Lawyer’s actions aroused suspicion among clients, law enforcement community

An attorney that forged judges’ signatures was caught thanks to the sharp eyes of a law enforcement officer, a fellow attorney and a court clerk who noticed red flags.

But for at least a year, fraudulent driving privileges provided to clients by Attorney John Lewis remained under the radar. The scam began unraveling last fall, leading to a state investigation and culminating with guilty pleas by Lewis in court this week.

The first sign of the fraud arose after one of the drivers sporting a fake document from Lewis was stopped by a law enforcement officer in Swain County. When asked for his license, the driver pulled out the limited driving privileges he’d gotten from Lewis.

“The officer found it was suspicious in nature just by looking at it,” said Grayson Edwards, a State Bureau of Investigation agent who investigated the case.

The biggest red flag was that Lewis had signed his own name on the line where a clerk of court is supposed to sign. A signature of Judge Richie Holt also appeared on the document. But the officer was skeptical that Judge Holt would have granted limited driving privileges to this particular driver. So the officer called Holt, who confirmed he’d never signed such a document for that person.

The confused driver called Lewis to find out what was going on. Lewis owned up to the fraud, but asked the driver to keep it under wraps. Lewis told the driver to call the clerk of court and say that he’d gotten the document in the mail.

“After (the driver) hung up the phone, he changed his mind and decided he didn’t want to lie for something that he had not done. So he called the Swain County Clerk’s office back and told them where he’d gotten it,” Edwards recounted in court.

In a second case, a Swain County driver bearing one of Lewis’ forged documents was stopped by a police officer, this time outside the region. The driver whipped out his limited driving privileges, but when the officer pulled the driver’s record, it didn’t show up in the computer and the driver got a ticket.

Confused why his limited driving privileges weren’t valid, the driver called Lewis. Lewis asked for the document back without saying why. The driver got suspicious and photocopied it first.

The driver took the photocopy to another attorney to figure out what was going on, all the while hoping he could get the limited driving privileges back. But the attorney instead referred it to the district attorney’s office.

In yet another bizarre incident, Lewis forged the name of Judge Monica Leslie in a custody case terminating parental rights. No sooner had he filed the fraudulent court order with the Jackson County Clerk of Court than he apparently thought better of it and asked for it back. The clerk wouldn’t give it back, since a signed order submitted as part of the court record can’t be removed from the file. An agitated Lewis came back twice over the course of the day trying to retrieve the document.

“At one point he even went around the partition in the clerk’s office with a sticky note that said the order was void and put it on the file,” said Reid Taylor, assistant district attorney. “The clerk had some serious issues with Mr. Lewis and the way he was conducting himself over that document and was raising all kind of red flags.”

Lewis grew up in Jackson County and came from a low-income family, according to Lewis’ attorney. He excelled in basketball, playing at Smoky Mountain High School then at Western Carolina University and finally Mars Hill. From Mars Hill, he went to law school at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island before returning to Jackson County to practice law. Lewis and his wife live in Glenville.

District Attorney Mike Bonfoey said Lewis’ actions are puzzling for a person who worked so hard to go to law school.

“To come back home where he grew up and throw it all away? For who? People who weren’t entitled to drive?” Bonfoey asked. “Enabling people who shouldn’t be on the road to drive is appalling to all of us. It is appalling to my office, and it is appalling to all of us as attorneys.”

Investigators did not determine what payment if any Lewis got from his clients in exchange for purportedly landing them limited driving privileges, Bonfoey said.

There may be more people out there who think they have a valid document from Lewis. If you are one of those people, contact the sheriff’s office in your county.

New generation takes over at City Lights Books

What is a bookstore?

The question was unimaginable when Joyce Moore bought City Lights Books in Sylva from Gary Carden in 1986. But as Moore calls time on her career, e-books and online booksellers have challenged bricks and mortar bookstores to re-justify their existence. Moore announced just before Christmas that she would sell her business to long-time employee Chris Wilcox. The transaction took place last Friday, and now Wilcox has the task of taking City Lights Books forward in a difficult climate for independent booksellers.

Moore has left him with a recipe for success that has nothing to do with technology.

