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Waynesville aldermen candidates step up

Clockwise from top left: LeRoy Roberson, Julia Freeman, Jon Feichter, Joel Reece, Anthony Sutton, Chuck Dickson. Clockwise from top left: LeRoy Roberson, Julia Freeman, Jon Feichter, Joel Reece, Anthony Sutton, Chuck Dickson.

Like much of the United States in 2015, the Town of Waynesville was still straining to stand up straight after the Great Recession of 2008 knocked it knobby-kneed; although Western North Carolina suffered less and recovered quicker, erasing a decade’s worth of economic growth comes with consequences — declining property values, a general economic malaise and few forward strides taken. 

Under the watchful eyes of professorial longtime Mayor Gavin Brown and fellow veteran public servants Gary Caldwell and LeRoy Roberson, a new alderman, tech entrepreneur Jon Feichter, and a returning first-term alderman, Julia Boyd Freeman, stepped into the fold. 

After losing a hard-fought battle to merge with Lake Junaluska and then firing a town manager in early 2016, some questioned the town’s pursuit of “progress with vision” — the very motto emblazoned on municipal branding. 

It wouldn’t be long, though, until the Waynesville Board of Aldermen began addressing a series of issues that really needed some attention. All of them indicated that growth was just around the corner. 

They clarified food truck regulations in response to a first-of-its kind situation, hired a new town manager with substantial development experience and added to the town’s park acreage. 

They defended the Municipal Service District from potential defectors and defended Walnut Street from NCDOT plans to decimate the quaint quarter, underscoring the importance of the town’s ethos, and activism. 

They fostered the appearance of a major grocery store to Russ Avenue and updated Sunday brunch alcohol ordinances at the request of local brewers and distillers. They added a unique inclusive playground for children with special needs and made substantial progress on a long-term greenway project.

They amended zoning standards to permit much-needed multi-family housing off Plott Creek, and began a long-term comprehensive plan update. 

This year alone, they’ve taken concrete steps to address blight in the vicinity of the Historic Haywood Hospital, which will soon become affordable housing for veterans and the elderly. They’ve also been instrumental in shepherding the infill development of an old grocery store near the town’s retail core into another multi-family housing endeavor.

Perhaps most importantly, they recently procured a zero interest long-term loan to pay for a new sewer plant that will shore up a failing system that serves just 10,000 residents, but hundreds of thousands of tourists. 

They did all of while raising property taxes from 43.82 cents per $100 of assessed value to 49.57 cents, but 4 cents of that was used to hire eight badly needed firefighters and the rest likely due to a disappointing property revaluation that saw property values remain flat. 

Waynesville’s governing board is unique in that it doesn’t have staggered terms. Every four years, every member of the board, and the mayor, comes up for nonpartisan election. This year is that year. 

Brown is running for re-election as mayor. Caldwell is challenging him, and will lose his alderman seat either way. Roberson, Feichter and Freeman are running for re-election, and are challenged by three others for a total of six aldermanic candidates. Voters at the polls may choose up to four. 

Lawyer Chuck Dickson has significant experience as a town attorney, is active in Haywood’s NAACP and also advocates for autistic children. 

Joey Reece spent his career in various U.S. states as a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency official, and recently returned to his childhood home upon retirement. 

Anthony Sutton is the vice chair of Waynesville’s Planning Board, and works as the director of information systems for Biltmore Farms. 

Whatever the board ends up looking like, aldermen won’t be able to rest on the accomplishments of the past four years. The opioid crisis continues to loom, and with it comes increasing scrutiny of the area’s homeless population. Public safety is, consequently, more of an issue than it was four years ago, and the board will have to manage, fund and support a new police chief for the first time in more than 20 years. 

Several landslides have occurred, putting lives and property at risk and exposing the town to massive cleanup costs. Three more NCDOT projects are also on the horizon, and if they’re anything like DOT’s proposal for Walnut Street, they’ll need to be monitored closely and opposed systematically, if necessary. 

