JUser: :_load: Unable to load user with ID: 887

Franklin man banned from bringing knife to church

A member of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Franklin is prohibited from bringing his hunting knife to church after another member saw him with the blade at a Sunday service and got worried.

The knife carrier, Charles Rowe, said there is no reason to be alarmed by his utensil. He simply wants to wear his knife to church because, “It’s part of me and part of who I am.”

But even in Appalachia, where mountain men once thrived, Dr. Bill David, the complainant, said knives still shouldn’t be allowed in church.

“I’m opposed to bringing weapons to church,” David told The Smoky Mountain News from his home in Athens, Ga. “I didn’t confront him personally. He was sitting in front of me. I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t want him stabbing at me with that knife. He may get mad at someone. It should never be permitted.”

Knives aren’t allowed in the post office either, David noted.

The debate has resulted in the church adopting a no weapons policy and sparked a vigorous discussion over an individual’s rights.

David said he has no reason to believe that Rowe would do anything violent with the knife.

“I don’t know him personally,” said David, 84.

Rowe said he doesn’t even know who made the complaint.

Church President Virginia Wilson said she believes the knife scared David because his great grandchildren were threatened with a knife at a school in Athens.

David said he would have opposed the knife at church anyway.

Rowe said he thinks David overreacted to his knife. The knife is a tool, not a weapon, said Rowe.

“I think our society has become too paranoid,” Rowe told The Smoky Mountain News in an interview at his house on Saturday (Feb. 28). “I wear it everywhere.”


‘The knife is part of me’

Wearing a knife symbolizes a “lifestyle I try to aspire to — living off the land like our forefathers did,” said Rowe. “It’s the way I grew up.”

Carrying a knife also goes back to his Celtic heritage, he said.

David balked at Rowe’s saying the knife is part of his heritage: “I don’t care what he says he is.”

Rowe added that he values self-sufficiency and that he was part of the “back to the land movement” in the 1960s.

His knife is not a bowie knife or sword, but just a simple hunting knife. He doesn’t conceal it but carries it on his hip. There is no state law that says he can’t carry his knife, he said.

Rowe said he joined the Universalist church because of its “openness and willingness to celebrate diversity.” Not allowing him to carry his knife contradicts what the church stands for, he said.

The Unitarian Church welcomes people of all faiths — Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, agnostics, atheists and Jews.

Rowe is a pagan and has been attending the Franklin Unitarian church for about four years. Prior to that he attended the Unitarian church in Richmond, Va., since the early 1990s, he said.

He said he wore the knife to the Unitarian church in Franklin since he started attending. The religion’s principles include the inherent worth and dignity of every person and a free search for truth.


A letter to the congregation

Rowe said his main problem with the ordeal has been the way the church handled it. He said he wanted to express his views to the entire congregation, but he felt church officials censored him.

“I wasn’t given a chance to discuss it rationally,” he said.

Rowe also said he wasn’t give a chance to meet with the person who complained. Rowe sent an e-mail to a church official explaining his side and asked that it be forwarded to the entire congregation, but it wasn’t.

“This is just one example of why we need open conversation within this congregation,” said Rowe.

Eventually he did get some of the church members’ e-mail addresses through an e-mail sent to him. He composed a long letter stating his position and sent it out.

In the letter he wrote, “Our society was founded and nurtured on the ideals of rugged individualism and independence.”

It is wrong for the church to prohibit him from wearing his knife just because one person was scared by it, said Rowe.

“We all too often succumb to the tyranny of the least stable among us, giving up our precious freedoms to appease those who suffer from irrational fears and paranoia so as not to offend anyone,” he wrote.

“Unitarians try to be very politically correct and don’t want to offend anyone,” Rowe said.

He said it is wrong for the church to prejudge people who carry knives: “It is this sort of prejudice that I thought our church was supposed to be working against,” he wrote.

Rowe posted his letter on the bulletin board, but Wilson didn’t allow it to stay up. She wanted to handle the issue at the board level rather than it getting out to the congregation and “alarming” members.

