Can’t pop the top

As part of the major renovation of the historic Jackson County Courthouse, workers from Brantley Construction were set to remove the building’s signature dome last Friday. But three separate attempts to lift it off by crane failed.

The wood inside the dome has been compromised by rot, and Brantley’s carpenters are ready to restore it. But they need to be able to reach it first.

The removal process began at 10 a.m. on Friday morning, and the crews expected to have the dome off before lunch. But the project’s manager, David Cates, stressed all along that there was no exact schedule for getting the dome down.

Interested citizens, photographers and well-wishers gathered throughout the day to watch the momentous occasion, but in the end, the old dome proved stubborn.

The removal process entailed installing a steel frame around the dome to support its weight. The frame was hooked to a crane that could lift it free from the main structure of the Courthouse.

Before that could be done, work crews had to remove the bolts that held the dome to the courthouse roof then cut it all the way free with saws.

According to the Friends of the Jackson County Main Library, the project’s manager determined a heavier crane was needed for the job, and the attempts were abandoned around 5 p.m.

The removal will be re-attempted when the new crane is in place.

Sylva woodworker goes back to the future

In our commodity-driven world, it may seem absurd to spend a year making a table. But for Sylva woodworker Brian Bartel, a year is just a fiber in the grand tapestry of tradition.

“My grandpa lived across the street from me growing up, and he taught me how to work hand tools,” Bartel said. “I was older before I realized what he’d done to me.”

Bartel recently completed work on a nine-foot long dining room table, its top a slab of three-inch thick black walnut. The project, which took more than a year to complete, was commissioned by Sylva part-time resident Sean Weaver and required milling more than 75 board feet of lumber to fine the choicest grain.

Weaver had a vision in his head of a dining room table that would serve as the focal point of his house. He didn’t want the piece to be something you could find anywhere else.

“I started asking around to a bunch of different woodworking people, and the fingers all started pointing at him as someone who could pull this off,” Weaver said.

Bartel, who moved to the mountains from Central Florida 12 years ago, has followed his own path to becoming a master craftsman.

Having gotten his start woodworking through construction and remodeling jobs, he eventually began making furniture using recovered barn wood and featuring old designs that employed hand-cut joints.

Along the way, Bartel started buying old tools whenever he found them, assembling a collection of hundred-year old planes, chisels and saws that he outfitted in a custom cabinet complete with tiny toggles to keep them in place.

Weaver’s table assignment came along just as Bartel was looking for a challenge worthy of the name.

“This table right here is so far out of the realm of what I’ve ever done,” Bartel said. “It’s really pushed me. I’m pleased with it.”

The table’s top weighs more than 400 pounds and is adorned with hand-cut bow-tie inlays of white sycamore and African wenge wood. Ten metal screws affix the top to the base, and that is the only metal in the project. Every other attachment is functional joinery.

But the story of the table is not in its final design, its fancy adornments or its glossy finish.

“When I first met this table, I met it in the wood,” Bartel said.

Bartel and Weaver spent weeks looking for wood, before they settled on a massive black walnut tree that had been cut in a local yard and chopped into logs. The wood then had to be milled into slabs and studied for quality. Then it had to be kiln dried.

“There’s no drying schedule for wood that thick,” Bartel said.

Weaver and Bartel designed it together, using the vision of the patron and the know-how of the craftsman.

“You’re letting the wood be itself, but you’re conforming it to what you want,” Bartel said.

Bartel only uses Japanese planes because they cut so precisely, and he is as familiar with the philosophy of his art as its practice. He counts George Nakashima’s The Soul of a Tree and James Krenov’s A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook as parts of his toolkit.

To Bartel, wood is a living thing and woodworking is a live tradition, as evidenced by a restoration project he undertook recently for another customer.

Bartel was able to reliably date the antique as a 17th century relief-carving panel made of Honduran mahogany and fabricated in central Europe. That means the panel came from the New World to Spain on a ship and was sold to a merchant who moved the wood to the interior of the continent. Bartel’s first job was to take off the finish to see what he had.

“When I got the wash off of it I realize I was the first guy in 400 years to see this piece in that kind of detail,” Bartel said.

For Bartel, the connection to the past is not accidental.

“It’s like I could have been making my living like this 100 years ago and very little would have changed,” Bartel said.

But a year for a table can’t ever be considered typical. Bartel nearly lost his temper after he put a finish with too much talc on, layer after thin layer. The finish obscured the shine in the wood grain and he had to take it off.

“Right now I’m at that point. I’ve got blisters on my thumbs. I’ve sanded it a dozen times. Every aspect of the thing has to be perfect and over the course of a year, and it’s like...” Bartel stopped and shook his head.

But now the table is done, a work of art, the centerpiece of Weaver’s home. Weaver said he already has plans for more of Bartel’s furniture in his home. For Bartel, the market is telling him that in the end, people will pay for the winding road he has taken to his craft.

