By David Rogers. December 12, 2017. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Incoming Commissioner Virginia Powell and new Mayor Charlie Sellers enjoyed a “baptism by fire” Tuesday night at the last meeting of the year for the Blowing Rock Board of Commissioners. A tough decision on Memorial Park trees and a contentious decision on the venue for Town Council’s retreat in January were the headliners of the nearly three and a half hour session in front of a packed Town Hall.
COVER IMAGE: Eaten from the inside out by the fungus attacking the red maples in Memorial Park, it is easy to see how this dead limb didn’t survive a recent storm and fell — onto one of the benches along Main Street. This is the smaller of two such limbs that have fallen within the last few weeks. All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
Except for a couple of procedural missteps that were quickly pointed out by Town Manager Ed Evans and corrected, Sellers “passed” in managing his first Town Council meeting and was not bashful in pounding his gavel to return order at contentious moments or to point out to even veteran commissioners that some of their discussion was not relevant to the question or topic at hand.
To their credit, as heated as some of the discussion was at times, there were equal parts of levity and animated laughter, too, among Council members one and all.
Plenty of Love To Go Around
In his last official act as outgoing Mayor, J.B. Lawrence presented Kipp Turner, the project manager for the U.S. 321 Bypass widening project, with a plaque bearing a resolution recognizing his and his team’s diligent efforts in getting the project done. Lawrence was on the Council when the project was first being talked about and Tuesday night had a big smile of celebration that the stretch through Blowing Rock is now all but completed, with four lanes open.
In accepting the resolution and plaque from Lawrence, Turner acknowledged that it was really for all the workers on the project. He said there were still a couple of small drainage or turning projects in town to be completed at the request of the North Carolina Department of Transportation. He also suggested that if there was not a 4-lane traffic pattern all the way to Blackberry Road by the end of December, it should be finished in January, weather permitting. He also explained to the Commissioners and Mayor that the traffic signal at the South Main Street intersection with Valley Blvd. is only awaiting the proper poles, which apparently are in short supply. He was heard to say that the signal lights for that intersection should be installed by February.
Exhibitions of community warmth and genuine love are probably the better descriptors for the early part of the meeting, when outgoing Mayor J.B. Lawrence and outgoing Commissioner Ray Pickett were recognized by Evans in front of the standing room only audience. Pickett was not present due to a previously planned out of town trip, but both he and Lawrence received enthusiastic, sustained applause and even standing ovations for their years of service to the Town of Blowing Rock.
Memorial Park Trees
After Sellers and Powell were sworn in and took their seats, the Commissioners got down to business in passing the Consent Agenda, then turning to one of the more controversial issues of the year: what to do with the beloved, but dying big trees fronting Main Street in Memorial Park.
One child injured or killed by a falling limb or tree is one too many.
Town Manager Evans opened the discussion with dramatic effect by having a town employee bring in a piece of a large limb that recently fell from one of the big red maple trees at night and landed on one of the benches that look out onto Main Street. Parading the some 6-8 inch in diameter limb before each of the Council members and turning to the audience, everyone could clearly see the effect of the fungus that has attacked the Memorial Park red maples, with big hollowed out sections in the middle of the limb. This graphically confirmed for all to see what arborists from the North Carolina Forestry Service (NCFS) had reported in two previous studies: a fungus had attacked the trees and was eating them from the inside out.
Blowing Rock Appearance Advisory Commission (BRAAC) representative Curtis Andrews reviewed the timeline of the problem that was first identified a few years ago when an NCFS arborist was called in to evaluate the big evergreen tree in front of Town Hall, to see if it could be saved. While in town, he also evaluated other trees on town property, but quickly pointed out problems with the condition of several trees in Memorial Park, particularly the big red maples near the front of the park.
Andrews reported how another NCFS professional performed a study specifically of the Memorial Park trees in March 2016, when nine trees were identified as needing to be removed and, presumably, replaced. He also reported on the Council’s more recent request for the 2016 study to be re-evaluated by NCFS, a study that was done in September by NCFS professional Nancy Stairs, the NCSF Director of Urban Forestry and a certified arborist. Stairs’ study, Andrews pointed out, concluded that the number of trees needing to be removed either immediately or within a fairly short time period had grown to twelve.
BRAAC’s recommendation, Andrews reported, was for the Town to implement the plan jointly developed by Stairs, BRAAC, and the landscape professionals employed by Blowing Rock Parks & Recreation. It calls for the removal of all 12 trees this winter, in time for an early spring planting of replacement trees of varying heights. The replacements would all be deciduous trees, the exact species chosen from a list of alternative choices prepared by Stairs for appropriateness to this region, as well as for their color production in the autumn period since that is a special feature and attraction to Blowing Rock tourism.
