It was one of the largest and most anticipated public hearings the region has ever seen.
“There has been a lot of passion displayed by both sides over the past weeks,” Commissioner Chairman Brian McMahan said at the outset of the meeting. “We know this has a great impact on our county. We are going to let everybody speak who wants to speak. If it means we have to stay here until 4 o’clock in the morning, we are going to make sure everybody gets a chance to speak and to be heard.”
The public hearing was moved to the auditorium at Southwestern Community College to accommodate the expected crowds. And crowds there were.
Several construction companies rallied their workers to drive heavy equipment trucks to the public hearing. A convoy of more than 70 trucks snaked its way down the mountain from Cashiers and Little Canada. They converged on Sylva, did a loop through downtown before heading toward the public hearing.
“We came to show them who they are putting out of business,” said Randy Dillard, a manager with Toxaway Concrete.
The heavy equipment trucks weren’t allowed on campus, however. The trucks would have taken up too many parking spaces. Law enforcement was stationed at the college entrance to turn the trucks away if they tried to enter, so instead they parked along the side of N.C. 107 and the drivers caught rides to the hearing.
The crowd inside the auditorium was dominated by hundreds of construction workers in their baseball caps, flannel shirts, blue jeans and boots. At least some were being paid by their company to attend, but it is not known what percentage. It was a somewhat intimidating scene for supporters of the moratorium wanting to speak up and those sporting green “Save Our Slopes” stickers. The crowd stayed civil throughout the hearing, however, with only a couple of outbursts.
“I don’t want a lot of jeering, applause, hooping and hollering. If somebody gets out of order, we have deputies stationed around the room, and if you get called out of order you will be removed from this facility,” McMahan warned at the outset.
The college, the county and local law enforcement spent two days bracing for the crowds. The college roped off lawns with orange traffic barrels and yellow tape to keep vehicles off. Large flashing message boards borrowed from the Department of Transportation were set up along the road to direct traffic into the public hearing.
County transit was enlisted to provide a park-and-ride shuttle from an overflow parking lot down the road. Closed circuit televisions were hooked up in the lobby of the auditorium to accommodate overflow crowds. An ambulance was put on stand-by at the college.
The preparations were not for naught. Crowds began flowing into the public hearing at 4 p.m. — two hours before the hearing was scheduled to start. By 5:30 p.m., traffic flowing into the public hearing was backed up for more than one mile from the college down N.C. 107.
The public hearing lasted for five and half hours — until 11:30 p.m. The crowd thinned out considerably — whittled down by about half — following a 10-minute break two hours into the hearing.