“It seems like value is coming back,” Bartel said. “People will spend money on something that will last forever.”

And now he has a piece of work that can stand the test of time with his own sign etched into the grain of the black walnut.

“As hard as this has been, it’s something I’ll remember the rest of my life,” Bartel said. “This process is still alive.”

Employee pay at center of Jackson County budget debate

With the Jackson County budget a few short weeks from completion, a split emerged among commissioners concerning raises for county workers.

Last week Commissioners Tom Massie, William Shelton and Mark Jones voted to eliminate employee raises in the upcoming budget and save the county $294,000.

Both Chairman Brian McMahan and Commissioner Joe Cowan opposed the measure.

McMahan isn’t happy with the decision, which he sees as abandoning an employee compensation system the board has already paid dearly for implementing.

Last year, the board commissioned a salary study for all county positions. The study recommended big raises for those already in the highest paid county positions. Commissioners enacted the raises but at a high political price.

“We took a lot of criticism about salary increases and the Mercer Study, and for us not to stay with the system was just backing up,” McMahan said.

Nonetheless, Massie proposed cutting step raises for 400 employees, an automatic increase of 2 percent of their annual salary.

Massie suggested the cuts in a budget work session last week. There have been more than a dozen budget work sessions in recent months, but last week was the first mention of cutting employee raises.

Massie said few workers are getting raises these days. State employees, school employees and the employees of surrounding counties haven’t gotten increases for two years, he said.

“We’ve bucked the trend the past couple of years, but this year just isn’t the year to raise salaries,” Massie said.

Massie said he doesn’t believe the commissioners should have to insulate the county’s workers from the economic troubles everyone else is feeling.

McMahan countered that a major portion of the money saved through the cuts is merely being reapportioned to other programs rather than used to lower taxes. Indeed, $112,621 is set to go back into the community in the form of contributions to the libraries and resources like the Community Table and the Jackson County Animal Shelter. Another $50,000 was placed back into the county’s contingency fund, and more than $200,000 will be set aside for future capital projects.

At a public hearing on the budget, the county heard from several community organizations requesting financial support.

For McMahan, the step increases are part of a larger employee compensation system that he said has helped the county attract and retain quality workers. He also objected to the late timing of the decision.

“If we were going to do this, it should have been brought up in January so the employees could plan for it,” McMahan said.

County employees had their insurance benefits changed this year, and their annual deductible was raised from $500 to $1,250.

The debate over the step increases was the one hot point in what has been a relatively amicable budget process.

The budget drafted by County Manager Ken Westmoreland called for a 9 percent overall reduction from last year. But the decrease was achieved primarily by leaving vacant positions unfilled, reducing capital expenditure outlays, and nickel and diming across the departments.

Jackson County has not had to cut services or jobs this year.

The commissioners also designated $80,000 for commercial investment in the county’s economic development fund, a signal that the county intends to get its Economic Development Commission back into action after years of controversy paralyzed it.

The county’s total budget in its most recent form weighs in at $66.6 million.

Schools watch, wait and plan as Raleigh budget debate plays out

While university leaders are nervously hoping state lawmakers will pass a budget that looks something like the Senate version, many K-12 school officials are openly rooting for the House version.

Seeing public schools and colleges compete for the same budget dollars is not unusual, especially during this recession.

John Bardo, chancellor for Western Carolina University, said the budget would ideally not pit educational systems against each other.

“We cannot get good students in our institutions if the K-12 sector or the community colleges aren’t doing their jobs,” said Bardo, adding that lawmakers should consider the various entities as one system that builds competitiveness for North Carolina.

Bill Nolte, associate superintendent for Haywood County, added that he understands the dilemma leaders across the board face during this recession.

“We know it’s not the mayor’s fault or the state superintendent’s fault. It’s just the state of the world economy right now,” said Nolte.

According to Nolte, the governor’s budget is the least desirable for K-12 schools. To prepare for the worst, that’s the version Haywood County schools is working with in crafting its budget.

Last year, Haywood County’s school system lost 44.5 positions. This year, Nolte estimates Haywood will lose around a dozen more.

“Out of 1,200 plus, it’s a lot, but it could be a lot worse,” Nolte said, citing the total number of school employees. About 10 of the 12 positions would be absorbed through retirement and resignations, avoiding actual layoffs but impacting staff levels nonetheless.

Other budget cuts will likely limit textbook purchases, replacement of school buses and staff training.

While state lawmakers make mandatory cuts for all public schools, they also require individual school systems to decide where to make additional cuts. Under the governor’s budget, Haywood has to come up with $2.3 million in additional cuts, compared to $1.4 million under the House budget.

Gwen Edwards, finance officer for Jackson County Schools, said the K-12 school system will probably have to make $750,000 of its own discretionary cuts above and beyond what state lawmakers slash.

Federal stimulus money may make up the difference this year, but that money, which has eased the pain of state cuts for two years now, will dry up come the 2011-12 school year.

