Auto dealer reinvents to stay alive
When Daniel Allison III learned last May that General Motors wouldn’t renew his franchise agreement, he couldn’t believe it.
“Shock,” Allison said. “I think you go through being angry and then, once I got through all my feelings, I worried about how it would affect my customers.”
The letter stated that GM would discontinue Allison’s dealership franchise in October 2010. Ever since, Allison has been working hard to fight the decision and to find a backup plan.
He traveled to Washington, D.C., at the invitation of Congressman Heath Shuler to testify about the impact of the recession on small businesses in rural areas. He urged them to help small car dealers, particularly in light of the auto bailout for the big guys.
“It concerns me how this recession has affected small business,” Allison said. “A lot of the small rural dealers are just one group of casualties.”
When Congress ordered that GM grant arbitration hearings to its discontinued dealerships, Allison preserved hope and fought for a reprieve.
But in late March his last chance for survival as a GM dealer evaporated when Allison’s Chevy wasn’t selected by the automaker as one of 600 dealers nationwide to receive reinstatement letters.
“Prior to the arbitration, we’d been pursuing what our Plan Bs would be in order to keep as many employees as possible and keep the operation as similar as it could be,” Allison said. “We’re excited with what we’ve come up with.”
Last Monday, Allison opened a co-branded Meineke Service and EconoLube automotive garage to replace the GM service center once housed at the dealership. Meanwhile, he will sell a wide range of certified used vehicles on his lot, with a focus on offering varying price points.
“This has opened us up to a whole range of makes and models we haven’t serviced before,” Allison said.
The GM label may be gone, but the Allison name will remain a part of Sylva’s automotive landscape. Allison’s grandfather, Dan Allison, Sr., started the business in 1935 and since then, Allison’s has been selling GM cars in Sylva.
When the recession hit, Allison was confident he could weather the storm. But GM’s bankruptcy proceedings led to the auto giant announcing that it would close over 1,000 dealers. Allison’s fate as a GM dealer was out of his hands. In December, he began laying off staff.
“We basically held on as long as we could in case we could be reinstated,” Allison said.
In 2008, Allison’s Chevy had 17 employees. Today the number is down to eight, but Allison said he hopes to grow the business back as the economy strengthens. In the meantime, there’s the process of rebuilding a third-generation family business.
“It’s been a wild adventure trying to reinvent it,” Allison said. “I don’t think there’s any way you can realize ahead of time how many challenges there are.”
Jackson candidates chose unconventional path to the November ballot
Every so often a dissatisfied electorate injects a third current into the country’s two-party dialogue.
It’s happening this year with the Tea Party movement, and it’s also happening spontaneously in Jackson County.
Four Jackson County residents who want to be on the ballot in November are gathering signatures to qualify as unaffiliated candidates. Two who are running for commissioner are indeed unaffiliated, according to state voter registration records.
The other two are running for sheriff, but voter registration shows them listed as a Democrat and a Republican, so the unaffiliated route may simply be a strategy to earn a spot on the November ballot.
People who don’t want to run under the banner of a particular party have to beat the bushes with a petition drive in order to get a spot on the ballot in North Carolina. Unaffiliated candidates must collect the signatures of 4 percent of the voting public by June 25. The number comes out to 1,051 signatures out of Jackson County’s total 26,295 registered voters.
Jack Debnam, a Cullowhee-based realtor, intends to challenge County Commissioner Chairman Brian McMahan. Ron Poor, a faculty member at Southwestern Community College, will vie for the seat of sitting Commissioner Tom Massie. And both Mary Rock of Sylva and Tim O’Brien of Cashiers want to run against Jimmy Ashe for sheriff.
The aspiring candidates are choosing an unorthodox route to the general election but have the advantage of bypassing the party primaries in May.
None of the candidates said the Tea Party movement or the national election climate prompted them to run as unaffiliated, but Poor cited some of the key principles of the country’s independent temperament –– fiscal conservatism and defense of the Constitution –– as he explained why he wants to run.
“I have not yet found a party which I can believe in,” Poor said. “I am a fiscal conservative, government at all levels is larger and more expensive and intrusive than it should be and has nearly become choked off from the everyday citizen. My goal is to see it cut back, to see it opened up, to see it operate more efficiently and at lower cost.”
Rock and O’Brien, as sheriff’s candidates, enter a race with a crowded Democratic primary that includes an entrenched incumbent in Jimmy Ashe and three others.
