Opponents file appeal after MRA lodge was approved by Montreat Board of Adjustment

Ezra Maille
Black Mountain News
The Montreat Stewards, run by the opposition in the hearing, continue to oppose the lodge. The Hayner family has said further action will be determined after consulting the family's attorney.

Opponents of the Mountain Retreat Association's new lodge submitted an appeal Jan. 11 to the town of Montreat. The town Board of Adjustment approved a special use permit for the proposal on Jan. 6

"The appeal asks the Town to overturn the Zoning Administrator’s determination, which contradicts the Montreat Zoning Ordinance and established North Carolina land use law," read a statement from the Montreat Stewards, a group opposed to the lodge. 

According to the statement, the appeal should be heard by the Board of Adjustment "in the near future." While related to the approval of the permit, this appeal is different from an appeal of the final decision. An overall appeal of the final decision would be heard by a separate court, different from the Board of Adjustment. 

The Stewards have appealed to the board to overturn town Zoning Administrator Scott Adams' testimony that the other three lodges on the MRA property would exist as accessory structures to the main lodge. The Stewards say if this testimony were to stand, it would mean any property owner or developer could build other large buildings on their lot so long as the other buildings were somewhat linked to the main house.

The Hayner and Jones families, the opposition to the lodge in the board hearing, will continue to consult legal counsel on whether or not to appeal the overall decision. 

Board members and parties reflect on the hearing

"We're obviously gratified by the decision, looking forward to next steps," said Richard DuBose, the president of the MRA. "It has always been and remains our intention to be good neighbors."

Conversely, the opposition maintains the evidence suggested the permit should not have been approved. Priscilla Hayner, a member of the Hayner family who makes up half of the opposition, said nothing will be definitive regarding an appeal until the written permit approval has become official. 

"We are profoundly disappointed, not only in the outcome, but in the process," Hayner said, adding that she believes the board's decision was based on personal conclusions and did not follow the town ordinance and zoning laws. 

Priscilla Hayner, right, has continued to be an active opponent to the MRA's lodge, organizing protestors for the first Board of Adjustment hearing at Gaither Hall on the campus of Montreat College on Oct. 21.

Lasting roughly 50 hours over the course of eight sessions spanning four months, the quasi-judicial hearing concluded Jan. 6 with the approval of the special use permit for the lodge. 

The Montreat Stewards, organized in large part by the Hayners, saw supporters gather at every hearing session wearing bright green stickers to show unity in opposition to the new lodge. 

Board of Adjustment member Eleanor James, who voted to approve the permit, explained that during the board's training prior to the start of the hearing, the town's attorney instructed the members that a decision should be reached without bias. 

"We were not allowed to give our own opinion or use our own opinion as a basis for our vote," James said. "It was only until the very end that we could sit down and look at everything and be reminded of what we had."

The Board of Adjustment approved the special use permit with four additional conditions:

  • 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. 

James said because the hearing was long and drawn out, it was difficult for her, with such a large amount of information and the board having only one night to take all the evidence home to study. 

For other members of the board, the process provided insight to the quasi-judicial process. Board member Annkelso Hewitt said during the last day, everyone wanted the hearing to conclude.

"The board, we had done our best to conform to what was expected," Hewitt said. "We're all new to this process." 

Both sides' positions were well understood, according to Hewitt, one of the two board members who voted to reject the special use permit. She said "the evidence was so strong," she could vote only one way. 

Bill Solomon, the other board member who opposed the permit's approval, said he didn't wish to make a public statement on the hearing.    

Board member Eleanor James discusses criteria for approval during deliberations at the Jan. 6 hearing at Montreat Town Hall. James voted to approve the permit.

Board member Robert Sulaski said he appreciated that both sides had good and thorough attorneys, that nothing was left out of the evidence. 

"I just took all the evidence into consideration," said Sulaski, who voted to approve the permit. "I just weighed all the evidence." 

Hayner said while watching the board during its less than two hour deliberation, it became clear that the members did not engage with or take into consideration the evidence presented during the hearing sessions. She said she reviewed the town's zoning ordinance after the permit was approved and found discrepancies with the process and the laws. 

The board's decision, Hayner said, was based on the members' own conclusions whenever conflicting evidence arose during deliberations. She said the evidence showing the permit should be rejected was not considered.

"I was surprised and dumbfounded," Hayner said. "Anybody watching the eight days of hearings saw that there were numerous areas where the application, as submitted, violates the Montreat zoning ordinance."

Hayner said if the decision stands, the town "is at risk." 

"The Montreat town and the Montreat citizens will have a polluted creek," Hayner said. "That is clear."

MRA President Richard DuBose said the conference center is excited to have the permit approved and looks forward to the next steps.

The lodge plans to remove three of the original structures on the MRA property: Galax House, Chestnut Lodge and Lord Apartments. An additional 60 trees will need to be removed to accommodate the lodge, but the MRA has plans to replant 80. 

Situated between Assembly Drive and Georgia Terrace, the lodge plans include 40 guest rooms with private baths, a courtyard and a 30-space parking garage. With the half-basement and the parking garage included, 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.

Last March, according to the MRA, after hearing objections from neighbors and other Montreat residents, the original plan for the lodge was revised. Changes included reducing the number of rooms from 48 to 40, adjusting parking to preserve greenspace and access and reducing the length of the main façade facing Assembly Drive. 

DuBose said the project will go to the MRA board to determine the next steps. He said the board has been unanimous in supporting the project throughout the process, and the organization is excited to have "the essential question" answered. 

"The essential question is whether the town of Montreat is going to allow us to develop this lodge on property that we've used for decades for lodging our guests for our mission and ministry," DuBose said. "That question was answered."

DuBose said he received many messages at the conclusion of the hearing in support of the MRA and thanked the town staff for its hard work throughout the lengthy hearing process.