THE MESSAGE IS LONG BUT IMPORTANT
Dear Friends of Blowing Rock,
I attended the 3 day Winter Retreat in early January to gain a first-hand understanding of the Town Council priorities and determine if the Town’s priorities line up with our Top 10 Priorities.
Our Town Manager, Shane Fox, facilitated a well-organized meeting. Preparation by Mr. Fox and the Department Heads was evident. The discussion was wide ranging giving us an insight into the views of the Council and educating the Council on many issues which should be helpful in the future. One of the most helpful discussions was a clear explanation of funding sources. The staff thanked the Council for the opportunity to hear their discussion first hand. Having the retreat in Blowing Rock allowed for this benefit and will pay big dividends.
The public was not allowed to speak, so it was good that we delivered out Top 10 communication to the Council and Town Manager in December. I was able to discuss topics with the Council and staff at breaks.
No votes were allowed, but the Council was able to give the Town Manager and staff direction.
You should read two Watauga Democrat articles by Thomas Sherrill who attended all three days. Links to the articles are provided below. Also, Mayor Sellers reported on the retreat in his recent email update.
TOP 10 PRIORITIES – TOWN & CIVIC ASSOCIATION
The Council identified the Top 10 priorities for 2020. Two priorities highlighted below represent four of our top priorities that we believe are critical to achieve in 2020. Council did discuss nine of our Top 10 priorities.
The Top 10 priorities set by the Council with budget and source of funding follows:
1. Water pressure reducing valves and vaults to protect water lines from excessive water pressure phased in over at least 3 years – $1.2M – W&S Debt, Fees and Rates
2. Playground equipment in Memorial Park – $600K – Fund balance, FY20 Budget and TDA
3. Landscape plan for gateway entrances at Sunset Drive, South and North Main Street – $195K – Reallocate TDA reserve
4. Sidewalks on North Main – $1M – Bond money available for $600K
5. Land Use Code amendments to comply with state mandate and address specific codes for green space, downtown building design standards, 28 day loophole for short term rentals, eliminate CUP and creditable parking – Internal staff time and legal services – FY20 and FY21 Budget s
6. Legion Hall/Broyhill lake project that includes ADA accessibility, landscaping, amphitheater, and other enhancement s – $750K to $1M – Private f funding by Village Foundation and grants
7. Pedestrian crosswalk signage and lighting at Sunset/Main and Main /221 – $25K to $250K depending on choice of equipment – FY20 Budget
8. AMI Automatic water meters for all water users phased by neighborhoods – $725,000 – W&S fees to fund new debt service and recurring operating fees
9. Parking Management Plan to include management and physical solutions like shuttle service, private public partnership, additional parking facilities, paid parking, way finding and enforcement of parking ordinances – $100K – FY21 Budget
10. Broyhill Lake Dam and bridge repairs and/or enhancement to control water flow and protect structure – To be determined
SOURCE OF BUDGET FUNDING
The General Fund Operations is funded principally be tax revenue and the W&S Fund Operations is funded by fees.
General Fund revenue is sourced 52% from property taxes, 11% from sales taxes and 5% from TDA occupancy taxes. Property taxes provide $4.5 million of revenue of which 92% is from residential property taxes and 8% is from commercial property taxes.
The Council set a Fund Balance Reserve Policy to maintain an Available Fund Balance of at least 50% to fund 6 months of operations. Over the years, the Available Fund Balance has grown annually to exceed the policy by $289K.
As a resort town, Blowing Rock has approximately 1,300 local residents, many of whom also have second homes, who vote in Blowing Rock and up to 6,700 more seasonal residents. A substantial portion of all property taxes are funded by seasonal residential taxpayers and absentee commercial property taxpayers who do not vote in Blowing Rock. The Civic Association is dedicated to giving a voice for all residential property owners who fund the largest portion of revenue for the Town General Fund and W&S Fund Budgets.
IMPACT OF TOURISM
The most important takeaway for me that was not reported by the Watauga Democrat was a clear discussion and recognition that we have reach a critical point where the benefits of tourism are impacting the quality of life for residents and negatively impacting the Town’s operating expenses. Albert Yount concluded the meeting with a comment that we are “Out of Balance”. Virginia Powell expressed a concern that we may have begun to push residents out of downtown and that we need residents to be a part of the village to achieve a balance of “Live/Work/Play”. This is the first time I have heard this concern so clearly expressed in a public meeting by the Council. The successful promotion of Blowing Rock by the TDA and Chamber and the improved US economy has resulting in our Town, being “Loved to Death” like many resort towns around the country.
