BMP’s problems not apparent

At first glance, it is hard to see why Balsam Mountain Preserve has been unable to satisfy the lenders behind a $19.8 million loan dating to 2005.

The exact amount of the payoff on the loan has not been revealed, but is the only debt Balsam Mountain Preserve is carrying, according to Chris Chaffin, managing partner of the development. Chaffin did say Balsam Mountain is current on the interest portion of the loan.

Since taking out the loan four years ago, Balsam Mountain Preserve has had $65 million in lot sales, according to real estate transactions and records. That’s enough to pay off the principle of the loan three times over.

However, the majority was spent constructing amenities. Chief among them is the Arnold Palmer golf course, a dream course that was no small feat to pull off given the mountainous terrain. The golf course likely ate up much of the revenue from lot sales, but Chaffin did not provide an exact price tag.

In addition, the development boasts an equestrian center, a sports center with tennis courts and a pool, a nature center, a dining room and lodge, guest cabins and a road network.

Of the 354 lots in the master plan for the development, two-thirds have been sold. There are 120 lots left, and with the infrastructure and amenities mostly in place, any profit to be realized would largely rest with the remaining parcels.

Lot sales have declined in 2009 over previous years, but are strong in comparison to what most developments have seen since the recession. Balsam Mountain Preserve sold 12 lots so far this year, bringing in $6.17 million at an average of $514,000 a lot. If the rate is sustained for the remaining 120 lots, the development would realize an additional $60 million in revenue.

That begs the question of why the lenders aren’t being more patient on the undisclosed balance of the $19.8 million loan.

At the 2009 pace of lot sales, it would take three years to pay off the principal, not taking into account the inevitable overhead expense of maintaining a sales presence or the construction of additional road infrastructure, which is still needed in new phases of the development.

Sustaining operations and the additional capital for more road construction would drag out the payoff much longer than basic calculations allow for, and thus make the lender uneasy. The question, it seems, is whether TriLyn is willing to keep waiting or will attempt to take matters into its own hands.

Of the 120 lots that remain, 40 are scattered through existing phases of the development, while 80 are in new phases. The 40 scattered through existing phases require no additional infrastructure in order to market, but are merely waiting for buyers. The other 80 lie in two future phases and would require a capital investment to upgrade old logging roads into development-caliber roads before aggressively marketing the lots.

In some developments, the last lots to sell are likely the least desirable and lowest in value — whether they’re too steep, lack a view or are otherwise unappealing. Some are so flawed they may never sell.

But given the sparse number of lots in Balsam Mountain Preserve — 354 sites on 4,400 acres — the layout and design was likely more thoughtfully considered on the front end, making it less likely that the remaining lots are of less value or won’t sell at all.

Saving Judaculla Rock: Preservation work begins on local artifact

By Julia Merchant • Contributing writer

Priceless artifacts often end up tucked safely away behind the protective glass cases of museums — but not Judaculla Rock.

A thin, twisted piece of rusty rebar is all that separates this well-known boulder, covered with mysterious Native American petroglyphs, from the thousands of visitors who flock each year to the rural Jackson County field where the rock lies. A few hastily tacked newspaper articles do little to convey the importance of this sacred prehistoric site.

“Judaculla tends to be one of the most complex boulders in terms of the amount of glyphs carved into it, and it’s one of the only public rock art pictographs in the state,” said Lorie Hansen, project director of the North Carolina Rock Art Survey. “It’s not currently being protected environmentally or from visitors.”

But that’s going to change, thanks to efforts spearheaded by Jackson County, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology and the Caney Fork Community Development Council. Last month, the county released the findings of a soil survey conducted on the site in July — the first step of a comprehensive management plan for the artifact that will one day result in a boardwalk, more signage, and erosion and sediment control features.

“I think all the commissioners feel an obligation to take care of it,” said Emily Elders, Recreation Project Manager for Jackson County. “It’s a local landmark.”

