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The burst of the nation’s housing bubble has caused real estate markets to tank — everywhere, it seems, but in Swain County. Property values there have increased 30 percent over the past four years, according to the county’s latest property tax revaluation. The increase prompted a stir of disbelief among local residents.

“I do not see how the property values for our homes would jump this much in this economy,” said resident Brenda Denargo to Swain County commissioners at a meeting in April where scores of residents turned out to protest the revaluation.

Though most residents saw a moderate increase in value, some, like Carolyn Shook, saw theirs almost double and expressed concern over the potential of higher property taxes as a result. Currently, Swain’s tax rate is at 33 cents per every $100 of property value.

“These tax rates are just too high for someone drawing Social Security,” Shook said.

Swain County residents have protested the property values in mass, submitting more than 3,000 informal appeals out of a total of about 11,000 properties, said county tax assessor Pam Hyde.

“That’s a lot,” Hyde said. “About 10 percent is normal.”

The 30 percent average increase in Swain County property values is much easier to stomach than the new property values handed down during the county’s 2005 revaluation, the first in eight years. Then, values increased more than 140 percent. The sticker shock was so bad that the county switched over to a four-year revaluation cycle. But with the economy much worse this time around, and residents are struggling to understand why their property values don’t reflect that.

“The economy is bad, and a lot of people are tying that to this revaluation, saying it should be bad,” said County Manager Kevin King.

The reason

But despite the economy and a decline in overall real estate sales, Swain County and the rest of Western North Carolina have stayed largely immune to plummeting property values that have hit other regions of the country.

“The sales have slowed down from the appraiser point of view, but the ones that are selling, the sale price is high,” said King.

The number of sales has indeed slowed drastically, said Lynn Shore, and independent appraiser who helped conduct Swain County’s revaluation and former appraiser for Cherokee County.

While sales have decreased significantly, property values simply haven’t, said Tracy Madgeburg, an independent appraiser who works in Haywood and Jackson counties.

“Our market has held stable,” Madgeburg said. “It has not had drastic decreases in prices by any means, though things are staying on the market a lot longer, and in the past six months, there haven’t been many buyers.”

The lack of sales has made it harder, though not impossible, for appraisers to do their jobs. Property values are based primarily on comparable sales: appraisers scout out a similar house in a nearby location that has recently sold and use that to estimate the price of another home.

“Sometimes we need to go search all of the county for comparables,” Madgeburg said. “If you’re working on a sale of a very unique property, especially a high-end property, it’s necessary.”

If the property is in a downtown area, said Shore, and there aren’t any comparable sales, appraisers may even trek to the next town over to find a similar property that’s recently been sold.

Madgeburg said many lenders want appraisers to use comparable sales from the last three months, but that can be impossible in a seasonally driven market like the mountains. If nothing can be found, appraisers will sometimes go back as much as a year to compare sales.

Appraisers use complicated formulas to determine property values, and strict guidelines govern both independent and county appraisals.

“What the public thinks is this is something the county conjures up,” Shore said. “When this is a mathematical, uniform agenda that the state has.”

Hyde has the authority to adjust property values during the appeal process if she thinks the value is in fact too high. But she can only do so much, and many walk away unsatisfied.

“If they feel like theirs is outrageously out of line, I can adjust it up and down, but I can’t go as low as they want,” Hyde says. “That’s what all the appeals say, ‘The economy’s gone busted and we need taxes down,’ which I understand. I don’t have a problem with that, but I also have a guideline.”

Ray of hope

The property revaluation leaves the board of county commissioners in a bit of a sticky situation. Commissioners know that realistically, many residents wouldn’t be able to pay their property taxes if the tax rate stayed the same while values go up.

“In this economy, you can’t go up on people’s taxes,” said King.

In 2005, after the last revaluation, the county dropped its property tax rate from 55 to 33 cents per hundred dollars to offset the increase people would otherwise see on their tax bills. The county generated only a small increase to the county’s budget.

County commissioners don’t yet know how much they will lower the tax rate by. The process will be a challenge. State budget cuts have already affected the county, and with the prospect of additional cuts to come, property taxes can be a valuable tool for making up lost revenue. The county is already looking at a deficit in its fund balance, furloughs and layoffs, said King. The county also won’t want to lower taxes until all pending appeals are resolved.

A solution to the county’s dilemma could lie in the state legislature in House Bill 1530. Four years ago, Swain County switched from an eight-year to a four-year revaluation schedule to avoid the sticker shock that accompanied soaring property values in the mountains over a longer time frame. The House bill would allow counties to scrap the results of their property revaluation and in Swain’s case, conduct another one in four years.

But with Swain’s property tax rate far below the state average of 58.6 cents on the dollar, the county may not garner much pity from state officials, King said.

“In Raleigh if you’re less than the state average, they say don’t come talk to us,” King said. “But if we went to 58.6 cents (on the hundred dollar) I don’t think you’d get another board of commissioners to run for office.”

Swain County may have low property taxes, but it’s also in a unique situation due to the number of second homes inflating the market price for property.

“What (the state) doesn’t realize is that we’re caught in between a rock and a hard place because the local people aren’t the second homeowners that have driven the prices up,” King said. “We’re a county of have and have nots.”

The county has been hard at work lobbying representatives and the bill sponsors for support. The bill must reach the Senate by Thursday of this week, or it won’t pass.


Jackson County leaders have finished the first draft of a planning ordinance they hope will transform the U.S. 441 corridor in Whittier from a mish mash of billboards and unregulated growth into a model of tidy landscaping and mountain-themed architecture.

The U.S. 441 Development Ordinance made its public debut at an April 30 presentation at the Qualla Community Center. It now must go to the planning board for a review, then before county commissioners who will the decide whether to pass it into law. If it passes, Jackson will be the first county west of Buncombe to make a foray into land-use planning or zoning in a mostly rural unincorporated area.

The document, created by a county-appointed steering committee, is the culmination of a year-long process. At nearly 100 pages, it calls for mandatory landscaping and architectural standards, limits the size of signs and requires dumpsters to be screened.

Commercial development along the corridor is sparse now. But water and sewer are being installed along the highway, priming the pump for more intensive development to follow. The ordinance sets out a vision to guide anticipated growth from the outset along the stretch, which serves as an entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Cherokee.

“I know what is pretty and what is ugly is a matter of perspective, but on the other hand, there is signage and a type of building construction that I don’t believe is good for the community or the southern entrance of the (Park),” said Bill Gibson, a steering committee member, at the first public presentation of the ordinance.

Jackson County Planning Director Linda Cable said the appearance of the corridor is critical, since it’s a major gateway to the nation’s most-visited national park.

“This being a tremendous tourist attraction, it’s important that the corridor remains pleasing to visitors,” Cable said.

Gibson expressed high hopes that the ordinance, “will make the corridor both a safer travel route and a landscape over time that will become more pleasing not only to folks that live here, but travel here.”


Model process

The process of creating a planning document for the corridor began when citizens approached commissioners with concern over growth poised to follow the extension of water and sewer lines. Commissioners took heed and hired consulting firm Kimley-Horn and Associates in November 2007 to oversee the process. What followed was a series of stakeholder interviews, workshops, and a four-day series of interactive meetings with a team of planners, engineers and architects where public input was sought to create a vision for the area.

The public had plenty to say.

“There was overwhelming participation in this event,” said Matt Noonkester, a Kimley-Horn consultant for the project. “I think that’s what made the vision so important and so valid.”

Billboards were a big issue for people during the planning process, Nooncaster said. Participants were asked to guess how many billboards lined the corridor. Estimates ranged into the 300s — far below the actual number of 68, but a testament to the perception of clutter they created.

Community members wanted design guidelines to address building appearance and advocated for the creation of a development district to guide future growth. They overwhelmingly supported the development of a community brand, which would include a color palette, appropriate building materials and signs of a certain shape and size.

“There was strong support to look at regulating building architecture,” Noonkester said.

They liked the idea of a pedestrian-friendly, four-lane road with a landscaped center median.

Public input was compiled into the Small Area Plan, adopted by county commissioners in April of 2008. The document would serve as the foundation for a more comprehensive ordinance.

The bottom-up approach to planning was lauded by many who watched the process unfold. The Small Area Plan actually received an award from the American Planning Association.

“It was a really good model, not only for the ordinance that came out of it, but also the process,” said Ben Brown, communications coordinator for the Mountain Landscapes Initiative, the region’s largest-ever planning effort. “They chose to use a charette to talk directly to the community and help shape the principals and goals of the ordinance, which makes a lot more sense. That was the first really good example in the region of how to go about planning.”


Finding balance

Public opinion was kept at the forefront as the steering committee worked to draft the development ordinance.

Committee members, many longtime residents of the area themselves, had to strike a delicate balance between economic development and retaining Whittier’s beauty and character.

Debby Cowan, a steering committee member, spoke of the her experience trying to reconcile the two. Cowan said she wanted to preserve the area’s natural beauty, “but also recognized that Food Lion was one of the greatest things that happened in our community.”

Gibson also talked of trying to strike a balance.

“I have a great respect for individual property rights,” he said, but at the same time, “some of the changes we’re seeing right now are not in the community’s best interest.”

Though a strong private property rights sentiment might make some mountain folk wary of growth rules and regulations, it’s also important to develop in a wise manner, said Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Vice Chief Larry Blythe. The tribe was heavily involved in the process.

“It’s hard to put restrictions on people’s land, but when you’re talking about smart growth and the long term, we the tribe support this effort,” Blythe said.

During the process, committee members worked to shed their personal beliefs for the sake of what was best for the community as a whole.

“We feel like this is something that was prepared from the viewpoint of all the different people and all the different backgrounds of people in the community,” said Cowan. “While we don’t have it perfect probably, we do think the framework is something we worked very hard to make support everybody in the community.”

The committee’s efforts to include all viewpoints didn’t go unnoticed, said Michael Egan, the county’s consulting attorney on land development matters.

“I was very impressed with the dedication the committee had, always trying to think of the rest of the folks. There’s wasn’t a meeting that went by that somebody would say, let’s step back and take a look at that; let’s consider what affect that’s going to have on our neighbors and the folks who live here,” Egan said.


Billboards: Tourist draw or clutter?

The draft development ordinance for U.S. 441 encourages development that helps maintain the area’s natural beauty and character — a style dubbed “mountain authentic.” According to the ordinance, the ubiquitous large, colorful billboards that line the corridor aren’t in keeping with the area’s character, and are prohibited. The ones already in existence will be grandfathered in, however. Under the ordinance, signs are limited to 32 square feet. Preferred sign materials include brick, stone, and exposed timber.

Miami Lively, a representative of Santa’s Land Advertising, which owns a number of billboards, raised protest to the strict requirements at the public presentation of the document.

“You cannot put most people’s logos and directions on a (32-square-foot) sign,” Lively said. “The bigger the sign, the easier to read. We agree we don’t need a whole bunch of clutter, but the business owners are paying taxes for their businesses. If they don’t make money, the tax money isn’t going to come in.”

Lively added that “billboards bring tourism to the area.”

Ron Servoss, a community resident, disagreed that billboards enhance an area.

“I drove the corridor into Washington, D.C., last week, where there are no billboards allowed, and it was just wonderful to see the countryside,” Servoss said.

Noonkester pointed to the commercial corridor outside Sylva off N.C. 107, where billboards have been allowed to spring up without regulation. The road, and the unchecked growth along it, is often used as an example of what to avoid becoming.

“How many people like driving N.C. 107?” Noonkester asked, citing its sprawling strip mall and fast-food appearance. “The people of Cherokee would benefit more if this place keeps an identity they can associate with.”

The steering committee hopes it has nailed down that identity in the development ordinance.

“As we grow, I hope that future generations can look back on this group and say, they did a really good thing for this community,” said County Commissioner William Shelton.



What’s in store?

Here’s a sample of the aesthetic standards called for in the U.S. 441 Development Ordinance. For the complete ordinance, go to www.smokymountainnews.com.

• Accepted building materials include stone, exposed timber, fiber cement siding, wood siding, and shingle siding. No aluminum buildings.

• Dark and earth-tone building colors are strongly encouraged. Intense, bright, black or fluorescent colors shall only be used as accents.

• Dumpsters must be screened and blend with the building.

• Trees must be planted around parking lots and shrubs must be planted around building foundations. Landscape plans must be prepared by a landscape architect or designer. Trees must be planted in parking lots that are more than 8,000 square feet.

• Billboards are prohibited. Other signs cannot exceed 32 square feet.


Walk among the rows and rows of hydroponic butter leaf lettuce growing in William Shelton’s greenhouse, and you’ll notice a distinctive dark green patch that seems out of place. While the butter leaf is destined to be neatly packed in a clamshell case and shipped to a Food Lion or Ingles somewhere, the variety of dark, mixed greens are headed somewhere totally different, a place Shelton’s veggies have typically not gone before — a local family’s dinner plate.

Shelton, who has spent 25 farming years selling his lettuce and a handful of other crops to big-name retailers, is making his initial foray into Community Supported Agriculture. For the first time in his career, Shelton won’t just know what town his produce is destined for — he’ll know the name of the person eating it.

Customers who pay Shelton $500 at the beginning of the growing season — right around now, or earlier in many cases — will receive a box of fresh vegetables each week for six months. They’ll start off with early spring greens; then transition to strawberries, zucchini, and tomatoes; then eggplant and okra; and finally, as the season winds down, root vegetables like acorn squash and pumpkins.

Shelton appears to have his plan down pat, but in reality, he says he has no idea what to expect — whether customers will like the vegetables he’s chosen; whether many people at all will sign up for his CSA test run.

“I feel like I’m looking into the abyss in a way,” Shelton says. “I’m stepping into uncharted territory.”

It may be an abyss, but he’s not alone in taking the plunge. CSA’s have experienced a surge in popularity with the growing local food movement. In 2008, the nonprofit Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Program’s Local Food Guide listed 28 CSA’s within 100 miles of Asheville. This season, there are 42.

“It’s relatively new in this region, and it’s something I’ve really seen take off in the last few years,” says Rose McLarney, communications director for ASAP. “A lot of farms are realizing that people are interested in that direct connection.”


Loving local

The connection with local consumers is a whole new experience for farmers like Shelton.

“My focus has been on wholesale markets,” Shelton says. “I’ve been resistant to CSA because I’ve been a little intimidated by the prospect of direct marketing.”

But the wholesale markets haven’t been kind in recent years.

