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Originally published: 2013-09-17 20:55:36
Last modified: 2013-09-17 20:56:20

Watauga County commissioners lift billboard ban

by Kellen Short

New billboards will be allowed along certain Watauga County highways after Watauga County commissioners voted 3-2 Tuesday to repeal a ban on the large advertisements.

The ordinance change drew only one speaker from the community, but plenty of comments from Commissioners Nathan Miller and Billy Kennedy, who debated individual property rights versus community good.

Miller said he thought property owners ought to be able to rent their land to billboard companies if they desired, while Kennedy said that he thought the viewshed belonged to all.

"I think it's not doing our county justice, looking at the benefit of a very few versus the cost to everybody else," Kennedy said.

Sole commenter Susie Winters spoke "on behalf of beauty," saying that tourists and locals alike favored the natural scenery to advertisements.

"I would just really strongly urge you to protect our environment, to keep it at a minimum," Winters said.

Kennedy and Commissioner John Welch said they wanted more time to look at the matter, but the vote proceeded forward and passed 3-2 with both opposed.

Commissioners also voted 4-1 to approve changes to five county ordinances based on statutory changes required by the state. Kennedy voted against.


Green Valley Park

The board also allowed a $75,000 grant previously rejected by the Tourism Development Authority to move forward under Green Valley Park.

The rejected grant would have provided improved New River accesses at Green Valley Park and at the Pine Run Road bridge, among other improvements.

Commissioners decided unanimously to allow the nonprofit park to take over the county's encroachment on a river access area at Pine Run Road.

Meanwhile, the park board is working to evaluate whether it can take over the grant, which will require $18,750 in matching funds.

Green Valley Park representative Janice Carroll made it clear that the park does not want to be responsible for the Pine Run Road access, but feels it would be necessary to secure this grant -- and future grants.

"When a grant is rejected, it black marks that organization for any additional grants down the road," she said.

Commissioners also discussed parking issues at the Pine Run Road site, where the driveway of a nearby homeowner has been blocked on some occasions.

Carroll said the park needed legal advice on what kind of signage could be placed there.

Carroll said the park board would meet later this week to discuss further issues with the grant.

Several commissioners said they would have preferred that the TDA accept the money.

"Just to throw it away seems like a waste to me," Kennedy said.


Retreats

The board also heard from Phil Trew of the High Country Council of Governments on a plan to make the current intergovernmental retreats more productive and valuable.

The board appointed Miller and Kennedy as delegates to a committee that will meet with a professional facilitator to discuss possible future topics, including how best to productively discuss the sales tax distribution in the future.

Trew said the towns of Blowing Rock, Seven Devils and Beech Mountain expressed interest in waiting until after November's municipal elections.

Boone Town Council considered the matter Tuesday.

He said a facilitator from the UNC School of Government would likely cost $1,000 a day for two days, to be split among the county and municipalities.

Because the group would include only two members from each elected body, it would not be subject to open meeting laws.

Miller, who has objected to previous requests from the town of Boone to meet about topics in closed session, said he would be fine with the meeting as long as it only dealt with the structure of future meetings.

Several praised the idea as a first step toward finding common ground as a whole county.

"You've got to start somewhere, and I think it's time we started," Yates said.


Other business

On Tuesday, the board also:

- Voted unanimously to approve the naming of a meeting room at the Watauga County Public Library in memory of librarian Evelyn Johnson, who died in January. Librarian Monica Caruso and library board member Dot Barker spoke in favor of the naming.

- Agreed to provide a 5 percent commission to brokers Wright Properties, Elliot Wood and Edward Chapman if they bring a successful offer on the former Watauga High School property from potential buyers Scott Sullivan and Chip Kassinger.

The agreement was contingent upon the county receiving a signed buyer agency agreement stipulating that the two parties would work exclusively. Yates was the sole vote against, saying he thought the buyer ought to handle the commission and that he was concerned about the cost to the county.

- Met in closed session, at Kennedy's request, to discuss personnel. The board approved closed session minutes but took no other action afterward.