Canton wins Camp Hope appeal

fr camphopeA two-year court battle over the ownership of Camp Hope concluded last week when the N.C. Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that the property belonged to the town of Canton.

The town of Canton spent $203,000 in legal fees defending its title to Camp Hope, a 110-acre natural recreation site in the Cruso area with rustic lodging and meeting facilities. The tract was gifted to the town of Canton by Champion International Paper company years ago. But a civil suit claimed Camp Hope should be taken away from Canton for failing to manage the property as a public recreation site, specifically for the benefit of local residents, per the terms stipulated in the town’s deed.

The suit was brought by John and Deborah Prelaz, who were next in line to get the property if Canton didn’t live up to the conditions of the deed laid out by Champion when gifting the property.

Canton had been leasing Camp Hope to a for-profit summer camp for nearly exclusive use between mid-May to mid-September for several years. Of the nearly 1,000 campers who cycled through Wellsprings youth weight-loss and fitness camp from 2006-2011, only a handful were local. Camp Hope, in essence, was being used by a private company for its own benefit, not the benefit of the general public, the suit claimed.

The town of Canton argued the property was still made available for public recreation despite the presence of Wellspring.

That point became moot when Wellspring vacated Camp Hope last year due to the uncertainty caused by the lawsuit.

A jury trail held last May in Haywood County ruled in Canton’s favor, but the Prelazes appealed. This month the town won that appeal as well. Canton was represented in the suit by Waynesville attorneys Frank Queen and Burton Smith, along with a third attorney from Asheville.

While the town won the lawsuit, it did raise some legitimate questions. Camp Hope was a well-kept secret at best. The general public was largely unaware that Camp Hope existed and it was underused as a result.

The town has made attempts recently to publicize Camp Hope and encourage use of the property by the public. A Friends of Camp Hope group has also sprung up to nurture community uses of the property.

Town leaders are creating a Camp Hope Commission to help forge a vision for how the site should be managed and used. The nine-person Camp Hope Commission will have five members from within the town limits and four from outside the town limits. The commission will advise the town on management of the property and develop a long-range plan “to support its preservation for public use in perpetuity and ensure proper stewardship.”

To apply for a seat on the Camp Hope Commission, contact Canton town hall.

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