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.

Allen joins Knotts on Sylva board

Danny Allen, a former Sylva town commissioner who has been off the board for two years, will reclaim his seat after being the top vote-getter in the town election.

Commissioner Stacy Knotts followed closely on his heels, while Harold Hensley narrowly lost re-election. Hensley said he is not too disappointed, however.

“I will have a lot less headaches,” Hensley joked.

Hensley and Allen shared a similar platform, being closely aligned on most issues, making it unusual that Allen won while Hensley, a sitting town board member, did not.

The chance to serve with Allen again “was the only reason I would have cared to go back on,” Hensley said. Hensley has been in the minority on several split votes defining town board dynamics the past two years.

Two years ago, Allen tied for third place with Town Commissioner Ray Lewis, but rather than holding a run-off election Allen stepped down. Allen was fighting cancer at the time.

Knotts said she was pleased to go back on the board.

“I am excited that I get to work four more years for the town,” said Knotts, a stay-at-home mom.

One of the first decisions facing the town board will be appointing a new member to its ranks. Town Commissioner Maurice Moody will be vacating his seat on the board to become mayor. The other board members will appoint his replacement.

Board members were uncommitted on whether they would appoint the next highest voter-getter in the election to the vacancy.

Hensley said it would make sense to appoint the next highest vote-getter to the vacant seat, which would place him back on the board. Allen and Lewis would likely support such a move since they historically have been in the same camp as Hensley.

But the other two board members — Knotts and Commissioner Sarah Graham — have been on the opposite side of many issues.

While the mayor only votes in the case of a tie, Moody could find himself as the deciding vote in appointing a new board member, who in turn will hold a swing vote on what could otherwise be a split board.

Knotts and Graham have a more progressive platform, while Allen and Lewis have more conservative views. They opposed town funding for the Downtown Sylva Association and the use of tax dollars for the construction of the downtown Bridge Park concert pavilion — two things Knotts and Graham supported.

Sylva had poor voter turnout of only 14 percent of registered voters.

“I was really surprised the turnout was so low,” Knotts said.

But voter Minnie Casey, 83, wasn’t among those who stayed home.

“I just knew I was supposed to vote,” Casey said.

Jim Moffett, 50, also felt it was his civic duty.

“I believe in voting. If you don’t vote, don’t complain. I think we need some new blood in this little town so it doesn’t become stagnant,” said Moffett.

Moffett said controlling development and protecting the environment were the issues that brought him to the polls.



Maurice Moody    174


Town board

Seats up for election:    2

Total seats on board:    5

Danny Allen    119

Stacy Knotts (I)    117

Harold Hensley    109

David Kelley    79

Ellerna Bryson Forney    46

Registered voters:    1,684

Voter turnout:    242 (14%)

Meet the candidates

Two of the five seats on the Sylva town board are up for election. Both incumbents are running for re-election and will face three additional challengers.

The mayor’s seat is up for election as well, but Mayor Brenda Oliver chose not to run after 17 years at the helm and a total of 28 years on the town board. Oliver said she was simply ready to step down and that the town was likewise ready for new leadership.

Town Commissioner Maurice Moody is running unopposed for mayor. Moody’s seat is not up for election this year, so when he transitions to the post of mayor in December, he will leave a vacant spot on the town board. The other board members will appoint his replacement. Board members were uncommitted on whether they would appoint the next highest voter getter in the election to the vacancy.


Stacy Knotts, 38

Stay-at-home mom

Knotts has served on the board four years. This election, Knotts once again went door to door, visiting an estimated 500 residents.

“It was great. I got to hear from the residents in all different neighborhoods. I got to hear about things they liked as well as what they are concerned about. It was a big variety of things. The great thing is I can start working on them right now.”


Harold Hensley, 72

Retired maintenance supervisor for Jackson County Schools

Hensley has served on the board four years.

“There’s lots of money spent that I don’t think should be spent. I have pushed hard for cuts, real hard. There is no sense in every time you turn around you have to look at the taxpayers to bail you out.”


Danny Allen, 53

Not currently employed due to health reasons

Formerly a Sylva police officer and manager of Quinn Theater

“I just don’t think the board is a good representation of the whole town. The present board is catering to select groups. They are not seeing the overall needs of the people.”


David Kelley, 32

Works at Livingston’s Photo and is a Realtor with WNC Brokers

Kelley has no overwhelming desire to alter the town’s course. He thinks the current board is doing “an adequate job” and isn’t advocating for change per say. So why is he running?

“The town has been a big part of my life all my life, so I felt the need for a voice.”


Ellerna Bryson Forney

Could not be reached for comment.

