Jackson finally folds in long feud with Duke

The seven-year battle between Jackson County commissioners and Duke Energy has come to a close.

After losing a critical court battle this month, Jackson County commissioners voted 4 to 1 to give up their legal fight against Duke Energy last week.

“It is not prudent for Jackson County to move forward any further,” County Commissioner Chairman Brian McMahan said of the commissioner’s decision.

Recently, the fight has appeared nothing more than a tug-of-war over the Dillsboro Dam: Duke wants to tear it down and the county wanted to save it.

But the origin of the conflict is philosophical: how much does Duke owe Jackson County in exchange for harnessing the Tuckasegee River with numerous dams? Duke proposed removing one of those dams — the small and ancient Dillsboro dam — as compensation for using the Tuck in its lucrative hydropower operations, which net the utility millions annually.

Duke contends the river will be better off environmentally without the Dillsboro dam and it will open a new stretch of free-flowing river to paddlers and rafters.

Therein lay the crux of the disagreement, however. The county didn’t want the dam torn down, so it should hardly count as compensation, said Commissioner Joe Cowan, who voted against giving up the fight.

“It’s a bum deal,” Cowan said. “Duke ought to be ashamed of itself as a large corporation to attempt to pull such a stunt on the intelligent people of this county. I resent the hell out of it.”

Cowan gave a strongly worded speech directed at Duke at the meeting Tuesday.

“Why did they want to take the dam down? Because they didn’t want to give the county anything,” Cowan said.

Cowan said taking down the dam was a grand scheme on Duke’s part, a ruse intended at duping local people into believing Duke was doing them a favor by taking down the dam. But Cowan said Duke was only looking out for its own monetary interests by offloading a small, aging dam instead of real mitigation.

“Had it not been for greed, there would have been no seven years of bickering with Duke Power,” Cowan said. “Duke had many opportunities to step up and do the right thing as a good neighbor would do. Duke hasn’t done that. They have resisted it.”

The other four commissioners who voted to call it quits clearly did not revel in their decision.

“Seven years has been a long time and looking back on what has transpired, I still feel as strong today about my position on saving the dam as I did then,” said McMahan. “I grew up there learning to fish. It holds a sentimental place. It is going to move into our history now. It is going to become a part of our past.”

Commissioner Tom Massie, who has been urging the rest of the board to throw in the towel for over a year now, said he hopes the county and Duke can mend fences and work together in the future.

“It is unfortunate it has gotten to this point in terms of the legal costs and wrangling that has gone on,” Massie said. “I am glad it is over with.”

It’s one statement Duke agreed with.

“We at Duke are, as one of the commissioners remarked, glad it is over with,” said Fred Alexander, Nantahala district manager of Duke Energy. “About 10 more miles of free flowing Tuckaseigee River and improved aquatic habitat should benefit fishermen, boaters, and the critters in the water.”

Several members of the public took a turn the podium to thank the county commissioners for putting up a valiant fight.

“I came tonight to applaud you — applaud you for giving us leadership in your efforts to retain the Dillsboro Dam, as a historical site, as a viable source of sustainable energy and as land to be used by all the residents of Jackson County,” said Susan Leveille, an artist with a gallery in Dillsboro. “You have strived well to lead us toward the moral high ground of not just thinking of ourselves today but for making wise decisions with regard to the people, the land and the resources.”

Supporters said Jackson did the right thing by standing up to Duke, even if the cards were stacked against them.

“I also want to commend this board for doing everything they could to save the dam and the powerhouse,” said Tim Parris, a resident of Dillsboro. “I do realize you were up against a fight with a corporate giant in Duke Power — not only that but you had to fight the special interest groups like American Whitewater. The landscape is changing at Dillsboro, but I can tell you it is not what the people of Dillsboro want.”

But Sam Fowlkes, a paddler who is pleased the dam will finally come down, chastised commissioners for wasting so much money on an ill-conceived strategy.

“I am sure lawyers who get billable hours will always have more options for you, but it kind of looks like game over,” Fowlkes said prior to the board’s vote to end their legal fight.

Fowlkes said the big winner isn’t Duke, but rather Jackson County’s attorney throughout the protracted standoff.

