If Macon County commissioners decide to impose term limits for the planning board, beleaguered planning members could become the only ones out of dozens serving on various county boards who are subject to limits on how many years they can serve.

Historically, Macon County commissioners lacked enough volunteers to fill the ranks of its various advisory groups, from the airport authority to solid waste committee to parks and recreation board. Members — especially caring ones dedicated to the particular issue — were welcome to keep serving as long as they were willing.

These days, however, some commissioners are suggesting term limits, at least for the controversial planning board. This follows months of pitched battles between pro-planning and anti-planning factions. A decision by commissioners is expected next week.

If term limits were retroactively imposed, the move would effectively eliminate many of the staunchest pro-planners now on the planning board.

“If you do have term limits it doesn’t mean you could never serve again,” Macon County Manager Jack Horton said. “It would give a break in service to give other people opportunities.”

No one quite knows how long some of the longest-serving volunteers have served on the planning board, even the volunteers themselves — Susan Ervin is the acknowledged winner with some two decades of service. Mark West has been on the board for many years, too, so many that, like Ervin, he doesn’t remember his appointment date. Chairman Lewis Penland likewise has years of planning-board work to his credit.

But, that type of service isn’t confined to Macon County’s planning board. Ed Shatley has been a member of the county’s Economic Development Commission for at least as long as Ervin has the planning board. He was chairman in the 1990s, Shatley remains chairman today. Horton remembered that the veteran volunteer — who brings an acknowledged and unquestioned wealth of understanding and history to his unpaid service — was serving on the EDC in 1972 when Horton did his first stint as the Macon County manager.  

But, there haven’t been calls among commissioners for new blood to the EDC via term limits. Nor have there been discussions about  “balance” being ensured by adding anti-economic forces to an economic development-charged group.

These discrepancies have led some in Macon County to openly speculate that this sudden push for term limits is simply anti-planning politics in action. Planning Board member Al Slagle last month told The Smoky Mountain News that he believed it likely the advisory group was being “loaded” with anti-planning members under the guise of creating “diversity.”


Nuts and Bolts

Macon County has some 50 boards, committees and advisory groups.

County administrators have identified 13 of Macon County’s volunteer groups as high priority, meaning there is a more stringent and outlined application process for membership. These include the planning board, airport authority, EDC and the tourism development groups for greater Macon County and Highlands.

But, most board and committee members labor in total anonymity in unglamorous-to-most, but critical, service: there’s the Nursing and Adult Home Community Advisory Committee, the Dangerous Dog Board, the Garden Committee.

“Some boards are more difficult to fill than others,” Mike Decker, deputy clerk to the Macon County Board of Commissioners, said in acknowledgement.


Regional perspective

The problem of finding an adequate pool of volunteers isn’t confined to Macon County.

“I think it’s fair to say that we have some challenges in identifying qualified persons to serve on committees,” Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten said in an email interview. “We put the word out to the public about submitting an application of interest as we were hoping to build a roster of folks who wanted to service on boards and committees, and to hopefully have some basic information about experience and background. Unfortunately, the response was very minimal.”

In contrast, Haywood County generally has an adequate number of applicants, County Manager Marty Stamey said. Seven people recently applied for two positions on the health board, for example.

The same is true in the town of Bryson City and in Swain County, according to administrators there.

Cindi Woodard, assistant to the Swain County commission board, said that volunteers in that county serve three, three-year terms, take a break for a year, and are eligible again — a similar proposal to what Macon County Commissioner Ron Haven made recently for that county’s planning board.

“Usually people whose terms expire, they would love to serve again,” Woodard said.

Lee Galloway, an 18-year veteran town manager for Waynesville, said there are no term limits on any of the boards and commissions there — and he cautioned in a roundabout way on the dangers of losing experience by instituting them.

“There are some boards that have members who have been on for the entire 18 years, and having that knowledge and expertise and history is fantastic,” Galloway said.

Street food vendors aren’t welcome everywhere in Western North Carolina, but Andy and Pamela Fife haven’t found that to be true in Franklin. They are now setup in this Macon County town as the only fulltime mobile food vendors west of Asheville.

The couple — Monday through Friday, from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. — parks an upscale food-service trailer in a vacant lot along East Main Street. When they open the windows on A&P Roadside Eats, Macon County residents know that it’s time to stop by for the couple’s hamburgers, steak and cheese hoagies, Italian sausage and more.