Sylva candidates split on funding for downtown projects

The election for Sylva town board next week will determine the philosophical direction for the town.

The board has been marked by split votes over the past two years, stemming from deep-seated ideological differences.

Two years ago, the majority on the board shifted away from a more traditional mindset toward a more progressive bent, reflecting the growing number of newcomers and young people moving to town. This election, the pendulum could swing back to the traditional camp, or swing further toward the progressive side.

The more traditional camp — consisting of Harold Hensley and Ray Lewis — has consistently opposed town funding for the Downtown Sylva Association. They also opposed funding for the downtown Bridge Park concert pavilion and were against allowing dog walkers in the park for sanitary reasons.

They have been on the losing side of issues over the past two years, however. Danny Allen, who lost re-election two years ago, was once in their camp. If he wins his seat back, they would once again be in the majority.

Town Commissioner Stacy Knotts, who is up for election, has partnered with Sarah Graham and Maurice Moody to pursue a more progressive agenda of town initiatives.

Another challenger in the race, David Kelley, says he wouldn’t join the progressive camp by default but he would be more flexible than Hensley in advancing the progressive agenda.

Kelley, 32, said he straddles the divergent philosophies on the board. On one hand, he’s younger like Knotts and Graham and spends a lot of time downtown. On the other hand, he was born and raised in Sylva and can identify with the more traditional views of long-time residents.

“Sometimes Harold and Ray are more traditional because they have been here longer and are closer to a lot of the natives,” Kelley said. But, “I can see ways of improvement and change that might be good overall that maybe the others can’t see or don’t want to see.”

Whichever side wins the election will have a chance to further solidify their agenda on the board by appointing a like-minded board member to join their ranks come December. Moody will vacate his board seat to become mayor, and the rest of the board members get to appoint his replacement.

Knotts got more votes than Hensley when the two appeared on the same ballot four years ago. Like this time, there were two seats up for election on the board. Both were running unopposed, however, creating a shoe-in for each.


Bridge Park

One issue that shows the dividing line on the board is funding for downtown amenities. Hensley and Allen both raised issues with the money spent on Bridge Park, a small vacant lot downtown that was converted into a gathering place featuring a covered pavilion stage with a grassy lawn.

“I talked to a lot of people and they are saying they are not going to use that park,” Allen said. “But who pays for that? It is the taxpayers. That park is not a necessity in these times right now. The taxpayers are on fixed incomes.”

Hensley agreed. He said the town contributed around $100,000 to the creation of the park, including $12,000 on the sod alone.

Knotts supports the investment in Bridge Park and thinks the public appreciates it. She has heard a lot of support for Bridge Park on campaign rounds.

“A lot of people really like Bridge Park,” Knotts said.

Residents tell her they like the progressive projects the town has embarked on, Knotts said, whether it was Bridge Park, the launch of curbside recycling and plans under way for a Sylva to Dillsboro sidewalk.

While Hensley prides himself on penny-pinching, Knotts said he does not have the monopoly on safeguarding taxpayer dollars.

“I think all the board members have been good stewards of the taxpayers money. Many, many of these projects are funded by grants. We are as efficient as we can and definitely scale back,” Knotts said.

Kelley wouldn’t weigh in on whether Bridge Park was a good use of money. He has heard from both sides, he said.

“It certainly is nice and is definitely improves the town overall,” Kelley said. But he thinks the board could communicate better with residents about those types of expenditures.

Allen said the current board’s focus on downtown, like the town’s effort to provide plastic baggies for dog walkers to clean up after their dogs, is excessive. He said Knotts’ camp has been catering to special-interest groups who want to shape Sylva to suit their own lifestyle.

Hensley opposed spending town dollars on the plastic baggies for dog poo as well. He suggested banning dogs from Bridge Park as an alternative solution so that people could enjoy the park without worrying about sitting in dog poo while watching a concert.

Hensley still doesn’t favor a contribution of town dollars to the Downtown Sylva Association — another source of debate on the board.

“I don’t think the taxpayers send their money down there for us to decide to give it to other charities,” Hensley said.

Several years ago the town contributed $20,000 to DSA. But Hensley, Lewis and Allen voted to reduce it to $2,000. When Graham unseated Allen, the philosophy shifted and the town partially restored funding to $12,000 a year, where it now stands.

“I think they are a great organization, but I do not believe in using tax dollars to fund it,” Hensley said.

Knotts said the work of the Downtown Sylva Association is important to the quality of life of all residents . DSA performs vital community service by generally promoting downtown and staging events, including the Christmas Parade and Greening Up the Mountains festival. Knotts sees it as an economic investment, since downtown events bring in visitors, who in turn support businesses throughout town.