“Win or lose, it is more money for him,” Fowlkes said. “The losers? The taxpayers. I am one of them.”

The county does not have a final tally of its legal bill, but the most recent total was between $200,000 and $250,000.

Commissioner William Shelton congratulated Duke on its win.

“I grew up on the Tuckasegee River and have watched it about every day in my life,” Shelton said. “This has been a gut wrenching experience for me. There has not been one easy thing about it.”

The county will likely not have another opportunity to extract mitigation from Duke Energy for 30 years, when the hydropower license comes up for renewal again.

Demolition of the powerhouse has been completed and dam work will start in a couple of weeks.

“It was like a knife going through my heart,” said Starlotte Deitz, a Dillsboro resident and Duke opponent, who watched the demolition last week. “It is an icon that can never be replaced. You can’t put a money value on that.”

It’s a bum deal ... I resent the hell out of it

By Joe Cowan • Guest Columnist

Editor’s note: Jackson County Commissioner Joe Cowan made the following comments following a vote last week to stop legal proceedings against Duke Energy over its plan to take down the Dillsboro Dam, the centerpiece of the utility giant’s mitigation for a new license to use water from the Tuckasegee and its tributaries for the next 40 years.

 

Having observed this all my life, and the power company before Duke — Sylva-Dillsboro Electric Light Company, where my father worked for a few years — I’ve got some attachment to the dam and some interest in the relationships in the past and hopefully the type of relationship we may have in the future with Duke Energy.

I, too, observed the stakeholder meetings that have been referred to many, many times in the past seven years. Those stakeholder meetings, in my honest opinion, were a farce, nothing but a ruse to try and dupe good local people into believing that Duke Energy had the best interest of the people of Jackson County at heart rather than the monetary gain and interests of Duke Energy. That, to me, is a fact.

Greed. That’s the word I hear used frequently when large utility companies are referred to, greed. In my opinion, had it not been for greed, there would not have been seven years of bickering with Duke Energy.

Why did Duke want to take down the Dillsboro Dam? They haven’t said. They said many times in their proceedings that it was a linchpin of their proposal for a settlement, but why did they really want to take it down? It didn’t benefit Duke, didn’t do anything for 20 miles upriver. It’s not going to improve the environment of the river or what lives in it. Matter of fact, there is some evidence just the opposite of that.

Let’s get to why they want it down. Most of the time when an energy or utility corporation is asking to use someone’s water — and that’s what it is, asking to use the water of Jackson County for the next 40 years and make somewhere in the neighborhood of $16 million profit per year — you would think, just as a good neighbor policy, or if nothing else for the good will, the industry would have some desire to give back something to the people from whom this water use is being taken.

This is the thing that burns me up about the whole darn thing. There has been little to no evidence to this date that Duke Energy has been willing to give back even a token to this county for the use of their waterways for the next 40 years. And you multiply $16 million times 40 years, and see what you come up with. You’ll come up with a lot more than two or three hundred thousand dollars, which is the total that Duke offered, the token that Duke has offered.

Duke has had many opportunities to step up and do the right thing as a good neighbor would do. And in many cases others have done that, been good neighbors to Jackson County. Duke has not done that. They have no desire to do it. Thus seven years of bickering back and forth, back and forth.

Why do they want to take the dam down? They did not want to give the county anything, $250,000 or somewhere along there. That’s an insult for the use of the Tuckasegee River and its tributaries to the south for the next 40 years. An insult.

So they came up with this grand scheme: we will take down the dam for you. It reminds me a lot of the elderly lady crossing the street. A Boy Scout was out there helping her. They got to the other side and woman slaps the Boy Scout. A passerby saw her and said, “My God, what happened?” The lady said “I did not want to cross the dam street.”

Well, that’s what we’re dealing with here with Duke taking the dam down. We did not want the dam down, but Duke is going to do us a favor and take the dam down to show good faith to FERC. “Look what we’ve given Jackson County for the use of their water for the next 40 years.” Big deal, I hope Duke knows that.

