “yes” for the project as presented, including short-term rentals, board member George Ellis argued that every property owner should have the right to optimize, if not maximize their property’s social, aesthetic, and economic potential.

In voting “yes”, George Ellis, (right) suggested that property owners have a right to optimize the value of their properties to its greatest and best use.

Fields, the planner representing Grand Dakota, explained to the Board that this particular parcel had challenges in converting it from its present commercial zoning to a multi-family residential use, including:

  • Slope — how far the elevation drops from Rainey Street on the north edge of the property to the south end along U.S. 221
  • Rock — that might be encountered during development
  • Three Street Fronts — decisions as to access to and into the development, landscaping on all sides, etc.
  • Lower Density Requirement — challenges in making it economically viable to develop the property
  • Creating a single access point
  • Parking — Creating parking within the project or contributing parking to the Town at or near the point of development (rather than providing for “satellite” parking to meet the requirement.
Natalie Bovino voted “no” as a self-described “8th generation Blowing Rock resident”

Speaking first in the public hearing portion of the Planning Board’s deliberations, Marshall Feeley, representing a committee within the Blowing Rock Civic Association, explained to the Board that the BRCA committee’s concerns echoed the issues already raised by the various Planning Board members: density, parking, height and bulk, and the precedent-setting nature of granting variances.

Local resident and retired attorney John Aldridge pointed out the recommendations of the 2014 Comprehensive Plan and its suggestions that Blowing Rock needed more in-fill residential development, including multi-family projects, so that the Grand Dakota request conformed to the overall plan for Blowing Rock’s growth.  He noted the Comprehensive Plan’s suggestion that moving the Blowing Rock economy from being entirely dependent on tourism included encouraging more residential development.

“What will you get instead?” local resident John Aldridge asked the board, after pointing out the 2014 Comprehensive Plan says “yes” to infill residential development.

Aldridge challenged the Board members with a single question, “Do we truly want more in-village residential that the Comprehensive Plan favors?”

In answering that more in-village residential development is a good thing, Aldridge argued that the Town needs increased flexibility when it comes to density.

“In-village residents tend to take care of their homes,” Aldridge asserted. “When they can walk to downtown, we get people on our streets. Service businesses grow up to serve them.  And I must remind you that the 2014 Comprehensive Plan that many of the people in this room, including several of you on this board, said “yes” to in-village residential infill development.

“What is the alternative?” questioned Aldridge. “Right now the property is zoned commercial with no density requirement at all. The people on Rainey Street might instead be looking down on a noisy restaurant or bar or even a small shopping mall, all of which are probably permitted under current zoning.”

Somewhat ironically, it was pointed out that the Town Council and Planning Board had recently approved an even denser commercial development at the intersection of Main Street and Cornish Street, for a 21-room lodging establishment.

David Harwood voted “yes”, with the minority in this vote.

When the Planning Board meeting adjourned after almost two and half hours, Blowing Rock News approached Barker for comment.

“Obviously, we are disappointed,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “We thought we had addressed the many concerns raised that led to the rejection of the previous project proposed for the property, last April.”

Barker told Blowing Rock News that it was too early to say whether they might still request approval of the project from the Town Council, even without the Planning Board’s blessing.


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