When Terry Stephenson bought a piece of hillside property on Lower Alarka Road in Bryson City, he expected it to slowly develop into a homestead for himself and his 11-year-old daughter. What he didn’t expect was the headache that the undeveloped hillside has become since he became embroiled in an argument with Bryson City’s Great Smoky Mountains Railway over his right to cross their tracks.

The railroad has 10 acres of Stephenson’s property that encompasses their tracks and the accompanying 100-foot right-of-way granted to railroad tracks, originally intended to allow freight and passenger rail companies space in which to store extra equipment. Stephenson said he would be unconcerned with the tracks if they didn’t cross the single dirt road that is the only entrance to his property.

The crossing that once existed there was excavated and replaced by the railroad, who then offered Stephenson a private right of way agreement that reinstated his right to use the crossing. But Stephenson only got a few words into the 14-point agreement before realizing that he would be coming out bearing the brunt of the burdens if he signed.

“There’s nothing in there for me at all,” said Stephenson. “It might as well have been printed on toilet paper.”

His chief grief with the company is the $3,000-a-year crossing insurance that the agreement stipulates, something he maintains has not been required of anyone else who has been granted a crossing.

“There’s a lot of people who don’t have crossing insurance,” Stephenson said, “and they want me to maintain a $2 million policy and make them the beneficiary.”

The agreement would also stipulate that the crossing is non-transferrable, so when he property passes to his daughter or the next owner, they wouldn’t have the right to use the crossing without entering into a separate, new agreement with the railway.

Stephenson said he has no intention of signing the agreement, but he also knows that the cost of taking the railroad to court over the issue might be cost prohibitive.

“You’re fighting everybody fighting the railroad,” said Stephenson, “but it’s like paying a toll to get to my property, and every month I’ve got a payment to make, whether I can get to it or not.”

When asked for their take on the dispute, Great Smoky Mountains Railway General Manager Kim Albritton responded only that she was “not interested in discussing it with you.” Subsequent calls and e-mails to the railroad’s management were unreturned.

When Stephenson got nowhere in his negotiations alone, he tried bringing the issue before the Swain County Commissioners, who pledged that they would attempt to mediate the situation.

But, said County Manager Kevin King, the county was similarly stonewalled.

“We basically called the train and wanted to discuss that issue with them and they indicated that this is a legal dispute and at this point they would not sit down and talk to the board,” said King. “We asked for a meeting, they declined, and that’s all we can do.”

But even if he tries to fight the railroad, Stephenson will likely have a long and difficult road ahead of him, and there is a chance that the law might not be on his side.

“North Carolina case law generally grants railroads broad discretion to regulate the use of their rights of way by others,” wrote Raleigh attorney Jeffrey Bandini in an explanation of railroad real estate laws called Railroad Property. “This control is justified to ensure safe travel on the rights of way and to protect the physical integrity of the facilities built on the rights of way and the land upon which the facilities are located. Accordingly, whether a railroad company owns its right of way in fee simple or easement, third parties must obtain permission from the railroad company to enter the right of way for any purpose.”

Plainly speaking, that means that Stephenson will have a hard time countering the agreement, since the state has long given railroads a great deal of license in how to use their own rights of way.

Stephenson, however, isn’t averse to a crossing agreement, but feels that what the railway is putting forward is beyond unreasonable.

He said he’d be happy to pay his part for the upkeep of the crossing, but thinks that $3,000 a year is slightly exorbitant, given that his taxes are barely $800.

“I’m not trying to be hard,” Stephenson said, “I just need to get to my property. “

You can be excused for perhaps having overlooked the recent fireworks, but a minor war has erupted over one of this region’s favorite sons (or, not-favorite sons).

Pick your side.

Horace Kephart, the definitive writer of Western North Carolina history who set up a home of sorts in Swain County and gave us an accurate portrait of the mountaineer as he was then.

Or, Horace Kephart, who wasn’t even from this region. Who gave us a not very accurate portrait of the mountaineer of yore, and, if that isn’t enough to make you dislike him, was a good-for-nothing drunk who suffered a mental breakdown and stranded his family to boot.

