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Pivotal election in Waynesville this year

Development pressures in Waynesville are a cause of concern for some. Allen Newland photo Development pressures in Waynesville are a cause of concern for some. Allen Newland photo

Voters in Waynesville are preparing for a contentious election that offers very different visions for the future of the town the candidates want to lead. 


All four members of the Waynesville Town Council, along with the mayor, are up for reelection in November, but it’s the last time that will ever happen in Waynesville. This year, the two candidates with the most votes will win four-year terms, while the next two candidates will win two-year terms. After that, two council members will be up for reelection every two years, setting up staggered terms. The move to staggered terms brings Waynesville in line with other Haywood County municipalities and ensures that an entire loss of institutional knowledge can never occur.

Waynesville’s incumbents — Mayor Gary Caldwell and Council Members Chuck Dickson, Jon Feichter, Julia Freeman and Anthony Sutton — are all running to keep their seats.

Retired DEA agent and Waynesville native Joey Reece, who just missed being elected to Council in 2019, is running for mayor against Caldwell. Another mayoral candidate didn’t respond to multiple requests from The Smoky Mountain News to participate in a campaign interview.  

Four other candidates are running for seats on Council, three of them with Reece as a group calling itself “Team Waynesville.” 

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Ken Hollifield, a town employee who says he’s not part of the slate but sides with them on most issues, was the only non-incumbent Council candidate to respond to SMN’s offer to participate in campaign interviews.

The Housing Crisis

Perhaps the most pressing issue facing the town, the county, the state and even the nation may be the affordable housing crisis. Housing costs in Western North Carolina border on the obscene. According to Canopy MLS, the average home sale price in the county for August was more than $444,000, up 14% year over year.

That’s creating real problems for entry-level teachers, first responders and service industry employees that power the local economy. Without them, everything grinds to a halt.

“I think we’ve done all that we can do, based on the restrictions that we have,” Sutton said. “We have implemented some things that will help with affordable housing. Is there a lot more that we can do? Absolutely. Have we fallen behind as a region? Absolutely. But are we headed in the right direction? Yes.”

Since 2018, the Council has pushed to include housing for low- to moderate-income residents as the town grows, and even declared a blighted zone where additional incentives become available to investors or developers.

“We have a very good policy of offering incentives and helping folks,” said Dickson. “I think some people maybe think that the town of Waynesville is responsible for housing for Haywood County. But we have revamped the Waynesville Housing Authority Board and we’ve appointed good members to that board. But again, it takes money.” 

Four major housing development projects have been or will be approved, with each of them taking incentives to provide at least some affordable housing in each development. Mountain Creek apartments (the old BiLo) and Balsam Edge (on Howell Mill Road) are both in varying stages of construction, with Hazelwood Bluff (off Locust Drive) awaiting state tax credits.

Caldwell said he’s most proud of the rehab at the old Haywood Hospital, which is reserved exclusively for seniors and veterans  and was also reliant on tax credits.

“We’re always pushing for more affordable housing, but contractors just can’t do that for the cost of what labor and materials are today,” he said.

Freeman said the town fought for the inclusion of affordable housing units at Mountain Creek.

“I believe it’s going to be 20-some units that will be affordable housing for the next 10 years,” she said. “We’re very proud of that. Looking forward, there’ll be, from what we understand, some elderly housing units going in Howell Mill Road in the future.”

Feichter wants to see the town go even further by offering low- or no-interest loans to developers to help supplement financing. He added that he thinks those loans could even extend to homebuyers at some point in the future.

Hollifield wants rental housing to cost around $600-$750 a month — still a far cry from market rents the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says  are at least $890 for a one-bedroom.

“If something isn’t done, the people that were raised here, they’re not going to be able to afford to live here,” he said.

Counterintuitively, Hollifield also thinks that there’s been too much development.

“In my opinion, building all these apartments, the local government has overpopulated the town of Waynesville,” he said. “I hope that the townspeople will come out say it’s time for a change.”

Reece is largely in agreement with Hollifield.

“I have walked a good portion of the town, probably spoken with I guess close to a thousand people,” he said. “You don’t even get out of your mouth, ‘What is your main concern?’ and it’s ‘I’m tired of this overbuilding.’” 

