By Jesse Wood
Aug. 12, 2014. “Can’t they just say they don’t like it?”
That question was asked numerous times at the Blowing Rock Town Council public hearing in early August regarding the proposed Mountainleaf development, located on a seven-acre, wooded parcel two blocks from the heart of downtown.
If approved, the project by Charlotte-based Catellus Group would include a 112-room hotel and 20 condos with nearly 26,000-square-feet of retail space.
Tuesday night’s public hearing lasted about three hours and featured a presentation from numerous representatives of the Catellus Group, who fielded questions from council, and comments from the public and town staff.
It was the second and public hearing on the matter, and the Blowing Rock Town Council tabled a decision on the development so it could “absorb” all of the information gleaned from the hearing. The council will make a decision at special meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 27 at 5:30 p.m.
After the first public hearing in July, council directed the Catellus Group to come back with more information because it had concerns with the phasing of the project; the requested five-year vesting; storm water issues; integration of the development with the rest of the downtown district; and scale of the project, which some council members said was too big for the small village.
In addition to those concerns, council also has before them three variances it must approve for the project to receive its conditional use permit and move forward. Those included impervious surfaces, parking and building height.
But back to that first question: “Can’t they just say they don’t like it?”
Town Attorney Allen Moseley said that if the Blowing Rock Town Council voted on a project because they “didn’t like it” than this case would probably end up in court and the town likely wouldn’t prevail.
Moseley noted that the Planning Director Kevin Rothrock said the plans from Catellus Group meet the requirements of the town’s planning ordinances. Moseley did say that the council could choose not to grant the three waivers for the project.
Catellus Group President and Counsel Ben Cassarino said that if the town didn’t grant the variance to exceed the 40-foot building height limit to a total of 55 feet for one end of the hotel then the development wouldn’t be “feasible” to construct.
A noted in a prior article on this proposal, council and community members were concerned about the uncertainty surrounding the construction phasing of this project. During the first public hearing, representatives with the Catellus Group wouldn’t confirm whether the hotel would be built first or the the condominiums featuring retail space on the lower level?
What would happen if those condominiums didn’t sell as anticipated and therefore financing for the hotel was in jeopardy?
But on Tuesday night, certified Planner Walter Fields of the Walter Fields Group, which is working with Catellus Group on this project, said the group was committed to building the hotel in the first phase.
“We want to make that clear,” Fields said, adding that the second phasing for the remainder of the project would happen “as soon as we can” and would be determined with pre-sales and pre-leasing of the condominiums and retail space.
As Blowing Rock Chamber Executive Director Charles Hardin expressed to High Country Press before the public hearing, another concern was the timeframe of construction that the developer talked about at the public hearing in July.
“They were saying five years [to complete]. That is unacceptable to the town and the chamber. It needs to be two years or less [to receive support for the project],” Hardin said weeks ago.
But representatives of the Catellus Group seemed to stand firm on the request for the five-year vesting on Tuesday night. Both Fields and Cassarino noted that state law sets a vesting period. The statute reads: “a city may provide that rights shall be vested for a period exceeding two years but not exceeding five years.”
Fields said this was set in place so that a developer wouldn’t have the “rug jerked out from under” them if, say, a new council were to be elected in the middle of the project’s construction and significantly changed the requirements of the project.
Cassarino noted that five years seems like a long time but said that “isn’t our intent or hope.”
“What happens if there are delays or hiccups in the process?” Cassarino asked, later adding that the Catellus Group has already been working more than a year on developing these plans.
He said the vesting gives developers insurance during economic cycles.
“What happens if [the economy doesn’t continue to recover] and we are delayed six to eight months?” Cassarino asked, adding that interests could rise causing delays in financing the project and noted other potential events that could cause the project to temporarily stall.
As Fields said when pressed by Councilman Dan Phillips on a variety of issues, “I don’t care how many ducks you have lined up in a row. You can walk into the parking lot and one is waiting on you squawking.”
Town Attorney Alan Moseley noted to council later in the meeting that the town could say it wasn’t interested in five years of vesting.
Storm Water Concerns
While there were concerns with the irrigation and storm water, a staff member with the town said he felt confident that the Catellus Group has “done what it had to do and beyond” to deal with 10, 25 and 100 year storms. Catellus Group has also reached an agreement with Chetola Resort for runoff to enter Chetola Lake.
Integration or “Two Blowing Rocks”
While Mayor J.B. Lawrence said – and Hardin concurred – that this development would “tie in the entire town with Main Street and Shoppes on the Parkway,” others in the community fear that this development would divide downtown instead of extending the downtown district. See this article for more info on this topic: Tale of Two Blowing Rocks? Mountainleaf Development Spurs Talk of Potential Small Mountain Village Split.
Representing the Catellus Group, Walter Fields noted that the town’s 2014 Comprehensive Plan explicitly states that one of the sites in Blowing Rock identified for development or redevelopment is the seven-acre parcel in question.
“Right out of the box we are starting with a piece of property the community has identified for the purpose of development,” Fields said, adding that the property is zoned accordingly and the Catellus Group isn’t asking for a rezoning classification.
Fields said that the Mountainleaf will have two public restrooms that were requested by the council at the previous public hearing.
“I have never heard of that before, but after some thought the Catellus Group agreed,” Fields said, adding a quip: “That sort of makes us part of the Central Business District restroom program.”
“That ties us together even more,” Fields said, adding that the architecture matches other buildings in the community including the historic and long-gone Mayview Manor.
Fields went onto say that this infill project would create an extension to Chetola Resort that hasn’t existed before. Catellus Group has agreed to put $25,000 in the town’s coffers to construct public sidewalks.
It will have public sidewalks running through the project. At the prior hearing, the proposal was for sidewalks to run along Main Street, and then at the request of a council member, the sidewalks were rendered further up into the development for the new public hearing. On Tuesday, Council members disagreed on the placement of the sidewalk.
As for the scale of the project, Fields noted that the project was less dense than a development that was approved for the same parcel several years ago. That prior development failed to get off the ground once the economy collapsed.
Bank of Granite/Community One Bank own the piece of property that the Catellus Group says is under contract and will purchase if the Blowing Rock Town Council approves of the project.
At the public hearing about four people spoke against the project, while Chetola Resort owner Kent Tarbutton spoke in favor of the project as a TDA member.
Ginny Stevens, with the Blowing Rock Historical Society, questioned whether “bigger is really better.” She said that Blowing Rock would lose its ambiance and charm if this development were to proceed. She also noted that the merchants downtown would feel the competition of those in the nearly 26,000 feet of retail space with restaurants and shops below the condominiums.
Catellus Group CEO Stephen Barker spoke at the end of the public hearing. He didn’t speak to the technical issues at hand that his staff and consultants tackled. He said he and his wife purchased a home in Blowing Rock some time ago and are beginning to be apart of the “fabric of the community as anybody.”
“We are not the kind of people to blow into town and try to make an economic hit on a small town,” Barker said.
Barker said that he has been in several of these types of public hearings and nobody from the area spoke up before.
“There was no compassion and no sincerity,” Barker said. “I thought maybe I am in the wrong spot. The fact that these people came up and spoke out shows great love and affection for Blowing Rock.”