I have an unusual, albeit somewhat shallow, interest in these matters. I live in WNC today because of Kephart. My family moved to the Bryson City area in the early 1970s because my parents fell in love with the region while Dad was doing research on Kephart. My father, George Ellison, wrote the introduction to Our Southern Highlanders when the University of Tennessee Press reissued it in 1976.

Other republications of Kephart’s books, and new information about the man himself, have been taking place these past few years. This has set the stage for a bunch of arguing about Kephart’s importance, the value of his books, and so on. My Dad hasn’t been part of that, best I can tell. He just keeps working on the material. And there’s been a lot of it to plow through, because the Kephart family is providing boxes and boxes of previously unexamined documents.

Here is the central argument of Kephart’s detractors, though they aren’t necessarily as direct about it as I am in this rephrasing: Kephart wasn’t from here. Thus, he had no right to portray the mountaineer at all. Only those born and bred in these hills, with roots that go back for generations, have a right or the ability to write about the people of these mountains. Everyone else is an outsider and doesn’t “get it.”

Phooey. I’m not from here, yet I maintain I’ve got a perfect right to portray whomever I want to, whenever I want to, how I want to, in whatever form I desire. Fiction, nonfiction, newspaper or magazine articles, columns, whatever interests me in a given moment as a writer. Who is going to stop me, pray tell? And if I do write about this region, what gives someone else the special insight to say my writing lacks value simply because I’m not born and bred of the hills?

I was born in Richmond, Va. If I abided by the underpinnings of this anti-Kephart argument, I would only write about people from Richmond (of which I know nothing, since we left there when I was six months old).

The argument is specious at best, and arrogant at worst. Let’s take it one step further, and the lack of logic becomes clear: Henry James wasn’t from Europe, so he shouldn’t have included Europeans in his novels. Ridiculous.

Joseph Conrad was Polish, so he shouldn’t have mastered English and written all those masterpieces, and about British people, for goodness’ sake.

Sue Hubbell, my current favorite nonfiction writer, hails from Michigan. Shouldn’t have written all those great books about living in the Missouri Ozarks, Sue.  

Here’s the other angle of this anti-Kephart fervor. Not being from here, Kephart just didn’t understand — he overemphasized the moonshining and illicit behavior, and underemphasized the refined dignities of the mountain people.

Maybe. Maybe not. That’s the neato thing about being a writer. You get to emphasize whatever interests you. And Kephart was very interested in moonshine. How it was made, and how it tasted. He spent a lot of time sampling the local offerings, and clearly became something of a connoisseur.

Additionally, if we are going to condemn every drunk who was a writer, say farewell to William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Ernest Hemingway and plenty of others who found their muses in the dregs of wine cups and beer bottles. Kephart apparently often found his floating around near the bottom of a moonshine jar. So what does that prove about the worth of his work? Not a thing.

He was probably a lousy father and husband, but again, what in the world does that have to do with the quality of his writing, or his portrayal of Southern Appalachia? Not much.

A good place to take in the this-side and that-side of the great Kephart debate is www.tuckreader.com, a valuable recent addition to the local news scene. Check out the battle of words (both are being ever-so-courteous) taking place between Jim Casada and Gary Carden, both fine regional writers born and raised in WNC. Jim is from Bryson City, Gary from Sylva.

Better yet, read Kephart’s books and make an independent determination of your own.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

In Swain County, incumbent Republican Sheriff Curtis Cochran successfully fended off challenger John Ensley.

Cochran has faced several controversies in the preceding four-year term, his first in law enforcement. He has weathered well-publicized rows with county commissioners, including a discrimination lawsuit against them and disagreements about deputy pay, overtime and other budgetary woes. The department under Cochran has also seen the escape of an accused murderer from its new, still half-empty jail — aided by a detention officer — and the misuse of official credit cards by yet another detention officer.

Democrat Ensley, a local businessman with only a tad more law enforcement experience than Cochran, felled other primary contenders with ease but eeked out little more than a third of the final vote tally. Throughout his campaign, he promised to use his prowess as a salesman to entice federal, state and other local prisoners to fill the costly jail, a feat Cochran has, as yet, failed to perform.

Cochran won all five of the county’s precincts, taking more than 60 percent of the vote in four districts and leading one of those by 71 percent. He will now enter another four-year term, where he will be working with the recently-elected, all-Democrat county commission.

