Va. health company eyes foreclosed Thoms estate property-
By Roger McCredie-First it was a wealthy philanthropist’s personal barony. Then it became a failed upscale subdivision. Now, if a Virginia health care company is able to thread its way through city zoning requirements, some of the most exclusive real estate in Asheville will become home to a 99-bed adult care center containing a 24-patient unit for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients.
The facility would be managed by Harmony Senior Services, a subsidiary of Smith/Packett, a firm which describes itself as “the premier provider of integrated market place solutions serving the senior housing development and care services industry.” Smith/Packett and Harmony are based in Roanoke, Va.
The cost of the adult care home itself is projected at $11 million. Plans call for a full-scale independent living facility to be attached to the original physical plant. The proposed location for the center is officially described as “77-129 Elk Mountain Scenic Highway,” once the site of media magnate Harold Thoms’ estate and more recently home to the ill-fated Thomsland subdivision. The property to be developed comprises 18.6 acres at an estimated fair market value of $170,000 an acre, not including the 7,400 square foot former Thoms residence which sits on it, about a hundred yards north and across the road from a corner of the Asheville Country Club’s golf course.
Before development can proceed, however, Smith/Packett must navigate both state health rules and local zoning laws.
First, the North Carolina Department of Health Service Regulation must approve a certificate of need (CON) application submitted by the health care provider. The ultimate purpose of the CON, according to the state, is to limit “unnecessary increases in health care costs and … unnecessary health services and facilities based on geographic, demographic and economic considerations.” In other words, the company must be able to demonstrate that its facility will fulfill a specific local need.
Buncombe County is home to several dozen facilities classified as adult extended care or nursing homes, which could be problematic for a new applicant in that category; however, Smith/Packett plans to coattail the demise last year of the 99-bed Canterbury Hills Adult Care Home in Canton. The center shut down voluntarily after being plagued for years by financial problems and also by complaints from neighborhood residents. This, in effect, created a 99-bed shortage in the eldercare category in Buncombe County, and Smith/Packett intends to leverage that deficit in presenting its CON application, having already entered into an agreement with the operators of the defunct Canterbury Hills to purchase its beds.
The CON application itself was submitted to the state on behalf of Smith Packett by Buncombe AL Investors and Buncombe Investors, two Virginia-domiciled LLC, both formed in December, 2013. Both companies list Hunter Smith, President of Smith/Packett, as general agent and both show Smith/Packett’s address and phone number as their contact information.
Next, as part of its CON review procedure, Smith/Packett is being required to submit to a public hearing. Public hearings are no longer required for every CON application the state receives, but are handled on a case-by-case basis, and in Smith/Packett’s case the state has ordered one. The hearing is to be held March 17 at 10 a.m. in Lord Auditorium at Pack Memorial Library. The public hearing will specifically address the question as to whether the state should reallocate to Smith/Packett the beds from Canterbury Hills. Approval would advance Smith/Packett’s project and allow it to come properly before the city planning and zoning commission.
Ripe for picking
Harold Thoms at one time owned both WLOS-TV and radio station WISE. He also masterminded Asheville’s first cable TV network. (His other enterprises had made him rich; the cable deal he negotiated with the city made him really, really rich.) He contributed extensively to charities and completely revamped the old Asheville Orthopedic Hospital, which became Thoms Rehabilitation Hospital. The story goes that despite his considerable wealth, he rented a home in town for fifteen years while shopping for property that exactly suited him. He found it on rolling acreage just east of Asheville Country Club, at the foot of Elk Mountain. In 1970 he built a sprawling house there with four bedrooms, eight bathrooms and a sturdy gate between his domain and the world.
As often happens, whereas Thoms had a talent for making money, his beneficiaries developed an equal talent for spending it. In 2005 Palm Hill, a Florida residential development group, together with its design partner, Ark Development, announced the acquisition of the Thoms property and its plans for constructing a gated community on its site. Thoms Estate LLC began lot division and sale, amid considerable opposition from neighbors who did not relish the thought of a housing development – upscale, gated or not – set down in their semi-rural enclave.
It was even alleged that neighborly spite was behind a spectacular, warrantless police raid on the Thoms house – someone had left the gate open – in February, 2007. Heiress Selene Thoms, who had invited 250 of her closest friends to drop by, was thrown to the ground, handcuffed and taken, barefoot and coatless, through the cold winter’s night to the Asheville police department, where she was booked under the seldom-used charge of “aiding and abetting the consumption of alcohol by a minor.” Thoms’ attorney strenuously objected to the heavy-handed police procedure over what was actually a misdemeanor. Then-police chief Bill Hogan said the actions were appropriate.
At any rate, lot sales were lackluster. Then came 2008 and the national economic downturn. In 2010, the bank foreclosed on the property. The 18.6-acre tract within Harold Thoms’ original 82 acres was listed in 2012 by Dewey Property Advisors at a price of $2 million, a healthy sum but fairly modest on a per-acre basis, in comparison with some others in the same vicinity – and certainly well within the means of Smith/Packett.
As to how the neighbors may feel about swapping gated developments and hearty parties for an extended care facility for elder patients with mental health issues … discussion of that contrast may emerge at next week’s public hearing.