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An agenda item calling for the discussion of a lease agreement between a local day care and the Town of Black Mountain was placed back on the docket for the board of aldermen’s Sept. 9 regular monthly meeting, days after it was removed. 

Aldermen struck the topic from the agenda during the board’s Sept. 5 agenda meeting after Children and Friends Enrichment Center, a Black Mountain daycare seeking to construct a 10,000-square-foot facility at Veterans Park, made a last-minute change to the site plan. 

Representatives from the nonprofit organization, which was granted permission to pursue plans to build on the town-owned property in 2017, initially submitted a proposal for a 12,000-square-foot building on a 25,000-square-foot plat of land on the southern end of the park, which is bisected by I-40. That site was situated on the west side of the property, near the greenway trail that circles the back 9 of the disc golf course. 

John DeWitt, who serves on the board of directors for Children and Friends and Verner Center for Early Learning, acquired a new site plan days before the board met to set the agenda for their September meeting. The plan depicted a 10,000-square-foot facility on a flat lot next to the town-owned Grey Eagle Arena and Black Mountain Fire Department substation, at the end of White Pine Drive.

DeWitt had yet to submit a survey and legal description of the plat prior to the agenda meeting. Aldermen removed the item from the agenda pending the filing of the documents. 

The topic was able to be placed back on the agenda after DeWitt produced the required paperwork the day after the agenda meeting. 

“Our preference has always been to build at the end of White Pine Drive, above the disc golf course and community garden," DeWitt said. "Our original option for the building was 12,000 square feet, and that wouldn't fit in that area."

Children and Friends considered proposing a 25,000-square-foot site, which included space for a building and surrounding play area. 

"We met with Jesse Gardner, and he believed he could fit an appropriate design on the space next to the fire department," DeWitt said. "We called the company that is building the modular building for us and told them we wanted to reduce the size of the building to 10,000 square feet and Jesse came up with a plan to place it perfectly up there."

Children and Friends, which has operated in Black Mountain since 1979, is at a critical juncture in its attempt to move out of its current location at 3126 U.S. 70, according to DeWitt. 

"We have searched all over this town, since 2016, for buildings that could accommodate our needs," he said. "The current space no longer meets our needs."

Linda Hobson, the chair of the Swannanoa Valley Child Care Council, Inc., the board that oversees Children and Friends, said the condition of the building has had a direct impact on the level of service the daycare can provide. 

"We've had to close several days this year due to flooding in the building," she said. "We're not dependable for working parents, who can't afford to miss a day at work because we're closed."

DeWitt approached town officials in 2017 about the possibility of building the structure at the park. He cited a critical need for child care in eastern Buncombe County. 

"High-quality child care is important to any family," he said. "More and more families need child care so they can work, and Verner and Children and Friends are five star licensed centers that address that need. Between the two waiting lists for Verner and Children and Friends, we're looking at well over 400 children."

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services star rating system, employed by the Division of Child Development and Early Education, evaluates facilities on staff education and program standards. Ratings are given based on an escalating five-star system. 

"That licensing designation allows us to offer rates to families based on their income levels, because the state provides subsidies based on that," DeWitt said. 

Aldermen, in December of 2017, unanimously approved a memorandum of understanding that set forth terms under which a lease agreement with the daycare, not to exceed 10 years, could be reached. The document calls for the daycare to "bear all costs of construction of the building to be used for the day care, the parking areas and the exclusive recreation areas," as well as "any necessary infrastructure improvements," including sewage and costs to make necessary improvements to White Pine Drive. 

Black Mountain resident Elaine Loutzenheiser has expressed her opposition to an agreement between the town and Children and Friends since 2017. 

"It's not the town's responsibility to provide land for a day care any more than it's the town's responsibility to build adequate affordable housing," she said. "This building will impact a number of people who live near Blue Ridge Road and I feel that more chances for public input are needed before this project moves forward."

Loutzenheiser was one of several citizens who attended the Sept. 9 meeting to voice their concerns about the project. 

Faith Butterfield, a volunteer at the town-owned Dr. John Wilson Community Garden, said she was worried about the impact a day care could have on the program. 

"This will sit directly above the community garden, which is an important resource in the community that provides thousands of pounds of food to hungry residents in the area," she said. "It will also take away green space that is appreciated by many in the community."