Church board member Joan Hawthorne said Rowe could have asked to be put on the board’s agenda or spoken during a Sunday service.


No weapons policy adopted

A double homicide at a Universalist church in Knoxville in July was brought up when Rowe was told he couldn’t bring his knife to church anymore. But Rowe didn’t think that was fair.

“It doesn’t relate because the person (killer) wasn’t a member, and I didn’t have a gun,” said Rowe.

The shooting in Knoxville, which also injured six, is “an example” of why David says he’s opposed to Rowe bringing a knife to church. David said he is very much in favor of the weapons policy.

“That isn’t a place to hunt,” said David. “I’ve been a minister for 57 years and never been in a church with weapons in it before.”

Church board member Hawthorne said ever since the shooting that the church considered adopting a weapons policy, but Rowe’s knife was the “catalyst” to get the rule drafted. She noted that other places, such as airplanes, prohibit carrying knives.

Rowe is adamant about his right to wear his knife to church and will continue to argue the point “infinitum,” said Hawthorne.

The weapons policy now hangs in the entryway to the church and in the fellowship hall and states no weapons may be brought to the church. Wilson said Rowe is welcome back at church “without his knife.”

Hawthorne said she was also bothered by the knife.

“When he comes in with a knife it doesn’t feel like a safe place,” she said.

Rowe shouldn’t take it personally that he can’t wear his knife to church, said member Linda Winn.

“I don’t think you need a knife at church,” Winn said. “We’re a peaceful group of people.”

Even if it means he can’t wear his knife, he will probably go back to the church, Rowe said. He could simply wear an empty knife sheath at church, he said.

But he said he hates to give in. “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,” he wrote in his letter.


No reason to fear him

Rowe’s wife, Debbie, said there is no reason church members should fear her husband, who she met online.

“I mean, half the kids who attend the church call him grandpa,” she stated as their granddaughter, Heaven, ran around the house.

It is “unfair and unjust” that he cannot wear his knife to church, Debbie said.

The first time she met him in person he was wearing it while visiting her at the Intensive Care Unit at Harris Regional Hospital in Sylva, she said. She was in the hospital for an appendectomy.

“I see it as an extension of him,” Debbie said. “I’m just as likely to reach for the knife as a tool as he is.”

When he went to the hospital wearing the knife, he walked past security guards and nurses and “no one flinched,” Debbie said.

Rowe added that when he attended a Macon County commissioners meeting wearing the knife all that Sheriff Robbie Holland said was “nice knife.”

Rowe is unemployed living on disability, he said. He said his disability is “fatigue.”

He said he has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, religion and social services from Virginia Commonwealth University.

Aldermen deny exploiting ‘Slategate’

Two Franklin aldermen said they didn’t whip up controversy regarding slate to get back at Mayor Joe Collins but because they sincerely thought it was a situation that needed to be looked into.

Aldermen Bob Scott and Verlin Curtis said there are no hard feelings between them and the mayor and that they think Collins has provided effective leadership, despite the controversy.

Curtis and Scott haven’t had the most cordial relationship with Collins over the years. The question is whether their personal conflicts motivated Scott and Curtis to create controversy surrounding the mayor and the slate or if they were genuinely concerned over the slate issue.

Scott and Curtis claim they were honestly concerned over the slate. The mayor refused to comment on the record about his feelings regarding the aldermen’s motivations.


A history of tension

Scott said he was a “little upset” and “disappointed” when the mayor came to his house about a year and a half ago to tell Scott he would not be vice mayor. Scott remembers it clearly, saying it was a Sunday afternoon and the mayor’s exact words were “ain’t gonna happen.”

Scott said the vice mayor position generally rotates among board members every two years, but Collins said it wasn’t going to happen for Scott.

The mayor doesn’t have a vote when it comes to who is vice mayor. The aldermen select one of their fellow aldermen for the post.