Hensley says he is not against downtown, however. He would like to build a public restroom downtown and employ a police officer who walks the streets of downtown like in days gone by.

Knotts said several issues will face the town over the next four years. She sees the town board weighing in on how to solve traffic congestion on N.C. 107. The town will also likely tackle new development guidelines along the commercial corridors leading into town.

A trail and recreation plan for Pinnacle Park will be adopted. And the town will have to decide what to do with a town building occupied by the Golden Age Senior Center once it moves into a new senior center built by the county. Knotts wants to see it turned into a community center of some sort.

Unfinished hotel mars Sylva landscape

The fate of an unfinished Clarion Inn in Sylva is up in the air after a bank foreclosed on the property earlier this month.

The developer burned through a $5.1 million construction loan for the hotel but ran out of money before finishing the job. Meanwhile, the developer filed for bankruptcy and still owes the contractor $1.9 million.

The boarded-up windows and a weed-engulfed sign of the abandoned hotel casts a cloud over the main commercial thoroughfare in Sylva. The four-story hotel seems doubly tall given its placement on a high, steep bank above the road, its bulk now a prominent feature against the mountain skyline.

Sylva Town Commissioner Maurice Moody hopes that someone will step in to finish the construction and open the hotel.

“There is too much money in it to sit there and do nothing. If it does sit there and do nothing it will become an eyesore,” said Moody, who is running unopposed for mayor this fall.

Its developers, the father-son team of Thomas and John Dowden, took out a $5 million loan in September 2007 from the Alpharetta Community Bank of Georgia.

The loan was due in full two years later. As September of this year approached, however, the Dowdens still owed nearly the full loan amount.

“It is a shame it had to stop in its tracks,” said Thomas Dowden, the father, who lives in Cashiers. “We were 80 percent done and we should be open and running by now. That’s what our plans were.”

Thomas said his son, John, was the principal manager of the project and questions should be directed to him. John Dowden, however, did not return calls seeking comment.

The Dowdens hired Cooper Construction to begin construction in September 2008. Cooper Construction of Asheville did $4.8 million in work before construction was halted. Cooper was only paid $2.9 million, however, leaving the company holding the bag on $1.9 million in labor and materials that it already expended but has been unable to recoup.

“It has been a terrible, terrible, terrible hit to this 42-year-old company,” said Larry Rocklin, the general manager.

Rocklin said the loss has been difficult for the company to absorb, despite being the third largest contractor in Western North Carolina. The family-owned business has 60 employees currently.

Initially, the Dowdens planned to build a three-story Sleep Inn, Rocklin said. But along the way, they decided to upgrade it to a four-story Clarion. Rocklin said they miscalculated the extra cost of the additional story, which requires significantly more structural support.

“That’s where he blew it,” Rocklin said.

The Dowdens’s plan was to seek additional financing from the same bank that made the original loan. When that fell through, they sought other investors to no avail.

“I’m afraid what happened is the bank wouldn’t provide any further monies to finish the project,” Thomas Dowden said. “With all the bank problems going on since last fall, we got caught up in all that. We went out and found some new investors but couldn’t get it structured properly.”

The construction contract with Cooper Construction was $6.33 million — $1 million more than the initial construction loan, not counting additional costs such as architecture fees, furnishings and water and sewer connections.

Rocklin said he didn’t realize until it was too late that the Dowdens didn’t have enough money for the upgraded design.

“The bank never had any intention of giving him additional money,” Rocklin said.

In late December 2008, just a few months into the construction, Cooper filed a lien against the property. By February 2009, however, John Dowden had filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

The bank got permission from the bankruptcy court to proceed with foreclosure in July. A foreclosure sale was initially on tap for late August.

Cooper Construction managed to stave off the sale for a month. With the developer in bankruptcy protection, Cooper’s only recourse was a claim against the tangible property. Once it fell to a new owner or was repossessed by the bank, that claim would be harder to make.

Cooper has a lawsuit prepared to go after the bank for the outstanding balance on the construction work.

“It then becomes a decision of do we want to push forward with a lawsuit with a chance of winning or a chance of possibly losing,” Rocklin said.

In addition to the $2.9 million paid out to Cooper Construction, the Dowdens spent at least $1.4 million in additional costs related to the project: $480,000 on land, $270,000 on water and sewer hook-ups, $60,000 on a franchise fee to Clarion, $200,000 on architecture and $400,000 on furnishings and equipment, according to court documents.