.... It’s a bum deal. It’s a bum deal. Duke ought to be ashamed of themselves as a large corporation to attempt to pull such a stunt on the intelligent people of this county. I resent the hell out of it, and I think I’ve made that clear. That’s been my involvement in it, and as far as I’m concerned I hope it’s not over yet. We’ve still got 30 days to appeal this thing.

Duke prevails over Jackson

The seven-year battle between Jackson County commissioners and Duke Energy has come to a close.

After losing a critical court battle last week, Jackson County commissioners vote 4 to 1 to give up their legal fight against Duke Energy at a meeting Tuesday night (Jan. 19.)

“It is not prudent for Jackson County to move forward any further,” said County Commissioner Chairman Brian McMahan.

Of late, the fight has appeared nothing more than a tug-of-war over the Dillsboro dam: Duke wants to tear it down and the county wanted to save it.

But the origin of the conflict is philosophical: how much does Duke owe Jackson County in exchange for harnessing the Tuckasegee River with numerous dams? Duke proposed removing one of those dams — the small and ancient Dillsboro dam — as compensation for using the Tuck in its lucrative hydropower operations.

Therein lay the crux of the disagreement. The county didn’t want the dam torn down, so it should hardly count as compensation, said Commissioner Joe Cowan, who voted against giving up the fight.

“It’s a bum deal,” Cowan said. “Duke ought to be ashamed of itself as a large corporation to attempt to pull such a stunt on the intelligent people of this county. I resent the hell out of it.”

Cowan gave a strongly word speech directed at Duke at the meeting Tuesday.

“Why did they want to take the dam down? Because they didn’t want to give the county anything,” Cowan said.

Cowan said taking down the dam was a grand scheme on Duke’s part, a ruse intended at duping local people into believing Duke was doing them a favor by taking down the dam. But Cowan said Duke was only looking out for its own monetary interests.

“Had it not been for greed there would have been no seven years of bickering with Duke Power,” Cowan said. “Duke had many opportunities to step up and do the right thing as a good neighbor would do. Duke hasn’t done that. They have resisted it, thus seven years of bickering back and forth, back and forth.”

The other four commissioners who voted to call it quits clearly did not revel in their decision.

“Seven years has been a long time and looking back on what has transpired I still feel as strong today about my position on saving the dam as I did then,” said McMahan. “I grew up there learning to fish. It holds a sentimental place. It is going to move into our history now. It is going to become a part of our past.”

Commissioner Tom Massie, who has been urging the rest of the board to throw in the towel for over a year now, said he hopes the county and Duke can mend fences and work together in the future.

“It is unfortunate it has gotten to this point in terms of the legal costs and wrangling that has gone on,” Massie said. “I am glad it is over with.”

It’s one statement Duke agreed with.

“We at Duke are, as one of the commissioner’s remarked, glad it is over with,” said Fred Alexander, Nantahala district manager of Duke Energy.

Duke has contended the river will be better off without the dam environmentally. It will also open a new stretch of free-flowing river to paddlers and rafters, including commercial rafting operations.

Several members of the public took a turn the podium to thank the county commissioners for putting up a valiant fight.

“I came tonight to applaud you — applaud you for giving us leadership in your efforts to retain the Dillsboro Dam, as a historical site, as a viable source of sustainable energy and as land to be used by all the residents of Jackson County,” said Susan Leveille, an artist with a gallery in Dillsboro. “You have strived well to lead us toward the moral high ground of not just thinking of ourselves today but for making wise decisions with regard to the people, the land and the resources.”

Supporters said Jackson did the right thing by standing up to Duke, even if the cards were stacked against them.

“I also want to commend this board for doing everything they could to save the dam and the powerhouse,” said Tim Parris, a resident of Dillsboro. “I do realize you were up against a fight with a corporate giant in Duke Power — not only that but you had to fight the special interest groups like American Whitewater. The landscape is changing at Dillsboro, but I can tell you it is not what the people of Dillsboro want.”

But Sam Fowlkes, a paddler who is pleased the dam will finally come down, chastised commissioners for wasting so much money on an ill-conceived strategy.

“I am sure lawyers who get billable hours will always have more options for you, but it kind of looks like game over,” Fowlkes said prior to the board’s vote to end their legal fight.

