Bitter battles on Hamburg Mountain

Southern hospitality stretches just so far.

Locals stand in grocery check-out lines, complaining about the way “Floridiots” drive.

Families who’ve lived here for generations worry about Yankees driving real-estate prices so high that the locals can’t afford to buy homes.

Talk is one thing. But what happens when people involved in local politics decide to act on their frustrations? And what if they decide to restrict what certain individuals can do with their property?

One family contends that it was prevented from operating a Weaverville business because a local political insider, accustomed to getting her way, doesn’t want them there — and that no one in the political inner circle was willing to intervene on their behalf, because they’re from Florida.

Sharon Ballas and her daughter, Shelley Burtt, moved from Florida four years ago, hoping to convert an abandoned historic house, the Bethel Home on Hamburg Mountain, into a bed-and-breakfast. Weaverville’s zoning code allowed B&Bs in R-1 neighborhoods, as long as such businesses met a list of specific criteria in the zoning code.

But Weaverville’s Zoning Board of Adjustment has twice voted against giving the women a special-use permit.

This board has every right to deny a permit, provided that denial is based on a business’s failure to meet at least one of the criteria in the code. However — and despite warnings from the town attorney and a reminder from the state Court of Appeals — the Weaverville board has denied the permit twice, without giving any legally acceptable reason.

The women have now given up their dream and plan to leave Weaverville, but not without suing the town — charging, among other things, that Weaverville is controlled by a good-old-boy network that denies certain citizens their basic rights.

An unfortunate prelude

It didn’t help that many people were upset about development on Hamburg Mountain — long before Ballas and her family came to town.

The mountain was well-loved. Generations of Weaverville residents had hiked and picnicked and strolled with their sweethearts there. Scout troops held their outings on Hamburg Mountain. For years, Weaverville’s citizens had climbed it to watch fireworks on the Fourth of July.

Resident John Allison owned most of the mountain, but he allowed the community to use it. Then, after Allison died in the 1980s, developer Ron Rice bought the land. Rice’s sons later inherited the property and began to etch roads into Hamburg Mountain, to provide access to high-priced residential lots. The community playground was on its way to becoming private backyards for those who could afford to live there. In many people’s eyes, the simple beauty of the mountain was being spoiled.

“At the time, people hated to see it done,” says Kathy Young, who recently stepped down from the Weaverville Town Council. Trees were wrenched out of the beloved mountain to make way for development. Making matters worse, the Rice brothers failed to provide proper catch basins for rainwater. Without vegetation to guard against erosion, unusually heavy rains left Weaverville streets and basements flooded with mountain mud.

“Oh, it was awful,” Young recalls. In a special meeting with the Weaverville Town Council, the Rices agreed to clean up the damage. But their family business was unable to withstand the losses, and soon went bankrupt.

Then some deep pockets — operating as the Haywood Street Redevelopment Corporation, which is based in St. Croix, in the Virgin Islands — bought out the entire project.

The Rice family’s attorney, Weaverville resident Carl Hyldburg, was the first who hoped to buy the Bethel Home and convert it to a B&B.

Besides its location overlooking Weaverville, the house offered a colorful history: Dr. Homer Casto, a well-known local minister and poet, ran the home from 1919 to 1940 as a tuberculosis sanatorium, with help from some local Methodist women. After that, the property was used as a private dwelling, and later, it was turned into a boarding house. Eventually, the Bethel Home was vandalized, stripped and abandoned.

When Weaverville zoned Hamburg Mountain, the Bethel Home was zoned R-1, which allowed B&Bs as special uses. However, when Hyldburg requested a permit, the zoning board denied it.

“I think it was a bad decision on their part,” Hyldburg said recently. Anger over development of the mountain “could have had something to do with it,” he said.

Hyldburg recalls the board giving him a reason for the rejection, but he didn’t consider the “official” justification to be the real reason. “I think they used to call it, in the court system, ‘a peg to hang their hat on,'” he says. Nevertheless, Hyldburg simply dropped the idea.

When Burtt and Ballas bought the Bethel Home, they understood that Hyldburg’s request had been denied. Some say the women were taking a foolish gamble, buying and renovating the house without having a permit in hand.

But the women wrote off Hyldburg’s failure as backlash from the mud fiasco and the resentment over his clients’ developing the mountain. As Burtt puts it, “We’re different people.”