The Fifes have created quite a following at their mobile food unit since opening last June. The couple also delivers food to the work-bound and hungry in town, taking phone orders directly at A&P Roadside Eats.

“We love them being here,” said David Campbell of Franklin as he stopped by A&P Roadside Eats for lunch one day last week.

“It’s close to work, and they serve the best corndogs in town,” Campbell’s wife, Sabrina, added. “We come almost everyday.”

The Fifes are true entrepreneurs, a couple of hardworking people who spotted an opportunity and moved into an available and open business niche. They started A&P Roadside Eats when the owner of a business Andy Fife was working at died, and that business was forced to shutdown.   

“We do miss that regular paycheck,” Fife said.

But, they are enjoying meeting a regular stream of Macon County residents, some dating back as first-time customers to when the Fifes were setting up a booth at Pickin’ on the Square in Franklin. In addition to working that street festival, the couple also worked — and still does — events in Macon County such as gem shows and trail days.

Pamela and Andy are halfbacks, former residents of Naples, Fla. Andy is originally from Virginia, Pamela from Ohio. They live in Macon County fulltime.

“We got tired of hurricanes,” Pamela said.

Working a mobile food unit such as A&P Roadside Eats means meeting certain state and local regulations. The couple has a standard business license from the town of Franklin. They also, per health department requirements, have an association with an area restaurant, where they go for cleanup. They have a state license that allows them to setup anywhere in North Carolina.


Food on wheels

Mobile food vendors are part of a burgeoning national trend that has experienced rapid growth in recent years. Proponents cite street food as an inexpensive and low-risk outlet for budding entrepreneurs, and point to culinary benefits to American consumers who can sample a variety of ethnic and regional foods that might not be available otherwise.

Opponents of food trucks usually are established restaurateurs, who accuse mobile food vendors of riding on their business backs minus the high overhead of maintaining regular businesses.

The food truck issue, unlike in Franklin, has been openly contentious elsewhere in WNC. Waynesville bans the mobile units from the Downtown Waynesville District, though will allow them in certain areas of town if licensing requirements are met. Asheville restaurateurs and mobile unit proponents argued for months last year until city leaders finally passed an ordinance that lifted a 25-year ban. Several food trucks can now set up together in a mobile food court on Coxe Avenue in Asheville.

The fate of Macon County’s planning board and whether it will exist in a meaningful form will be decided at next week’s commissioners’ meeting.

At stake are the implementation of term limits, and whether those term limits should be retroactively applied to those currently serving. That could eliminate many of the staunchest pro-planners now on the board.

There’s also the question about whether the planning board should be diminished by commissioners from its current role as an ordinance-producing group to something like an “advisory” panel that generates suggestions.

An email last month from Commissioner Ron Haven to fellow county commissioners ignited the firestorm. He accused the planning board of running amok and disregarding commissioners’ instructions. Haven openly demanded Planning Board Chairman Lewis Penland be ousted, targeting the planning board’s most vocal advocate for development regulations, and further suggested the board might could be abolished.

Haven’s email generated more subdued, controlled responses from fellow commissioners during their last meeting. But the iron hand is still in the velvet glove as far as pro-planners are concerned.

“What it really seems like is that they are trying to load the planning board with people who are anti-planning and who are diametrically opposed to planning, though there’s talk about diversity,” said Al Slagle, a member of that board.

The more recent appointments to the planning board — those made since a new Republican majority won control of the county commission a year ago  — have been people who are open about their desires for no, or extremely limited, land-development regulations.

This battle has been decades in the making. Macon County commissioners have long resisted instituting planning regulations sent to them for approval by their planning board.

“This kind of open opposition is new,” said Susan Ervin, the only woman on the planning board and the longest serving member. Ervin has emerged recently — after two decades of service — as a lightning rod for criticisms of that group.

“There have been bumps before, though,” Ervin said. “Maybe 11 or 12 years ago, we tried to introduce a land-use plan that didn’t go anywhere, either.”

Although the county has a subdivision ordinance, it has been stuck on passing a steep slope ordinance despite work on one being in the works for three years. The planning board finally scrapped the slope ordinance last summer and replaced it with more basic construction guidelines, but commissioners have not yet given them the thumbs up or down.

