Waynesville handcuffed from running off carousing squatters occupying town park
There are few places in Waynesville folks are afraid to go after dark. But the sagging blue canopy slung beneath the trees at the far end of Chestnut Park is one of them.
“Not many people are brave enough to come up here,” said Gary Lynn Warren, who goes by the nickname ‘Godfather.’ “My family has a history of violence.”
Warren was at his usual post one afternoon last week, holding down the picnic table under the jerry-rigged canopy, a pack of cigarettes in front of him and a bugling five-gallon trash bag of beer cans nearby, overtopping the bag and spilling onto the ground.
Come nightfall, the rough-and-tumble crew that haunts this corner of Chestnut Park would multiply, the booze would set in and the drunken loafing would spiral into mayhem.
Neighbors routinely call the police to bring law and order to Chestnut Park — 165 times in the past 18 months alone. Officers crack down and try to break up the unruly scene, usually on the grounds of causing a public disturbance or drunk and disorderly conduct laced with fighting.
But the revelry quickly picks up where it left off by a roving band of squatters.
“I can’t even count how many hang out here because it’s different every day,” Warren said. Over the course of a month, probably 50, he estimated, from his self-described violent kinfolk to the homeless population wandering up from the soup kitchen in nearby Frog Level.
He was quick to note the lifestyle isn’t for everyone, reporters included.
“I don’t like people coming around and asking a bunch of questions,” he said. “You don’t look like our type. We drink constantly. We drink all we want to. From the time we wake up to the time we go to bed.”
Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed has been combatting the plague on Chestnut Park since his first week on the job 16 years ago.
Hollingsed — and the rest of the neighborhood — would like to see the ruffians shooed off.
“We would love to be able to trespass people off this property,” Hollingsed said. “It causes quality of life issues for everybody else on this street, all day and all night.”
But the town is powerless to arrest the squatters.
Although the land has been a de facto town park for decades, the town doesn’t technically have a deed to the property.
No one pays taxes on it. The town has always mowed it. And it’s listed on property plats as “Chestnut Park.” Under common law, it’s been treated like a public park.
But lacking clear title, the town has no legal standing to clear out the partiers.
“Right now, we don’t own this land,” Hollingsed said. “We can’t arrest someone for trespassing if we don’t have an owner. When people are camping and drinking on the property, we can’t arrest them.”
That doesn’t mean police haven’t tried. Sonya Warren, the alleged ringleader of the pack, has been arrested 137 times alone, with countless more arrests against her comrades. But the charges don’t stick.
“Obviously we are not arresting our way out of these problems,” Hollingsed said.
The rest of Chestnut Park is a good, middle-class neighborhood. But many are afraid to report the nuisance crowd, let alone tell them to knock off their carousing when it gets out of hand.
“There is a great deal of intimidation in the neighborhood by the people who congregate on that property,” Hollingsed said. “People in the neighborhood want a peaceful neighborhood.”
“They are fit to be tied about the situation,” Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown added.
Town Manager Marcy Onieal said the neighborhood residents regularly call and text her cell phone at all hours of the night to report the goings-ons at Chestnut Park.
“It is getting to the point neighbors feel like they are prisoners in their own home,” Onieal said.
A long and sordid tale
Who does own the property isn’t an easy question, and finding out took a trip back in time — way back — through the property deeds in the county courthouse.
Brown, a real estate attorney by trade, has tried to find an official record of the property being deeded to Waynesville, but came up empty-handed.
“That’s the irony of this. We don’t know,” Brown said. “We can’t go back far enough. Some things just happen because they happen. It was probably a handshake deal.”
To Brown, there was only one way to solve the deed mystery: track down the last known official owner of the land and talk them into officially granting it to the town.
“Until we legally own the property, we can’t walk up to a judge and say ‘This is the town of Waynesville’s and we want to keep people off it with tents,’” Brown said
So Brown went back to county deed books from the early 1900s, when prominent Waynesville businessman R.D. Gilmer bought a 175-acre tract of land, named it Chestnut Park, and began developing it as a residential neighborhood.
But Gilmer lost the property 15 years later to foreclosure by the Bank of Waynesville.
“Some terrible financial bad times befell him,” Brown said, citing more than 100 lawsuits against Gilmer in the 1910s by local hardware stores, furniture stores, livery stables and sundry other merchants for unpaid debts.
But in the 1920s, Gilmer’s daughter-in-law bought the land back from the Bank of Waynesville. She had two young children at the time, and Brown wagers it was an attempt to reclaim the family land.
“She buys this property to protect her children’s property inheritance,” Brown said.
In the 1940s, she deeded the land to her children, and that’s where the paper trail stops. The two children continued to sell off remaining lots in the neighborhood over the years, until the only parcel left in their name was the 3-acre tract known as Chestnut Park.
It’s little more than a big grassy field, save a tattered wooden picnic shelter that’s seen better days. Off the beaten path in a dead-end neighborhood, it’s rarely used, but with a clear title, the town could turn it into a nice pocket park, Brown said.
So Brown’s next step was finding out whether those children — who would be in their late 90s now — were still alive, and if so, where? A little more sleuthing, and Brown discovered the elder brother passed away earlier this year, but his sister — now the sole heir to the Chestnut Park property — was still alive.
Her name is Maud Gilmer. She’s 97 now and lives with a caretaker in Asheville. She never had any children, nor did her deceased brother, so it’s unclear how the court would view ownership of the property if she passed away.
Brown wants to stave off such a scenario. He plans to meet with Maud Gilmer soon and hopes to talk her into officially deeding the property to the town, formalizing the intended legacy of Chestnut Park as a public park.
Meanwhile, the origin of how the squatters came to occupy Chestnut Park lies directly across the street from their claimed corner, a shack of a house a stone’s throw from the askance canopy that serves as their party headquarters.
It’s the home of Granny Warren, and the revelers are her kinfolk. They periodically retreat inside her tiny home, but most of the time they overflow to the park across the street — which they claim Granny Warren owns.
“My grandma owns this,” Sonya Warren said defiantly.
“She lets us be here,” Gary Lynn Warren added. “This is our ground.”
Charles Phillips — one of the regulars known as “Hoss” — said he’s always hung out there.
“Shoo, all my life,” Hoss said.
“There’s no way they could take this,” said Willard Warren. “You can tell the town I said ‘good luck.’”
But Hollingsed said the town won’t quit until the conundrum is solved.
“We are committed to addressing the quality of life issues that affect the residents of the Chestnut Park community,” Hollingsed said.