Fowlkes said the big winner isn’t Duke, but rather Jackson County’s attorney throughout the protracted standoff.

“Let’s not forget Paul Nolan, the big winner. Win or lose, it is more money for him,” Fowlkes said. “The losers? The taxpayers. I am one of them.”

Commissioner William Shelton congratulated Duke on its win.

“I grew up on the Tuckasegee River and have watched it about every day in my life,” Shelton said. “This has been a gut wrenching experience for me. There has not been one easy thing about it.”

Jackson loses critical court case over Dillsboro dam

Duke Energy could start tearing down the Dillsboro Dam any day after Jackson County lost a final and critical legal battle this week.

Judge Zoro Guice denied a move by the county to temporarily halt demolition on the Dillsboro Dam. Jackson County hoped to exercise eminent domain to take the dam away from Duke and make it the focal point of a new riverfront park along the shore of the Tuckasegee. The county was seeking a restraining order against Duke to stop them from tearing down the dam while the condemnation suit played out.

The case hinged on state’s rights versus federal pre-emption — whether the opinion of a federal agency superseded state law that grants counties the power of eminent domain.

Guice ruled that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission trumped state law and agreed Duke could proceed with tearing down the dam. After the dam is torn down, the county can use eminent domain to go after the river shore if it still wants to, the judge said.

Fred Alexander, Nantahala district manager for Duke Energy, said in a written statement demolition could begin in early February. Alexander cited the benefits of restoring a section of free-flowing river, intended to offset the environmental impacts of its myriad other hydropower dams in the region.

Jackson County Commissioner Chairman Brian McMahan said he had not had a chance to explore the implications of the ruling as of press time on Tuesday afternoon. The ruling was handed down Monday (Jan. 11).

“We will discuss it fully at our meeting and take some kind of action,” McMahan said of the commissioners meeting scheduled for at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 12.

The county’s choices are presumably to throw in the towel or appeal the decision.

Commissioner Tom Massie isn’t surprised. For the past year, he has been the lone commissioner opposed to the protracted legal battle. Massie said he supported the county’s stance philosophically but felt the chance of success was too slim to justify the legal costs of continuing to fight Duke.

“I think they had to see for themselves where it was going to go,” Massie said. “Now it has played out to its conclusion.”

Massie said the Tuckasegee River could still make a wonderful backdrop for a park without the dam. Duke had all along planned to turn the river shore over to the county as part of the environmental mitigation required under the Clean Water Act in exchange for operating its other dams.

In a further blow to Jackson County, Duke can proceed with a countersuit for its legal costs, Guice ruled. Duke has filed a lawsuit against Jackson County for legal costs, as well as a lawsuit blaming Jackson County for an abuse of power. Jackson hoped the judge would throw out Duke’s countersuits, but he did not.

“I am disappointed we don’t have more leverage to negotiate with Duke. If we had gotten something more positive from the judge’s ruling, Duke may have been more willing to talk to us about an (out of court) settlement,” Massie said.

Attorney admits forging judges’ signatures to help clients

A 31-year-old attorney in Jackson County pleaded guilty this week to forging judges’ signatures and creating phony court documents.

John Lewis faked the signatures on limited privilege driver’s licenses for at least three clients in Swain County who had their real licenses revoked.

District Attorney Mike Bonfoey said in court that it was a sad day for the legal profession and criminal justice system.

“We rely on the honesty and integrity of each individual in the system. We rely on the honesty and integrity of each order in the clerk’s office that is purportedly signed by a judge,” Bonfoey said. “To do this is an affront to all of us. His actions damage all of us. There is no way to undo that or make restitution for that.”

Lewis confessed that he was addicted to prescription pain pills for the past 18 months.

“What I did was not out of disrespect or contempt for the law or judges or my colleagues. It was done out of stupidity,” Lewis said. “Most of the time, I was screwed up. This was a daily habit. I would like to apologize to my colleagues and most of all my family.”

The crimes will cost Lewis his law license, but Lewis said his addiction almost cost him something far more important — his marriage.