 

Taking action

Over the years, a variety of forces — mostly human — have caused a great deal of damage to Judaculla. Visitors have highlighted the petroglyphs with chalk, talc powder, and shoe polish in an effort to see them better. At least twice, someone has attempted to remove sections of the rock, possibly for a souvenir; others have left behind graffiti or carved their initials. People have stood on the boulder and used it as a mountain bike ramp.

In the past, the county has made some efforts to preserve and protect Judacualla, but even those did more harm than good. A roofed cinder block building constructed over the boulder in the 1960s created a moist environment that enabled the growth of lichen. The roof was later replaced by an open structure, which caused increased sedimentation.

“What you see invariably is people trying to do the best they knew to do at the time to save it and help it,” said Elders. “I think it’s always been motivated by a desire to do right by the site.”

The need to do something more to preserve Judaculla, however, became more urgent in recent years.

“Many people in this part of the state had become aware of Judaculla and the effects on it from visitors and weathering forces,” said Hansen. “We started a committee to talk about what could be done. Jackson County was very responsive and contributed funds to get a conservation plan developed.”

In 2008, the county commissioners asked Georgia-based Stratum Unlimited to develop a comprehensive management plan that would address ways to alleviate damage to the boulder. Authored by renowned archaeologist Jannie Laobser, the report found that the accumulation of soil and sediment around the rock was “of specific concern,” and had accelerated in recent years, obscuring and eroding the petroglyphs.

The report noted that the boulder was still in remarkably good shape, considering all the damaging factors it had been subjected to over the years. However, it also stated that while the county could continue to press its luck, it also had the opportunity to grab the reins and take a proactive approach to preserving Judaculla.

“The fact of the matter is that the site cannot escape being ‘managed,’ be it in an informal or ‘chaotic’ fashion by the visiting public, or in a more formal, or planned, fashion by the county,” wrote Laobser.

 

Community effort

The county, joined by multiple state and local agencies, stepped up efforts to preserve Judaculla. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians was also eager to help protect the site, considered sacred in Cherokee culture.

“In a sense, the Cherokee have a cultural ownership of Judaculla Rock,” says Brian Burgess of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office. “I imagine it’s difficult for any Cherokee citizen, young or old, to visit the rock, and not appreciate the time and work that went into the creation of the glyphs, and not feel some type of spiritual connection to the people that carved the images so long ago.”

The Cherokee Preservation Foundation gave $17,000 to help fund the conceptual site plan for Judaculla.

With the help of public input, it was determined that the best way to preserve Judaculla would be to restore historical stormwater flows and grades to reduce or eliminate the sedimentation that was burying and eroding the rock. But just what was “historical?”

“We don’t have any real records of what the land used to look like around the rock,” said Elders. “When we talk about trying to restore the normal water flow, it makes sense to ask, was anything ever being grown there? Was there a hill behind (the rock) originally? That’s what we were really looking for.”

To gather historical information, the group resorted to creative means.

“We relied on photographs a lot. We ran an ad in all the papers and with the Oklahoma Cherokee Nation and Eastern Band asking for stories, legends, or information about Judaculla rock,” said Elders. “We got all kinds of stuff. People brought in copies of old postcards, old articles, some Citizen-Times articles on microfiche, old pictures.”

The information helped the county complete a site plan for Judaculla, which was released this past May.

 

New look

Under the site plan, the rusted rebar which currently serves as the sole barrier around Judaculla would be replaced by a raised viewing platform closed in by railings, The plan also calls for the installation of interpretive signage, which would inform visitors about the archaeological significance of the site, explain the Cherokee legend associated with Judaculla, and detail the more recent history of the Caney Fork area.

A major focus of the plan is getting rid of the sedimentation that has damaged Judaculla over the years. The area’s natural slopes and vegetation will be restored to reduce stormwater runoff. The county is also pursuing a conservation easement that would move access to Judaculla away from the uphill slope above the rock, where visitors currently park.

“That would eliminate a lot of the erosion problem coming from the road. The goal is to get rid of some of the traffic,” said Elders.

