Rainey Lodge public hearing finishes, council decision set for June 11
By Thomas Sherrill firstname.lastname@example.org
May 15, 2019
BLOWING ROCK — After a combined 10 hours split between two meetings and a forced recusal of a council member, the quasi-judicial public hearing for the proposed Rainey Lodge hotel ended on May 14, but the Blowing Rock Town Council will decide the fate of the project at its next monthly meeting on June 11.
The project, developed by Grand Dakota Development — a limited liability corporation owned and operated by Stephen Barker, who also owns the tract of land — would construct a 40-room hotel on a 0.905-acre plot of commercially zoned land between Morningside Drive, Rainey Street and U.S. 221 in downtown Blowing Rock.
Rainey Lodge has faced opposition from a group of neighbors, who hired Stacy “Four” Eggers IV of Eggers Law Firm of Boone to contest the project as an intervening party. The group contends the project would diminish the value of their properties, cause additional traffic on residential roads and result in noise pollution due to a planned bar, outside seating and guest-room balconies.
The quasi-judicial public hearing starting at the April 9 town council meeting, lasting roughly five hours before being put on hold due to time.
At the resumption of the hearing on May 14, Chelsea Garrett of di Santi, Watson, Capua, Wilson & Garrett law firm in Boone, who is representing Grand Dakota Development, asked that Councilwoman Sue Sweeting be recused from the hearing due to an email she sent March 26 to N.C. Department of Transportation Engineer Mike Pettyjohn asking about traffic impact studies of the area, a point of legal contention on April 9.
Town Manager Jim Freeman said he advised council members of the rules before the March 21 Blowing Rock Planning Board meeting, which Sweeting attended. Per the rules of the quasi-judicial public hearings in Blowing Rock, council members act as a trial jury and may not solicit and receive input about the case outside of the public hearing. Council members told the public at the onset of the hearing on April 9 that they couldn’t talk about the case and couldn’t even read emails sent to them about it.
Sweeting denied Garrett’s request to recuse herself.
“I would have recused myself if I truly believed I did something wrong,” Sweeting said. “I have no fixed opinion on this. I trust my ability to be impartial.”
Garrett then asked the remaining council members to vote on recusing Sweeting from the hearing, per town code, which they did in a 3-1 vote. Council members Virginia Powell, Doug Matheson and Jim Steele voted in favor of recusal while Mayor Pro-Tem Albert Yount voted against Sweeting’s recusal.
“This is the hardest decision in my 10-year tenure,” Matheson said prior to the vote. “I hate that factors have put us against each other … a mistake was made and we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard.”
“I believe that Sue is a good councilperson with integrity,” Steele said prior to the recusal vote. “She made a mistake … this is important for everyone here.”
Sweeting will not be able to vote for or against the Rainey Lodge application on June 11.
After a lengthy back-and-forth discussion, council voted unanimously to reject Mary Shkut, an independent contractor and current village council member from Marvin, located in Union County, as an expert witness.
Shkut said she was hired in February by local activist nonprofit Blowing Rock Civic Association to provide feedback on the town’s code as it relates to zoning and ordinances. Shkut said she was later asked to provide feedback on the Rainey Lodge proposal.
In her closing statement later in the meeting, Garrett criticized the BRCA, saying they are well meaning, but have acted behind the scenes pulling strings and trying to impose their will on the council without directly getting involved. BRCA member Dan Phillips posted a blog on the association’s website on May 8, saying that the BRCA knows how to protect the town from developers while contending the organization is not against every proposed development.
Despite not being approved as an expert witness, Eggers was able to ask Shkut a question as a witness. Shkut said that in her opinion, the Rainey Lodge plan is not compatible with the residential neighborhood and said there was “a lot of lacking” in the application.
Powell protested that allowing Shkut to speak was “a waste of time,” wanting witnesses such as neighbors and residents to speak instead. Town attorney Allen Moseley allowed Eggers to ask Shkut questions, telling Powell that that they didn’t want to go through an appeal process.
The council also unanimously refused to admit Shkut’s written analysis into evidence as an exhibit.
Blowing Rock Planning Director Kevin Rothrock was called by Garrett, continuing where the April 9 meeting left off. Garrett asked Rothrock specifically about the application and whether it fit town code, to which Rothrock said it did in his determination.
Eggers requestioned Rothrock about his authority compared to the council’s. Rothrock said he is called upon to interpret the ordinance and in this case, would not provide a recommendation for council.
Newland-based real estate broker and appraiser Michael Lacey gave expert testimony for Eggers that there would be a substantial negative financial impact on the adjoining residential properties. Lacey said that even if Eggers wasn’t paying him as an expert witness, he would reach the same conclusions based on his findings. Garrett contended that Lacey, not having any numbers to support his thoughts, devalued his testimony.
Becky Browning, who lives on Rainey Street, said she doesn’t feel like the proposed development would lead to more cars on residential roads and people going right on Rainey.
Mark Crumpler said there would be more traffic on Morningside Drive trying to turn onto U.S. 221, plus he had concerns about food and beverage trucks going into the hotel lot.
Morningside Drive resident Lynda Lasseter said there would be damage to the neighborhood roads and that the hotel would be “out of place.” Marshall Sealey said the examples of boutique hotels for the town that are in the Comprehensive Plan are nothing like the Rainey Lodge proposal.
In his closing argument, Eggers asked the council what they wanted the community to look like.
“This project will set the standard for what Blowing Rock will look like,” Eggers said. “The roof sits six stories above (U.S.) 221; does that promote the reputation of Blowing Rock being the prettiest town in North Carolina?”
Eggers said the applicant did not meet the standard as required by town code for approval.
Garrett asked that the council review the record and said that it’s substantial and competent. Garrett said there’s been statements of support sent to the council and brought up that it was unanimously approved by the town’s planning board.
“The project complies, the application is complete, it will actually improve safety based on the testimony of a traffic expert,’ Garrett said. “Everything the way (Rainey Lodge) was designed was done for Blowing Rock.”
In other council matters, Blowing Rock Mayor Charlie Sellers thanked Jim Freeman for his service as interim town manager. Freeman’s last day is June 2 before new town manager Shane Fox takes over.