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.

Legal wrangling heats up in Jackson’s bid to wrest Dillsboro dam away from Duke

Jackson County and Duke Energy squared off this week over the Dillsboro dam, marking the first major head-to-head courtroom battle in the nearly eight-year saga.

Duke Energy wants to tear down the Dillsboro Dam, while Jackson County hopes to save the historic landmark as the focal point of a riverfront park.

Jackson County devoted part of its court time this week to pleading with the judge for a restraining order that would prevent Duke from tearing down the Dillsboro dam.

It could be months before Jackson County gets a legal ruling on its attempt to seize the dam by the power of eminent domain. By then, however, it will be too late, as Duke previously announced it would start demolition in January.

“This is a historic structure that once taken out can’t be recreated,” Attorney David Ferrell argued on behalf of the county. “It’s a structure that means a great deal to this county. The commissioners of Jackson County believe they are speaking for the citizens in trying to preserve this dam and power house. Without an injunction that’s not going to happen.”

Jackson County wants to preserve the historic dam as the focal point of a river park, replete with walking paths, fishing piers, boat docks and picnic tables.

Kiran Mehta, a Charlotte attorney for Duke, said there would be no lasting harm to Jackson’s river park if Duke tears out the dam. If Jackson County wants a dam so much, it can build a new one in its place, Mehta said.

The protracted arguments in Superior Court this week centered on whether Jackson County can use the power of eminent domain to seize control of the dam and stop Duke from demolishing it.

Duke countered that it was obligated to tear down the dam, citing an order by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

“The county’s suit for condemnation is nothing more than a collateral attack upon and an end run around the FERC order,” said Mehta.

Sherin disputed Metha’s characterization of FERC’s order.

“He talks about this FERC order as if it was the tablet that Moses brought down with the Ten Commandments on it. But it’s not that,” Sherin said. “Duke asked to remove the dam. The FERC said OK.”

Sherin said FERC’s order even contains alternative provisions should circumstances change and the dam not be removed after all.

Duke argued that the interplay of federal agencies and the Federal Power Act make federal court, not state court, the proper legal venue for the case. If successful in getting the case kicked up to federal court, Duke could more easily bog down Jackson’s bid to save the dam.

Jackson County argued that state condemnation law, which gives counties the power to seize property for the creation of parks and recreation areas, stands on its own two legs.

“Duke acts as if federal pre-emption is some sort of blanket that wraps itself around this whole controversy and nullifies all of the county’s rights,” Sherin said.

Who wins and loses

Mehta said that Duke would be irreparably harmed if the dam’s removal is delayed by an injunction.

Mehta claimed Duke could be fined by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission if it didn’t remove the dam on schedule.

The company is currently in the process of dredging decades worth of sediment from behind the dam before its demolition, a process that might have to be repeated if more sediment accumulates during the delay. Duke also had to relocate bats that nested in the old powerhouse, which is also slated for demolition. The bats could take up residence again, prompting a second round of relocation.

Mehta put a price tag on the delays of $3.4 million in costs to Duke.

Ferrell said the claims were “disingenuous.” He said it was ludicrous to suggest Duke would be fined for failing to remove the dam, if a court order was preventing them from doing so. Ferrell asserted that the federal energy commission doesn’t really care if the dam comes down or not, having granted Duke permission at the company’s own request.

Mehta countered that there are other parties who do care immensely if the dam comes down. Removing the Dillsboro dam was a carefully crafted compromise intended to please disparate special interests concerned with the impacts of Duke’s hydropower network in the region. Duke’s permits for 10 other dams are up for renewal, and to get new permits, it had to come up with environmental mitigation that satisfied everyone. Tearing down the dam pleased environmental agencies who want to see the river restored to its natural state. It also pleased paddlers who wanted a free-flowing river.

Jackson County protested, not only out of a desire to save the historic dam, but also on the premise that another form of mitigation would benefit a greater cross section of the public, such as an environmental trust fund to pay for greenway construction along the Tuckasegee.