Lewis was sentenced to 60 days in jail, followed by 10 months of house arrest and five years of probation, plus 100 hours of community service. He pleaded guilty to 12 felony counts spanning forgery and uttering, obstruction of justice and filing an unauthorized court judgment.

Lewis cooperated with investigators from the beginning and pleaded guilty without a bargain. He also checked in to a 28-day substance abuse treatment program. His remorse and cooperation likely helped him land a lighter sentence.

“One thing I was always taught was if you do something stupid you admit it and take responsibility,” Lewis said. “I realize I will never practice law again and I realize I might go to jail today.... if that’s what it takes to show everyone I am sorry for what I did.”

Judge Charles Ginn, who is from the Boone area, presided over the hearing Monday (Jan. 11) and handed down the sentence. Ginn was clearly dismayed by the events.

“It goes without saying I don’t take pleasure in what we are doing here today,” Ginn said. “We have lost the concept of absolute truth, that there is a standard that we all must live by that cannot be altered simply by some set of circumstances we might find ourselves in. The legal system was the last bastion of absolute truth, and it no longer is, unfortunately.”

But Ginn seemed to have sympathy for Lewis’ plight with substance abuse and lectured him extensively about it. From his seat on the bench, Ginn is a frequent eyewitness to the ills of substance abuse. He congratulated Lewis on going through an intensive four-week rehab but warned him it was only the beginning of a long road.

“That’s a drop in the ocean. That’s nothing. Treatment is a lifetime event for you,” Ginn said. “You have to have somebody in your life to kick the backseat of your britches when you don’t do what you are supposed to do.”

Ginn also told Lewis that he needed to find faith in a higher power within the universe to guide him and keep him strong.

Jackson airport to get repairs, new level of attention

The Jackson County commissioners have breathed new life into the county’s airport authority by taking it over.

After appointing themselves to five of the six seats on the airport board last month, the commissioners met in their new capacity for the first time this week and began their work of running the airport. They voted to tap $150,000 in federal funds to fix the Jackson County Airport’s failed runway lighting system — a move that required a $16,500 matching grant on the part of the county, despite previous resistance by commissioners to plow tax money into the airport.

Taken together, the actions represent a new relationship between the county and the airport and may revitalize what had been a decaying piece of infrastructure. Jason Kimenker, the sole survivor from the last airport authority, saw the New Year’s first meeting in a positive light.

“I’d been waiting for a long time for the county commissioners to step up to the plate and take responsibility for the appointment of the authority’s members to make sure the airport was managed and maintained properly,” Kimenker said. “What happened today was a pleasant surprise.”

Still, the new arrangement is bound to pose its own challenges. In the first place, confusion over wording in the airport’s charter language led to questions about whether the authority should consist of a five- or six-person board. After determining that the most recent version of the charter stipulates a five-person board, Commissioner William Shelton offered to resign his seat.

That leaves the four other commissioners and Kimenker on a board that has the job of functioning as an independent entity, which means the commissioners must wear two hats.

On Monday, the authority approved bids for the runway lights, went over a list of other needed repairs and standing issues, then adjourned. The commissioners then donned their county board hats and voted to authorize the matching grant of $16,750 from the county’s contingency fund to land the federal grant money.

County Chairman Brian McMahan, who was elected chairman of the airport authority on Monday night, stressed that the commissioners would spend much of the next three months learning the airport’s business and determining the best way for the authority to move its agenda forward.

Commissioner Tom Massie, who had been an outspoken critic of the county’s allocation of money to the airport, was clear about the reason he wanted to take over the authority, pointing out the series of issues that had ended up in the county board’s lap over the past few years.

“If we’re going to have to face those things anyway, we may as well be on the airport authority and make sure it works and it’s safe for the public,” Massie said.

But the airport authority had languished for the past two years as a result of outstanding debts, a lack of county support, and a dwindling board. Monday’s meeting showed that the period had yielded a new string of issues. The lighting system failure, an inoperable fuel tank, lack of a routine maintenance plan, even concerns over the cost of toilet paper, and unresolved legal disputes with nearby landowners about erosion from the airport.

Massie wasn’t happy with much of what he heard.

“I was disappointed because I thought some of these issues had been resolved, particularly with regard to the lawsuits,” Massie said.

