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Originally published: 2013-04-23 18:29:18
Last modified: 2013-04-24 09:49:18

UPDATE: Town-county conflict at impasse

UPDATE: This story was updated at 9:45 a.m. Wednesday to include the response from Watauga County.

Watauga County and the town of Boone appear to be deadlocked.

For a third time, the Boone Town Council has requested a private mediation session to try to reach a compromise on the town's contentious multi-family housing regulations and the county's threat to change the sales tax distribution method in response.

While the county had not formally replied as of presstime Tuesday, Watauga County Board of Commissioners Chairman Nathan Miller said the board continues to refuse any meeting that is not conducted before the public.

County Manager Deron Geouque echoed that response in a letter to the town manager and Town Council on Tuesday afternoon, suggesting that both boards meet in open session April 26 or April 27.

The issue may be moot, as Boone Mayor Loretta Clawson said in a statement Monday that it's too late for the town to legally change its ordinance before April 30, the deadline for Watauga County to request a switch in the sales tax distribution method.

"Any changes -- if we could reach agreement on them -- would have to go through a state-required public notice and hearing that can't logistically happen before the end of April," Clawson said in the statement. "In addition, Boone has a legitimate need to support affordable housing for people who work in Boone. We can't throw that completely out the window. We're going to have to weigh that against recent demands for ordinance changes."

State statute requires municipalities to hold a public hearing before changing any zoning ordinance and requires the hearing to be advertised in a newspaper for two successive weeks, with the first notice appearing at least 10 days before the hearing.

The two boards have been exchanging letters for weeks trying to schedule a meeting and agree on a format. The root conflict developed after the Boone Town Council enacted new regulations for multi-family housing, which Miller and others said jeopardized the county's $18.9 million sale of the former high school to Templeton Properties.

In the town's most recent letter, dated April 19 and received by the county Monday, Town Manager Greg Young continued to request a mediation session, to be led by a Republican former judge.

"The town's proposal was for both boards, fully constituted, to go into simultaneous, separate closed sessions in an effort to find mutually agreeable solutions," Young wrote. "Following the sessions, we certainly would expect that the positions of each body and results of the mediation would be fully disclosed to the public, with an opportunity for public input and comment.

"Due to the threats of litigation, the complexity of the issues, and the various statements several commissioners have made, this is a very complicated and sensitive legal matter," he continued. "Along with the council's wish to avoid creating an atmosphere which will hamper the town's goal to seek a solution, the town council has come to the conclusion that mediation is the only method which might work."

The county manager emailed commissioners Monday after receiving Boone's letter and asked them how they would like to respond, Miller said. Four commissioners had responded as of Tuesday afternoon, and all said they wanted to meet only in public, he said.

If nothing changes, the county will submit its request to the N.C. Department of Revenue to change the sales tax distribution in five business days.

Under the hybrid system being considered, Boone would receive about $2 million less in sales tax revenues starting July 1.

If sales tax collections remain close to 2011-12 values, Beech Mountain would gain roughly $470,000, Blowing Rock would gain about $334,000 and Seven Devils would gain about $73,000 under the hybrid system.

Watauga County would gain about $246,000 after making distributions totaling about $887,000 to the rural fire districts, which are guaranteed a portion because they also levy taxes separately from the county.

Miller said it was his intention to cut the roughly $319,000 the fire departments   receive through the county's annual budget process because they would receive the sales tax windfall. As a result, the fire departments would gain money overall, he said. It would simply come from a different source.

"That's not a done deal until the budget's done," Miller said.

If those plans come to fruition, Watauga County would expect to receive about $565,000 more next fiscal year as a result of the sales tax switch.



THE STORY SO FAR

Dec. 13, 2012: Boone's Affordable Housing Task Force unveils to the town council new text for a portion of the town's Unified Development Ordinance. The proposed changes include a mixture of unit sizes, a master suite at least 25 percent larger than every other bedroom, limited bathroom-to-bedroom ratios, garages or at least 50 square feet of storage space, and a half square foot of outdoor or landscaped space for every square foot of indoor living space.


Feb. 4, 2013: Eleven people speak at a public hearing on the proposed regulations, including commissioners Chairman Nathan Miller and Allen Moseley, attorney for Templeton Properties. Moseley suggests exempting conditional zoning districts from the regulations.


Feb. 11: The Boone Planning Commission votes 5-4 in favor of the multi-family housing standards. Board member Cameron Lippard, who voted for the change, remarked that it "needs some tweaks."


Feb. 19: The Boone Town Council approves the new housing standards in a 4-1 vote, with council member Allan Scherlen opposed. The council does not consider a letter from Commissioners Chairman Nathan Miller asking for a delay on the vote so he may address the board. Meanwhile, commissioners vote 3-2 on a resolution opposing the town's new standards in a concurrent meeting.


March 13: In a Watauga Democrat article, Commissioners Chairman Nathan Miller mentions possible litigation against the town based on its ordinance changes. He and Vice Chairman David Blust also say they're considering changing the sales tax distribution method.


April 3: The Boone Town Council requests a private mediation session with Watauga County commissioners. The town sends a letter to 17,700 residents urging them to support the mediation and oppose commissioners' threat to change the sales tax distribution method.


April 9: The Town Councils of Beech Mountain, Blowing Rock and Seven Devils unanimously pass resolutions supporting the county's plan to change the sales tax distribution. The resolutions include nonbinding agreements to keep only 40 percent of the increased revenue from the switch, returning 60 percent of the increase to Watauga County to prevent it from losing money.


April 16: Watauga County commissioners vote 3-2 to change the sales tax distribution method, instructing the county manager to not submit the notice until April 30. Democratic Commissioners Billy Kennedy and John Welch complain that they have been left out of the process. Meanwhile, the Boone Town Council meets separately in closed session for two hours and emerges with a statement explaining its stance and asking again for mediation.


April 17: Town Manager Greg Young sends a letter to County Manager Deron Geouque and commissioners asking for mediation in simultaneous closed sessions.


April 18: Watauga County Manager Deron Geouque replies to the town's letter, stating that commissioners would like to meet, but will only do so in open session.


April 19: Town Manager Greg Young reiterates the town's request for closed-session mediation, saying town council members believe "that mediation is the only method which might work." Mayor Loretta Clawson writes in a letter that there isn't enough time before April 30 to legally advertise and hold a hearing on any change to the town's ordinance.