“I mentioned I would like to serve as vice mayor,” said Scott. “Apparently the board didn’t want me as vice mayor.”

Collins would not comment on the record regarding the incident at Scott’s house.

“What I did or didn’t say would be a private conversation with Mr. Scott,” said Collins. “I don’t feel an obligation or need to talk about that. I’m not going to get into what I did or didn’t say on that occasion.”

Scott said the incident has nothing to do with him looking into the controversy surrounding the mayor and the slate.

“Absolutely not,” said Scott, adding his intentions were to protect town property.

“The statutes are clear, you can’t give away town property without a formal process,” Scott said.

Scott also seems to take umbrage with the mayor’s communication skills.

“I have not heard from the mayor in 14 months,” said Scott.

Ever since that day the mayor came to this house, the only time the mayor speaks to Scott is at a board meeting or some other official gathering, Scott said. The mayor doesn’t call him at home or come see him anymore, said Scott.

“I don’t think there is any relationship (between us),” said Scott.

Scott said he thinks the mayor has a responsibility to be a better communicator and not just talk to him in official settings.

“I would think the mayor has an obligation to keep the board informed, not just at meetings,” said Scott.


Mayor and Curtis Dispute

Curtis and Collins have disagreed the past few years over where to locate Town Hall.

Curtis wanted to build a new Town Hall on the 12.7-acre Whitmire property just outside downtown at 15 First St. The town purchased the tract for $1.6 million.

But town board members changed their minds and instead decided to renovate an existing downtown building for Town Hall. Mayor Collins thinks this is the best idea because it keeps civic functions downtown.

Curtis disagrees and thinks it is best to put Town Hall on the 12.7-acre site.

But Curtis said he did not make a big deal out of the slate controversy to fire back at Collins over the Town Hall issue. Curtis, like Scott, said he was just looking out for the town property.

Curtis ran for mayor against Collins in 2005 on the platform of relocating Town Hall.


The ‘Slategate’ controversy

The slate controversy centers on the 12.7 acre-site that was to be the location for Town Hall.

After the town bought the property, the former owner’s son, David Whitmire, approached Collins and asked if he could take some slate from the property as a memento from childhood, because he grew up at the home.

Collins, after going through Town Administrator Mike Decker, authorized Whitmire to take the slate.

Exactly how much slate Whitmire took, and whether Collins should have unilaterally given him the OK, has led to a bitter debate. Scott and Curtis claim the mayor overstepped his bounds by parting with town property.

In an attempt to set the record straight, Whitmire, now of Alaska, told his side of the story in a full-page ad in The Smoky Mountain News last week. Whitmire said the mayor never specified the amount of slate he could have.

“We didn’t talk about specific amounts of anything,” Whitmire wrote in his ad.

In a Smoky Mountain News interview, Collins disagreed: “We absolutely did discuss it would be a few pieces. His memory is different.”

Scott and Curtis got up in arms over what they considered a large amount of slate that was taken from the property — about 625 square feet, according to Curtis, and 500 square feet, according to Whitmire.


Value of property disputed

Curtis and Scott said Whitmire had no right to take that slate just as no one has a right to take a plaque off the wall in Town Hall. The slate belonged to the city and had a value of $19,600 if you include the cost of labor to reinstall it, the town said.

But Whitmire said 500 feet of slate only has a value of $500.

Lowe’s in Sylva has slate slabs for $1.88 a square foot or $940 for 500 square feet.

Whitmire said in his ad that it was wrong for the town to demand $19,000. He not only had permission to take the slate, but the tax value for all structures on the property was appraised at $17,800.

“So I’ve got $500 worth of salvaged stone and they want $19,000,” Whitmire stated in his ad. “That’s right; the board demanded I pay more for the mixed slate pieces than the value of the entire house, one the city had completely ignored.”

Curtis said the town’s $19,600 figure was not the value of the materials alone but was mainly the labor costs for reinstalling it.