The discussion about this issue consumed almost two hours of what eventually evolved as a three-hour, 18-minute meeting. At one point it appeared that the Commissioners might again delay a decision because of Commissioner Jim Steele’s insistence that he needed to know how much the whole thing would cost, but Town Manager Evans was able to produce the numbers submitted by an outside contractor.
Steele seemed satisfied that while the entire project would cost in the neighborhood of $150,000 based on the data supplied, the project could be done in phases in that the trees could be removed and replaced in the spring, but perhaps the rock wall and other amenities suggested by the BRAAC and NCSF plan might be deferred until the 2018-19 budget. The Town’s Landscape Specialist, Chris Pate, interjected that much of the work would actually be performed in-house by Town employees, so the contractor’s estimates were likely high.
New commissioner Powell wasted no time in leaving a vocal footprint on the proceedings. As her first official act, Powell brought the discussion to a head in moving that the Council approve and implement the BRAAC-NCFS plan.
She said emphatically, “I hate that this is my first official act and I wish that these trees and the holiday lights could stay up through Winterfest, but one child being injured or even killed by one of these fallen limbs or even the entire tree is one child too many.”
After discussion, the motion passed, unanimously.
In New Business, the Commissioners approved a conditional rezoning request by the Winkler Organization to construct a 21-room inn at the corner of Cornish Rd. and North Main Street. The current small house that sits there will be torn down and replaced by the inn, including as many as 28 parking spaces serving the property.
Majority of Commissioners Don’t Retreat From Public and Media Outcry
The final New Business of the evening included a lengthy discussion about the venue for the Town Council’s scheduled “retreat” in January. While the retreat is technically open to the public, many — including Blowing Rock News — have pointed out that a retreat covering three days and two nights at a site two hours away discourages attendance by both constituents and media representatives, making it a de facto closed meeting. As Blowing Rock News as maintained in at least two editorials and several one-on-one discussions with Council members and town officials, there would be little problem with an out-of-town retreat except for the fact that the Blowing Rock Town Council is making decisions and having material discussions about issues that will lead to votes. While a good many of those decisions are trivial, there have been several through the years that could have benefited from a more public hearing.
BLOWING ROCK NEWS EDITORIALS re: COUNCIL RETREATS
- January 14, 2016. https://blowingrocknews.com/commissioners-retreat-an-act-of-retreating/
- December 11, 2017. https://blowingrocknews.com/no-fake-open-meetings/
Powell moved that the Town Council hold the January retreat in Blowing Rock and give the business to a local enterprise. The motion was seconded by Commissioner Sue Sweeting, but the motion was rejected when Steele, Commissioner Albert Yount and Commissioner Doug Matheson voted against it.
Steele then introduced a motion to hold the retreat as before, in Asheville, and it was seconded by Yount. The motion carried, 3-2, along the same lines as the earlier rejection.
While the vote did not satisfy most of the people attending Tuesday’s Town Council meeting, there may have been a silver lining in that during individual discussions with the commissioners after the meeting was adjourned, it appeared there was agreement that decisions should not be made at a retreat that is for all intents and purposes a closed session.
In the Manager’s Report at meeting’s end, Evans reported:
- The paver portion of the picnic shelter project was completed on December 7. “It is beautiful. We are still waiting for the wall contractor to come and hope that it will be soon.”
- Picnic tables are being refurbished to go in the picnic shelter at the rear of Town Hall
- Additional beautification projects are occurring to enhance the new pavers at the rear of Town Hall and the wall
- The Glen Burney Trail is closed due to damage to the trail and the bridge being washed out and destroyed. The Town is working with trail contractors to best determine the needs going forward to replace the bridge and to make repairs. The matter will be brought to Council for discussion and decision(s) in the near future.
Charlie Sellers attended a one-day training session for new mayors, in Burlington on December 1st
- Town Hall will be closed in observance of the Christmas holiday on December 25, 26 and 27. It will also be closed on January 1, 2018
- The Lighting of the Town and Christmas Parade were huge successes and very well attended. In fact, through some electronic wizardry, we determined that there were around 5,200 smartphones pinging on our WiFi between the hours of 1:00 and 2:00 pm on that Saturday
- We are still working with North Carolina Emergency Management to seek funds for repairs relating to storm damage on October 23rd
- Phase 1 repairs to the slope on Laurel Lane (washed out on October 23) have been completed and the slope has been stabilized
- Sidewalk repairs with new storm drains are underway on Laurel Lane
The meeting was adjourned at 9:18 pm.