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A groundbreaking was held last Thursday (July 16) at the site of a new assisted living complex being built in Dillsboro. The event was more symbolic than most of its kind because some of the facility has already been erected; it even has a roof on it. That makes a planned opening early next year doable.

Called The Hermitage, the facility combines assisted living and a memory care community. The “Jackson Memory Care Retreat” will be a self-contained community on the campus.

“It will be a secure area; they will have their own dining room, an activities area, and an outdoor area,” said Allen Osborne, president of the operation’s management company, Third Street Management of Hickory.

Overall, the facility will be home to 90 residents, with 46 in the assisted living side, and 44 beds in the memory care unit for residents suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia-related problems. Each side will have its own specially trained staff, according to Osborne, with total target employment of between 40 and 50.

“We are recruiting from all over North Carolina,” Osborne said. “We need a licensed administrator — the person who manages day-to-day operations — a resident care coordinator and a special care coordinator. They oversee all the clinical and nursing aspects of our residents’ care.”

Osborne said the facility would also have a full dietary staff, certified nursing assistants, drivers to provide scheduled transportation and other support workers.

The structures will enclose close to 30,000 square feet on more than four acres of land. “It’s a beautiful site, convenient but secluded enough, very residential in feel,” Osborne said. He said the facility would work with WestCare in addressing residents’ medical needs.

“We’ll also be partnering with Western Carolina University on interesting initiatives in gerontology and long-term care,” Osborne said.

Integrated of Florida has done most of the construction, Osborne said. Third Street manages several similar facilities in the state, including Hayesville House and Yancy House in Burnsville.

Osborne said there is definitely a need for the kind of care the facility will provide.

“I’ve talked to the local skilled nursing facility. They have a lot of residents appropriate for this level of care as soon as we open,” he said.

Osborne said need is assessed in terms of drive times in a specific market area.

“Seventy-two percent of folks who live in an assisted living community moved there from within a 30-minute drive time of their previous residence,” he said. “There are 2,700 residents within that 30-minute drive time from this facility that are apparently not served.”

For the memory care unit, the drive-time measure is about 45 minutes.

“That’s because it’s such a specialized demand and specialized service,” Osborne said. “Those who would be in need of this facility within that drive time number about 1,500.”

The existence of a memory care facility within that distance from a resident’s former home is a great benefit, Osborne said.

“That proximity makes it more likely for people’s family to be able to visit and spend time,” Osborne said. “That’s important for any residents, but especially for memory care residents. It does wonderful things for the residents, and also wonderful things for the family.

“We talk about creating five minutes of joy in the memory care facility,” he said. “If you do that several times, by that time you’ve created a very nice day for someone.”

Osborne said the facility expects to be registering residents in late December and open by January 2010.


Macon County residents fearful that a proposed sewage treatment plant in Georgia will harm the Little Tennessee River turned out en masse at a public hearing last week to voice those concerns.

The Little Tennessee River flows north from Rabun County into Macon County and Franklin. Rabun is proposing to rehab a treatment plant at a now-closed factory and Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division is reviewing the draft permit.

Macon residents are worried they may be second-class citizens at best from the state of Georgia’s point of view when it comes to their concerns being considered and their suggestions adopted.

The series of Macon speakers testifying at the public hearing therefore strategically put their points in terms of a “good neighbor” theme.

“Everybody lives downstream from somewhere,” said Franklin Alderman Bob Scott.

Ronnie Beale, chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners, cited a speech by FDR early in his presidency in which he pledged to be a good neighbor to Latin America.

“We have good relations between the residents of Rabun and Macon counties,” Beale said. “The proposed plant affects not only your neighborhood but your neighbors to the north. We ask that not only latest technology but also common sense be applied. We would hope if the situation were reversed, Macon would be a good neighbor to you.

“Macon County and the people of Georgia need to work together to protect the Little Tennessee River,” Beale said.


Chlorine in disfavor

The technology issue Beale mentioned referred to alternatives to using chlorine to treat effluent before discharge. Chlorine is one of the most effective chemical disinfectants, but it is harsh and highly toxic. A well-publicized call to ban it from many industrial uses in the mid 1990s failed due to the chemical’s effectiveness and because of widespread dependence on it in many applications — and because practical alternatives are few. Chlorine is also very volatile and dissipates rapidly into the environment in minuscule concentrations, according to industry advocates.

Meanwhile, an alternative in the realm of water treatment involving disinfection using ultraviolet light (UV) has been increasingly adopted by industry, though at a higher initial cost.

Jenny Sanders, director of Little Tennessee Watershed Association, expressed her concern about chlorine in the plant’s effluent.

“We do see some very significant benefits of UV treatment over the proposed chlorine treatment. Even with the potential for the dilution of chlorine, the draft permit specifies a tenth of a milligram per liter, while the point at which it affects fish is a hundredth of a milligram per liter,” Sanders said. “If you invest more upfront, you’ll eliminate the problem.”

Sanders added that there are other benefits to using UV.

“Disinfection occurs 30,000 times faster, there’s no residue, and it raises oxygen levels, which is good for fish,” she said.

David Bullard, a unit manager of municipal permitting for the Georgia DNR’s Environmental Protection Division, was reached by phone following the hearing. He said Sanders’ concerns about residual chlorine concentrations are already taken into account in the proposed limit.

“The limit is a calculated limit based on the dilution of the discharge by the receiving stream, so when you back-calculate it, it gets to the amount they were talking about,” Bullard said.

Still, he acknowledged that UV treatment is increasingly state-of-the-art.

“There are several plants in Georgia that are using UV instead of chlorine,” he said. “In this case, the chlorine limit is calculated to be considered not to be a danger to aquatic life.”