Rock, who is technically registered as a Democrat, said her bid as an unaffiliated candidate was partly strategic. “There’s an advantage to doing the petitions that I saw,” Rock said.
The May primary narrows down the field to just one Democrat and one Republican who then advance to the November election. But in a county where Democrats reign, Republicans often don’t have a chance come November.
“In Jackson County, we always have a Democrat as sheriff, so the primary has always decided it,” Rock said. “Only one person comes out of the May primary with a nomination.”
But Rock could beat the system by advancing straight to the November ballot.
Another advantage of circumventing the party primary is that there is no limit to the number of unaffiliated candidates on the ballot, so anyone who succeeds in gathering the proper amount of petitions makes it.
O’Brien said he is registered unaffiliated but state records show he has been registered Republican. He called himself a “fiscal conservative” who intends to de-politicize the sheriff’s office.
Debnam also said he was registered unaffiliated, so he had no choice other than to go through the petition process.
“I’m not a Tea Party person. I’m a small business owner in Jackson County, and I’m really frustrated,” Debnam said.
Jack Debnam, Cullowhee, county chairman
Debnam is the owner of Western Carolina Properties, a real estate firm with offices in Dillsboro and Cullowhee. He has never run for political office and said he was inspired to run because the Jackson County board has not represented small business well.
Ron Poor, Sylva, running against sitting Commissioner Tom Massie
Poor is a registered real estate broker who also teaches electronics and computer engineering at SCC. Poor cited his opposition to tax increases and development regulations as reasons for running.
Poor accused the current board of a “draconian knee jerk reaction” when it passed a moratorium on new subdivisions and considers the current steep slope regulations too stringent.
Mary Rock, Sylva, sheriff
The 42-year-old Sylva native has worked as a bail bondsman in Jackson County for the past 12 years. She served with the Military Police and got her basic law enforcement certification from WCU.
“Since I was a child I’ve seen a lot of things I didn’t think was the best way to run that office and I waited a long time to see if anyone would change that,” Rock said. “I decided this year that I wanted to do it myself.”
Tim O’Brien, Cashiers, sheriff
O’Brien has worked as a private investigator for the past two years. He has a degree in criminal justice administration from WCU. He served in the military police, as Highlands Police officer, a detective with the Macon County Sheriff’s Department, and an SBI agent.
“I will serve as a sheriff who will dedicate himself to the issues important to our county and not to political ambitions or re-election. I will be fiscally responsible, remembering at all times that we are spending the peoples’ money. All crimes will be properly investigated, phone calls will be returned, and funding will be used appropriately on those things for which it is intended,” O’Brien said.
Library friends reveal interior design plans
The construction of the new Jackson County Main Library has been a community-driven project all along, and last week the community got its first glimpse of what the interior will look like.
Friends of the Jackson County Main Library held an open house at the old library to showcase the work of Lynne Wilson, the interior designer from Macmillan, Pazdan & Smith in charge of decorating both the historic courthouse and the attached library building.
Betty Screven of Friends of the Library said the event was a chance to share almost two years of work planning the library’s interior.
“We’re already picking out individual elements, and we wanted the public to be able to touch the carpet, to feel the fabrics, and really get excited about his new library,” Screven said. “This whole process has been finding out what the people of Jackson County want in their library, and this is the culmination of that.”
The Friends have raised $1,425,000 to outfit the interior of the building, and they’ve also worked hand in hand with Wilson to come up with a plan for the interior design.
“Lynne has come up with ideas and passed them by groups of people, and there’s been real discussion,” Screven said.
Wilson won a South Carolina historic preservation award for her work restoring an old firehouse in Newburg, and she has teamed with architect Donnie Love on a series of historic renovation projects. Those experiences, she said, have prepared her for the challenge of integrating the old Jackson County Courthouse with the newly constructed library building.
“The main thing was we wanted to keep the integrity of the existing courthouse, and we’re using a lot of those design motifs in the new part of the building,” Wilson said.
For example, the fretwork around the dome of the 1914 courthouse will be repeated in the patterns in the artisan metalwork railings on the second floor of the new building.
“The most fun part for me has been getting the input from the Friends of the Library and the community,” Wilson said. “It makes it easier to get the concepts right from the beginning when you have so many people who are so committed.”
The two spaces, old and new, are to be bridged by a glass atrium lobby that will incorporate the terraza floors and historic reproduction lighting fixtures that characterized the original courthouse.
