MRA hearing continues with no resolution; plans already in place for another meeting

Ezra Maille
Black Mountain News
Montreat Board of Adjustment members continued to hear arguments on Dec. 13. in deciding whether or not to grant a special use permit to the MRA for a new lodge.

The Board of Adjustment hearing on a special use permit for the Mountain Retreat Association's proposed lodge continued Dec. 13 without a resolution but plenty of debate surrounding the town's comprehensive plan.

The next session is Dec. 15 at 10 a.m. at Montreat Town Hall. 

"We have about six witnesses or so," said Chairman Mark Spence on how many witnesses still remain to be called from the opposition who has yet to present its case. 

Much of the debate centered around Montreat's comprehensive plan, a set of laws and guidelines that the MRA's proposed lodge must follow, and the testimony of Scott Shuford an expert witness on planning and zoning, who remained on the stand for nearly 3 1/2 of the five hours allotted. 

So far, the hearing has spanned more than 20 hours throughout four different sessions. The most recent meeting, set for Nov. 17, was postponed due an illness from one of the parties' lawyers. 

Roughly 10 members of the public attended the meeting at Gaither Chapel on the Montreat College Campus, including two members of the town council, Jane Alexander and Mayor Pro Tem Tom Widmer. Board member Bill Solomon was unable to attend due to an illness, according to Spence. 

The hearing continued from where the previous meeting left off on Nov. 4. T.C. Morphis, the lawyer representing the MRA, called Shuford to the stand who has more than 40 years of city planning experience. 

During direct examination, Morphis questioned Shuford about the impact of the new lodge on the surrounding properties. 

"It doesn't encroach upon these properties," Shuford testified. 

The lodge proposal would do away with 60 trees and three of the original structures on the MRA property: Galax House, Chestnut Lodge and Lord Apartments. The proposal includes the replanting of 80 trees for a net gain of 20 trees on the site, situated between Georgia Terrace and Assembly Drive. 

The new hotel would include 40 guest rooms with private baths, a courtyard area and a 30-space parking garage. Including the half basement and parking garage, the entire area totals 40,000 square feet. 

The opposition is made up of the Jones family, represented by attorney John Noor, and the Hayner family, represented by attorney James Whitlock. Both families hold property adjacent to the proposed lodge site.

After Spence sustained an objection from the opposition as to Shuford's ability to testify on certain subjects as an expert witness, Morphis appealed to the board for a vote, to which the board agreed to overturn Spence's ruling and hear Shuford's testimony. 

Shuford continued in his testimony that the proposal does comply with the town's comprehensive plan. As the zoning regulations of the town were recently updated, the four lodges currently on the MRA property exist in nonconforming use, as confirmed by Shuford's testimony. 

According to the town zoning ordinance and comprehensive plan, "lodge" falls under the category of "hotel" and must be cited as a commercial use rather than an institutional use. Under the town definitions in the comprehensive plan, "institutional" differs from "commercial" use. 

However, the comprehensive plan, corroborated by Shuford, identifies virtually no commercial use areas. 

Board members pointed out that the comprehensive plan was adopted roughly 14 years ago. Although it was intended to be updated within 5 to 10 years, the plan has yet to be amended. 

Nevertheless, Shuford testified that the plan must be followed. 

John Noor, attorney for the Jones family, whose property sits adjacent to the MRA, cross examines a witness at the Dec. 13 meeting of the Board of Adjustment.

Shuford said the plan states to "allow limited commercial development," not no commercial development. In cross examination, Noor referred to a survey conducted by the town prior to the adoption of the comprehensive plan, where 80% of respondents agreed that the town "should not allow commercial development in key areas."

Given that there is no commercial zoning district in Montreat, according to Shuford, the majority of Montreat is zoned as a residential district. Shuford testified that no matter how the new lodge is zoned, Montreat would remain mostly residential. 

After Shuford, Scott Adams, the zoning administrator for the town, retook the stand for the remainder of the meeting. 

Although much of Adams' testimony had already been recorded during his first appearance on the stand on Oct. 21, both parties examined and re-questioned the zoning administrator on zoning, use and parking. 

The regular Board of Adjustment meeting scheduled for Dec. 16 is unrelated to the MRA hearing. 

The MRA plans to present one final witness on Dec. 15 before the opposition will present its case. Anne Hayner, the only member of the community deemed by the board to have standing in the hearing, said she will call one witness.