MRA lodge hearing continued to Oct. 28 with no resolution

Ezra Maille
Black Mountain News
Around 50 community members attended the Board of Adjustment hearing for the MRA's proposal for a new lodge on Oct. 21 at Gaither Hall on the Montreat College campus.

MONTREAT - The hearing for the Mountain Retreat Association's new lodge proposal was continued to Oct. 28 after the Board of Adjustment was unable to hear the full arguments from all the parties involved in the five hours allotted. 

Roughly 50 community members attended the public hearing Oct. 21 at Gaither Chapel on the campus of Montreat College, many sporting bright green stickers on their chests to show uniform opposition to the lodge proposal. 

"It's an important day for Montreat as a town and as a community," said Priscilla Hayner, one of the leading opponents of the new lodge proposal.

Hayner's property sits adjacent to the site of the new lodge. Now that the proposal is in the hands of the legal teams, Hayner said she was comforted that the whole debate will have to follow the ordinance.

Mark Spence, chair of the Board of Adjustment, outlined the quasi-judicial hearing after calling order. Given the nature of the hearing, Spence said the proceedings would occur much like a court hearing, following certain guidelines and procedures for how the board operates. 

"The board must base its decision upon competent, relevant and substantial evidence," Spence said, repeating 'evidence' for emphasis. "A quasi-judicial decision is made upon the facts presented as opposed to opinions." 

Further constraints imposed by the town's ordinance outline the laws the board must adhere to. Spence encouraged all witnesses to focus on facts and standards rather than personal vendettas and opinions. 

The hearing began by determining who among a handful of applicants would be granted legal standing throughout the process, the ability to not only testify as a witness, but to have the rights of full cross examination and the ability to ask questions.

The board established specific criteria to determine what was required to be considered for standing. Only owners of property were considered, and such owners had to prove that the impact of the new lodge would cause damages that would affect their property in a significant way different from the rest of the community. 

Only one applicant was able to prove standing, Anne Hayner, a member of the Hayner family, one of the three parties represented in the hearing. 

Priscilla Hayner, right, has continued to be an active opponent to the MRA's proposed lodge, organizing protestors for the Oct. 21 Board of Adjustment hearing at Gaither Hall on the campus of Montreat College.

The MRA was represented by attorney T.C. Morphis of the Brough Law Firm. The Hayner family was represented by attorney James Whitlock, and the final party, Jones family, was represented by attorney John Noor. Similar to the Hayners, the Jones family also has invested opposition to the lodge proposal with property located near the proposed site.

The largest subject of debate during the hearing was whether the proposal constituted a lodge or a hotel. Morphis contended that the new building would be a lodge, not a hotel, meaning the proposal would have significantly less impact than if it were a hotel, something he said the testimony from his case would prove.

Whitlock entered into the record the definition of a hotel under the town of Montreat zoning ordinance as constituting a lodge, inn or motel. 

Before the legal teams entered the evidentiary portion of the hearing, the board heard from Scott Adams, the zoning administrator. Adams presented to the board the logistical information on the new lodge as applicable for the special permit request which brought the MRA before the board. 

The proposal poses significant modifications to the property, including the removal of 60 trees with the promise of replanting 80. The new lodge would also do away with three of the original structures: Galax House, Lord Apartments and Chestnut Lodge. 

As the evidentiary portion of the hearing commenced, the MRA began to make its case, calling MRA President Richard DuBose as the first witness. 

DuBose introduced himself, described his responsibilities as the leader of the organization and reminded the board of the MRA's role in the founding of Montreat. Since the original MRA had been granted municipal duties prior to turning them back over to the town as Montreat developed, according to DuBose, the organization created much of what the town is today, including the founding of Montreat College.

"It was the town before the town," DuBose said. 

Morphis questioned DuBose as to the reasoning for the new lodge. DuBose responded that out of the 13 MRA lodges in Montreat, attendees seek amenities the conference center cannot currently offer, amenities such as easily accessible rooms, rooms in better condition and easier access to other facilities from rooms. 

DuBose went on to say that the old lodges the MRA aims to replace cannot provide the necessary accommodations to meet its goals. After looking at the old lodges from various approaches, DuBose said replacement was by far the best option. 

"Renovating them would not help us accomplish the goals of the project and provide the types of accommodations I've already described," DuBose said. 

The organization president also mentioned that modernization could help cut costs. Using the example of the modernization of Assembly Inn, DuBose said water consumption was cut by 1.5 million gallons per year even as occupancy rates went up. 

Questioning moved to occupancy, given the proposed size of the new lodge. DuBose said the lodge would probably not be filled year round, like the current lodges, but that a 50% occupancy rate is possible. 

"Given our mission, you're not going to see the activity year round that you would in June and July," DuBose said. 

During cross examination by Whitlock and Noor, the lawyers as well as the board warned against hypotheticals, asking what would happen if the MRA leadership changed hands or if the organization went bankrupt. 

While no guarantees were made in the proposal for the special permit request, DuBose assured the board that such hypothetical changes are highly unlikely. However, the lawyers persisted that these concerns should not be so readily dismissed.

"Intent today may not be reality tomorrow," Noor said. 

The hearing concluded with a continuation to Oct. 28 in lieu of the regular Board of Adjustment meeting. The board planned to continue from where the meeting ended with the MRA presenting its argument and witnesses. The lawyers for the other two parties, the opposition of the new lodge, will present their cases after the MRA.