 

Swain County Sheriff

Curtis Cochran (R)    2,857

John Ensley (D)    1,706

Swain County will spend the next four years with an all-Democrat board of commissioners after all the incumbents running for office held onto their seats and Donnie Dixon and Robert White scooped up the two open spots.

Neither current chairman Glenn Jones nor commissioner Genevieve Lindsay sought re-election after both spent the last eight years on the board.

Steve Moon will serve his second term on the board, winning one district and 12 percent of the vote. He owns a tire shop and came to the board after a six-year run on the county’s school board. Moon said during the spring primaries that he wanted to stay on the board to watch over its allocation of interest from the North Shore Road settlement.

David Monteith, also an incumbent, came away with three of the county’s five districts and just under 15 percent of votes, the largest percentage of any winner. Monteith is a school bus driver and was the lone commissioner to vote against the North Shore Road settlement. He campaigned on a platform of protecting and increasing the county’s job base.

Donnie Dixon, a newcomer to the board, didn’t win outright in any precincts, but still pulled out nearly 13 percent of the vote. Dixon is a machinist who served a single term as commissioner in the 90s, but is coming back to the board with ideas of greater openness, televised meetings and courting higher paying jobs for the county.

Robert White is the second newcomer but is also no stranger to public life as retired superintendent of the county’s school system. He campaigned on strategic planning and citizen involvement to lead the board, citing the expertise in both areas that he gained as superintendent as good qualities to recommend him for the job.

While the four commissioners had to beat out a total field of nine challengers, the race for chairman was run between only two. Current board member Phil Carson won, edging out Mike Clampitt by just under 5 percent of the votes.

 

Swain County Board of Commissioners (Chairman)

Phil Carson (D)    2,319

Mike Clampitt (R)    2,083

 

Swain County Board of Commissioners (vote for 4)

David Monteith (D)    2,465

Donnie Dixon (D)    2,089

Steve Moon (D)    2,041

Robert White (D)    1,976

James King (R)     1,788

John Herrin (R)    1,778

Andy Parris (R)    1,724

Gerald Shook Jr. (R)    1,604

William (Neil) Holden (L)    1,015

Bryson City’s Marianna Black Library could be getting a facelift, and library leaders are looking to patrons for a grasp on exactly how to do that.

In eight public input sessions held last week, Swain County Librarian Jeff Delfield and consultant Ron Dubberly quizzed locals about what they’d like to see change about the library. Delfield said the comments represented a broad spectrum of opinions about how best to change the library, if at all.

“There was a varied range,” said Delfield. “I mean, there was everything from ‘don’t change a thing please, I love this library exactly the way it is,’ to folks saying ‘We want outdoor staged seating.’”

The meetings were the first in a series of information gathering sessions for the library’s visioning process. The next stop for consultant Dubberly will be meetings with stakeholders who have a vested interest in the library — the business community, the school board and other local organizations.

Swain County is following in the footsteps of Jackson and Macon, who both held visioning processes before building new libraries. While no conclusions have yet been drawn for Marianna Black, Delfield believes that parking might be a part of the equation, if not an entirely new building.

“In general, folks that use the library a lot know that we need parking,” said Delfield.

He said that library users are also keen to see more of what they already get from the library.

“They’re asking for more of the services that we already offer – more books, more movies, more computers, more meeting spaces,” said Delfield.

That’s a sentiment echoed by library-goers themselves.

“I think they could probably expand the book collection, and maybe get more periodicals,” said Bryson City resident Dan Sikorra, who stops by the library to read periodicals such as the Wall Street Journal.

When asked what she would like to see in a revamped library, Nantahala Gorge resident Rose Ponton also said the library could benefit from swelling its stacks.

“It’s hard to find the books I’m looking for here,” she said, “but I think the Marianna Black Library is doing a great job.” Ponton mainly comes to use the wireless Internet, but said she’d take advantage of lending services as well if more books stocked the shelves.

Swain County is in the early stages of the process, and Delfield said part of the reason such a range of opinions was expressed at the forums was consultant Dubberly’s “pie-in-the-sky question,” asking residents what they would do for the library with an unlimited budget.

After gathering opinions from the community, the library board and other key library stakeholders — along with factual demographic information — Dubberly and his team will generate a report recommending steps to grow the library in the future.

More bestsellers? A computer lab? Meeting space?