“If you don’t have community support it’s impossible to succeed,” Moore said. “Sometimes you have to build that support and nurture it and keep letting people know why it’s important.”

It’s important because Sylva’s downtown and City Lights have grown together and, in many ways, their futures are intertwined. Moore can look back on a successful career running the store, during which time she was one of the leaders of the downtown’s revitalization movement.

Wilcox meanwhile looks forward to a new challenge in an atmosphere he has known intimately since he was a child.


The other City Lights

Sylva didn’t have a bookstore when Gary Carden opened up City Lights in the vacant front of the old Carolina Hotel on Main Street. Carden had operated a bookstore in an abandoned barbershop in Cullowhee before, and he saw the chance to start something the town needed without a lot of upfront investment.

“I stocked the shelves from my own books (mostly paperbacks), rented a coffee-maker and bought a stock of New Age cassettes, which turned out to sell better than the books,” Carden said. “I added a video section which was mostly foreign films and early American classics and hung a poster of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘City Lights’ over the door.”

The name City Lights, then, didn’t come from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s iconic bookshop in San Francisco, but from Carden’s eclectic decorating style. Carden only ran the shop for a little over a year before he realized he didn’t have the money to make it what he wanted. Joyce Moore, a mother of two with a degree in library science, had just received a lump sum of money as compensation for her childhood home being re-located for an interstate right of way.

Moore bought the store, kept the name, and began making incremental improvements.

“The world was really a lot smaller in 1986,” Moore said. “The idea that anyone could ever confuse City Lights in San Francisco and City Lights in Sylva was inconceivable. It has happened though.”

Downtown Sylva was smaller then, too. Virtually nothing was open after 5 p.m. Running a business on Main Street allowed Moore to imagine what Sylva might look like with a vibrant downtown.

“As it grew, it just sort of began to fit into a bigger picture of what Sylva might possibly be,” said Moore. “At that time Meatballs was the only restaurant in town.”

Moore realized that if her shop was to succeed, it would do so as part of a new business district.

“You sort of realize there needs to be a few businesses that say, ‘I make a commitment to the community and if you join us we’ll have success,’ and I think that’s still true now,” Moore said.

Sylva got its Main Street designation from Raleigh and Moore became a pillar of Sylva Partners for Renewal, the precursor to today’s Downtown Sylva Association, which enjoyed the support of Mayor Brenda Oliver and the Jackson County Board of Commissioners. Moore credits that nexus of support for giving the business owners the support they needed to survive and, ultimately, to thrive.

“I think one of the important things in any economic development effort is that you can’t do it yourself,” Moore said. “We were fortunate in the early 90s that we had all the right players on board.”

The business grew, in part because of its connections with Western Carolina University, which not only meant that high-quality used books were available, but also that there were people around to read them, and, more importantly, people around who wrote them. Alan Moore, Joyce’s husband, was a biology professor at WCU and many of the store’s supporters, patrons, and personalities over the years have had some connection with the university.

Moore scheduled readings and discussions and City Lights really became the intellectual fountainhead of Sylva.

“Often times bookstores are a focus in a community,” Moore said. “We aren’t the only small town in which the bookstore is a kind of nucleus.”

After a few years on Main Street, Moore saw an opportunity to move City Lights into Dr. Ralph Morgan’s office on the corner of Schuman and Jackson Streets. The move meant that Moore could eventually run a business out of a building she owned, but it also gave the store a homey feeling, a sense of place.

With the advent of bigbox book retailers and then on-line booksellers, small bookstores around the country began closing their doors. But City Lights didn’t. Moore is clear about the reason. The community, she said, chose to keep her store alive.

“In many respects I think we weathered the big box stores and I think those were battles we fought and didn’t lose,” Moore said. “ You can’t win, but the reality is the community has been behind us and helped keep us alive.”

Now Moore is a grandmother and she doesn’t want to pour her heart and soul into making sure City Lights stays above water.

“Change is a part of life. I don’t know if I have the energy at this point in my life to take on those changes. I think it really does come down to energy,” Moore said.


A community of readers

Gary Carden looks at the store he created with amazement, wonder, and a humble sense of a amusement.