Either Brown or Caldwell will leave Waynesville government, taking with them decades of experience, and if Roberson loses as well, his institutional knowledge will be gone, too. 

But if you like how things are going in Waynesville, or you don’t, you’ll rarely have more of a chance to affect how you’re governed — based on the results of the 2015 election, about a thousand votes should be good enough to get any one of those six candidates elected.

The Smoky Mountain News: The Town of Waynesville is in the enviable position of nurturing growth, as opposed to staving off decline. What’s your philosophy on managing that growth?

Reece: We’re going to move forward, like it or not, but I’m really concerned that we have competition now. I really, really am. I’ve talked to Realtors here and they tell me buyers are looking here, and then going to look at Bryson City. I was shocked when I drove over there. I mean, literally not a cigarette butt on the ground, anywhere. All the buildings painted the same, coordinated flower boxes. You didn’t see a single homeless person. They’ve got the railroad, they’ve got the river, they’ve got the national park. I’ve moved so many times that every time we moved, we would go check out not only the town, because we had a variety of local towns we could live in, but also the city or suburbs. I’m afraid I’d turn around if I drove into West Waynesville. 

Roberson: I grew up in Hazelwood when it was a town, and Hazelwood did not expand their tax base. They didn’t really grow, and what happened to Hazelwood? They had to merge with Waynesville. So I’m for growth, but I’m for controlled growth, not growth where you say, “OK, if you really want to grow, you’ve got to get rid of the zoning laws and let people build.” I disagree. I think if you remove zoning laws and allow growth unchecked, it’s like somebody having cancer. Cancer is an unchecked growth. You can have the same thing happen to a town, so I think you have to be reasonable about it.

Feichter: The issues of growth and change are core to the challenges that we face. Growth is happening whether we like it or not. We cannot stop the growth that we’re experiencing. I think what we can do and certainly my primary focus is that we don’t lose sight of the things that make this such a special place — the sense of community and the personal connections that we all have with each other. I think that is critical, if we are going to retain the core of what Waynesville is. 

Dickson: I think Waynesville has a good planning process they’re going through right now [with the comprehensive plan update]. I’m in favor of growth, but I’m in favor of growth in the right places, the places that benefit the community the most. The smart growth principles that we go by are good ones, to keep growth in the central part of town. One of the ways that we ultimately cut down on congestion is if people can walk to places, grocery stores, recreation, businesses. I opposed [the Plott Creek development] for several reasons. One is that I didn’t think the location was the best. It’s really at the edge of town. In terms of furthering our community, it was a gated community. Everyone there is going to drive to wherever they’re going. In addition, part of smart growth is to maintain the vistas and the bucolic, rural countryside. 

Sutton: As a community, you can’t have no growth, because you will dry up and die. You have no growth, then there are no opportunities for your young people, for your children, for your grandchildren to stay in the area. But at the other end of the spectrum, I’m not for unbridled growth. I’m somewhere in the middle of smart growth like the town of Waynesville. We have perfect opportunities to put businesses and housing in places as infill where there’s already something there that has gone away. Upcoming will probably be the Kmart Plaza, when Kmart closes. That will be the perfect location to redevelop and put something in there because there’s already infrastructure. 

Freeman: Sustainable growth is the most important thing, but it needs to be moderate. We can’t go full steam ahead. Number one, we don’t have the resources, the infrastructure or the manpower to sustain fast-paced growth. And we would not want that because we really want to maintain our small town appeal and keep our, our small town heritage in place. But we also have to be mindful of the fact that we’ve got to support younger people in our community to make sure that they’ve got the jobs and the housing to keep them here in our community. Without growth, communities die, and we’ve seen that in some of the smaller areas across the Western part of North Carolina. 

SMN: Some of the residential growth we’ve seen is more of the “workforce housing” variety, but it’s not exactly “affordable housing.” How do we attract or provide more affordable housing?