“The market pressures have gotten worse instead of better,” says Shelton. “We’ve been overproducing a small variety of traditional crops like tomatoes, and it’s just cutthroat supply and demand. For the last couple of years, the markets have just been horrible in the summer.”

Typically, Shelton says, with every spring comes renewed hope that somehow, the next season will be better. Sometimes it is. Lately, it hasn’t been.

At the same time market prices are plummeting, however, the interest in local food is rising. The priorities of consumers are shifting, says McLarney. It’s less about getting any kind of food anytime you want it, even if it means it has to come from thousands of miles away; and more about knowing where food comes from.

“I think people are really interested in different qualities than looking for the exotic,” McLarney says. “I think knowing that the flavor comes from things that haven’t traveled as far is of more interest to people than being able to eat tropical year round.”

Cathy Arps, a Jackson County grower, has seen that trend emerge firsthand. She and her husband Ron have run a CSA for 11 years.

“That freshness is one of the things that has sold people on the idea of local food,” says Cathy. “It’s just so good, and most people think it’s fun to learn how to eat what’s really growing, and to know something about their food.”

The Arps’ were overjoyed to hear a fellow farmer was starting up a CSA. Theirs has been so popular that the coveted 21 spots fill quickly year after year and they’re forced to turn many people away. More CSAs haven’t popped up to meet the growing demand.

“When William called me and said he was starting a CSA, I practically jumped up and down,” Ron says. “We’ve been talking to people for years about getting more CSAs going, because we’ve always had to turn so many people down.”

Julie Mansfield, owner of Mountain Harvest Organics in Madison County, was also happy to hear of Shelton’s plan. She and her husband started a CSA in Haywood County nine years ago when they saw locals were having to drive to Asheville for consistent access to local produce. Today, they’re still one of the few CSA programs west of Asheville, and they deliver to customers each week at the Waynesville tailgate market. Earning one of the Mansfield’s 50 slots is difficult, because customers return year after year.

“We have a really high retention rate, and so we haven’t been able to add new members for a long time,” Mansfield says. “We have a waiting list every year, so I’m very excited that other people are doing it.”


For better or worse

Haywood County grower Danny Barrett is another farmer jumping on the CSA bandwagon this year. Like Shelton, Barrett had sold his crops wholesale for nearly his entire career. One day several years ago, his daughter convinced him to put up a produce stand.

“So we threw in some heirloom tomatoes and decided to put up signs on the road and sell them for a quarter a piece,” Barrett remembers. “And it just kinda boomed.”

The response was so great that Barrett switched from growing peppers and tomatoes for wholesale markets to mainly selling from his produce stand. Now, he hopes to have the same success with a CSA.

Barrett, like many CSA farmers, is attracted to the idea of getting paid for his crop at the start of the growing season.

“I gotta look at it from the benefits at my end, which is it gives me some early startup money,” Barrett says. “Instead of going to the bank and having to borrow enough money because it’s so expensive to put a crop in, you have that money to start with, and you won’t have to pay it back at the end of the year.”

Traditionally, farmers have had the burden of getting the money together to start their crop, then hoping they can make that money back as the season progresses.

“Usually if you’re growing a produce, you make all the investments, take it to the market, and hope somebody buys it, and if they don’t, you’ll lose money,” says McLarney.

The CSA model gives farmers a leg up at the start of the growing season.

“The upfront money that people pay, it’s like seed money, because it pays for our seeds and our fertilizers,” Mansfield says. “You don’t get that money up front from the market. If we have a crop failure, we still have income coming in no matter what.”

That’s another reason CSAs are attractive to farmers — they provide assurance that, “customers will stick with them throughout the season,” McLarney says.

The model creates a deeply personal connection between customers of a CSA and the farmer. If the farm has a tough season, the customer feels it directly in the form of smaller boxes of produce each week — and if the season is plentiful, customers reap the rewards.

“They invest in a farm and share in the risk of that farm, but they also get to share in the bounty of the crop,” Shelton says.


Lessons learned

The personal connection a CSA forms between a farmer and customer is deepened by the fact that the experience is often a learning curve for both. For instance, to entice customers, farmers tend to plant a much more diverse array of crops than they have in the past.

“It allows farmers to grow a variety of crops, because people like to see different things in their box,” says McLarney. “Whereas farmers in recent years may have been encouraged to specialize in one thing and sell it wholesale.”

That’s the experience Shelton is going through. Last year, he grew strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, and squash. This year, “I’m doing a whole lot of different things for CSA, some for the first time,” Shelton says. “It’s kind of reintroduced me to gardening.”

As he walks through his greenhouses and fields, Shelton points out the wide array of things he’s planted this year: mixed greens, okra, cantaloupe, soybeans, broccoli, cabbage, mustard greens, turnips, zucchini, sweet corn, eggplant, blueberries and chard.

“This is the first time I’ve grown shallots in my life,” Shelton laughs, gesturing to a row of small green shoots.

For Cathy Arps, “the category of food that has been a learning experience is greens,” she says. The Arps’ will sift through a seed catalog, picking out as many edible greens as they can find in order to give their customers some variety in early spring.

“We grow all kinds of greens that people can’t even pronounce the names of,” Cathy chuckles.

The wide variety of produce offered through a CSA encourages customers like Larissa Miller, a longtime member of the Arps’ program, to be inventive in the kitchen.

“Lots of times we’d get things I wouldn’t typically grow in the garden,” Miller says. “It forces me out of my normal paradigm of cooking to try some things a little different.”

After a while, customers get good at figuring out what to do with the weekly bounty of produce.

“A lot of members said the first year, it was challenging to eat all the food,” Mansfield says. “You accumulate a repertoire of recipes, so you might have 50 ways to cook kale.”

The Mansfields have created an online collection of member-submitted recipes, which can be accessed at www.mountainharvestorganic.com/recipes.html.


Planting a seed

Shelton is working hard to make his CSA succeed. He’s had a crash course in direct marketing to the consumer, creating a new Web site, distributing brochures, setting up a booth at Greening up the Mountains and joining the local Chamber of Commerce. He hopes to snag between 100 and 200 customers this season.

Though Shelton says the learning curve is steep, he’s undoubtedly committed — not just to his CSA, but to the larger idea of eating locally.

“I’ve decided that if the idea is to connect local food to local people, and I have the capacity to grow a good volume of food, it’s a good route to take,” he says. “Ideally, I think I’m going to try to build this community around my farm.”



How to sign up

Interested in purchasing a CSA share from one of the farmers in this article?

• The Arps are already full for the season.

• William Shelton’s CSA is $500 per share for a 24-week season. The cost can be paid up front, or half now and half Aug. 1. Shelton Family Farm is located in Whittier, but Shelton is considering possible pick-up locations in Sylva, Bryson City, Cullowhee, and Waynesville. To sign up, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or visit www.sheltonfamilyfarm.com.

• Danny Barrett, owner of Ten-Acre Garden in Haywood County, is offering 21-week shares for $300. For more information, contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Shares in both CSAs are limited, so register as soon as possible. Shares can be split, so if the weekly produce box seems a bit daunting, feel free to invite friends, neighbors, or family to take part.


Downtown merchants in Waynesville hope to get a boost in customers when the Haywood County Historic Courthouse throws open its doors to the public Monday, June 29, following a two-year renovation.

Main Street shops lost frequent customers when courthouse construction forced county employees to relocate to temporary offices outside the downtown area. Come lunch time, they were far more likely to patronize the fast food joints along the commercial Russ Avenue corridor than supporting downtown merchants.

That will all change this week. Nearly 50 full-time employees will return to occupy office space in the newly renovated courthouse.

“I much prefer being downtown and able to walk on Main Street,” said Assistant Register of Deeds Becca Cedron, who said the Main Street location is the part of the move she’s most looking forward to. “It’s more convenient.”

Downtown merchants are equally enthused about the return of potential customers. The move could boost area business at a time when shops are feeling the effects of the economy.

“I’m very excited they’re coming back,” said Cary Turman, manager of Smoky Mountain Roasters. “I think it will greatly increase our lunch, and I maybe hope to see them grab coffee before they come to work in the morning.”

Chris Williams, manager of O’Malley’s, also hopes to intercept the increased traffic flow. Williams already sees a flood of lunch-time customers from the Justice Center, next door to the historic courthouse. He hopes county employees will stop by both for lunch and maybe for an after work beverage.

Meanwhile, the new town office building nearing completion on Main Street will bring even more workers to downtown Waynesville. Half a dozen town employees who have been squirreled away in off-site offices will be returning to work on Main Street by August.

The police department will also take up residence in the new building after a hiatus during construction. While the bulk of positions in the police department are patrol officers assigned to the road, at least half a dozen police personnel with administrative and management roles will add to the full-time downtown workforce.

“Economically, downtown will certainly benefit,” said Town Manager Lee Galloway. People working outside downtown are forced to climb in their cars for their lunch break, and once behind the wheel, “you think, ‘Well, I don’t want to drive downtown and find a parking place,’” Galloway said.

But when stationed downtown, the inverse is true “not just for the restaurants but it will be easy for them to walk to any of the other stores on Main Street,” Galloway said. Between the town and county workers, the foot traffic of 60 new people can’t be a bad thing.

In addition to the tangible bump in commerce, Galloway said keeping civic functions downtown are vital to maintaining a vibrant, working Main Street. That theory was one of the leading arguments in keeping county offices and the courthouse downtown in the first place. The county became embroiled in a bitter debate eight years ago when deciding whether to keep county offices downtown. Town leaders actively joined the voices of those lobbying to keep it on Main Street.


Swain County will continue contracting with the Bryson City Fire Department to provide county fire service, despite threatening to cut ties with the department after it asked the county for more money.

Earlier this year, the county balked at a request from the town fire department to up the amount of its contract from $40,000 to $70,000 per year for fire protection provided to county residents outside the town limits of Bryson City.

County Manager Kevin King countered that the county would not only not pay more, but would cancel the contract altogether and build two new fire stations of its own — all by July 1 of this year. It was an ambitious plan to choose a site and build the stations in just four months, especially since the county didn’t have any money set aside to do so.

Not surprisingly, the plan did not materialize quickly enough, causing the county to renew its contract with the town department for another year.

“West Swain is trying to develop a plan to do a satellite station in the outlying areas, but right now, it’s just not developed yet,” explained King. “We just needed an extension of time with the Bryson City Fire Department in order for them to do that, so they asked the town a few months ago if they’d be willing to entertain a year’s extension.”

The town fire department agreed, though it won’t be getting any of the additional money it had initially requested. Still, Bryson City Fire Chief Joey Hughes said he was satisfied with the outcome. The town gets to retain its call volume and won’t loose county funding.

“I think it comes to a real good agreement, not just for us, but for the taxpayers and everybody,” said Hughes.

The contract also includes one important change — it provides the Bryson City department with more flexibility in how it spends county dollars. Before, the majority of the county’s money could only be spent on certain things: specifically, the maintenance of two trucks and half the cost of the building maintenance.

Now, “we just bill them quarterly and get our whole $40,000 that way,” Hughes said. “It’s giving us some more flexibility.” For instance, the town department can spend money on gear and radios rather than truck and building maintenance, if it determines one need is greater than the other.

“In a roundabout way, they did up the money,” by providing more flexibility, Hughes said.

However, the county has warned that the arrangement with the town won’t last longer than it has to. Instead, it’s just a stopgap to give the county more time to hammer out its plans to build new fire stations of its own.

“The county is looking at long-term fire planning for the entire county over the next five years,” King said. “Basically, we just passed the year’s contract to give us another 12 months to work on the long-range planning process.”

Hughes is skeptical that the county’s plan to build two new fire stations will work. He wonders how the county will get the money for the project, since there are already capital projects like the senior center that sit uncompleted.

“Already, they have a building they can’t finish, and now they’re applying to build another building,” Hughes mused.


Come the start of fall semester, some Western Carolina University freshmen could find themselves residing in unusual living quarters.

A delay in the construction of a new residence hall is forcing WCU staff to scramble for places to put incoming students — and solutions range from creative to cramped.

Balsam Hall, which will house 426 students, including members of the university’s honors program, was supposed to be completed Aug. 1 after a year-and-a-half construction process. But on Aug. 21 — freshman move-in day — just 236 beds will be ready for students, putting about 200 freshmen in a bit of a bind.

“I haven’t yet given up hope it’s going to make it on time, but we have to look at what’s most likely,” said Keith Corzine, director of residential living for the university.

The construction of Balsam Hall is the first phase of a two-phase $50 million project, which will also include the construction of the similar-sized Blue Ridge Residence Hall. The buildings will be the most state-of-the-art dormitories on campus, featuring bathrooms shared by just two students, study spaces, public kitchens and lobbies.

“From the quality of life perspective, it’s a huge gain,” Corzine said.

But the very likely scenario is that phase one of the project, Balsam Hall, won’t be finished on time. Corzine attributes the hold up to a number of construction factors, including delays at critical times and unforeseen challenges with structural work. May was one of the wettest months on record in recent years, Corzine said, which didn’t help things.

“I think we worked through a variety of issues,” he said.

That means making other arrangements for students, hopefully temporarily.

“We think there’s a really strong possibility that anybody inconvenienced by not being able to get in on time would be able to get in around Labor Day, so any inconvenience would be limited to a matter of a couple of weeks,” Corzine said.

Corzine said the university hasn’t decided just where it will house students. One option is Madison Hall, typically used to house graduate students and conference attendees. Grad students could be relocated within the building, Corzine said, and single rooms normally used for conference-goers could be doubled up to house more than one student. Reconfiguring Madison Hall would gain about 70 extra beds, he said.

To find more space, the university will have to get creative. That could likely mean converting study rooms into bedrooms, which the university has done in the past, or temporarily putting two or even three students in single rooms. Corzine realizes, however, that such cramped conditions can be particularly overwhelming for freshman already trying to adjust to life away from home.

“I prefer not to triple it if I can help it,” he said. “You’re going to be putting people in situations with roommates that they most likely don’t know.”

Corzine says he wants to make clear “that the spaces we would put people in would be adequate and as comfortable as we could make them.”

The university will likely cut a financial break to students housed in temporary locations.

“We’ll certainly be looking at the possibility of crediting those students who have been truly inconvenienced, more than likely a pro-rated amount of their housing costs,” said Corzine.

Finishing Balsam Hall by Labor Day will rely on a smooth flow of construction from here on out.

