BOONE — Roughly 40 people spoke during a Watauga County Board of Commissioners public hearing Oct. 15 regarding an amendment to the Valle Crucis Historic District ordinance to address public schools.

According to Watauga County staff, the ordinance as written does not directly mention schools and would be addressed along with bonafide farms. Prior to being able to take action on any proposed amendments, the commissioners are required to host a public hearing.

“The proposed amendment attempts to clarify that schools are not affected by area, height, placement and performance zoning standards,” according to information provided by the county. “If adopted, the amended text would not exempt schools from the Certificate of Appropriateness requirements.”

According to the county, the Watauga Planning Board found that the Valle Crucis Historic District would be preserved by the ordinance requirement of Certificate of Appropriateness issuance prior to construction of a new school if the amendment was approved. Additionally it stated that preservation of a community school serves to preserve the community.

The Historic Preservation Commission met on Oct. 1 and voted 5-0 to recommend that the proposed amendment not be adopted, according to the county.

Comments in favor and in opposition to the text amendment were roughly split. Those who spoke in opposition were concerned about the historic nature of the area, and those who spoke in support were more concerned about the placement of the school being within Valle Crucis.

Francis Pressly said he moved to Valle Crucis in 1984 and purchased the old Mast Farm Inn property that is now on the National Register of Historic Places. In the late 1980s, Pressly joined with other residents to get Valle Crucis named as a national rural historic district. He said the goal was to establish building codes and regulations that would be required to preserve the charm and integrity of the area. He later became chair of the Valle Crucis Historic District for roughly 10 years.

“It is disturbing to me that our work establishing regulations to maintain our historic designation is now being challenged and potentially changed to meet the needs of a new modern building at the entrance of the historic district,” Pressly said.

He further argued that schools and bonafide farms should not be put into the same category. Many of those who spoke in opposition agreed that a “blanket statement” addressing schools would not be in the best interest of the community.

Lyle Schoenfeldt, the chair of the steering committee that is opposed to the placement of the new school, suggested that the commissioners should rather allow the school to apply for specific variances when it came to school plans instead of having the blanket amendment.

Emily Shefield said that she believes the ordinance has been changed six times from 1990 to 2013, and wasn’t sure why it couldn’t be amended in 2019. She added that in the general provisions, it states that items must contribute to the improvement of the general health and welfare of the residents of Valle Crucis Historic District and Watauga County, and that the students are part of Watauga County.

“Our children are starting to pick up on this issue … the controversy and back and forth,” Shefield said. “You kick them out of the district, and tell them they don’t need to be there, what message are you sending to them when they’ve felt like it’s their educational home?”

Amber Cooper stated that she remembered when the gym was built for the current Valle Crucis School, there was controversy back then as well about the height of the gym. She said the gym is now used often and is part of the Valle Crucis community.

Many of those in favor of the amendment made mention that the school as it is is a nonconforming use in the historic district. Therefore, officials couldn’t change the current school as it is with the ordinance as written, according to Charlie Clement.

The commissioners tabled the discussion until its Nov. 6 meeting to have time to gather more information and input.

The Watauga County Board of Education is hosting a work session at 6 p.m on Tuesday, Oct. 22, in the gymnasium of Valle Crucis Elementary School. The school board’s attorney and architect will present information regarding the due diligence evaluation of the Hodges property currently under contract by the board for the construction of a new school in Valle Crucis. The public is invited to speak during a public comment portion of the meeting; no action is planned to be taken at the meeting.

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