MRA lodge is approved by Montreat Board of Adjustment after nearly 50 hours of hearings

Ezra Maille
Black Mountain News
A rendering of the proposed MRA lodge

After nearly 50 hours and eight sessions that spanned four months, the Montreat Board of Adjustment approved the special use permit for the Mountain Retreat Association's new lodge proposal Jan. 6. 

"I move that the Board of Adjustment shall approve the special use permit because we have concluded that the requested permit is within the jurisdiction to grant according to the table of permitted uses," said member Robert Sulaski, concluding the hearing at Montreat Town Hall.

The board voted 5-2 to approve the special use permit, under four additional conditions, arriving at its decision after two hours of deliberation.

Board chairman Mark Spence addresses all parties at the start of the hearing on Jan. 6 at Montreat Town Hall.

The four additional conditions for the MRA:

  • Comply with county and town stormwater ordinance.
  • Comply with the town's noise ordinance.
  • Create a landscape plan to interrupt the sightline between the adjacent houses and the lodge.
  • The contractor will use best practices and measures to restrict activities to the site and protect the neighboring properties. 

"The development will comply with all requirements of the ordinances," Sulaski said during his motion to approve.

Board member Bill Solomon, one of the members to vote against approval, expressed concerns about the future of the town. 

The Jan. 6 session marked the third session of the week and featured the conclusion of the evidentiary portion of the hearing, final arguments, deliberation by the board and the vote to approve.

Previous coverage of the hearing:

Session 1:MRA lodge hearing continued to Oct. 28 with no resolution

Session 2:MRA lodge proposal hearing continued once again with no resolution

Session 3:Montreat lodge hearing: 3 sessions, 15-plus hours, no decision

Session 4:MRA hearing continues with no resolution; plans already in place for another meeting

Session 5:Montreat board begins hearing evidence from opposition as MRA lodge hearing nears 30 hours

Session 6:MRA hearing nears 40 hours and end of opposition's case

Session 7:Opposition concludes presentation of evidence in MRA hearing, still no resolution

Upon concluding evidence from the party with standing in the hearing, the MRA presented rebuttal testimony, sparking a debate between both parties as well as the board as to what would be fair and admissible as more evidence came to light as the hearing neared its end. 

The opposition, made up of the Hayner and Jones families, whose properties sit adjacent to the site of the proposed lodge, was represented by James Whitlock and John Noor. The MRA was represented by T.C. Morphis and co-counsel Bob Oast. 

Located between Assembly Drive and Georgia Terrace, the new lodge requires the demolition of three of the original structures on the MRA property: Galax House, Chestnut Lodge and Lord Apartments. Sixty trees also need to be removed but the proposal includes plans to replant 80. 

The lodge itself is planned to have 40 guest rooms complete with private baths, a large courtyard area and a 30-space parking garage. Including the garage and half-basement, the total area amounts to 40,000 square feet. 

An overhead view of the nearby Montreat Conference Center properties and its site for the new lodge.

Anne Hayner, the only member of the public deemed to have standing in the hearing, presented her one witness, her son, Brendan Hayner-Slattery, to start the proceedings. Hayner-Slattery provided similar testimony as his aunt, Kate Hayner, who testified Jan. 5, about his experience within his family's home and his concerns regarding the new lodge. 

"The MRA hasn't brought up any expert to talk about what sort of noise this hotel would create," Hayner-Slattery said. "They promised they'd hire someone to look into that."

Hayner-Slattery discussed his concerns regarding noise, drilling and the size of the lodge. After testifying that certain drillings presented in the MRA's application were fabricated, Morphis objected on the basis of due process, having no time to recall the applicant's geo-technical engineer to confirm. 

After a brief recess, Anne Hayner agreed to have Hayner-Slattery's testimony on the drillings struck from the record. 

With all the direct evidence completed, the MRA began its rebuttal witness testimony, starting with Charles Krekelberg, who took the stand in November as an expert witness in site design. Krekelberg left the stand after objections from the opposition were sustained regarding authentication of illustrative documents he provided. 

Mark Dunnagan took the stand after Krekelberg as an expert witness in commercial construction and construction management. Dunnagan discussed alternatives for soil shoring for the proposed below-ground parking garage, in contrast to Matt Sams, a civil engineer for the opposition, who had said such an undertaking would be impossible.  

"My opinion is based on how we do this in areas that are commonly like this," Dunnagan said. "There is more investigation that needs to be done before the actual solution is engineered."

During cross examination, Noor contended that Dunnagan, who is not a structural engineer, did not hear Sams' testimony about the impact of drilling near the Hayner's house. Although Morphis pointed out that construction drawings would be premature at this stage, and Dunnagan has completed many similar projects, he was unable to say for sure that there would be no damage to the Hayner's house. 

The updated plans for the lodge include added greenspace and fewer rooms than the original plan following a period of community input.

Morphis then called John Kinnaird back to the stand. Kinnaird testified in November as a civil engineer for the MRA. Kinnaird testified during rebuttal that there would be plenty of room between the Hayner house and the lodge for a buffer of trees in addition to a stormwater swale, in stark contrast to Sams' testimony from December. 

Additionally, Kinnaird said that Barrett Kays, who testified for the opposition on the impact of stormwater, had falsely identified the type of system the lodge would use to filter stormwater. 

A lengthy debate began between the opposition and the MRA regarding the new information provided by Kinnaird. Noor and Whitlock argued that the information should have been presented as part of the application and the MRA presented new figures at the end of the hearing so as to avoid review from the opponent's experts. 

James Whitlock, the attorney for the Hayner family, cross examines a witness at the Jan. 6 hearing at Montreat Town Hall.

"It was not presented as part of their case in chief when they had the burden to present such evidence so we can review it," Whitlock said. "It's just highly inappropriate." 

In short, while Morphis maintained that Kays identified the wrong system, giving the MRA the right to posit a correction, Noor and Whitlock argued that Kays identified the system he was shown, not the actual one the MRA intended to use. 

The board recessed with the town attorney to discuss procedures in private. Upon returning, chairman Mark Spence said all the evidence would be included and the board could decide the weight it was given during deliberation. 

Noor asked that Kays be brought back for rebuttal, even though it may send the hearing into February. 

"Due process is important," Spence responded. 

Returning after another recess, to avoid additional debate, both parties came to an agreement that Kinnaird would not present any further testimony, his documents would be withdrawn and the opposition would not return Kays to the stand for rebuttal. 

Richard DuBose, the president of the MRA, retook the stand via Zoom as the final rebuttal witness for the MRA. DuBose spoke of other possible infill locations for the lodge and how these sites were considered but found to not be possible.

"We know what our guests want and that is convenient access to our ministry," DuBose said. 

Both parties' attorneys presented closing arguments after DuBose left the stand and the evidentiary portion of the hearing closed. While the MRA's argument focused on summarizing the evidence, the opposition's argument focused on finding falsities within the MRA's expert witness testimony. Both parties criticized each others' expert witnesses in property appraisals.