“We’re anticipating that that’s where a lot of hurting is going to be,” said Edwards.

Jan Letendre, finance officer for Swain County Schools, said many have likened the cutoff in federal stimulus money to a “funding cliff.” What’s also worrying for Letendre, though, are state cuts in funding for custodians, school secretaries and substitute teachers.

Letendre pegs the discretionary cuts for Swain’s school system at about $575,000 this year.

Exploring Sylva’s secret garden

Jay Coward is no stranger to Pinnacle Park.

When the work day ends, Coward often trades in his attorney’s suit and tie for hiking attire and escapes into the 1,000-acre wilderness at Sylva’s doorstep. An intergral player with the Pinnacle Park Foundation since the early ‘90s, Coward notices every spiderwort bloom, every bit of trash and every burgeoning erosion issue in the forest. Hiking with Coward, you begin to understand why so many longtime Sylva residents have put so much work into keeping it wild. He first visited the Fisher Creek watershed on a church retreat as a young boy.

“This is one of the most beautiful places in the world, I think,” Coward said. “It’s got two of the most beautiful peaks in the Southern Appalachians –– the Pinnacle and Black Rock.”

With the preserve safe from development in perpetuity as a result of a 2006 conservation agreement, the question these days is how to get it ready to deal with more people as discovery of the secret enclave is inevitable.

The History

Pinnacle Park is a 1,000-acre tract, bounded by steep ridges, that drains the east and west forks of Fisher Creek. The creek was dammed up and served as the source of Sylva’s drinking water.

During a period of prolonged drought in the mid-‘80s, the watershed failed to meet the town’s needs, which were also expanding.

At one point, things got so bad that National Guard tankers were forced to deliver water to the hospital. The crisis led to the mothballing of the old watershed in 1992 and the creation of the Tuckaseigee Water & Sewer Authority, which now pulls drinking water from the river.

The same scenario played out in Bryson City, Canton and Murphy, as small watersheds were no longer able to support water demands of their growing populations during drought seasons.

Bill Gibson, the head of Region A at the Southwestern Planning Commission, was watching closely, fearing what may happen to the vast tracts now that they were no longer needed as a source for drinking water.

Gibson said he first heard the idea of preserving Sylva’s old watershed from Tom Massie, who was assistant county manager for Jackson County at the time. Massie and Sylva Mayor Brenda Oliver were behind the push to save the watershed from logging or development.

That same year, 1992, the town of Sylva passed a resolution to preserve the area for conservation, preservation, and recreation. But Coward wanted more certainty than a verbal pledge that could be reversed by the next slate of elected leaders.

“We really needed more than just a resolution,” Coward said. “Because we knew the board might not get re-elected.”

Coward worked with Gibson and others to form a broad-based board of directors for a new nonprofit, The Pinnacle Park Foundation, and they leased the watershed from the town for 25 years, ensuring a new town board couldn’t come in and overturn the policy of preservation.

But the concern persisted that future town leaders would see the old watershed as an asset to be exploited. Some people wanted to log it. Others saw it as a property ripe for development. As a town commissioner at that time, current Sylva Mayor Maurice Moody said the town needed to get more out of it than a nice view.

Those arguments came to a head in 2005, and the town contracted Peter Bates, a forestry professor at Western Carolina University, to survey the property and determine its value. Bates’ team spent the better part of the year studying the old watershed. It found that while there were a few stands of good timber, the area was so steep and inaccessible that it would cost more to log than it would yield.

“Based on that opinion from him, the whole idea of logging went away,” Coward said. “Plus by that time, we had significant enough ammunition to go to the town board and say, ‘Let’s get a conservation easement.’”

In 2006, with the assistance of the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, Sylva entered a conservation agreement that would permanently restrict development and logging and keep it wild forever. The Clean Water Management Trust Fund gave the town $3.5 million in exchange.

“It was a sustained feeling and policy. A sustained set of ideals that transcended people and changes in the board. It never died,” Gibson said of the movement.

The Park

“The idea of having a park like this is a pretty unique thing for a little town,” Coward said.

Most towns don’t have the resources to deal with a 1,000 acres of wild green space. Pinnacle Park is a steep, rocky piece of land traversed by two old logging roads. One road travels along the west fork of Fisher Creek toward the ridgeline and Pinnacle Peak; the other follows the east fork up toward Black Rock and a rough trail that continues on to Waterrock Knob via the old foxhunter’s camp.

Both of the old roads — which are now foot trails — are gateways to tremendous tracts of public land, full of beautiful views and waterfalls, but they’re also very, very steep. Some stretches have a slope of 70 percent, poor for walking and worse for erosion control.

Ever since the Pinnacle Park Foundation was formed, it has had the challenge of maintaining and developing its trail system. The town has helped and so have civic organizations like the Rotary Club and the Boy Scouts, but much of the effort has been undertaken by Coward, who walks the land like a protective parent.