Roberson: The [BI-LO] development is just going to be wonderful, and you’re bringing in more people. I think Plott Creek is going to be excellent too, in spite of the conflict we had with it. And it took four tries to get the old hospital approved for affordable housing [tax credits]. We have the Waynesville Towers, that’s part of it too, but we need affordable housing and you’ve got to create an environment. Part of that is having the housing come in that isn’t necessarily affordable, but it’s cheaper than maybe somebody buying a house or trying to buy. It’s workforce housing. Now, if we can find more places like the old hospital that people can get the tax breaks and come in, that’s what we need to work towards. But we can also push some of these developers and say, “We need this.” Right now, expanding that tax base is very important. We’ve got to get the growth here and show people that there is a market for them in Waynesville that they’ll say, “OK, I can make money here.”

Feichter: First of all, I completely support the drive to bring housing to this community and county. We need housing of all types, specifically affordable housing. I think that in some ways, the market is going to do what the market is going to do as it relates to housing in general. As it relates to affordable housing. I think that eventually, we’ll get to that as well, once the overall housing market becomes kind of saturated, but I don’t think we can afford to wait for that. So, even though I completely support the initiatives to bring housing online, like what we found up there at Plott Creek, the reasons I could not support that were significantly influenced by the wishes of the residents in that community.

Dickson: It’s going to take a continued major effort on the part of the town and all sorts of other agencies. Mountain Projects is working on affordable housing. Habitat for Humanity does some affordable housing. The town of Waynesville has a good policy as far as waiving the fees for someone who’s going to build affordable housing. I talked with Patsy Davis [executive director of Mountain Projects] and the Town of Waynesville has had in the past a representative on the Mountain Projects board. We don’t at this point in time. If elected, I would love to serve on the Mountain Projects board. The main thing we can do is to bring community groups together and help spearhead the effort or to keep it in the forefront.

Sutton: As a planning board member I worked on the Historic Haywood Hospital, changing the designation of the area. We’ve worked with Habitat for Humanity, getting 10 more homes built. It takes a whole community to get affordable housing. We do need lots of affordable housing, but it takes multiple agencies, not just the board of aldermen, to make that happen. The Waynesville Housing Authority is working for grants from the national level on down, and we need someone that can understand and navigate that, to get the money to come into this area for affordable housing.

Freeman: This is a subject that is very near and dear to my heart because in working with victims of domestic violence who are trying to escape violent homes, we look every single day, multiple times a day, for affordable housing, and there’s nothing. You’re dealing with property owners and how do we encourage private property owners to go for affordable housing, versus a workforce housing or the term has been floated around, “luxury housing?” As local officials in this county, we’ve got to step in and identify properties that can be revamped, such as the old hospital — things that can be adapted with incentives from the state of North Carolina and the federal government.

Reece: Look at the two things on the drawing board right now — that’s not affordable housing. Affordable for who? A thousand bucks, $1,500 bucks a month rent? Come on. The Plott Creek thing, it will support Harrah’s, it will support Western Carolina University or the hospital or maybe some things in Asheville, but it won’t support a damn soul here. People say, well, here’s how it works — people that are [in low-rent housing] move into [higher rent housing] and then that frees up [low-rent housing]. I’m not sure I buy that. To solve this problem, you’re going to have to have housing that’s affordable. 

SMN: Homelessness has become a huge issue in the last two years alone, and we have some good services for the homeless and the hungry here, between Pathways and the Open Door, but do you think that we draw people here because of those services? 

Feichter: I don’t know that I have a deep enough knowledge of the makeup of our homeless population to say that one way or the other. I can tell you that when we are briefed on this issue, that that’s what people tell us is that people are coming here from outside the area. I don’t recall specifically who mentioned this in one of those briefings to the board, but as I understand it there are websites that mentioned Waynesville specifically as a destination for people who are homeless, because we have services that are dedicated to that. 

