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Haywood proud winner of 22 acres, but what now?

After a 15-month legal battle, Haywood County can finally claim ownership free and clear over a 22-acre tract in the Jonathan Creek area that the county wants to make a recreation park.

The county paid $1.1 million for the parcel in August of 2007, then spent more than a year locked in a title dispute over the property. A farmer leasing the land claimed it had been promised to him by the elderly property owner.

Commissioner Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick said the case was dismissed on Nov. 24 following a settlement between the seller and the man who laid claim to the parcel.

The county bought the property during a protracted bidding war in the summer of 2007. The county was pushed from its initial bid of $693,000 to a price tag of $1.1 million as the bidding war played out. The town of Maggie Valley chipped in $100,000 toward the purchase after commissioners swore they wouldn’t go over $1 million.

Some commissioners — although not all — knew up front that a small “cloud” hung over the title when they bought it. However, dissolving the cloud turned out to be much more complex and time-consuming than the county had anticipated.

Newly-elected Commissioner Kevin Ensley has questioned whether the board had acted too hastily in the bidding war.

“I’m glad to hear it got cleared up, but I was disappointed it wasn’t resolved before we closed on it,” said Ensley.

The parcel was part of a 300-acre former dairy farm. When Lucius Jones, the owner of the farm, became unable to care for himself, the conservator of his estate carved out a chunk of the property to sell in order to pay for his care.

However, a man named Greg Ferguson, who once rented the farm, claimed Jones had willingly signed a statement giving Ferguson the property upon Jones’ death. Conversely, Jones’ estate claimed Ferguson had tricked Jones into signing over the property.

In last month’s settlement, Jones’ estate paid Ferguson to get him to drop the suit and allow the sale of the land to the county to be finalized. The cost of the suit and the settlement were both paid by the seller. The county didn’t incur costs related to the title snafu, according to David Teague, the county’s public information officer.

After months of legal wrangling, the county is ready to move on and focus on plans for the 22 acres on Jonathan Creek.

“A dismissal was filed, and what that does is clear up the cloud on the title and therefore it frees up the property to do a couple of things,” said Kirkpatrick.

The county’s first step, Kirkpatrick said, is to take back the money it plunked down up front for the land and instead finance the property. Haywood County is facing tough economic times and a tight budget, and financing the land will allow the county to put the cash back into its fund balance.

With so much cash on the line, the county was dangerously close to the minimum fund balance required by the local government commission. Counties must maintain a cash reserve of 8 percent, or one month of operating costs, but the county is currently at 9 percent.

“Hopefully, we will move from 9 percent to 11 or 12 percent,” said Kirkpatrick.

While the title hurdle has been cleared, the county is far from turning the raw farm land into a recreation park. There’s little certainty on how that will happen.

“My attitude now is, we have the land, so I think we need to do whatever we can to develop it,” said Commissioner Bill Upton.

However, the county is currently short on funds to spend on extras like recreation.

“The problem is obviously that the economy is not real good right now and neither is our budget — it’s fairly tight,” said Kirkpatrick.

“We’d have to start off with grants, to say the least,” said Upton. “We don’t have any extra money to do anything.”

The recreation advisory board will likely help the county secure grant funding, said Kirkpatrick. But even if a grant is obtained, the county may not be able to ante up matching funds if that’s a stipulation.

“If it takes a match, we have to think, do we have money available right now at this time?” Kirkpatrick said. “Obviously you want to move forward with the plans but tough times call for tough decisions, and it may not be the appropriate time to do that.”

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