“I see very little in the store that has survived from my ownership,” Carden said. “The movable shelves are still in the stores ‘used paperback’ section, but the music, the videos, the underground comics and the girlie magazines are gone. What has happened to the store is marvelous. Never in my wildest dreams did I envision what City Lights has become.”

Carden is just one of the many “regulars” that makes the store tick. Visit City Lights on a Friday afternoon and you’ll find readers of all ages and purposes perusing one of the stores sections.

Susannah Patty, who works for a local non-profit and helps manage the Sylva farmer’s market, was there visiting with friends.

“City Lights is more than an indie bookstore –– it serves as a vibrant meeting place that makes our community in Sylva both unique and cohesive,” Patty said.

Dan Schaeffer, Sylva’s public works director, had come to exchange mystery novels. Schaeffer, who just bought an e-reader, doesn’t like to waste paper, so he visits the store regularly and swaps out the novels he steams through at the rate of four per month.

“I mainly just exchange books here. I think it’s a great service because it kind of recycles the books,” Schaeffer said.

Blaine Eldridge, a retired professor who taught at WCU and SCC, has been patronizing the store since Gary Carden started it. Blaine was at City Lights with his wife Fitzallen, poring over the non-fiction rack.

“For an independent store they have a wide selection, and if they don’t have it they’ll order it for you,” he said. “The used books are really good. There are always some surprises back there.”

Fitzallen summed up the store’s charm.

“It’s friendly. The staff is fun. There’s always someone who knows what’s going on in the bookworld and they know what you like,” she said.

Lisa Lefler, a professor of medical anthropology at WCU, said City Light’s online ordering feature brings together the staff’s knowledge and the personal service that characterizes small businesses.

“It’s the attention to personal service. All of the people who work here have a useful and intense knowledge of various subject matter,” Lefler said.

If Lefler is looking for a book, any book, she can order it through the store after she has vetted it with the staff to make sure she’s not getting hoodwinked by a flowery review.

In the end, though, Lefler said her connection to the store is personal.

“You know that you’re going to be seeing the same people. There’s not a lot of turnover here. And you know that they will know your name and to me that’s really valuable,” Lefler said.


Raised in a bookstore

Chris Wilcox knows what he has, both in terms of City Lights’ reading community and in terms of Sylva’s place as an intellectual hub in the region.

“Sylva is a special town in that it’s just about the right size and it’s situated as a hub in a rural region,” Wilcox said. “We’re small enough that we’re not currently fighting off a big box retailer and we’ve got a community that values local business and backs it up with their pocketbooks.”

Wilcox was born and raised in Jackson County and remembers being in Joyce’s store from an early age.

“I really started hanging out at the bookstore before she bought it and a lot after it,” Wilcox said. “I just about grew up in the store.”

After a stint as a paramedic, Wilcox was considering going back to school for a master’s degree in library science. Moore needed extra help at the store and the rest is history. Wilcox has helped manage the store for years but he doesn’t take the transition in front of him for granted.

“I’m going to be in a new job. I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing as an assistant manager for a lot of years, but there a lot of things that Joyce has done on her own,” Wilcox said. “My focus initially is to keep my nose above water and then I’ll look to improve the business incrementally as I see the opportunities.”

Wilcox, whose mother Margot has also worked with Moore for years, doesn’t see himself as a child of the Web generation as much as he sees himself a child of City Lights.

“My growing up parallels the store, so my reference isn’t that different from Joyce and my parents. Maybe I take for granted a little bit the community of letters that City Lights is responsible for, but I certainly try not to,” Wilcox said.

At the same time, he understands the realities of the business climate. At a time when the vast majority of book sales take place on the Web, even the name City Lights, which began with Carden’s Charlie Chaplin poster, presents challenges. People who search for City Lights San Francisco can end up in virtual Appalachia, which can be confusing for everyone involved.

“It’s a double-edged sword. I don’t have any immediate plans to change it. It’s a great institution Ferlinghetti built, and if we get some resonance off of it that’s OK with me,” Wilcox said.

Ultimately, though, Wilcox believes City Lights has what it takes to survive. Having grown up in the store, he understands that the bookstore isn’t about the building or even the books, it’s about a community that shares stories.