A large contingent of pilots turned out for the meeting, including former authority member John Glenn, a flight instructor. Glenn is pleased with the commissioners’ willingness to take on a leadership role at the airport.

“The airport is part of the county infrastructure. You can’t be separate from and part of the county at the same time,” Glenn said. “We’ve been little by little trying to turn the airport back into the county fold. It’s a good move. They’ll have to walk a mile in our moccasins now.”

Kimenker has enjoyed a peculiar transition, having woken up one morning to find himself sitting alone amongst the county commissioners.

“It’s interesting,” Kimenker said. “Now we have all the county’s concerns in the same room and that’s a good thing.”

Decision pending soon in Jackson’s last chance to save the Dillsboro dam

After years of battling Duke Energy in nearly every legal arena it could scout out, Jackson County was dealt a major blow last week when the U.S. Court of Appeals denied its plea for federal intervention.

Jackson County is trying to save the Dillsboro dam from being torn down by Duke, and at the same time force Duke to offer up better compensation for the environmental impacts of its network of hydropower facilities in the region. Jackson hoped the U.S. Court of Appeals would step into the fray and send Duke back to the drawing board to reconsider its plans for dam demolition, slated to move forward this winter.

“This brings Duke a giant step closer to river restoration by removing the Dillsboro Dam,” said Fred Alexander, Nantahala district manager for Duke.

After exhausting everything shy of the U.S. Supreme Court, Jackson County’s fate now hangs on a final case with a decision pending as early as next week. Jackson County hopes to exercise eminent domain to take the dam away from Duke and make it the focal point of a new river front park along the shores of the Tuckasegee River.

A lawsuit in Jackson County Superior Court will decide whether the county can go forward with the plan. Arguments were heard earlier this month, but a decision from Judge Zoro Guice is still pending.

Jackson County Manager Ken Westmoreland said the case for eminent domain is much more critical than the U.S. Court of Appeals filing was.

“That was just another one of those procedural administrative challenges. It doesn’t go to the heart of the issue now, which is condemnation,” Westmoreland said.

Duke’s biggest ally has been the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has consistently agreed that tearing down the Dillsboro dam is a good idea and has been unwilling to force Duke into more mitigation.

Jackson County has challenged everything their lawyers could think of to challenge, from state and federal environmental reports to technical jurisdictional issues, pushing mountains of paperwork around over a six-year period.

Jackson County had finally appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals in hopes it would force the energy commission to give a hard look at Jackson’s stance, but instead the three-judge panel upheld FERC’s decision.

“This decision affirms that FERC acted appropriately in approving Duke’s application to surrender the license and decommission and remove the Dillsboro Dam and Powerhouse,” Alexander said in a written statement.

The appeal did not require an extensive legal investment on the county’s part. It was mostly a matter of rounding up all the paperwork that has previously been filed in various arenas and packaging it with a new cover letter.

“Most of it was just a compilation of things that had taken place over the years, so it wasn’t all that expensive,” said Westmoreland. The county has not gotten a final legal bill for the appeal filing.

Jackson commissioners take over airport authority

Facing a moribund governing body and a facility once again in need of expensive repairs, the Jackson County board of commissioners did what it’s been unwilling to do in the past –– assume management of the airport.

The commissioners totally overhauled the Jackson County Airport Authority by appointing themselves to five vacant seats on its board and bringing the governing body up to its full complement.

The move ends a long-running power struggle between an airport authority that largely represented the interests of the local flying community and a county board that had grown weary of contributing tax dollars to a tiny aviation field plagued by problems.

The county has twice attempted to ratchet up its control over the airport in recent years. The authority once functioned as an autonomous body, but county leaders grew displeased with it in 2005 and attempted to remove and reappoint some of its members. The county was sued for overstepping its bounds, however.

In a second move to exert influence, commissioners got a special bill passed by the state legislature that changed the airport authority’s bylaws and gave the county control over its appointments. The authority has since been plagued by vacant seats, however, as the county commissioners failed to make timely appointments.

The latest move is the ultimate step, giving the commissioners full control of the airport’s future — including its finances, a major sticking point for the county.

