MRA hearing nears 40 hours and end of opposition's case

Ezra Maille
Black Mountain News
Annie McDonald, an expert witness for the opposition, testified on the lack of compliance on the MRA's part in regard to the town comprehensive plan.

MONTREAT - The Board of Adjustment hearing to approve or deny the special use permit for the Mountain Retreat Association's new lodge proposal continued on Jan. 4 at Montreat Town Hall where the opposition left off in December. 

The six hearing sessions have now spanned four months and roughly 35 hours.

"These things can get contentious, but I've noticed the kindness on both sides, and I appreciate that," said board chairman Mark Spence. "Our job is to get to the bottom line here, and I don't want to rush or minimize any testimony that would affect either side."

A small group of members of the public occupied the seats available in Town Hall. MRA president Richard DuBose was forced to miss the Jan. 4 meeting due to being in quarantine after a minor case of COVID-19, according to MRA attorney T.C. Morphis.

More evidence was presented by the opposition to the MRA's proposal, with an expert witness testifying that the lodge proposal would not conform to the town's comprehensive plan in relation to historical preservation.

Attorneys John Noor and James Whitlock represent the opposition, made up of the Jones and Hayner families, who's properties sit adjacent to the site of the proposed lodge. Morphis and his co-counsel, Bob Oast, represent the MRA. 

Barrett Kays, an expert witness for the opposition who testified on the impact of stormwater damage to Flat Creek on Dec. 15, retook the stand remotely via Zoom for cross examination. 

Oast questioned Kays on the difference between an infiltration system and a detention system to filter stormwater as well as the classification of the water quality of Flat Creek. Kays testified that the MRA's proposal would not filter out the minimum amount of solid waste, determined by the town ordinance, before entering the creek.

"The conclusions I put in the report are well-founded," Kays concluded. 

After Kays, the opposition called Annie McDonald to the stand, a senior architectural historian with Richard Grubb & Associates, who testified as an expert witness in historical preservation and preservation planning. 

McDonald testified that due to the specific language relating to historical preservation in the town's comprehensive plan, the new lodge would not be in compliance. Reading from the comprehensive plan, McDonald said minor changes would be allowed on Assembly Drive so long as the character of Montreat is not significantly altered. 

"The size, scale and massing of the proposed hotel are not consistent of the language used in the plan to define character of historic buildings that overwhelmingly represent Montreat," McDonald said. 

The new plans for the lodge include added greenspace and fewer rooms following a period of community input.

The proposal for the lodge plans to remove three of the original structures on the MRA property: Galax House, Chestnut Lodge and Lord Apartments. In addition to the buildings, 60 trees would need to be removed with the project planning to replant 80. 

Located between Assembly Drive and Georgia Terrace, the lodge would include 40 guest rooms, complete with private baths, a large courtyard area and a 30-space parking garage. Including the half-basement and parking garage, the area totals 40,000 square feet. 

As interpreted by McDonald, the plan determines the character of Montreat to include the existence of historical structures. She said that over time, the loss of historical buildings erodes the historical integrity of the town. 

"The loss of historic resources is permanent," McDonald said. 

The application includes details on how the lodge will incorporate various designs related to other Montreat architecture.

Upon further direct examination by Noor, the state historic preservation plan states that development threatens towns such as Montreat that hold historical significance. 

Cross examination of McDonald by Morphis led to questions from the board regarding why Montreat doesn't hold a national historical designation despite recommendations to do so. McDonald named multiple possibilities including a lack of town funding, resources or time. 

The four-hour session ended with Priscilla Hayner, a member of the Hayner family in the opposition, briefly taking the stand to corroborate and authenticate photos she took to be included later on in the opposition's presentation.  

The Board of Adjustment plans to continue the hearing on Jan. 5 at 9 a.m. in Montreat Town Hall.