Information session on ‘fixing’ N.C. 107 set for next week

Are you ready to rumble? Because here we go again: The great debate in Jackson County on whether traffic congestion along N.C. 107 in Sylva should be fixed, and if so — how — is back.

Since the summer of 2008, the state Department of Transportation has conducted separate traffic studies, each intended to explore different fixes to the same problem.

The preliminary results of one of those studies is about to go public: potential redesigns of N.C. 107, Sylva’s major traffic corridor, which takes in the primary portion of the county that is experiencing business growth. The targeted stretch extends from U.S. 23 Business in Sylva to Western Carolina University.

On Tuesday, Nov. 9, state DOT officials will hold what’s being dubbed an “informal meeting” in Sylva. They intend to publicly layout what they claim must be done if N.C. 107 is truly going to be fixed.

There are six concepts on the table. Three of those concepts would include building an additional road, the controversial Southern Loop, since renamed the friendlier-sounding (and the transportation department claims, more accurate) “N.C. 107 connector.”

 

‘Here it is’

The connector, as originally conceived, would blaze a new road through the mountains. Five miles of construction destroying homes, farmland, and taking in streams and forests — a proposal, that on the face of it, is simply too destructive for serious contemplation by many in the county, including those who stand to lose their homes.

Opponents won a small battle when the transportation department broadened its language describing the N.C. 107 connector as a “multi-lane” freeway to include the possibility of a smaller, two-lane road, at least for the purpose of study.

Jackson County Smart Roads Alliance, the group that acted as the brake on the transportation department’s original plans for a multi-lane bypass, has started revving its engines.

The citizen-action group has pretty much lain dormant for the past few years. But this week it held an organizational meeting at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva. Members are promising to once again bring accountability to the process, and to insist on the inclusion of a wide array of community voices before any decisions are made.

“DOT has forgotten we’re paying attention,” said Jason Kimenker between serving up cups of lightly curried butternut squash soup to his lunch customers at the Soul Infusion Tea House & Bistro, smack dab beside the section of N.C. 107 that is being eyed for improvements. “We have simply been waiting to find out what they were going to do. And, here it is.”

But whether Smart Roads can inspire hundreds of Jackson County residents to participate in what’s often a tedious and mystifyingly complex process — as it once did — remains to be proven. The first test comes next week, at the transportation department’s information session.

 

Meeting is a response to public pressure

Joel Setzer doesn’t actually have horns and a tail, though to hear some critics of the transportation department, that might come as something of a surprise.

In reality, Setzer is a polite, well-spoken Jackson County native who made good and became the very top dog for the 14th Division of the state Department of Transportation. That means he’s division engineer for a 10-county region that includes Jackson County and encompasses the westernmost tip of North Carolina. Today, Setzer lives on the land he was raised on, commuting a few miles each day from Cullowhee via N.C. 107 to his tidy office — replete with pictures of family members and trout — located in the division’s headquarters near Webster.

“This, in essence, is to help answer the question — ‘Can you fix 107?’” he said of the upcoming meeting.

What happened, Setzer said, is the transportation department really listened. No, really, he said, truly they did.

They heard residents (lots of them, hundreds of them at a time at some points), keep asking whether another road (N.C. 107 connector) was necessary. There were questions about traffic counts, about politics versus need, about desires to build roads positioned against a more environmentally friendlier concept of working in the existing footprint.

That led to the information session (not a public hearing) to share what is known at this point. This, Setzer said, is not required of the transportation department — but the project is controversial, and there have been a lot of questions raised.

The central, nagging question? Whether the transportation department is really doing what the community wants in considering a connector, or by making significant improvements to N.C. 107. Or, are these men and women primed to build roads when a few cars back up on the highway, simply shoving their pet projects down the throats of a reluctant citizenry, all the while egged on by a shadowy yet powerful coalition of would-be developers?

Connecting a network of side roads and linking rural routes to relieve pressure on N.C. 107 is the solution the Smart Roads group advocated when it was active. That option was not included in this study.

 

 

What’s on the table?

Here’s what’s being dubbed the six “concepts.” They make only limited sense without accompanying illustrations and maps and explanations from engineers. Those will be forthcoming, Setzer promised, at the information meeting:

• Concept 1 — Traditional widening and intersection upgrades with no N.C. 107 connector, approximately 6.2-miles long.

• Concept 2 — Traditional widening and intersection upgrades with the N.C. 107 connector in place, approximately 6.2 miles long.

• Concept 3 — Superstreet concept (think Cope Creek, along U.S. 23/74, where turnout lanes are now) with access management/non-traditional intersections and no N.C. 107 connector in place, approximately 7.5-miles long.

• Concept 4 — Superstreet concept with access management/non-traditional intersections and with the N.C. 107 connector in place, approximately 7.5-miles long.

• Concept 5 — Non-traditional improvements and other access management strategies in selected locations with no N.C. 107 connector.

• Concept 6 — Non-traditional improvements and other access management strategies in selected locations with the N.C. 107 connector in place.

Right off the bat, it is critical to understand that each of these six concepts were drafted using a “D” level of service: “A” would represent the best operating conditions; “F” the worst. “D” is generally considered acceptable in urban areas, the transportation department noted in a document outlining the concepts for N.C. 107.

Setzer acknowledged that even the level of service used as the baseline in drafting these concepts is arguable. And, surely, will be argued.

