The view from Roger Plemens office is hard to beat.
Bay windows serve up a bird’s eye view of the Nantahala mountain range, a vantage point that must have been a factor when Macon Bank chose this hilltop for its prestigious corporate headquarters that tower above Franklin.
Fallout from the real estate bubble in Western North Carolina has landed Macon Bank on the watch list of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, a federal banking oversight arm.
Macon Bank has been operating under the scrutiny of the FDIC since March. The oversight agency has laid out a series of benchmarks the bank must meet, from strict performance targets to heightened involvement by the bank’s board of directors.
Franklin could face a state penalty for spraying weed killer on an ancient Cherokee mound site because the town workers who did it weren’t properly licensed to use the herbicide.
The state could fine the town as much as $2,000, according to Pat Jones, pesticide deputy with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Or, the state could simply issue a warning and not fine the town. Jones said the case is still under review. He was uncertain when a decision would be made.
The Franklin Board of Aldermen censured Mayor Joe Collins this week for making a personal apology to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians after the town sprayed Nikwasi Indian Mound with weed killer.
A split decision by Franklin aldermen to build a new $1.25 million ABC store at the site of a Super Walmart at the edge of town drew criticism and pleas this week that the plan be reconsidered.
“We cannot afford what you are proposing,” said Ron Winecoff, an insurance agent in Franklin, at a Monday meeting. “It is not the Taj Mahal, and we do not have to market it that way. It is another store, plain and simple.”
A couple in Macon County is trying to raise $2 million to open a childcare center that would serve 120 children.
When it comes to staying well fed, the Macon County commissioners are leading the pack. From finger food and pizzas to fortify them during regular meetings to huge sit-down dinner spreads with fellow boards in the county, commissioners in Macon County have eaten $9,651.80 worth of food in two-and-a-half years.
This type of eating by public officials used to be more common in Western North Carolina. But most other commission boards have gone on a Spartan diet as the economic times have worsened and fiscal austerity have become county watchwords.
“We do it as little as possible,” Swain County Manager Kevin King said, adding that on occasion during the yearly board retreat the Swain County Board of Commissioners might order in a pizza.
The same is true in Haywood and Jackson counties, too. Neither board brings in food for regular night meetings as does the Macon County Board of Commissioners.
“We might have a bottle of water,” Haywood County Manager Marty Stamey said. “And we don’t do a lot of luncheons. If we’re having a really long work session we might have some small sandwiches. But we don’t do a large meal spread.”
The Macon County Board of Commissioners has one night meeting a month. Board Clerk Mike Decker said the county brings in chicken tenders, sub sandwiches or pizza for those meetings.
Commissioners also meet with other boards on a regular basis for eating meetings, from their counterparts with the town of Franklin to the county’s own planning board. So far this year Macon County commissioners met at Fat Buddies restaurant in Franklin three times and picked up the check: once with the school board, once with the planning board and once with the boards from the two towns in Macon County, Highlands and Franklin. The towns and the county take turns picking up the meal tab; this latest time it was Macon County’s turn.
The price tag for meals so far this year by Macon County? Try $1,367,78 and counting.
“We’ve got to keep our girlish figures,” Commissioner Ronnie Beale said with a laugh. “Is this the best thing you’ve got to write? If so, you go right ahead.”
Beale and other commissioners defended their eating ways, particularly the joint eating meetings with other boards.
“When you have everybody there it is a lot of people eating, but it’s worth it,” Beale said. “It’s been productive and puts you face to face. Besides, without a meal you probably wouldn’t get them there.”
Commissioner Ron Haven said he’d never thought about the amount of eating being done in Macon County.
“I’d look at anything there is to save money. I know it sounds high, and I’m surprised to hear that, but I haven’t priced it to see. I haven’t looked at it so I’m not saying it’s wrong or anything,” Haven said.