More importantly, however, Ballas studied the town’s criteria for bed-and-breakfasts, and she decided that they could meet all seven requirements:

1) The business must not harm the public health, safety, morals, comfort or general welfare.

2) The business must not be “injurious” to the neighbors’ enjoyment of their property, and it must not substantially lower property values.

3) The business must not interfere with the development and improvement of the neighborhood.

4) The building exterior must fit in with the architectural character of the neighborhood.

5) Adequate utilities, access roads and drainage must be provided.

6) Adequate steps must be taken to minimize traffic congestion.

7) The business must comply with applicable local regulations.

After all, they didn’t need a variance, Ballas says. “The house was in the proper zoning. All I needed was the special-use permit.”

A family affair

Both Burtt and Ballas wanted to come to Weaverville to escape the frenzied Florida real-estate business. They decided to pool their money and obtain a loan to buy and fix up an old house, turn it into a leisurely bed-and-breakfast, and raise Burtt’s two sons in the safety and strength of a small-town community.

In the fall of 1993, they closed on the old Bethel Home and two adjacent lots for $110,000. They had bought themselves a project: The house’s copper-boiler heating system had been stripped out, the plumbing was gone, and half the walls were missing. They hired contractors to replace the wiring and plumbing, but did most of the work themselves.

Along with Burtt’s two sons, one 14 years old and the other 6 months, they camped upstairs in the house through the dead of winter. They covered broken windows with plastic, took sponge baths, and worked long hours, in between taking shifts with the baby. Once a week, they rented a hotel room to take real baths.

The women turned five rooms in the nine-bedroom house into theme rooms (such as the “polo room” and the “romantic rose” room). They christened their project the Weaverville Featherbed. They say they thought that, if they were good neighbors converting an abandoned eyesore of a house into a respectable-looking family business, they would be welcomed.

And some residents did welcome them. Neighbors would leave soup, a cake or homemade bread in the kitchen. “We finally got so we could recognize pots,” Ballas says. The gifts helped convince the pair that they had made the right choice in coming to Hamburg Mountain.

The women say they spent about $250,000 on structural repairs — even the fireplace had to be moved — plus cosmetic improvements and other changes. The result is a house that, according to Century 21 estimates, is now worth $500,000 as a residence, or $750,000 as a bed-and breakfast.

The opposition

Burtt and Ballas claim that they were denied a permit simply because one influential local developer, Ann Williams Huber, didn’t want them to operate a bed-and-breakfast.

Ironically, Williams Huber herself has added to the development activity on Hamburg Mountain. She built her new house directly behind the Bethel Home, even though she knew about the women’s plans for a B&B. She explains that she already owned that particular lot, and that she had been waiting a long time for Hamburg Mountain to be developed, so she could live there.

Williams Huber acknowledges that she led an impassioned fight against Ballas and her family. In addition to lobbying local government, she has accused the family of various criminal acts, such as harvesting “marijuana vines” and trying to blow up her truck.

Williams Huber is furious that, even without a B&B permit, Ballas and Burtt have operated a “bed-and-breakfast homestay,” which is defined as an incidental home business that can accept up to two paying guests at a time. Williams Huber contends that the Featherbed has been “a nightmare of tourists” ruining life on Hamburg Mountain.

Williams Huber’s concerns include neighborhood safety. She suggests that violent criminals could rent rooms at the Featherbed. She also maintains that the B&B will lower her property value.

But when questioned, her main objection seems to be simply that the Featherbed is an annoyance.

“It’s noise,” Williams Huber complains. “It’s car doors, trunk lids, car lights, voices, people talking and laughing.”

To substantiate her claims,Williams Huber has kept a log of the visitors at the Featherbed — including the number of men, the number of women, the colors and models of the vehicles, and the exact times that people come and go. From her balcony, Williams frequently photographs cars and trucks parked outside the Featherbed.

“The town needed some evidence” that the business has been operated illegally, with more than two paying guests at a time, Williams Huber says. She has photos documenting several vehicles parked outside the Featherbed at a time.

Local-government representatives have heeded Williams Huber’s concerns. The Weaverville police have cruised through the Featherbed property, apparently checking on what vehicles are parked there. And Town Attorney Carl Loftin sent the owners a letter warning them to stop advertising five rooms in AAA tour books, because the women don’t have a permit allowing them to rent five rooms at once.