The term-limits idea being floated might not accomplish removing Penland, who declined to comment, or Ervin, if that is indeed the goal.

The county would need to go back and determine exactly when each planning board members was appointed, according to Mike Decker, deputy clerk to the commission board. Additionally, the March 1972 ordinance that formed the planning board underwent revision in 2004. It might prove necessary to start members’ terms from that date, he said.

Mark West, another longtime serving planning board member who is pro-planning but could be considered more moderate in his views than some on the board, expressed discomfort at the tone of the debate.

“We’ve always been able to disagree politely,” West said. “To respect each other and be able to shake hands. I see it turning into a more hostile environment, and one that doesn’t serve the county well.”

The bottom line for West is ensuring reasonable planning measures in Macon County that adequately ensure the public’s safety.

“If you can contain a slide on your property, I don’t have any personal concerns about that,” West said. “But I do think the county has an obligation when it becomes a down-slope hazard to others.”

The open battle over the planning board’s fate has not engulfed those county employees involved in the planning realm. Planner Derek Roland, to date, seems to have risen above the fray, as has veteran County Manager Jack Horton. That has not always proven the case in past county fracases. Learning to handle such situations is part of being a government employee, Horton said.

“Sometimes you just have conflicts to deal with,” he said. “And we are here to do a job and to give advice where advice is necessary. But the commissioners are the ones who are elected to make the decisions. As staff, we give all the facts about an issue that we can, and bring back to them the best information that we can on a particular subject.”

Horton pointed out that those commissioners also must face the repercussions “of praise or blame,” whatever that turns out to be.

A compromise has emerged in a fight over the historic McCoy truss bridge, one that would keep the old bridge in place for foot traffic while building a newer, bigger bridge alongside it for vehicles. But Macon residents who have spent nearly 10 years fighting for the bridge still feel ignored.

N.C. Department of Transportation workers and county commissioners cooked up the deal independently of the community’s wishes, according to resident Doug Woodward, who has labored for years to see McCoy Bridge renovated and saved for all types of vehicular traffic.

The debate over the truss bridge has become a symbol for a larger clash in the region between development and a rural way of life. Residents claim a sentimental attachment to the truss bridge, and fear a bigger, newer bridge will pave the way for more people and more traffic in their valley.

Commissioner Bobby Kuppers, who represents that area of Macon County, has said that he believes building a new bridge while saving McCoy Bridge is the best option available. Last May, the full five-member board of commissioners endorsed Kuppers’ proposal.

DOT officials are now indicating they’ll go along with the idea, including kicking in $126,000 toward renovating the truss structure. The DOT sent a letter to the county agreeing in concept. The money is contingent on Macon County assuming ownership of McCoy Bridge.

McCoy Bridge, which straddles the Little Tennessee River in the Oak Grove community, is one of a few truss bridges remaining in the state and the last in Macon County. DOT, which would have access to federal funds for much of the cost of a new bridge, wants to replace the one-lane crossing with a new one.

The DOT has cited safety as a factor. Engineers have deemed McCoy Bridge “functionally obsolete” and unable to handle future traffic demands. Its structural integrity is suspect, they say.

They’ve argued for a safe and historic working bridge: Not two bridges — one for motorists and the other for pedestrians and bike users — but a single, working bridge for everyone.

Woodward said the commissioners’ compromise had been considered, but discarded, as an option early on. Residents even submitted an engineering redesign of their own during a meeting with state transportation officials a few years ago.

Woodward said that the redesign was a workable compromise and that it would bring McCoy up to modern load-bearing standards, yet retain most of the historical character of the bridge.

Ralph Kennedy of the state Department of Transportation said will buy necessary right-of-way for the new bridge in 2014 with an estimated cost of $410,000. Construction is slated to begin in 2016, with a cost of about $2.5 million, he said.

Driven by a Republican-dominated commission, Macon County’s beleaguered planning board will undergo wholesale changes that likely include member term limits and a lessened, some might argue silenced, voice in writing development ordinances.

But these steps, agreed to in concept by commissioners during a Saturday workshop, might not repair growing chasms among the county’s leaders regarding the planning board’s proper role. Or, who should lead the planning board.

Commissioner Ron Haven didn’t mince words in a recent email to fellow county commissioners. It went viral almost as quickly as Haven hit the “send” button last Friday night.