Mehta said Jackson lost that fight, but hasn’t been able to give up. The attempt to seize the dam for a park is a last ditch effort to bring down the hard-fought compromise, which could send Duke back to the drawing board, he argued.

“There is no way to calculate the loss that would result from a collapse of the settlement agreement,” Mehta said. “It is incalculable really.”

Ferrell called the injunction a “lynchpin” in Jackson’s case. Unless the judge grants an injunction barring Duke from destroying the dam, Jackson County will be precluded from getting its day in court down the road, Ferrell said.

“That’s what we need first and foremost,” Ferrell said.

Judge Zoro Guice, who heard the arguments in Jackson County Superior Court, said he likely wouldn’t have a decision until January.

An unstable past

Located atop a nearly 3,000-foot mountain in Cullowhee, the Jackson County Airport was built to avoid the low-lying fog that often shrouds the Tuckasegee River Valley. Its unique location provides pilots with an alternative landing strip to lower lying airports like Macon County’s.

However, as a result of its location on a flattened mountaintop, the airport has had to continually deal with issues relating to erosion and runoff. Shortly after its completion in 1976, a landslide forced the closure of approximately 500 feet of the runway. The slide progressively worsened until a repaving project finally restored the runway to 3,003 feet.

In 1990, a storm destroyed the two-story terminal building as it was awaiting renovation. But perhaps the most damning blow came in 2005, when the airport’s inability to cope with a heavy rainstorm resulted in a lawsuit by neighbors on the receiving end of a small landslide.

While commissioners had grown weary of supporting the airport, the county responded to the lawsuit by giving the airport $65,000 in 2007 that triggered the release of approximately $600,000, or four years’ worth, of federal matching grants. The airport authority hired engineers to study the site and make a recommendation.

County Manager Ken Westmoreland, who sits on the airport authority, said the study showed the site was structurally sound but incapable of dealing with heavy rain.

“What was determined was the airport proper is stable, but the problem was it could not handle a major rain event properly. It simply cascaded down the mountain and affected local property owners,” Westmoreland said.

The airport authority subsequently used approximately $500,000 to create a detention pond system capable of handling major rain events and also to upgrade the airport’s communication and approach lighting systems.

Master plan underway for Sylva’s Pinnacle Park

Pinnacle Park, a favorite recreational haunt in Sylva that was once home to the town’s watershed, will benefit from a county effort aimed at mapping and restoring its trail system.

Last Thursday Sylva’s town board signed off on a cooperative deal that would enlist Jackson County’s recreation staff and greenway volunteers to create an inventory of the park’s trail system, including GPS mapping and recommendations for restoration efforts.

Sylva commissioner Sarah Graham, who represents the town on the Jackson County Greenways Project commission, said the new agreement is an unexpected boon that would speed up the pace of developing the parks’ trail system.

“They’re offering a lot of help. I think we’ll get a ton of benefit out of this. It just goes hand in hand with what we’ve been talking about in becoming a walkable town,” Graham said.

The county and town had been working closely on a greenway master plan.

The 1,100-acre Pinnacle Park is within a 10-minute drive for Sylva residents and is a popular destination for hiking, biking and trail riding. The tract once served as the town’s source of drinking water. The town placed it in a conservation easement in 2007 with the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee in exchange for a $3.5 million grant from the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund.

Pinnacle Park, while a favorite among locals in the know, is home to but a few rough trails. Until recently it lacked trail markers and decent parking, improvements which the town has already tackled over the past year with the help of volunteers with the nonprofit Pinnacle Park Foundation.

The town has been making minor improvements from trail signs to foot bridges in a piecemeal fashion by using interest money accrued from the environmental trust fund grant. The new arrangement will add county resources to the mix and speed up the timetable for a finished trail system.

“Slowly over the years we’ve budgeted money out of the interest to improve the park,” Graham said. “It’s just an amazing opportunity to speed up the timeframe for the park’s improvements.”

Emily Elders, recreation project manager for Jackson County, said Pinnacle Park was identified as a priority in the Jackson County Greenways Project master plan adopted in August.

“Pinnacle is one of those places that’s close in so it’s accessible and it was something we felt was really important so we made it a priority in the master plan,” Elder said.

