Landowners have won a lawsuit against Haywood County claiming they were victims of overbearing enforcement of erosion control laws.
Judge Laura Bridges issued her ruling this week, although the case was heard six weeks ago. Bridges ruled in favor of the landowners, Ron and Brian Cameron, who had sued the county to get out from under its erosion enforcement citing a state forestry exemption.
Landowners engaged in forestry are held to less stringent erosion standards than developers. Ron Cameron thinks the county’s erosion control officer Marc Pruett simply doesn’t like the fact that the state forestry exemption trumps the county’s erosion laws.
“Is his argument really with the forest exemption, and I am really just being used as scapegoat?” Cameron said in an interview this week. “Between our costs and the county’s costs, we have spent half a million so far arguing over whether Marc Pruett should have control over this land or the state forest service should have oversight of this land.”
The Camerons built a 1.5-mile road network on a 66-acre tract in the Camp Branch area of Waynesville, claiming it was for logging.
The county argued that the Camerons were merely hiding behind the logging exemption, however. The county claims the Camerons’ real intention was to develop the property, witnessed by the creation of a development master plan, registering a subdivision name with the county and applying for a septic tank evaluation.
Ron Cameron said he was merely exploring options. At the time he built the roads in question, his only motive was forestry, he said. Cameron points to the four different foresters he hired since buying the property six years ago as proof that he was interested in pursuing forestry. The county counters that he never did any logging other than cutting trees that lay in the path of the roads he built.
Judge Bridges apparently wasn’t comfortable assigning hidden motives to the Camerons.
“The Camerons have not logged the property but neither have they developed the property,” Bridge wrote in her ruling. “There are no signs on the ground that a development is planned. No lots have been surveyed or staked. No subdivision roads have been created.”
Bridges, who toured the property as part of the trial, called the road network built by the Camerons “crudely constructed logging roads and not development roads.”
The county claimed the Camerons needed to bring their roads into compliance with the county’s erosion laws. After the Camerons filed a lawsuit protesting the county’s jurisdiction over their roads, the county responded with a retroactive $175,000 fine against the Camerons for refusing to come into compliance.
“The fine was issued in my opinion as an intimidation technique,” Cameron said in an interview this week.
Cameron is seeking his attorney fees and court costs in the amount of $260,000 to be paid by the county.
“We tried various ways to not let this progress this way,” said Attorney Jeff Norris, who represented the Camerons.
Cameron said he offered to drop the case and not pursue damages or attorney fees if the county would drop its fines and let Cameron return to his forestry exemption. The county would not let the Camerons walk away without bringing the roads up to county standards, however.
It is not yet known whether the county will appeal the ruling, staving off the Camerons’ demand for attorney fees barring a second ruling.
“The county is disappointed,” Chip Killian, the county attorney, said of the ruling. “We are looking at it closely and will have to make a decision whether to appeal or not.”
The county has to file notice of its intent to appeal within 30 days. The county could preserve its right to an appeal by filing notice within the window, buying time to work out the details of its appeal and make a final decision whether to go through one.
Both sides in the case have argued that a terrible precedent would be set if the other side won. If the county wins, landowners everywhere will shy away from logging for fear they could never change their mind without their motives being questioned and triggering retroactive fines. On the other hand, if the county loses, it would provide a road map for developers who want to exploit the forestry exemption.