Like Haven, Commissioner Jimmy Tate said he was surprised to hear such a high dollar number for the board’s menu bills.
“I’m curious now that you’ve put a bug in my ear,” he said, adding that he planned to talk to County Manager Jack Horton about the bill.
Chairman Kevin Corbin, who has been on the board for about a year, said he believes that eating meetings are a good method of developing rapport with another board’s members. He particularly cited the recent joint meeting held with the planning board at Fat Buddies.
“We need the ability to sit and talk with them a bit other than in a meeting setting,” Corbin said. “There was the most need for that with the planning board because it’s been contentious.”
It took more than a decade, a lot of detective work and a protracted legal case to clear the way for a new portion of the Bartram Trail in Macon County now under construction.
The Bartram Trail Society maintains a 100-mile memorial trail in Western North Carolina in honor of the naturalist William Bartram, who traveled through the region in 1775 on a botanical mission to collect exotic, new-fangled plants from the New World for the English crown.
A large section of the trail in Macon County is stymied either by private land or the Little Tennessee River. Hikers trying to do the entire Bartram Trail have to come out of the woods and hoof it along the highway through Franklin from the Fishhawk Mountains section to the Nantahala section, or they must find a canoe or kayak and boat down the river.
Some 10 to 15 years ago, Burt Kornegay, then president of the Bartram Trail Society, began an effort to cut down on the amount of highway hiking. The Bartram Trail Society wanted to reroute a portion of the Bartram Trail in the Otto community, specifically from its Buckeye Branch exodus in the Tessentee Creek area to Hickory Knoll Road.
“This would knock out several miles of road hiking,” Kornegay said. “We were trying to reduce that.”
Kornegay saw a for-sale sign on one piece of property where the society wanted to reroute the trail. He and his wife went out on a limb, he said, and bought the piece of property for about $17,000 in expectation that the society would buy it from them, which it ultimately did.
“But then, there was still a little weird piece of private land,” Kornegay said. “For some reason, it had just been sort of a lost piece of land and had sat there for all this time, for over 100 years.”
Unsorting the story of that “weird” piece of land — a critical link to get the trail rerouted — became the task of Highlands lawyer Richard Melvin, who donated his time to helping the Bartram Society on the matter.
Deciphering boundary lines and surveys of old tracts are never easy.
“In the old titles, you’ll often find overlap with descriptions to this rock and that tree,” Melvin said. “We had to find out where it lies.”
But, there was a rather unusual hurdle for this particular tract: figuring out who the heck owned it.
“We finally found out the last owner was Nimrod Jarrett,” Melvin said.
Nimrod Simpson Jarrett was a major landowner across Western North Carolina, owning thousands of acres. Jarrett also farmed, traded ginseng, and owned mica and talc mines. He owned slaves and served as a colonel in the Macon County militia. Jarrett lived in the Nantahala community where Appletree campground is today.
In September 1871, Jarrett set off for Franklin from Nantahala on a business trip and was robbed and killed. A man named Balias Henderson was found guilty of the crime and was subsequently hanged in May 1873.
Melvin said he couldn’t determine that there were any heirs to the piece of property in the Hickory Knoll area of Macon County that Jarrett had owned. Melvin said that Jarrett had had children, but that those children had moved west or otherwise left the county and abandoned this particular piece of property. Perhaps he had so much land, the executor of his will couldn’t keep track of it all, and this piece was simply lost in the shuffle. But for whatever reason, the title was still in his name — 150 years after his untimely murder.
The land is surrounded by U.S. Forest Service land on all sides but one.
Melvin filed a quitclaim deed on the land on behalf of the Bartram Trail Society. The group, after the seven required years passed, gained legal title after no one came forward to contest the claim.
Walter Wingfield, current president of the Bartram Trail Society, said the land was then sold to the U.S. Forest Service for its appraised value.
The Bartram Trail Society does not build trails on private land because of liability issues, which is why it sold the property to the forest service. Some of the money from that sale will be used to help build the new 3.8-mile section of the Bartram Trail.