 

Fixing up trails

The existing trail system, which has developed more or less spontaneously needs significant work, according to Tim Johnson, regional trail representative for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Johnson provided a report on the current state of the trails, which included a to-do list. Elders said a hands-on action plan is exactly what her volunteer base needs.

“He really recommended that we look at adding some of these things because trail-building is its own profession, and we wanted to lend them the resources we have,” Elders said.

Under the agreement, Elders and the county’s recreation facilities manager, Bryan Cagle, will work in consultation with Johnson to GPS map the existing trail system, identify areas in need of repair or cleanup, and make recommendations for new trails and trail closures. Some of the existing trails have as much as 70 percent slope, which isn’t ideal in terms of safety or erosion control.

The board’s vote also included the stipulation that the county include the Pinnacle Park Foundation in its planning efforts. Elders said the Pinnacle Park Foundation board has already signed off on the mapping of the park and will be closely involved moving forward.

For Elders, the cooperative agreement is a way to mobilize a volunteer-base that has had little to do as the Greenway Project works to secure easements for plots along the Tuckaseegee River .

“It’s actually a really good opportunity for us as a greenway group because we have this master plan with all of these long-term projects and the process can start to feel drawn out,” said Elders. “It really helps to have a project under way in an existing space to get our volunteers involved again and keep the public momentum going.”

Elders started as a full-time project coordinator for the county in September 2008, and since then, she has been able to work directly with the municipalities involved in developing the greenway system.

She said the collaboration between the Town of Sylva and the county on Pinnacle Park has been an example for how the greenway project can come to fruition.

“It’s been really excellent. Both boards have been really involved in the planning process,” Elders said. “We’re trying to work with each of the town boards to implement the master plan and get the projects in place.”

According to the plan Elders presented to Sylva’s board, the Jackson County Greenway Project will present a vetted plan to the town for the Pinnacle Park trail system no later than March 1, 2010.

 

How to get there

Make a left on Fisher Creek Road a short distance out of town. The road gets rough and steep, but keep going until it dead-ends at the trail head.

Future of Jackson airport up in the air

The Jackson County airport has reached a crossroads.

For years the little aviation field above the clouds has been a financial burden on the county. Now, with its governing body dwindling in number and its revenues lagging behind its operating costs, the board of commissioners has to decide whether to invest in its expansion or put a lid on it.

For County Commissioner Tom Massie, the decision is pretty clear.

“The airport has been somewhat of a millstone around the board’s neck since the 1970s,” Massie said. “A lot of people in Jackson County don’t even think we need an airport.”

Massie and fellow Commissioner Joe Cowan see the airport as a county service that is more a luxury than necessity.

“Just to cut to the chase, a lot of people have felt from the beginning with the airport that it really couldn’t be justified in terms of taxpayer dollars when less than 1 percent of the people in the county use it,” Cowan said.

But defenders of the airport argue that it’s fallen victim to local politics and bad luck, and that it offers more than just a luxury playground for handful of private plane owners.

Jim Rowell, a local pilot who sat on the airport authority before being removed and reinstated in 2005, believes the board is punishing the airport for what amounts to political grievances.

Rowell said the airport is an important piece of infrastructure that the county can maintain without a huge investment, thanks to state and federal matching grants. Essentially, the county is eligible for $150,000 of matching grants each year in return for an annual investment of just under $17,000.

“If you want to know the value of an airport to a county, talk to a county that doesn’t have one,” Rowell said. “I don’t understand the mentality of county commissioners who will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawsuits they know they can’t win, give large raises to their highest paid employees when they can’t afford it, and they can’t come up with $17,000 for the airport.”

But the argument over the airport’s future is not just about money. It’s about whether the county can forgive its past.

 

Economic development or financial drain

In 2005, a major rainstorm became the airport’s latest calamity. It cost the county more than $60,000 in legal fees to beat a lawsuit brought by neighboring property owners whose land was inundated with mud and runoff from the airport.

The county eventually won its lawsuit, but the fallout and expenses are still on the minds of the commissioners, who see the airport as a drain on the budget and not as an engine of economic development.