This month, Swain County residents will be asked what it is they crave from their local Marianna Black Library. The surveys are part of an assessment funded by a planning grant from the State Library of North Carolina.

Jackson and Macon counties went through a similar visioning process — and in both cases it led to brand-new libraries.

At the top of librarian Jeff Delfield’s own list is simply more space. The Marianna Black Library is barely 8,000-square-feet when the state recommends about 20,000-square-feet for each county’s main library.

“I think we could at least double the space and not really be outrageous about it,” Delfield said.

Parking at the Bryson City library is so limited that would-be library patrons have to scour downtown for parking spots blocks away or simply come back another time.

Another deficiency is a section devoted solely to teens.

“Teens have nowhere to go in this library,” said Delfield.

Delfield points out that while Swain’s library is a fine one, it dates back four decades.

“Swain County has changed a lot in 40 years. We have, I think, doubled in population,” Delfield said. “Even if we could put another story on this building, that doesn’t solve our parking problem.”

Delfield admires neighboring Macon County’s spacious new library. It features a common area with a fireplace around which patrons gather with books and laptops. There are also plenty of small meeting rooms where students can get together to work on projects.

He said he can imagine something similar at the library in Bryson City for the future.

Another of Swain’s neighbors, Jackson County, is set to open a new 26,000-square-foot library of its own, far larger than its current 6,400-square-foot building.

Both Macon and Jackson county libraries utilized the help of Ron Dubberly, the consultant who will now tackle the library assessment in Swain.

Jackson County librarian Dottie Brunette said hiring Dubberly was helpful in coming up with a blueprint for the new library there. She estimated that about two-thirds of the plan for the library resulted from Duberly’s work.

“You have to know what your community wants before you can start doing those things,” Brunette said.

For instance, the Sylva community was adamant that the library’s location remain downtown, which eventully won out.

 

The process

Dubberly said most communities that go through the public assessment are eager to move forward with an expansion or a new building. Dubberly said the needs for space are obvious in Swain County, but the final say rests with the public.

“The first thing is you find out what the community’s needs are,” Dubberly said. “And you only know that truly by asking.”

Residents will be surveyed in early October to choose from a list of “service priorities” the library should provide. These priorities range from children’s story time to foreign language to genealogy materials.

Dubberly and library staff want to hear from people from Cherokee to the Nantahala Gorge and from Alarka to downtown Bryson City to come up with a library that will serve all.

“We want to reach people who don’t even come to the library,” Delfield said.

Dubberly will also meet with city and county officials, library board members, Friends of the Marianna Black Library and other stakeholders. He will analyze demographics and population projections before coming up with a draft plan for the library. Another public meeting will ensue before Dubberly presents the final plan to the library board and county commissioners.

The plan will address Swain’s needs for library services and also provide recommendations on space, furnishings, equipment, shelving, collection items and more.

Dubberly said even with all his experience, there’s no way to predict what Swain County residents will want from their public library.

“I just start fresh. I don’t have a cookie cutter,” Dubberly said. “Every community is unique.”

 

Want to weigh in?

Public input is needed to shape the future of the Swain County library, whether its an expanded children’s section, more DVD rentals or a brand-new library. Drop by one of the following sessions to share your ideas. For more information, call 828.488.3030.

Monday, October 11

• noon, Marianna Black Library

• 3 p.m. Qualla Public Library in Cherokee

• 5:30 p.m. Nantahala Village in the Gorge

Tuesday, October 12

• 10 a.m. Alarka Community Center

• 3 p.m.  Bryson City Presbyterian Church

• 5:30 p.m. Marianna Black Library

• 7 p.m. Marianna Black Library

Wednesday, October 13

• 10 a.m. Swain Senior Center

It’s nearing showtime for the most heated race in Swain County: the battle between Republican Sheriff Curtis Cochran and his challenger, Democrat John Ensley.

Controversial issues were neither few nor far between during Cochran’s first term as sheriff: a suspected murderer escaped from Swain County’s jail last year; a Swain detention officer purchased a big-screen TV using the county’s credit card; a newly built $10 million jail continues to sit half-empty; and Cochran went head to head with commissioners over deputy pay. Cochran even sued Swain’s Democratic commissioners for discriminating against him by essentially reducing his salary.