Macon County Tax Administrator Richard Lightner confirmed that the entire property — the buildings and the land — is valued at $1.9 million, with the buildings only being worth $17,860.

The home has been destroyed by vandals who have busted windows and painted graffiti on the walls.


Case put to bed finally

The town threatened to sue for the $19,600, but the matter was eventually settled with Whitmire paying $5,000 for slate he said was worth less than $500.

Curtis and Scott said they have no evidence to suggest that the mayor actually gave Whitmire permission to take as much slate as he wanted.

“I have to take him for what he (mayor) said he did,” said Curtis.

At one time Scott called on an investigation to determine who said what, but it didn’t go forward.

On a tour of the property, which still has the old Whitmire home on it, Curtis pointed out that slate had been stripped from everything, including the fireplace, and that solid oak doors and a cherry desk were also taken. Curtis said the case should have been prosecuted by the DA as a felony.

In his ad Whitmire said his family members were generous supporters of Franklin and it isn’t right that the town is treating him like this.

Curtis agreed that “the Whitmires were very kind to me” when he did work for them such as appliance repair.

Closed session minutes an opportunity for openness

What a great way to earn public trust: a public body decides that minutes from closed sessions no longer need to be secret, and therefore it periodically votes to make them public.

That’s what the Franklin Town Alderman Bob Scott asked the Franklin board to do. Scott was concerned about the information in one particular set of minutes, but he also understood what he was doing. If the town adopted a formal policy, the public would be a lot better informed as to what went on behind closed doors when aldermen lawfully shut out the public from their debate.

Here’s the deal about closed meetings and public bodies. The North Carolina Open Meetings Law gives public bodies seven lawful reasons to close their discussions. Those seven reasons are clearly defined, and minutes must be kept. How detailed those minutes are depends on each group of elected officials, but it must be discernible what was being discussed and who was saying what.

Once the reason for going into the closed meeting is past — say an industry has finished negotiations and announced plans to build — then the minutes become a part of the public record.

Most boards — including Franklin’s — adhere to the letter of the law. But what becomes of those closed session minutes? Reporters and the public seldom request them. In truth, most of what took place in those meetings is never revealed despite the fact that taxpayers and voters could gain valuable insight from them.

We think Franklin should have set itself up as the most open board around. It did not change its policy, but merely formalized what’s already taking place: once every few months, its attorney will review closed session minutes and determine if they can be released. That’s OK, but the public would be better served by the policy Scott proposed.

Franklin Alderman Bob Scott is to be commended for his commitment to open government. The public and elected officials need to understand that nothing has to be discussed in closed session, that the law gives public bodies a few exceptions where they are allowed — if they choose — to go behind closed doors. Some personnel matters probably should be discussed privately, but many times it seems public bodies close their meetings when the reasons for doing so seem suspect.

Franklin’s isn’t a bad policy, but we think a better one is to formally include closed session minutes in board packets whenever the reason for closing the meeting has passed. Rather than have an attorney make the decision, we think elected officials or the manager could more easily — and cheaply — make that call. The onus for conducting the public’s business in the open is on the elected officials, and they will suffer the fallout if they wrongfully shut the door on their constituents.

Franklin wants process for releasing closed session minutes

The Franklin aldermen on Monday night (Feb. 2) unanimously voted to formalize a process for releasing the minutes from previously closed-door meetings.

The town attorney, John Henning Jr., has always had the authority to make closed meeting minutes public once it is determined that releasing them wouldn’t do harm. In fact, state law requires the minutes from closed meetings to be released once the reason for being private has passed — such as discussion of lawsuit strategy once that lawsuit has been settled, or negotiations over property after the purchase goes through.

In reality, however, few public boards in this region do this as a matter of course.

Alderman Bob Scott, who brought up the matter, wanted the board to adopt a formal policy for releasing closed meeting minutes, but he compromised with a process that leaves it up to the discretion of the town attorney if the minutes should be made public.

Scott preferred a system, however, where closed meeting minutes would become open after board members agreed in consultation with the town attorney.

