Winds shift around Montreat town hall

Fred McCormick

A new wind is blowing in Montreat.

On Dec. 10, Montreat’s new mayor Tim Helms elicited a round of applause from about 90 residents at the Montreat board of commissioner meeting by announcing the town’s proposed town hall would not be built on a controversial Florida Terrace site.

“I feel sure about that,” Helms said minutes being sworn into office. The new board has taken no action yet on the matter.

Helms’ confidence comes from the new configuration of the five-member board. Newly elected to the body are Bill Gilliland and Kitty Fouche, who campaigned together on a platform that included finding a new location for the building.

Opposition to the Florida Terrace site, on a quiet road north of Lake Susan, arose in April 2014 after Montreat begin seeking designers for the building. Local resident Mike Sonnenberg gathered more than 130 signatures asking the town council to delay construction of the building for a year.

Controversy regarding the location of the building swirled throughout the small town north of Black Mountain, ultimately leading to a lawsuit filed by five Montreat residents. Last December, a judge ordered an injunction that stopped the town from proceeding with construction.

Running unopposed, Helms won a seat on the town council in 2013. Initially he supported the Florida Terrace site but said he had a change of heart after listening to people who opposed it. The feedback was helpful, he said.

“I’ve done this before,” said Helms, who served eight years as a town council member and two years as mayor of Bessemer City, a town of 7,000 near Gastonia. “I’ve always been involved with local politics.”

Helms said the opposition to the Florida Terrace site put the town in “a battle that couldn’t be won by the council.”

He said the voter turnout for Gilliland and Fouche - both got 250 votes - indicates the majority of Montreat residents preferred a different site for the town hall.

Commissioner Mary Standaert, who with commissioner Ann Vinson supported the Florida Terrace location prior to the election, said recently that she is open to whatever the town board as currently constituted decides.

“I look forward to working together with the entire board,” she said.

The beginning of Helms’ mayoral term leaves a vacancy on the town council.

During the meeting, Helms encouraged the board to consider Kent Otto to fill the open seat. Standaert pleaded for an open process.

“This is the first time I’ve heard that name,” Standaert said of Otto. “I do think that we have a number of people within our community who ought to also, if they wish, be considered to have that opportunity.”

Helms also announced the council would reconsider the proposed location of a bridge on Texas Road in the upcoming year.

Helms comments do not reflect any action by the board yet, town administrator Ron Nalley said. The board meets next on Jan. 7 to set the agenda for its first regular meeting, which will be Jan. 14.

As mayor, Helms casts a vote only if there is a tie among the four Montreat commissioners.

He said he plans to work toward consensus among the board and within the community.

“All I want to do is have a good group of working commissioners that will cooperate and work together,” he said.