Council members have pushed back against the “overbuilding” sentiment advanced by Team Waynesville. Even during times of low or no inflation, costs rise every year. Employees like cops, mechanics and administrators need regular raises or they’ll go work somewhere else. Utility monopolies raise prices at will to support lavish salaries for CEOs. Fuel prices are largely determined by foreign cartels. Without growth, municipalities, states and nations die.

“That’s just basic economics,” Freeman said. “If you do not grow, you have to raise taxes, or you have to cut services. No one wants either one of those two scenarios to take place.”

Dickson, who along with Feichter has consistently opposed tax increases since his election to Council in 2019, said that without expanding the tax base at a reasonable rate, one of those two scenarios would have to take place.

A tax increase, Feichter said, would affect the most vulnerable citizens.

“The poverty rate in Waynesville is significantly higher than the North Carolina average, as well as Haywood County in general,” he explained. “A high percentage of our population is seniors living on fixed incomes. Anything that we can do to help limit the impact of our tax rates on those individuals is of paramount concern for me.”

An added bonus for the town’s bottom line in the fight against raising taxes, according to Feichter, is that new developments approved by the town will be on the town’s electric system, recapturing revenue that could have been lost to outside entities.

Hollifield stated that the people in apartments don’t pay property taxes; while they don’t directly, landlords don’t pay property taxes out-of-pocket but instead price their property tax payments into their rents, which are paid by renters.

“If you don’t have this growth, then you’re going to end up having to fall back on the citizens to raise taxes, or you’re going to have to cut back on your police department or your fire department, which you can’t do,” Caldwell said. “You’ve got to have some growth.”

The final component to housing affordability — and availability — involves short-term rental properties. In a tourism-driven market, those properties bring tourists to town while effectively making it difficult for those who serve them, like bartenders, cooks, cops and retail employees, to find affordable rental accommodations.

In 2021, the nonprofit Dogwood Health Trust released the results of a  housing needs assessment , which showed Haywood County with a deficit of 1,459 homes. Coincidentally, recent data from the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority shows approximately 1,700 short-term rentals in the county as of May.

There are a couple of caveats to those numbers. Not every short-term rental tracked by the TDA is within the town limits of Waynesville. In fact, most of them aren’t. And, many of them are million-dollar mountaintop mansions not suitable or affordable for long-term rental.

Along those lines, Freeman holds a different view than her fellow Council members on regulating short-term rentals.

Sutton, however, believes that a recent decline in demand for short-term rentals may alleviate some of the problem, but he supports some form of regulation for short-term rentals even though he owns and operates one. Dickson pointed out that the legislative and legal landscape of short-term rental regulation in North Carolina is fluid right now. Feichter and Hollifield both feel the issue needs more study, with Feichter saying it “definitely” impacts housing costs locally. 

Caldwell would like to the see town’s planning board continue to research possible options, putting him somewhat in agreement with his challenger Reece.

“I would look at it,” Reece said. “Because you have to have to be realistic. The places that we do have that would be good full-time rental properties, many of them are being used as Airbnbs. Now, I’m also a property rights guy. I don’t think we ought to be able to tell people what they can do, but you can also generate some revenue from that.”

Economic Development  and Jobs 

Along with population growth, job growth is another key economic metric that must go up every single year to avoid stagnation. People that work and live in town tend to spend their money in town, which ripples through the economy from top to bottom.

Although the loss of nearly 1,000 jobs from the Pactiv Evergreen paper mill won’t impact Waynesville as much as it will Canton, it’s still a blow for the county as a whole and for some laid-off workers residing in Waynesville.

Underscoring the urgency of the housing crisis is the fact that some elected officials and candidates think it’s affecting the job market.

“My hope is that having these apartments come online, you will start to see these help wanted signs go out the window,” Caldwell said.

Reece doesn’t think the incumbents have done enough to attract higher-paying jobs to town, and noted that the dominance of the service industry means low local demand for skilled workers.

“We’ve priced housing [so] people can’t move here,” Reece said. “I mean, they’ve got to have a great job to move here and afford these houses.”