One additional, very important point: Setzer said he must know what “the county’s vision” is today. Build, don’t build; improve, don’t improve — “people are going to have to say, ‘What is an acceptable level of service?’” Setzer said.

“There needs to be a community discussion on what it would take to fix 107 … and I don’t think you can proceed without knowing where the duly elected officials stand. We need to know what the vision is. Without that, we’ll simply be spinning our wheels.”

 

What Smart Roads advocates want

If you want to get involved, it pays to know what you are getting involved in. Jackson County Smart Roads Alliance promotes these alternatives:

• Expand and connect existing roads to accommodate present and future traffic.

• Implement access management concepts and other “traffic calming” solutions for N.C. 107.

• Encourage walkable communities, making it easy for people to get where they need to go without driving.

• Build and expand bike lanes and support the Jackson County Greenway plan.

• Develop public transportation and utilize pre-existing railroad lines.

• Advocate for DOT to use earmarked funds for transportation alternatives.

• Preserve the Tuckasegee River corridor for public use.

Interested? Then learn more at http://wnc.us/smartroads.

 

Understanding N.C. 107

N.C. 107 is the only major north-south transportation route in Jackson County, and serves as a “collector” for numerous secondary roads, many of which are dead-end roads that have no “connectivity.” It joins Sylva in the north with Cashiers in the south, traveling through Webster, Cullowhee and Tuckasegee in between.

There is dense commercial development along U.S. 23 Business and N.C. 107 between U.S. 23-74 and N.C. 116. About 95 driveways intersect this 3.3-mile roadway segment. Smoky Mountain High School, Fairview Elementary School, Southwestern Community College and Western Carolina University are located along, or near, N.C. 107.

N.C. 107 is a five-lane, curb-and-gutter roadway with narrow 10-foot wide travel lanes from U.S. 23 Business to approximately 1,000 feet south of Fairview Road. From there, N.C. 107 transitions to a four-lane, median-divided facility. Under 2008 conditions, the five-lane section is at, or over, its traffic-carrying capacity during peak traveling hours. By 2035, the entire five-lane section will be operating over capacity.

SOURCE: N.C. Department of Transportation

 

Get Involved

WHAT: Informational meeting on fixing traffic problems on N.C. 107 in Sylva.

WHERE: Balsam Center (Myers Auditorium lobby), Jackson County campus of Southwestern Community College, 447 College Road in Sylva.

WHEN: Tuesday, Nov. 9, from 5-7 p.m.

WHY: To share six “concepts” that could fix perceived traffic-flow issues.

WHO: Sponsored by the state Department of Transportation.

Jackson sheriff’s candidate’s only option — complain to sheriff

Is Mary Rock paranoid, trying to garner a sympathy vote? Or is her opponent for sheriff, incumbent Jimmy Ashe, really targeting her by destroying campaign signs?

Over the past week or so, three signs — the large ones, which cost about $100 each — encouraging voters to cast their support for Rock have been defaced or cut up. One near Cullowhee Valley School, where early voting is taking place, has been hit twice. This last time nothing was left, she said, but the backboard.

(Rock called The Smoky Mountain News on Monday to complain after being requested to let this newspaper know if something additional happened. This after two signs were ruined at an earlier date).

Rock said she might simply take a spray paint can and scrawl the words, “Vote for Mary Rock” on the backboard. That, she said, would be difficult to destroy. It certainly would be cheaper. And, something that easily could be done before the November election. You wouldn’t believe how much time it takes, she said, to get those campaign signs back after you order them.

Ashe did not return a call by press time Tuesday requesting comment.

Rock, 43, is a professional bail bondswoman making an initial bid for public office. She wants to become the first female sheriff in Jackson County. Doing so won’t be an easy task — Ashe is a two-term incumbent and Democrat in a Democrat-heavy county. Rock is running unaffiliated with any political party. But really, she is a Democrat, too, and is registered with the board of elections as such. Rock picked this route to give voters more time to get to know her, because she figured she’d get knocked out of the race in the May primaries if she ran as a Democrat.

Rock said she believes Ashe, his supporters, or both are trying to get her to “have to deal” with the sheriff’s department. The proper route for Rock would be to file complaints at the sheriff’s department, which she said would simply set the stage for further discomfort or even harassment.

“I can see why no one runs for public office,” Rock said of her experience.

Jackson forum allows for more candidate scrutiny ... sort of

Jackson County commissioners passed a slate of sweeping development regulations in 2007 designed to rein in what they saw as runaway development. Commissioners touted the regulations as protecting not only the environment and but also the quality of life from irresponsible mountainside construction.

The end of the laissez-faire building climate in Jackson County, that had paved the way for a proliferating number of gated communities over the past decade, angered real estate and building interests. The homebuilder’s lobby pledged to oust the four commissioners who voted in the regulations.

They failed to do so two years ago, however, when both Commissioner Mark Jones and Joe Cowan were re-elected. This year, they have their shot at Shelton and Massie. While Brian McMahan was the lone vote against the regulations in 2007 — and works for the county’s largest gated community Balsam Mountain Preserve — he has been subject to the same attacks as his fellow commissioners.

That didn’t stop the three of them — Shelton, Massie and McMahan — from taking the stage at a candidates forum sponsored by the Jackson County Homebuilder’s earlier this month.

Their opponents, however, declined an invitation to a forum hosted by Jackson County environmental groups.