“We’ve virtually been in lawsuits from day one,” said Massie. “Whatever it’s generated we’ve probably paid out to lawyers. I don’t believe anyone can point to concrete proof that it has created economic development.”

Bill Austin, a local pilot who has been heavily involved with the airport authority, said the airport has both direct and indirect economic development benefits, basically because it offers a way for businesses and property owners to find Jackson County.

Austin relocated to the area after his retirement from the military because of its airport, he said.

“I knew nothing about Jackson County when I bought my first piece of property here,” Austin said. “I saw the airport on the chart. I flew in and said ‘This is it’.”

Austin believes the airport has played a role in bringing in high-profile national corporations like Wal-Mart, because their site development scouts had an easy way into the county. Austin has seen executives with Harrah’s Casino fly in and out of the airport, more anecdotal proof of its importance to the region.

Rowell doesn’t understand how a regional airport that carries the county’s name could be such a low priority for its commissioners.

“This is the Jackson County airport,” said Rowell. “One way or another you’ve got to put some money into it. The airport is working hard to make itself a viable entity and all they need is matching money.”

The ongoing struggle between the airport authority and the county commissioners over the $17,000 required to release the federal matching grants has come to a head.

Board members like Cowan and Massie argue that the airport should generate its own revenue to meet the match. Rowell and Austin argue they would already be self-sufficient if not for the landslide following heavy rains and the county’s stinginess.

 

The power struggle

The current airport authority’s chairman, Greg Hall, announced recently that he was stepping down from his position at the end of the year. The airport board was already operating with just three of the five members it is supposed to have, due to failure by the county commissioners to appoint the additional members.

Hall’s departure will leave only the board with just two members –– County Manager Ken Westmoreland and Sylva business owner Jason Kimenker.

Kimenker appeared at the board’s meeting last week to urge them to appoint new members to the authority.

“I am here to make it pretty clear that we are having trouble at the airport with only three out of the five people were are supposed to have,” Kimenker said. “As of January 2010, we will have only two members. I would appreciate it so much if the county commissioners could have appointments made appropriately so we can run the airport as we have been tasked to do so.”

The airport authority is a state-sanctioned governing body independent of the county. Its original charter set it up as a self-promulgating board with the power to name replacements when a member stepped down.

The county board, unhappy with its lack of oversight, took over the role of appointing airport members in 2007, a move that required special state legislation setting up the new power structure.

Under the new setup, the authority recommends its picks for the board, but ultimately, the commissioners can appoint whoever they want.

Rowell said the board has stood by and watched as the authority’s numbers have dwindled, however.

“Three times the airport authority has submitted names to the (commissioners), and they’ve not chose either of the names nor have they brought forward anyone else,” Rowell said.

At a time when the airport is in need of open, honest discussion, Rowell believes the board is circling its wagons.

“The trouble now is you don’t have the pilots and the public and the commissioners and all the stakeholders sitting down to say what are we going to do with this thing?” said Rowell. “But that’s exactly what we were doing a few years ago.”

The county board and the airport authority worked closely together at one point, working out a 10-year plan and setting aside money from N.C. Department of Transportation grants for the potential construction of revenue-generating “T-hangars,” which are essentially personal parking spaces for private aircraft.

In 2005, the relationship between the commissioners and the airport authority fell apart when the commissioners removed two members — its chair Tom McClure and Rowell.

Rowell said the political struggle that resulted in his removal was merely fallout from a separate controversy over the Economic Development Committee, which McClure chaired as well. The county decided McClure was doing a poor job heading up economic development, and in the process of removing him from that post unseated him from the airport authority for good measure.

Rowell and McClure sued the county over their removal and won. Rowell believes bad feelings from that power struggle have made certain board members opposed to the airport’s best interests.

 

Where to go from here?

Earlier this month, Cowan said the board needed to revisit the issue of the airport and come up with a mission for the airport authority before appointing replacement members. He said the commissioners would take up the issue at a workshop in December.

The decision facing the commissioners is essentially what to do with an airport they don’t want to run. Because of commitments attached to federal matching grants, the county can’t shut its airport down without paying back nearly a million dollars.