Hollifield called the town’s record on job creation “terrible.”

“All they want to do is apartments. That brings jobs in for a little while, but once those apartments get built the people that’s building them, the contractors or whatever, they move off,” Hollifield said. “I just don’t think the town board brought any business in. Small business, maybe. Restaurants. Fast food. But I don’t see anything else coming in.” 

Through economic development incentives and a comparatively low property tax rate over the past few years, Waynesville has seen a $14.8 million expansion of Premiere Magnesia (known locally as Giles Chemical), a $2.6 million expansion by Sonoco Plastics  bringing 60 jobs and a new facility established by Macon County-based Drake Software employing up to 60 people. Harbor Freight, mentioned by Hollifield, employs around 20 people and helps replace the jobs lost when the Kmart closed.

“I think that the town of Waynesville has, over the last four or five years, changed its perception of being against business to being open for business, and that we are helpful to businesses,” Sutton said. “I’m proud of our development team for doing that.” 

Maintaining an infrastructure that can support new businesses is also critical. Since 2017, the town has constructed public restrooms in Hazelwood and gussied up the parking lot there, as well as the parking lot in Frog Level. A new parking lot at the corner of Haywood and Church streets makes downtown more accessible, while decorative lighting there and in Frog Level makes it more appealing. Electric vehicle chargers attract both travelers and eco-minded locals, and a commercial solar electric rate policy provides value to businesses.

Team Waynesville  

Even though Reece is a member of “Team Waynesville,” he doesn’t claim to speak for all of them, nor do they all speak for him. They refused to speak for themselves by failing to return calls and emails asking them to interview for this story.

The team did, however, put out a “mission statement” outlining what the candidates say are major complaints about the town — most or all of which are based on misinformation.

They say the town has fallen under the “control and influence of outside forces.”

Every elected member of the Council would like to know who, exactly, those outside forces are.

“The people are making the decisions, and those decisions are informed by the people of Waynesville. Period,” Feichter said. “There are certainly no outside influences influencing my decisions. I’ve worked hard to solicit input from the citizens of Waynesville, so from my perspective, the only people that are influencing my decisions are folks that live right here in Waynesville. I feel very strongly that the same thing would apply to my fellow council members.”

The team also wants to “restore and preserve our small-town values,” but it doesn’t offer any specifics as to what those values are. 

“I think small-town values means that you take care of people in your community, you consider everyone equal in your community and you’re supportive of the people in your community, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation or economic status,” Sutton said.

The team of candidates also complained of so-called “special treatment” for some. Sutton thinks that’s directed at him because he’s the first openly gay member of Waynesville’s governing board.

“That’s another dog whistle term,” Sutton said. “When people spoke against equality for African Americans and LGBT people, saying that we were asking for special rights, that’s been disproven. Everyone’s just asking for equal rights.”

Case in point, a recent incident with at the Waynesville Recreation Center, where allegedly transgender individuals were accused of acting indecently in changing rooms. A town investigation determined there was no wrongdoing, despite the inaccurate claims.

“There was a lot of false information presented within the community on social media and in various outlets that was just absolutely not true,” Freeman said. “I support our law enforcement’s investigation, and I don’t second guess their findings.”

All members of Council echoed Freeman’s sentiments about the investigation. 

“The police department, they’re probably one of the best police departments in North Carolina,” Caldwell said. “We all were scared when [longtime chief] Bill [Hollingsed] left, but we lucked out. Chief David Adams is awesome.”

Despite Hollifield being a former law enforcement officer — he declined to elaborate on a “bad decision” he says he made that cost him his job — he’s not confident in the results of the investigation.

Reece said it was handled poorly from the beginning, and that the town shouldn’t have initiated a parallel investigation from the administrative side.

Another claim made in the team’s manifesto, repeated by Hollifield, is about the quality of the town’s infrastructure.

“My concern is infrastructure,” Hollifield said. “Let’s see, they’ve not talked about that. But now that it’s an election year, ‘Oh, let’s get this done. Let’s get this done.’ They have not done anything for four years. They’ve not done anything in eight years.”