What could have been tit-for-tat forums — dominated by the opposing forces of developers and environmentalists — instead fell flat. Since challengers stayed away from the environmental forum, the sitting commissioners were left preaching to the choir, and a small one at that since there was little motivation among the general public to attend a one-sided forum.

The sitting commissioners criticized the challengers for failing to show.

“I wish they could have been here tonight. I wish we could have had some good dialogue on the economy and the environment,” McMahan said.

“I think our opponents are conspicuously absent,” William Shelton said.

“I am sorry you didn’t have the opportunity to hear from our opponents, to hear what they believe in,” Tom Massie said. “We don’t know where they stand on these kind of issues.

Shelton and Massie have rejected the accusation that the development regulations passed in 2007 are to blame for the slump in real estate and development.

“We have tried to beat the drum that the policies in Jackson County are not what has killed our economy. These ordinances did not kill the economy,” Shelton said.

Massie said the challengers on the ticket want to “roll back the ordinances.”

“The subtext of their message is they don’t like the ordinances and they want to go back to the way it was four years ago. But we’re not going to go back to the way it was four years ago,” Massie said.

Jackson commission race stands out in complexity

Ambivalence toward development, and who should pace and manage growth in a manner that preserves the natural beauty of the mountains, has surfaced as the central debate in the race for Jackson County’s Board of Commissioners.

Three seats are open on the board. This includes the top the chairman’s position. Commissioners must live within their voting district to seek election, but are elected by countywide voting, or at-large.

In most Western North Carolina counties, the races for commission seats are fairly easy to categorize and subsequently, to analyze: newcomers — generally supportive of land regulations — versus long-timers — generally oppose land regulations.

Jackson County, however, is more complicated than generalizations allow. Two of the most ardent supporters of the strict development regulations now in place are scions of old mountain families: Tom Massie and William Shelton, both incumbents.

Additionally none — not one — of the commission candidates is in favor of a total absence of development regulations. Republican, Democrat and unaffiliated (all are represented in this year’s race), each in some manner, and at some level, acknowledged the necessity and responsibility of overseeing growth.

Other issues are also on the table this year: the deal struck with Duke Energy over the Dillsboro dam; pay raises that seemed to mainly benefit the already-highest paid of the county’s employees; and budget issues.

See also: Jackson forum allows for more candidate scrutiny ... sort of

 

Regulating development

Background: Three years ago, Jackson County commissioners enacted sweeping steep-slope and subdivision ordinances. Many in the development and real estate industry were angered by the regulations, which were crafted during a five-month moratorium on new subdivisions. Others protested that too many subdivisions — 238 — were exempted. The “vested rights” were to protect developers caught mid-stream by the new regulations, but were ultimately granted to developers in the planning stages. This, in turn, angered those wanting stricter growth controls.

When it comes to growth, the most hands-off candidate is Charles Elders, Shelton’s Republican opponent and a former commissioner. Even Elders, however, gives a nod to “some regulations” being necessary to protect the mountains. He is calling for a study of the current set to see if they need revision.

Shelton, a Democrat, voted for the regulations now in place. He said they weren’t developed willy-nilly, but followed a great deal of public comment from a cross-section of the county’s residents.

“I supported the temporary moratorium on new subdivisions because I felt the county needed time to develop the minimum standards without the planning department becoming overwhelmed with new applications that were simply trying to get into the system before any regulations were passed,” Shelton said.

Additionally, blaming a local governing board for a national recession doesn’t make sense, Shelton said.

But Republican Doug Cody, who is battling Massie, a Democrat, thinks the regulations should be examined “in considerable detail.”

“I also think that there should be input from a larger cross section of the community,” Cody said. “For example, I feel that there are creative ways to construct very low-density housing on steeper slopes without harming the environment.”

Massie pointed out the regulations were actually developed by members of the county’s planning board, which included a representative of the Home Builders Association. And were tweaked by commissioners. He characterized the advisory board as “reasonable, concerned citizens.”

What wasn’t reasonable — in his mind, at least — was what happened after the moratorium was placed on new developments conceived after February 2007.

“The regulations did not cause the slowdown in construction or real estate sales,” Massie said. “However, the hysteria generated by elements within the real estate and construction industries may have done more to damage that sector of the economy than the actual moratorium.”

If there is a man in the middle on these development issues, that is Chairman Brian McMahan, a Democrat. He, among the candidates, cast the sole ‘no’ vote on current development regulations. He also opposed the moratorium on subdivisions.

“Did we really accomplish anything with a moratorium but alienate and frustrate many in the public?” McMahan queried rhetorically when asked about his vote.

But McMahan’s position is more complicated than simply dismissing the regulations that were passed, because he supports — and has been consistently on record as doing so — most of what is in place.

“I found it to be true that everyone was in favor of having stable slopes,” he said. “Everyone wanted some assurances that their neighbor’s property would not slide down the mountain and destroy or damage their property.”

Everyone also wanted safe and good access and roads, McMahan said, and “appropriate” buffers.

“I stopped in my support … when the ordinances went a step beyond those health, safety and protections aspects and started trying to regulate aesthetics, which is what ‘looks good.’’

McMahan also disagreed with lot-size requirements, which he said effectively limited some development possibilities.

His opponent, Jack Debnam, who is unaffiliated with any political party, is having a difficult time delineating himself from McMahan on this issue because, frankly, their views on the subject are so similar.