“It’s conceivable that this is the last stand of the printed book as an object,” Wilcox said. “But people are still going to be telling stories and we want to be a part of that in whatever form it takes. We’ve always been a place for sharing stories. That’s what Joyce has always emphasized.”

Outrage erupts over Sylva teen club

A little-known teen club shook the Town of Sylva out of a slumber last week and shone a bright light on the private lives of young adults.

Concerned parents brought 500 signatures to a town board meeting demanding that it shut down Club Offspring –– a private club for teens that holds dances on the weekends. But the club’s owner, Nathan Lang, defended his operation as an alternative youth ministry aimed at attracting “at-risk” youth.

Is Club Offspring a safe haven or a den of iniquity? The club remains open for now in the absence of proof that it has broken the law, but Lang’s past, coupled with lurid images on the business’s MySpace page, were enough to convince many people that it’s the wrong kind of ministry for their kids.

Outraged father

When his son came home with a flyer advertising a teen dance party and inviting them to come “as wasted as you want,” Brian Bartel was incensed.

“The thing that bothered me was that it was handed out at the high school to teens by teens,” Bartel said. “This gentleman who runs the club knows what he’s doing.”

Bartel followed a link on the flyer to the club’s MySpace page and his outrage turned to concern. The page included a photo album (that has since been removed) containing images of young women in lingerie dancing at a stripper’s pole.

“If this had been an adult club, right or wrong, I’d have nothing to say about it,” Bartel said. “But for him to create this environment for teens is wrong. If it’s going to be a teen club, let it be a teen club. There’s too many red flags.”

Bartel marched down to the club that Saturday night, bent on confronting the club’s owner. He was met at the door and refused entry on the grounds that the club was for teens and no one over the age of 24 was allowed inside.

Lang, who received Bartel at the door, said he denied him entry because he was combative and never identified himself as a concerned parent.

“I feel Mr. Bartel came looking for a witch hunt,” Lang said. “He barged in and didn’t introduce himself.”

In the wake of that confrontation, Bartel took the story to the media and began circulating a petition to shut down the club.

He also continued to research Lang and Club Offspring and found even more disturbing news. Nathan Lang previously ran a similar club in Waynesville with his son Russell, who is currently serving a five-year prison sentence for statutory rape. Russell Lang was convicted of having sex with a 14-year-old girl when he was 19, and his father was present in the apartment at the time police served a search warrant that led to the arrest.

“Did his failure to shape what teens do in a constructive way contribute to his son being in prison?” said Bartel.

In defense of Offspring

In the frenzy immediately following the revelation that Sylva housed a secret teen club that hosted “raves” in a building whose windows were covered in black plastic, Club Offspring was in danger of a media lynching.

Sylva police and town officials took a measured path and met with both Bartel and Nathan Lang, and Lang’s side of the story painted a picture diametrically opposed to the one that had aroused Bartel’s suspicions.

Calling himself an ordained minister with a psychology degree, Lang portrayed his club as a safe haven for youths who live in a world rife with addiction, alcohol and teen pregnancy. Lang stands by his relationship with his son, whom he says he meets with every week to discuss the club’s mission. He also contends that Russell was 19 and the girl was 15 and that law enforcement used misleading dates in an attempt to encourage a harsher sentence.

“My son and I are both in this ministry,” Lang said.

Lang also stands by the wording on the club’s flyer that provoked so much controversy.

“They want me to regret saying that because they think it means wasted people will come,” Lang said. “[Young adults] are getting wasted anyway. They’re getting pregnant anyway. We wanted them to know they could come here and be themselves.”

Lang said Club Offspring holds dances on Friday and Saturday nights and charges $10 admission, though no one is turned away and many young people volunteer their work in place of an entry fee. Drugs, alcohol and sex aren’t allowed.

Amanda Bowman, age 19, volunteers at the club and started a Web-based petition that resulted in nearly 400 voices of support for Club Offspring.

Bowman, who says she has never had a drink, urged local youth to support the club as a much-needed outlet for young adults.