While the vote settled the fate of the airport’s governing body, it didn’t represent a unified voice about the airport’s mission in the future.

Chairman Brian McMahan and Commissioner William Shelton, the lone dissenter in the 4 to 1 vote, both indicated that they believe it is the county’s responsibility to maintain the airport and indicated they would be willing to contribute money to help make the airport self-sufficient.

“The airport is here, and I believe it’s something we have to deal with,” McMahan said.

Commissioners Tom Massie and Joe Cowan reiterated their positions that while they supported keeping the airport safe for the public, they did not support any expansion of the airport in the future.

County Manager Ken Westmoreland offered the board a number of improvement scenarios that could help the airport move toward self-sufficiency. The construction of T-hangars, which could be rented to pilots to park their planes, would provide a steady source of revenue, while widening the airport’s runway could bump the airport into a new FAA tier and help leverage more state and federal dollars.

Massie and Cowan said they would not vote to spend county money on those improvements, however.

The airport is currently saddled with a failed lighting system that will cost $150,000 to fix. Planes cannot use the airport after dark, effectively making the airport useless as a site for emergency landings, for example.

The county qualifies for grant money that will pay for those repairs if it’s willing to contribute $16,667 of local matching funds in return for the $134,000 of state and federal grant money.

The commissioners will take up the issue of funding the lighting repairs at their first meeting in January. That will likely be the first in a series of debates about how to get the most of the county’s investment in the facility.

Cowan was adamant that the county not pour more money into the airport.

“If we go with the lights, we’re encouraging people to land at night, and I don’t want to encourage that,” Cowan said.

EDC audit out of reach due to spotty records

Jackson County commissioners closed the book on a painful chapter in the county’s history on Monday, announcing they would give up their quest for an audit of the economic development commission.

The commissioners had hoped to present an audit of the EDC’s finances to eliminate suspicion that taxpayer money had been misused during a five year period between 2001 and 2005 during which the EDC operated independently. In the absence of an audit, though, they had to settle for calling time on the fractious debate.

“I consider this the past now, and I’m looking to the future,” said County Chairman Brian McMahan.

In July, the county enlisted the Asheville accounting firm of Gabler, Molis & Co. to piece together an audit of the EDC’s finances for the five-year period in question, but the firm resigned from the task in a letter dated Dec. 21, citing the lack of sufficient records to conduct a proper audit.

Controversy over the EDC erupted in 2005 amid allegations of financial mismanagement by those at the helm. The EDC was a separate entity, but relied on funding from the county. Concerned by the lack of oversight of public funds at the disposal of an all-volunteer body, the county to withdraw from the EDC and seized the organization’s records. But part of the records either weren’t there to begin with or went missing in the process.

Auditors tried to get statements from United Community Bank, which handled the EDC’s finances, but the bank did not have financial records going back that far, McMahan said.

Hopes of clearing the air with an audit have now been dashed.

“What has happened to our records, I don’t know,” McMahan said. “But the fact is we don’t have the financial records at hand to conduct an audit.”

Commissioner Tom Massie expressed his displeasure that the accounting firm gave the county so little notice that they could not carry out their assignment, but he said the board had done all it could to get to the bottom of the issue.

“I think it would be difficult for a reasonable person to say we haven’t done everything in our power to find out what happened,” Massie said.

Meanwhile, four of the nine members on the Jackson County Economic Development Commission resigned last month, signaling growing frustration among the board over lack of direction from the county commissioners. The EDC board complained this summer that they had no real authority and had been relegated to a mere advisory role.

The last director of the EDC resigned over the summer, and issued a parting recommendation to dissolve an EDC she called dysfunctional and create a new entity. Commissioners have held off on hiring a new EDC director.

Criticism of the EDC’s past financial dealings has centered on a revolving loan fund under the auspice of a nonprofit arm of the EDC called the Jackson Development Corporation. Grant money flowed from the county, to the EDC, then to the JDC and finally into the hands of private businesses, several of whom fell behind on their loan payments.

The origin and status of those loans has been reconstructed by the county’s Finance Director Darlene Fox.