In the email, Haven demanded the ouster of Planning Board Chairman Lewis Penland. Penland has been a vocal champion for steep slope regulations, and was instrumental in pushing for mountainside construction standards — a stance Haven apparently disagrees with, based on his characterization of the planning board as dictators and his call to possibly abolish it.

At the workshop, Haven accused the planning board of running amok and disregarding commissioners’ instructions. While feuding on the planning board has been shared by both sides — with opponents of steep slope regulations at least as vocal about their own positions as pro-planning advocates — Haven blamed Penland.

Penland’s term on the planning board is expiring. Commissioners must decide whether to reappoint him. Haven warned commissioners not to renew Penland’s appointment. He said if they did, they would pay for that decision during the next election.

“So with us being at the crossroads at putting Lewis Penland back on board for another upsetting three years to keep doing the same thing the people are tired of, it seems the timing is just right with nothing in the way,” Haven wrote in the email. “It is time right now to make changes and you commissioners know it. Penland with his rude attitude, close minded, self agenda ideas has no place on the planning board.”

Democrat Commissioner Bobby Kuppers defended the 12-member planning board, which he served as liaison to until recently.

“We handed them a prioritized list,” Kuppers said. “We told them as you complete one, move to the next — that list was approved by the commissioners. To their credit, they have followed that list … in fairness they did what we asked them to do. And to say they didn’t is really unfair.”

Haven, a conservative Republican, defended his take on planning and the planning board.

“I have always felt planning is a good thing,” Haven wrote in his email. But, “I feel this board is a nonfunctioning tool to the commissioner board and the citizens. When all that is important it [sic] to make citizens surrender their property rights, hinder job growth, and be a dictater [sic] then where if [sic] freedom in America if it can’t start at home.”

Penland on Monday said that he does find some common ground with Haven. The commission board needs to “quit kicking the can down the road” as Haven asserted in his email and make decisions about planning in Macon County, said Penland, who is a golf-course developer in real life. Penland for now declined further comment on Haven’s unflattering description.

Saturday, in what at times included terse and sharp exchanges among the five commissioners (three Republicans and two Democrats), the future shape of the planning board began to emerge.

For pro-planners in Macon County, it isn’t pretty: the board likely will not make decisions or have much meaningful say regarding land planning. Instead, it would make what Republican commissioners’ are dubbing “recommendations.”

“For lack of a better term, I’d call it a bullet list,” Commission Chairman Kevin Corbin said.

In an interview with The Smoky Mountain News two weeks ago, Corbin laid out a vision for the planning board that would reduce its role from writing proposed ordinances to suggesting general parameters, and then having the county attorney develop ordinance language.

Commissioner Jimmy Tate of Highlands had a front-row seat of when serving on the planning board. Tate was selected to be the commissioners’ new liaison to the planning board.

“They get bogged down … on how to rewrite one word,” Tate said, adding the bold promise he’d “get them on a sled and slide right through that.”

The spillover from Haven’s email and the Saturday commissioners’ discussion are likely to reverberate for the foreseeable future. Conservationist Bill McLarney, a highly regarded aquatic biologist in Macon County who is married to longtime planning board member Susan Ervin, shot back in defense of polite manners in a widely distributed email of his own.

“I am dismayed by what appears to be the low level to which political discourse has descended in this county,” McLarney wrote. “Hopefully Mr. Haven’s letter is an anomaly; it is certainly an embarrassment to us all. To the extent that the commissioners and we the public allow this sort of ignorant outburst to inform county policy and decisions, we are all losers.”


A long and winding road

Commissioner Ron Haven’s push for planning board reform comes as county leaders continue ruminating (three months and counting) on whether to pass construction guidelines developed by the advisory group.

By most counties’ standards, the guidelines are routine — they mainly deal with cut and fill regulations and with road-compaction standards. The planning board hoped to see the construction guidelines incorporated into two existing county ordinances, the soil and erosion regulations and subdivision regulations. The subdivision regulations are now under review. This marks at least the fifth or so time in Macon County the subdivision regulations have been re-examined at commissioners’ request since being adopted.

The construction guidelines were the result of a two-year effort by the planning board to write a steep-slope ordinance. But following dissent on the planning board and lukewarm support from county commissioners, the proposed ordinance was replaced with more basic construction guidelines.

With the advent of new leadership for commissioners, Macon County’s planning board could undergo a metamorphosis into what’s being dubbed a truer “advisory” role.

