Montreat board begins hearing evidence from opposition as MRA lodge hearing nears 30 hours

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 Montreat Board of Adjustment continued the hearing for the Mountain Retreat Association's proposed new lodge on Dec. 15, concluding witness testimony from the MRA and starting to hear the opposition's case.

"The MRA is finished putting on it's evidence, the board has heard that evidence, and now it's our turn," said James Whitlock, the attorney representing the Hayner family in the hearing. 

John Noor, the attorney for the Jones family, joins Whitlock in representing the opposition. The Jones and Hayner families make up the opposition, holding property directly adjacent to the site of the proposed lodge. 

Beginning in October, the hearing has spanned five sessions for a cumulative time of nearly 30 hours. 

Twelve members of the public occupied the 15 available seats at Montreat Town Hall, where the meeting was held. Board member Bill Solomon was still absent. 

The proposal for the lodge aims to remove three of the original structures on the property: Galax House, Chestnut Lodge and Lord Apartments. Additionally, the project would require 60 trees to be removed, but includes plans to replant 80. 

The proposed lodge, situated between Assembly Drive and Georgia Terrace, would include 40 guest rooms with private baths, a large courtyard area and a 30-space parking garage. With the inclusion of the half basement and parking garage, the total area amounts to 40,000 square feet. 

The eight-hour meeting began with the MRA's final witness on stand, John Palmer, an expert witness with more than 40 years experience in property appraisals and realty. Palmer presented an impact report using research he conducted in July for the appraisal he completed in October. 

After direct examination by T.C. Morphis, the attorney representing the MRA, Palmer was cross examined by Noor at length and then briefly questioned by Whitlock. 

Noor and Palmer went back and forth in a debate surrounding the standards of the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice (USPAP) that all appraisers must follow when conducting a report. During his line of questioning, Noor was mildly chastised by Spence for being redundant.  

Palmer testified that the MRA's proposed use "appears to be" in harmony with the surrounding properties. His report utilized similar establishments for reference and records from the Multiple Listing Service, an independently owned and operated real estate listing and services company. 

Noor uncovered discrepancies between Palmer's report and county records, but since Palmer didn't have his records with him, he was unable to verify. 

"Sometimes these lag and sometimes they're incorrect," Palmer said of the county records. 

The opposition began its case by calling to the stand Matt Sams, an expert witness in civil, forensic and structural engineering, where he remained for more than three hours. During his testimony, Sams stated that the MRA's proposal creates "considerable risks" for the Hayner house, a structure he said was built more than 100 years ago. 

Sams provided multiple visual presentations including a slideshow with photos and measurements of the Hayner house, a grade rod to demonstrate the height of the new lodge's below grade parking garage and a vibrating table and foam bricks to show how the Hayner property would react to heavy machinery. The final demonstration was decided by the board to be not admissible as evidence. 

In analyzing the MRA's proposal, Sams testified that the garage would be virtually impossible to accomplish as laid out. He said since the proposal calls for a sloping grade, a stormwater swell and a tree buffer in between the Hayner residence and the lodge and all three cannot exist simultaneously. 

In the last hour of the session, the opposition called Barrett Kays to the stand as an expert witness who holds a Ph.D. in soil science and conducted doctoral research in stormwater filtration, among other credentials.

Kays testified to the cleanliness of Flat Creek, which runs downhill and across the road from the proposed site, speaking to how easily it could be polluted if the lodge were to be built. He also addressed an affidavit from Noor's client regarding his use of the creek and said the biggest harm to humans comes through contact. 

Board members and town officials say they hope to have the hearing completed by Jan. 7 as a board member will be out of the country from Jan. 7 through the end of the month. The board plans to reconvene at the Montreat Town Hall on Jan. 4 at 9 a.m.