The total — $4.3 million — leaves $800,000 of the initial construction loan unaccounted for in court documents. Rocklin said he has been unable to determine how the full balance of the construction loan was spent.

Clarion Hotel, which is one of several brands under Choice Hotels, has no interest in stepping in to take over the proerty, according to a spokesperson.

“We don’t own or operate any of our properties. They are all individually franchised,” said Heather Soule, spokesperson for Choice Hotels.

Soule said the company has seen a national slowdown in new hotels coming online over the past year.

“It is taking longer for new construction to get off the ground and find the financing to do so. People are having to wait to get that construction loan,” Soule said.

Exactly what Alpharetta Community Bank will do with the hotel now is anyone’s guess. As for what happens now, Rocklin doesn’t thinks they can sell it for enough to recoup the original $5.3 million loan. The bank will either have to sell it at a loss or hire someone to finish it then sell it, he said.

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 or call 828.293.2239.

Emotional healthcare debate brings out both sides in Sylva

The battle over healthcare reform hit home in Sylva last week.

A crowd of more than 50 people gathered on Main Street at the foot of the historic courthouse Wednesday evening holding signs in support of a public health care option.

“We are in a critical time for trying to provide health care for all Americans,” said Carolyn Cagle of Sylva, an organizer of the event. “This debate is about real people. We can’t afford to wait any longer for real health care reform.”

Across the street, a small counter protest set up on the sidewalk. A handful of people waved signs denouncing the health care reform bill, equating it with communism and raising alarm bells over euthanasia.

“No one is saying there shouldn’t be some reform, but the answer is not a government public option,” said Carol Adams, the public relations chair of the Jackson County Republican Party. “The answer is not this bill that will cost trillions of dollars. The whole thing is out of control.”

Those in favor of a public option held candles to honor the millions of people across the country who are suffering because they can’t afford the health care they need. Several people stepped forward to share personal stories of suffering and financial ruin. Their ranks included those who lack of health insurance, but also those with insurance who were denied coverage by insurance companies or faced astronomical co-pays.

Karen Rice of Franklin described losing everything she owned to pay for her husband’s cancer treatment.

“Now I live as a Third world person in a singlewide mobile home. I’ve taken to washing my clothes by hand,” Rice said.

Rice challenged the fear mongering of opponents who suggest euthanasia will be imposed on the elderly.

“Who are the true death squads? The insurance companies,” Rice said, citing the refusal of their insurance company to pay for her husband’s pain medication in his final days of life.

Being let down by insurance companies was a recurring theme by those sharing stories.

“If you have something catastrophic in your life, it can cost you a whole lot of money,” said Martha Yonce of Franklin. Yonce, whose husband was a teacher for 35 years, faced $80,000 in out-of-pocket expenses in a single year despite having good health insurance.

“It more or less prevented us from retiring. We never have been able to catch up,” Yonce said.

Yonce sees competition from a public option and the only way to reform the modus operandi of capitalist-oriented insurance companies.

“I don’t see how insurance companies will ever be pushed to do the right thing,” Yonce said.

Lack of access to preventative care, particularly early cancer screenings, is a glaring failure of the current health care model, according to Marsha Crites of Sylva. Crites shared the story of a friend who couldn’t afford regular colonoscopies and is now dying from colon cancer. Crites shared the story of another friend who is divorcing her husband of 40 years so she can qualify for Medicare.

“These are crimes my friends,” Crites told the crowd.

Crites is still paying off hospital bills of her own that were accrued following a stroke eight years ago. The owner of Harvest Moon Gardens Landscaping in Sylva, Crites is self-employed and didn’t have insurance at the time.

Saddling employers with the burden of health insurance doesn’t work, according to Dr. David Trigg, a part-time emergency room physician at Harris Regional and volunteer medical director at the Good Samaritan Clinic in Sylva.

“We are the only industrialized country where employers have to pay for their employees’ health insurance,” Trigg said.

For Allan Lomax of Sylva, the inextricable link between employment and health insurance creates a scary gap every time he’s between jobs.

“It just doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Trigg chastised Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, for his opposition to a public option in the health care bill.

“Don’t forget about your Christian ethic you cited when you were elected,” Trigg directed toward Shuler.

Too much government

Meanwhile, those against the bill waved miniature American flags from the other side of the street.

“I feel strongly socialism is coming into our country,” said Ron Gamble of Sylva. “It is not just health care. The current administration is taking over everything. I’m afraid we will lose our personal freedom and personal choice.”

Gamble is self-employed and pays $700 a month for insurance for himself and his wife.

“The health care costs are astronomical. They have to do something,” Gamble said. But the bill currently on the table is being rammed down people’s throats with not enough deliberation and input, he said.