In recent years, the planning board has been a magnet of negativity for factions on both sides of the land planning issue.

Kevin Corbin has been the new chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners for less than a month, but has already identified land-use planning as one of the county’s most pressing issues. A date has not yet been settled on for the board’s annual retreat where the topic will be discussed.

Corbin was appointed to the county board to replace Brian McClellan, who resigned following his second DWI arrest in two years. Corbin was elected to the leadership seat by his fellow four commissioners the same week shortly after McClellan stepped down.

The chairman has just one vote but does have real power to steer the board’s agenda and structure meetings. Corbin, a Republican from Franklin, isn’t new to the county’s political sphere. He served for two decades as a member of the Macon County Board of Education. And, like father like son: Corbin’s Dad, Harold, served as chairman of the commission board from 1998 to 2002.

Other issues Corbin wants reviewed during the retreat include economic development initiatives, school needs and the county’s budget for the next fiscal year.

Corbin on Monday said he believes that the planning board has become polarized by its members’ fundamentally different views. Commissioners, he said, must assume more prominent roles in the land-planning arena for meaningful progress on planning to take place.

“I think it’s a tough balance,” Corbin said. “But I really do believe there’s a way to have sensible regulations without stopping construction and real estate.”

The new chairman equated land planning to the delicate task of holding a wet bar of soap. Squeeze too hard, the soap squirts from your hand. Hold the bar too loosely and it falls from such a tepid grip.

Corbin wants commissioners simply to receive recommendations from the planning board, not written ordinances ready for adoption or rejection. Commissioners instead would hammer out tricky details; the county attorney would prepare the actual document.

This would remove some of the spotlight from planning board members, Corbin said, and place the pressures where they more rightfully belong — on commissioners. It’s commissioners who’ve been duly elected to make these decisions. Planning board members, in contrast, are community volunteers appointed to their positions by commissioners.

Besides, commissioners ultimately approve any ordinance drafted by the planning board, and in the process end up rewriting portions of it anyway — usually repeating the same debate that already played out at the planning board level.

Where would that leave the construction guidelines adopted by the planning board after great public strife? The guidelines are the result of a two-year effort by the planning board to write a steep slope ordinance. But following dissent on the planning board and perceived lukewarm support from county commissioners, the full ordinance was replaced with more basic construction “guidelines.” Commissioners have been holding the proposed guidelines from the planning board for some three months without any visible signs of action.

Corbin wants those suggested guidelines and the county’s subdivision and soil and erosion ordinances reviewed by Attorney Chester Jones. There is redundancy plus, possibly, needed changes such as what’s involved in the rules for subdivision road building, Corbin said.

In this brave new world, commissioners would clearly and publicly guide Attorney Jones, Corbin said. A prime example would be the actual slope percentages when it comes to cut and fill rules in road building: commissioners would decide on a percentage they find acceptable, not the attorney.

On other issues, Corbin said:

• Macon County is in “very good shape” financially. That said, this Republican-controlled board will look for areas in which to make additional cuts. This could be difficult to accomplish because the historically fiscally conservative board has reduced the county budgets by an overall 15 percent already as a result of the recession.

Also, because of ongoing national, state and local economic maladies, residents’ basic needs are increasing: real help, in the form of additional county dollars, might need funneling toward assisting with heating, food and so on, Corbin said.

“We may find ourselves in a place where we have to support these things aggressively,” he said.

• The Macon County Schools will need financial help, too. Federal funding, up to $2 million worth, has dried up. “You increase what you spend or reduce what you do,” Corbin said, adding he opposes any budget reductions that would hit teachers and teacher assistants. Macon County might look at some one-time spending options for the schools, such as helping replace aging computers, Corbin said.

• Economic development efforts must press forward regardless of whether such efforts bear immediate fruit or, more likely in this woeful economic climate, don’t.

Corbin said that new county economic development leader Tommy Jenkins would discuss planned efforts and economic hopes

More than $2 million in mostly federal dollars will pay for repaving the runway at the Macon County Airport, likely boosting a surge of business-class jets now landing there since an extension of the runway was added last year.

The state and county will each have to kick in a 10 percent match, while federal funds will comprise 80 percent of the project cost.

Macon County’s airport is the nearest airport to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort that can handle small corporate jets. Additionally, well-heeled residents with second or third homes in the Highlands-Cashiers area visit this region via Macon’s airport.