“If everything in the last month-and-a-half breaks just right, if they make up time, and we don’t have any additional delays, then we’re going to be really close with delivering most all the building,” said Corzine. “If you get a delay here or there on something, it’s going to certainly compromise our ability to finish on time.”


Growing pains

The university has confronted a student shuffle before. Just last year, the 400-bed Leatherwood Residence Hall was torn down to make way for Balsam Hall and another residence hall that will be built beside it. Students lived in Leatherwood for half the year, then were relocated to empty rooms for the second semester.

“We were able to absorb them mid-year somewhere else,” said Corzine. “That hit us at a point where on-campus demand wasn’t great enough for us to be in a situation like we are in now.”

Corzine listed several factors that have contributed to the lack of space on WCU’s campus, including an increase in the number of sophomores, juniors and seniors who want to live on campus. The lack of off-campus housing in the Cullowhee area is one factor in the number of students seeking dorm rooms.

More than one-third of the university’s student population lives in on-campus housing — 3,475 out of a projected 9,400 this fall. The demand was so great that the university started a waiting list for on-campus housing at the end of last semester.

“We chose to take a position that we could put them on a wait list, but we couldn’t guarantee them housing after that point,” said Corzine.

Record enrollment numbers at WCU could squeeze space even further, according to information presented at a recent board of trustees meeting. The university anticipates between 9,300 and 9,500 enrolled students in the fall of 2009, compared to 9,050 at the same time last year. Applications to the college have soared from 4,500 two years ago to 12,400 this year.

The freshman class is growing particularly quickly, with 1,550 expected this fall, up from 1,219 just last year. Indeed, the university stopped taking tuition deposits from freshmen and instated a waiting list for incoming students for the first time in its history.

Corzine said he doesn’t necessarily mind the challenges growth has and will likely continue to present to university housing. In fact, it’s important to keep WCU residences close to full so that the housing department can continue to fund projects.

“From our perspective, growth is important because we’re self-supporting. We’re an auxiliary service and generate our own revenue,” explained Corzine. “It’s important that we have occupancy rates that are high, so we generate enough money to pay for our costs but also to pay debt on new projects and plan for new projects.”

Still, a shortage of space isn’t an easy situation to navigate.

“We want to be close to full, but obviously any delay creates an issue we’re going to have to work through,” Corzine said. “There’s been a lot of grey hairs over this one.”



The university is stepping up to accommodate growth. Two old residence halls were demolished to make way for the Balsam and Blue Ridge residence halls, which are among the first parts of a long-range campus master plan.

“We basically had an opportunity to redesign the heart of campus and truly enhance it for generations to come,” said Corzine. A new campus dining hall near the dorms is also nearing completion.

Next up is a redesign of the high-rise Harrell Residence Hall, built in the early 1970s. Harrell will be taken off-line in the fall of 2011 for a major renovation. Over the next seven or eight years, a total of three high rises will be renovated, or about 1,500 beds. Making sure there’s still enough space for students while the buildings are being redone will be a juggling act.

“We’ll have to do them incrementally, and we’ll have to maintain the same basic capacity that we have right now unless we choose to build another building,” Corzine said.

Adding more space for campus housing isn’t out of the question, especially if WCU continues to break enrollment records.

“If our admissions data were to show that we are going to consistently have huge incoming first-year classes, then I think certainly we would have to look at our options and talk about whether we’d want to expand,” Corzine said.


Swain County commissioners have opted to target one department rather than spreading out county budget cuts among all county employees.

Commissioners have scrapped the idea for a mandatory one-week employee furlough, which they had initially seemed to support, and have instead proposed cutting three deputies and one secretary from the Sheriff’s office.

It’s a move that could further the divide between commissioners and Sheriff Curtis Cochran, who is suing the county for allegedly paying him too little.

County Manager Kevin King proposed laying off a single deputy at an initial budget work session May 14 and enforcing a mandatory county employee furlough to help make up for the budget shortfall. King also proposed laying off two other positions — an environmental health inspector and a building inspector; both in departments that have taken a big hit with the slowdown of second home construction.

Then, at a second budget work session on Thursday, June 11, the majority of commissioners apparently changed their minds. Commissioner David Monteith, however, said the change of heart took him by surprise.

“We had a budget retreat four weeks ago, and four of us had tentatively told King we were OK with one position from the sheriff’s department and the environmental health and inspections departments being cut. Plus, we were going to have a furlough,” Monteith said. “I thought everybody was for this and all of a sudden, they weren’t.”

Monteith is adamantly against cutting sheriff’s department positions and says he won’t vote for the budget if that proposal is included.

“Times get hard, and crime goes up. Why are you going to pick on the one department that if crime goes up, you need these people on the streets to do their jobs?” Monteith demanded.

Apparently, the proposal to cut more law enforcement positions was laid out by King after the first budget work session as an alternative to a mandatory furlough.

“To me and the other commissioners, this one made the most sense,” said Commissioner Steve Moon.

The two deputies commissioners propose to lay off have only been in their positions since April, when they were promoted from their former position as jailers. Sheriff Curtis Cochran said the two were not needed in the jail, and asked that they be moved to the sheriff’s office as deputies. The county agreed.

As is frequently the case when looking at who to lay off, the county decided that “the last people hired are the first ones to go,” King said.

“We looked around and they were the last in and the first out,” said Commissioner Chairman Glenn Jones.

Though supportive of the layoffs, Moon had initially expressed reluctance to trim positions in law enforcement.

“I’d hate to see us lose a position in the Sheriff’s department because in hard times, crime is rampant,” he said at the first budget workshop. “We need to support them, not cut positions.”

Now, though, Moon appears to have changed his stance.

“It’s unfortunate that we had to lay off some employees, but if we laid off the ones who are hired last with the shortest time on the job, to me that seems fair, though it’s unfortunate,” Moon said.

Moon said he never supported an employee furlough, though he didn’t speak out against it at the first budget workshop.

“I never did agree with the employee furlough. I did not like that idea,” Moon said. “People live payday to payday, and I didn’t think that was fair to the employees with the county.”

Monteith disagrees, though he said he didn’t entirely like the furlough either.

“I didn’t like to give the employees a furlough, but I would have rather done that than firing four out of one department,” Montieth said. “I just thought it would make more common sense to drop the salaries of all the people rather than pulling the cuts from one department.”

Moon and Jones say the Sheriff’s office will manage just fine, however.

“No, it’s not a good time to cut employees from the sheriff’s department, but now Cochran should have the same amount of deputies that (the former Sheriff) Ogle had,” said Moon. “Hopefully he can manage with what he’s got.”

Commissioners were scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday, June 16, as this paper went to press. The budget is expected to pass.


Haywood County became the Westminster of Western North Carolina this past weekend as more than 1,000 dogs and their owners flocked to the area to compete in the first AKC-sanctioned dog show ever held in the far western region.

The parking lot of the Haywood County Fairgrounds was crammed with RVs, trucks and vans from all over the Southeast, many bearing signs that warned other vehicles to “Stay back — Show Dogs in Tow.” The lot and the barn on site were transformed into a temporary staging area for 131 breeds to be groomed, clipped, and kept cool for the competition.

The show was the first official American Kennel Club event offered by the Western North Carolina Dog Fanciers association. Members of the club were astonished by the turnout.

“With the economy and this being our first event in a site unknown, we hoped and prayed for a turnout of 600 to 800,” said Nancy Davis, president of the WNC Dog Fanciers Association.

The sheer number of breeds was quite a site to behold. They ranged from more common — 14 border collies, 24 boxers; and five basset hounds, for example — to rarer breeds like Portugese water dogs, Pyrenean shepherds, and Salukis.

Starting at 8 a.m. Saturday morning, the first round of competition — best in breed — kicked off the show. Groups of dogs competed for top honors, trotting along the rubber red carpets set up in a series of show rings. In one ring, large standard poodles pranced in a circle with their owners, showing off their gait. In the next ring over, a judge inspected a group of impeccably groomed Malteses for flaws under their coats.

According to Davis, “Dogs are judged against a written word picture of what the perfect example of what a pug, sheltie, or whatever breed would be.”

To succeed in the confirmation round — i.e., best in breed — “You should have a good example of what a breed should be,” said Davis.

Nearby, a large Newfoundland named Timber Knolls Westpoint Sylvanus (or Thayer, for short) had just been crowned best in breed and was waiting with his owners, Mike and Glenda Garrett of Asheville, to get his picture taken. The Newfoundland’s glossy, thick coats are often the ticket to snatching a top prize. Thayer’s owners attribute his gorgeous coat to a good diet of expensive dog food and supplements, but nothing too out of the ordinary, aside from extensive grooming, is involved.

“We kill a couple vacuums a year,” in the grooming process, proclaimed Mike Garrett.

Thayer would go on to compete in the working group competition. For that portion of the show, dogs are split into six groups. Thayer is in the working category — his breed was bred to work for humans due to their strength and webbed feet, which make them strong swimmers. Newfoundlands were originally ship dogs.

Other categories are toys (bred to be companions, like Malteses); terriers (bred for ridding farms of vermin); herding; non-sporting; and sporting (such as golden retrievers and Irish setters, which are bred to retrieve or flush game).

Whether their dogs won or not, owners were thrilled to find an AKC-sanctioned event in Western North Carolina. That was the case with Candler residents Noreen Atkins-Atwell and James Atkins, who brought their two Irish wolfhounds — Champion Summerhill Ulstermyst Crash and Summerhill Abbey Vale Xanadu.

“We’re so happy they’ve started to give shows closer to home,” Noreen said.

Many came to support a new regional competition, like Kari Hill from Greenville, S.C., who stood outside grooming her Scotty, Lorelei Charhill Sea Siren.

“We definitely came specifically to support the new club,” Hill said.

Participants in the show took a piece of Western North Carolina home with them. The prizes were pieces of pottery handcrafted and donated by Sylva potter Gloria Stockton.

And the show is almost certain to attract some return visitors to the region.

“We had a lot of positive comments about our area and how beautiful the site was,” Davis said. “There were some challenges, but people were overall impressed and said they want to come back.”


The beer business has exploded on the scene in Western North Carolina in the past several years, with Asheville alone now home to seven craft breweries. A recent poll cemented the city’s status as an up-and-coming brewery epicenter, naming it the number one beer town in the country. Despite the proximity of a thriving beer culture, however, craft brewing has been much slower to catch on in the far western counties — until now.

In recent months, three different companies have popped up with plans to establish breweries in Haywood, Swain, and Jackson counties.

The move of each company is well-timed, “with Asheville becoming a craft beer city and WNC becoming a destination for people who enjoy that stuff and are seeking that out,” says Kevin Sandefur, owner of Pot Licker Brewing Company in Haywood County.

But it’s not just tourists that breweries hope to draw in. A growing number of locals, both natives and newcomers, are thirsty for craft brew.

“I think there’s a lot of people around here that appreciate good beer,” says Chris Cooper, owner of Tuckaseegee Brewing Cooperative in Sylva.

The Smoky Mountain News caught up with the founders of three upstart craft breweries soon to grace WNC.


Pot Licker Brewing Company

Haywood County

Owners: Kevin Sandefur and Brad Morello

How they started

Kevin Sandefur and Brad Morello had been avid homebrewers for several years when their operation started getting a bit out of control.

“We got thrown out of the kitchen by our wives because more and more equipment started showing up and we needed more space,” Sandefur laughs. “We ended up building a small kitchen area that’s specifically dedicated to trying out recipes.”

The need for a larger space was fueled by increasing requests from people who tried the pair’s beer at various functions.

“People said that it was really great, and wanted to buy it from us,” says Sandefur. “Of course, you can’t sell it (as a homebrewer), but more and more people started asking for it. They started to say, ‘You should do this for a business.”

Sandefur and Morello started taking that idea seriously.

“We thought, this could be something we love to do that could be turned into a business,” Sandefur says.

About the brewery

Sandefur estimates the Pot Licker Brewing Company will sell its first batch of beer in about a year from a location somewhere in Haywood County. Initially, the brewery would start out small, similar in size to Heinzelmannchen in Sylva, the only other operational brewery west of Asheville.

Sandefur and Morello have an interest in collaborating with other craft breweries in the mountains as more come on-line to help lessen costs.

“One of the things we’ve looked at is to create kind of a cooperative, to where we could actually join forces with one or two more craft brewers in the area, and actually build a facility that would enable three craft brewers to occupy one space and share a manufacturing space,” Sandefur says.

No matter the final brewery setup and location, Sandefur says Pot Licker Brewing Company definitely plans on opening its facility to the public for tours and tastings. The company also hopes to engage in some regional distribution, offering their beer in the Charlotte metro market as well as in local restaurants.

“Our demographics and potential buyers are stronger in that market than locally because of competition,” says Sandefur.

But that hardly means the company plans to ignore the local community — in fact, that’s anything but the case. Sandefur and Morello have a grander vision than simply brewing beer in Haywood County — they want their operation to improve the economy of the area as a whole. Breweries could provide a substitute for the declining manufacturing industry, Sandefur suggests, and could also help grow the region’s tourism economy. A brewery could also aid local farmers by supporting hop growing programs, a form of alternative agriculture that farmers are frequently turning to.

“With a craft brewery, we could touch all facets of the economy,” Sandefur says.

What’s in a name?

“Pot licker,” is the nickname that Morello has jokingly called Sandefur over the years. It also translates well into a company logo. Beer labels will feature a character upside down in a big cauldron, with just his legs poking out, supposedly licking the last drop of something delicious.

“The whole concept was that the beer’s sooo good,” says Sandefur.

About the beer

Sandefur and Morello practice grain brewing, which makes for a longer fermentation process and allows for more control over the final product. They also aren’t afraid to experiment.

“We’re real creative as far as the recipes go and what we try to create. They’re really unique,” Sandefur says.

The current Pot Licker lineup consists of about five beers with names like Mountain Steam Lager and Paint Rock Porter, as well as a rye India pale ale, a pilsner, and a stout.

The pair would also like to unroll a line of specialty and seasonal brews to honor certain local events. Sandefur says he’d like to do a Folkmoot beer, for instance, to honor Haywood County’s popular international dance festival.

Brewing in WNC

The pair says there’s already been a precedent for establishing a craft brewery west of Asheville. One of the first WNC craft breweries actually started in Waynesville in the early 1990s, and was once located on Main Street.

“The birthplace of the movement really started right there in Waynesville,” says Sandefur of the former Smoky Mountain Brewery.

That brewery went under several years ago, and since then, a huge craft brewing scene has sprung up in nearby Asheville. But there’s still been a dearth of craft breweries in the far western counties.