Instead, visitors would park further away from the rock and walk along a six-foot wide, compacted gravel access trail.

 

Preservation begins

Implementation of the site plan began this past July, when a week-long soil sampling survey was conducted at Judaculla. More than 100 soil core samples were extracted around the site and examined to help determine what the natural flow of water had once looked like around Judaculla. The findings will help determine the design and placement of surface water runoff facilities and serve as a guide for removing the soil that has built up to obscure some of the petroglyphs.

The eventual goal is to return the soil surrounding the rock back to the level it was in the 1920s, the last time it was a “natural situation,” says Elders. “After that, there was artificial, exacerbated erosion coming in.”

It’s unclear how much more of the rock will be exposed when the soil buildup is removed, since pictures of Judaculla from that time are rare. But Elders says the process will expose more of the rock’s carvings, and will be followed up with stormwater and erosion protection measures to ensure soil buildup is kept to a minimum.

The next step in implementing the site plan is already underway. Equinox Environmental was awarded a contract last month, funded by the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, to start engineering some of the drainage and erosion control measures.

Putting the whole site plan in place, however, could take some time.

“It’s a multi-year kind of project broken down into stages,” Hansen said.

Slowing the process is Judaculla’s designation as a state historic site. Archaeologists must approve plans for and be present at each state of site work, in case artifacts are turned up in the process. That requirement is the costliest part of the preservation effort. “The actual construction is not that costly,” Elders said. She said she doesn’t know how much the whole project could end up costing, but will seek out grants to help pay for it.

The whole process of preserving Judaculla may seem painstaking, but it must be that way so the mistakes of past preservation attempts can be avoided, Hansen said.

“We want to make sure it’s the right thing for the site, because in years past there’ve been very good attempts on the part of the county to protect it that turned out to be to its detriment,” Hansen said.

Price tag on land a deal killer for Jackson greenway

Despite their conceptual support for a greenway along the Tuckasegee River, Jackson County commissioners expressed hesitation about purchasing land to establish it.

At a meeting Monday, the commissioners unanimously approved spending about $39,580 on a 1.4-acre plot but also unanimously tabled the $178,000 purchase of a 14.2-acre parcel.

Had both purchases been approved, the first mile of the proposed 4.5-mile greenway between Sylva and Cullowhee would have been established remarkably quickly.

Commissioner Tom Massie most strongly opposed the purchase, not on the property’s merits but because of the possibility of setting a precedent that could eventually cost the county dearly.

Massie said the county should try to buy conservation easements instead, where the property remains in private ownership but allows the greenway to pass through it. It’s less expensive than buying parcels outright.

“We do not have enough money to,” said Massie. “We need to be very careful about which tracts we’re going to buy and which tracts we’re going to buy a conservation easement on.”

Massie expressed disbelief that the landlocked 14-acre plot with no road access could carry a $178,000 price tag.

“I can’t believe that price,” said Massie. “I don’t think that’s a fair value.”

Massie suggested the county negotiate further with the property owners.

Commissioner William Shelton expressed the same worry of setting an undesirable precedent by approving purchases rather than pursuing easements.

While County Manager Ken Westmoreland agreed that outright purchases could set a precedent, future deals also depend on the “motivation and interest” of the parties involved.

“We do have one property owner adjacent to these two pieces that will make a complete donation to the county,” said Westmoreland.

According to Westmoreland, the 14-acre plot, owned by Carolyn Cabe, was identified in the greenway master plan as not only a location for the greenway itself but possibly other amenities like a resting area, a picnic area or a shelter.

“It’s relatively flat,” said Westmoreland. “It is a very usable piece.”

The 1.4-acre parcel, purchased from Anita Samuel, fronts the Tuckasegee River and includes a 16-foot existing right of way belonging to the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority.

The right of way would allow the county to secure Clean Water Management Trust Funds and other funds down the road, Westmoreland said.

The greenway master plan, adopted by the commissioners this year, recommends that the greenway between Sylva and Cullowhee, utilizing an existing sewer line easement as the primary trail corridor, as well as some additional footage for buffering and stream bank protection.