“Sylva NEEDS THIS. If they have somewhere to go, then maybe the teenagers at the local high schools and colleges will stop having unplanned pregnancies!” she wrote. “Maybe we’ll see less newspaper announcements about underage possession of alcohol among the under 21 crowd... because they certainly aren’t going to drink in the club!”

Cody Sutton, also 19, volunteers as the club’s DJ. Sutton said he began using drugs as a 13-year-old. Now clean, he says there is no other place he feels he can express himself.

“All we’re looking for is to get that little bit of freedom,” Sutton said. “That eight hours a week.”

Steven Godfrey, 22, used to be a church youth group leader. Now he helps manage Club Offspring.

“We attract kids that don’t go to church,” Godfrey said. “Church people are a specific type of people, and they’re not going to come see us.”

Lang believes that young people today are torn by the contradictions inherent in the divide between the world they live in and the world adults seek to define for them.

“When they have problems –– and they will have problems,” Lang said. “There needs to be someone around who’s level-headed and who they can talk to.”

The light and the dark

Sylva Mayor Maurice Moody summed up the community’s concern as he addressed Lang during the town board meeting that addressed the community petition to shut the club down.

“Your flyer does not convey the positive image that you want to,” Moody said.

Bartel used stronger language.

“If you’re motivated by scripture, then where is it?” Bartel said. “What does the darkness have to do with the light?”

Moody said the town has to look at the club’s existence from a legal standpoint. Until there is proof of illegal activity, it will remain open.

The question now is how the community will react to the establishment.

Patti Tiberi, substance abuse regional prevention coordinator for the Smoky Mountain Center, has concerns about the message Lang and his club convey to young people.

“I think what’s difficult is there are just some practices that Mr. Lang has employed that aren’t very clear and are sending a double message,” Tiberi said.

At the same time, Tiberi said the support for Lang’s club showed there is a dire need for positive outlets for young adults. Tiberi said partners in the Jackson County Substance Abuse Prevention Council are currently working on organizing youth dances in the community and have already established a group at Smoky Mountain High School called Students Against Negative Decisions.

She hopes Lang will become part of the initiative.

“If he is serious about it, then I’m hoping this can help him become a more transparent messenger in the community that we can partner with,” Tiberi said.

Tiberi commended Bartel’s willingness to stand up as a parent. She hopes the awareness the debate has sparked will force the community to deal with the lack of positive alternatives the county’s youth are facing.

“The blessing in this whole thing is the issue is on the table right now and we can’t dismiss it,” said Tiberi.

Lang contends that conventional efforts to reach teenagers –– like high school dances with strict supervision –– will just push at-risk youth away.

“Saying no to teenagers doesn’t work very well,” Lang said. “Saying no to adults doesn’t work very well... We need a ‘Yes’ and not a ‘No.’”

Lang sees his club as a way to reach young people who will otherwise be left to search for their identity in the adult world.

“We see ourselves in the community not as a nuisance but as a place where teenagers can be who they are,” Lang said. “If anything, it’s a new doctrine attempt aimed at teenagers.”

New Sylva board member could help bridge rift

Sylva’s incoming Mayor Maurice Moody said he wanted to start his career with a consensus vote and that’s exactly what he did.

In its first act, the newly seated Sylva town board unanimously voted to appoint Christine Matheson to the commissioner’s seat left vacant by Moody when he became mayor.

The unanimous appointment could bridge the voting divide that had emerged on the board over the past two years.

“I really did not want to start off this board with a 3 to 2 vote and I think we made a significant step tonight,” Moody said.

In Matheson, the board selected a Sylva native who worked for over a decade in the district attorney’s office and has participated with the Jackson County Economic Development Commission.

Matheson announced her intent to operate as an independent voice on the board.

“I’m fairly independent, and I vote my mind,” Matheson said. “I’ll take each issue as it comes. I don’t want to label myself or place myself in any category.”

Moody had made clear his desire to fill the seat he vacated with someone with broad support in Sylva all along. The board was facing the possibility of a contentious 3 to 2 vote that could have set up a long-standing divide between two commissioners with so-called “progressive” voting agendas –– Stacy Knotts and Sarah Graham –– and two commissioners expected to espouse more traditional platforms –– Ray Lewis and Danny Allen.