“We talked about how neat it would be to get one in Haywood County and be outside the Asheville pack, which is growing so rapidly,” says Sandefur. “We also wanted to bridge the gap between there and Sylva (home of Heinzelmannchen).”

Current status

Pot Licker Brewing Company has already formulated a business plan (they were the runner up in the business plan contest sponsored by the Haywood Chamber of Commerce) and has trademarked and registered the logo and name of the company. Now, they’re in the stage of getting the actual product off the ground.

“We’ve been doing research and development for the last year, and we’re getting really close to actually having a full-blown facility,” Sandefur says. “We have a test kitchen that we’ve been working out of where we’ve been doing recipe formulation of beers. We’re at the point where we’re applying for licensure and must identify a permanent site.”

Sandefur and Morello haven’t yet decided where to locate Pot Licker. They’ve considered sites in Jonathan Creek and in the Dellwood area, where Sandefur owns property. Recently, they’ve directed their focus to sites near downtown Waynesville to take advantage of tourist foot traffic.

The pair hopes to be fully operational by next summer.

“It’s a long process to get these things up and going,” says Sandefur.


Nantahala Brewing Company

Bryson City

Owners: Joe Rowland, Chris Collier, Ken Smith, Mike Marsden

How they started

The way they see it, it was fate that led these four men to cross paths. Joe Rowland is the owner of an outdoor adventure company, and splits his time between South Carolina and Bryson City. Mike Marsden is the local bar owner of Across the Tracks, which Rowland has frequented over the years. The two men met Chris Collier, a well-known brewmaster in the region and a writer for Southern Brew News, when Collier was up visiting Bryson City one weekend. Ken Smith, a friend of Rowland’s, wanted in when he heard Rowland talking about the brewery idea.

The men each bring something to the table. Marsden is a built in distribution channel with the perfect brewery location — attached to his bar is a giant warehouse with 30-foot high ceilings, which are “hard to find,” says Rowland, and was a factor in choosing the Bryson City location.

Collier has already established himself as a brewer.

“Every brewmaster in the Southeast knows who he is,” says Rowland. “He’s very well-respected. He’s been brewing for about 15 years, and knows what he’s doing. He’s kind of perfected the art.”

Smith, who owns two construction companies in the Southeast, is business-savvy and provided the critical upstart funding.

“He brings a lot of wisdom and unlimited capital,” Rowland says.

As for Rowland himself, he wasn’t always an outdoor adventure guide. Previously, he worked for an international company, “doing marketing for pretty much every liquor product you’ve ever heard of.” As he puts it, he has the institutional knowledge to market alcohol.

After the men all crossed paths, the idea for a brewery got rolling about a year and a half ago. Bryson City would prove to be the perfect location for a number of reasons, among them that the small Smoky Mountain town is poised for explosive growth.

“As popularity increases, you’ll have a higher-end clientele and tourism will keep increasing,” says Rowland. “I feel there’s a huge opportunity here. At some point, this place is really going to take off.”

About the brewery

Nantahala Brewing Company has big aspirations. The owners plan to establish it as one of the largest breweries in the state.

“That’s definitely one of the biggest differences you’ll find between us and other breweries in the region, is that we will be one of the largest breweries in North Carolina,” Rowland says.

The company has purchased a secondhand brewing system from a Spartanburg brewery that just got a new set. The equipment is built to churn out 30,000 barrels, or 6,000 kegs, each year.

“That’s huge — enough to distribute throughout North Carolina,” says Rowland.

The Nantahala Brewing Company will focus on distribution, and won’t be available for drop in tours and tastings. However, customers to Across the Trax will be able to see the brewing operation through a glass wall behind the Across the Trax bar. Marsden will purchase kegs of beer and sell them at Across the Trax, a plan that proved convenient for the brewing company owners.

Mike “is already in the business of selling alcohol to the public, and it’s not something the four of us as a whole wanted to get involved in,” Rowland explains.

What’s in a name?

Everything, as it turns out, when it comes to the Nantahala Brewing Company. Naming the company after the popular whitewater rafting river was a strategic move, because the name is already well known and connected to a specific region.

“Out of the gate, we have a brand that most people spend 10 years trying to develop,” says Rowland. “It’s pretty much a once in a lifetime opportunity when I look at it from a branding standpoint.”

Rowland says the Nantahala name is so recognizable that people often swear they’ve tried the beer, though it’s not even on the market yet.

The owners also want to make the Great Smoky Mountains National Park part of the Nantahala Brewing Company brand. Naming a beer after a popular outdoor region has worked well for other companies, such as the top-selling Sierra Nevada beer.

About the beer

Nantahala Brewing Company plans to set itself apart by making some unusual brews.

“That’s the difference between us and other breweries,” says Rowland. “People try to be mainstream and appeal to everybody, but we’re looking at niche products that not everyone else is doing.”

Collier in particular is known for crafting some unusual recipes that have taken top honors in national brewing competitions. One is a lemongrass pale ale. Another is a type of beer made from herbs and spices like lavender and chamomile. The brewery will also make some standards, like a pale ale, India pale ale, stout, and brown ale.

Current status

The brewery is currently only making small batches for tastings. They have 12 beers available to taste, and the owners have been working to build accounts in other parts of the state. They’ve done beer tastings in the Chapel Hill and Raleigh areas, where a restaurant chain has agreed to carry it. Locally, “pretty much everyone has agreed to carry it,” Rowland says.

Nantahala Brewing Company will officially take possession of the Spartanburg brewery’s old equipment around July 1. It will take about two weeks to move the equipment from Spartanburg to Bryson City, then another two weeks or so to install it, says Rowland. He says the beer won’t be available in quantity until the end of August — just in time for the region’s busy fall season. The company is planning a big kickoff celebration for the official opening and hopes to secure a big-name musical act for the event.


Tuckaseegee Brewing Cooperative


Owners: WCU professors Chris Cooper and Sean O’Connell, along with a third silent partner

How they started

O’Connell, an associate professor of microbiology at WCU, has been an avid homebrewer for 15 years, experimenting with a wide range of styles from wheat beers to IPA’s to beers made with local ingredients. He befriended Cooper, a political science professor, at the university several years ago, and turned Cooper on to the art of homebrewing.

“Sean’s the brains behind the operation,” says Cooper. “He brings the expertise to the table.”

The men say they first started thinking seriously about starting a commercial brewery about two years ago during a pub crawl of the many Asheville area microbreweries and pubs. The pair routinely churns out batches of beer for weddings of friends and acquaintances, and word has spread about their tasty concoctions.

An idea for a brewery is also part of O’Connell and Cooper’s larger vision for turning Cullowhee into a college town. They predict that one day the town will be incorporated, allowing for the possibility of alcohol to be served there. By founding a brewery now, they’re staying one step ahead of the curve.

“We’re thinking someday Cullowhee’s going to have to become a college town, and actually have pubs and bars and restaurants and a social scene,” O’Connell says. “It would be great to get started now and get our foot in the door.”

About the brewery

The Tuckaseegee Brewing Cooperative will start out very small. O’Connell, who currently operates his own home brewery, is acquiring the permits to scale up his operation to be what he describes as a nano-brewery — allowing the level of production to rise just a step or two above where he currently is.

The cooperative model the pair is employing is unique. Their goal is to get 20 people to pitch in to purchase the necessary equipment for a larger operation. O’Connell and Cooper will then field requests for what to brew.

By starting up slowly, “as a business venture, it’s not as risky because we’re not going to sink tens of thousands of dollars into this at first,” says O’Connell.

Keeping the operation small will allow it to be more sustainable. For instance, the men plan to grow their own hops used in the brewing process.

What’s in a name?

The name of the brewery honors the Tuckaseegee River, which plays an important role in both men’s lives. Cooper is an avid boater and kayaker, and O’Connell conducts fieldwork in the Panthertown Valley area, where the Tuckaseegee has its headwaters. Plus, the river flows right by the WCU campus, where the two met and are currently employed.

Naming a brewery for a specific place is a strategic move when it comes to marketing.

“Naming breweries after place names brings more notoriety,” O’Connell explains.

“The Tuck flows through and connects all these little towns around here. It’s associated with this particular region of Western North Carolina,” adds Cooper.

About the beer

For the last two and a half years, O’Connell has employed a method called “grain brewing” when he makes his beer. The process is a contrast to the extract brewing method used by many breweries, which uses a syrupy or powdery barley sugar base to start the brewing process. In grain brewing, the base is made using the crushed husks of the hop plant. The fermentation occurs much more slowly with grain-brewed beer, but allows for a greater degree of quality control over the final product.

O’Connell and Cooper have experience making a wide variety of beers, like lager, India Pale Ale, several German styles such as Aultz, barley wine, stouts, and porters. One of their most popular concoctions has been a beer made with local honey and blackberries.

Brewing in WNC

Microbreweries have experienced explosive growth in Asheville over the last few years. There are now nine craft breweries in the city, which was recently voted the Best Beer City in America in a national poll.

But brewing in the seven counties west of Asheville has been much slower to take off. In fact, just one brewery, Heinzelmannchen in Sylva, currently exists in the seven western counties.

“I think it’s an effect of Prohibition,” surmises O’Connell on the lack of far western breweries. “It just hasn’t been rescinded completely, and I guess the demand just wasn’t that great historically.”

The influx of newcomers to the region has helped increase the demand for locally brewed beer, though Cooper says locals want it too.

“I think there’s a lot of people around here that appreciate good beer, both locals and people who’ve moved here,” says Cooper.

Current status

O’Connell and Cooper estimate it will take a year for the Tuckaseegee Brewing Cooperative to brew its first batch of beer. The brewery has not yet been incorporated, and O’Connell is in the process of applying for the correct ABC permits to allow them to brew more than 200 gallons per year (the cap for a homebrewing operation).

The pair has been working with the small business department of the university and has obtained legal advice from ABC officials in Raleigh. O’Connell describes the lengthy process as “more tedious than I’m making it out to be.”

The permanent home of the Tuckaseegee Brewing Cooperative has yet to be determined.

Ultimate vision

The pair’s ultimate goal is to establish a pub/restaurant with a deck overlooking the Tuckaseegee River, where the beer is both made and served. Cooper has recently worked to bring more music to the area in the form of singer/songwriters from Nashville, and the restaurant would also be a place for them to perform. Such a facility would ideally be built in Cullowhee.

That plan is, of course, a long way off — Cullowhee’s not yet an incorporated area, and the men predict their dream wouldn’t happen for at least another five years. But that doesn’t deter them — they remain passionate about making Cullowhee and the surrounding area a more vibrant, interesting place.

“It’s all part of this general, larger idea,” says Cooper. “I think it’s cool because the more sort of grassroots, community-based stuff we can have around here the better. It’s neat to talk to people about the idea and see them get excited about it.”


Swain County will be able to rescind its latest property revaluation — which caused property values to increase by an average of 30 percent — thanks to a bill in the General Assembly.

The county had hoped to scrap its property revaluation after commissioners feared the increased values would prove too much for local citizens to bear. A bill in the General Assembly would allow the county to just that, and instead conduct a property revaluation in another four years. However, Swain County commissioners failed to pass a resolution in support of the measure and missed the deadline for the county to be eligible.

On Monday, June 15, Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy, successfully amended the bill to give the county until June 30 to pass a resolution.

County residents have protested the property values en masse, submitting more than 3,000 informal appeals out of a total of about 11,000 property parcels. Many were shocked that values would rise in an economic downturn. However, sale prices have remained high in Swain County, though the number of sales has dropped off.

“A lot of people’s taxes were going to have to go up, and like I’ve said before, it’s never a good idea to increase taxes,” said Commissioner Steve Moon.

Though commissioners proposed lowering the tax rate to 31.7 cents per $100, they ideally hoped to be able to drop the revaluation altogether and conduct another one in four years, when the economy has bounced back.

“It’s bad economic times, and every household is suffering,” said Commissioner Chairman Glenn Jones. “It’s just not a good time right now to raise taxes.”

There’s one downside to scrapping the revaluation — the county spent $240,000 to conduct it and can’t get its money back. However, there’s little the county could have done, because state law at the time required it to conduct a property revaluation.

“When we spent it, we thought that was a necessity. It was required at the time,” said Moon.

In the end, commissioners believe they’ll just have to cut their losses and sacrifice the cost the revaluation for the greater good of county residents.

“If we can do away with it to the benefit of the majority of the people, we need to do away with it,” Moon said.

Commissioner David Monteith agreed.

“I sure do support throwing out the new one and going back to the old (values),” Monteith said. “It’s just too hard on people. Even though the county’s going to lose money, I still support doing away with it.”


If you’re a county commissioner in Western North Carolina, it’s hard not to feel envious of Macon County’s budget. While surrounding counties are grappling with layoffs and — in Haywood’s case — a tax increase, Macon County commissioners have managed to largely dodge the economic downturn that has stricken other places.

“On the local level, we’re not doing too bad compared to other places,” County Manager Jack Horton told a crowd of local residents who gathered to hear him speak about the budget last Thursday (June 11).

It’s not that Macon County hasn’t felt any impact from the economy. The county’s $42 million budget is the lowest it’s been in five years. Building and septic permits, a major county source of revenue, are down significantly. In April of this year, just $3.1 million in building permits were issued, compared to $11 million in April 2008. The county predicts sales tax revenues will plummet 10 percent next year.

Commissioners have implemented several decreases to balance the budget, said Horton, but it “hasn’t dealt with any mass layoffs or severe budget cuts. We’re basically trying to hold our own and keep our services in place so when the economy picks back up we’ll keep on going.”

The commissioners already decided in the middle of the current fiscal year that they wouldn’t be asking for more money from taxpayers.

“We live with what we have,” was the thinking, said Horton.

So to save money, the county is not including a cost of living increase for employees in this year’s budget and likely won’t fill positions that become vacant. Schools won’t get any extra money over last year, and capital funding to schools will be reduced from $700,000 to $500,000. The fact that Macon schools are getting capital outlay at all is a big contrast to many other counties, who have had to slash capital projects altogether for the school system. While other counties have put a halt on new school projects, a new early college campus is being finished in Macon County, and a new field is being put in at the Highlands School. In total, Macon County Schools are getting about the same amount of funding as they received last year — a total of $6.9 million.

It’s the state — not Macon County — that might end up impacting the school budget the most.

“The thing that’s making me really concerned is how much they’re looking at cutting education,” said Horton.

