Opponents of lodge in Montreat cite donations by members of board that approved MRA's plan

Karrigan Monk
Black Mountain News
A rendering of the proposed MRA lodge includes details about how the lodge will incorporate various designs related to other Montreat architecture.

ASHEVILLE - The ninth floor courtroom of the Buncombe County Courthouse was packed the morning of May 3 for a Superior Court hearing about the proposed Mountain Retreat Association lodge in Montreat.

The lodge was approved by the town’s Board of Adjustment after nearly 50 hours of hearings in January 2022. A group of families, namely the Hayner and Jones families, opposed the lodge, saying it would negatively impact their property. They filed a brief with the Buncombe County Superior Court in January of this year.

The site of the lodge, situated between Assembly Drive and Georgia Terrace, would do away with three original structures on the MRA property: Galax House, Chestnut Lodge and Lord Apartments. Although 60 trees will need to be removed to accommodate the lodge, the MRA said it plans to replant 80. 

The lodge itself, outlined at 40,000 square feet, includes 40 guest rooms with private baths, a courtyard area and a 30-space parking garage. 

The MRA plans to replace the old and dilapidated apartments with a new and larger lodge.

Judge Peter Knight heard arguments from the petitioners, the MRA and the town of Montreat during the May 3 hearing.

Attorney John Noor, representing the petitioners, said his clients' due process rights were violated as several members of the Board of Adjustment made contributions to the MRA, including one board member who had donated more than $350,000 and continued donating through 2022.

Noor said there “cannot be a stronger connection” than financial contributions and that his clients did not have the benefit of disclosure of these contributions.

He also said there were undisclosed ex parte communications from a board member responding to an email from the MRA expressing their support of the organization. This communication occurred before the hearing regarding the permit to build the lodge as well as before the permit was filed.

More:Brief filed in Superior Court against MRA, town of Montreat

Knight said he did not “see any difference” between meeting and talking in a grocery store and the email.

Noor said the board member could have and should have disclosed the communication to the board prior to the hearing.

He argued that there was a difference between what the board originally said and the lawyer-drafted order that was presented. Knight asked why this would not be OK, considering the fact the board members are not lawyers and were assisted by council. Noor said the board could have asked for help before announcing their final decision.

Noor said that, for the traffic study, methodology was “created” for the project that had never been used before and that the appraiser did not evaluate the petitioners property properly.

“You have to show your work,” Noor said. “How’d you get there?”

More:Montreat, MRA respond to petitioners' brief on proposed lodge

In response to Noor, the MRA’s attorney, T.C. Morphis, said petitioners did not submit contradicting traffic evidence and that it would put an “intolerable burden” on the appraiser if they were to appraise every single house affected by the lodge.

Morphis called the town “special” and said that its uniqueness needed to be taken into account.

“Everybody in this room would say Montreat is special,” Morhpis said. “In the matter of law, Montreat is special.”

Cindy Rice, the town of Montreat’s attorney, said it was “unusual” for her to be at the hearing, but that the town felt “drawn” to be represented so the judge could understand the reasoning behind the Board of Adjustment’s decision.

Montreat Stewards has been in significant opposition of the MRA's new lodge in an effort to save three historic buildings.

As for the donations that were made by board members to the MRA, Rice said there is a “big distinction” between gifts made to the MRA as a whole and those made to the special use permit project. She said the gifts made by board members were made to the former and not the latter.

She also argued that no board member had a financial interest in the outcome of the project and the petitioners gave no evidence that any board member did.

Rice noted that the board member who was the second largest contributor to the MRA on the board voted against the permit and therefore there was no conflict of interest.

She said there was no evidence that any one board member “tainted the bunch” and that donations were “so far removed from time and scope” they did not impact the vote.

The judge is expected to make a decision on whether or not to uphold the Board of Adjustment’s decision to grant the MRA the permit to build the lodge within the next month.