Emily Elders, recreation project manager for Jackson County, said the entire corridor is fairly undeveloped with homes.

Task force declared finished as draft plan advances for public review

Some members of the Jackson County Transportation Task Force feel like the list of road projects bearing their name has not properly been vetted, despite the work of the task force being declared finished.

“I think the task force has satisfied their charge in creating a comprehensive transportation plan,” said Ryan Sherby, community transportation coordinator with the Southwestern Regional Commission.

After a stint before the public for comment later this month, Sherby anticipates shipping the plan along to the county commissioners for approval and then sending it up the chain to guide road building priorities by the N.C. Department of Transportation. At this point, Sherby doesn’t intend the task force will ever formally vote on the plan — even though the plan will bear their name and they will be credited with creating it.

“This isn’t a real rigid process,” Sherby said.

Some task force members were surprised to learn, however, that their work is done. At their most recent meeting, they were never told it would be their last. They also weren’t told that the plan — essentially a list of future road projects — was in its final form and being sent on to county commissioners for a stamp of approval without the task force formally endorsing it.

“From my standpoint, there was no integrity or forthrightness about what was happening at that last meeting,” said Susan Leveille, a member of the task force and of the Smart Roads coalition. “We were being rushed.”

After more than year of poring over growth and traffic projections, the task force spent the past five months coming up with a list of new road projects that would make travel safer and faster.

Rather than vetting the list through discussion, however, task force members were asked to rank each project on a scale of 1 to 5. Task force members were asked to go around the table and verbally call out their score for each project, a process repeated 17 times for each road project on the list. The numbers for each project were tallied to decide which stayed on the list. Only one came off.

Sherby called it a “consensus building exercise.” The format for the meeting came as a surprise, however.

“We knew that we were going to be making some choices,” Leveille said. “But we had no idea what the procedure was going to be. We had no idea there would be a facilitator that was railroading us through this. I expected some thoughtful discussion.”

For some on the task force, the recent episode is indicative of the entire process.

“The task force was not in the driver’s seat,” said Jeanette Evans, another member of the Smart Roads coalition. “It felt steamrolled.”

Another source of confusion is exactly what the rankings were supposed to reflect.

“That’s a good question,” said Don Selzer, a task force member appointed by the county commissioners. “My understanding was that it was a vote to put certain options before the public — not necessarily ones we recommended but these are the options available.”

However, the rankings are apparently being viewed as an endorsement of the road projects on the list by the task force, since there is no plan to bring the list back to the task force for a vote. That is upsetting to Leveille, since she gave a high ranking to the Southern Loop, a controversial bypass around the commercial district of N.C. 107. Leveille is against the project and would have scored it much lower if she understood it was somehow a final vote. But she gave it a high ranking simply because she thought it merited additional discussion.

Sherby said the plan rests with county commissioners now, along with elected town leaders, and it will be their call whether the list goes back to the task force to formally sign off on the plan.

“If the county commissioners want the task force to do that then we will,” Sherby said.

That may be something the commissioners ask for, said County Commissioner William Shelton.

“There is always the possibility the commissioners would have some more questions of the task force before it goes to final approval,” said Shelton, who is on the task force.

Shelton is among those who were surprised that the plan is supposedly complete and the task force wouldn’t be meeting again. Shelton thinks the laundry list of road projects should be assigned a more thoughtful ranking than its current form.

Selzer is also uncomfortable with the lack of finality the last meeting had. He doesn’t think the plan as is can be touted as something the task force has endorsed.

“I would like to see a final list and say ‘yes or no, this is what we want,’” Selzer said. Selzer said he is “not terribly satisfied” with the process the task force used to create a plan.

Duke countersues Jackson

Duke Energy has fired back at Jackson County’s attempt to seize the Dillsboro Dam with a counterclaim of its own.

Duke claims that it is the victim of abuse of process by the county and is seeking damages.

