Opposition concludes presentation of evidence in MRA hearing, still no resolution

Ezra Maille
Black Mountain News
Harry T. Jones, a member of the opposition in the MRA special use hearing, testified at the Jan. 5 session in Montreat Town Hall.

The Board of Adjustment hearing for a special use permit for the Mountain Retreat Association's new lodge proposal continued Jan. 5 at Montreat Town Hall, concluding the opposition's evidence and hearing from the clients themselves.

"If this is approved, it is substantially damaging," said Harry T. Jones, a member of the opposition. "Qualitative and quantitative."

In concluding its evidence, the opposition presented expert witnesses in planning and real estate appraisals as well as the clients themselves to tell their stories. 

A small group of audience members consisted mostly of witnesses still to testify, family members of the opposition and a handful of members of the public. Richard DuBose, the president of the MRA, was absent for the second straight day due to quarantining after a minor case of COVID-19.

The opposition, made up of the Jones and Hayner families, whose properties sit adjacent to the proposed lodge site and represented by attorneys John Noor and James Whitlock, continued presenting evidence with expert witness Chris Collins on the stand. The MRA is represented by attorney T.C. Morphis and co-counsel Bob Oast. 

Collins was accepted as an expert witness in land use and planning. He testified that the proposed lodge does not fit the special use permit criteria as it relates to maintaining the character of Montreat. 

In addition to the special use criteria, Collins said the proposal also doesn't comply with the town's comprehensive plan. He agreed with expert witness Annie McDonald's testimony from Jan. 4 regarding the value of historical significance to the character of Montreat as outlined in the comprehensive plan. 

"We look at the concept of character and we've defined character," Collins said. "The built environment, including architecturally significant structures and significant historical structures as called out by the Montreat zoning ordinance."

The proposal for the new lodge requires the removal of three original structures on the MRA property: Galax House, Chestnut Lodge and Lord apartments. An additional 60 trees would need to be removed, but the proposal includes plans to replant 80. 

Situated between Assembly Drive and Georgia Terrace, the proposed lodge includes 40 guest rooms with private baths, a courtyard 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.

T.C. Morphis, attorney for the MRA, prepares to cross examine a witness at the Jan. 5 hearing in Montreat Town Hall.

Previously, during the MRA's presentation of evidence, the applicant called Scott Shuford to the stand to testify as an expert in planning. Collins' testimony agreed with Shuford that each lodge on the property, from the new hotel to the three other lodges on the site, would each function individually as principle buildings. 

According to Collins, the town only allows for one principle use. Conversely, town zoning administrator Scott Adams testified that the other buildings would be accessory rather than principle. 

Nevertheless, Collins said, for the sake of argument, even if the other buildings were considered accessory, there would still be one too many buildings under the ordinance. 

Collins was cross examined, re-directly examined, re-cross examined and questioned once again by the opposition, with much of the debate centering around development provisions and use within the town's residential areas. He said the transition district, an important area between the larger buildings and the residential buildings in Montreat, would be eliminated if the new lodge were to be built. 

Don Read, the final expert witness for the opposition, took the stand after Collins. Read was accepted as an expert witness in real estate appraisal. 

Read testified that the proposed lodge would impair the value of the properties adjacent, having conducted appraisals of both the Jones and Hayner houses and found comparable homes for reference. 

He appraised the Jones' house at $733,000, estimating a 15% reduced value due to the construction of the lodge at $109,950 in damages. Read appraised the Hayner's house at $405,000, estimating an 18% loss for $72,900 in damages. 

"That is substantial," Read said of the losses to value. "It's much more impactful on their property than on the Jones' property."

After much debate and nearly three hours on the stand, Read retired and Kate Hayner took the stand. She is a part-owner of the Hayner's house and associate professor at Samuel Merritt University in California. 

Hayner discussed her background, her experience and her family's love and appreciation for the 119-year-old house. Hayner repeatedly referenced previous testimonies, and Morphis and Oast reminded the board she did not possess the qualifications to offer an expert opinion.

Hayner testified that the new lodge would significantly reduce her use and enjoyment of her home as well as Flat Creek, referencing the testimony of Barrett Kays on possible pollution to the creek. She also noted the MRA did not complete a noise assessment to determine the impact of HVAC units planned to be installed behind the Hayner's house. 

"Experts have discussed that our property value will be substantially diminished, and that will completely change how we use the property," Hayner said. 

After a brief cross examination by Oast, Jones, the other half of the opposition and a part-owner of the Jones' house, took the stand for a passionate testimony on his 65 years of coming to Montreat. 

Jones spoke emphatically of his childhood as well as his adult life, playing in Flat Creek with his grandchildren, and how the new lodge would significantly impact his enjoyment of his family's house. 

"We're talking about a six figure loss in value," Jones said. "This would be injurious to our use and enjoyment." 

In closing, the MRA offered a written closing argument to which the opposition objected, asking the closing arguments to be oral. Chairman Mark Spence agreed to keep closing to a verbal summation. 

Having all the documents entered into evidence, the board is free to take everything home to be studied. 

With the opposition's evidence concluded, Anne Hayner, the only member of the public deemed to have standing, will present one witness. The MRA plans to present four rebuttal witnesses, including DuBose, before closing arguments. 

The hearing will continue on Jan. 6 at Montreat Town Hall at 9 a.m.