In the run-up to last week’s town board meeting, Moody was busy seeking a consensus-building candidate and talking individually with the commissioners.

“I kept looking,” Moody said. “I think Chris had the most to do with everybody coming together. She’s well-known in the community and she’s an independent thinker.”

Over the past two years Knotts, Graham and Moody have consistently voted together and espouse what can best be described as a “progressive” agenda that favors channeling resources to the downtown district and investing in parks and recreation amenities. Ray Lewis and Harold Hensley had embraced a fiscally conservative platform focused on the nuts and bolts of providing public safety and infrastructure. Hensley lost his seat in the fall election and was replaced by Danny Allen, a close ally of Lewis and Hensley with a similar philosophy.

Allen indicated after his election that he would push hard for the appointment of Hensley, who narrowly lost re-election by a 10-vote margin. But Knotts said she preferred a replacement who would more closely represent Moody’s viewpoint, setting up a potential showdown between the board factions.

Both sides hailed the appointment of Matheson.

“I don’t think we could have replaced Harold with anybody but Chris,” Lewis said.

Allen said it was important to him that Moody’s replacement had grown up in the community.

“From my standpoint, yes, that was important,” Allen said. “That will help with the transition.”

Moody downplayed Matheson’s Sylva upbringing, instead emphasizing her past participation in local government.

“I don’t put that much weight on where you come from,” said Moody. “All of our ancestors came from somewhere else at some point. I think you just need to have people who are interested in the community.”

Knotts, who moved to Sylva later in her life, showed she had won the confidence of her peers as the board unanimously voted her to serve as vice mayor. Knotts said she voted for Matheson because of her work with the EDC and her visibility in the community.

“I thought it was important for the person to be well-known in the community,” Knotts said.

The series of unanimous votes in the board’s first meeting may represent Moody’s crowning achievement as a first-term mayor –– building consensus in a board with two distinct ideologies.

Consensus unlikely in Sylva board appointment

The moment of truth arrives for Sylva’s new town board on the day it starts work.

When board members convene this week, the first item on their agenda will be pivotal in defining the town’s ideological direction for the next two years.

Newly-elected Mayor Maurice Moody will vacate his seat as alderman, and the task of naming his replacement will fall to the rest of the board.

While split 3 to 2 votes have characterized the board the past two years, Moody is hoping for a fresh start.

“You’ve got two different ideologies on the board,” Moody said. “Three of us are of one persuasion and two of us are of the other. I’m not sure that’s not healthy.”

Whoever fills the vacant seat is likely to tip the voting balance to one of the ideological sides that have emerged over the past two years.

Moody is keen to have the board come to consensus on naming his replacement, but he has indicated he is willing to cast a tie-breaking vote to preserve the progressive voting block that currently holds the majority on the board.

“Your majority normally does not vote to get rid of their majority. I believe that would be highly unusual,” said Moody.

Stacy Knotts, Sarah Graham, and Moody have consistently voted together and espouse what can best be described as a “progressive” agenda that favors channeling resources to the downtown district and investing in parks and recreation amenities.

Ray Lewis and Harold Hensley have embraced a fiscally conservative platform focused on the nuts and bolts of providing public safety and infrastructure. Hensley lost his seat in the fall election, but will be replaced by Danny Allen, a close ally of Lewis and Hensley with a similar philosophy.

Allen said Hensley should be appointed to the vacancy since Hensley was the third highest vote-getter in the election — separated by a mere 10 votes.

Allen said unless Hensley gets the appointment, there is unlikely to be consensus — with him and Lewis on one side in support of Hensley and Graham and Knotts on the other. Moody would vote in the case of a tie.

“It’s going to be difficult for Maurice,” Allen said. “I think a lot of it’s going to come down to him.”

Knotts doesn’t accept the idea that Hensley’s third place position in the fall election — which saw just 14 percent turnout — has earned him his seat back.

“I think that oversimplifies the decision that has to be made. When the voters went out and selected the balance of the board, that was factored into their decision,” said Knotts.

Instead, Knotts thinks the board needs to replace Moody with someone Moody-like.

“I’ve going to think hard about a person who represents the ideas and the mindset he represented,” Knotts said.

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.

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