Dickson: I don’t know. A lot of people say that. What is real is that there is a worry or fear, a concern in the community that somehow there are more people who are homeless or walking the streets or who have come here from other places. Is it the economy? Is it just that they’ve been here and now we’re seeing them more? Some of the areas that have concerns about folks like this, they’re genuine concerns. And I think the other thing people are seeing is more signs of opioid use. The only thing I could think that we could possibly do is have a summit or a meeting of all the stakeholders and all the folks involved, and to try to field some of these community concerns.

Sutton: I don’t think we are a Los Angeles, where people are traveling across country to live. It’s a tough place to live in the wintertime. The way that you handle homelessness is that first you put a roof over their heads, which is what Pathways is working on. Second, you bring more jobs to the area so that these people can have a place to work. Then you expand health care for and also mental health care. Then you’re providing childcare for those people that cannot afford childcare to go to work. So it’s multi-agency. There’s not a single magic button that will solve this. We need to come together as a community and have some workshops on how we handle this.

Freeman: I see that there is a cause and effect, and I’m hearing from law enforcement officers and other people in the community that yes, people are drawn here because of the services. We are a very forgiving and loving and giving community, so when when someone finds a need, citizens in this community step up, and that’s what’s happened. The unfortunate side effect has been that there are people coming in from other areas. The first step is going to be to rally the community, people that are outraged with what’s going on in Frog Level. We need to engage them, to listen to their concerns, listen to their suggestions, The last thing I want as a current and former small business owner is to impact anyone’s business.

Reece: Absolutely. It’s kinda like the old Field of Dreams — If you build it, they will come. Look, these people are well-meaning. Some of them are good friends. Pathways was intended for the transition for people from prison. It’s a great thing, but it’s morphed. You talk to the cops and there is nobody that they deal with, hardly, that’s from here. I think I can be critical and not feel bad about it. I’ve toured Pathways. I’ve sat in on a board meeting. I was invited to sit on the board. I’m not just criticizing without first trying to help and change things. What started out as a well-intentioned program has morphed into something that we have no control over. Now it’s way, way out of control. 

Roberson: Somebody from Florida said, “Well, what we did in our town, we’d get a bus, we’d do the 20-mile cure — take them 20 miles away.” That’s not a solution. You’re just putting it on somebody else. It’s a multifaceted problem and it’s difficult for any town to deal with. In Los Angeles, with the amount of money in tax base they have, they can’t even begin to handle it. So they were drawn here maybe by Pathways to some degree, but don’t understand that Pathways tries to weed these people out. I don’t have an answer, but I know that it’s a problem that is not going to be solved overnight. It’ll take years to do it, but it’s got to involve the cooperation of the community. In the meantime, you’ve got to keep citizens feeling safe and secure, so you have to address it the best way you can.

SMN: More and more, activists are asking elected officials to look at every single issue through the lens of climate change. Do you think that climate change is real? 

Dickson: Of course it’s real. I’m probably not a person that is going to look at everything through the lens of climate change. I’m certainly in favor of looking at all sorts of things in terms of renewable energy, in terms of energy-saving kinds of things, in terms of recycling. The town really needs to step that up. I think, though, climate change may be the biggest problem that we have in our nation and in the world. I do think we need to do everything we can do as far as the small town goes. We certainly have to look at costs. We probably can’t do everything right away, but we definitely need to do our part as far as changing the way we look at things.

Sutton: I believe climate change is real based on facts and based on 98 percent of scientists. It’s going to affect our flood plain. It affects everyone’s insurance. If we don’t have a plan in place, it could be devastating. It’s already going to be in the [comprehensive plan update], because the maps are based on the federal government, and even though the current administration doesn’t believe in climate change, the climate science is there and it’s already been put into the maps. I think that we could change some things to natural gas or hydrogen or electric, and that’s not even based on climate change. That’s just being good stewards of the environment. We have clean water and we want to keep it that way.

Freeman: I absolutely believe that climate change is real. We live and breathe on this earth so we’ve got to take care of it. I say it should be considered in every decision that we make, to look at the impact that it has on our community, on our citizens, on the creatures and the vegetation in our community. We’ve got to be very thoughtful and be on the forefront to make sure that we make the least amount of impact that we can on our environment and ensure for the future of our kids, our grandchildren that this earth will be protected and taken care of.