In lieu of an audit at this week’s commissioners meeting, Fox provided a summary of the financial dealings between the county and the EDC over the past 15 years. The summary showed that the county contributed $2,423,426 in cash and assets to economic development between 1993 and 2007. The EDC returned $335,000 to the county when it was dissolved in 2008 and the county got another $2,126,000 back in property value on the Tuckaseegee Mills and Clearwood properties that reverted to county control after defaulting on their loans.

Fox’s report indicated that the county came out ahead $38,270 in its 15 year history in economic development.

For McMahan, the knowledge that the county’s tax money had not been drained by the EDC was enough to close the issue.

“Not a single penny of taxpayer money has been lost,” McMahan said.

Sylva bypass makes the cut

Jackson County commissioners were split over whether to endorse the construction of a controversial new highway outside of Sylva when the issue came up for a vote at a county meeting Monday.

The highway was included on a wishlist being sent to the N.C. Department of Transportation to guide future road projects in Jackson County. Commissioners voted 3 to 2 to sign off on the list, which was developed over the past year by a citizen-driven transportation task force.

The task force never formally endorsed the transportation plan that bears their name. The plan includes the 107 Connector, formerly known as the Southern Loop. The proposed road, which is already in the planning stages by DOT, would bypass the busy commercial corridor of N.C. 107, funneling traffic from the Cullowhee area directly to U.S. 23-74 north of Sylva.

Chairman Brian McMahan, who voted to approve the plan, explained that the vote should not be seen as an endorsement of the proposed 107 Connector.

“I want to make note that if we approve this plan, it does not mean we have approved or endorsed the construction of a new highway,” McMahan said.

The board approved the transportation plan with the caveat that they could withdraw their support for the plan following an environmental impact study of the new highway.

McMahan said the board wanted the chance to see the findings of ongoing N.C. Department of Transportation studies of traffic patterns and congestion on N.C. 107, the main commercial artery through Sylva and commuter route in the county.

“It’s just saying we’re going to continue the planning process, continue gathering the data and await eagerly the DOT to present its findings,” McMahan said.

The comprehensive transportation plan includes a long list of potential projects that could create a freer flow of traffic patterns in Jackson County. The Jackson County Transportation Task Force, a group made up of residents, business people and elected officials, served as an advisory board during the process of creating the plan, but the final version was ultimately developed by DOT staff in Raleigh then vetted through public hearings.

The adoption of the long-awaited comprehensive plan ends a five-year project to obtain a blueprint from the DOT for a road plan to accommodate the county’s growing population. While a victory for public input into the road planning process, the inclusion of the N.C. 107 Connector –– a project opposed by many locals –– makes that victory hollow for some.

Commissioner William Shelton, who served on the Jackson County Transportation Task Force, voted against adopting the plan because he wanted to send a message.

“In voting on this, I’m going to vote my conscience. I just want to send a message to the public and the DOT that this is not a heavy endorsement of the connector,” Shelton said.

Shelton said that while he backed nearly every aspect of the plan, including its community involvement process, he felt strongly that a ‘Yes’ vote could be seen as an endorsement of the N.C. 107 Connector.

Commissioner Tom Massie also voted against adopting the plan. Massie cited DOT statistics that show the connector road will likely not alleviate the traffic problems plaguing N.C. 107. Massie said the project would displace residents and create a negative environmental impact on the county.

“The reality is this is not going to reduce traffic on 107, particularly in the area where we want to go,” Massie said.

Massie said that the commuter traffic snarl that crops up on N.C. 107 twice a day is a small inconvenience.

“What are you spending? Another 10 minutes? That’s not traffic congestion in any other moderatel-sized community in this country,” Massie said.

Commissioner Joe Cowan voted for the plan and supports the construction of the connector road. He expressed his concern that a rejection of the plan would lead the DOT to yank the money already in the pipeline for the planning phase.

“This money is not going to last forever,” Cowan said. “All we need to do is turn it down a few times and it’ll go away.”

Cowan said the N.C. 107 Connector was the best solution he has heard regarding traffic congestion on Sylva’s commercial corridor.

“I’ve heard it discussed all of my life and I’m tired of listening to it. There is no good alternative,” Cowan said.

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