Debnam supports the development regulations, but argues that he doesn’t think “we needed to cover everyone with the same blanket set” of rules. He, too, believes the moratorium was a terrible mistake.

“The implementation of the moratorium, in my opinion, gave us a five-month jumpstart on the rest of the nation in our economic downturn because of the question of what could happen next,” Debnam said.

 

Dillsboro Dam

Background: Jackson County tried to exercise eminent domain and take the dam in Dillsboro away from Duke Energy to make it the focal point of a new riverfront park along the Tuckasegee. The county lost the battle in court, and was forced to cough up a half-million dollars in legal fees. Per Duke’s wishes, the dam now has been torn down.

Elders said he believes a little more skill at the negotiating table would have served Jackson County residents better than the bare-knuckled battle that took place with Duke.

Well, Shelton responded, of course it’s always nice to sit back and scrutinize someone else’s decisions: “Hindsight makes it easy to say that we should not have fought the fight, now that history shows we lost,” he said. “However, at the time I thought it was worth the gamble. If you look at the amount gained through the settlement against the amount spent, then you have pretty much a zero-sum game.”

Cody, like Elders, doesn’t approve of the “adversarial approach” taken by the county. His problem on this issue? Neither does his opponent. In fact, Massie voted against continuing “the legal wrangling” once the county’s appeal was denied.

“I felt it was a desperate, costly, gamble with little hope for success,” Massie said.

McMahan disagrees with that assessment, saying the fight made Duke pay more attention to the demolition than it might have otherwise. Such as sediment removal, and riverbank restoration. He agreed with Shelton that, ultimately, the situation was about break-even.

Not so fast, Debnam said.

“‘A wash?’ he said, “$500,000 out-of-pocket to area attorneys, who knows how many hours of county employee time, and we get what the stakeholders had agreed to. I think that should be considered ‘a bath.’”

 

Pay raises

Background: The county instituted a pay plan for employees. Some have since protested that the only employees who truly benefited were already those who were the highest paid.

Why in the world pay someone to conduct a study when the Institute for Local Government could have been consulted, and for free, Elders wanted to know. Additionally, Shelton’s challenger said it was disappointing to watch as the lowest paid tier of employees didn’t seem to reap rewards — only those at the top.

This issue is a tough one for the incumbents. Well-intentioned the study might have been, but the effort to bring a level of fairness to the pay scale that is based on experience, education and length of service didn’t exactly work out as thought. This truth Shelton acknowledged.

“In hindsight, I feel that our board made a mistake by voting on this policy without taking into account … the ‘career ladder’ portion,” he said. “That said, I still believe that we have a fair system in place that, in the long run, will serve the county well.”

Cody, like Elders, believes paying for a study was unnecessary, and that it unfairly rewarded those at the top tier.

Massie, like Shelton, seemed uncomfortable with what took place.

“I still support those raises,” Massie said, “but I should have better understood the impact the ‘career ladder’ … would have on pay levels of the employees with the most seniority. Had I fully understood that, it might have impacted my decision.”

McMahan, alone of the incumbent commissioners running for office, is unapologetic on the issue. The old pay plan didn’t adequately compensate some employees, and the county had too much turnover of critical personnel, he said.

“In a two-year period, the board met at seven different occasions in which the plan was discussed publicly in some way. No member of the public ever voiced the first complaint until after the plan had been presented, funded and implemented,” McMahan said.

 

Managing the dollars

Background: Being an incumbent is tough. You actually have a record to defend. But here’s one issue on which Shelton, Massie and McMahan are difficult to fault. Neighboring counties had huge budget shortfalls, layoffs and other fiscal nightmares. Jackson sailed through, with very little belt-tightening.

All in all, Elders acknowledged, the county is in pretty good shape. Wouldn’t hurt to build the tax base up, he said, and get an economic development commission re-established to focus on job growth.

Shelton said the current board “trimmed down the budget incrementally” during two budget cycles.

“This past year, we cut our budget by close to 10 percent across the board, with the exception of the fire departments,” he said. “Jackson County has a healthy debt-to-asset ratio in comparison to surrounding counties, and has a strong fund balance.”

Cody isn’t prepared to credit the incumbents even for a strong budget performance — he believes the only reason this county functioned better during the extended recession is because property values were so high.

“In my opinion, the county officials overspent while the national and local economies were slowing down,” he said.

But Massie said Jackson County certainly has done a very good job of managing its budget, thank you very much. Line items were reduced, overall expenditure reduced, money was placed in a rainy day fund to help offset future problems.

“I think that the fact that Jackson County has not had to do layoffs, furloughs and severely cut services is a testament to the sound leadership of the county manager, finance director, department heads and employees,” McMahan said.

(Note: For those not-so-good at picking up on subtleties, this is an oblique defense of the county pay raises — the highest paid who got more pay under the study did a good job on the budget, ie., county manager, finance director, and so on.)

Debnam simply refused to acknowledge that even Jackson County’s budget might be sound, and that commissioners did a good job on this part of their job. Or anything else particularly.

“Until I can get in office and have a cost accounting done, I will not know what kind of job has been done,” he said.

 

More information

Some candidates weren’t there, but if you want to know where the ones who did attend a forum put on by regional environmental groups stand on certain issues, here’s a video clip courtesy of the Canary Coalition: www.youtube.com/watch?v=raasOuOc7_0

His time to shine: Stillwell’s Jackson County roots run through his music

By Brittney Burns • SMN Intern

Sylva native Matt Stillwell spent the last week of September as the opening act for country recording artist Luke Bryan’s 2010 Farm Tour.

