MRA hearing nears end of opposition case

MONTREAT – The board hearing to approve or deny the special use permit for the Mountain Retreat Association’s new lodge proposal continued on January 4 at Montreat Town Hall, where the opposition ended in December.

The six hearings have now lasted four months and approximately 35 hours.

“These things can get controversial, but I’ve noticed the kindness on both sides, and I appreciate it,” said board chairman Mark Spence. “Our job is to achieve the end result here, and I don’t want to rush or downplay any testimony that would affect either party.”

A small group of members of the public occupied the available seats at Town Hall. MRA Chairman Richard DuBose was forced to miss the Jan. 4 meeting due to his quarantine after a minor case of COVID-19, according to MRA attorney TC Morphis.

More evidence was presented by opposition to the MRA’s proposal, with an expert witness testifying that the lodge proposal would not be in line with the city’s overall plan for historic preservation.

Lawyers John Noor and James Whitlock represent the opposition, made up of the Jones and Hayner families, whose properties are adjacent to the proposed pavilion site. Morphis and his co-counsel, Bob Oast, represent the MRA.

Barrett Kays, an expert opposition witness who testified about the impact of stormwater damage at Flat Creek on December 15, took the stand remotely via Zoom for cross-examination.

Oost asked Kays about the difference between an infiltration system and a retention system to filter stormwater as well as the water quality classification of Flat Creek. Kays testified that the MRA’s proposal would not filter the minimum amount of solid waste, determined by the city ordinance, before entering the creek.

“The conclusions I put in the report are well founded,” Kays concluded.

After Kays, the opposition called Annie McDonald to the bar, a senior architectural historian at Richard Grubb & Associates, who testified as an expert witness on historic preservation and preservation planning.

McDonald testified that due to the specific language relating to historic preservation in the overall city plan, the new pavilion would not be compliant. Reading the full plan, McDonald said minor changes will be allowed on Assembly Drive as long as Montreat’s character is not significantly altered.

“The size, scale and mass of the proposed hotel do not match the language used in the plan to define the character of the historic buildings which overwhelmingly represent Montreat,” said McDonald.

New lodge plans include additional green space and fewer bedrooms after a period of community involvement.

The proposal for the lodge calls for the removal of three of the original structures on the MRA property: Galax House, Chestnut Lodge and Lord Apartments. In addition to the buildings, 60 trees should be felled with the plan to replant 80 of them.

Located between Assembly Drive and Georgia Terrace, the lodge would have 40 rooms, with private bathroom, a large courtyard and a parking lot with 30 spaces. Including the semi-basement and parking, the area totals 40,000 square feet.

As interpreted by McDonald’s, the plan determines the character of Montreat to include the existence of historic structures. She said that over time, the loss of historic buildings erodes the historic integrity of the city.

“The loss of historic resources is permanent,” said McDonald.

The app includes details of how the lodge will integrate various designs related to other Montreat architectures.

Upon closer examination by Noor, the state’s historic preservation plan indicates that development threatens towns such as Montreat which are of historical significance.

Morphis’ cross-examination of McDonald’s led to questions from the board regarding why Montreat does not hold a national historic designation despite recommendations to do so. McDonald raised several possibilities, including a lack of city funding, resources or time.

The four-hour session concluded with opposition Hayner family member Priscilla Hayner briefly speaking to corroborate and authenticate the photos she took for inclusion later in the opposition presentation .

The Regulation Commission plans to continue the hearing on January 5 at 9 a.m. at Montreat town hall.

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