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Land too valuable to conserve, residents say

Nearly two years after Bryson City town leaders agreed to conserve 900 acres once used as the town’s drinking water source, some residents are clamoring to see the tract sold off for development instead.

The Lands Creek tract is steep but surrounded on three sides by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, an increasingly sought-after attribute in the high-end resort home market. The town will get a total of $2 million in exchange for placing the tract in a conservation easement, with $1.5 million coming from the state and $500,000 from the Fred Stanback Foundation, a private donor.

But some say that move is a mistake. Opponents have found a private developer willing to buy the tract for $2.5 million. Fans of developing the tract say it would be good for the economy.

“Swain County is booming, and people are looking for land,” said Brad Walker, president of the Swain County Chamber of Commerce and an employee of Fairfield Inn. “As people move in, they eat in restaurants and add to the economy. So it is economic development.”

Bryson City town aldermen said they are still committed to conserving the tract, however.

“I don’t think the residents want to see it developed. Right now it is used primarily as a recreation area for hunters and hikers,” Alderman Danny Whatley said. “If you were to have it developed, that would be gone. I think having the watershed would be more important to future generations.”

Others say the immediate economic benefits are more important to the community.

“It would be a huge boon to the economy,” said Jeff Hyatt, a Realtor with Woodruff Real Estate. Hyatt said the initial home construction and road building alone would mean more jobs. And down the road, all those homeowners would spend money on everything from insurance to haircuts.


More for your money

At a town board meeting in early November, Walker spoke on behalf of an Atlanta developer tendering the $2.5 million offer and even presented a $100,000 check as earnest money to the town.

The Bryson City board of aldermen discussed the offer at a work session later in the month and all were in agreement that they would stick with the conservation easement.

“We need to tell him thanks, but no thanks,” Alderman Tom Reidmiller said.

The aldermen weighed the prospect of $2 million versus $2.5 million, and decided the extra half million wasn’t worth giving up the land.

“I don’t think an extra half million is worth it,” Mayor T.L. Jones said of the developer’s offer. “In the event we need another drinking water source in the future, it would be a matter of just rehooking [the reservoir]. Clean water is something that is a very highly prized commodity.”

Jones said they have heard nothing but support for the conservation plan until now, and only then from a handful of people.

“This is a Johnny come lately thing,” Jones said of the developer idea. “I don’t know what their reasons or motives are.”

Walker said it took little work to find someone willing to offer $2.5 million, and higher bids would likely come in if the town advertised the property.

“In my point of view this was to show we could make more money on it by going to bid,” Walker said.

Walker admits the protests are a bit late — nearly two years after the town agreed to the $2 million in grants in exchange for conservation.

“Nobody showed up to the meetings while they were first doing this, so we are playing catch up,” Walker said. “We didn’t realize it.”

Walker said it’s not too late, however, as the deal isn’t yet consummated. But town aldermen say it’s already a done deal.

“We are committed. We signed an agreement with the Clean Water Trust Fund and Stanback Foundation,” Jones said. “We have an agreement.”


Give and take

One of the primary arguments of those supporting development over conservation is the property tax revenue the county could collect. If the land is conserved, no one will be paying property taxes on it.

“We would like to sell this land because of what it would do for the tax base,” said Walker. “We can’t keep taking land off the tax base.”

It’s a big issue in Swain County, where national forest, national park, gamelands and wildlife areas comprise an enormous percentage of the land with little left in private ownership.

“With Swain County already being 87 percent public lands, anything that we can put back into the tax base for the county should be,” said Hyatt. “It just doesn’t make sense. It would generate tax dollars for the county.”

Exactly, said town aldermen. It would bolster the county’s property tax coffers but not the town’s. The property isn’t in the town limits. And it’s the town residents — not the entire county — that the town aldermen look out for, they said.

But Bruce Medford, the former mayor of Bryson City, said town residents would still benefit, just indirectly. Their county property taxes would be lower, he said.

“If we have a little more property to tax that has been developed, it will help keep taxes down for everyone,” Medford said.

Walker said the potential tax revenue became apparent following a property revaluation in Swain County last year — the first countywide appraisal in eight years. Land values rose sharply, especially for tracts bordering the national park.

“When the tax bills came out, everyone realized how much this land was really worth,” Walker said, citing a potential annual tax revenue of $30,000 to $40,000.

But it’s not free money. Every bit of that tax revenue — plus some — could end up being spent on providing services to the new residents. A study conducted by professors with Western Carolina University and Warren Wilson College analyzed the cost-benefit returns on different types of development in Macon County. Residential development is the least attractive to counties, often costing up to 25 percent more than homeowners pay in taxes due to the level of services required by residential communities.


Eye of the beholder

Controversy about the conservation easement first erupted about three months ago when 30 people packed a Bryson City town meeting and urged the town board to consider a more lucrative offer than the $2 million conservation easement. Some challengers seeking a town board seat in November’s election campaigned on opposing the conservation plan. The incumbents kept their seats, however.

Medford, who was mayor when the town signed the conservation agreement, said he doesn’t support it.

“The town has always been short of money,” Medford said. “Why should we a poor welfare town when we could possibly do something for ourselves?”

Medford said that at the time, he was the only one of the five elected town officials who was against it, and therefore did not raise a fuss. At a town meeting in March 2004, when the board was deciding what to do, Medford said, “We’ve got every resource in the world — mountains, clean water. What we don’t have here is money.”

Medford said the town should convert the natural resources it does have into the money it doesn’t have.

“We have no other assets. This is an asset to the town. It could be worth $4 or $5 million,” Medford said.

Opponents to the conservation easement say the town’s hands are being tied, In addition to only getting $2 million, the town has to pay for its own survey of the tract and all the legal fees of the easement, plus keep up liability insurance on the tract. Plus, the Clean Water Management Trust Fund is requiring the town to spend $400,000 of the $2 million toward its water and sewer plant.

“It’s a bad deal all the way around,” Hyatt said.

But the town aldermen say that’s money they need to spend anyway.

“The sewer plant has to be doctored at over time,” Jones said.

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