Under the proposed state budget, $800,000 in teacher salaries would be cut in Macon County. That’s equivalent to about 26 positions — and it’s unclear whether the county would be able to supplement the cutback.

“If the state cuts positions in the school system, can the county pick them up?” said Horton. “Our own county commissioners are pressing the state to step up and support the education budget.”


A proposed tax increase that Haywood residents have fought hard against could likely be avoided if residents would just pay their taxes on time in the first place. But property tax collections are down this year, presumably due to the economy, and is a major factor in the county’s budget woes.

The amount of delinquent property, personal property and vehicle tax payments is so high among Haywood County taxpayers that the total amount owed in back taxes could make up for the county’s budget shortfall and help commissioners avoid raising the property tax rate.

The situation was brought to light at a workshop commissioners held last week in an effort to take a last look at the county’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Public outcry over a proposed property tax increase prompted commissioners to make a final evaluation of places to trim, but to no avail.

The outstanding revenue from delinquent property taxes is about $1.4 million, according to county tax collector David Francis. Additionally, another $500,000 in vehicle taxes and personal property taxes is past due, bringing the total amount of past due taxes to about $1.9 million.

In a normal year, the tax collection rate is about 97 percent, but collections for the year are currently running about 94 to 95 percent.

The estimated revenue that would be generated by the proposed 1.7 cent property tax increase is just $1.2 million. The current property tax rate in Haywood County is 49.7 cents per $100 valuation.

Commissioner Skeeter Curtis argued that the county had not figured delinquent tax payments into the budget, and therefore was not considering all options when it came to balancing it.

“We’re going to let 5 percent of our people who have not paid their taxes have a tax increase for all of (the residents), and we haven’t put one dime in the budget for this money,” Curtis said. “We would not have to have a tax increase. I don’t understand how we can sit here and put a budget together when people owe us.”

But other commissioners cautioned against assuming that everyone will pay up.

“We are making a lot of assumptions right there that everybody is going to pay and everything is going to get better,” said Commissioner Bill Upton. “Some people think it’s going to get worse.”

The county hopes to recoup $500,000 of the outstanding taxes over coming months and factored that into the proposed budget. But that’s just an estimate of what the county could recover, said Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick.

“There’s no guarantee,” Kirkpatrick said. “If everybody paid their taxes when they ought to, we wouldn’t have this problem.”

County taxpayers have indeed been hit hard in the recession, and the effect has trickled down to the county’s budget. Francis said that the county has experienced two major bankruptcies in the past year — Ghost Town in the Sky theme park, which owes the county $43,000 in back taxes, and an excavating company, which owes the county $21,000.

Francis said that personal bankruptcies throughout the county have risen dramatically this year. Last year at this time, there were 30 declared bankruptcies; this year, there are 65.

Commissioner Mark Swanger joined the chorus cautioning against assuming the county can recoup too much of the outstanding taxes.

“It’s not a projectible revenue stream,” Swanger said. “You can’t spend anticipated collections.”

The county is still stuck between a rock and a hard place as it looks to make up for a projected budget shortfall. Many of the budget cuts suggested by citizens have already been made, or they are mandated services that the state says the county must provide.

“At the end of the day, the state and the federal government tell the counties in North Carolina that you will provide these services,” said County Manager David Cotton. The county doesn’t have cart blanche discretion to cut anywhere wants, but instead has few areas where it can actually cut.

The county has already trimmed back personnel, where it spends the majority of its dollars. Cotton said the elimination of a proposed 32 full-time positions will put the county back six years in terms of staffing levels.

The state is also talking about passing on more mandatory expenses to counties in order to make up for its own severe budget shortfall, so counties are anticipating the possibility of deeper budget cuts in the future.

Still, citizens are none too happy about the county’s proposed property tax increase.

“The burden is falling too heavy on us,” Johnnie Cure, a leader in the tax opposition movement, told commissioners at the budget workshop. “Where is this going to end?”

Kirkpatrick said commissioners have almost exhausted every option in looking where to cut.

“Who else can we pass it on to?” Kirkpatrick responded to Cure. “It’s not going to come out of the sky. If the state says the county has to do it, we have to do it. We don’t have a choice. We’re trying to be the best stewards we can.”

So far, the county commissioners have been unable to come up with a good alternative to offset the proposed property tax increase, so that option still seems likely to pass.

The county commissioners will vote on the budget at their regularly scheduled meeting at 5 p.m. Monday, June 15.


A group of nearly 45 parents and friends came out to show their support for embattled Swain County West Elementary School Principal Rick Abel at a school board meeting Monday night (June 8), but left with few answers to their questions surrounding Abel’s departure.

Concerned parents believe Abel was pushed out, claiming he was wrongfully terminated, but have struggled to find answers as to why. A banner held by supporters of the popular principal at the meeting read, “Join hands for Mr. Abel.”

School board members made it clear from the beginning that they would not respond on personnel matters relating to Abel. The school board claims that Abel resigned from his post in mid-April.

“Board members will not respond to individuals who address the board, except to clarify,” said school board member Mellie Burns. “If we have a specific question, we will ask.”

Chairman Charles McMahan assured the audience that “there’s nothing secretive,” about the board’s personnel policy and lack of answers.

Some of the public speakers referenced a widespread belief that Abel’s status as an outsider and possible personality conflicts with school establishment led to his termination.

“Mr. Abel and his wife are fine people,” said Jerry Shook, a parent from West Elementary where Abel worked. “They are new at this game that we play in Swain County, and don’t need to be treated that way by our county.”

Sara Abel also worked for the school system as a high school guidance counselor. The school board accepted her resignation at the meeting.

Shook urged the board members to search for answers, since the administration has refused to comment on the issue.

“Tonight I come to you with a challenge that you listen to the voice of the people,” Shook said. “Your integrity as a board is being questioned by your actions. You as a board need to find out what’s going on.”

Other speakers mentioned the atmosphere being cultivated in the Swain County School District, alleging that there is a fear of challenging the status quo.

“I was told that situations like this have been going on for so long that nobody could do anything about it,” said Katie Butler, PTO President. “Teachers basically felt it was impossible to do their jobs educating their kids.”

McMahan cautioned speakers from naming specific school administrators who they felt was responsible for cultivating such an atmosphere.

“You may not talk about any problem you have with school employees,” McMahan warned Butler.

Richard Allison, another speaker, added to Butler’s comments about the school atmosphere.

“Teachers have a fear of losing their jobs because of parochial, in-grown attitudes,” Allison alleged.

Teachers were conspicuously absent from the school board meeting, with only one or two in attendance.

Questions surrounding Abel’s resignation continue to grow. Abel and his wife, Sara, were recruited to the Swain County school district from Florida for a two-year contract. Then, on April 20, the school board voted to accept Abel’s resignation. However, Abel told parents at a recent PTO meeting that he never resigned from his position.

The Swain County school administration has said their attorney has advised them not to discuss Abel’s resignation.

The board of education is also continuing to stay mum on the issue. After the meeting, McMahan said he appreciated the audience’s input but stopped short of promising an investigation into the matter.

“I can’t take any action by myself,” he said. “The board has to act as a whole.”

Concerned county residents and parents continue to press for answers.

“I don’t know the details, I know what I hear,” said Gail Findlay, who attends church with the Abels. “I know it sounds like it’s really been a terrible situation at West Elementary. I just want to say I’m sad for our community, and I’m sad for the school system. I wish with all my heart there is something else that could have been done so their reputations as teachers can be intact.”

Shook made perhaps the strongest statement, asking the board to reinstate Abel into his position as principal.

“If this man has done nothing morally wrong, then we should do something morally right,” Shook said.

However, the school system has already selected a replacement for Rick Abel. The school board voted unanimously at its meeting to appoint Mike Treadway as the new West Elementary School principal. Treadway is currently the assistant principal at Swain County Middle School.


At long last, Wal-Mart will be coming to Cherokee.

A move to bring a 120,000-square-foot superstore to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian Reservation has been in the works for nearly four years. On May 20, the tribal council voted in favor of approving a ground lease with the company. The vote was split, with three council members opposing and nine in favor of the measure.

“When completed, the Cherokee Wal-Mart Supercenter will be part of a much larger mega-retail development offering products and services currently not available to Tribal members and visitors to the Qualla Boundary,” said Mickey Duvall, planning and development director for the tribe, in an email statement.

The tribe would be in charge of constructing the $25 million building for Wal-Mart on a 22-acre parcel of land on the reservation, according to Duvall. The tribe would then lease the building to Wal-Mart at a cost of between $564,000 and $720,000 per year, Duvall said. The lease agreement is for a mandatory 20 years plus six optional five-year renewals, for a total of 50 years.

If Wal-Mart made an average yearly lease payment of $642,000 over a 20-year period, the tribe would only receive $12.8 million — just over half the cost of constructing the building.

The idea that the tribe may not recoup the full amount it pays to construct the Wal-Mart was the primary reason tribal council Chairman Mike Parker voted against the lease agreement.

“There’s no guarantee that they’re going to stick around long enough to pay that money back,” Parker said. “I wasn’t opposed to Wal-Mart, just the idea of giving them $25 million and then with no language in the lease holding them to that amount, I just couldn’t rationalize that in my mind. It doesn’t make business sense to give them $25 million with no guarantee.”

But according to Duvall, the tribe had little choice but to construct the building if it wanted to land Wal-Mart on the reservation.

“Since the Wal-Mart cannot purchase or own trust property on the Qualla Boundary, the tribe elected to build and own the building and lease it back to Wal-Mart,” Duvall said.

Additionally, tribal officials are anticipating that the superstore will bring in nearly $214 million in tribal levy over a 25-year period, with the amount of levy gradually increasing with each five-year period. The tribe’s levy rate is 7 percent.

“This project alone will almost double the current Tribal Levy collections,” Duvall said. However, some of the levy raised by sales at Wal-Mart will be in lieu of sales already occuring at other stores on the reservation, so not all the levy would be considered a net gain.

Duvall said there are two scenarios for the Super Wal-Mart’s opening date. The “fast track” scenario has the store opening by December 2011. The “regular track” scenario has the store opening by December 2013.


Mixed-use developments where residents live, work, shop and dine within a few block radius are popping up in cities around the nation, but have been slower to take hold in the mountains of Western North Carolina. One Macon County developer is aiming to bring the concept of mixed use to the mountains by turning a 22-acre parcel of land near downtown Franklin into a community where cars are hardly needed and everyone knows your name.

When it’s all said and done, Sanctuary Village will feature 150 residences in a variety of styles, from single-family homes to condos to live-work spaces. The development will have its own store fronts, as well as access to a grocery store, restaurants and a hospital all within a half mile in greater downtown Franklin.

“This is an in-town, urban neighborhood, much denser than what people are used to in mountain communities,” said Ben Brown, spokesman for the development.

If this trend does take hold in the mountains, it could be good news for preserving the natural environment.

“This is all about spreading out the options,” Brown said. “If you have X number of people coming to the region looking for mountain housing options, the more people we can convince to live close in and pick up a smaller footprint per person, the better we are for saving agricultural land and mountain slope land.”

Sanctuary Village is a far cry from the archetypal mountain housing development, with a focus on lots of acreage and big views. Some of these typical developments offer limited interaction with the community around them.

“You’ve wound up with a lot of gated communities that have no draw other than living right in them,” said Franklin Town Planner Mike Gruberman.


Building a community

For those who intend to make the mountains their home, big, gated developments can be isolating — something Sanctuary Village developer Tim Ryan experienced firsthand. Several years ago, Ryan and his wife, Iva, left their day jobs in South Florida to live on a large, working farm in Macon County. The Ryans loved the drastic change of pace, but after a while, still felt something was missing.

“Here in the mountains, we all come here to connect to the environment,” Tim said. “But you really need to connect with other people as well.”

Tim envisioned a place where people live in close quarters with their neighbors and eat, work and shop in close proximity. The community model, known as new urbanism, espouses mixed-use development, and has grown in popularity in the last few years.

“It truly creates an opportunity for community, much more than throwing a bunch of houses together,” Tim said.

Sanctuary Village is in its first phase, and the house the Ryans reside in is the only one built so far in the development. But even from preliminary plans, it’s clear the community is anything but thrown together. The development will feature small cottages to large homes to condos ranging from 700 square feet to 3,000 square feet, each built with one of a dozen architectural styles that reflect the mountain environment.

Seniors will likely be a big market for Sanctuary Village.

“As people age, they may want to move closer to services but don’t want to leave Franklin,” said Iva Ryan. “They want to be in a community where neighbors know them and care about them.”

But like the housing choices, the population of Sanctuary Village and other mixed-use communities is often diverse.

“We’re finding these communities appeal to different ages, backgrounds, and interests of people who want to connect,” said Iva.

Connectivity is evident in the design of the development through things like shared open spaces.

“Common areas are an extension of the home,” said Iva. “You don’t want to get people stuck in a house, you want them to feel comfortable so they’ll engage.”


Mutual benefit

The concept of a traditional neighborhood development like Sanctuary Village has so rarely been proposed in the mountains that the town of Franklin had to adopt new zoning ordinances to accommodate it.

“The town had not had anything like this before,” Gruberman said. “This was our first shot at what is called a traditional neighborhood development, and there was a fairly lengthy process involved because it wound up creating a new zoning district.”

With the help of plenty of public input, the town created a new neighborhood development zoning category with unique specifications.

“Walkability was the chief issue,” Gruberman said. “The development must be a minimum number of acres and within a half mile walking distance of the downtown area. It’s intended to reduce dependence on cars.”

Pulling together enough property to create Sanctuary Village was a challenge, since most areas around small mountain downtowns are already built up. But Ryan finally managed to piece together several different parcels because he truly believed Franklin was the right place for the development.

“Franklin is a very easy community to live in,” Ryan said. “You can live here and not need a car.”

Downtown is a big selling point of the development, which makes for a beneficial partnership, said Brown.

“It’s really selling the town of Franklin as an amenity,” Brown said. “The better off the town is, the better of the development is. There’s a built in incentive for the town and developer to work together, and for the developer to support Main Street businesses and help strengthen Main Street opportunities.”


Catching on

Since new urbanism hasn’t been tested in the mountains, there’s no guarantee it will catch on with buyers. But Tim has one major advantage — Sanctuary Village provides an option that isn’t widely available in the seven counties west of Asheville.

“People are still going to want to live in suburban areas and on mountain tops, but in the current market there are way, way more mountain top lots and suburban options for people than there are in town options,” Brown said.