As a result, Cochran has been a polarizing figure in Swain politics. Bumper stickers saying “Elect anyone BUT Curtis Cochran” appeared as much as a year ago, but many Swain residents still stand by Cochran’s side. Cochran said the same scrutiny would hold true for anybody currently in office.

“You’re going to have a group of supporters. You’re going to have a group that wants you out,” said Cochran.

Cochran said if re-elected he will continue making progress at the sheriff’s office, including continuing a fight against drugs.

“I’m here for the people of Swain County,” Cochran said. “I don’t see myself on a pedestal and the people under me.”

 

Building rapport & budgets

In his campaign against Cochran, Ensley is emphasizing the importance of building good relationships.

Ensley says he will “rebuild” a rapport with county commissioners, with surrounding counties and Cherokee, with state and federal agencies, and with the community at large.

Despite the Cochran’s lawsuit against commissioners, Cochran said he and the county board have always had an open door policy and continue to have one now.

“I think that we work very well with the commissioners,” said Cochran. “The only big issue is with the budget and the lawsuit.”

Cochran would not comment on the lawsuit, adding that his focus is on carrying out his duties as sheriff, not the case filed against commissioners.  

As for the budget, Cochran had fought hard to keep overtime pay for his deputies, who sometimes work 18- to 20-hour days. “I’m a firm believer that if people work, they need to get paid,” Cochran said.

But the commissioners refused to grant overtime because of the recession and slashed his workforce by 22 percent with the 2009-10 budget.

“I’m not going to second-guess commissioners. I’m not going to say what they were thinking,” Cochran said. “That’s pretty well self-evident.”

Commissioners at the time said overtime was being abused as a recurring means of inflating deputies’ base salaries. Cochran said he will actively request more deputies and salary increases for his employees from the new county board if re-elected.

Ensley points to his business expertise, which he says would help him stretch every penny he gets from commissioners. Ensley plans to restructure the department and handle the budget “much better” than the way it has been handled in the past. Ensley would like to charge a fee to those who are convicted to fund a salary increase.

“Times are tough, and you have to make do with less,” Ensley said. “We’re going to get creative.”

Ensley said he has spoken with most of the current commissioners and those who are running for a spot on the county board.

“We are not going to have an issue,” Ensley said. “It’s a priority for me to have a good working relationship. There are ways [to find a] resolution without having a public fight.”

 

Experience or lack thereof

Experience has long been the centerpiece of the upcoming election. In May, eight Democrats packed the ballot for the chance to take on Cochran come fall. Ensley won by a comfortable margin.

Every challenger highlighted his law enforcement background, drawing a contrast with Cochran, who had no law enforcement training before going into office as sheriff.

Ensley said he is a certified law enforcement officer in North Carolina, has worked at the Swain County jail and a jail in Florida. He graduated as president of his basic law enforcement training class at Haywood Community College.

In addition to law-enforcement training completed after becoming sheriff, Cochran said unlike other candidates, only he can boast on-the-job experience.

“They talk about experience,” Cochran said. “I am the only candidate who has the experience of being sheriff of Swain County …I got four years at the helm. I know where the problems are.”

 

Filling up oversized jail

When Swain built an oversized jail several years ago — twice the size needed for its own prisoners — it was banking on filling it with prisoners from other counties and federal prisoners to subsidize the cost. But other counties had built their own jails and federal prisoners dried up, too. Cochran inherited the plight of the oversized jail when he took office.

Ensley characterizes the $10 million jail as an investment that needs to turn profitable. He plans to launch an all-out campaign to win over state and federal agencies, such as U.S. Marshals and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

“I’m going to go out of my way to work with each one of these groups,” Ensley said. “I have salesmanship, and I think that’s part of what we need to do.”

Most of the prisoners housed in Swain County’s jail that come from outside the county hail from Cherokee. But the Eastern Band now plans to build its own jail — a final blow to Swain’s half-empty jail being heavily subsidized by county taxpayers.

Ensley is still holding out hope that a compromise can be reached. He said the tribe could possibly look at building a drug-abuse center instead and continue to send prisoners to Swain.

