Christian academy loses appeal for zoning change

Paul Clark

A county board last week unanimously denied a request by a Christian academy to change its controversial building plans in Ridgecrest.

Board of Adjustment attorney Brandon Freeman (in suit) asks more than a dozen residents opposed to United Life Academy's zoning request who plans to speak. A half dozen expressed their concerns to Nicholas Dimitris, to right of the flags, and the board.

The Buncombe County Board of Adjustment’s July 12 decision means New Day Holdings, the for-profit limited partnership that is turning the old Madison Inn and Restaurant into United Life Academy, is restricted to creating a 10-room rooming house, not the group home designation it sought at a three-hour meeting July 12.

Despite the concerns of several neighbors who attended the hearing, the net effect of the board’s decision doesn’t decrease the number of students the academy hopes to attract. It merely means that New Day Holdings must house the academy’s anticipated 40 young men and women in the 10 rooms permitted instead of the two barracks-like dormitories it sought under a new conditional use permit.

Builders and owners seek conditional use permits when what they want to build doesn’t neatly fit the parameters of the property’s zoning classification. The academy’s property – 15 Dixon Drive, in a forested part of Ridgecrest filled with homes – is zoned residential. Rooming houses are allowed as conditional uses in its residential zoning classification, and that was the conditional use the board of adjustment had previously granted New Day Holdings.

Group homes are also allowed in the property’s zoning designation, and that was the conditional use New Day Holdings sought after the county told it the building plans it submitted in June do not comply with the rooming house conditional use permit. Nicholas Dimitris, representing New Day Holdings in the July 12 hearing, sought the group home designation to accommodate the dormitory setting made necessary during deconstruction by the removal of several interior walls.

Dimitris said it was necessary to take down the walls that defined the 10 rooms because they were not stable. Doing so made the dormitory setting a better solution to the academy’s housing needs, he said. Instead of putting four people in each of the 10 rooms, New Day Holdings had hoped for permission to build the men and women’s dormitories housing 20 people each. It would be able to decrease the number of bathrooms from 18 to 13, Dimitris said.

Emily Dimitris, Nicholas Dimistris' wife and a ministry leader at United Life Academy, talks to the academy's neighbors after the hearing.

Renovations have been extensive, he said. “There was not a thing, mechanical-wise, that did not need to be redone,” he told the board.

Madison Inn was built in the 1950s as a 10-unit motel partly to accommodate the many visitors to what is now Ridgecrest Conference Center. The inn closed in July 2014.

What Dimitris described as “an intense, complete overhaul” to the building has riled residents of this leafy neighborhood not far from Interstate 40. Granting the group home exception to the zoning would allow any subsequent owners to open homes for substance abusers or other people in need of help, they argued. They were also concerned about the number of cars and degree of increased traffic that the “40-plus” students, in Dimitris’ words, will bring to the neighborhood. Dimitris said the students would not likely be driving much.

On its website, United Life Academy offers a 12-month program for people who want to live as Christian disciples. Tuition is $1,000 a month, with a work/study option available. The academy will be run by United Church, which is Dimitris’ church in Asheville. New Day Holdings, whose mailing address is the same as United Church, owns 15 Dixon Drive. It has also bought other properties near 15 Dixon Drive.

The academy is not affiliated with another school or institution and is not accredited by any organization, Dimitris said during the hearing. It is aimed at young people who want a “gap” year between high school and college and those who have completed college, he said. Teachers affiliated with other Christian academies will come from all over the world, he said.

The lower portion of the building, the area that used to house a restaurant, will be used for “religious assembly,” Dimitris said, making necessary the parking lot New Day Holdings created next to 15 Dixon Drive. The next phase on construction, Dimitris said, is enclosing the deck to create a multi-purpose religious assembly area.

Art Snead, executive director of Ridgecrest Conference Center, said the center is concerned that the academy residents will use more water than the center can supply. It learned of the potential demand – for up to 48 people, Snead said he was told - only after reaching out to New Day Holdings recently, he said.

Amy Nasta, who lives beside the old inn, told the board she asked the builders for several meetings to find out what’s going on. Despite Dimitris’ claims otherwise, she said no one has explained to neighbors what the academy has in mind.

“We don’t know what’s going on in our neighborhood,” she said. New Day Holdings’ current construction “is just not what it proposed.”

“This is not a group home,” said attorney Ron Snead, representing two residents of the neighborhood. “The academy is a $480,000-a-year business. It is a for-profit school.”

“This is not going to be a detriment to the community,” Dimitris told residents during the hearing. “It’s going to be a blessing to the community.”

Board of Adjustment members were unanimous in turning down New Day Holding’s request.

Board member Keith Levi said the public utility and parking demands didn’t fit a group home designation. Board member Thomas Christ said New Day Holdings could have done a better job letting neighbors know what it was doing. Board member James Wilson said the changes were “out of character” with the neighborhood. Chairman George Lycan said they were “detrimental to the neighborhood.”