The new property is very steep and rugged, Wingfield said, meaning that private contractors with trail-building equipment will be required, not just volunteer labor. A grant is also being sought to help pay for the new trail.
As for the robbery and subsequent murder of Jarrett that led to this legal quagmire?
“I think the murderer got 50 cents and a pocket watch out of it,” Wingfield said.
A 60-unit affordable housing complex has been proposed in Franklin, but will depend on securing competitive state tax credits for low-income housing to come to fruition.
The project has been proposed by Fitch Development, a group out of Charlotte that specializes in low-income housing projects throughout the state. However, the financial feasibility of the projects hinge on state and federal tax credits. There is only a limited pool of tax credits available, and they can be quite competitive.
There were 26 low-income housing projects that applied for the tax credits from the mountain region in the last round awarded by the state — but there were only enough tax credits to go around for about six.
There is no guarantee the project proposed in Franklin will make the cut. The status of the application will be decided in August.
Pacing the way for the project should the tax credits come through, Franklin town aldermen recently approved a special use permit for the complex, but not before some future neighbors of the complex said they were worried about the potential impact.
“I’m real concerned about the situation,” Thaddass Green of Franklin told town leaders. Green was concerned about traffic, adding that it already “sounds like a racetrack” on Roller Mill Road where the complex would be built.
Green also said that he is worried about his personal safety if an affordable housing complex was nearby.
Patty and Vance Wall’s property is adjacent to the four-and-a-half acre tract where the housing would go in.
“You can see from our deck where this would be,” said Vance Wall.
He said a 60-unit complex as proposed would “really change life for us. It’s going to impact us majorly because this would no longer be just a residential, single-family dwelling area. It’s going to change the whole area.”
Like Green, Patty Wall expressed concerns about the two-lane road being able to handle more traffic.
“I just don’t know if this road can handle the amount of traffic this would bring,” she said, adding that Roller Mill Road is already dangerous enough as it is.
Hollis Fitch, president of the development company, said residents would be screened via credit and criminal background checks. Additionally, he said, internet-based cameras with views of the public areas in the housing complex would be installed. The program records up to 72 hours of camera footage, and Franklin police officers would be able to tap into the recordings through the Internet, he said.
“We’ve found that to be a very good deterrent and a very good way to stop any type of problems that might happen,” Fitch said.
Fitch also said that before building permits could be issued a required traffic study would be conducted.
“I’ve listened to the neighbors and it seems there might be a traffic issue on Roller Mill Road,” Fitch said in acknowledgement, adding that the company would take whatever safety measures were recommended by the state Department of Transportation. He said that could mean adding a three-way stop or a traffic light.
Roller Mill Road is an access into Westgate Terrace, a Franklin shopping center in the western part of town. Fitch said that one of the requirements for state funding was being within a half-mile of both a grocery store and drugstore, both of which are located in Westgate, hence the selection of this particular site.
The development would consist of three buildings with six entrances plus a community building and management office, a playground, “tot lot,” and sitting areas.
“That’s going to be a lot of good folks who are going to have a good place to live at a price they can afford, and good, clean, suitable housing close into town at a good location,” said Mayor Joe Collins, addressing the concerned neighbors. “Maybe there will be some mighty good folks who will move in there, and that might ease some of the sting.”
Alderman Sissy Pattillo emphasized that there is a current lack of affordable housing in Franklin for young professionals, though she also expressed concerns about future traffic impacts to Roller Mill Road.
“We’ve cut through there and you really take your life in your hands,” Pattillo said about Roller Mill Road.
Franklin leaders declined last week to offer a formal apology to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians for using weed killer on an ancient Indian mound.
“I don’t think we did anything destructive,” said Franklin Alderman Sissy Pattillo. “And I have a problem with the chief or whoever saying we did something disrespectful. That just bothers me.”