Despite the county’s claims that it wants the dam and adjacent river shore to create a park, Duke alleges that Jackson has an “ulterior purpose.” Jackson County has long been an opponent of dam removal, fighting tooth and nail to save the dam before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Seizing the dam through eminent domain was seen as a trump card and last resort held by the county.

Duke argues the condemnation move is “solely for the purpose of interfering with and circumventing” dam demolition, not a true desire to create a park. Duke claims the county has “willfully misused” its condemnation powers.

Duke further took issue with the miserly sum of $1 Jackson County has offered to pay for the property it hopes to seize. The county would be required to compensate Duke for the monetary value of the dam and shoreline property if condemnation is successful. The county argues that $1 is sufficient, since Duke would be saved the trouble and expense of tearing it down, an undertaking that would have cost more than $1 million. That savings should more than suffice as the monetary compensation Jackson would otherwise owe Duke, the suit argues.

Duke said the snub is “further evidence of the county’s bad faith and improper purpose for bringing this action.”

Duke’s counterclaim filed last week seeks an unspecified sum covering attorneys’ fees and monetary damages.

Library supporters close to $1.6 million fundraising goal

Fundraising for the new Jackson County library may have entered the home stretch, but is far from home free.

Friends of the Library is only $250,000 away from its $1.6 million goal. But the final leg will prove the toughest, longest and hardest yet.

The library fundraising committee has spent most of the past year going after big dollars and large grants from corporate sponsors and foundations. The fundraising will now enter what’s known as the public phase: eking out $50 and $100 checks from the general public to raise most of the remainder.

“This library complex belongs to all the people of Jackson County, and we need the citizens to support the project financially,” said Mary Otto Selzer, co-chair of the capital campaign committee formed under Friends of the Library. “Everybody’s circumstances are different, but if people will give whatever they can afford, we will reach our goal.”

In coming weeks, the public will start to see cardboard banks shaped like books on the counters of local businesses throughout the county where people can drop their spare bills and checks.

The fundraising committee got welcome news last week. The campaign was still half a million short when word came through of a major windfall: a $250,000 grant from the N.C. State Employee’s Credit Union. It comes with a caveat that the community must match the money.

“We can say to the people of Jackson County for every dollar you give, it means two dollars for your library. That is a powerful thing in fundraising,” said Dr. John Bunn, co-chair of the capital campaign.

The challenge grant provides a needed push to carry the campaign across the finish line.

“The $250,000 challenge grant from SECU is a strong incentive for our community to reach the $1.6 million we need to complete the new library complex,” said June Smith, president of the Friends of the Jackson County Main Library.

The library is scheduled to open in December 2010. Construction, including the courthouse renovation, is estimated at $7.9 million and is being covered by the county. The furnishings, fixtures and equipment for the library were left up to the fundraising campaign.

Bunn hopes the final dollar will be raised by next spring.

“I think the people of Jackson County will respond,” Bunn said. “When you give to this, you have made a gift to something that will keep on giving to generations.”

Bunn said there was skepticism in the early stages of the campaign when a $1.6 million goal was looming ahead of them.

“They told us it was impossible,” Bunn said.

Bunn credits the concept of the library itself as the main driver in the fundraising success.

“This is the kind of thing that brings a new quality of life for all of the people here,” Bunn said.

Those courting donors had another major selling point up their sleeve. The new library is being constructed alongside the famous historic courthouse, which is being restored and renovated in tandem with the library project.

“That just clinched it,” Bunn said.

The library’s main entrance, atrium and courtyard — features that connect the library complex with the historic courthouse — will be named for the State Employees Credit Union.

Bunn said the new library and courthouse restoration will be a point of pride for the community.

Land sales challenge basis for vested rights, some argue

When the 3,500-acre Legasus development won exemptions from Jackson County’s development regulations two years ago, it raised the hackles of residents in the Tuckasegee community who claimed the hard-fought growth protections they ardently supported had failed when needed the most.

Now the disgruntled residents have raised the rallying cry again, this time contending that the mega development should be stripped of its vested rights after selling off portions of the land, whether through foreclosure or a voluntary move to raise cash and pay off debt.