Burtt and Ballas argue that they advertise all five rooms to give visitors a choice. They maintain that some of their visitors are friends, some are family, and some are guests who understand that the women can only accept “donations.” They even say that, when visitors hear about the situation, some been sufficiently outraged to leave “donations” amounting to much more than the normal rates.

“I’m guilty until proven innocent,” Ballas declares. “Where are my constitutional rights here?”

Ballas and Burtt claim that Williams Huber has said, among other things, that she hopes the house burns down. “She said it sticks in her craw that a foreigner could come to her mountain,” Burtt says.

But Williams Huber replies that the battle isn’t personal, and she denies calling the women “foreigners,” saying, “Almost everybody on the mountain is from a different state. I have nothing against [Ballas]. She’s very charming.”

Legal battles

The first hearings on the B&B permit request were held in June 1994 before the Zoning Board of Adjustments. Board minutes show that several neighbors (some of whom have since moved away) expressed support for the B&B and thanked the women for the improvements they had made to the property.

Williams was not present at those meetings, but she hired appraiser Carolyn Knight to be there. Knight told the board that property values drop from 11 to 23 percent near B&Bs. (Knight’s license to operate as an appraiser was later revoked.)

Zoning-board member Joe Joyner was the most vocal opponent of the Featherbed, raising concerns about street and utility problems on the mountain. In the first round, the board denied the permit, with Joyner, Ed Anderson and Bruce Weaver voting against Burtt and Ballas. Cindy Greene supported the permit, and Chuck Chiavaras abstained. Curiously, Weaver ordered that the vote be recorded as 4-1, rather than 3-1-1.

Burtt and Ballas appealed the denial to Buncombe County Superior Court. In November 1994, Judge Claude Sitton supported the zoning board’s decision.

The women then took their case to North Carolina’s Court of Appeals, which found in early 1996 that the town had not followed the proper procedure in denying the permit. The state court sent the case back to Weaverville for a more thorough hearing.

Round two

On the court’s orders, the zoning board summoned the owners of the Weaverville Featherbed to appear once again on July 29, 1997. Board member Greene was excused from the hearing, because she had become friends with Burtt and Ballas. She was replaced by board alternate Ted Vish, a local appraiser.

During the hearing, Century 21 broker Robert Sondergaard testified that — contrary to Knight’s previous claim — B&Bs substantially increase the values of nearby properties.

Also testifying was Mark Morris of Professional Appraisal Services, an Asheville company that maintains a data base of deed transfers in Buncombe County. Morris presented the board with the results of his study of the real-estate impacts of 103 B&Bs in Buncombe County. Morris looked at the two-block region surrounding each B&B and evaluated all houses that had sold twice. In all but one case, the resale price was higher, he said — although he could not directly attribute the increases to the nearby B&Bs.

Also testifying was appraiser Lynwood Jackson, who said he would have set the value of the Williams Huber home lower if he had known that it sits next to a potential B&B. He made the general observation that B&Bs can help property values in older neighborhoods such as Montford, but that B&Bs lower the values of newer expensive homes.

When questioned, Jackson admitted that he had never seen a case of a B&B lowering neighborhood property values in Buncombe County. Still, he maintained that the value of the Williams Huber home, which he appraised at $622,500, would drop by 15 to 25 percent if the Featherbed were granted a permit.

During the unusually long four-hour hearing, real-estate professionals and neighbors argued both for and against the Featherbed. They focused mostly on housing values and the Featherbed’s effect on Hamburg Mountain development. Near the end of the procedure, the minutes show that Town Attorney Loftin specifically advised zoning-board members to go through the seven points in the ordinance, and to base any decision on whether or not the Featherbed meets the legal requirements.

“Yes, the finds have to be specific,” board chair Weaver acknowledged. “If it is denied, it has to be because of one, two, or three of these seven [requirements].” But then, instead of asking fellow board members for reasons to approve or deny, he said, “If there is no discussion, no comments or questions, do I hear a motion?”

In what may be a critical point in Ballas’ pending lawsuit against the town, board member Bob Embler responded, “Mr. Chairman, I have heard this [case] on two different occasions, and I move we deny the permit.”

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