Reece: Oh, climate change is real. No doubt. How much of it is cyclical and how much of it is man made? I think it’s up for debate, but yeah, it’s happening. I mean, it’s warmer. Look at the leaves, it’s mid-October and the leaves aren’t turning yet. I think climate change is something we might consider, but certainly it would not be a litmus test. I mean, we’ve got other litmus tests that are more important than that.

Roberson: It is very real. If anybody denies it, tell them to go down and buy a house on the coast and don’t insure it and you’ll be fine, because it’s not real. You look at the four — there may have been five now — four major slides the town has had, one of the landslides is going to be a quarter of a million dollar fix, or maybe more. Developers went in, they put roads where there never should have been a road, and then houses where there never should’ve been houses. I think it’s going to be a new normal. We’re having hundred-year floods every five years now, or something like that. So that’s what we’re dealing with.

Feichter: Yes, 100 percent. I fully understand that weather patterns are cyclical, but when you look at statistics that say 14 of the last 15 summers were the hottest on the record? Climate change has real effects for Waynesville. We see it with the storm water issue here. During some of these intense flash thunderstorms, our plant could receive 9 million gallons of runoff in a day’s time. Our plant has a capacity of 6 million gallons. We typically handle 4 million gallons. During those storm events, we’re handling more than twice what we handle on an average day and 30 percent more than what our plant has the capacity to handle. Hazelwood is a perfect example. We just can’t move the runoff away fast enough and that’s going to cost us money, which is going to affect our budget in the coming years.

SMN: What kind of job do you think the Downtown Waynesville Association is doing right now in managing the Municipal Service District? 

Sutton: I think that there could be improvement to that, and I also think it could be expanded. We have three downtown areas in the town of Waynesville. We have Main Street, we have Frog Level and we have Hazelwood. I think that can be revisited and improved with them.

Freeman: I think they’re doing a good job. You see the impact and you see the amount of people, just look at this past Saturday at the amount of individuals that were here, tourists. It was a great day on Main Street and to see that, I think they’re doing a good job. I think the Chamber of Commerce, the TDA, everyone, they’re working together on how we can bring people in here, how can we accommodate this many people coming here for our special events and then looking towards a future of expansion and smart growth into second homes, first homes and even hotels and motels.

Reece: It depends on who you talk to. I’ve discussed this with business owners, they’ve all got an opinion and they’re all varied. I tell you what bothers me about this, we subscribe to Southern Living magazine, Our State, this and that and the other, and it pains me to pick up a new issue of one of these and they’re advertising mountain getaways or mountain towns and Waynesville’s not listed. And, I’ve heard about the amount of (DWA) funding that goes to salaries — almost all of it. If all of it goes into salaries, none is going to marketing, I don’t know that that’s an issue that the board of alderman can address, but my opinion is we ought to spend less money on salaries, more money on marketing. 

Roberson: Look at the events that we have, the Church Street Art and Craft festival, the Apple Harvest Festival, these are successes. The decorations that have gone on like this year, you have the cornstalks, it looks real neat I think. And I think overall it’s done a very good job. I think we’ve been fortunate to have good directors who really worked at it. When I first came back, downtown Waynesville was slowly dying off. I mean, it was the small stores, mom-and-pop stores were there, but there were more vacancies coming up. Before the Main Street program came in, we were at almost 25 percent of the buildings vacant. 

Feichter: I think that DWA does a great job. I’m on the DWA board of directors, and for a long time, maybe nine years, I was on the DWA executive board, so I saw that side of it. I saw how hard Buffy [Phillips, executive director] and her team worked. I’ve seen the downtown change over the years, and a significant part of that was the initial rebirth of the downtown. But downtown is not all of Waynesville. When this board was elected, we really made a conscious effort to devote some attention and resources to Hazelwood and Frog Level. I think that we are seeing the fruits of that now, and what strikes me is that it’s not flashy. It’s a parking lot. It’s really hard to call a parking lot handsome, but if you could call a parking lot handsome, that would be it. It proved a boon to downtown Hazelwood. 