“There are so many questions that have come up recently with foreclosures and land sales that totally change the dynamics of what the county granted Legasus vested rights for,” said Thomas Crowe, a member of the United Neighbors of Tuckaseigee.

Vested rights are an exemption intended to protect developers caught mid-stream by new ordinances. When Jackson’s new ordinances came along two years ago, Legasus argued they’d already spent a great deal designing a master plan and marketing the development to prospective buyers and should be allowed to proceed. Jackson County ultimately awarded vested rights to every developer that applied for them.

The Legasus development once called for 1,800 lots on 3,500 acres between Tuckasegee and Glenville spanning five separate tracts. With lot sales falling short of expectations, the company has had to sell off portions — including part of the proposed golf course. It is unclear whether new property owners will join forces with Legasus to carry out the existing development plan or will do their own thing.

“The question arises exactly what kind of rights do the new owners have? Can they come in under the auspices of the vested rights granted to Legasus initially?” Crowe asked. “We want to be on the front end of this new situation.”

A community forum on the issue of vested rights will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 2, and will aim to answer these questions. Attorney DJ Gerken with the Southern Environmental Law Center will give a presentation and lead the discussion. The forum has been organized by the Western North Carolina Alliance and the United Neighbors of Tuckasegee.

“Those of us in the community as well as the county political leaders need to come up to speed on the whole issue of vested rights because of all the high-end developments here in Jackson County and in particular the Legasus development,” Crowe said.

Jackson EDC says new direction key to future

A comprehensive economic development strategy would go a long way toward solving the quagmire that is holding back progress on the Jackson County Economic Development Commission, the EDC board decided this week.

“This is probably the most important issue,” said Joe Cline, the chairman of the EDC. “If we wait until the economy starts turning back around and everybody has done the groundwork and are ready to go, they will be miles ahead of us. We won’t be on a level playing field.”

The EDC has been preoccupied for much of the past year with what its role is. The county, which provides most of the funding for the EDC and employs its director, has provided little direction on what the nine-member volunteer board should be doing. The body is also caught in a power struggle between the county and towns.

It is further plagued by lingering controversy over alleged financial mismanagement dating back several years that remains unresolved. Meanwhile, the EDC director has just resigned, leaving the entity even more rudderless.

Bringing in a consultant and assembling a task force of stakeholders to forge a new direction could be the answer to the problems, Cline said.

“I agree there should be some kind of strategy on the table,” said Cecil Groves, president of the Southwestern Community College and an EDC member. “I think it will take someone out the region, outside the immediate family, to come in and look at this and give some objective approach to get people together and unified in a direction they are comfortable with.”

Cline said the question is how much such a study would cost and who would put up the money. The outgoing EDC director estimated a good one would cost $200,000.

“You almost can’t afford not to do it. It is something that is definitely needed,” Cline said. “But that is a lot of money.”

County leaders have expressed interest in taking a step back and developing a comprehensive economic development strategy under the guidance of a consultant. The EDC has money sitting in its coffers, which has accumulated over several years. The county would have to approve spending the money, however.

EDC members came to a consensus that Cline should approach county leaders to gauge interest and their level of financial support.

 

Elusive audits

Meanwhile, the EDC continues to struggle with how it can complete back audits from the years 2001 through 2005 when records from that period are incomplete.

Larry Morris, an EDC member from Cashiers, said the issue is like an albatross around the board’s neck. Yet since the county, not the EDC, is in control of whatever records do exist there is nothing the board can do but wait.

“I hope they can work in all due haste to resolve this. It seems to be a continuing issue that has lingered on for some time for whatever reason,” said Morris.

“There probably has been some feet dragging somewhat, but it has not been by this body,” Cline said. “I don’t even know where the records are for the years we are talking about. I don’t know who has custody of those at the moment. I agree it has been a frustrating, agonizing process.”