The airport authority has urged the board to release its last two years of matching grant funding. According to Westmoreland, the authority has the potential to tap into as much as $300,000 in grant money currently on the table — essentially two years worth of federal allocations — if the county is willing to put up a 10 percent match.

Coupled with existing money in the airport’s reserves, the grants could fund construction of eight T-hangars at a total cost of $424,000. The airport has more than 50 people on a waiting list for permanent hangars for their private planes. Austin said the hangars would generate about $24,000 per year of revenue to supplant operating costs at the airport.

Meanwhile N.C. DOT and the FAA have indicated they would supply grant money to give the airport a GPS approach system if the airport would widen its runway by 10 feet, a project that would cost around the same amount as the hangars.

“The authority is going to have to make a decision which way it goes first,” Westmoreland said. “We don’t have the money to do both at once.”

Massie, though, said the board is not in the mood to spend any more money on the airport besides what is required to protect the public.

“We will do what is necessary to make sure the flying public is safe and the citizens of Jackson County are safe, but I don’t think our board is going to participate in any kind of expansion of those facilities,” Massie said.

Commissioner William Shelton said he is also against any expansion of the airport. He believes the airport is useful to the county on some level, but he is concerned that it has become a drain on the budget.

“Anytime you can spend $16,000 to get $150,000, that is hard to pass up,” Shelton said of the grant. “But it is still tax dollars so you have to justify it to the taxpayer. So how do you justify it?”

Austin rejects that reasoning.

“$16,000 a year out of a $61 million budget? Is there really such a drain on the taxpayer?” Austin said.

A major sticking point in the argument is that for a long time the airport authority has talked about becoming a self-sufficient entity, capable of covering its operating costs and supplying the money to obtain matching grants, but that goal has yet to materialize.

Recently, the airport suffered another freak setback when its brand new lighting system was hit by a lightning strike. New lights would cost nearly $150,000.

The airport’s defenders claim that if the county releases its portion of the matching money, then the airport will be back on the road to self-sufficiency. But the commissioners say they’ve heard that line before, which is why they refused to release the matching grant last year.

Jackson commissioners faced with resigning EDC members

Four of the nine members on the Jackson County Economic Development Commission have resigned in the past month, signaling growing frustration among a board that lacks clear direction from the county commissioners.

The director of the EDC had already resigned this summer, and on her way out, she called the EDC board and its relationship with the county dysfunctional. Her parting recommendation was to dissolve the EDC and create a new entity. The current EDC continued to be haunted by old baggage and controversy, including a power struggle with the county.

The EDC board complained this summer that it had no real authority but had been relegated to a mere advisory role, and furthermore, the county didn’t seem interested in its advice. The county provides the lion’s share of funding for the EDC, however, and saw no problem with the entity serving in an advisory-only capacity.

The county commissioners had shown no movement to acknowledge the concerns nor hire a replacement EDC director, prompting the resignations.

“The county administration has more or less taken over the work of the Economic Development Commission,” Attorney Jay Coward wrote in his resignation letter, adding that he “cannot justify further participation.”

The county commissioners are planning to talk about a new strategy for the economic development commission during a workshop in December.

Commissioners perplexed by white paint samples

Jackson County Commissioners pondered paint samples at their meeting this week in an attempt to pick an exterior color for the new library beside the historic courthouse.

“I like white,” said Chairman Brian McMahan. “It’s historically been known as a white building and should be kept that way.”

Fellow commissioners seemed to agree that the new library should be white in keeping with the historic icon perched on the hillside over Sylva, but the decision didn’t end there.

“There are different types of white. There’s an eggshell white and a bright white,” McMahan said.

McMahan recently got a lesson in the myriad hues of white when he tried to buy a can of the stuff to repaint the hallway in his house.

“They said, ‘What color white do you want?’ I didn’t realize there were so many shades of white,” McMahan said.

He ultimately made what he called the right choice: deferring to his wife.

When McMahan turned to the other commissioners and asked them to weigh in, they shifted uncomfortably in their chairs.

