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Lake island dwellers lobby for fire protection

Homeowners on Buck Knob Island in the middle of Lake Glenville say they are owed fire protection by local volunteer firefighters and have appealed to Jackson County commissioners to settle the conflict.

The homes lie within the 135-square-mile territory covered by the Cashiers/Glenville Fire Department. The volunteer fire department has refused to accept the island as part of its jurisdiction, citing the difficult nature of transporting firefighters and equipment on boats to the island in the case of a fire call.

As a result, the homeowners pay exorbitant insurance rates. One homeowner, Joey Bennett, is paying $14,000 a year for his house insurance. If the island was included in the fire department’s coverage area, it could drop to just $5,000 a year.

A dispute between the property owners and Cashiers Fire Chief Randy Dillard has been brewing for several years. Last month, the homeowners shared their plight at a county commissioners meeting. Bennett said if they don’t get a resolution, they will go to court.

“We do not want to go to court. We do not want to sue Jackson County. We just want our basic right of fire protection,” said Bennett, 48, who maintains a full-time residence in Florida where he is an oncologist.

Fire protection is not provided by the county, but by volunteer fire departments, which function as private entities. The county makes an annual contribution to the fire departments. For the Cashiers district, that contribution amounted to $135,000 out of the fire department’s $450,000 annual budget. The difference is raised through private donations from homeowners. Bennett said he is a loyal contributor to the fire department.

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The Cashiers Fire Department has its own nonprofit board of directors that will ultimately make the decision of whether to expand fire protection to the island. Dillard said he would not comment on the issue since the homeowners have threatened legal action.

The county has entered the fray as a mediator.

“We are trying to find a solution to solve both the Cashiers Volunteer Fire Department’s dilemma in terms of liability and to find an affordable way for the homeowners to get the fire service,” County Manager Ken Westmoreland said.


Who should pay?

Bennett argues that while separated from shore by water, it is actually quicker to get to the island than many of the remote subdivisions tucked away on mountainsides at the end of long, twisty roads. It is just 250 yards from the shore to the island.

Bennett has a plan to install all of the infrastructure and equipment firefighters would need on the island, other than personal gear. That calls for pumps to draw water from the lake, a system of hydrants, and a large pick-up truck outfitted with a tank and hoses that could tie into the hydrant system. The pump would have a back-up generator if power went out.

Bennett estimates the cost would be $150,000. He would like to see the county pay for it, noting that the taxes paid by property owners on the island each year amount to about $50,000 a year from the island as a whole.

“We get nothing for it. We believe this is something we are entitled to,” Bennett said.

Westmoreland said the island homeowners sought the exclusivity offered by living on an island and doesn’t think the county commissioners will want to foot the bill for special fire service. Westmoreland would like to see a special fee paid by the property owners on the island to fund fire protection. Given the high insurance rates of homeowners, whatever homeowners had to chip in for fire protection would still result in a net savings, Westmoreland said.

Bennett said the property owners would be willing to contribute at some level.

“We will assist in a reasonable fashion,” he said.

But he doesn’t think they should have to.

“I personally pay over $5,000 a year to Jackson County. I don’t live here. My kids don’t go to school here. The one basic service I need, they won’t provide,” Bennett said.

Of course, many property owners don’t have children yet still have to pay taxes to support the education of other children. And there are county services like restaurant inspections by the health department, the library and erosion enforcement that are integral to society.

Bennett said he doesn’t mind paying those taxes, but he also doesn’t expect to get the cold shoulder when it comes to the one service he needs that everyone else seems to get.

“I think any community in the county that was excluded would feel the same,” Bennett said.

However, the island is not the only area in the county with the lowest fire protection rating of a class 10 according to insurance standards.

“They are not the only people at all. There is a lot of the county that is still unprotected,” Dillard said. “A lot of our department’s district is still a class 10. They are basically no different than the island people.”

The closer a home is to a fire station, the better insurance rate they get. The Cashiers/Glenville Volunteer fire department has such a huge territory to cover, it has four stations and 17 trucks, helping more homeowners achieve a better rate thanks to closer proximity, Dillard said.

The fire department responded to 472 fire calls last year with 45 volunteers. The calls don’t include rescue, which is done by a separate volunteer rescue squad.

There is one other island on Lake Glenville with a home on it, and another island that may have homes in the future. Westmoreland would like to see a solution that could be applied to all the islands. A representative from the N.C. Insurance Commission is visiting this week to offer input on the situation.

Despite Bennett’s claims that the county could have a liability case on their hand if someone was hurt in a fire the department refused to respond to, Westmoreland said the county has no legal obligation to provide fire service.

Westmoreland visited the island after homeowners came to the commissioners. Bennett said he appreciated that and thinks Westmoreland will try to broker a deal.

“His statement was this is something that can be done. It is just figuring out how to do it,” Bennett said.


Island ins-and-outs

The 19-acre island has 19 lots, all of them sold but only eight have been built on. Every home has a sprinkler system. It is mandated in the homeowners covenants, Bennett said.

As development and lot sales got underway in 2000, Dillard appeared at a county commissioners meeting and asked the island to be dropped from its coverage area on fire protection maps. The homeowners say the developer of the island was never told. Some property owners had already bought lots but were not informed. Those who came later, including Bennett, were never told the lot they were about to buy lacked fire protection.

Bennett claims the failure to notify property owners was illegal and could be ground for a lawsuit against the county.

Property owners finally learned of the situation in 2004, when one lot owner building a house tried to get insurance. The insurance agent writing the policy actually discovered the gap in service.

The island has a simple road network: a single road that circles the island about halfway up. It’s no more than 100 feet from the road down to the homes that ring the lakeshore, and another 100 feet up to lots at the top of the island. The loop road was used by heavy construction vehicles, furniture movers and even concrete haulers who piped concrete to poor house pads and driveways.

A large 80-foot barge is docked on the shore of the lake to carry major loads out to the island, which was necessary during construction, Bennett said.

“It holds concrete trucks and loaded lumber trucks,” Bennett said. But it could hold ambulances and fire trucks, too.

The island is just 250 yards off the mainland, with the barge trip taking only five minutes. Motor boats take a couple of minutes.

The island also owns a fleet of three pontoon boats. The property owners have a caretaker in a lake house on the shore who is on-call 24 hours a day to shuttle people back and forth when necessary, whether it’s dinner guests or medics. Medics responded one night when a visiting guest at one home went into a diabetic coma. From the time they called 911, medics were there in 12 minutes with a stretcher.

In the event the caretaker is not around, the keys are left in the boats at all times. In addition, each property owner owns a boat. Boat ownership is a required by homeowners association covenants, in fact.

Bennett bought his lot on the island in 2004 for $250,000 after coming to Western North Carolina to hunt for lake property for a vacation home. The island has phone and electricity. The only drawback is having to load and unload groceries into a boat when going back and forth, he said.

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