In fact, the 35-year-old Stillwell has spent the past year touring all over the Southeast, playing shows with other well-known country acts such as Brad Paisley, Luke Bryan, Alan Jackson and Darius Rucker.

Even with his growing success as a Nashville recording artist, Stillwell never forgets his roots and family in Jackson County.  

“I don’t think I have changed, just grown,” he said.

Stillwell is a graduate of Western Carolina University, where he played baseball and made it to the SoCon Championship game. Before becoming a Catamount, Stillwell played baseball for the Mustangs at Smoky Mountain High, and before that he was proud to call himself an Eagle at Fairview Elementary.

Although his first professional music experience was in gospel, Stillwell soon began the transition to country so that he would have a broader audience and greater appeal. He admits that music appealed to him most because the hit it made him with the ladies, and Stillwell continues to flash his trademark smile at his performances, which he calls “really big parties.”

Stillwell’s early musical influences were the likes of Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings. Today, Stillwell combines those outlaw country/southern rock roots with modern country to create his own unique voice. That sound is showcased on his newest album, Shine Deluxe.

It is because of the love and support of his family and friends that Stillwell believes he has done so well in his career. Several members of Stillwell’s family still live in Sylva including Madge and George Stillwell, his parents, brothers Jeff and Luke, and Polly Wilson, his grandmother. Stillwell lives in Nashville, but returns home as often as possible to visit.

“I get home whenever I can. For the last couple of years that has been about every two months or so. If I’m close, I’ll always try and stop through town even if it’s just to eat, sometimes just a hug,” said Stillwell.

Coming back to his hometown keeps him grounded, said Stillwell.

“It is important for me to come home because that’s where I love to be, not just because of my family but because of friends and because that has shaped who I am is in Sylva and Western North Carolina.”

Stillwell often references Sylva and his family in his music; in one song he sings about meeting his brothers at the Coffee Shop, and in his “Dirt Road Dancing” music video he features his brothers’ dance moves.

Stillwell thanks his family for giving him the values and motivation to work hard for what he wants; his entire family has always worked hard for what they have, and that has taught him how important that is.

“Both mom and dad completely sacrificed everything for me and my brothers, and that has meant the world to us. They gave us the confidence to do whatever we dream of, and I will never be able to repay them for that,” Stillwell said.

Both Stillwell’s brothers and his father have construction companies, and have always been up before dawn and come home after dark in order to be successful. His mother was a school teacher and got three boys out of bed, to school, and to ball practice every day.

When Stillwell began focusing on his musical career, the Sylva community welcomed him and supported his efforts.

“Sylva has always given me support and a place to come and play and build a following and momentum in my career. Even when I was just learning to sing, write and play, the entire town has always been good to me and that gave me confidence and something to build a career on,” Stillwell said.

On a wider spectrum, WNC has also welcomed Stillwell and has given him the small town morals and close-knit values that has helped shape who he is as an artist.

“It has given me a region, not just a town, that I am proud to say I am from and promote. There are great venues in WNC to play and there is a great history and beauty in the region. It’s great to be able to say I am from there and all that goes with it: the people, the landscape, and the pride of the area,” he said.

Sttillwell started singing in his church choir, and the Southern soulfulness and bluegrass influence is very apparent in all of his music. Stillwell hosts an annual event, Shinefest, in Fontana each summer. Shinefest highlights local artist as well as advertises various types of moonshine.

Stillwell chose the beautiful mountains around Fontana for reasons which can’t be found anywhere else.

“I did pick it [Fontana] to keep it local; there is something about these mountains that is completely unique. Moonshine is a part of the culture and Fontana embodies that; the Smoky Mountain, the cabins, the lake, the location all plays a part in the setting of Shinefest. It would be really hard to recreate the atmosphere in another area. I think you could recreate the music and party side of Shinefest, but not the atmosphere. Having everyone in one place and there for one common reason is incredible and I think it would be tough to have that somewhere else.”

Stillwell is visiting Sylva to perform at the new bar, Bottoms Up, on Friday, Oct. 22. He chose this date to return to his hometown to perform the day before the WCU/Appalachian State game, a day important to his alma matar and the community that helped raise him.

Stillwell’s continuing success has certainly not changed him. He is still thankful for the small town where he was born, and where he will always call home.

Stillwell said because of his career opportunity, “I’m more confident in who I am and I’m completely happy with what I do for a living; I’ve been able to understand that I am truly blessed to have that in my life, I don’t take that for granted at all and hope that it shows in what I do and who I am.”

 

See him live

Matt Stillwell will perform on Oct. 22 at Bottoms Up in Sylva.

Whittier board in hot water with state treasurer

The chairman of a board overseeing the water needs of just more than 100 residents in the Whittier community said people there will keep receiving the service, and that state concerns about the group’s operations are being addressed.

Whittier Sanitary District at this point contracts out sewer services to the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority. It still directly oversees the community’s water supply.

The Department of State Treasurer, in a Sept. 8 letter, warned the district “has serious financial problems which the governing board must address immediately.”

State concerns included: No budget has been adopted, the district operated at a net loss with actual expenses exceeding budgeted expenses, board members were reportedly receiving utility services free of charge as a perk, an audit hadn’t been performed as required by state law and the financial officer wasn’t bonded as the law stipulated.