Dickson: I have heard people talking about it in terms of wisely spending the money that they have. It is a self-governing organization. The town contracts with DWA and if any other folks wanted to provide the same service, we would need to certainly consider that. I’m not saying we need to go with someone different because the DWA governs itself and is made up of all the merchants, but there does seem to be maybe some dissatisfaction on the part of some of the merchants. I think they’re doing a good job. I think they’ve been very successful. I think downtown Waynesville is doing very well. You don’t seem to have the empty buildings that we had one point in time. 

SMN: Let’s say you get elected and four years from now, we’re sitting right here talking about your re-election campaign. What do you want to tell me is your greatest accomplishment from 2019 to 2022? 

Reece: We made Waynesville safer. We did that by addressing the homeless issue. It’s not a simple plan, but the first half is to close the drawbridge. I was even reading on the news today that San Francisco has a program, where if they can find a homeless person that has family or relatives or friends somewhere that can take him, they buy him a bus ticket. We ought to start that in earnest. I would love to say that we had reduced crime right here and it was safe and that little old ladies weren’t telling me that they’re afraid to walk at night.  If that’s done in three or four years, we may not be sitting here talking about my re-election.

Dickson: What I’d like to be able to say is that we were able to repair our infrastructure, that the streets are in good shape, that we took care of the sewer plant, that we’ve worked on the sewer lines, and we’ve done all that without raising taxes. The other thing I would like to be able to tell you is that the town became more transparent, open and accountable to the citizens. I really would like to see the town televise the meetings. It doesn’t take much anymore to put them on Facebook, on the website, online, YouTube, whatever. I’d like to see the town publish a list of public projects, a priority list of projects — what streets are going to be paved, what sidewalks are going to be built or repaired. The third thing I think would be nice would be a newsletter that could be maybe quarterly. It could even be paid for with ads. 

Sutton: That we have managed smart growth, that we’ve brought more jobs into the area, that we have more young people staying in the area, that everyone is doing better as a community, that Haywood Community College has built their health and human services building, that we have multiple nurses staying in the area and that healthcare’s improved.

SMN: As an incumbent running for re-election, what would you consider your biggest accomplishment, or the town’s greatest victory in the last four years?

Freeman: When we protect this community, we look at two different forces, law enforcement and fire. I’m very proud that in the previous four years, we were able to get law enforcement. They need new cars and things like that to do their jobs, but I think most recently in the last four is the addition of firemen within our fire department. It’s so important that we’ve got that protection within the community. Of course, the police department is our largest budget department with $9 million-plus dollars and the fire department is right up there in the top, too.

Feichter: Obviously the parking lot in Hazelwood and what we’re doing in Frog Level, the affordable housing policy that we implemented that I think has had a hand in three major housing developments. I think if I had to pick one single thing it would be the local preference purchase policy. We received a report on the results of that and between fiscal year 2017-18, which is when we adopted that policy, to fiscal year 2018-19, and we had a 61 percent increase in the amount of local spending with local vendors, [an increase of] $562,000, if I’m not mistaken. I read a study once that said when you spend a dollar at a local establishment, that dollar circulates around the county six to 15 times. When you spend it at a national chain, that same dollar, 80 cents of it leaves the county immediately. 

Roberson: For myself, I’m just a single vote and we’ve always done things as a board, but I do feel that one thing I’ve done, I’m on the French Broad Metropolitan Planning Organization, and I think I was instrumental in getting some of the funding or supporting the funding for that, because as with anything it’s the staff on the MPO and other members of the board — they see what is needed. I was able to get the South Main [NCDOT project] moved up maybe a couple of years, so I feel pretty good about that service on the board. For the town. I’ll go back to, as controversial as it was, I think Plott Creek (apartments) was a good thing for the town and for Hazelwood. 

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