Mayor Joe Collins disagreed, saying that would put more responsibility on the board members to determine when minutes should be made public when the town has always counted on the attorney to address that.

Collins said he thinks the attorney being in control makes for a smoother process.

However, under the Monday vote any board member or member of the public may ask the town attorney to review a particular set of minutes to determine if they should be unsealed.

Henning said the new process is not much different than the way it has been done before.

Collins agreed: “I don’t see it breaking any new ground, just formalizing (the process).”

If anything, the vote on Monday was an expression of the board’s intent of how to deal with closed session minutes, Henning said.

Henning said he periodically went through closed session minutes about once every three to four months to determine if they should be opened.

The town owes it to the public to open up the minutes of closed sessions once it is no longer necessary to keep the minutes secret, Scott said.

State laws says that, “The public body may seal the minutes of a closed session if public inspection of those minutes would frustrate the purpose of the closed session,” Scott said.


Why now?

Scott called for a formal policy as an advocate of open records in general, but he also wants a particular set of closed meeting minutes made public.

He said the minutes of a legal dispute that was discussed in closed session remain sealed, despite the fact that the case was settled for $5,000.

Scott said no one has refused to release the minutes, but there was no formal policy for releasing them.

“We exist to conduct the public’s business,” Scott said. “I just felt like we should have a policy.”

The dispute involved the town and a former resident, David Whitmire, now of Alaska, who allegedly took slate and doors from town property.

In the case, Mayor Collins said he authorized Whitmire to take a small amount of slate from town property as a memento because Whitmire grew up at the site now owned by the town. Collins asked former Town Administrator Mike Decker if it would be OK for Whitmire to take a couple of pieces of slate, and Decker said it would be all right.

However, Whitmire took a lot more than a couple of pieces, carting off slate valued at $19,000.

Scott and Alderman Verlin Curtis said the mayor and Decker acted beyond their authority when allowing Whitmire to take property. Curtis and Scott said that the mayor and Decker should have asked the rest of the town board if it was OK for Whitmire to take something from the property. Collins said he didn’t think it was necessary to get permission from the board to allow Whitmire to take a few pieces of slate.

Scott had called for an independent investigation into what actually transpired when the mayor and Decker authorized Whitmire to take slate. But the investigation never went forward because the case was settled by Whitmire paying the town $5,000.

Scott said he wanted to know who said what in the transaction. Asked if he thinks the mayor actually gave Whitmire permission to take more than a few pieces of slate, Scott has said, “It would be nothing but pure conjecture.”

Franklin seeks AT town designation

Franklin’s role on the Appalachian Trail

Franklin is an important town on the Appalachian Trail because it is one of the first or last towns depending on which direction you’re coming from. It is about 106 miles from the start.

Nantahala Hiking Club President Bill Van Horn said if hikers make it to Franklin, chances are they can hike the entire trail.

The trail is 2,175 miles long and runs from Georgia to Maine.


About the Nantahala Hiking Club

The NHC is one of 30 trail clubs that maintain the 2,175 miles of the Appalachian Trail The NHC maintains 60 miles of the AT and 47 of those miles are in Macon County. The NHC, based out of Franklin, has a membership of more than 240. From October 2007 to September 2008, the club’s membership contributed more than 5,300 volunteer hours to maintain the AT and promote hiking.

Every spring, hundreds of Appalachian Trail hikers pass by the doorstep of Franklin en route from Georgia to Maine, many hitting town to buy supplies, clean up, check into a hotel and generally take a break from the trail.

But the town could do more to capitalize on its proximity to the A.T. A push is underway to seek designation as an official Appalachian Trail Community Partner, clearly associating the town with the world-famous trail.

In essence, it would make Franklin a “gateway city” on the trail, showing that Franklin welcomes hikers.

The Nantahala Hiking Club, which is leading the charge in making Franklin an AT Community Partner, believes Franklin and Macon County are not taking advantage of the Trail’s economic potential.