During the period in question, EDC records were kept at the office and home of the EDC chairman Tom McClure, who works in development at WCU. He acted as the body’s de facto director, although he was technically a volunteer. When the county grew concerned over a lack of financial oversight, it sent sheriff’s deputies to seize the records from McClure. Despite operating largely on county funds, the county technically had no authority to seize the records since the EDC was a standalone body, and it had to give them back again. But along the way, some disappeared.

“Those records just went missing. They got gone. There is no good explanation for it,” said Jay Coward, an attorney and member of the EDC.

Cline said the EDC has asked the district attorney and sheriff’s office to figure out if wrongdoing occurred.

“If there was anything done wrong, I don’t care whose doorstep it falls on, it needs to fall,” Cline said.

But no one has been willing to investigate, Cline said.

Cline said the only thing the board can do is make sure history is not repeated by making sure there is proper oversight, something that was lacking back then.

“The county and elected officials should have kept a closer check and eye on what’s going on,” Cline said. “If you are elected to take care of the taxpayers money and you allocated it, then you ought to at least know how those funds are being used. I think all of them share equal responsibility.

“It appears to me that everybody sat back until it got to a certain point and said ‘Wait a minute.’ Everybody tried to get in front of it and close the door to the barn after the cow got out,” Cline said. “Quite honestly, I don’t know if you will ever get totally to the bottom of it.”

Jackson EDC still taking old board’s heat

Old records of the Jackson County Economic Development Commission are likely too spotty to complete missing audits from the years 2001 through 2005, although the county and EDC board say they will continue their quest to do so.

“The citizens deserve as much answers as can be provided. I don’t know how much can be provided, but I think everybody is committed to providing as much as they can,” said EDC Chairman Joe Cline. However, “It may be tough to pull the records together.”

Meanwhile, a watchdog group called Jackson County Citizens Action Group continues to dog the county and the members of the EDC, accusing them of a financial cover-up and lack of diligence in safeguarding public funds. Indeed, the entity had a pall cast over it when Jackson County leaders withdrew from the body four years ago and seized its records, citing concerns over financial management of tax dollars.

However, today’s members of the EDC are nearly all new, and they are ready to move on.

While it was actually a violation of state statute for the entity not to perform audits, the all-volunteer board didn’t realize it was supposed to be conducting them until the past couple of years.

“There is obviously some mismanagement and expenditure of small amounts that are not accounted for, but the large sums are fully accounted for,” County Manager Ken Westmoreland said of the missing audit years. “We are talking about nickels and dimes.”

Tom McClure, the director of Partnership Development for WCU’s Millenial Initiative, acted as a de facto director of the EDC during the time period. He kept many of the EDC records in his office and largely ran the entity’s financial affairs and managed its business on a daily basis, even though he was only the volunteer chairman of the board and not a paid director.

The past controversy that most haunts the EDC is the revolving loan fund, even though the revolving loan fund was under the auspice of the county and a nonprofit arm of the EDC called the Jackson Development Corporation. Defaults on revolving loans are actually what prompted the county to withdraw from the EDC four years ago and to pull a somewhat hostile takeover of the JDC’s assets and liabilities.

“Not only were some of these loans in default, but many times in the majority of the cases, the loans were not adequately collateralized,” Westmoreland said.

The loans helped prop up small industries and in turn support job creation. While several loans are still behind, all but one is still making payments, according to County Finance Director Darlene Fox.

This has not satisfied critics, who have attempted to trace the path of public dollars from the county, to the EDC, then to the JDC and finally into the hands of private businesses who have failed to keep up with payments. The JDC was dissolved and assumed by the county, so complaints from the public over the defunct entity’s dealings have landed on the EDC board.

The Jackson County Citizens Action Group has railed against both county leaders and the EDC, asking for answers for nearly two years, requesting public records, compiling their own outlines of events, and making pointed presentations on the issue during public meetings.

Marie Leatherwood, a longtime critic of the EDC, called the entity a “dark hole using taxpayer money with no accountability.”

