NEWS

Montreat comprehensive plan committee talks land use, MRA lodge, traffic

Ezra Maille
Black Mountain News
Mayor Tim Helms, the committee chairman, excused himself from the workshop as he thought his presence might stifle discussion among community members.

MONTREAT - The Montreat Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee continued discussion July 28, two days after holding multiple community engagement sessions.

"We were able to debate some controversial and difficult topics in a healthy way," said Katie Sieb, project coordinator for MS Consultants, an outside firm helping the town update the comprehensive plan. "There were good levels of pushback and dissention. We have to be able to talk about those hard things."

Sieb said 40 community members attended the two workshop sessions July 26. She added that at this stage, the consultants don't want to make any final decisions but rather listen to the town and the community's needs. 

In a recent online town survey conducted by the consulting firm, Sieb said nearly 350 community members had responded.

More:'Amazed': 346 Montreat residents give input on comprehensive plan

Specific topics of discussion included land use, the Mountain Retreat Association's new lodge project, traffic concerns and solar panels. Many members of the steering committee were present for the workshops. 

"People really seemed excited and enthused to be in the room and a part of the process," said Bill Seaman, committee member. 

Committee member Bill Seaman said he was happy to see community members engaging and offering input for the comprehensive plan.

Though nearly all the committee members were either present at the meetings or facilitated in some way, Mayor Tim Helms, committee chairman, purposefully excused himself from the community discussion, saying his presence could potentially be stifling to the community.

In light of the divisive MRA lodge debate, committee members brought the topic to discussion. Some members of the committee said they didn't wish to discuss the lodge debate during workshops as it would detract from the overall discussion and community members may be motivated to provide input that could impact the lodge.

Richard DuBose, president of the MRA and steering committee member, begged the question of whether or not the lodge debate would interfere with brainstorming for the comprehensive plan update due to discussion resulting from community workshops.

Given that the special use permit for the lodge, approved by the town, is in the process of being appealed to county Superior Court, Sieb said she didn't think the lodge project would be impacted. 

"This plan is separate and independent," Sieb said. "The plan that was adopted at the time that development was proposed is the guidance at that time."

Shannon Fergus, a certified planner with the consulting firm, said a major topic of discussion was land use. She said the consultants want to look at land use as a growth guide for the future, asking residents if they want to see commercial growth and how to preserve the town's natural history and beauty.

Helms said growth comes with new homes but that each new property only grosses roughly $4,000 per year. He said with only a few new homes, that doesn't add much money to the town budget.

"Most of the space is owned by MRA or the college," Helms said. "The only way we grow is when someone builds a new home here."

In addition to growth, community member feedback during the workshops reflected a need for road speed reductions and more parking availability. DuBose said Montreat Police Chief David Arrant approached the MRA about creating a three-way stop at Georgia Terrace and Assembly Drive but found many community members were against the idea.

Katie Sieb, a representative from MS Consultants, led the steering committee through a discussion of the recent community workshop.

Drew Draper, project manager for MS Consultants, said traffic studies in other areas have shown a large amount of traffic results from drivers looking for parking. He said the same car often will circle an area in an effort to find additional parking that may not exist.

"It's adding to the traffic, but it's still the same person," Draper said. "If they knew where they needed to go at any point in time, you could start to cut down and alleviate some traffic congestion."

Although MS Consultants does not intend to conduct a traffic study in Montreat, Draper said this type of traffic situation could be present.

Finally, the committee looked at community responses to the idea of solar panels and other inhibitors of climate change. Sieb said responses largely supported solar panels so long as they remain unobtrusive. She said these respondents were happy to see panels on roofs but not in fields.

In previous discussions, the consultants have encouraged committee members to engage in "mini meetings" of community members to gather information and establish priorities for the comprehensive plan. Helms said committee members should merely facilitate these meetings, stimulating conversation rather than dictating topics to be discussed. 

"You've got to facilitate the meetings and keep conversation going, even if it comes to difficult topics," Helms said. 

Ezra Maille covers the town of Black Mountain, Montreat and the Swannanoa Valley. Reach him at 828-230-3324 or emaille@blackmountainnews.com. Please support local journalism with access to more breaking news by subscribing.