“Every long movement has to have one really pugnacious, patient guy who will do the same things over and over again,” Coward said.

On a recent trip to the park, Coward pointed out recent developments on the trail system’s lower section, which weaves in and around the old dam that anchored the watershed.

The trails in that part of the park, which Coward said are close to being considered handicap accessible recreation trails, were opened with help from the Rotary Club in 1999.

Last year, the town contributed $25,000 to the park. The money went to improve the parking area, which was severely undersized and inadequate; build footers for bridges over the creek; and create a more robust system of sediment control on the old logging road that is the principal path in the park.

As Coward crossed the creek, he spotted a Busch Lite box at the edge of a deep pool. He scrambled down the bank, retrieved it and told a story about the pool.

“One of the residents nearby came to me and said, ‘I saw naked people swimming around in there,’” Coward said. “And I said, ‘What’s wrong with that?’”

The man scratched his head.

Pinnacle Park is more open and accessible than it’s ever been before, but it’s still underdeveloped. Erosion and kudzu are ever-present concerns. The lower trail system needs four bridges before it provides real accessibility for people who won’t be able to enjoy the upper reaches of the park.

Meanwhile trail signage is limited, the park lacks an official map, and its main thoroughfares are too steep for most people.

But for Coward, the hard part of the battle has been won already.

“I think the philosophical achievement is just to set the example of what you can do. You can preserve a wilderness area. We did,” he said.

The Future

Too many people have put too much work into Pinnacle Park for it to remain inhospitable to the public.

At the same time, the wildness of the place, its lack of strict regulations, and even its very steepness are part of what make it great.

If you live in Sylva, you can drive to the park and be out of your car in 15 minutes. In another 30 minutes you can be sitting under a waterfall. And, unlike in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, you can bring your dog along, too.

Recognizing the park’s unique place in the public land structure in Jackson County, Emily Elders, Jackson County Greenways director, worked to get the county in line to offer some of its resources to the effort to develop the park.

“A lot of local people grew up fishing, hunting and hiking it, and it’s an opportunity to carry over that respect for the place to preserve a natural site in its wild state,” Elders said.

Elders has access to the N.C. DENR’s trail-building teams and has worked with area director Tim Johnson to map out a strategy for making the trails at Pinnacle more friendly to the environment and hikers both.

Coward also has ideas about where trails should be, and the town recently formalized a camping policy that will go into effect after three designated campsites are completed. Those are big steps in and of themselves.

In short, while Pinnacle Park has a long list of needs, it’s also a few baby steps away from being in pretty good shape to handle a moderate amount of locally driven traffic, particularly in its lower reaches.

As Coward got back into his truck in the new, roomy gravel parking lot, a truck pulled up and two young backpackers unloaded.

“We came up to do some paddling and stopped at Black Rock Outfitters and asked where we could camp,” said Derek Bradley 22, of Marietta. “And they said, ‘There’s the Pinnacle.’”

Coward whipped out a topographic map of the watershed he had in his truck. There are no maps sold or distributed locally. He showed Bradley and his friend Brendan Meyers what their options were, and the two spry young men headed up the trail headed for the one and a half hour walk to the Pinnacle.

“The Pinnacle, because it juts right out into the community is sort of an intimate place,” Coward said. “Black Rock is windswept. It really ought to be called Pinnacle.”

And just like that, Coward touched on the secret of the park. It’s an unlabeled green space with close ties to the people and the place.

The park still has plenty of secrets to unfold, like the falls on the West Fork, but for now, its mystery remains a part of its development.

“If it’s just sort of under the radar, it keeps the impact down a little bit,” Coward said, smiling slyly.

How to get there?

The Pinnacle Park trailhead lies at the end of Fisher Creek Road. To get there from Sylva, take Skyland Drive all the way out of town and cross under the Great Smoky Mountain Expressway. Make your second left onto Fisher Creek Road and continue to the end.

Downtown Sylva to get more free parking

Years of complaining by Sylva merchants that there isn’t enough parking downtown has spurred the Sylva town board to lease a private parking lot near the intersection of Mill and Main Streets.

The board voted 4 to 1 to lease the Sammy Cogdill parking lot for $400 per month in order to alleviate a perceived parking crunch and to address concerns about the safety of oversized vehicles parking in diagonal spots.

The ongoing debate over parking in downtown Sylva resurfaced in May when Western Carolina University student Thaddeus Huff published the findings of a downtown parking study he conducted as part of his graduate research. His conclusion contested the idea that there was a parking shortage in Sylva. Huff’s study found there were plenty of spaces in the greater downtown area — people just weren’t willing to walk more than a block to their destinations.

Huff’s study did identify the south end of Main Street as the area most in need of parking, and he suggested encouraging people to park in other parts of town as a solution.

Many local merchants, however, believed that Huff’s study — which was conducted in March — didn’t take into account congestion during the most heavily trafficked time of year or during festival weekends. They cited anecdotal evidence that customers routinely struggle to find parking at key times of day.