Gamble’s grandchildren are among those who lack insurance, but have had their health care paid for by the government, thanks to either being on unemployment or their status as a veteran. Gamble said it was their choice not to have health insurance, as is the case with many young people, which skews the number of the so-called uninsured.

The opponents argued the number of people who don’t have health insurance is quite small compared to the overall population.

“You don’t change 90 percent of the people’s health insurance to accommodate 10 percent of the population,” said Ginny Jahrmarkt of Sapphire.

Ralph Slaughter, first vice chair of the Jackson County Republican Party, said the bureaucracy needs to be weeded out of the current systems before adding another huge program.

“Before the government tries to add on another social program, we need to effectively and efficiently run the programs we have. Once the government figures out how to do that, this bottom group could be absorbed into Medicaid,” Slaughter said.

An impromptu debate sprung up when a supporter of the health care reform bill strayed across the street to challenge those in the counter protest. A light drizzle fell on and off through the evening, forcing protestors on both sides of the street to don umbrellas at times.

An interesting show of unity emerged between the two camps when health care supporters gathered on the steps of the courthouse with their candles in hand and began singing America the Beautiful — prompting protestors on the other side of the street to join in the song.

Pooches pose problem in Sylva

A debate has erupted in Sylva over whether dogs should be allowed in the town’s new Bridge Park, a small green space adjacent to downtown with a covered pavilion for holding concerts and community events.

The issue has split members of town board, which voted 3-2 to allow a 90-day trial period where dog use will be monitored — and in particular whether dog owners are diligent about picking up after their dogs.

“I really, really want people to take this privilege and use it responsibly,” said Town Commissioner Sarah Graham.

Town Commissioner Harold Hensley has been a vocal opponent of allowing dogs in the park, however, and voted against the measure.

“We just invested several thousand dollars on a nice big grassy lawn down there where they are supposed to do all these concerts,” Hensley said. “In a year from now it will be brown and spotted out.”

Hensley also questioned why people need to bring their dogs to concerts at the park in the first place.

“Why would you go out at night to listen to entertainment and drag your poor old dog?” Hensley asked.

Town Commissioner Stacey Knotts has attended several concerts in the park and witnessed dogs in the crowd.

“They were on leashes laying on blankets with their owners, and I didn’t observe any problems,” Knotts said.

Even if dogs are on a leash, Hensley doesn’t like the idea of kids and strange dogs in close quarters in public places. Hensley fears a kid will reach out to pet a dog and get bit, or that two dogs could get in a fight and hurt the person who tries to break it up.

Hensley added that it isn’t sanitary for families to lounge on a lawn where dogs have been using the bathroom.

“Even if they pick it up, I don’t want to sit down where it was just at,” Hensley said.

Knotts and Graham know firsthand the challenge of keeping kids out of dog droppings. Both are dog owners, mothers of small children and live downtown. They value a community where they can venture out with their family and their dogs in tow.

“We live in this community and walk our dogs and want it to be a dog-friendly town,” Graham said. “I don’t want my kids to run around and step in dog poop, but I also don’t want to prohibit dog use.”

Danny Allen, a challenger who is running for a seat on the town board against Knotts this fall, questioned her personal motivation in the issue.

“I don’t like using politics for self benefit as opposed to the overall concern of the people,” Allen said.

Allen suggested Knotts was using her influence to mold the town to suit her own purposes.

But Knotts said she would have voted that way regardless of whether she owned a dog herself.

“I just want the park to be open and accessible to as many people as possible,” Knotts said. “I enjoy seeing people out there with their dogs. It is a recreational activity that a lot of people enjoy, and I think the park should be open to those people.”

Bridge Park plays a special role downtown. It provides green, open space in the heart of the downtown district. The park is small and has few amenities. The grassy lawn is barely an acre. Its key feature is a covered pavilion with a stage, which hosts concerts and outdoor movie nights in the summer.

“The way it has been functioning has really been a joy to Sylva,” Knotts said. “It is an extension of the public sphere of downtown. That is kind of like our town square.”

Given its proximity to downtown and the fact that it isn’t fenced, it would be hard to keep dog walkers out, they said.

“Banning them would be more effort than it was really worth,” Graham said.

While the park has largely been a town undertaking, many community members and organizations donated to its creation.

Hensley and Allen point out that the town’s other two parks don’t allow dogs.

“My concern is we don’t allow it in the other parks, and so why should we allow it in that park?” Allen said.

Knotts and Graham countered that the town’s two other parks are fenced in playgrounds, quite different from the grassy open lawn at Bridge Park.