The Director of Parks & Recreation shared data that was honestly shocking to learn. The Town has a system to track cell phone pings each 24 hour period at Memorial Park including those who drive by on Main Street. The cell phone is tracked only once in 24 hours, includes only those cell phones who have Wifi turned on in their settings and of course does not count the kids or adults who do not have a cell phone or have not turned on their Wifi setting. The visitor numbers are staggering! There were 38,000 pings on November 29, 2019 during the Santa Day and Tree Lighting and 19,800 pings on November 30, 2019 for the Christmas Parade. On average there are 10,000 pings each day per year totaling 3.6 million pings over the year. Obviously, the daily average is exaggerated by the peak days for Art in the Park, parades and special events. There was a surge in tourists in late October and early November that can’t be explained other that good weather and the New York Times article about 36 Hours in Boone and Blowing Rock.
We reported earlier last year that we may have reach a “Tipping Point”. Better communication and coordination between the community, Town and TDA was discussed and made an internal staff priority.
The impact on utilization of the park, the Town’s operating budget and just overwhelming congestion of people and cars has led to a recognition that the solution is not just more parking but a comprehensive Tourism Management Plan that addresses both the physical and management solutions. The solution is multifaceted and must include a lot of small management solutions in addition to any physical solutions like additional parking lots or garages. Perhaps the limits on parking are a tool to manage congestion by essentially causing visitors not to choose Blowing Rock as a destination. The Police Chief shared a parking inventory indicating that there are 607 public spaces (197 on-street) and 246 private spaces that could offer public-private partnerships for additional capacity.
We have tried to make the case to the Council, Chamber and TDA that seasonal residents are an important economic segment of our tourism economy because they are “High Value and Low Impact”. Hopefully the Chambers economic development strategy and the TDA’s promotional plan will take advantage of enhancing and retaining this important segment of our economy. We need both residents and visitors to support a vibrant economy for Blowing Rock.
Additionally, we need to plan and prepare for the opening and opportunities that Middle Fork Greenway will bring to Blowing Rock. Installation of new sidewalks along North Main from Valley Boulevard to Speckle Trout is included in the Top 10 Priorities to meet the new sidewalks that will be built next year to Bass Lake is an important improvement that can be mostly funded by bond funds and perhaps the TDA infrastructure funds. We need to get ready for the new demographic of tourist.
CHANGES TO LAND USE CODE & UPDATE OF 2014 COMPREHENSIVE PLAN
Updating the 2014 Comprehensive Plan beginning in 2020 was the Town Council’s #11 priority that we believe should be started this summer to insure public input on critical decisions about changes to the Land Use Code and Parking Solutions. Our Advocacy Plan includes a recommendation update the Comprehensive Plan and to focus on changing the Downtown Land Use Code to respect the existing setbacks and greenspace on West Main Street to preserve the historic village. Our recommendation is consistent with the recommendations of the 2014 Comprehensive Plan on Page 3.3. If we do not honor these goals, we will have redevelopment like 1150 Main Street mixed use building currently under construction with 15 foot setback and essentially no greenspace. We lost a substantial lawn and trees by approving a building under the current Land Use Code. We believe that the current codes are not consistent with protecting the historical village. West Main Street is the key to our charming downtown and needs to be protected.
The state has mandated an update of the Land Use Code by January 2020 that is essentially conforming terminology. Conditional Use permits will become Special Use permits for example.
Additionally there is consensus that the code need to be updated to clarify sections related to Downtown greenspace, parking rights. We made a case to the Planning Board at a recent meeting which was positively received by the board members and staff. Finally, the Council included a consideration of eliminating Conditional Use Permits (CUP) that are quasi-judicial hearings like Rainey Lodge in favor of Conditional Zoning Permits (CZP) which allow for public input. Our Advocacy Plan includes a recommendation to eliminate CUP to allow for public input, avoid the trial like setting that excludes public input and is in keeping with the trend in North Carolina in large and small municipalities. The staff will arrange for an educational session with representatives of the UNC School of Government who are experts and who have written a number of articles on the topic. We encourage the Council to make this a public venue so that the public can ask questions and become educated on the topic. The counter argument is that developers prefer to invest in planning if they know in advance that compliant projects will be approved. While we understand the logic, the experience with Rainey Lodge was very divisive and did not allow for the Council to discuss the project with the taxpayers.