The town board’s vote to rent the Cogdill lot for a year should put the discussion to rest.

“It’s an opportunity for us to see if it makes an impact,” said Town Commissioner Chris Matheson.

Matheson said her vote was based as much on safety concerns as on the lack of available parking spaces downtown. Matheson said oversized vehicles parking in diagonal spots make Main Street dangerous.

“If you’re on the right side of one of those vehicles, you’re backing into an abyss,” Matheson said.

Board Member Ray Lewis was the only dissenting vote. Lewis objected to the notion of the town committing more money to downtown Sylva and suggested the money to lease the Cogdill lot should come out of the town’s annual $12,000 allocation to the Downtown Sylva Association.

Lewis’s stance on the subject may foreshadow a point of contention in the upcoming budget discussions. Town financial support of DSA has been controversial each of the past four years during budget time.

Mayor Maurice Moody said parking and DSA funding were separate issues, however.

“I think those are two separate issues and the majority of the board wants to leave DSA funding at $12,000 where its has been for the past few years,” Moody said.

The board also discussed other ways to alleviate the parking shortage in Sylva, including the option of adopting a parking ordinance similar to one in the town of Highlands that prohibits merchants and their employees from parking on the Main Street during business hours. Another alternative would see the town rent some of the spaces in the Cogdill lot to businesses that wanted to reserve spaces for their employees.

All of those discussions were informal. Moody confirmed that the Cogdill lot would be open to the public July 1 and that the bulk of the spots would be used for additional free parking.

Civil suit targeting Jackson sheriff fails

“The only reasonable verdict here is for Sheriff Ashe,” Patrick Flanagan told the jury. “He did not commit any wrongdoing here.”

The eight-person jury in the Bryson City federal courtroom agreed, taking slightly less than an hour to clear Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe on five complaints that alleged he used his position and influence to interfere with the business operations and free speech of David Finn, owner of Blue Ridge Public Safety. Blue Ridge Public Safety is a private security force hired by upscale developments in the greater Cashiers area to patrol their communities.

The case pitted two of Jackson County’s leading law enforcement officers against one another in the federal district courtroom of U.S. District Judge Martin Reidinger.

Finn’s lawyer, Frank Contrivo Jr., spent three days calling witnesses, reviewing subpoenaed phone records, and otherwise building the case against Sheriff Ashe.

Ashe’s lawyer, Patrick Flanagan took only a few hours to offer a defense.

His message was simple: The only evidence that Ashe had interfered with Finn’s contracts was circumstantial, and Ashe’s own testimony that he had not used his office to put Finn under duress was credible.

Finn first sued Ashe in 2007, accusing the sheriff of using his position to scuttle the sale of Blue Ridge Public Safety to an Asheville buyer named John Hale.

The complaints alleged that Ashe, working in concert with a lawyer for an influential group of Cashiers-area residents, inappropriately shared information that led to a slew of investigations into Finn’s business, which holds security and patrol contracts worth more than $1 million.

The day before Flanagan called his defense witnesses, Contrivo withdrew the leading claim driving the case thus far –– that Ashe had actively participated in ruining the sale of Blue Ridge Public Safety to John Hale for $1.5 million.

With that claim off the table, the case came down to whether Ashe interfered with six existing Blue Ridge Public Safety contracts and on whether he infringed on Finn’s First Amendment right to free speech.

According to Finn, Ashe was motivated to disrupt the business of Blue Ridge Public Safety because of a disagreement between the two men over proposed legislation that would have given company police broader powers, including jurisdiction on U.S. highways adjacent to the communities they patrol.

An important component of Contrivo’s case for Finn was the extent to which Ashe communicated with Cary-based Lawyer Mark Seifert and his clients. Seifert created and represented two groups: the Committee of Sapphire Homeowners and the Sapphire Association of Concerned Citizens Committee.

Seifert testified that he was hired by Cashiers property owners in 2006 to investigate Finn and that his goal was to put Blue Ridge Public Safety out of business.

Contrivo alleged that Ashe and Seifert “were singing a duet” as they worked in concert to manufacture claims against Blue Ridge Public Safety that hurt the business and ruined contracts. He showed through phone records that Ashe and Finn had had extensive contact with one another –– nearly 150 calls amounting to 30 hours of conversations.

“What we’ve seen in the past three days is a snapshot of the nightmare experienced by Mr. Finn’s business,” Contrivo told the jury in his closing argument.

Flanagan, who served as a captain in the U.S. Army JAG Corps, presented an argument that was repetitive, process oriented and clinical. He focused on the fact that not one witness testified to Ashe’s direct participation with Seifert or even to the fact that Ashe had spoken ill of Blue Ridge Public Safety.

“What we didn’t hear at all –– there was no evidence, no testimony –– was that the sheriff has ever made a derogatory comment about Mr. Finn or his company,” Flanagan said.