Hensley emphasized that he does like dogs.

“I am not against dogs. I have had dogs all my life. I don’t want people to misunderstand me,” Hensley said.

Allen said he also loves dogs. His own dog, Jordan, died this summer at the age of 14. He is still coping with the loss. But Allen said he has to separate the love he had for his own dog with the potential pitfalls of allowing dogs in a public park.


Unprecedented response

There’s one thing both sides can agree on. They are equally amazed at how much public input it has elicited — rivaling any issue town leaders can recall in recent years.

“There are so many things we deal with that don’t get a lot of interest, and something like this comes up and we are inundated with phone calls and email,” Graham said. “I think it is because it is a lifestyle thing.”

Knotts said the response has been overwhelmingly in favor of allowing dogs at the park. In fact, she said she didn’t get any feedback from supporters of a dog ban.

Allen said he has heard from those on the other side of the issue, however. He surmised they are just hesitant to come forward publicly given the ruckus raised by dog owners.

Hensley said he has received several emails from dog owners who don’t live in the town limits, but instead reside in Cullowhee or Webster.

“If you are out in the country, I don’t know why you need to take your dog to town to make a mess in the first place,” Hensley said. “That is utterly ridiculous to live in Cullowhee and think ‘I need to take my dog to Sylva to use the bathroom.’”

That’s not exactly what’s on the mind of Heather Bradshaw when she and her boyfriend Drew Cook load up their dogs after work and head downtown for an outing.

“It’s fun for us to get out of Cullowhee and come downtown where most of the action is,” Bradshaw said.

If the town portrayed an anti-dog stance, they might go elsewhere, which could ultimately be a bad move for the town.

“After work is our dog time so we like to take them with us,” Cook said.

The young couple recently visited Blowing Rock where a large park flanks an entire block of Main Street. Dogs weren’t allowed in the park, and it left them a bad feeling toward the entire town. They probably won’t go back.

“For some people, their dogs are their family. It’s like their kids,” Bradshaw said.

For Robert Lindsay, a downtown business owner, his dog is a big part of his life. When he adopted his husky three years ago, he never took mid-day walks.

“Now I am always getting up and taking him for a walk. Sometimes I don’t want to do it, but I always feel better after I do,” Lindsay said.

Lindsay brings his dog to work at his downtown insurance office every day. And every day, he hits the street with his dog during lunch, including the area around Bridge Park. Lindsay wasn’t aware of a town ordinance that required dog owners to pick up after them, however. He often let his dog poke around in the overgrown bank along Scott’s Creek and wouldn’t pick up after her since it was far off the beaten path.

But now that he knows, he said he will. To help educate the public, the town plans to install two baggie dispensers on Main Street to make it easy for dog owners to pick up after their animals.

“Putting those things out will be a big help,” Lindsay said.


No excuses

While the most heated debate has centered around whether to allow dogs in Bridge Park, the issue initially arose over Main Street. Some merchants have complained about dog droppings left on the street and in flowerbeds.

When board members suggested installing baggie dispensers to encourage responsible behavior, Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower flipped through a catalog lying around town hall and found dispensers advertised for $400 each, with rolls of baggies at 50 cents a bag.

The entire town board thought that was too expensive. They asked Isenhower to hunt around for a better price, and after searching the Internet she came up with a far cheaper option — just $80 per dispenser and a penny a bag. Rather than pole mounted dispensers, these mount on town trash cans.

The town board voted to purchase two baggie dispensers for Main Street — a vote that was also a 3-2 split.

While several town board members, who originally saw the cost as prohibitive, reversed course when the quote came down, Hensley said he stands on principle.

“My theory was I wasn’t willing to spend one thin dime of taxpayers money for something that silly,” Hensley said.

Graham said the baggie dispensers will send a visual message to dog owners who might not be aware of the town’s ordinance to pick up after their dogs.

“I think when a dog owners sees these things on the trash can it reinforces the law that already exists,” Graham said. “It is a friendly reminder.”

Hensley sees the issue as catering to a select handful of dog walkers at the expense of all taxpayers.

“If you’ve got a dog, I shouldn’t have to buy a bag for you to go clean up after your dog,” Hensley said.

Hensley also doesn’t understand how a dog owner could forget a baggie.

“If they leave home with their dog on its morning exercise, they pretty well know it is going to do its business before they get home,” Hensley said.

If they do forget a bag, the dispenser stationed at two key spots on Main Street won’t necessarily help, he said.

“If a dog needs to go in the middle of town, are you going to say ‘We have to hurry until we make it to the end of the street?’” Hensley asked.