The speed at which Sanctuary Village is being developed has slowed in the wake of the economic downturn.

“We’re moving carefully — this is not a time that banks lend money to developers,” said Ryan.

But Ryan believes that when the economy picks back up, many people will emerge with different, simpler attitude toward life — and Sanctuary Village will be poised to attract them.

“(The economy) really has forced people to rethink priorities and get back to simpler, more sustainable approach to living,” said Ryan.

Brown said the Ryans are “heavily invested in the idea that these in-town, traditional neighborhood designs that are walkable, mixed-use communities will be the most desirable kind of project for people to buy into.”


Parents at West Elementary School in Swain County are questioning the circumstances surrounding the departure of a popular principal.

In the weeks since Rick Abel’s alleged resignation, conflicting accounts have emerged that have left parents with growing suspicions over what really happened.

Parents say school administrators actively recruited Abel from Florida at the beginning of the school year. Then on April 20, less than a year into his two-year contract, the Swain County Board of Education unanimously voted to accept Abel’s resignation, according to school administrators.

The sudden departure of the well-liked principal took parents by surprise.

“I thought he was a great guy,” said PTO President Katie Butler. “He had a lot of great ideas for our school. He looked at problems and wanted to find solutions to get them fixed. He didn’t just go in and sit behind his desk.”

Jerry Shook, a West Elementary parent and PTO member, said members of the PTO heard a different account than the school district’s at a recent PTO meeting.

“We were alerted to the situation that Mr. Abel was being forced into resignation,” Shook said.

PTO Secretary Kristi Jenkins said that at the PTO meeting, Abel denied ever writing a letter of resignation or resigning, but that he told the PTO board he couldn’t comment further on the situation.

The school district continues to maintain that Abel resigned, but refused to elaborate.

“We can’t give out any information on personnel,” said Swain County Community Schools Coordinator Steve Claxton. “All I can say is that he has resigned, and that’s all we’re allowed to give out.”

Apparently, the school district’s attorney is aware that the situation is of a delicate nature. Superintendent Bob Marr told The Smoky Mountain Times that the school’s attorney instructed him not to speak about the resignation.

The North Carolina Association of Educators, a teacher’s union, has also gotten involved.

“I have been involved in Rick’s case and actually relatively managed his case as we moved through the process,” said Anne Franklin, a NCAE representative out of Asheville. “The particulars of this case I’m not at liberty to speak about. It’s confidential.”

Parents say the school system has been evasive in answering questions about Abel’s alleged resignation.

“I have not heard anything other than it was personnel, and they could not talk about that because it’s confidential,” said parent and substitute teacher Ali Shuler. “That doesn’t get it for me. Not even a year in, he’s being asked to step down. Something’s messed up.”

Butler said school administrators have been “wishy washy” in their answers to questions about Abel’s resignation.

“They’re kind of covering themselves, is what I feel,” Butler said.

Some parents are more specific in their theories about the situation.

“I was really excited when they hired someone from out of the area that had nothing to do with anything that goes on here,” Jenkins said. “I think they don’t like that he doesn’t conform to what they want. He’s there for the school, not the politics.”

As is frequently alleged to be the case in Swain County, some wonder whether political allegiances played a part.

“I feel like it’s political, I really do,” said Shuler.


Won over

Parents say Marr and other school administrators actively courted Abel for the position of West Elementary principal, though Abel was living in Florida at the time and wasn’t looking for a job. The school system refused to comment on whether Abel was recruited.

According to parents, Abel moved to the area with his family to take the job. He became immediately popular, especially with students.

“Kids love him,” said Jenkins. “He’s out there every morning when the kids are being dropped off, opening doors and greeting them. He walks around the classrooms, and kids are always running up to him.”

Abel was a familiar presence around the building, and has employed a hands-on approach. Butler says that in one high-ceilinged foyer, lights kept going out, making the hallway dimmer and dimmer because no one had attempted the difficulty of reaching up to change them. So Abel changed the lights himself.

During a recent teacher appreciation week, Abel received a mound of cards from students, Butler said. The children have always been his first priority.

“He’s there for the kids — he’s not there for the adults,” said Jenkins.

Even so, Abel has won favor with parents for his inclusive approach.

“Any time I had concerns this year, he had an open door policy,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins said that while previous principals didn’t ask for help or input from the PTO, Abel asked how he could assist the group in the first meeting he attended.

Butler said parents liked the environment Abel fostered at West Elementary.

“I’ve talked to a lot of parents as PTO president, and they like the changes that they’ve seen,” Butler said. “They’ve enjoyed things getting done a lot quicker, and questions getting answers when they make phone calls instead of getting the runaround.”


Wondering why

Parents say they see no reason Abel would have been asked to resign or terminated from his position.

“Working as PTO president, I saw nothing he was doing wrong enough to be terminated,” said Butler.

“I’ve never seen any wrongdoing,” Shuler agreed.

Frustrations over a growing list of questions are mounting.

“Nobody will tell us anything. We deserve an explanation,” Shuler said.

“I would like answers, I really would, because they’re getting rid of a fantastic guy,” Jenkins added.

Butler says she wants answers both as a parent and as the head of the PTO.

“I definitely want answers,” said Butler. “If he was fired, I feel as a parent, why did someone that is supposed to be in charge of my child get fired? As PTO president, I feel like people are wondering why this is becoming such a big thing, and I have no answers for them.”

Legally, the school system is not allowed to disclose personnel information beyond basic things like date of employment and salary.

“The statute ties their hands. They can’t disclose additional personnel information,” said Amanda Martin, a Raleigh attorney with the N.C. Press Association who specializes in what is and isn’t public record.

However, there is one out that would allow the school board to disclose the falling out with Principal Rick Abel.

State law allows for an escape hatch when a school board comes under fire, allowing them to share otherwise confidential personnel files when “essential to maintaining the integrity of the board.” The board would first have to draft a memo outlining the circumstances that deem it necessary to disclose personnel info. If the school board has its reasons, now just might be a good time to exercise that clause.

A group of parents are planning a rally of support for Abel at the next Board of Education meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday, June 8, in the board room at the Bright Adventures campus.


After more than two years, the Haywood County historic courthouse has finally been returned to its original grandeur.

The painstaking process of restoring the stately 1931 building, long an icon of the Haywood County community, has had its share of bumps and challenges along the way. The project fell severely behind schedule during the first year, prompting the county to fire the contractor, which resulted in a costly lawsuit. Others — like the ghosts workers allegedly saw — were easier to overcome, or at least learn to live with.

The building, which will host county offices, was slated to open in June, but likely won’t be ready until later this summer.

In the end, lead architect Chad Roberson with Asheville-based PBC&L is happy with how the project turned out.

“It’s a substantial civic building, and it was an anchor of the community, so it was built to be around for years,” Roberson said. “Now, we’ve given it another lifespan.”

The courthouse was literally built to last. To get the project started, significant demolition had to take place in order to begin updates.

“The existing courthouse is built very well, and so we had to do a lot of demolition in there to make it usable for modern needs,” Roberson said. “The demolition was very substantial.”

To figure out how the courthouse originally looked, Roberson and his crew pored over old photos of the building. Those proved key in helping to restore the building’s grandest space — the old courtroom. Photos came in handy when reconstituting the courtroom’s mezzanine balcony, which had been walled in and turned into offices over the years. Missing sections of ornate trim that once lined the walls of the balcony were handcarved to once again return the beautiful detail to its original glory.

“There was 1970s paneling on the inside, and when we pulled it off, they found the trim and the ornamentation,” Roberson said.

Painstaking measures were taken to restore the courtroom, including hand carving to fill in gaps where the ornamentation had been damaged or was missing and adding antique wooden benches to reflect how the courtroom looked in 1931.

“The courtroom was the most challenging by far,” Roberson said. “It’s a very monumental space and needed to be restored carefully to what it was originally. It was definitely the toughest room.”

Other measures were taken to make sure as many original materials as possible were used. For instance, in the first floor historic corridor, unique tiles line the walls. However, some of the tiles were missing — forcing contractors to go searching for matching replacement tiles elsewhere in the building. They found some on the third floor under a layer of 1970s era paneling.

Additionally, all the doors and windows of the buildings are original. Some of the doors still bear the sign for their old use, such as lawyer’s and sheriff’s offices. The doors were refurbished, and in some instances relocated from one floor to another.

Roberson said one of the most challenging parts of the project was adding the stair tower and elevator tower addition at the back of the original building.

“Joining those two different architectural styles was one of the biggest challenges we had,” Roberson said. “One part was built in the early part of the 20th century, and we had to add a modern addition to it in the 21st century.”

In the end, the rewards were worth the obstacles.

“The building is an amazing building, and there have definitely been challenges in getting it completed,” Roberson said. “But I think in the end, it was definitely something we are very proud of and the county is very proud of.”


Scores of Haywood County taxpayers criticized the county’s proposed budget at a public hearing Monday (June 1) saying commissioners had not looked thoroughly at every possible option before proposing job cuts and a property tax increase.

Nearly 150 residents attended the meeting, many waving signs denouncing additional taxes.

The proposed budget recommends cutting 35 county positions and increasing the property tax rate by 1.7 cents from the current rate of 49.7 cents per $100 to make up for a $7 million budget shortfall. The 2009/2010 fiscal year starts July 1.

“Come up with cost saving ideas instead of the typical knee jerk reaction of raising taxes,” county resident Bill Davis suggested to commissioners.

Resident Ted Carr said it was ludicrous for commissioners to even consider a tax hike at a time when the economy is causing many to struggle.

“With the economy in the tank and the jobless rate as high as it is, I think it’s unconscionable that you’d suggest a 1.7 cent increase,” Carr said.

Others said county residents would suffer with a tax increase.

“For the people who are on fixed incomes, I see a heavy hit if you raise the taxes,” warned resident Yvonne Mazet. Though Mazet opposes a tax increase, she could give few specifics when interviewed about how she would make up for the $7 million budget shortfall the county faces.

“I’m just one person. I don’t know all the answers. I don’t know where to cut. It’s not my job,” Mazet said, adding “I don’t want my taxes raised.”

Commissioner Skeeter Curtis told the audience of concerned citizens that the budget shortfall had left commissioners with few options.

“I want to find some more money, too, but I don’t know where it’s going to be right now because we’ve cut right down to the bottom,” Curtis said.

Some audience members said they understood the county is in a tough position, but that commissioners had gone too far with some of the proposed cuts.

“Our budget is at a place right now where we’re going to have to juggle, but when we cut our health out and we cut our schools off, we cut our throats,” said resident Danny Heatherly, referring to proposed cuts to the Department of Social Services and the public school system.

Audience members had plenty of suggestions, but in many cases, commissioners had already taken them into consideration.

Resident Linda Bennet suggested the county cut funding to programs that don’t benefit all citizens, like nonprofits.

“I’m not saying they’re not good causes, I’m not saying you’re not being sweet by paying for them, but if it’s not a program that benefits every single person, that’s the program you look at first,” Bennet said.

But the county already plans to cut all funding for nonprofits next year, and pre-emptively pulled funding for the remainder of this fiscal year. The cuts have impacted organizations like the Haywood County Arts Council and the Haywood County Fairgrounds.

Resident Pat Carr agreed with many other audience members, saying that the county should pare down to the essentials like many residents have had to do.

“When I have to cut my budget, I look to see at what is a necessity and what is not a necessity,” Carr said. “I’d much rather see recreation programs cut than teachers cut.”

The county has already proposed significant cuts to recreation, including yanking all funding it provides to individual towns.

“We’re not giving any money to the town of Waynesville (for recreation) this budget,” Curtis said. “Canton is getting zero dollars this year.”

Audience members had other suggestions. For instance, Tammy Maney suggested increasing room taxes paid at area hotels and motels to alleviate some of the tax burden from county residents.

But Commissioner Mark Swanger pointed out that hiking the lodging tax requires approval by the state General Assembly.

“A couple of speakers mentioned the ... increase in occupancy tax, but that requires legislation in Raleigh,” Swanger said. “That’s a state statute that authorizes that.”

State law also dictates that room tax money must be invested back into tourism and can’t be spent on general county services.

Other audience suggestions included closing county administrative offices one day a week, raising the deductible county employees pay on their health insurance premium, reducing the salaries of some of the highest paid county administration, and consolidating some county and town services.

Resident Bruce Gardner said the commissioners need to examine cuts to even the smallest expenses, like turning the lights of the county justice center off at night.

“It’s the little things, it’s the dollars,” that add up, Gardner said.

Some residents blamed the county for frivolous spending in the past, saying it contributed to the county’s tough position today. Tammy Maney made that point just after Commissioner Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick asked her to limit her speech to three minutes.

“If you’d been as strict with money in the county as the time limit to get up here and talk about it, we’d all be a lot better off,” Maney said.

Resident Sharon Miller pointed to the county’s grading of the Beaverdam Industrial Park in the east end of the county in hopes it would lure industry as an example of wasteful spending.

“(You spent) $1 million for the tearing down of a mountain where a year later there’s still no development there,” Miller said.

Resident Johnnie Curé, one of the most vocal of the tax opponents, pointed to the former county board’s purchase of 22 acres of land on Jonathan Creek over a year ago, intended for recreation purposes, as an example of wasteful spending. The former board of commissioners spent more than $1 million on the parcel.

“Why did we spend it when we didn’t have it?” Curé demanded. “You must have a great deal more stewardship when it comes to our money. Stop asking for more and more of it. There is no more to take.”

Curtis encouraged audience members to stay involved in the budget process.

“Stay engaged, because it is your budget, and it is your county,” Curtis said.

Commissioners will go back to the drawing board for another budget work session at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 4, at the Haywood County Justice Center. A vote on the budget is scheduled for Monday, June 15 at the commissioners’ meeting at 5 p.m.


Members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians didn’t have to duke it out with other contestants or so much as wager a guess, but somehow, they got the price exactly right. On Tuesday, July 28, the tribe won a visit from long-time game show host Bob Barker. The legendary host of “The Price is Right” was in the area for a meeting with Chief Michell Hicks to discuss the plight of bears kept in three small zoos on the reservation.

Meeting the chief had been a goal of Barker’s since last month, when he announced he had teamed with animal rights organization PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) to protest the conditions of the Cherokee bear zoos.

Barker’s meeting took place at 1 p.m. Tuesday, July 28, just as this paper went to press. Before the meeting, Barker planned to visit all three zoos to check out the conditions. He said the zoos would be his only stop on his trip to Western North Carolina.