In contrast, Contrivo at times raised his voice to cajole the jury and at other times spoke in a barely audible whisper to contribute to the gravity of the moment. He tried to paint a picture of Ashe as an expert at behind the scenes deal-making who managed to get away with a crime by staying at arm’s length from it.

“We hear about a man who was turf conscious, jealous of his power, and jealous of what he perceived as a threat to his power,” Contrivo said, pointing at Ashe.

Contrivo asked the jury for $200,000 worth of damages to cover Finn’s lost contracts and legal fees. The jury wasn’t convinced. They cleared Ashe on each charge and entered zeroes in the spaces on the verdict sheet that asked for award amounts.

After the trial, Ashe said the verdict upheld his faith in the system.

“This has been a long process that needlessly burdened the taxpayers of our community,” Ashe said. “The quick verdict of the jury attests to what we have asserted from the beginning of the matter.”

Ashe also indirectly expressed his dismay that he had spent so much time over the past two years embroiled in the civil suit.

“There is no business more important than the people’s business, and I am proud of the confidence that the good people of Western North Carolina have shown in me and our deputies,” Ashe said. “I look forward to many more years of public service, and it’s time to get back on task.”

Neither Finn nor Contrivo responded to requests from comment on the case after the trial, so it is not clear whether they plan to appeal the verdict.

Flanagan said a potential appeal could take two forms. In the first scenario, Contrivo could make a motion to Judge Reidinger to set aside the jury’s verdict in his final judgment, which will be entered in the next few weeks.

A second approach would be for Contrivo to file an appeal with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. within 30 days of the final judgment being entered.

Quilt celebrates rec center’s contributions

Catch the Spirit of Appalachia and the Appalachian Homestead Farm & Preserve recently presented a hand pieced, appliquéd quilt of Jackson County to the staff of Jackson County Recreation Center for its assistance for the past five years with the Patchwork Folk and Fabric Festival held at he center.

To make the display of the quilt more fun, a scavenger hunt has been created for those who would like to find some of the more than 78 items — sports, towns, lakes, natural showplaces, animals, river and more — depicted within the outline of Jackson County.”

The fifth annual Patchwork Folk & Fabric Festival will take place 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, June 5, at the recreation center. 828.293.3053.

Jackson library campaign marks success, new goals

On May 25 the Friends of the Jackson County Main Library marked the completion of their astonishing two-year fundraising drive, reaching their goal of $1.6 million to outfit the interior of the new library on Courthouse Hill in Sylva.

Jane Smith, president of the Friends group, put into perspective the effort to raise the money in the worst economy in recent memory.

“It is so amazing, because there were people at the beginning who said, ‘You can’t do this. Not around here,’” Smith said.

Kathy Proctor, chair of the Fontana Regional Library Board, accepted a $200,000 grant from the USDA’s Rural Library Fund on behalf of the Friends. The grant, which required a $1.2 million local match, pushed the fundraising drive past its $1.6 million target to a grand total of $1.726 million so far.

The Friends have raised $1.2 million for furniture, fixtures and equipment at the library and the $200,000 will be added to that total. In addition, the Friends raised $225,985 for the library’s collection and another $100,000 to offset costs association with the campaign.

The USDA grant came as the result of cooperation between the Fontana Regional Library and the federal representatives of Western North Carolina, including Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, and Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C.

Freddie Harrill, Hagan’s representative at the event, praised the local fundraising committee for meeting its goals.

“Projects like these are economic drivers for small towns,” Harrill said.

Bill Hobbs, community programs director for USDA Rural Development, said he was happy to deliver the $200,000 check.

“We are tickled to death to bring this check to y’all,” Hobbs said. “We can’t wait to come back when the project is complete.”

Mary Otto Selzer, chair of the Friends’ fundraising committee, said the group would continue to raise money for collection materials at the new library.

“Not too long ago, we realized $100,000 doesn’t go very far for a collection so there are still steps to climb,” Selzer said.

Selzer took time to thank the volunteers at the Friends of Jackson Library Bookstore in Sylva, who contributed $155,000 and countless hours to the campaign.

“That’s the little engine that keeps the library offering great services,” Selzer said.

The Jackson County Public Library Complex is a $7 million building project that includes the construction of a 20,000-square-foot library and the renovation of the historic Jackson County Courthouse, which will be used as a community resource facility and cultural center for the county.

County power struggle surfaces in Finn v. Ashe trial

“Putting Mr. Finn out of business is not a duty of the Jackson County sheriff. Is that a fair statement?” asked Frank Contrivo Jr., the lawyer representing David Finn.

“That statement or thought has never crossed my mind,” said Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe.

On the witness stand on one side of the courtroom sat Sheriff Ashe, arguably the most powerful politician in Jackson County. On the other side, next to Contrivo, sat David Finn, whose company police officers at Blue Ridge Public Safety have kept order in the upscale district of the Sapphire Valley for the past 10 years.

The two men, once allies, are now locked in an unusual power struggle that has led to a civil trial now playing out in front of a jury in a federal courtroom in Bryson City.