The library will have a color scheme based in green that incorporates historic colors like the gold-hued Hubbard squash tone that is a favorite of Wilson and Love’s. The architectural showpieces of the new building are without question the stained-glass skylights that will adorn the ceiling of the new building, but the interior design showpieces will be the ornately decorated service desks that will incorporate the work of local artists.
“We were trying to think of ways to incorporate the local talent we have, but we didn’t want to fill the building with a permanent collection,” Screven said. “We thought the service desks would be perfect.”
Artists like Smoky Mountain High School’s Dylan Llassiah and local muralist Doreyl Ammons Cain submitted work for consideration by Wilson and her staff. Llassiah’s tiles representing the seven clans of the Cherokee and Ammons’ 16-by-8-foot heritage mural were two of the projects selected for posterity.
The 26,000-square-foot renovation and construction project has been a massive undertaking, but with the design team already picking out furniture for the building, Jackson County residents can be sure their new library is nearly a reality.
To learn more about the project, visit www.fojcml.org/new-library.html.
Sewer dispute could help redefine TWASA’s mission
A Sylva sewer line that overflowed on a residential property last month has sparked a difference of opinion between the sewer authority and the town that may have larger implications for Jackson County.
According to Sylva officials, the owner of a Thomas Street property called the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority –– which operates water and sewer utilities for Sylva, Dillsboro, and Jackson County –– when a town line backed up and spilled raw sewage into his house. The owners were told that TWASA needed a letter from the town of Sylva stipulating the clogged line was part of its system before they could respond to the problem.
When the town furnished the letter, TWASA Executive Director Joe Cline responded with another letter, saying the authority’s policies don’t authorize fixing or maintaining sewer lines that aren’t on its sewer system maps.
The Sylva resident’s problem got fixed right away, but not by TWASA. Sylva Mayor Maurice Moody said he considered the overflow a health risk and directed town employees to clean up the mess and send an invoice to TWASA.
But the dispute gets at the heart of TWASA’s relationship with the municipalities it serves. The authority was formed in 1992 as a private enterprise that would take over the management of water and sewer over from Jackson County and its municipalities.
TWASA’s refusal to respond to a problem on a four-inch lateral line that did not appear on its system maps may indicate that the authority will show resistance in the future to maintaining antiquated and undocumented segments of its system. Moody acknowledged that some portions of the town’s system are nearly 70 years old and not all of the lateral lines appear on system maps, but he rejected the conclusion that those facts exempt TWASA from maintaining them.
“From my perspective, when TWASA was formed in 1992, they accepted the entire sewer system in existence at the time,” Moody said. “Therefore, I feel they have the responsibility to maintain it.”
The sewer line clog on Thomas Street was a relatively easy fix. The town got Roto-Rooter to pump it clear for $350, but Moody felt strongly that TWASA’s refusal to respond set a dangerous precedent for the municipalities in its system.
“The amount of money was insignificant, but we have invoiced TWASA for that because it’s a matter of responsibility,” Moody said. “TWASA was formed to get the county and the municipalities out of the sewer business.”
Cline said he was merely following through with the authority’s policy not to spend money on sewer lines they regard as “private.”
“If it wasn’t a line recognized as part of the system at the time of the handover, then it was considered a private line,” Cline said.
Cline said he has not refused to pay for the cleanup of the overflow, but he wants to wait for the TWASA board to appoint a special committee to determine who is responsible.
“I’ve not refused to pay it at this point,” Cline said. “I want to see what the committee has worked out before I submit payment or not.”
Last week, Moody attended a TWASA board meeting to make his case that the authority was responsible for the maintenance of all of the town’s sewer lines as a result of its charter agreement. In response to his arguments, TWASA board chairman Randall Turpin said the board would appoint a committee to look into the matter and determine who is responsible for maintaining the lines. The committee will consist of two representatives from each municipality, two from the county, and two from the TWASA board.
“I just felt like we needed to bring all the entities together to discuss what they believed the intent of the original agreement was,” Turpin said.
Jackson County Commissioner Tom Massie, who was TWASA’s planner when the authority was first formed, said resolving the issue might not be as simple as reading the transfer agreement inked in 1992.
“I think the language is pretty clear,” Massie said. “The problem is what the implications are. Apart from an initial cash contribution from Sylva, nobody has given TWASA any money to fix the problems they gave to TWASA when it was formed.”