Mitchell Jenkins, chairman of the three-member board, said the Whittier Sewer District does now have a budget, and that it will be adopted at next month’s meeting. Members are “not now” receiving free utilities, and the group was late getting an auditor because they were shopping around for someone affordable, he said.

Water customers, who pay $17.50 monthly to residential water service and $20 monthly for a business, don’t need to worry, the board chairman said, describing Whittier Sanitary District as “a good working system.”

Jackson County Manager Kenneth Westmoreland said he was aware of the state letter to the Whittier Sanitary District, but described the county’s role as “nebulous.”

Whittier is located in both Jackson and Swain counties. The sanitary district’s three-member board has oversight. Board members are elected, but two resigned in the past year.

Jackson County commissioners appointed John Boaze, one of those members, recently to fill one of the vacancies. He has been a sharp critic of how things are — or are not — being managed.

“I’m just hoping we can start complying with the laws of North Carolina,” Boaze said, adding that board members planned to go through the letter “point by point” during its Oct. 7 meeting.

“We need a reliable water system in this area,” he said. “That’s my main concern.”

There are also potential problems looming for the sewer-system side of the enterprise. Just 14 customers have signed on to receive sewer services through the Whittier Sewer District, managed by Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority. But, the system was intended to become self-sustaining, and shows few signs as yet of achieving that goal.

“Whittier Sewer District has not been very aggressive about soliciting customers,” Westmoreland said.

Jackson sheriffs race marked by acrimony

Mary Rock wants to become the first female sheriff in Jackson County, but gaining that title against two-term incumbent and Democrat Jimmy Ashe won’t be easy.

Part of Rock’s tactic is that she is running unaffiliated rather than under the banner of a political party. She is a registered Democrat, however.

“I did not feel that I would have as much time for folks to get to know me if I ran as a Democrat,” Rock, 43, said of the difficulty she would have had winning the primary against Ashe back in May. “But the biggest reason is that I’m not seeking the job to be either a Democrat or Republican — I want to serve all people.”

Rock, a U.S. Army veteran, served in the military police for two years, and spent an additional five years in the reserve. She then completed her basic law enforcement training at Southwestern Community College. Afterwards, she began a double major at Western Carolina University in social work and criminal justice. Rock works as a professional bail bondsman, a job she’s held for 12 years.

“I’m an officer of the courts,” Rock said. “I take people into custody.”

If elected, she said she’ll place more emphasis on manning the substations at the farthest ends of the county, arrest drug dealers, work closely with social workers who are investigating elder and child abuse, cooperate and work with other agencies, tackle property theft, and operate with “a moral compass.”

“I feel (Ashe) has abused his power,” Rock said, in reference to revelations that Ashe used state and federal money from narcotics seizures to operate an informal fund for youth sports.

Additionally, the sheriff used $20,000 from the fund to pay for a carpet in the sheriff’s office and $400 to list himself on a national “who’s who” list. Ashe also, while off duty, road a Harley Davidson motorcycle that had been seized from a drug dealer.

State authorities deemed the sheriff’s use of the money on sports was not illegal, but the lack of oversight violated a general statute. Jackson County in response changed how it administers the narcotics fund.

Ashe, 51, is unapologetic about steering money toward helping the young people of his county.

“That’s putting back what the drug dealers have taken away,” he said, adding that his tenure in office has been “above board and transparent.”

Ashe said his opponent is mudslinging. He pointed to his experience, and the work done against crime since he’s been sheriff, as being the real issues.

Ashe has been in law enforcement for 29 years. He started in 1981 as a dispatcher and jailer, working his way up to the top post. Stops along the way include work as a detective and as chief deputy.

“Law enforcement has been my life and career for more than half my life,” Ashe said. “I think it was my destiny to be where I am — serving the public.”

In response to Rock’s plan to man the substations, Ashe said he keeps deputies active on the roads in the farthest parts of the county. He said he doesn’t want them out-of-sight behind a desk.

Ashe also pointed to anti-drug programs he’s instituted, an inmate work program, and other initiatives as reasons he should be reelected sheriff.

Get creative at Green Energy Park’s Youth Art Festival Sept. 18

The 3rd Annual Youth Art Festival will take place from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 18, at the Jackson County Green Energy Park.

Opportunities abound for hands-on art activities such as sidewalk chalk, mural painting, tile mosaics, paper weaving, hand-building with clay and tile painting. Experience professional artists demonstrating their abilities with hot glass, basket-weaving, pottery, blacksmithing, painting, drawing and more.

New this year, there will be a stage with entertainment throughout the day. Guest performing artists include a Mexican Mariachi band, Cherokee traditional dancers, a jazz quintet, numerous local musicians and performing artists, a dancing trash dragon, and Western Carolina University’s esteemed Gamelan group.

“The festival is a great opportunity for local youth to get creative themselves while they watch artists and entertainers perform and demonstrate,” said Carrie Blaskowski with the Jackson County Green Energy Park. “We hope to see many families come out and take advantage of the opportunity.”

Blaskowski said the event wouldn’t be possible without the support of Western Carolina University and Southwestern Community College.

“Many of the participants, entertainers, volunteers and artists are students, faculty and staff from the university and from SCC. It has been a great collaborative effort,” Blaskowski  said.

This event is free and open to the public. The Green Energy Park is located off Haywood Road near the Huddle House in Dillsboro. Free shuttle and overflow parking runs every 10 minutes from the Monteith Park near downtown Dillsboro.