Ashe is the homegrown, hard-working sheriff from Sylva in the midst of his second re-election campaign. Finn is a Florida transplant with a long career in private law enforcement who has built a successful business enterprise patrolling private developments in the unincorporated communities around Cashiers.

Finn sued Ashe in 2007, accusing the sheriff of using his office to scuttle the sale of Blue Ridge Public Safety to an Asheville buyer named John Hale. After Ashe’s lawyer, Patrick Flanagan, failed to convince the court to dismiss the case for lack of evidence, the civil suit landed in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Martin Reidinger last week.

At stake in the trial are damages that stem from a series of tort claims. The sheriff could end up paying Finn a lot of money if the eight-person jury decides he misused his office to injure Finn’s business dealings. But for the people of Jackson County, the trial has broader implications.

Testimony in the case has revealed that a power struggle between Finn and a small group of influential Cashiers property owners developed into a full-scale donnybrook that to one extent or another pulled in Sheriff Ashe.

Former Jackson County Sheriff Jim Cruzan, District Attorney Mike Bonfoey, N.C. Sen. John Snow, N.C. Rep. Phil Haire, and Jackson County sheriff candidate Tim O’Brien have all been named during the testimony of witnesses called by Contrivo.

One of the key issues raised by the case is the extent to which southern Jackson County functions independently, and how Sheriff Ashe has incrementally sought to increase his influence there since succeeding Cruzan.

The question in the trial is relatively straight-forward: Did Ashe use his position as sheriff to hurt Finn’s business and eventually to scuttle the sale of Blue Ridge Public Safety? The question for the county is more complicated: How can law enforcement in Jackson County, which at this point depends on the cooperation between sheriff’s deputies and private police, function while their leaders are at war?

Where it began...

By all accounts, the relationship between Ashe and Finn was a good one back in 2002. Finn, who had purchased Blue Ridge Public Safety in 1998 and acted as its police chief since 1996, backed Ashe in his bid to take the sheriff’s office from his former boss, Jim Cruzan.

“Sheriff Ashe had called me and asked if I would support him, and I told him I would and I did,” Finn said.

Ashe won the primary against Cruzan and went on to become the Jackson County Sheriff.

For Ashe, the tension between the two men began just after the election, when Finn tried to get him to issue traffic enforcement cards to his private police officers. Ashe said he refused on advice from county attorneys, and Finn got angry.

When Contrivo asked Ashe to characterize the relationship between the two men in 2003, Ashe was reserved.

“I would say good, but there was conflict,” he said.

The relationship was good enough that when Ashe’s former boss and erstwhile opponent offered to buy out Finn in 2003, Finn called Ashe.

Finn and Ashe remember that telephone call differently.

“It was clear to me he did not want me to go through with that sale,” Finn said.

Finn said Ashe told him Cruzan was under investigation by federal authorities for the misappropriation of funds. Finn said he decided later — largely on the basis of the phone conversation — to call the deal off.

Ashe, meanwhile, said Finn called him to belittle Cruzan and scoff at the $600,000 offer.

Either way you look at it, the moment was significant in that it showed how the origin of the dispute between the two men could be traced back to their cooperation as political allies.

Cruzan had lost to Ashe in a bitter sheriff’s race and was working to get a foothold at the south end of the county by buying Finn’s business. Finn testified that he met Cruzan clandestinely on a dead-end street to sign the papers, which included a confidentiality clause and a trial period during which Finn could back out.

The fact that Finn would consult Ashe on his decision is a sign that the two men wanted to preserve the professional equilibrium they had created during the election.

Also in 2003, Ashe supplied Blue Ridge Public Safety with a glowing recommendation to the North Carolina Company Police Association, which was later cited when the security company was named best in the state during the association’s award ceremonies.

Between 2002 and 2006, Blue Ridge Public Safety grew dramatically. The business Finn bought for $150,000 in 1998 took in more than $1.2 million in gross receipts in 2006, largely due to his ability to corral the numerous property associations in that part of the county into lucrative security and law enforcement contracts.

According to Finn, his relationship with Ashe broke down over a political disagreement.

In 2006, as president of the N.C. Company Police Association, Finn was advocating for a bill in the General Assembly, The Company Police Modernization Act, that would have given private security forces like his jurisdiction on state and county roads adjacent to the properties they patrolled.

Ashe, co-chair for the legislative committee of the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association “vigorously opposed” the measure.

In early 2007, Contrivo alleges that Ashe met with a group of Cashiers property owners who had had disagreements with Finn. According to Finn, that meeting led to a change in Ashe’s disposition.

“The first change I noticed was March 5, 2007,” Finn said.

On that day Ashe instructed his officers not to call Blue Ridge Public Safety for backup anymore, a practice that had resulted in over 1,000 collaborations over a 10-year period.