Turpin said one of the main problems facing the authority is how to deal with “orphan” lines, like the one that overflowed in Sylva. The transfer agreement clearly states that TWASA is responsible for the entire water and sewer systems in the municipalities, but it also gives the authority broad discretion to determine how and when to maintain and improve its lines in conjunction with its capital improvement plan.
Turpin said he wants the committee members to come to the table representing the vested interests of the communities that elected them, so they can hash out a plan to move forward.
“Is there a way they can help identify projects that require expenditures, and then can we talk about where those funds will come from?” Turpin said.
Turpin’s plan to form a committee to examine TWASA’s charter agreement may not work. On Monday, the Jackson County board refused to appoint any members to the committee. Both Massie and Commissioner Joe Cowan said they wanted to know why TWASA’s board, which already includes representatives from the municipalities and the county, can’t resolve the issue on its own. Turpin said TWASA needs help from municipalities to determine what parts of the system should be prioritized in the capital improvement plan, because it cannot undertake a wholesale update of the system it inherited without raising rates unreasonably.
“TWASA’s primary revenue source comes from the rate payers, and the question is how much can the rate payers afford to pay to update an antiquated system?” Turpin said.
In the meantime, Cline said he would wait to pay Sylva back the $350 it paid to unclog the Thomas Street sewer.
Cullowhee school grows beyond expectations
Landmark Learning based in Jackson County offers 80 courses a year providing wilderness medical training to 2,000 people across all sectors of the outdoor and medical industry.
Many of the courses are held at their campus in Cullowhee and around Western North Carolina, but they also regularly offer training at sites around the Southeast.
Justin Padgett and his wife, Maurie, launched the wilderness instruction company in the late 1990s as a side venture while they were both in grad school.
“When we stared Landmark, she thought it was a hobby,” Padgett said.
Now they have a sprawling outdoor campus, five full-time employees and a contract pool of 35 instructors.
“We even made an agreement when we started that we were only going to grow to where we had 10 people outside of us. We now have 40 people including us,” Padgett said. “We never wanted to pay insurance to anybody or get real like that, but we’re doing that.”
It takes one entire staff person just to be in charge of gear. They make sure all the equipment is clean and functioning before heading out into the field, and that the right gear gets to the right place at the right time for each course. The program coordinator does everything from scheduling venues for the courses to purchasing plane tickets for the instructors.
Landmark prides itself on the expertise of its instructors.
“Folks teaching wilderness medicine with us are active in the rescue community. They work for fire departments, they work for EMS, or they work in hospital settings. Some of our staff are surgical assistants,” Padgett said. “Our instructors are professionals and dedicated to doing this. This is their living.”
Padgett is a senior paramedic and ambulance driver for WestCare hospital in addition to his work with Landmark.
Landmark is affiliated with NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School. It is the largest NOLS affiliate nationally and the only affiliate in the Eastern U.S. Those who graduate from Landmark have certification bearing the name of NOLS Wilderness Medical Institute.
Landmark has a host of other affiliations and credentials as well.
• N.C. Office of Emergency Medical Services for EMT courses.
• American Canoe Association for swift water rescue and courses for whitewater instructors.
• American Heart Association for First Aid and CPR courses.
• Starfish Aquatics Institute for Lifeguard and Wilderness Lifeguard courses.
• American Mountain Guides Association for Climbing Instructor courses.
www.landmarklearning.org or 828.293.5384.
Double your money and land on the Wall of Fame
In today’s economy, people want to stretch their dollars to the max. What if you could actually double your money? Many in Jackson County are doing just that by contributing to the new Jackson County Public Library building fund at a crucial point in the campaign.
“We are drawing close to 90 percent of our $1.6 million goal and have an unprecedented opportunity,” said Mary Otto Selzer, co-chair of the campaign. “Through individual community members’ donations, we have matched over $185,000 of the $250,000 SECU Foundation grant. The next $65,000 raised will be matched by the Foundation. As has been true throughout the campaign, every dollar counts, but at this point, every dollar counts as two.”
No one realizes the importance of each contribution any more than Michelle Allison, office manager of JCPL. It was her awareness of the impact each dollar can make that inspired her and other employees at the library to create the Wall of Fame.
“We were talking about how we could bring attention to the campaign here in the library, and I thought of a Wall of Fame,” Allison said. “With each contribution someone makes at the library, we give the donor a certificate to post on our walls. We want to fill up all the walls with the certificates.”
