BLOWING ROCK — Five hours wasn’t enough for the quasi-judicial public hearing on the proposed 40-room Rainey Lodge development on April 9, as the Blowing Rock Council of Government recessed the meeting until a future date.
The hearing on the conditional use permit application — on the project planned for a 0.905-acre plot of land between Morningside Drive, Rainey Street and U.S. 221 — will take place no later than the next regularly-scheduled town council meeting on May 14 and potentially earlier, if the lawyers in the case agree to a date.
The meeting drew an overflow crowd to Blowing Rock Town Hall, with many citizens sitting in the lobby listening to the audio.
Chelsea Garrett of di Santi, Watson, Capua, Wilson, & Garrett law firm in Boone represented the applicants, Grand Dakota Development, a limited liability corporation owned and operated by Stephen Barker, who also owns the tract of land.
Five households, all of which are close to the property, hired Stacy “Four” Eggers of Eggers Law Firm of Boone to represent them in the quasi-judicial proceedings against the proposed development.
Most of the first hour of the meeting had Eggers questioned some of the parties he was representing in effort to gain standing. Council unanimously granted standing despite Garrett’s objections that being close to something they don’t like does not mean the neighbors should have standing. With standing, Eggers was able to question the witnesses in the hearing.
Tom Lucido, who owns a home on Morningside Drive, said during the pre-hearing that his concern about the project is safety.
Other concerns brought up was that the project would negatively affect the property values of the residentials neighborhood.
“We already have difficulty with the narrowness of Morningside,” said Mark Crumpler, who is one of the five households represented by Eggers. “I hope wherever I go down, I don’t meet a car going up.”
Another issues brought forth was the proposed 17,500-square-foot restaurant, which Crumpler says would cause food delivery trucks to drive up and cause more safety issues.
Leading off the public hearing, Blowing Rock Planning Director Kevin Rothrock said the project has no variance requests
The 53 planned parking spaces was the minimum allowed per town ordinances, Rothrock said, and the setbacks of between 55-73 feet alloted the maximum 38-foot height of the project.
One condition Grand Dakota agreed to was to put in “no right turn” signs along the Rainey Street access points.
A stipulation the planning board put on its March 22 approval of the project was that 50 percent of the first-floor exterior be windows and doors, which Rothrock said Grand Dakota has since complied with.
Powell and Councilwoman Sue Sweeting asked why the 75 percent green space requirement for front-facing space isn’t applicable, to which Rothrock replied that in his opinion, it didn’t apply in this case.
“I know how the code is written, I know the intent,” Rothrock stated.
Mayor Pro-Tem Albert Yount added that he puts his faith in Rothrock.
Rothrock said that 58 percent of the property would consist of impervious surfaces, meaning the stormwater tanks have to be bigger, but allowable under the ordinances.
After the expert testimony, Eggers cross-examined Rothrock.
Eggers questioned Rothrock about potentially needing more than one dumpster for the property and that extra dumpster cutting into the green space or parking, and the potential that the parking spaces could be too small.
Eggers also noted that the council makes the determination of the special intensity ordinance for stormwater, with Rothrock saying that without it, the project would not be compliant.
On the issue of what is the front of the building, Eggers asked why is the side that faces Morningside Drive considered the front. Rothrock said that’s where guests would enter and where the lobby would be. Eggers said that if council decides that the side facing U.S. 221 is the front, the 40-foot setback would mean the project is too tall at 38 feet, according to town ordinances.
“Maybe a reasonable person might determine (U.S.) 221 to be a front entrance,” Eggers said.
When asked if the top floor of Rainey Lodge would have a view of Memorial Park, Rothrock wasn’t sure, but did agree that people in Memorial Park would have a view of the top floor of Rainey Lodge.
Eggers also questioned Rothrock about existing right of way and landscaping projects, saying the council should be entitled to see those plans, rather than just a rendering of what it could be.
In conclusion, Eggers asked if the presence of balconies would mean more noise, to which Rothrock replied that the presence of balconies doesn’t mean that noise occur.
Barker brought up the previous TownHomes project, which requested variance but was unanimously denied by council in February 2018.
“We went back to the drawing board,” Barker said. “We heard it needs to meet the code and (this project) does.”
To present finding on the project, Barker and Garrett brought up a number of expert witnesses, including consultant Walter Fields of the Charlotte-based Walter Fields Group; architect Stephen Overcash with Overcash Demmitt Architects; Randy Goddard, senior principal of the Design Resource Group; Kevin Caldwell, senior vice president at GeoScience Group; and Allan Reich, a licensed appraiser from T.B. Harris Jr. and Associates.
“We want to add to the community through an attractive project and comply with the standards,” Garrett said. “We will do everything we can to meet conditions.”
Fields said that after the TownHomes project, which he was a part of, he learned to put the building in the center of the project to meet the setback requirements.