From that point, Finn’s complaint alleges, Ashe used his office and his deputies to hamstring Finn and the personnel of Blue Ridge Public Safety then later worked in conjunction with the group in Cashiers to sabotage the sale of Blue Ridge Public Safety.

Finn lined up a buyer for the company –– an Asheville man named John Hale –– in May 2007. In July, Hale rescinded the offer to pay $1.5 million for Blue Ridge Public Safety.

The lawsuit alleges specifically that Ashe’s office generated and shared arrest reports that implicated wrongdoing at Blue Ridge Public Safety and that those reports became the basis for investigations of the company that led to the scuttled sale.

“The investigations instigated by defendant James M. Ashe were based upon groundless and false accusation and were the specific reason the prospective purchasers did not perform under the contract,” the complaint alleges.

The case

There were three major flashpoints in the relationship between Ashe and Finn, according to the testimony of the two men.

The first, according to Ashe, was Finn’s demand that the sheriff issue traffic enforcement cards to his staff in return for support rendered during his election race against Cruzan. Ashe refused to sign the cards, which Cruzan had signed regularly according to Finn, and Finn was furious.

For Ashe, that moment opened the gap between the two men, and it got a whole lot wider in 2006 when the second flashpoint took place. Finn, as president of the N.C. Company Police Association, pushed the passage of legislation that would give his people limited jurisdiction on U.S. highways, like N.C. 64. As co-chair of the legislative committee for the N.C. Sheriff’s Association, Ashe and 88 other sheriffs around the state vehemently opposed the measure and it was killed.

Ashe readily admits his opposition to the bill but denies retaliating against Finn because he was president of the N.C. Company Police Association.

The third flashpoint is murkier. According to Contrivo, Ashe began looking for ways to shut Finn down. Having been approached by a group of Cashiers property owners who had complaints about Finn, Ashe, allegedly, supplied arrest reports to their lawyer, Mark Seifert, that helped to generate a number of cases against Finn. The cases were investigated by the oversight bodies that regulate private law enforcement services over a two-year period, and Finn was issued two minor cease and desist orders. None of the investigations showed that Finn had abused his power or made illegal arrests, as some of the allegations contained in the incident reports contended.

An important component of Finn’s case is the extent to which Ashe communicated with Seifert and his clients. Seifert created and represented two groups: the Committee of Sapphire Homeowners (COSH) and the Sapphire Association of Concerned Citizens Committee (SACCC). Seifert, an attorney based in Cary, N.C., has testified that he came to the cases in 2006 as a result of his friendship with Cashier’s property owners Robert Tillery of Sterling, Va., and Paul Hilliard of Lafayette, La.

As lawyer for COSH and SACCC, Seifert spent two years pursuing complaints before state oversight bodies in order “to bring proper regulatory oversight to BRPS.”

“I wanted the Attorney General to shut down Blue Ridge Public Safety,” Seifert said.

“Was that your goal?” Contrivo asked him.

“Indeed,” Seifert said.

“Did you discuss that with Sheriff Ashe?” Contrivo said.

“I did,” Seifert said.

Seifert filed seven separate complaints over a two-year period with the Police Protective Services Board, the Company Police Association, the State Bureau of Investigation and the North Carolina Alarm Systems Licensing Board.

Included in the filings were incident reports generated by the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office that included complaints against Blue Ridge Public Safety. Ashe claims he merely offered up public records and documents when they were requested, most significantly when he was served a subpoena by Robert Tillery’s attorney.

Tillery was suing Finn over a dispute about a gate security contract at Golf Course Estates, a private residential community in Sapphire Valley.

According to Contrivo, though, Ashe essentially generated the arrest reports to fuel the flames of Seifert’s complaints to the Private Protection Services Board, on which Ashe served.

Contrivo supports that claim by pointing out that Ashe’s office never released incident reports for any of the other law enforcement bodies that functioned in the county over the same period of time.

Citing Ashe’s cell phone records, Contrivo showed that Ashe and Seifert exchanged 150 phone calls that represented more than 50 hours of conversation between the two men. In addition, Contrivo has pointed out that despite two years of hard work, Seifert never managed to get Blue Ridge Public Safety in anything like serious trouble.

Just doing his job

Ashe’s attorney, Patrick Flanagan, who served as a captain in the U.S Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps, is painting a different picture of his client’s role in the struggle between Finn and the Cashiers property owners.

Having established that Ashe is a hard-working sheriff with deep roots in the community, Flanagan argued that the relationship with Seifert was basically one in which a public servant obsessed with details was hounded and cajoled by an over-aggressive lawyer with an agenda.

Flanagan has also pointed out that Ashe recused himself of any role on the PPSB that involved Finn.

During his testimony, Ashe called Seifert “annoying” and seemed exasperated by the repeated references to their cell phone conversations, many of which Ashe said were missed calls and phone messages.

Flanagan is expected to present Ashe’s defense on Tuesday afternoon (June 1), and the jury will likely reach a verdict by the end of the week.

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