“We put a jar on the desk and when people come up, we explain that everyone who puts a contribution in gets a certificate to go on the wall. We’ve gotten donations from a few cents on up.”
According to Dottie Brunette, head librarian, the response has been gratifying. “We really mean it when we say that every dollar counts,” she said. “We’ve had small children come in and contribute their allowances to the building fund, and it’s been so nice to see the pride they have when they mount their certificate on the wall. We’ve had strangers drop in to ask directions to Waynesville or Asheville, see our information about the Wall of Fame, and say, ‘Here, I’ll contribute.’ We’ve had contributions from a dollar and up, and it’s obvious to us that each and every one is from the heart. We really feel so supported by the community through this campaign.”
Of course the Wall of Fame isn’t the only way to contribute. Contributions can be made in person at the Friends of the Library Used Book Store, also on Main Street in Sylva, or mailed to: Friends of the Library, P.O. Box 825, Sylva, N.C., 28779-0825.
Sylva board blesses Community Table move
Community Table, Sylva’s nonprofit community kitchen, has outgrown its existing facility and is targeting a move to the town’s now-vacant senior center.
The county built a new senior center, freeing up space in the old one, which is owned by the town. The building is located downtown adjacent to the town pool and playground.
Last month the Community Table’s executive director, Amy Grimes, asked the Sylva town board if it would support the move so the organization could move forward with concrete fundraising goals for the building switch.
The board voted unanimously to “bless” the project.
Grimes said the Community Table served an average of 120 meals per night in January for a monthly total of 2,076 meals, triple last January’s number.
“We’ve got a lot of new faces every week,” Grimes said.
Community Table –– which serves meals four nights per week and operates a food pantry by appointment –– turned 10 years old last August. The Sylva Church of Christ has donated the current space to operate the kitchen, but Grimes said the Community Table needs more room to accommodate a surge in demand for services.
“We’re busting at the seams,” Grimes said.
Grimes said the Sylva board’s vote cleared the way for Community Table to get cost estimates for the move and undertake a fundraising drive. Grimes expects to get a building inspector’s estimate on the necessary renovations to the building next month.
“We are hoping the town, the county and the community will come together to help us, and we’ve always had tremendous support,” Grimes said.
Community Table serves warm, home-cooked meals to anyone who wants them from Monday through Friday every week.
Sylva Mayor Maurice Moody said the senior center had always been a building devoted to community service. If the Community Table could raise the money to make the move a success, the town would support it.
“What the board did was basically bless the idea if they want to move forward with it,” Moody said.
Landowner dismayed N.C. 107 bridge widening will claim archaeology site
A Cherokee archaeological site spanning from at least 6,000 years ago to the 18th century stands in the way of bridge widening project over the Tuckasegee River in Jackson County.
Plans call for widening the N.C. 107 bridge over the river from its existing width of just 20 feet to 50 feet at a cost of $4.2 million. The new bridge will be three lanes with shoulders and a sidewalk.
Landowners and the N.C. Department of Transportation are at odds over the project. The archaeological site is on land owned by the Moses family for 120 years. The family has taken pride in the site and hosted university sponsored archaeological digs on its property through the years.
While a wider bridge has been in the making for more than a decade, plans initially called for building a new bridge in the same place, leaving the archaeological site untouched. Plans were altered in 2007, calling not only for a much larger footprint but also shifting the bridge over to sit on top of the site.
The DOT failed to notify the landowners of the change until now, according to Cherrie Moses of Tuckasegee.
The family got a phone call a few weeks ago from DOT to discuss purchasing their property for the widening.
“We were in total shock,” said Moses, 52, a retired school teacher. “This is the first time we are hearing about this, and it is already a done deal. It was like all you need to do is sign on the dotted line, and the bulldozers are ready.”
Since 1997, Moses said she was told the site would be protected.
“The plans that my family had been given stated that the bridge was going back basically where it is, that the site would not be compromised,” Moses said.
Pam Williams, a bridge project planning engineer, said the Moses family was made aware of the new plan, but they must not have fully understood.
The DOT was well aware of the archaeological site in the path of the bridge widening. It plans to excavate the site first and document all the artifacts that are found, said Matt Wilkerson, a DOT archaeologist.
Wilkerson said one of the most intriguing aspects of the site is relatively recent Cherokee occupation dating to the 1700s. One house site was excavated in an archaeology dig by a university team a few decades ago, and Wilkerson thinks there may be more.