828.631.0271.

How would being a town help Cullowhee?

In hopes of transforming Cullowhee into a more vibrant college community, a group dedicated to reinventing the lackluster area around campus wants the Village of Forest Hills to expand its town limits and annex a portion of the university and its surrounds.

The restaurants, coffee shops and bars typically found around universities are markedly absent at Western— witnessed by a standing joke on campus that “Cullowhee is a state of mind.”

One barrier to revitalization in Cullowhee is the lack of legal alcohol sales. Alcohol sales, from a six-pack at a gas station to a glass of wine with dinner, aren’t allowed by the county. Incorporated towns have the option of allowing alcohol sales, however, as do Sylva and Dillsboro.

If the annexation goes through, and if the Village of Forest Hills in turn passed a law to allow alcohol sales, it would help attract restaurants and a grocery store.

But there are other ways incorporation might benefit Cullowhee revitalization. Lacking town designation, the community is missing out on state and federal grants, from funding for sidewalks to sewer lines. If incorporated, the area would also be entitled to a cut sales tax revenue collected by merchants in the town limits.

Another option, and one that remains if the Village of Forest Hills decides not to expand, is for Cullowhee to incorporate as brand-new town of its own. But the process would be more arduous and complicated.

Tiny town of Forest Hills holds fate of Cullowhee revitalization in its hands

Being the top leader of the Village of Forest Hills isn’t as serene as it once was.

Admittedly, Irene Hooper, the first mayor of this subdivision-turned-town, dealt with some thorny issues after the residential area near Western Carolina University voted to incorporate in 1997. Her job, mainly, was to ferry the town through the mechanics of keeping student housing out. The 350 to 400 people living in the Village of Forest Hills were clear on not wanting students taking over their community.

“We have a lovely area here,” Hooper said at the time. “Or, we did, let’s put it that way. Mailboxes are being torn down, beer bottles are thrown around, cars are racing, parties are going on and dogs are barking.”

The newly sworn town board’s first act after the referendum to incorporate passed? Adopting a building moratorium on everything but single-family, site-built, residential houses with at least 2,000 feet of heated space. The board was confident there weren’t many students who could afford that kind of housing, given the average home in the Village of Forest Hills at that time was just 1,843 square feet in size.

Thirteen years later, the town’s current top leader is also grappling with growth issues. But that’s about where the similarity begins and ends. Mayor Jim Wallace has to help decide: Should the Village of Forest Hills embrace what it once so clearly rejected? Should the town actually agree to annex university land into its town limits, and perhaps even change its name to Cullowhee?

Decision-making time is nigh. Wallace said he believes the town’s board members will vote “yes” for annexation. That is, if WCU, in the next couple of weeks, brings to the town a document containing what the mayor anticipates — a method outlining exactly how the town could best accommodate the mixed-use land plan necessary for the Village of Forest Hills to move forward with the annexation.

See also: How would being a town help Cullowhee?

 

Growing thoughtfully?

There isn’t much to be seen in the one square mile that makes up the Village of Forest Hills. Tidy houses, an inn, an informally designed and painted sign posted along N.C. 107 with the town’s name set against a backdrop of trees and some mountains.

That about sums things up, except to note that residents are taxed one penny, the town has hired zero employees to work in its non-existent town hall, and the board’s meetings are held down the road at the county’s recreation center. Oh, and the town hires off-duty deputies to patrol on weekend evenings during the school year to help keep things under control, plus oversee general street maintenance. That includes fixing potholes.

Dawn Gilchrist-Young, a resident of the Village of Forest Hills who serves on the town’s planning board, said she doesn’t fear higher taxes if the annexation takes place.

“My primary reason for moving to Forest Hills was its promise of protection from thoughtless growth, but I think this would be thoughtful growth,” she wrote in an email. “As one of our council members has said, this will allow us a say in what happens around Forest Hills. It would seem a great deal is about to happen just a mile or so below us at the university.”

Justin Menickelli, an associate professor for WCU in the department of health, physical education and recreation, also lives in the Village of Forest Hills. He, like neighbor Gilchrist-Young, favors annexation as a means of controlling the growth that now seems inevitable. Inside town limits, ordinances can control the nature, scale and aesthetics of development.

“I think it is a great idea,” Menickelli said. “I know there are people who are against it, worried about corporate-type chains coming in. I just don’t think that will happen (on a large scale) — maybe a grocery, or a couple of restaurants.”

Gilchrist-Young also touched on the possibility of chain restaurants and businesses in Cullowhee. Unlike Menickelli, she fears the town center WCU Chancellor John Bardo wants to build — essentially, a new commercial district now lacking in the community — will be homogeneous, and without local flavor or character.

“WCU’s population is more a Zaxby’s/Target/Abercrombie population than they are farmers market and outdoor café population, so the planners and businesses will make decisions reflective of that, I’m afraid,” she said.

That is organic farmer Curt Collins’ fears, as well. He is in his third year of farming, running Avant Garden in Cullowhee. But Collins, though fervent and unapologetic in his support for local businesses over large, corporate ones, picked his words carefully.

“This is not ‘me versus the university,’” Collins said. “Ultimately, what the university desires is the end goal that all of us desire — the betterment of this area.”