The past eight years have been a period of growth in the town, signifying the end of its long, slow recovery from the Great Recession of 2008. Over that time, the town has renovated the public works complex, the administration building, the office space inside the police department, the Hazelwood finance office and the fire department.

It’s replaced the Chelsea Street bridge, re-laid water and sewer lines along Pigeon Street and resurfaced it, replaced 5,500 feet of sewer line and rebuilt water tanks at Big Cove and Chestnut Grove.

It’s also procured a $19.5 million, no-interest loan over 26 years for the replacement of the wastewater treatment plant, a long-awaited, badly-needed project that has moved slowly due to COVID-19, supply chain issues, inflation and just about every other hang-up a project of this scale can experience. Of late, the town scored a $4.8 million grant to cover cost overages that have appeared during the lead up to groundbreaking.

In total, the town counts more than $27 million in grants and loans that have paid for things like a stormwater master plan, two greenway bridges, a greenway section near Mountain Creek Apartments, Richland Creek streambank restoration, the Sulfur Springs springhouse restoration and a historic preservation plan for downtown.

All without a tax increase.

The most dubious claim made in the team’s manifesto, that “substance abuse, homelessness and crime are skyrocketing,” is so outrageous that even Reece acknowledges that it’s not true.

“When I am wrong, I acknowledge it,” he said. “[I] will never be so happy as to acknowledge that the stats are good. Hell of a lot more important than winning an argument.” 

Substance abuse rates are difficult to measure and aren’t really a town issue, although towns across the country deal with the effects. Homelessness is similar, but anecdotal reports suggest it’s down for a number of reasons. The crime stats, though, don’t lie.

According to the annual summary of uniform crime reporting data recently issued by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, crime is not “skyrocketing.” In fact, it’s down. Way down.

From 2021 to 2022, the crime index rate in Haywood County dropped a whopping 38%. Violent crime was down 22%. Property crime was down 40%. From 2019 to 2022, the overall index rate dropped 37%.

Feichter said Chief Adams told him Waynesville’s numbers are in line with the county numbers presented in the SBI report. Most Council members openly wondered how the “team” could be so divorced from reality in their statements about crime.

“These individuals are cherry picking crime statistics,” Freeman said. “I have spoken extensively with law enforcement about this. The fact that they bring up larceny and things like that, well when you deal with a large store such as WalMart, there is a tremendous amount of shoplifting and things that go on in that facility. If you take that large store out of the crime statistics we are in a very low [crime] tier in the state of North Carolina.” 

Dickson didn’t hesitate to elaborate on why he thinks the team shouldn’t be elected.

“Tre Franklin has never been to a town board meeting and has not served on any boards or commissions. Stephanie Sutton participated in the events at the Capitol on Jan. 6, a violent attempt to overthrow the peaceful transfer of power,” Dickson said.

Stephanie Sutton, along with husband Heath, is also listed as an officer of a defunct company called Mountaineer Complete Care. That entity still owes $568 in property taxes dating back to 2016.

Dickson also mentioned planning board member Peggy Hannah, who “by her actions, has shown that she doesn’t welcome everyone to our community.”

He’s talking about a team campaign event at Fuhrman’s Burger Bar, where Hannah allegedly tore up a photo of Sutton. She didn’t, says Tanya Beckner, who attended the event. But per Beckner, she did call Sutton “perverted” and said something to the effect of “not in my town.”

“I’ve received many threats over the last four years, as you’re well aware of,” Sutton said. “Is that considered a threat? Absolutely, yes, it is considered a threat.”

Sutton, along with Freeman, gave a victim impact statement during the sentencing of Darris Moody, a sovereign citizen convicted of communicating threats to elected officials.

It was important, Freeman said, to provide that statement to combat misinformation of the type peddled by the team.

“This is the downward spiral with politicians and what’s happening currently in our nation,” Freeman said. “It’s not only scary for the politician, but it’s also very frightening and very concerning for our family and friends. The disrespectful nature of the physical threats and to put bounties on people’s heads, and offer kidnapping, that’s disheartening.”

Sutton said that’s exactly what Waynesville’s citizens are asking for with a vote for the team.

“You’re asking for disinformation, misinformation, for intimidation,” he said. “And not for the rule of law.”

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