The site won’t be destroyed by the bridge, Wilkerson said. If anything, the bridge project will allow the secrets of the site to be uncovered with an archaeological dig.
In crafting an excavation plan, DOT consulted with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the state historic preservation office. Both signed off on the project with the caveat that the artifacts be saved in advance of the bulldozers.
Moses doesn’t understand why they included everyone except the landowners.
“That is not right. We would have liked to been in on the meeting and voiced our concerns,” said Moses, who also happens to be the chair of the Jackson County Historic Preservation Commission.
The site is on its way to being listed on the National Historic Register after being recommended by the DOT archaeologist.
Federal law requires a formal public process when impacting sites that are eligible for the National Register, but no one ever sought out participation by the Moses family.
Chain of events
The bridge was targeted for replacement more than a decade ago due to its age and narrow width. It is technically deemed “structurally deficient” and “functionally obsolete.” It is still safe, Williams said, but won’t stay that way forever, and maintenance costs will increase.
The existing bridge has 10-foot lanes and no shoulders.
“We have had several side swipes over the past few years,” Williams said.
The new bridge will have three 12-foot lanes, 4-foot shoulders that will double as bike lanes and a sidewalk on one side.
It will also have a left-turn lane for Shook Cove Road, which sits 100 feet from the bridge. The turn lane will be 200 feet long in all. Some left-turn lanes may only be 50 feet — just long enough for a couple of cars to queue up while waiting to make a left. Why is Shook Cove’s turn lane so long?
“There are a lot of variables actually to determine how much traffic would back up on the main line,” Williams said.
Williams cited an increase in development up Shook Cove as justifying the turn lane. Traffic counts in 2005 showed 4,700 cars a day passing over the bridge, with 200 vehicles making a left onto Shook Cove.
Moses questioned why the new bridge has to be so wide.
“This is a massive bridge. It is not even going to fit in,” Moses said.
Moses believes the bridge was planned with the expectation that new developments would add to traffic in the future. But the once zealous plans of developers are drastically scaled back these days, Moses said.
How it will be built
Under the original plan, a temporary river crossing would be built on the Moses property to accommodate traffic while the existing bridge was demolished and built back in the same place. To protect artifacts, heavy black fabric would be laid down and fill dirt placed on top. It would all be hauled away when the project was done. That method is no longer considered sensitive enough, however, Williams said.
Instead, DOT will use the “staged construction” method. Traffic will continue to flow on the existing bridge while the new bridge is built alongside it. Then traffic will shift to the new bridge while the old one is torn down and the other half of the new bridge built in its place.
Williams said there were two attempts to share the new plan with the public. One was a newsletter sent to property owners in December 2007. While the newsletter announces that the bridge will use a “staged construction method,” it fails to explain that such a method necessitates a larger bridge footprint.
“Reading the literature and having someone sit down with you and explain the plans are two different things,” Williams said.
The other outreach by the DOT was a public meeting in early 2008 on upgrades to N.C. 107, specifically lane widening and the new shoulders through the Tuckasegee community. Williams went to the meeting with the bridge plans in hand expecting residents would ask about it as part of the larger N.C. 107 upgrades.
Williams also said she twice mentioned “data recovery” to Moses in emails. But just as the term “staged construction” means little to the lay person, Moses did not realize that references to “data recovery” translated to “archaeological dig,” meaning the bridge’s footprint would consume the site and require an excavation in advance of construction.
But, by the same token, the DOT didn’t know exactly where the new footprint would be until now.
“We can’t sit down and tell them how much land we are taking until we get the design plans done,” Williams said. And at that point, property owners are contacted about buying right of way.
Construction of a wider bridge over the Tuckasegee on N.C. 107 could start by spring of 2011. The project would take 18 months. Two lanes of traffic — one in each direction — would remain open throughout.
Sylva may be stuck with cell tower
The Sylva Town Board opposes the construction of a 195-foot-high cellular communications tower on the main commercial drag of N.C. 107, but a state law passed in August may allow the tower to go up anyway.
The cell tower, planned by Pegasus Tower Company of Cedar Bluff, Va., would dominate the ridgeline next to the unfinished Comfort Inn adjacent to Andy Shaw Ford.
Pegasus originally received a building permit for the tower in June 2008, but because construction did not begin within six months, the permit expired.