On Saturday, a ‘Cullowhee Happening’ cultural event will take place at Avant Garden from 3 to 10 p.m. Collins also sees the event as a natural setting for people to discuss plans and share ideas about the future of their community.

 

What the future might hold

Town center, as conceived and promoted by Bardo, would primarily be a 35-acre commercial hub abutting N.C. 107. It would extend from the Fine and Performing Arts Center to the Ramsey Center. Sites would be leased to restaurants, coffee shops, bookstores and perhaps a specialty-style grocery store.

Bardo has promoted mixed-use development. So there might be condominiums as well as shops. University-type structures would be held to a minimum. WCU wants board members of the Village of Forest Hills to adopt the town-center plan in its entirety, a wholesale approval of the development plans that would be good for 20 years, so that individual businesses wouldn’t need to seek approval by the town.

“Some things I like about this, some I don’t,” said Bill Supinski, a senior English major at WCU who was sitting outside the Mad Batter restaurant one day last week. “It would be nice to be able to buy alcohol, but that’s not really necessary. Sylva is just 5 miles away.”

Supinski said he was attracted to WCU because it’s the antitheses of his hometown, Raleigh.

“I didn’t want to live like that anymore. If you want those kinds of places (corporate businesses, chain restaurants), you should move there,” he said.

Adam Bigelow, a senior in environmental science, said he wants Cullowhee to become a town “without corporations” that is a model of local sustainability.

 

Downstate, another town and university partnership

WCU, in not having an incorporated town to help provide that college-town feel, is in an unusual situation. But it isn’t unheard of for a university and a town to join in promoting mutual business interests. Take Elon and Elon University, for example.

Elon, founded in 1889, developed in concert with the university. Though they are two independent entities, the town exists because of the university, said Eric Townsend, director of Elon University’s news bureau.

“The town makes its own decisions,” he said. “That said, part of our strategic plan is to help bring in more private businesses.”

Currently, the town consists of some restaurants, a few boutiques and some retail establishments. It could be more vibrant, Townsend said.

“There’s a series of guidelines we’d like to see happen over the next 10 years,” he said.

The town’s leaders want the same as university leaders, said Elon Manager Mike Dula, whose daughter is Sylva Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower.

Elon and Elon University always have worked closely together, meeting the university’s needs for water and sewer, coordinating police forces, and other joint projects. But the 10-year plan is a high mark in that relationship. For the first time, the two are looking to jointly redevelop and revitalize the small downtown area.

To that end, a committee has been formed that is made up of a consultant, two aldermen, the town’s planner, the university’s vice president for business affairs, and the vice president’s assistant.

“This is to see how we to try to move forward from here,” Dula said.

 

‘100-percent negotiable’

Back home in the Village of Forest Hills, Mayor Wallace positively bristles over insinuations that WCU leaders are calling the shots when it comes to possible annexation by the town. That simply isn’t true, he said, the town board remains firmly in charge.

“The chancellor has assured us, it is 100-percent negotiable,” Wallace said. “And people have preconceived ideas about what the university will do. They think it will just be an ugly mess — that’s not true.”

What’s also not true, the mayor added, is any possibility that the Village of Forest Hills will get into the business of involuntary annexation — of anyone, anywhere, anytime. That includes along old N.C. 107, or Old Cullowhee Road, which has seen the group, Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavor, form for the purposes of rebuilding what, at one time, represented the main corridor into the university.

Cullowhee boosters believe incorporation is key to the successful redevelopment of Old Cullowee. This, unlike the university’s proposal, will mean private property owners will have to sign on to the idea.

“We will not force annexation,” Wallace said. “When old 107 is ready, they can petition us.”

Mary Jean Herzog, a WCU professor in the department of educational leadership and foundations, is careful to separate the work of the Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavor from the university.

“This is a community organization, not a university one,” she said. “We’re really just a group of people who got together because of a mutual interest.”

That is, to beautify and invigorate Old Cullowhee Road. There, now, are a few businesses, including restaurants, a tattoo parlor, body shop, an auto-repair shop. After discussing what it would take to revitalize the area — river walkways, streetlamps, a river park, sidewalks connecting students to businesses — members of the group realized they wouldn’t be able to tap sources of money, such as grants, without real-town status.

Efforts in the 1970s to incorporate had failed. But there have been no real attempts made since then, Herzog said.

“I would like for Cullowhee to be a town as nice as Sylva, or Weaverville. … Growth is going to come. Do we want to be in charge of our destiny, or wait for unbridled growth and development?” she said.

Village of Forest Hills resident Menickelli believes the potential for growth on Old Cullowhee Road is tremendous and supports the idea of his town underpinning the revitalization effort.

“I just want to applaud the efforts of the (revitalization) group,” he said. “Old Cullowhee needs to be cleaned up.”

Meanwhile, former Mayor Hooper worries about growth of the Village of Forest Hills. But she worries more about that growth being left unchecked and unplanned.

“I hope we won’t lose our identity as the little village,” Hooper said. “But I think it will probably be a good thing in the long run. For all of Western North Carolina, and particularly, WCU.”

 

Festival celebrates Cullowhee

Cullowhee Happening, a cultural event and festival, will be held from 3 to 10 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 11, at Avant Garden.
Three bands will perform. This is a fundraiser for the Cullowhee Revitalization Effort, a group dedicated to rebuilding Old Cullowhee. See this week’s Outdoors section for information on a paddling race held on the Cullowhee section of the Tuck in conjunction with the event.

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