Subject: Public Hearing on Proposed Rainey Lodge 40 Room Hotel & Restaurant in Downtown Blowing Rock Completed – Tipping Point
Blowing Rock Friends,
Tipping Point – Division versus Unity
This public hearing was a tipping point for Blowing Rock creating division rather than unity to protect our shared concerns for the future of our community, especially our historic downtown that is our leading economic development asset. The issues raised during the hearing are not whether the community would benefit from a new hotel, but the polarization created by the developer friendly CUP process which didn’t allow for a full consideration of how the developer, the community, and council could work together for the best outcomes.
Unusual Actions – Attack on Council and Community
At the resumption of the public hearing on a permit for a 40 room hotel with restaurant, bar and patio service, the developer’s attorney, Chelsea Garrett, demanded that the Council vote to recuse Council Member Sue Sweetiing from the proceeding alleging that she had a bias against the project. Council Member Sweeting adamantly stated she had no bias and could objectively consider the project. Nonetheless, the Council voted to remove Council Member Sue Sweeting from participating in the Council’s decision on the project. The pretext used by the developer’s attorney was Sweeting’s communication with the NCDOT to understand the NCDOT requirements for a project located on this site. Attorney Four Eggers, who is representing a group of Morningside and Rainey residential neighbors in this process, raised strong objection to Sweeting’s removal citing laws governing recusals and objecting to the lack of opportunity to be heard on this issue.
Shortly thereafter Council was asked by the developer’s attorney to vote to exclude testimony from an expert witness who had done an extensive and documented study of the Rainey Lodge project finding that it failed to meet town codes in a number of ways. Blowing Rock Civic Association (BRCA) decided to hire a planning expert earlier this year to assist the board with understanding the Land Use Code and later to review this project. Her initial report was presented to the Planning Board when the board approved the project, but the Planning Board and action by the Council did not take advantage of the information. BRCA also made her report available to the attorney for the Morningside & Rainey neighbors. Why the Town Council wouldn’t even agree to listen to the concerns of this expert witness is a question that leads to some troubling conclusions.
In closing remarks, the developer’s attorney attacked BRCA for “pulling strings from behind the scenes” as a means to somehow discredit the legal challenge mounted by the neighbors. Ordinary citizens are not normally organized and do not have the experience or individual resources to hire professionals to represent their interests. BRCA assisted the neighbors in a process that requires legal assistance and experts so that they could represent their interest against a well-funded developer and assure all facts were presented.
Goal of Blowing Rock Civic Association – Facts not Endorsement or Opposition
Blowing Rock Civic Association neither endorses nor opposes this or any project, but rather is committed to making sure all of the facts are available to the community and Council to use in making their decisions. Expert testimony to uncover all facts is critically important in the very developer friendly conditional use permit process that excludes citizen opinions.
BRCA’s Development Evaluation Committee issued positive reports on the 1150 Main Street project commencing in downtown on Main Street and Pine Street, The Inn on Cornish nearing completion on Blowing Rock Highway (221), and the Chestnut at Blowing Rock condominiums nearing completion at the old hospital site. All variances were declared and on the table for review and approval by the Council.
Project Compliance – Form over Substance
While the developer has claimed from the beginning that the application totally meets the town code, the developer has amended the details of the project throughout the CUP hearing process to try and correct deficiencies raised by citizens. The Planning Director has always supported the developer’s claim of compliance throughout the process, but the Council is responsible for the final decision based on the facts presented. The developer hopes the Council will ignore or ‘interpret’ away non-compliance. The developer’s attorney challenged all opposing facts presented by the neighbors and the community.
Members of the public including neighbors, citizens and a hotel owner cited concerns about the project. No one from the community spoke in favor of the project. The attorney for the neighbors presented evidence to support a conclusion that the developer did not meet the burden of proof required by the Findings of Fact. The major facts that raise objections to this project are:
1. The project does not comply with town code requiring 75% greenspace in the front of the building and all that parking be at the sides or back of the building. The developer claims the primary entrance and lobby entrance (or front) is on Morningside Drive to gain the maximum height allowed with the setback, but not for the greenspace requirement which was used for parking rather than greenspace. This condition is clear in the Land Use Code and is not subject to interpretation and should have been declared as a variance when the application was submitted to the Planning Board.
2. The market values of the surrounding homes will be negatively impacted by a large commercial building with this use and hours of operation.
3. The project greatly exceeds the 24% maximum impervious surface requirement of town code.
4. The project fails to adequately provide for fire trucks and tractor trailer delivery trucks to operate safely within the development and on to neighborhood streets that will be used for ingress and egress.
5. The development fails to provide parking spaces that meet the code’s minimum design requirements.
6. The overall height from the sidewalk on 221 is approximately 60 feet or 6 stories. The code requires that structures do not impede the scenic views of the natural environment.
The Council should not be intimidated by the legal risks threatened by the developer’s attorney as the code is clear:
The burden of establishing these findings of fact shall lie upon the applicant. In addressing the issue of compatibility, the applicant must demonstrate compatibility with the particular neighborhood in which the development or use is to be located. The fact that a use is authorized as a conditional use within a zoning district classification shall not give rise to a presumption that such conditional use is compatible with other uses authorized in the zoning district classification.
Next Steps – Improve the Process
The current CUP process is developer friendly, stacked against the citizens and restricts the judgment of the Town Council. This quasi-judicial process is essentially a trial that pits the developer against the community and puts a gag-order on the members of the Council. Improvements are needed to achieve these key goals:
1. Improve the checks and balances around review of project compliance by requiring a detailed compliance checklist to document conclusions and a second review by the Town Manager before presentation to the Planning Board;
2. Replace or amend the CUP ordinances for downtown projects to allow property owners standing in the hearing process since our downtown, especially Main Street, affects the property values of all property owners;
3. Make clear that the Town Council, rather than zoning staff, have the final word on what the ordinance they adopted actually means; and
4. Establish a formal policy for the Town Council, Planning Board, Board of Adjustment, and the Town Planning Staff to attend educational seminars offered through the North Carolina School of Government on these types of hearings so they are comfortable hearing from the citizens on these types of projects