Sylva amended its cell tower ordinance in November 2008 to conform to Jackson County’s ordinance. The ordinance stipulates a maximum height of 120 feet, which would rule out the tower Pegasus plans to build.
The Sylva board met in closed session last month to discuss legal matters concerning the issue and determined they had grounds to deny Pegasus a new permit.
“We think we’re on firm legal ground to deny it,” Sylva Mayor Maurice Moody said.
Moody said the board considered the tower a safety issue because a “fall zone” had not been included in its design plans.
But Pegasus believes the North Carolina Permit Extension Act of 2009, a state law intended to offset onerous permitting requirements during the down economy, applies to cell tower construction. The company plans to build the tower without a new permit from the town of Sylva.
David Owens, professor at UNC Chapel Hill’s Institute of Government, said Pegasus’ permit is likely still valid.
“If that permit was valid at any time during that last three years, then it’s still valid,” Owens said.
Companies forced to put construction projects on hold during the recession would typically see their permits lapse. The state bill was intended to save developers from having to go through the permit process over again when they were finally ready to proceed.
Owens said the Permit Extension Act defines development so broadly that the construction of cell towers is included. The statute essentially delays the mandatory start period for development projects initiated between January 2008 and December 2010.
Following the logic of the bill, Pegasus would have six months from December 2010 to start work on the tower under the terms of its current permit.
Sylva board member Chris Matheson said she and her fellow board members felt strongly that the tower shouldn’t be constructed in the proposed location.
“I don’t know how much there is to say other than that the town is vehemently opposed to it,” Matheson said.
Matheson also said the town is working with Pegasus to see if both parties can agree on an alternative site for the tower.
“We’re working with Pegasus to see if we could provide a location that would be attractive to them but more in line with that the community needs,” Matheson said.
Sylva Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower confirmed that the town’s attorney, Eric Ridenour, has engaged in discussions with lawyers from Pegasus to resolve the issue.
If Pegasus and the town cannot come to an amicable resolution on the issue, Owens believes Sylva must have grounds other than an expired permit to prevent the project from going forward.
County and architect cross wires on library fee
Last week a confused set of Jackson County commissioners learned their new library may cost more money than they thought, but County Manager Ken Westmoreland said the administrative mix-up won’t result in a higher price tag than the one originally agreed upon.
“I think I’ve got the situation unraveled now,” Westmoreland said Monday.
When the scope of work for the library changed midway through the project, McMillan Pazdan Smith Architecture wanted a higher fee. While the firm failed to secure a signed contract from the county, commissioners did grant verbal approval, but forgot they had done so.
The library was originally planned as a brand new building located near Jackson Plaza, but community advocates later convinced the county to build the library adjacent to the historic courthouse downtown, and renovate the historic courthouse in the process.
According to Westmoreland, the original contract between McMillan Smith and the county awarded the architects 7.5 percent of the total project cost. But in October 2007, after the project was shifted to the courthouse hill, the architects asked for 8 percent. Renovations generally involve more work for architects and demand a higher fee by percentage. Architects also faced new site constraints and the challenge of blending a new building with the old one.
The county board voted to adopt the new billing rate, and the project went forward. But the architects never submitted a new written contract for the county to sign. As a result, the county’s finance department never got confirmation of the new rate.
County Finance Director Darlene Fox continued to pay at the contractually agreed upon rate of 7.5 percent. When the architecture firm completed a merger with another company, its accountants notified Westmoreland of the error last October.
“I think when they merged their books, that may have been when they discovered they were paying the different rate,” Westmoreland said.
At last week’s commissioner meeting, Westmoreland knew of the error, but he couldn’t explain why the county never got the updated contract.
Commissioner Tom Massie said that if the error wasn’t the county’s, the county should discuss the possibility of “splitting the difference” with the architecture firm. The board directed Westmoreland to get to the bottom of the confusion.
That’s when Westmoreland uncovered records from an old meeting when the board voted to approve the new rate. Westmoreland said the county was bound to honor the agreement and pay the correct rate for work on the project.
“I didn’t have a contract saying 8 percent and finance didn’t have a contract for 8 percent, but the bottom line is the board approved 8 percent and that’s what we obligated ourselves to,” Westmoreland said.
Westmoreland said the board will not have to vote again on the contract, and the county will pay McMillan Pazdan Smith at 8 percent for the work. According to the finance department, the project’s total price tag is $6,667,169 and the half percent adjustment on the fee will amount to $30,335.85.