But Cochran said he’s done absolutely everything he could to bring more prisoners to Swain’s mammoth jail. The U.S. Marshals Service continues to send most of their inmates to Cherokee County — despite Bryson City’s advantage of housing a federal courthouse. For the time being, the Swain jail has only three Marshals Service inmates. The Marshals Service claims that the crime rate has decreased

Cochran says he’s traveled to Charlotte and Asheville and spoken with U.S. Congressman Heath Shuler and three state legislators, but to no avail.

“We’re kind of at the mercy of the Marshal Service at this point — to be fair, and I can’t stress that word enough, to be fair,” Cochran said. “We should be getting our fair share. I’m very disgusted with this process.”

 

No more escapes

Cochran said he put policies in place to make the facility more secure after a jail escape involving inside help from a jailer. Cochran said he could not mention specifics on the new procedures for security reasons.

Cochran emphasized that no matter how secure the physical building is, inserting a human element will inevitably bring unpredictability.

“It wouldn’t matter if it was San Quentin, it was going to happen,” said Cochran, citing the inside job.

To ensure that everything is running as it should, Cochran visits the jail every day. “We don’t have those problems anymore,” Cochran said.

Ensley said ensuring the jail’s security is a top priority. He will bring his own work experience at the Swain County jail and a correctional facility in Florida. He plans to provide training and to place an instructional pamphlet at every station to keep jailers up to speed on policy.

Moreover, Ensley promises to keep serious watch over his employees and look out for red flags.

“Folks didn’t really realize how serious some of these warning signals were,” Ensley said.

If something goes wrong under his watch, Ensley said he will take full responsibility.

“If I’m the sheriff, right here is where the buck stops,” Ensley said. “If someone in my department hurts my county, it’s my responsibility. I won’t be standing behind him. I will be standing in front.”

 

Reaching out to community

Swain County Sheriff’s Office already has a great relationship with the community, according to Cochran.

“We have an open line,” said Cochran, adding that his department works with the community every day and makes sure to keep anonymous tips anonymous.

Cochran pointed to recent success busting a meth lab, which could not have happened without tips from residents.

Though some have complained that the sheriff’s office is inconsistent in how it handles calls, Cochran ensures the public that officers do follow through with every concern that is brought up.

Sometimes, the magistrate’s office doesn’t find probable cause or an investigation will dead-end. Moreover, Swain’s limited staff makes it difficult for deputies to jump on every new call right away.

“We’re stretched pretty thin as far as personnel,” Cochran said. “These calls don’t stop coming in just because we don’t have enough personnel, but we do get to them.”

Ensley says he will create an advisory board for the sheriff comprised of experts in law enforcement and business. The board would give level-headed advice to the sheriff and keep in touch with concerned citizens.

Ensley would also like to institute more volunteer programs to get the community involved, including a youth advisory council made up of high school kids. The board would help motivate young adults to take responsibility for their own schools, Ensley said.

Ensley is also in favor of creating a community watch in each of Swain’s communities.

“We don’t want them out there playing police officer, but we want eyes and ears,” Ensley said. “We all have a responsibility whether we’re a sworn officer or not.”

Cochran said he has already made an appointment next month to set up a community watch program.

When Swain County faced an onslaught of snow and ice last winter, local radio station WBHN wasn’t broadcasting road information or school closings.

Die-hard fans of Swain County High’s sports teams haven’t been able to tune into any of the school’s games since last fall.

Financial hardship had forced WBHN to temporarily suspend operations on Sept. 16, 2009. If the station doesn’t find its footing by Sept. 16, the Federal Communications Commission will promptly cancel its license and the station will stay “dark” permanently.

Two independent movements have sprouted in the last year to rescue the Bryson City station from oblivion.

Lloyd Brown is leading an effort to convert WBHN into a listener-powered station, similar to National Public Radio. Brown said the newly-formed nonprofit, The Lighthouse Broadcasting Corporation, will primarily play gospel music, but also broadcast bluegrass, country, Western and easy listening. Church programming, youth sports and local bands such as the Rye Holler Boys will be featured.

“We’re not going to have any of this hard rock or any of this off the wall music,” said Brown.

Gary Ayers, who was a radio personality on WBHN from 1974 to 1984, is leading a separate attempt to revive the commercial station.

Many Swain County residents have expressed concerns about the station going off the air to Ayers.

“It’s just a lack of information, a voice for the community,” he said. Many elderly residents in Swain County rely on the radio for information.