According to the hiking club, over 1,800 hikers pass through Macon County between March and May each year, and the Nantahala National Forest has one million day visits a year.

If Franklin achieves the designation and lures more hikers to ventuer the 10 miles into town and use it as a stop over, the trail could prove an economic boon.


The path to being an AT Partner

For Franklin to qualify it must meet at least two of four criteria, although Nantahala Hiking Club President Bill Van Horn said the town will probably meet all four.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which sponsors the program, is expected to decide in April whether Franklin receives the designation.

One requirement is establishing an advisory committee that focuses on the Appalachian Trail and the community. Groups such as the town, the county, the Chamber of Commerce and the schools may be interested in having a representative on the committee.

In order to receive the designation Franklin must also host an annual AT event.

Franklin already has an established event with the April Hikers Fools Bash put on by Ronnie Haven at the Sapphire Inn.

This will be the fifth year for the event that features music, food, and hiking vendors. The event allows hikers and community members to come together; last year about 1,500 attended.

During the hiking season, Haven runs a free bus service that picks up hikers at the trail and drives them into town to get supplies.

Franklin deserves to be designated an AT Community Partner given how much it offers hikers, said Haven.

He said the town has one of the nicer outfitters along the trail with Three Eagles Outfitters, grocery stores, drug stores, medical facilities, a movie theater, museum and post office.

Another requirement to becoming an Appalachian Trail Community Partner is using the trail for educational purposes.

Van Horn suggested fifth grade classes taking annual field trips to the trail could meet this requirement. He added that the trail offers a great opportunity to combine physical education and science.

And the final requirement deals with installing language in city and county ordinances that protects the trail from development.

The county could state in its ordinances that the Appalachian Trail Conservancy will be notified and included whenever there is a proposal to impact the trail, Van Horn said.

Examples of developments that may disturb the trail are erecting wind turbines and cell phone towers nearby, Van Horn said.


A symbiotic relationship

One benefit of designation is simply increasing awareness that the trail is near Franklin and easy to access. If Franklin receives the designation there may be signs displayed in town identifying Franklin as an AT Community Partner.

Franklin would be one of the first to receive the distinction. The towns of Hot Springs, N.C., Boiling Springs, P.A., Erwin, Tenn. and Unicoi County, Tenn. were designated Community Partners in a pilot program.

Another benefit is the additional publicity Franklin would receive nationwide from being a member of the program. The town would be highlighted on the AT Conservancy Web site — appalachiantrail.org — as well as in the organization’s press releases, trail guide and quarterly magazine “A.T. Journeys,” Van Horn said.

Franklin teachers could receive training and education on how to incorporate the Appalachian Trail into their lessons.

And another benefit is that Macon County teachers could take workshops from the AT Conservancy on “placed-based” education that deals with teaching students about the area they live. For instance, instead of learning about the Himalayas, students could learn about the “Nantahalas,” Van Horn said. The workshops are called “A Trail to Every Classroom.”

Teachers could also receive special training from the AT Conservancy in service learning to teach children about volunteering. For example, students could take a class on the Appalachian Trail and could adopt a mile of the trail to maintain.

Drakes to build 1,500-seat auditorium in Franklin

By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer

Musicians will soon be able add another venue to their tour list next year.

Room tax plan would split Macon into three districts

By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer

A plan to distribute Macon County’s occupancy tax has been formulated, leaving the final approval up to the board of commissioners.

Franklin adopts new rules for floodplain construction

By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer

Macon County’s eight-month moratorium on the permitting of recreational vehicles in the floodplain will be lifted next month.

Peace in the valley: Franklin photographer Bill Lea captures beauty and history of Cades Cove in new book

For nature photographer Bill Lea, Cades Cove is heaven on earth.

Mining company appeals decision; quarry’s future remains uncertain

A Franklin-based mining company has filed an appeal against the North Carolina Department of Environmental and Natural Resources decision denying a permit to operate a rock quarry in the Tuckasegee community in Jackson County.

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.