On Monday morning, Haywood County commissioners listened as one citizen after another came up and blasted a change to a health board rule that has been on the books since 1970.
About 40 people stood up to express their opposition to the rule when one speaker asked for a show of support.
Citizens accused the commissioners of backhandedly reviving a nuisance ordinance that had already been stamped out by public outcry.
“You asked the health board to do your dirty work,” said Lynda Bennett at the meeting. “This is a very, very unpopular ordinance.”
The rule that’s now in question chiefly deals with safely storing garbage that can attract disease-carrying pests. Its most controversial aspect is a measure that allows the health director to step onto private property in the case of an imminent hazard — something that is already permitted under state law.
Another component of the ordinance that’s up for debate is the maximum penalty for a Class 1 misdemeanor for not storing garbage safely and creating a health risk for others — another issue that’s been set by the state, according to Chip Killian, Haywood County attorney.
“The statues are there, we need to enforce them,” said Commissioner Skeeter Curtis.
Haywood’s health board was ready to vote on the amendment with little ado in January when a crowd of 75 showed up to voice strong opposition.
After months of addressing citizens’ concerns and altering wording on the rule, the health board is now ready to vote on the amendment on Tuesday, Aug. 10.
Citizens rallied together once more Monday to express their fury concerning the measure, which they see as an unconstitutional violation of property rights.
“My only concern right now is our freedoms,” said Catherine Jones. “Little by little and on all levels, our freedom is being chipped away.”
Some speakers pointed out that commissioners up for re-election this year might feel their objections come fall, unlike the many health board members who are appointed, not elected.
“They cannot be held accountable at the ballot box like you can,” Bennett added.
Responding to certain concerns, the Haywood health board already amended its amendment to the rule to say the health director must always try to get a search warrant before entering property unless there is an imminent threat.
Commissioner Mark Swanger, who serves on the health board, said to his knowledge, no one has ever been arrested, fined or had their property entered without a warrant in the 40 years the health board rule has been in effect.
“Now what more can anybody ask for?” said Swanger.
Later, Swanger gave an example of when the rule would come in handy. He pointed out that trucks carrying nuclear waste constantly pass through the county on Interstate 40. If one should get in an accident, run off the road and spill toxic waste on private property, health authorities should be allowed to enter and abate that threat immediately.
“I see people smirking,” said Swanger. “If it were your backyard, you would wish they would help you.”
Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick added that this was in no way an attempt to violate people’s constitutional rights. He had his own example for the rule’s utility.
If a child gets sick playing in a filthy yard with feces and other health risks, there would be little health authorities and law enforcement could do without the rule. A worried mother’s only recourse would be to pursue expensive legal action.
“You guys can say it’s farfetched, but it’s certainly possible,” said Kirkpatrick. “Without this particular rule, there’s nothing the county can do.”
Kirkpatrick also emphasized the difficulty of penalizing violators with a Class 1 misdemeanor. He said such cases are extremely difficult to prosecute and the last thing Haywood County wants to do is spend money to enforce the rule. The health department will instead cooperate with violators right off the bat.
Have your say
The Haywood County health board will vote on the controversial amendment to its solid waste rule at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 6, at the county health department.