FUTURE OF PARK COMPLEX
The Council discussed the need for a complete Master Plan based on the recently updated 2018 Parks & Rec Master Plan that addresses improvements and use each section of our downtown park – Memorial Park, American Legion, Broyhill Lake, Davant Field and Robbins Pool. There is $435,000 available for parks from the Bond Issue and $100,000 reserved for playground equipment in the current budget.
Replacement of the playground equipment in Memorial Park at a cost of $600,000 as soon as possible jump the #2 Top Priority without a clear source of funding matched to users. Local young families recently advocated for a major update of the playground equipment which is definitely needed, but the funding sources need to match the users between residents and tourists. Memorial Park is already very crowded with little greenspace emphasizing the need for a long-term master plan that considers the location of each use like tennis courts, pickleball courts, basketball courts, playgrounds and entertainment venues.
Badly needed additional bathrooms and improvements to existing bathrooms was discussed.
The Village Foundation is working on a proposal to improve the area behind the American Legion Building including ADA walkways and an amphitheater. The plan is a take-off of the Virginia Tech Plan. The Council discussed the need to control any scheduling of events and noise control. The staff and Council will be meeting with the Village Foundation over the winter to explore the proposal.
Pickleball is a growing sport especially for older adults. Local player have requested that the Town install additional courts and discussions are ongoing to determine possible location and funding.
With the large number of users in Memorial Park, we need to ask if the space will be too crowded to enjoy the park and ask if some of the uses can be moved to other locations in the park complex.
Over the last few years, the Chamber and Village Foundation have proposed gateway improvements to Sunset Drive at a cost of approximately $400K. The TDA has set aside $261K for gateway improvements. The Town staff recommended an alternative landscape plan for all three gateways for North Main, Sunset Drive and South Main at a cost of about $195K. This alternative became the #3 priority for the Town Council instructing the staff to finalize design and costs, meet with the Chamber, Village Foundation and TDA to discuss the alternative and ask BRACC to review to proposal.
LANDSCAPING ON VALLEY BOULEVARD
You have seen the extensive landscaping improvements being installed by the DOT. We owe a big thank you to David Goodson who spearheaded inventorying and selecting trees as a volunteer consultant for the Town. Thanks to a substantial investment of time by David, Shane and the staff, the Town has improved the landscaping and has insured that the right trees have been planted and replaced if needed under the contract. There are 624 new trees and 7,000 perennials. The Council discussed the idea of becoming a designated “Tree City”.
NEEDED WATER & SEWER IMPROVEMENTS
Two W&S priorities were selected by the Council for the Top 10. Additionally, the staff explained the need for a substantial investment in water and sewer lines and plant improvements. Replacement of the valves and vaults was selected as the #1 priority given the impact on changing pressures have on the old lines. Automated meter capability was also included in the Top 10 which will free up manpower now used to read meters with funding most likely from an additional water fee to cover cost of equipment and ongoing software. Data was shared to compare our W&S fees to other towns.
The bond funding will not cover the cost of improvements, so substantial funding will be needed in the future to replace both W&S lines. The staff is putting together a long-term plan to prioritize needs, determine phasing and costs.
The W&S revenue model will be reviewed by an independent consultant and updated to provide additional revenue to cover debt service for these improvements. We can expect higher W&S fees in the future to cover these infrastructure costs.
Remaining bond funding of $2.1M will not cover all of the needs which range from $3.0M to $3.5M. A schedule of priorities has been prepared and bids are expected for the February Town Council meeting.
A number of green initiatives were discussed including our recycling contract, use of solar energy and electric vehicles for the Town, and local ordinances requiring elimination of plastics.
CLARIFICATION OF QUALIFICATIONS FOR ADVISORY BOARDS
Rules for serving on the various board are not consistent and range from living in Blowing Rock, to being a taxpayer to being a voter. The Town Manager will bring a recommendation to the Council at the February meeting to conform the rules for service. We have also encouraged the Council and staff to utilize video conferencing to expand the population of candidates with expertise to participate.
WATAUGA DEMOCRAT LINKS
For the first time in my role, I believe the community, council and town staff are essentially on the same page in identifying the priorities for the future of Blowing Rock with an appreciation of the need to build community consensus.
On behalf of the Board of Directors of the Blowing Rock Civic Association, we want to thank the Mayor, Council, Town Manager and staff for conducting a very productive retreat. We are dedicated and hopeful that the Council, staff, residents and business community can work together to protect and improve our quality of life and economy. We are fortunate to have the natural resources, climate, reputation and history to underpin our future.
Blowing Rock Civic Association
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