“I’m just going to visit the bear zoos. I won’t have time to do anything else, unfortunately, because I think the rest of Cherokee would be much more enjoyable than seeing these bears,” Barker said.

Following the meeting with Hicks, Barker will hold a press conference at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, July 29, to discuss his visit to the zoos and his meeting with the chief.

Barker hoped during his visit to convince the owners of the three zoos to release the bears and allow PETA officials to transport them to a sanctuary in Northern California at no cost. Barker estimated that about 30 bears would make the trip.

“They have a place for the bears to live in the way nature intended and never again have to entertain tourists or anybody else,” said Barker.

Barker and PETA have decried the conditions at Chief Saunooke’s Trading Post, Cherokee Bear Zoo, and Santa’s Land, saying the bears are housed inadequately in concrete pens with little stimulation.

Whether Barker’s campaign will have any impact on the practice of keeping caged black bears in Cherokee is up to the Tribal Council. Though federal regulations allow the keeping of bears, the council has the authority to pass legislation outlawing the practice on the reservation.

However, that kind of change may be slow to come. Tribal Council Chairman Mike Parker said he was not aware of Barker’s upcoming visit or his meeting with the chief, though Hicks had said tribal council would likely be present. In fact, Parker said he had never heard about Barker’s campaign with PETA.

“I don’t remember or recall ever talking about it,” Parker said. “My guess is that [the zoos] comply with federal regulations. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be in business.”

Prior to the meeting, Hicks said he anticipated speaking with Barker and PETA representatives about the bears and listening to their advice, then getting feedback on tribal law and the bear zoos’ compliance with federal regulations.

“We’ll kind of see how it goes from there,” Hicks said. “It’s going to be interesting — obviously, a lot of people know Bob Barker.”

Parker said Barker was taking the correct approach in asking to meet with the chief. He cautioned against forcing the issue.

“If he’s going to talk to the chief, that’s good, but to come in and try to force an issue, I don’t necessarily agree with that. That approach has been taken with us before and had some disastrous effects, so we’re kind of leery of that approach,” Parker said.

Barker said he would ultimately like to see Tribal Council outlaw the practice of caging bears, and “never have another bear on exhibition in Cherokee.”

Barker said he thinks, overall, the campaign has been a success.

“I think there has been an awareness of it, but that nobody was speaking up. The support has been so forthcoming since we’ve got into it and it’s been publicized,” Barker said.


Will wind-generated power save the environment or sacrifice it?

The answer depends on who you ask and it could have broad implications for the future of clean energy in North Carolina.

In a debate raging in the General Assembly, Western North Carolina senators are calling for limits to the development of large-scale wind power in the mountains. Wind-power advocates say the proposal would be a death blow to the alternative technology, effectively blocking off some of the state’s greatest untapped wind potential.

The proposal would only permit windmills under 100 feet used to power a single home. In contrast, windmills used for large-scale energy production often extend 400 feet into the air.

“It’s not worth the compromise it gives to our sense of place and the beauty of the mountains,” Sen. Joe Sam Queen (D-Waynesville) said of the larger turbines.

Others argue that the benefits of generating cleaner energy through windmills outweigh any aesthetic argument, and that lawmakers could be committing a grave mistake if they pass the proposal.

“Wind is our greatest chance for making renewable energy in the state,” said Quint David, outreach coordinator for Appalachian State University’s Renewable Energy Initiative. “[The bill] would effectively kill the hope of wind technology in the mountains.”



This isn’t the first heated debate over what structures to allow on mountain ridgetops. The current law on the books, known as the Ridge Law, was adopted in 1983 in response to the construction of a 10-story condo on the top of Sugar Mountain in Avery County. The law forbids the construction of buildings over 40 feet tall on ridges with an elevation of 3,000 feet or more. But under the Ridge Law, some structures are exempt — including windmills. The law leaves it up to local governments to define a windmill, including the height and size of such a structure.

“The law has an exception for windmills, and it’s ambiguous as to what’s legal or not,” David said.

Because the law isn’t clear, developers of wind technology have stayed away from North Carolina — unsure of whether their structures will be challenged.

“Developers don’t want to risk millions to have to go to court to figure out what the Ridge Law really means,” David explained.

So state legislators enlisted the help of environmental agencies and wind energy groups to establish a system to define and permit windmill structures. The legislation would also determine where windmills could and couldn’t be — they would be banned in protected areas, like national forests.

“The idea was to preserve places that there shouldn’t be wind development, but at the same time, provide an opportunity for wind development in other places,” said Avram Friedman, founder of the Canary Coalition, a clean-air advocacy group.

Then, several weeks ago, senators Queen, Martin Nesbitt, D-Asheville, and John Snow, D-Murphy introduced a modification to the bill that would effectively ban large-scale windmills across the board in the mountains. Queen said the action was an attempt to strictly enforce the Ridge Law.

“The pressure is strong, but one thing we shouldn’t do is compromise the Ridge Law,” Queen said. “What we stand for is an appreciation of that law.”

Supporters of wind energy balked at the modification, waging a protest that temporarily staved off the proposal’s passage. The bill is currently stalled in the General Assembly, and the debate has garnered national attention. The New York Times called such a ban “virtually unprecedented.”

“Your senators are very brave in what they’re doing,” said Lisa Lingoes of New Hampshire-based Wind Action, a group critical of wind technology. “The legislature already concluded when it adopted the Ridge ordinance that your mountains have cultural significance to the state. When asked now to consider whether that value is worth more — or less — than wind generated electrons on the grid, your mountain senators are doing what most politicians in the U.S. have not done. They’re putting a cold eye to the options and deciding wind is not worth the sacrifice, at least for now.”

Advocates of wind energy seem taken aback by the conclusion of the mountain-area senators.

“This permitting bill has been years in the making, getting all these groups together to make something we all agree on,” David said.

The permitting process would establish strict guidelines for windmill location and environmental impact — rules that would seem to ease the legislators’ concerns about building on ridges. Yet the guidelines can’t erase the intrinsic question of whether such large structures belong on mountaintops.

“We’re back to sort of arguing about the impacts that are harder to quantify,” David said.


Eye of the beholder

Queen, Nesbitt, and Snow say much of their argument in favor of windmill limits is based on aesthetics. To many, mountain views are priceless — and shouldn’t be compromised at any cost.

Queen calls the ridges in question — those over 3,000 feet — “the top of the Christmas tree for us.”

After taking out all protected ridges in this category, “You just have a very few other ridges left, and we would change the whole landscape for wind opportunity,” Queen said.

Charles Johnson, a Waynesville resident, is one of many constituents who support Queen’s views.

“You look at all the photography people have taken, and you wouldn’t’ have those kind of views anymore,” Johnson said. “Any structure on top of ridgelines that spoils the view, I think it’s a very poor idea.”

Views define the mountain economy, and have helped grow both the tourism industry and second-home market. Wind energy advocates deny that windmills would have an adverse effect on either of these. David cites a study by the British Wind Energy Association that found wind farms to be popular tourist destinations, with thousands of people flocking to visit them each year in the U.K.

“In some respects, tourism even increases,” said David,

Others are skeptical.

“I don’t think people are going to come to the mountains to see wind turbines,” says Don Hendershot, a local naturalist who has written about the issues associated with wind turbines in a weekly column for this newspaper.

In contrast, visitors to the mountains “are seeking a wild, natural, and quiet experience,” Linowes said. “Finding giant turbines and miles of new 36-foot wide roads leading up to and along the mountain top does not inspire awe and feelings of being with nature.”

Arguing about the impacts of wind turbines involves a lot of back and forth. It seems no matter the issue, those for windmills and those who question them have a study to back their point of view. For instance, turbine opponents say windmills kill tens of thousands of birds each year; wind advocates say such numbers are likely exaggerated. Those not in favor of windmills say they cause property values to drop; windmill supporters cite studies that show property values staying the same, or even increasing because windmills “heighten the profile of communities near them.”

Linowes says the wind industry ignores the very real impact windmills have on the surrounding environment.

“The wind industry has established a pattern over many years of denying that industrial wind energy facilities cause significant impacts in these areas,” Linowes said.

Meanwhile, wind energy supporters accuse those in the other camp of using any excuse to keep windmills out of their sight.

“It’s sort of a not in my backyard sentiment — I’m for it, but I’m not for it here,” David said. “It’s the same with nuclear, and it’s the same with coal. We’re pushing over these mountains that aren’t in our backyard, while pretending we’re protecting the mountains by not allowing wind. People aren’t seeing the big picture.”



The mountains hold more promise than any other region of the state when it comes to harnessing wind power, say advocates of the technology.

“We have one of the greatest wind resources in the country because we have high winds on ridgetops,” David says. “In the mountains per kilowatt, wind will generate more than solar and water.”

The coast is the other region of the state where wind power could be generated, but there are limitations. One is cost.

“There’s a lot out there, but you have to go offshore,” David says. “The cost is more than twice of building a wind turbine on land.”

Because of the expense, developers are prone to ignore North Carolina’s coast in favor of cheaper swatches of land out west. In fact, there are no offshore wind farms currently in existence in the United States, David says.

Still, senators are pushing to focus wind energy development toward the coast.

“Down on the coast is where this needs to be tried,” Sen. Martin Nesbitt (D-Asheville) said.

Queen says at least there, windmills can be built several miles offshore and out of view of the beach.

“They can get away from them, but we have to put them on top of the biggest mountains,” Queen said.

But wind turbines wouldn’t overwhelm the mountains, supporters insist. When each protected ridge over 3,000 feet is taken out of the equation, only 5 percent of ridges with that elevation could potentially hold wind turbines.

“We’re not talking about every ridgetop,” Friedman assures. “We’re not talking about the Blue Ridge Parkway or the top of Mt. Mitchell. We’re talking about hundreds of ridges in the backcountry that are generally not seen by tourists ... places where there are already power lines and cell towers on the landscape.”

David says wind turbines could still be seen, but infrequently.

“Every now and then there would be a windfarm in a clustered location ... not on every ridge as people tend to think,” David says. “Probably you would never see more than 10 wind turbines on our mountains here.”

David envisions a likely maximum of 400 turbines, each powering about 400 homes.

Some in the opposing camp, however, question whether that’s enough power generated to make the cost and environmental impact of the turbines worthwhile.

Linowes estimates that erecting 400 2-megawatt turbines (or about five turbines per linear mile) would necessitate the construction of about 80 miles of roads in the mountains.

And Hendershot points out that if wind turbines were built on all 5 percent of the qualifying ridgetops, they would still only produce about 2 percent of the state’s total electricity.

“That’s not very much. Is it worth desecrating all those ridgetops?” Hendershot questioned.

To Johnson, the answer is no.

“The amount of power that’s generated is not worth the aesthetic cost,” Johnson said.

“Our mountains are more important than minor projects in wind energy,” agreed Queen.


Far from perfect

Wind power has some major limitations. Perhaps the most significant is that it’s not entirely reliable, since wind doesn’t blow constantly.

“Wind’s unpredictability is its Achilles heel,” says Linowes. “Ridgeline wind is unavailable when needed, shows up when unexpected, and when it does arrive, often behaves erratically.”

As a result, wind power has had to be reconsidered as an end-all approach for a cleaner energy.

“Wind was presented as being that panacea that was going to create all the electricity you need,” Hendershot says. “When people started putting them together and erected them, they found that when wind doesn’t blow, there’s no power.”

Hendershot cites a study that found no windfarm in the Eastern U.S. performs at more than 30 percent of its maximum capacity.

But despite its limitations, advocates of wind energy say wind power is still the most promising alternative technology in the mountain region.

“To effectively ban wind is shooting yourself in the foot. It’s one of the cheapest and cleanest ways to make the most green power,” David said. “In the mountains, per kilowatt, wind will generate more than solar and water.”

Wind power may have its own set of challenges, David says, but it’s a far cry better than the most commonly employed energy source — coal.

“We need to look for sources of energy that won’t destroy the mountains of Kentucky and West Virginia, and that won’t pollute more,” he said. “In my opinion, when we don’t utilize our green energy sources, we’re pushing over mountains to push over coal.”

Using wind power won’t completely wean consumers off coal. Linowes points out that when onshore winds diminish, coal often kicks in to fill the gap and ensure constant service.

“Having windmills everywhere won’t cut down on coal mining — there’s not enough energy produced,” Johnson adds. “You would have to put them all over the mountain and destroy the place.”


Looking closer

Those who question the use of wind power say people on both sides of the issue need to step back and study the technology more thoroughly before pursuing it.

“We’re in a heat to get as much renewable energy as possible, but there’s little consideration as to whether these are the best projects, whether they’re servicing our electricity needs,” Linowes said.

Hendershot says wind power has pros and cons, but ultimately lacks scientific, objective peer-reviewed research.

Those on the other side of the issue feel more certain of the technology’s potential.

“There are vast, abundant resources in the mountains for wind energy,” says Friedman.

“That’s the fact,” agrees David. “Whether we want to utilize it or not, that’s up to the people of North Carolina.”


Spruce Pine project launched debate

A proposed wind farm atop a mountain in Spruce Pine was the catalyst for the proposed ban on large, commercial windmills currently being considered by the General Assembly.

According to news stories that included interviews with Mitchell County officials, the Spanish company Acciona Energy was looking at a site near Spruce Mine that was formerly a feldspar mine. Local officials were supportive of the project.

Sen. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, said the windmills under consideration in Mitchell County would be as high as a 15-story building. Queen, along with Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy, and Sen. Martin Nesbitt, D-Asheville, are leading the fight in the General Assembly to ban the huge windmills.

Acciona and other companies began looking at North Carolina after passage of a 2007 law that requires utilities to tap renewable sources of energy. That law requires publicly held utilities to get 12.5 percent of their energy from renewable sources, while electrical co-operatives are required to secure 10 percent of their energy from renewable sources.


Recently, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians found itself the whipping boy of an unlikely opponent.

Much to the tribe’s surprise, the national organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals last month released a statement calling for an end to the practice of keeping caged bears in Cherokee. The statement named three small zoos as the culprits, the last holdouts of a practice that was once common in the area’s early days as a tourist destination.

“Tell Cherokee to end cruel bear pits,” the release said, citing the zoos — Chief Saunooke’s Trading Post, the Cherokee Bear Zoo, and Santa’s Land — for keeping “neurotic” bears in “grossly inhumane conditions.” PETA had even gotten a celebrity to sign on to the cause — none other than Bob Barker, former host of “The Price is Right” and a Native American from the Sioux tribe. In a letter, Barker requested a meeting with Eastern Band Chief Michell Hicks to discuss the practice.

