Editor’s Note: Click to 5:15 on the YouTube video of last night’s meeting above to hear Council Member Dan Phillip’s comments.
By Jesse Wood
Aug. 28, 2014. During the Blowing Rock Town Council special meeting last night, Councilman Dan Phillips said that he felt “pressured and … pushed into a corner” to approve the conditional use permit for the controversial Mountainleaf development.
A divided council eventually approved the permit, but not without Phillips making a passionate plea for Blowing Rock to “remain a village” and expressing what he called a “disturbing” process regarding the drafting, recommendation and approval of the conditional use permit.
Phillips said he was “disturbed” that at prior meetings regarding this development that council was told that before them was only the “three decisions:” the three requested variances regarding building height, a reduction of 13 parking spaces and flexibility on impervious surfaces.
Town Attorney Allen Moseley told council members and those critical of the project in attendance at a public hearing in August that the council couldn’t shoot down a project just because “they didn’t like it.” He added that the matter would likely end up in court and the town wouldn’t prevail.
Moseley at the time noted that the Planning Director Kevin Rothrock said that with exception to the three variances, the project met the town’s planning ordinances, and at last night’s meeting, Rothrock reiterated the same thing.
Phillips said he was “disturbed” that the town’s planning office used a template of a prior conditional use permit for the property that was conducted when a former developer applied for one several years ago. Rothrock noted at the meeting that the property in question was the same, so it made sense to work off of the prior conditional use permit.
Phillips added that he was “disturbed” when a member of the “planning office” came out in favor of the project to the press. This was something that Rothrock and Mayor J.B. Lawrence, after Wednesday’s meeting adjourned, said they weren’t aware of.
(Critics of the project said the development would create “two Blowing Rocks” by dividing downtown, however, Lawrence and Blowing Rock Chamber Executive Director Charles Hardin sided with Catellus Group, which believed the opposite would happen. “I think if I stand back and look at the big picture, that piece of property would tie in the entire town with Main Street and with Shoppes on the Parkway,” Mayor J.B. Lawrence said in an interview.)
“[The planning office] is supposed to be objective and put the facts in front of us and let us make the decision. We shouldn’t be pinned in a corner at the start of this thing,” Phillips said. “We were supposed to be apart of this.”
However on Thursday, Phillips acknowledged that this project wasn’t handled any different than others that come before council.
In July, the Blowing Rock Planning Board recommended to council that it approve of the conditional use permit contingent upon five conditions. Then over the course of the several weeks and multiple meetings, the Blowing Rock Town Council made numerous amendments to the conditional use permit that was eventually approved last night.
According to the Town of Blowing Rock’s website, Rothrock, as planning director, is responsible for the review and analysis of site plans and conditional use permits and the planning board is responsible for making recommendations to council regarding conditional use permits.
At last night’s meeting, Councilwoman Sue Sweeting and Councilman Doug Matheson, who voted for the project, agreed with Phillips that council should have more oversight on this particular project and address matters that the planning department generally vets.
Phillips certainly had the preservation of Blowing Rock’s character as a small village at the forefront of his mind regarding this project, which consists of a 112-unit hotel with a spa, conference center, 20 condominiums, restaurants and 24,000-square-feet of retail space just two blocks from the heart of downtown Blowing Rock. Currently, the seven-acre parcel where the development is proposed is wooded, located in between Hill Street and the entrance to Chetola Resort.
Phillips noted that Blowing Rock would lose its “soul” if this property isn’t developed the “right” way, and he certainly represented a sect of Blowing Rock residents as numerous folks present at the meeting held up signs that said, “Vote No.”
“You know what?” Phillips asked rhetorically last night. “This is a village and should always remain a village. There is no question in my mind that if this is not done right Blowing Rock is going to become a town. When the town changes, everything else changes.”
While other council members also said they were voting for what was best for Blowing Rock, no one other than Phillips expressed the feeling of being manipulated by town staff and the planning board to vote one way or another.
“I haven’t felt the pressure Dan’s been feeling,” Sweeting said.
For more on this development, click here.