“This is another tool in our economic tool belt,” Tommy Jenkins, the county’s economic director, said Tuesday. “We’ve got an asset in the airport that a lot of surrounding counties don’t have. We’ve got to make sure we take care of it.”

Federal aviation dollars come in to the state through the N.C. Division of Aviation, which then disperses the funds based on need to airports in the state.

Macon County, again using a combination of federal and state funding along with a county match, spent $4.5 million building a 600-foot extension and a 300-foot grass safety area over the past two years.

Work at the airport has been a source of controversy, with critics citing the large cost for relatively few users and the impact of the growing airport on the rural Iotla Valley off N.C. 28. But the biggest controversy came when Indian graves were discovered in the path of the runway extension. The county reached agreements with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, however, allowing work to move forward following an archaeological excavation.

Miles Gregory, the airport board’s chairman, said Tuesday that he believes what sealed the funding deal was a firsthand visit in September to the airport by N.C. Department of Transportation Secretary Gene Conti. The state bigwig was in the area to attend a bridge naming ceremony for former state Sen. John Snow, D-Cherokee County.

“The runway is all in pieces,” Gregory said. “It’s been in bad repair for a long time. (Conti) just shook his head, and said he’d do what he could to help us.”

Bids for the repaving project likely will be let this spring.

New airport hangars are in the works, Gregory said. Additionally, there are plans to try to run a 12-inch line and hook into the town’s water.

“We have a drilled well right now. It wouldn’t put out a lit match,” Gregory said. “I’m exaggerating of course, but we could use that water.”

A statewide economic impact study conducted five years ago indicated that Macon County’s airport had an approximate $7.9 million a year total annual impact on North Carolina and supports more than 122 jobs.

Macon County GOP leaders on Monday selected a Highlands landscaping company owner as their pick to fill a vacant slot on the county’s board of commissioners.

James “Jimmy” Tate will replace Commissioner Brian McClellan who resigned after receiving his second driving while impaired charge in two-and-a-half years.

Tate is likely to receive the obligatory — but required — thumbs’ up next week from the Macon County Board of Commissioners. Since McClellan is a Republican, the local party gets to recommend his replacement.

Commissioners Kevin Corbin and Ron Haven, also Republicans, expressed their support for Tate’s nomination immediately following the closed-door GOP meeting. The two commissioners joined 20 other Macon County Republican Party executive committee members in casting unanimous votes for Tate, who is the vice chairman of the Macon County Republican Party.

“I think he’ll do an outstanding job,” Corbin told news reporters after the GOP meeting.

Tate, 38, last year mounted an unsuccessful primary challenge against incumbent McClellan, who went on to win his second term in office representing the Highlands area of Macon County.

McClellan had served as chairman of the board, a leadership role the commissioners decide amongst themselves. Corbin is likely to be the new chairman.

Tate, who has served for the past year on the Macon County Planning Board and for 14 years as a part-time, county-employed emergency medical services worker, said he knew there was a steep learning curve ahead for him. Tate expressed confidence in his ability to work across the aisle with the board’s two Democrat commissioners, Ronnie Beale and Bobby Kuppers.

“I’m humbled by the opportunity,” Tate said.

Corbin said he did not believe Tate’s newness to the commission board would slow county business. The most critical upcoming item, Corbin said, is preparation for the county’s 2011-2012 fiscal-year budget.

Sylva might hear its local AM radio station WRGC back on the air — but the company involved wants a loan of $289,000 from Jackson County’s economic development fund to make it happen.

Roy Burnette, the CEO of the hopefully formed, embryonic 540 Broadcasting Co., said that he wants the future WRGC to intensely pursue the local part of local radio. But having said that, the geographic designation of “local” for WRGC would change, Burnette said.

Burnette wants to expand the range of WRGC allowing 540 Broadcasting to reach from east of Canton in Haywood County to Topton in Swain County — if he is able to get permission from the Federal Communications Commission for the extra power. The future WRGC would broadcast at 5,000 watts. Asked to explain the expansion of the Sylva-based radio station for the not-so-technical minded potential radio listener, Burnette suggested one mentally compare the light received from a 1,000-watt light bulb to a 5,000-watt light bulb.

