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Originally published: 2013-04-03 14:25:14
Last modified: 2013-04-06 16:27:01

Boone calls for mediation with county

The Boone Town Council has requested mediation with Watauga County commissioners to reach agreement about recent changes to the town's multi-family housing standards and their effect on the development of the former high school property.

Mayor Loretta Clawson also sent a letter this week to more than 17,700 Boone residents urging them to support the mediation and oppose commissioners' threat to change the sales tax distribution method -- a change that would cost Boone an estimated $2 million.

The town announced its request in a news release Wednesday afternoon.

"While all of us on the council would like to work with the county commissioners to find a mutually beneficial solution, we're disappointed that bullying tactics have been used," Clawson wrote in the letter. "As elected officials with our citizens' best interests in mind, we are requesting mediation with the commissioners for the sole purpose of exploring how we can reach some agreement."

Town Manager Greg Young said the town would like to hire a private mediator and has offered to pay for the services.

Clawson elaborated that the mediation is not intended to be open to the public.

On Thursday, Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Miller said he would be interested in sitting down with the Town Council -- but he wouldn't do it in private, and he wouldn't want a mediator.

Miller said he believed the boards would violate North Carolina's open meetings laws if they met behind closed doors for this purpose.

"I can say what I need to say in public," Miller said. "I don't need to pass things through other people. I'm a big enough guy that I can handle my own business."

Miller also released a letter late Thursday criticizing the town and defending the county's actions.

"Spending over $6,000 of the town taxpayers' money to mail out letters instead of responding to offers or proposals is wasteful and counterproductive," he wrote.

County Manager Deron Geouque responded in an email to the Town Council on Thursday that the proposed dates would not work and suggested two other options.

The current clash began earlier this year after Boone's Affordable Housing Task Force recommended ordinance changes that members believed would encourage more family housing for moderate-income members of the work force.

During a public hearing in February, Miller and others expressed concerns that the ordinance would restrict the development of the former high school property off N.C. 105. Commissioners accepted an $18.9 million offer on the property in November 2012 from Templeton Properties, but the buyer still has time to back out.

The town significantly amended the proposed changes and approved the standards Feb. 19.

The standards require new, multi-family residences to include garages or 50 square feet of storage space, a master bedroom at least 25 percent larger than other bedrooms and a certain ratio of outdoor space to building space.

They also mandate a mix of unit sizes in each new multi-family project, restrict bedroom-to-bathroom ratios, restrict building height to three stories and limit parking to two spaces per unit with a designated visitor parking area. The standards prohibit more than two unrelated persons from residing in each unit.

Since the changes were approved, Miller has expressed to Boone Town Council members that the ordinance is not acceptable. According to the news release, the town has requested specifics about those concerns but has not received "a satisfactory response."

"There's been communications, but it's my understanding that there's not been specific information about what it is the county or the developers do not like about the ordinance," Young said.

In interviews with the Watauga Democrat in March, Miller and Vice Chairman David Blust said they wanted to explore changing the sales tax distribution method.

If the county changes from per capita distribution to ad valorem distribution, Boone would receive about $2 million less, based on 2011-12 figures, according to Watauga County Finance Director Margaret Pierce.

The county would receive about $182,000 less. Beech Mountain would receive about $1.1 million more, while Blowing Rock would gain about $835,000 and Seven Devils would gain about $182,000, according to Pierce.

If approved, the distribution change would be effective July 1.

The threat comes at the same time the state legislature is considering changes that could further cut the town's revenues by as much as $1 million.

In the letter, Clawson says the effects would be drastic for Boone residents.

"The shortfall would force the town to severely cut or discontinue many programs and services," the letter reads. "These could include snow removal, street maintenance, police and fire protection, sidewalk maintenance and expansion, as well as other services. There would be no more greenway construction or nonprofit support. Of course, a tax increase would have to be considered."

If the county opts to change the sales tax distribution, state law requires the Board of Commissioners to approve a resolution before the end of April. Miller said in an interview Monday that the proposal may appear on the commissioners' April 16 agenda -- depending on what the town does.

"I've asked them to either exempt our property from this affordable housing ordinance or change the wording as we suggested or the purchaser's attorney suggested at the meeting, instead of the long-winded and unworkable exemption that they have," Miller said.

On Tuesday, Boone resident Andrew Mason -- Town Council member Lynne Mason's husband -- addressed commissioners during public comment with a request to work with the town. Several commissioners also have expressed a desire to sit down with the Town Council to discuss the issues collaboratively.

"In addition to being citizens of Boone, each of us is a citizen of Watauga County," Clawson wrote in the town's letter. "We really are all in this together. We hope you'll encourage your commissioners to work toward a solution and withdraw the threat of redirecting millions of dollars as we make decisions that will benefit our entire community."