The site adjacent to the fire department will have "minimal impact" on the park itself, according to DeWitt. 

"The reason we always preferred that spot was because we feel like it enhances the park," he said. "There is an empty space near all of the green space the park has to offer, and we believe that is a great setting for the children we serve."

Butterfield began circulating a petition on Aug. 30, calling for the town to stop the day care from building on the proposed site. She submitted a petition with more than 500 signatures, many of them from people who live outside of town limits. 

She asked the day care and town to consider putting the daycare on the north side of Veterans Park, near the baseball fields. 

"I see this as a more convenient location," she said. “There is an existing two-lane road in and out of the site.”

DeWitt acknowledges that there is opposition to the proposed site, but maintains it is the only viable option for Children and Friends. 

"Our current building is for sale and our goal is to have the new building up by Dec. 31, so we can open Jan. 2, 2020," he said. "There have been a few people who have objected to building at Veterans Park, but an overwhelming majority of people in the community have been supportive."

The day care received $200,000 in funding from the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners in November of 2018. Additional financial support has come from several community-based organizations, Hobson said. 

"Montreat Presbyterian contributed $50,000, the Cannon Foundation provided $75,000 and our contributions from individuals has ranged from $20 to $30,000," she said. "And donations are still coming in. People recognize that child care is a serious need in the community."

The board authorized the terms of the lease Monday night. Aldermen Larry Harris, Maggie Tuttle and Ryan Stone addressed the controversy over the site. 

“There is not a person here whose comments I don’t agree with; I can understand every bit of the concern people have for green space and the garden, which does wonderful work in our community,” Harris said. “I would add, though, that if you look where the building will sit, it will be in a place that is sometimes used as a parking lot and very close to the fire station. It will not impact the garden or greenway directly. It will impact one of the holes on the disc golf course, but that’s it.”

Harris added that he was “proud to work witthe (county) commissioners” in supporting the community’s need for day care. 

Leasing the property is a unique way in which the town can support a need in the community, according to Tuttle. 

“People ask me what I can do about affordable housing, or making things more affordable for residents,” she said. “This is one of the ways, as a town, that we can contribute.”

Stone expressed appreciation for the perspectives shared by those in attendance before echoing the sentiments of Harris and Tuttle. 

“I think that this location will provide these children with an unbelievable opportunity to not only receive great care, but also to appreciate the hard work of those who volunteer at the garden,” he said. “This exposure could help make them productive going forward. Some people may disagree with me, but I believe this is going to benefit this community tremendously.”

Town attorney Ron Sneed explained in detail how he structured the 10-year lease agreement, which designates the rectangular plot of land on which the structure will stand as “exclusive use for the day care.”

“The rest of it is a common use area and that common use is parking, which can be used by people coming to the day care, garden, Grey Eagle Arena or the fire station,” Sneed told the board. “There is some priority use, like in the mornings and afternoons at drop-off and pick-up time. I have unilaterally worded the lease to recognize the fact that once they put up the building they will need an internal circulation route there. I hope you encourage them, if you lease it to them, to utilize some of that space to help avoid traffic backing up in front of the fire station.”

An undefined 17,000-square-foot area around the building will serve as a playground, which, according to the terms of the lease, is defined as shared use.

“The daycare center will need to build, equip and fence that,” Sneed said. 

The terms of the lease call for Children and Friends to pay $750 per month for the property once the building and the playground are in place. A monthly rate of $650 will cover the parcel of land on which the structure is built. 

With Carlos Showers absent, the board approved the conditions of the lease with a 4-0 vote.

The town will advertise the pending lease for 30 days, per the requirements set forth by N.C. General Statute. Aldermen will review the agreement for final approval in the board’s regular monthly meeting on Monday, Nov. 11.  

Children and Friends cannot begin developing the land before the lease agreement is finalized.

Mayor Don Collins closed the September meeting by addressing the opposition to the lease. 

“I know some folks are dead-set against it,” he said. “But I know deep in my heart, that once this is done, it’s going to blend in with the community and be one of the biggest assets this town has had since the Town Square.”

Children and Friends plans to begin construction immediately if the lease agreement is finalized by the board. 

"We're eager to get this project going," DeWitt said. "We have been working on this for a couple of years now, and we're grateful for the support of the town and the community." 

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