Fields said that 45-50 people showed up at the community meeting, held March 6 at the Blowing Rock Art and History Museum, and said the questions and feedback were good.
One of the changes made in between the March 6 meeting and the hearing was the retaining walls facing U.S. 221 were changed from three 4-foot-high walls to two 6-foot-high walls to allow more green space in the center area to hide the wall as much as possible, Fields and others stated.
Fields said that according to the town’s comprehensive plan and economic studies, a boutique hotel would be something the community has expressed needs for.
“We believe that at least in terms of the findings about how we apply community standards your documents and expressions of concerns … in my opinion, this use is consistent with the community plans, codes and ordinances,” Fields told the council.
The turn into the property from Morningside would be compliant with the town’s fire trucks, Fields said.
Overcash said the building exterior looks residential and is compatible with Blowing Rock, saying the plan is Blowing Rock specific and not replicated anywhere else.
When asked by Powell why the plan isn’t to build down, Overcash said he wanted to make sure all the rooms have natural light.
“I never designed a hotel room without a window and natural light,” Overcash said.
Caldwell later added that he didn’t want to haul too much dirt to the site.
Barker said he would stay open 12 months of the year and try to incorporate ideas to bring business during the slower times of the Blowing Rock year.
When asked by Powell what would happen if the hotel failed and could become condos, Barker said he will never turn it into condors.
“We think Blowing Rock is a good market,” Barker said.
Goddard said he did a traffic impact study over Thanksgiving 2018, saying he used nationally-recognized methodology. The estimates were 16 cars per hour in peak morning traffic times and 18 in the peak afternoon traffic times on Morning Side Drive.
Sweeting said that she talked with NCDOT Engineer Mike Pettyjohn and thinks he would appreciate the data.
In the recess motion, an amendment was added to try to submit the data to NCDOT on a 4-1 vote, with Yount against.
Powell said she recently did a traffic county in the area and found a higher volume of cars than Goddard did.
“It’s a very low number,” Goddard said.
Goddard said he tried to give N.C. Department of Transportation the study, but was told they didn’t want it since it was for such a small amount of traffic. He also noted that NCDOT would not approve a driveway from the project onto U.S. 221.
Reich presented his facts-only market analysis of tax values, comparing residential properties adjacent to hotels and non-adjacent residentials properties, concluding that price per square foot was higher for those units adjacent to hotels in Blowing Rock.
Powell challenged the report, believe that appraised value would be more useful. Reich said there wasn’t enough sales to do an appraisal-based comparison.
“In lieu of market data, this is the next best thing,” Reich said.
Eggers also questioned Reich on the validity of his report. Afterward, Eggers said he wouldn’t have anymore questions for Garrett’s other expert witnesses at the resumption of the public hearing.
Mayor Charlie Sellers explained at the meeting’s onset that council members couldn’t respond to inquiries, either in person, via mail or email, regarding the project.
“When a conditional-use permit comes up, we can’t discuss the materials until they’re presented to us (in a hearing) by planning board, town manager or anyone else,” Sellers told the citizens.
At the end of the meeting, since the hearing is still ongoing, Councilwoman Virginia Powell explained they still can’t talk about the case with citizens.
After putting the public hearing into recess, the town concluded the rest of its regular business.
An ad hoc committee to discuss and make recommendations for creating a “vision” for downtown and Valley Boulevard was approved. The board will have community members Spike Bachman, John Aldridge, Keith Tester, Pete Gherini and Joe Bogdahn, along with council members Yount and Sweeting, the latter as a non-voting ex officio member. Councilman Jim Steele volunteered to take himself off the board, so that there wouldn’t be a quorum of council members.
A new art piece in front of BRAHM that will be 11-feet tall was unanimously approved. The Blowing Rock Appearance Advisory Commission recommended approval with the caveats that a sign discouraging potential climbers be erected, as well as a black picket fence around the base. The piece will be up for one year, starting in May.
Chetola Resort’s future “share the whirled” display on a concrete pad along Main Street, facing Chetola Lake, was unanimously approved. The piece will be installed by June and remain for one year. The piece is part of a four-day art walk that will take place at Chetola Lake in June.
Town finance officer Nicole Normal reported that the first draft of the 2019-20 fiscal year budget was completed and meetings with departments will take place in the near future.
Sellers reported that he had contacted the governor’s office, who in turn contacted NCDOT, about the crosswalk signage on the corner of Sunset Drive and Main Street, and is waiting to hear some numbers.
Steele presented a request for a 18-inch raised tombstone in Woodlawn Cemetery, which the town owns and operates. Currently, in most sections of the cemetery, raised tombstones are not allowed per ordinance. Matheson said that flat tombstones was originally passed in 1986 to allow mowing without disruptions, however he would be amenable to changing that rule.