“I have not run across one person who didn’t want this station back on,” said Ayers, who has made the rounds to local businesses to gauge interest in advertising with the radio station.

“People have been very willing to spend ad dollars,” Ayers said. “In some cases, it’s not a lot of dollars, but every business has been very open.”

Ayers is still looking for donations to help him become the next owner of WBHN.

But Brown said he has already offered $85,000 for a six-month lease, with $10,000 as a down payment and $75,000 to come in the next six months. As of last week, Brown said he had $8,000 in hand from private contributions. Victory Baptist Church has said it will make up the remainder, according to Brown.

Before he passed away, Pastor Tom Harris of Victory Baptist Church ran a program on WBHN every day for at least 35 years.

“He was a daily source of information,” Ayers said. “He would come on and say who was sick, who was in the hospital…Tom was like the county’s pastor.”

Brown says he plans on playing tapes of Harris’ past shows at least every Sunday.

“We’re going to keep his ministry alive,” said Brown.

 

Down to the wire

Ayers and Brown have mutually agreed that Tuesday, Sept. 7, would be the deadline for either group to buy the station from its owner.

“If a sale agreement is not reached, it’s very unlikely we’re going to have time to get it back on,” said Ayers.

When a financial hardship case is filed with the FCC, the station has up to 12 months to either sell the station or find funding to get it back on the air.

If the station isn’t broadcasting by Sept. 16, it would disappear from the dial for good, according to Ayers.

Finding a new frequency would be much more expensive than taking the station over before the deadline, Ayers said.

Brown was confident that the nonprofit model would be the key to success despite financial difficulties in the past.

“People won’t donate to an individual, but they will donate to a nonprofit,” said Brown.

If Brown’s nonprofit becomes a reality, it will be run by a community board and an advisory board with seven members each.

Ayers said he’s a friend of Brown’s and has no hard feelings against his group, whatever happens next.

“One of us needs to succeed,” said Ayers. “We’re just really hoping to get the station back on.”

Brown hopes Ayers will help with youth sports programming and advertising since “everybody knows him.”

Brown’s ultimate goal remains for the station to be cooperatively owned by Swain’s citizens.

“We want to keep this on for our grandchildren and maybe even our great-grandchildren,” said Brown. “We’re doing this for Swain County.”

 

Pitch in to save WBHN (1590 AM)

Contact Gary Ayers at 828.506.9362 or

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Contact Lloyd Brown at 828.488.2833 or 828.736.0280.

A state proposal to widen and pave a gravel road that runs alongside the Little Tennessee River and near the protected 4,400-acre Needmore Tract is being greeted with caution by conservationists.

“It is a very important stretch of river,” said Stacey Guffey, chairman of the board overseeing the Little Tennessee Watershed Association. “As a group, I’d say we’re not opposed to improvements that would help river quality. But, if something is going to be done, we want to see it have as little impact as possible.”

A portion of Needmore Road is a rough, one-lane gravel road that parallels N.C. 28 in Macon and Swain counties but on the opposite side of the river. The state Department of Transportation is proposing to pave and widen 3.3 miles of Needmore Road from one lane to two lanes. The new road would have a minimum width of 18 feet. Additionally, work would take place on the shoulders of the roadway.

“I think Needmore Road needs to see some improvement, but if they’d pave it just as it was, I’d be happy,” said Cheryl Taylor, a resident of the Needmore community and leader of the group Mountain Neighbors for Needmore Preservation.

Taylor said she and members of her group are concerned about the scope of the transportation department’s proposal.

“(The Needmore Tract) is a place to go to enjoy the area and outdoor recreation,” she said, adding that those qualities need to be protected.

The project is estimated to cost $6.5 million and would target the section from Byrd Road in Macon County to existing pavement in Swain County. Work on three of the four sections making up the project would get under way in 2012. The final — and most difficult section from an engineering standpoint — is slated for 2015.

“This alternative will improve the entire facility to conform to NCDOT Division 14 Secondary Road Standards,” states a meeting notice issued by the transportation department. “The proposed alignment calls for widening the roadway away from the Little Tennessee River.”