“The tainted history of the EDC and their equally tainted defunct bankrupt property buying arm know as the JDC has totally undermined any confidence in these entities,” Leatherwood told EDC members at their last meeting.

Cline said that people should understand the current EDC members have nothing to do with the past dealings of a dissolved entity.

“I know the JDC is no longer in existence, but really you are complaining to the wrong people,” Cline said.

Most of the nine EDC members have come on board only in the past year, however, and only two were actually on board four years ago.

One of the new members, Dick Sterka of Sylva, said it was difficult to continually be held accountable for what happened before his time.

“I think everybody is ready to throw their hands in if we are going to be abused like this,” Sterka said following 25 minutes of public criticism at their last meeting by two individuals. “Our hands are tied.”

When Sterka was appointed to the EDC, he thought the controversies of the past were behind them. New bylaws were created and mostly new members were appointed, leading Sterka to believe they had started over from scratch.

“That’s what we thought we did,” Sterka said.

But the EDC was never formally disbanded, so today’s entity inherited the liabilities — both real and perceived — of the old board.

It’s one reason that Dorothea Megow-Dowling, the EDC director up until last week, suggests dissolving the EDC and creating a new one.

“My view as an outsider is that really has to be put to bed before anybody can move forward in any way,” said Dowling, who resigned this month after less than a year on the job. “Information will minimize the conspiracy stuff that goes on.”

That said, Dowling doesn’t think the past should be wallowed in. EDC Board Member Chris Matheson agreed.

“I think what we need to look at is what has gone right and what can we do to make the EDC run like it needs to run. There are so many people wanting to point fingers to the past. I think it counterproductive,” Matheson said.

That said, Matheson understands that members in the community are still confused about what transpired during the EDC upheaval.

“I respect their concerns and their desire to have answers,” Matheson said. “There was so much confusion it was difficult for me to get it straight myself.”

Lawsuit filed to seize Dillsboro dam

Jackson County has formally filed a lawsuit against Duke Energy to seize the Dillsboro Dam and surrounding river shore, using eminent domain to create a public park and in the process save the dam from being torn down.

The county is also seeking a preliminary injunction against Duke to keep the utility from demolishing, altering or removing any part of the dam or nearby powerhouse.

“Duke intends to immediately begin preparing the Dillsboro Dam and Powerhouse for demolition and removal,” the lawsuit states. But any forays toward removal would cause “irreparable harm as these historic structures cannot be replaced.”

Jackson County wants to transform the dam and surrounding shoreline of the Tuckasegee into a river park and promenade, replete with walking paths, benches, fishing areas and river access. The dam and powerhouse are intended as focal points in the county’s Dillsboro Heritage Park Plan, and, therefore, must be protected through a preliminary injunction against Duke, Jackson pleads.

The injunction also seeks to allow county officials to come onto Duke’s property. Duke had threatened the county with trespassing charges if it attempted to do so, keeping the county from surveying the property it plans to seize or conduct an appraisal.

The lawsuit claims the county is within its rights to seize the property under a state statue allowing for eminent domain for the purpose of creating, enlarging or improving a park or other recreational facility.

Duke has previously countered that condemnation would interfere with an order from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to tear down the dam. Jackson claims that the “order” to tear down the dam is being misrepresented by Duke and that FERC merely granted Duke permission to tear it down. Once Duke no longer owns the dam, the FERC ruling will become moot, Jackson argues.

Jackson points out in the suit that the hydropower operation at the Dillsboro dam has been offline for five years, and therefore isn’t a core part of Duke’s business operation. In addition, Duke no longer has a federal license to operate the dam, having relinquished it in anticipation of demolition.

The county would be required to compensate Duke for the monetary value of the dam if condemnation is successful. At the time of filing the condemnation suit, the county was supposed to deposit the money upfront in an escrow account with the courts.

However, Jackson County only deposited $1. The county argues that by seizing the dam, Duke has been saved the trouble and expense of tearing it down, an undertaking that would have cost more than $1 million. That savings should more than suffice as the monetary compensation Jackson would otherwise owe Duke, the suit argues.

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