“I don’t know. I will have to ask my wife,” Commissioner Tom Massie replied. “I am smart enough to know to get any good woman’s opinion on this.”

Commissioner Mark Jones explained that he was colorblind, recusing himself from the discussion.

Commissioner William Shelton said his wife has ample experience when it comes to paint colors.

“You would be shocked to know how many times my wife has changed colors in our house,” Shelton said.

Shelton said the color on a tiny swatch never seems to look the same once it gets on the wall.

“I think it would be a good idea to slap some on there to see what it looks like,” Shelton said.

The architect for the library, Donnie Love, said that approach could certainly be arranged, perhaps by painting a few choices on a wall or two.

“We could let anyone who wanted to go have a look at it,” Love said.

Shelton suggested eliciting feedback from the Friends of the Library group, which is raising money for the new library.

“We’d be happy to,” responded Mary Otto Selzer, co-chair of the library capital campaign committee, who was sitting in the audience.

Sylva ColorFest showcases work of regional artists

Downtown Sylva will host ColorFest: Art of the Blue Ridge from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 24. The event spotlights Western North Carolina artists’ work in shops and on Main Street sidewalks.

Artists will be demonstrating their work throughout the day, with several venues also featuring live music by performers including Karen Barnes, Chris Cooper and Ron Smith among others.

• It’s By Nature hosts Jack Stern, a national award-winning artist who creates large scale paintings of “mountains, water and light”

• Peebles spotlights well-known watercolorist Pamela Haddock showing original art based on local scenes of the Great Smoky Mountains and Michael Rogers, famed painter of the Appalachian Trail Series.

• Blew Glass has a fellow glass artist, Neal Hearn, who will show his glass boxes.

• Nichol’s House features artist Mark Copple, painter of still life and nature.

• Shot in the Dark Cafe shows two sisters’ artwork, Audrey Hayes and D. Hayes Mayer.

• Lulu’s Restaurant showcases Jane Revay, who shows her vividly colored mountain landscapes painted in oil on canvas.

• Underground Cafe & Coffee Shop shows the paintings of artist, Scottie Harris.

• Guadalupe’s Restaurant’s guest artist is Nikki Hinkie, a pastel painter who spontaneously creates scenes of nature and mountain life.

• Gallery One’s resident artists Joe Meigs and Tim Lewis demonstrate watercolor and computer design

• Lily’s Treasures shows the art of Linda A. Barrick, a children’s book illustrator and fine artist.

• Jackson’s General Store features the art of James Smythe, oil and pastel painter.

• Massies Furniture displays the artwork of Margot Johnson, an pastel and watercolor artist.

• Blackrock Outdoor’s artist is Bruce Bunch, an internationally-acclaimed artist who has won England’s “Queen’s Award” and many other awards of excellence for paintings of birds, dogs and fly fishing.

• In Your Ear Music is exhibiting fine art pottery by Julie Fawn Boisseau, an artist of Native American descent and Jadwiga Cataldo’s fine art jewelry.

• Advanced Medical Supplies features the bold palate knife paintings of William Clarke.

• Appalachian Log Homes showcases photographer Karen Lawrence’s award-winning wildlife photography, with close-up images of wildlife in their own habitat.

• Ironstone Grille features Doreyl Ammons Cain’s paintings of Appalachian culture.

• 553 Restaurant features Gayle Woody, fine painter, teacher and musician; JoAnn Meeks, pastel and acrylic artist; Frank Meeks, photographer; Kathy Rowe demonstrates fiber art and dyeing.

• Friends of the Library presents nature photographer, Etheree Chancellor.

• Penumbra Gallery’s own fine artist, Matthew Turlington, demonstrates his photography techniques.

• Livingston Kelley’s Photo showcases two artists, Jane McClure, a fine painter of local life and Lucius Salisbury, a sculpture artist who has turned to painting with pastels in an impressionistic style.

• Annie’s Bakery displays the pastel paintings of Becky Nelson.

• Yesterday’s Tree’s features Dave Punches, a painter .

For more information, visit spiritofappalachia.org or call 828.293.2239.

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