The baggie dispenser will be a welcome amenity to Tim Blekicki, who walks his dog along Main Street once or twice a day. For Blekicki, it’s habit to stuff a bag in his pocket before setting out. But sometimes his dog, Revelry, tricks him by going twice during one walk. With his bag reserve exhausted, it leaves Blekicki scrambling.

“Generally I go to a trash can and rummage through until I find a plastic bag I can use,” said Blekicki, 27, who is a sous chef at Bear Lake Reserve.

Blekicki said he has never seen a dog owner walk away from a pile. He has occasionally seen dogs roam through town off a leash with no owner in sight, however, and wonders if they could be the culprit.

Graham said she would like to purchase an additional baggie dispenser for Bridge Park — along with a sign asking dog owners to keep their dogs leashed and to pick up after them — if the board votes to allow dogs permanently following the 90-day trial.



While the town’s ordinance says dog owners must pick up after their dogs, enforcement is another issue.

“Our police force is already overwhelmed and our maintenance department is already overwhelmed and it is not fair for other parts of the town to be neglected just to take care of dog poop,” Allen said.

David Kelley, another challenger seeking a seat on the board this fall, supports allowing dogs in Bridge Park.

Kelley, who works at Livingston’s Photo on Main Street, knows firsthand that not all downtown dog walkers are diligent about picking up, however. A grassy area near their store seems to be a favorite spot with dogs.

“I have to weed eat a little section and I don’t like getting hit in the face with it,” Kelley said.

The hot-button issue has emerged just two months away from town elections. Hensley is among those up for re-election. If it costs him votes, so be it, he said.

“If people don’t like me to try to save them a dime, they can send me to the house,” Hensley said, adding that perhaps it would help his blood pressure would go down.

Townhomes one of few additions to Sylva housing in a decade

When Art Pohl moved to Jackson County from Florida 10 years ago, he imagined a golden retirement filled with lazy days of playing golf. But after a few years of living the dream life, his wife wondered just how much golf one man could play.

“I was up here playing golf and enjoying myself and my wife said, ‘You are too young to do nothing. Why don’t you do something?’” recalled Pohl, 61.

Pohl, a residential developer and contractor by trade, had certainly come to the right place to dabble in his former profession. As he contemplated a return to the industry, he studied the housing market in Jackson County and saw plenty of gated mountain subdivisions catering to second-home owners and retirees.

What the county lacked, however, was housing geared toward the professional class who want to live close to the amenities of town. Sylva has seen almost zero growth in its housing stock over the past decade, with development instead focused on the surrounding countryside and mountaintops.

When shopping for land, Pohl stumbled onto the perfect setting for a town home development: a 19-acre tract tucked into a hillside close to downtown Sylva and off Savannah Drive. He created a master plan to build 32 townhomes on the tract. Three years later, the first four units of Laurel Ridge Town Homes have been finished and will hit the market this month.

“I’ve done something here that I hope will spark the town into thinking we need more housing to attract professional people to Sylva,” Pohl said. “I am trying to hit a market of people who don’t want to maintain yards, who want granite countertops and nice hardwood floors. They want a step up at an affordable price.”

At $299,000, the townhomes don’t exactly qualify as affordable housing. But they are at least more affordable than much of what’s on the market.

“They can enjoy this,” Pohl said as he spread his arms, “for what you would pay in the upscale developments for just a lot.”

Although the development is a 15-minute walk from downtown, it has the feel of a private mountain retreat. The townhomes overlook a forested hillside with long-range views peaking through the summer tree canopy. Pohl has set aside 11 acres of the 19-acre tract to be permanently protected.

“The open space gives you the big yard, gives you the view, gives you everything you might want with a five-acre lot but with none of the maintenance and none of the cost. All this is free,” Pohl said, gesturing to the protected forested hillside off a back deck.

Pohl is among the growing number of developers capitalizing on the concept of “cluster development.” Rather than slicing and dicing a tract of land into evenly distributed lots, the new paradigm calls for denser housing concentrated in one area with the rest left relatively undisturbed.

The property was originally zoned for one-acre lots. Pohl faced an uphill battle to get town approval of the denser town home development. Given the steep terrain, carving out one-acre lots across the tract would have required a major cut-and-fill operation and a series of retaining walls and new roads.

“It would have decimated the hillside and the lots would have been so expensive,” Pohl said.

The town ultimately viewed a cluster townhome development as the better option and approved his plan, albeit by a split vote of the town board.

“I took a hell of a gamble that I could go to the town and convince them that they needed it,” Pohl said. “I had some sleepless nights.”