“We want to offer in-depth service to Jackson, Macon, Swain and Haywood,” said Burnette on his plans for extensive regional radio reach.

Burnette has been in regional radio for years, including stints in Bryson City and Sylva. Additionally, he worked as a radio instructor for Southwestern Community College.

The Sylva radio station went dead in late August, a victim of dwindling advertising revenue dollars in a hard-knock economy. WRGC was owned by Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co. If no one buys it and claims the frequency within a year, the license for that frequency would be lost.

It’s the expansion possibility, which promises a wider net of potential advertisers, that’s attracting notice at the county level.

“The 5,000-watt license is the big interest since the signal area would be substantially greater than current coverage area,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said.

And that, Wooten added, would “provide an opportunity to generate significantly more advertising revenue.”

Regional radio personality and Sylva resident Gary Ayers earlier had expressed interest in buying WRGC. Ayers retreated from the idea after he said local advertising interest seemed tepid.

“I talked to the owners the other day and said if this guy can make it go, then great,” Ayers said Monday. “If not, then let me know and let’s talk again.”

Art Sutton of Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co. declined to comment for now on the evolving deal.

Ayers said the most important point to him is that Sylva regains a local radio station.

“We are going to put a huge focus on community-based programming,” Burnette said.

Burnette said he hopes to have WRGC on the air by Dec. 10.


What price local radio?

540 Broadcasting Co. submitted a request for a $289,000 loan from Jackson County. Of that, $250,000 would be used to purchase the radio license from current owner Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co., and $39,000 would be used to acquire equipment needed to install the 5,000-watt station. 540 Broadcasting would provide an additional $100,000 in working capital. Payments on the county loan would be deferred until May 2012, and then be paid over ten years (40 quarterly payments) at an interest rate of 2 percent. Jimmy Childress (WRGC’s founder) would rent 540 Broadcasting the building, equipment and property where tower is located; collateral for the loan would be the radio license and equipment.

A public hearing on the loan will be held Dec. 12 at 2 p.m. at the county’s boardroom. Commissioners are scheduled to meet that same day at 2:15 p.m. to consider the request.

Source: Jackson County

The 36-member executive committee of the Macon County Republican Party will meet next week to nominate a replacement for county Commissioner Brian McClellan.

McClellan announced that he would resign as a commissioner following his second driving-while-impaired charge in two-and-a-half years. The four remaining members of the Macon County Board of Commissioners will hold an 8 a.m. meeting to accept McClellan’s resignation on Dec. 1. That clears the way for the local GOP to pick a replacement, a job that falls to the party because McClellan is a Republican. Commissioners, in an expected rubberstamp, plan to vote on the nomination in their regular Dec. 13 meeting.

The Republican Party meets Dec. 5 at 6:30 p.m. in Courtroom A of the Macon County courthouse.

“I want somebody who can work well with the other board members,” Republican Party Chair Chris Murray said Monday. “I’d want to have somebody who is not divisive … and who is a loyal Republican.”

That nominee must be a resident of the Highlands area, which McClellan represents.

McClellan served as chairman of the county commission, another position that now must be decided. In Macon, the board votes on the chairman. Commissioner Kevin Corbin is likely to become the next commission chairman. Corbin, a Republican and a longtime school board member, was appointed commissioner to fill the remaining term of Jim Davis after Davis won a state senate seat last November. The Republicans hold a 3-2 majority on the commission board, making it likely they will pick a Republican as chairman.

“I’d love to see Kevin considered for that position,” Murray said. “But that’s really not the business of the Republican Party — that’s up to the commissioners.”

Corbin on Monday confirmed that he would certainly consider becoming chairman if that’s how the cookie crumbles, as it almost surely will.

Although Corbin was appointed and not elected to the board, he’s no novice when it comes to chairing meetings. He served as chairman for 14 years of his five terms (20 years) on the Macon County Board of Education, plus filled in as vice chairman for a few years.

Corbin, during that time, attained a solid reputation for being able to cross party lines (admittedly not as difficult a task on the ostensibly nonpartisan board of education), and served as chief conductor of what were generally viewed as efficiently run, well-managed meetings.

McClellan received his second DWI charge Nov. 18 in Jackson County. He called fellow commissioners a few days later to tell them he planned to resign.

“I do support his decision — I think it’s the right one,” Corbin said, adding that in his view, McClellan had been an outstanding commissioner for the citizens of Macon County.

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