Principal Chief Michell Hicks earlier this month said he was “appalled” by Franklin’s use of a weed killer to denude the mound. Hicks called on the town to formally apologize for what he termed a culturally insensitive action and one that demonstrated a marked lack of respect for the Cherokee people.
Alderman Bob Scott was the lone town leader who wanted to issue an apology. He had drafted a letter to the chief expressing regret for what had taken place, and said that perhaps the dustup could serve as a means of opening new dialog between Franklin and the tribe. His call to send the letter received a lukewarm response from fellow town board members, however. The other aldermen pointed out that they had never been formally asked by the tribe to apologize, but instead the demand for an apology had come only through the media.
“I’ve got a question,” Alderman Farrell Jamison said to Scott at a Franklin town meeting last week. “Was there actually a letter or are we just listening to media stuff? Do you have a copy of a letter?”
“I do not,” Scott responded.
Pattillo made the point that the town didn’t just dump weed killer on the mound out of malicious intent. Franklin leaders have said they were merely trying to cut back on weekly mowing maintenance of the 6,000-square-foot mound, which is located on town property. After the grass was killed off, the town intended to replant it with a low-growing native grass variety that wouldn’t need mowing.
Nikwasi Indian Mound is one of the largest intact mounds remaining in Western North Carolina. Large earthen mounds were built to mark the spiritual and civic center of American Indian towns that once dotted the Little Tennessee River Valley through Macon County and the region. Scholars note that while its precise age is uncertain, Nikwasi Mound pre-dates even the Cherokee.
Pattillo defended the town’s stewardship of the mound. She said that the town’s ownership dates to 1946 when then-owner Roy Carpenter was offered $3,000 to sell the mound for commercial interests. Someone wanted to doze the mound down and develop the property.
“School children, people in town, people out of town and people out of the county sent in their pennies and money and it was bought for $1,500 dollars and given to the town of Franklin,” Pattillo said.
Mayor Joe Collins had earlier told The Smoky Mountain News that Town Manager Sam Greenwood had exceeded his authority in ordering the weed killer to be applied.
“But decisions were made and that’s where we are at right now,” Collins said. “It didn’t jump out at me as being an affront or an indignity to the mound and certainly not to the Eastern Band. I hope it’s not an issue of strong sentiment to the tribe in particular — I’m over there on a regular basis and I’ve not picked up on it.”
Collins noted that the mound does belong to Franklin and that he was satisfied that the town has been a good steward of it.
“It really is our decision to make because it is under our ownership,” said Collins, whose mother was an enrolled member of the Eastern Band.
The mayor said that he for one would welcome working with the tribe on issues concerning Nikwasi Mound, perhaps in connection with a town hope to one day acquire some of the land around the mound. There has been some discussion about creating a park there. The town also has plans to install an informational kiosk at the mound to inform visitors about the historical significance of the ancient site.
Scott said one good thing about the weed-killer incident is that “it has brought the issue of the mound into the public eye.”
Scott’s motion to send the letter expressing regret failed for lack of a second. Alderman Billy Mashburn then made his own motion — that no apology be considered by the board, and that the town attorney be instructed to look into an ordinance that would ban all foot traffic from the mound unless there was prior town board approval.
“And I think at this point we need to dissolve the mound committee,” Mashburn added, explaining that he believes decisions about the mound need to be made by the town board.
The mound committee was made up of town leaders and residents who discussed issues about Nikwasi Mound. Scott and Collins both served on the committee.
Scott, a bit testily, asked “Would you be more comfortable with the mound committee if I weren’t on it? I’ll just step down.”
No one replied to Scott.
Collins noted that there was no reason to vote on a motion noting that no apology would be considered since there wouldn’t be an apology issued anyway.
The board then dissolved the mound committee, voted to have the attorney research the needed legalese for banning foot traffic and to plant eco-grass on the denuded mound.