During the year-long process, Pohl found an important ally in former town planner Jim Aust, a major advocate for increasing Sylva’s housing stock and for the cluster development concept.

When Pohl embarked on his development plan, the building boom was in full swing. But three years later, as his first four townhomes hit the market, times are different indeed.

“If the economy would have been where it was three years ago, they would be gone by now,” Pohl said.

Nonetheless, between professors at Western Carolina University and Southwestern Community College — not to mention the standard professional fare of doctors, lawyers, and bankers — Pohl sees plenty of demand for the moderately priced yet posh townhomes. Pohl also sees the townhomes appealing to retirees who don’t want to live in a gated subdivision but rather an in-town neighborhood.

Pohl doesn’t plan on starting to build the next units until the current ones are sold, which he thinks will be snatched up in a few months. Despite his wranglings with the town and the economic downturn, Pohl doesn’t regret coming out of retirement.

“I have absolutely loved this and can’t wait to start the second building. It has given me direction and given me a purpose in life again,” Pohl said. “I love building.”

An open house at the Laurel Ridge Town Homes will be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 18. or 828.506.6641.

Long-time Sylva mayor won’t run again

Sylva’s mayor for the past 17 years, Brenda Oliver, has announced that she will not run for re-election this fall.

Oliver, 67, said she has enjoyed serving the town and is optimistic about the direction it is headed. Oliver said she was ready to do something else with her life, and by the same token the town was ready for new leadership.

“I just feel it is time for a change,” said Oliver. “I really feel that Sylva is a good place. We are headed on the right track and it was a good time for someone else to step up.”

Oliver has been on the town board for a total of 28 years, serving as a board member before becoming mayor. Oliver has not been a subject of controversy nor has there been an apparent lack of public confidence in the job she’s doing.

“Brenda was without a doubt one of the most popular local elected officials,” Town Commissioner Maurice Moody said. “Most local politicians have maybe a fourth or half of her tenure. Brenda still has a positive attitude toward the town. If we needed a volunteer I think she would be right there.”

Moody has already stepped up to run for mayor following Oliver’s announcement at a town board meeting last Thursday (July 2).

“The main reason is I couldn’t talk Brenda into staying,” Moody joked.

In actuality, Moody said the move seems like a natural one. With 12 years on the town board, he is the longest-standing member after Oliver.

“I think I can handle it without any difficulty,” Moody said.

The sign-up period for candidates began this week and runs through Friday, July 17. Moody said he will be surprised if no one else files to run for mayor.

Moody has two years left in his term as a town commissioner. If he doesn’t get mayor, he will keep his seat on the board. If he wins, the incoming board would choose a new member to fill his vacated seat as commissioner.

The Sylva town board is comprised of five members and the mayor. The mayor doesn’t get a vote except in the case of a tie.

“That is the one negative thing. I will miss that if I am elected,” Moody said. “But with my personality everyone will know what I think.”

Oliver was the opposite. She rarely took a public stand, but acted more as an arbiter in guiding discussion rather than voicing her opinion on issues.

Moody agrees with Oliver that the town is on the right track. Moody and Oliver have both been advocates of a progressive agenda, which has the support of the majority on the board right now. Moody offers a disclaimer, however.

“That’s not a name we picked. Other people gave it to us,” Moody said.

Moody said he wants to continue the momentum of the current board.

“Sylva is a good place to live and we need to enhance it anyway that we can,” Moody said. “I think there are some good things going on right now and I think we need to continue that.”

For example, Moody wants to advance projects like Bridge Park near downtown and Pinnacle Park in the town’s old watershed.

Town Commissioner Stacey Knotts said Oliver will be deeply missed. Knotts said her deep knowledge of the town and municipal operations have been invaluable to the town.

“Her integrity and deep knowledge of municipal government have been invaluable for the Town of Sylva,” Knotts said. “On a personal level, she has been a great mentor and close friend during my time in office.”

Likely contributing to Oliver’s decision are her eight grandchildren spread out in Texas, Georgia and North Carolina.

Town Commissioner Harold Hensley had favorable words for Oliver as well.

“I try to get along with everybody and I always got along with Brenda,” Hensley said. “We didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things, but we never had a cross word.”

Knotts and Hensley — while coming from different viewpoints on the board — are both already backing Moody.

“I think he will be great for it,” Knotts said. “He has been a great board member and will do a great job as mayor as well.”

Hensley agreed, even though he admitted he and Moody aren’t always on the same side of issues.

“He definitely knows the ins and outs of the town,” Hensley said. “I don’t know who else will file but I know Maurice and I know he would do a good job.”
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