Joel Setzer, DOT division engineer for a 10-county region that includes Macon and Swain, said the paving proposal dates back to about 1997. Justification for the road upgrade is based on the number of houses served and traffic counts. Though there aren’t many houses along that stretch of road, Setzer said the traffic counts are high “as compared to other gravel roads.”

The purpose of the project is as follows:

• To improve the quality of travel for local residents who currently use the road.

• Reduce sedimentation from Needmore Road into the Little Tennessee River.

• Avoid or minimize adverse impacts to the existing high-quality natural resources.

The transportation department has worked on environmental assessments of the project, Setzer said, and has plans to deal with the Anakeesta-type rock found in the area. These rocks contain high levels of iron-sulfide and can create acidic runoff.

About 4,400 acres along the Little Tennessee River known as the Needmore Tract was saved from development and turned into a state game land overseen by the N.C. Wildlife Commission six years ago. Needmore Road, in places, borders the protected tract.

Nantahala Power and Light bought the property in the 1930s with the intent of damming up the Little Tennessee River for hydroelectric generation. The power company never built the dam. Instead, the bottomland was leased to farmers. Local residents used the remainder for hiking, camping and hunting.

Duke Power in 1999 took over Nantahala Power and Light and decided to sell the land for development. Public outcry led to a massive, five-year campaign to save the tract. Local residents, conservationists and the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee worked together to raise $19 million in state grants and private donations to pay Duke. The Needmore Tract was then placed under state protection as the Needmore Game Land.  

Aklea Althoff, who operates an office in Franklin for the environmental group Western North Carolina Alliance, echoed calls for restraint when it comes to tinkering with Needmore Road.

“We know that some improvements need to be made because of the sedimentation problem from the gravel road,” she said. “But it needs to be as minimal as possible because of this pristine ecosystem.”

 

Want to get involved?

WHAT: Presentation on Needmore Road paving proposal sponsored by WNC Alliance environmental group.

WHEN: 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 16.

WHERE: Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Franklin, Sierra Lane.

Learn More:

WHAT: Question-and-answer session, followed by public hearing sponsored by N.C. Department of Transportation.

WHEN: Q&A from 4:30-6:30 p.m.; public hearing starts at 7 p.m., September 21.

WHERE: Southwestern Community College in Swain County, known locally as the old Almond School, off U.S. 74, 5.5 miles west of Bryson City.

Public input is being sought for a memorial dedicated to the North Shore families in Swain County who had their land taken in the 1940s during the creation of Lake Fontana.

A design meeting will take place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 14, at United Community Bank in Bryson City.

The push for a memorial comes from two Swain County residents, Richard and Carolyn Allison, who say it’s time to honor the 600 families and gain some closure to the decades-long North Shore Road debate.

The Allisons moved to Whittier about four years ago, but they quickly saw how the heated debate over the North Shore Road had divided the county. They decided to spearhead efforts to create a memorial after recently completing a grantwriting course at Southwestern Community College.

The Allisons are seeking information from the community to come up with the 600 family names to put on a memorial wall, which they are calling a War Memorial. The name is sure to be an attention grabber.

“It gives something to mull over,” said Richard Allison.

Even though the North Shore families didn’t exactly fight in World War II, Lake Fontana was built to generate electricity for an aluminum plant that made airplane parts for the war.

After seeing their land taken away, North Shore residents seem to be suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, according to Allison.

“They lost not only their home, they lost loved ones who had to go into the service,” said Allison. “It’s important to get rid of this Post-traumatic Stress Disorder that has developed over all these years. They’re not just being ornery because they wanted something that was promised to them, it’s just because they have been stressed out.”

Lawrence Hyatt and Carolyn Allison will speak on Post-traumatic Stress Disorder at the meeting. While Richard Allison said a memorial might not fully relieve that stress, seeing North Shore families honored might be helpful.

Creation of the lake flooded a road that once led from Bryson City to Tennessee, passing through numerous rural communities along the way. In addition to losing their land, those who once lived in the area felt cheated by the government’s broken promise to rebuild the road.

Participants will divide into three groups to discuss what kind of mission statement should be etched onto the memorial wall and where it should be located. So far, the design calls for a granite and marble memorial with one large column flanked by two shorter columns of equal size over a base.

The cost would be about $4,900 and $1.25 more for each letter. It could be housed at the Swain County Administration building or in the North Shore area of the national park.

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