PETA’s campaign took Cherokee officials off guard. Suddenly, Hicks’ personal email was flooded with 650 messages from angry PETA supporters — so many he had to block the address they were being sent from.

“I just think it was pretty disturbing how PETA approached this issue, when one didn’t even exist,” Hicks says.

That’s precisely where Hicks and the PETA organization disagree.

PETA has waged something of an undercover operation in Cherokee in recent months since it was alerted to the bears’ existence by Barker (see related article). The group has traveled to the region with experts to study and film the caged bears at the three zoos.

PETA says it found the bears housed in cramped, concrete pits with few toys for stimulation. They denounced the feeding of the bears by visitors who are given small snack trays containing lettuce, apples and bread at two of the zoos to toss down to the animals. The group is convinced that there is indeed a problem.

“Neurotic behavior is evident in these bears,” said Debbie Leahy, head of PETA’s captive animal division. “You see a lot of crying, whimpering, pacing, walking in circles, and fighting.”

Barker is fully on board with calling attention to the bear’s plight, he said in an interview with The Smoky Mountain News.

“I do not purport to be an expert on bears, but I’m impressed with the experts who’ve seen the bears themselves and seen the films,” said Barker. “All of them agree that the bears are not being adequately cared for, and that they are showing signs of stress. They are not healthy.”

Barker wants to arrange a meeting with Hicks to discuss the bear exhibits. Hicks said he was amenable to discussing the situation with Barker, but as of press time no meeting had been arranged.


Out with the old

Though PETA only recently got wind of the practice, the exhibition of bears as a way to lure tourists is hardly new to Cherokee. In fact, it was once much more common. Sitting outside of the Tribal Grounds coffee shop, Eastern Band member Dennis Watty points across the street.

“I remember there was a cage right over there,” Watty says. “There were bears in cages all along the side of the road.”

Jeff Goss is the owner of the Goss Agency marketing firm, which works with the tribe. As he explains, the practice started to take off when more and more tourists flocked to the newly established Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The poverty-stricken Cherokee were desperate for income, and many capitalized on the stream of visitors passing through the area. The Wild West, cowboys and Indians themes dominated pop culture at the time, so the Cherokee adopted a fittingly rugged persona, building teepees (though that wasn’t a part of their culture) and displaying native black bears to gawking tourists.

“The teepees and bears were there simply to make a little bit of money to survive as tourists were coming through to the Park. They had no real source of income,” Goss says. “(Tourists) didn’t want to see the real Cherokee — they wanted to see what they saw in the movies.”

But the bears often suffered as a result of the practice. The animals were sometimes lured from the wild into the trunks of cars by the smell of bacon, remembers writer Gary Carden of Sylva. They were then taken to live in small cages where tourists were free to feed them.

“It was definitely inhumane,” Carden remembers. “The bears were frequently sick and malformed from living on a diet of candy and junk food.”

The popularity of the caged bears has dwindled in recent years, however, as Cherokee has worked to redefine itself and its image. The Goss Agency was put in charge of the tribe’s marketing plan five years ago.

“There’s been a move and concentrated effort to establish the rich, authentic Cherokee culture,” Goss says. “As a result, that’s shedding that image.”

The tribe’s marketing campaign, emphasizing its natural and cultural features, has been wildly successful. PETA advocates say the continued existence of caged bears is a huge step back.

“This is truly a relic,” says Leahy. “I don’t think there are too many other places in the country that still maintain any sort of wildlife in these archaic pits. They really seem to be locked in some 1950s time warp.”

Barker says the tribe has so much else to offer — the mountains, museums, cultural exhibits, friendly residents, and the casino — that the bear exhibits are obsolete.

“Bear pits may have been a big attraction at one time, but are now seen as an embarrassment,” Barker said.

Goss is skeptical. He said he’s never heard concerns about the caged bears come up in any of his research, part of which involves asking visitors about negative perceptions or barriers to the experience.

“There’s so little of it, and it’s so insignificant. What does exist, there’s little awareness of it,” Goss says. “For the few people that might stumble onto that while in Cherokee, that’s not the overall impression they take away.”


“They’re family”

The Cherokee Bear Zoo, a nondescript building which houses a fudge and ice cream shop along with a variety of exotic animals, is one of the only remaining places exhibiting bears. Caretaker Norbert Santiago is incensed at PETA’s accusations. He’s looked after the zoo’s 10 black and grizzly bears for a decade, and considers them to be family.

“We take good care of them,” he repeats several times. “They are happy here. This is home.”

The bears are housed in pairs in pens with four cinderblock walls and a concrete floor. The facilities are sparsely furnished, with a tree limb, a couple rocks, a small piece of cloth that provides a square of shade, and a pool with cold water piped in directly from the river. The bears don’t have much to play with, except one another, and are kept amused by visitors chucking down pieces of lettuce, apple and bread. Like dogs, the bears beg and even do tricks for their food.

It’s a far cry from the grassy, treed, expansive environment the animals would experience in the wild, but then again, these hardly seem like wild bears. In fact, none of them has ever lived anywhere else, Santiago says.

“They’re bred and raised in captivity from the time they’re babies. None of them have lived in the wild,” he says. “They wouldn’t survive.”

Santiago calls the bears “our pets,” and indeed, that’s how the bears seem. They even respond to their names — a large grizzly named Elvis lumbers over when Santiago calls for him.

Santiago maintains that the bears are content.

“I know they’re happy. If they weren’t happy, they would show it,” he says.

In fact, PETA alleges that the bears do show signs of unhappiness, including whining and crying out. But Santiago says the bears don’t do that, and accuses PETA of “making things up. I don’t see them crying,” he says.

Indeed, it’s difficult to picture Santiago willingly committing the abuse PETA alleges on animals he refers to as his family.


Room to roam

Still, PETA says that the bear’s surroundings at the three facilities aren’t adequate.

“Bears are extraordinarily difficult to keep in captivity,” says Leahy. “They’re so intelligent, so curious, such active animals that you need to provide with a lot of diversity and space. They need opportunities to forage, dig, and nest, and things to climb on.”

The WNC Nature Center in Asheville, one of the only other regional facilities that exhibit bears, takes a different approach to housing its animals, striving to provide them with an environment similar to their wild habitat.

“To be honest, bears are a challenge even for multi-million dollar zoos to keep in captivity,” says Henry Bulluck, animal curator for the Nature Center.

Bulluck says that bears can develop physical ticks when housed in small concrete cages with little stimulation. To prevent this, the Nature Center keeps its bears in a one-acre facility with natural ground, grass, trees, a large pool, and plenty of logs to crawl on. Throughout the day, the bears are given different enrichment devices.

But there’s a major difference between the bear zoos in Cherokee and the WNC Nature Center — namely, the guidelines each facility must follow.


Playing by ear

Every facility in the country that houses captive animals for exhibition must comply with the Animal Welfare Act, which is enforced by the Animal Welfare Division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The act requires captive animals to have shelter, food, water, a sanitary environment, protection from extreme temperatures, and adequate veterinary care. Just what defines those things is largely up to the USDA inspector of a facility. Animal advocates have criticized the act for being too lax and vague.

“One of our frustrations is that the Federal Animal Welfare Act only establishes bare minimum guidelines,” says Leahy. “Unfortunately, we would consider the minimum requirements to be inhumane.”

One of the major downfalls of the Animal Welfare Act is that “there are no explicit regulations and standards that address the complex needs of bears,” Leahy says.

To encourage higher standards, the WNC Nature Center completed a strenuous accreditation process through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Participation in the association is voluntary, and demonstrates a more stringent level of commitment to animal welfare.

“It took a lot of work to become a part of it, but we want to show we’re following the best principle of animal care,” Bulluck says.

The tribe’s Cherokee Code, which the Cherokee zoos must comply with in addition to USDA guidelines, puts forth specific regulations on the handling of bears in captivity. Still, the requirements are basic. Cages for bears must be 8 feet by 12 feet with a concrete floor and include a pool and a den. Cages must be kept clean and shaded during the hottest parts of summer days.

So as sparse as the bears’ accommodations may appear at the Cherokee zoos, they’re within the law — which means there’s little PETA or anyone else can do to keep the facilities from operating.

“Tribal law allows for them to have captive animals, as long as they’re in compliance with tribal law and USDA standards,” said Hicks. “As far as I’m concerned, our businesses are within compliance.”

The fact that the bear zoos comply with existing USDA and tribal regulations matters little to PETA, an organization recognized for its often-zealous campaigns. One of PETA’s best-known tactics involves throwing fake blood on people wearing animal fur.

Over the top? Maybe a little, says Barker, but PETA knows how to get things done.

“I understand they (PETA) have been criticized as being radical on occasion, but I also know them to be one of the most effective, productive organizations in the country,” Barker says. “In a case such as these bears, no organization could help more than PETA.”


Slap on the wrist

Yet even PETA is limited in what it can do for the bears — a real change in the practice may require broader, institutional change. Currently, even when the zoos don’t meet regulations, it appears little is done about it by the officials inspecting the facilities.

USDA inspectors check up on the Cherokee bear zoos once a year, as they do with all other captive animal facilities. Inspectors have cited both Chief Saunooke’s Trading Post and Santa’s Land for numerous citations involving bears in recent years (the Cherokee Bear Zoo has received citations for its care of other animals, but none involving its bears).

For instance, in 2008, the inspector found that the Trading Post did not have adequate barriers to prevent public contact with the bears. The facility received several citations the previous year, in 2007, for what the inspector described as “the overwhelming nauseating foul odor of ammonia and feces,” dim lighting, failure to clean the cages, and an inadequate feeding tube that posed an injury risk to the bear cubs.

Santa’s Land also got written up in 2008 for unleashing bear cubs during public feedings and posing a threat to public safety, as well as for a jagged feeding tube. In 2006, the park was docked for failing to have a regular veterinarian, inadequate shelter, and improper handling of the bear cubs to prevent contact with public.

Despite numerous violations, the facilities continue to operate. Santa’s Land did not respond to numerous phone calls. The Smoky Mountain News visited Saunooke Trading Post and tried to contact managers in charge of the animals but was unsuccessful.

“Not only should USDA regulations be stronger, they should be stringently enforced,” says Barker.

Barker says the USDA lacks the staff to adequately follow through with the citations inspectors issued.

“There are so many animals being mistreated across the country, and they don’t have enough USDA inspectors to keep up with them,” Barker said. “Now that we’ve brought attention to this, hopefully the USDA will do something.”


Mass transit is set to get a boost in Western North Carolina thanks to some economic stimulus money targeted for park and ride and carpooling lots.

The Region 14 DOT office in Sylva was recently awarded $460,000 for several projects. One will be the completion of a park and ride lot and shelter at Exit 33 off I-40 in Haywood County, an idea that has been batted around for some time. The rest of the funds will go toward sprucing up lots in Jackson, Macon and Swain counties that already serve as unofficial carpooling meet-up points.

DOT will administer the work for all projects. The agency was the one that requested the funds.

“We decided it was a good opportunity for the stimulus program to promote and enhance carpooling in WNC,” said Joel Setzer, Division 14 engineer.


Novel idea

The idea for a park and ride lot that would take commuters between Haywood and Buncombe counties originated some months ago. Representatives from various agencies like DOT, Mountain Projects, Haywood Community College, the Haywood Chamber of Commerce, the county Economic Development Commission and N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, were involved in the talks.

According to commuter patterns, taking on such a project made sense.

“Of the workforce in Haywood, about 9,000 people that live in the county commute outside the county every day,” said Mark Clasby, chair of the Haywood County Economic Development Commission. “Of those, about 4,000 commute to Buncombe County. Establishing a park and ride on the east side of the county would be beneficial to those in that area.”

Mountain Projects offered to supply the bus or van to transport passengers. The DOT was commissioned to search for the perfect site.

“We looked at several locations around Exit 31, but they were going to need some work and we had to buy land,” said Setzer. “So we started looking at other places with enough existing property to build one.”

The DOT finally settled on Exit 33, where it had an existing right of way. Although a site had been located, there was no money to get the project off the ground — until DOT applied for stimulus funding.

“We had not identified the funds. It was a concept and potential project that didn’t have any funding. The stimulus program is a big help,” said Setzer.

When completed, the Haywood Park and Ride will have 25 parking spaces and a shelter, Setzer said. Though Mountain Projects was not awarded a stimulus request to expand its number of vehicles, “I think we can probably accommodate it with our existing fleet,” said Mountain Projects Executive Director Patsy Dowling.

Details such as where stops will be located in Buncombe County are still to be worked out, said Clasby.


Helping grow

The rest of the money will fund improvements to ride share or carpool lots in Jackson, Macon, and Swain counties. The lots have already been established, but not by the DOT.

“A lot of these have existed for many years, so it’s not a new kind of concept. We’ll be promoting an old concept,” Setzer explained.

The lots have sprung up over the years as good unofficial meet-up points for carpooling.

“Neighbors just talk to neighbors and decide a good place to meet generally. Folks want a safe place, a place where they don’t get their vehicle broken into,” said Setzer.

There are two lots targeted for improvements in each county. In Jackson, the lots are located at the intersection of U.S. 23 and U.S. 441 near Dillsboro; and off N.C. 107 at the southern end of Western Carolina University.

In Macon, the lots are located at the intersection of U.S. 64 and Sloan Road, and at the intersection of U.S. 441/23 and Sanderstown, near Iotla.

In Swain, the lots are located at the Alarka and Veterans Boulevard exits off U.S. 74.

The number of people carpooling at any given time fluctuates. Setzer said he noticed it was more popular in the 1970s, during the gas shortage. Then it gradually fell off. Carpooling spiked again last year with the rise in gas prices, and is starting to become more popular overall, Setzer said. Right now, the lots average between six and 10 cars per day.

The DOT plans to make the entrances to the carpooling lots safer, pave the lots, and put up signage to identify and guide people in and out of them. Setzer says signs “may also help to promote the concept throughout the region.”

Will the three counties eventually get a park and ride system like that being established in Haywood County? Setzer says its possible.

“If there’s enough people that want these services and there’s funds to pay for the services, I can imagine that will happen. Right now, transit in WNC is kind of in it’s early stages,” Setzer said.

Setzer said the DOT has not yet received the money, but expects to receive authorization to proceed with construction on the project soon.


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