Bill McLarney, an aquatic biologist working with the Little Tennessee Watershed Association, still doesn’t like the chemical.

“I agree about trying to get off chlorine. There are alternatives,” McLarney said at the hearing. “If I wanted to kill aquatic life, I would say there’s only one chemical to use: chlorine.”


Power over the permit

Bullard said Georgia officials mulling the permit do have the authority to stipulate use of UV for disinfecting the effluent.

“We could require it. We can make changes to the permit that might be more stringent than what is in the draft right now,” he said. “I’m not sure what the difference in cost would be. That condition in itself wouldn’t necessarily be more stringent; it’s just another way of treating the wastewater in its final stage of treatment.”

Bullard gave an initial presentation on the proposed permit at the hearing, and touted it as imposing tighter limits on several discharged pollutants than the plant was allowed to release under its previous permit.

According to the draft permit summary, to which Bullard referred in his presentation, monthly average limits are as follows for some selected parameters (in milligrams per liter): biochemical oxygen demand, 10; suspended solids, 20; ammonia, 2.0; phosphorus, 1.0; residual chlorine, 0.10. The monthly average limit for fecal coliform bacteria is 200 per 100 milliliters. Acidity of the effluent must be between 6 and 9 pH, which is a range from relatively neutral to more alkaline.

Limits under the old permit for relevant parameters for the closed treatment plant are: biochemical oxygen demand, 35; suspended solids, 132; ammonia, 10.0.

Treated flow capacity under the old permit is 2.5 million gallons per day; under the proposed permit flow would be up to 2 million gallons per day.

Todd Silliman, an Atlanta attorney helping shepherd the permit through approval, also promoted it at the hearing based on its more stringent limits on contaminants and other tougher provisions.

“The river downstream is currently impaired for fecal contamination, so the lower limits [for coliform bacteria] are important,” Silliman said. “The draft permit is designed to ensure the discharge doesn’t contribute to violation of water quality standards. It went further than other permits Georgia or North Carolina have issued for the Little Tennessee River.”


Transfer or no transfer?

Silliman also sought to allay fears on an issue that’s been raised by concerned North Carolina residents about possible transfer of water among river basins. Rabun County would potentially be able to make such transfers once it is in the sewage business.

“No interbasin transfer is currently planned,” Silliman said at the hearing. “The permit is for treating water used at the plant within the same basin, and to allow return of water to the basin in a way that is cleaner than the alternatives.”

Still, subsequent speakers such as Sanders expressed their concern about possible transfers out of the Little Tennessee River basin into the adjacent Savannah River basin, where it could be made available to perennially thirsty Atlanta.

“When you start exchanging water among river basins without any equitable accounting, that’s a problem,” Sanders said. “For example, if I transfer money between my bank accounts and don’t keep good track of it, one account is going to run out. We don’t want to see bad accounting.”

Rabun County residents and officials alike have said Macon residents have mounted the interbasin transfer issue as a bogeyman just to buttress their general opposition to the treatment plant. Several Macon County residents — and even a Georgia man — therefore suggested the state put its money where its mouth is and write a ban on interbasin transfers into the permit.

“Have the final permit prohibit interbasin transfer,” said Joe Gatins of Rabun County. “There’s no reason to raise that bugaboo. Take it out right now.”

Susan Ervin, a longtime Macon County Planning Board member, echoed that suggestion as well as others that had been made about Rabun’s plans to attract industrial users with the treatment plant.

“Requiring UV, revising the permit for industrial use, putting in no interbasin transfer is reasonable,” she said. “The river is also used for recreation and other needs. In planning for the future, we must plan for all of these. Only a small piece of the river is in Rabun, but it is the heart of Macon County.”

Other residents raised concerns about the plant’s potential for collecting and concentrating a category of pollutants only beginning to be recognized, for which there are as yet no mandatory testing and limits — household pharmaceuticals and other chemicals from as-yet unaddressed household products.

“Pharmaceutical products can cause human health problems but also sex changes in fish,” said aquatic biologist McLarney. “You see a lot of it where there’s runoff from hospitals, nursing homes.”

McLarney praised the draft permit, except for the chlorine use.

“The permit presently being applied for appears to be a good permit; it appears to be a sewage treatment permit,” McLarney said. “I hope you get something that relieves the unemployment situation.”


Industrial: Horse of a different color

McLarney did, however, repeat others’ concerns about industrial use of the plant.

“I do not agree about using the same permit for a different use; industrial discharge needs a different process,” he said.

He stated a concern about liability if Rabun accepted industrial users under the proposed permit and something bad happened.

“Who would be held responsible?” McLarney asked. “If a different category of permit is under discussion [for possible industrial users], then design for it.”

Comments by Rabun resident Pete Cleaveland were representative of the local attitude there.

“I’m a citizen of Rabun and proud to say that. We have almost 10 percent unemployment. It’s above the state average, above the average of North Carolina,” he said. “We need jobs. The best opportunity to draw employers is the Rabun Gap area; we have a plant, land set aside for an industrial park where small businesses can get started. We need water and wastewater treatment.”

When the county bought the old mill treatment facility, it made a pledge to protect the river’s water quality, he said.

“I spoke personally to Jenny to assure that,” Cleaveland said. “We want to be good neighbors and we think we have been.”

Cleaveland said the table with the current and proposed contaminant limits shows that good-neighborliness.

“We’re not trying to pull wool over Macon County’s eyes, dump a lot of stuff on you and say, ‘Aha, you clean it up.’

“Chlorine vs. UV, that’s above my pay grade,” he said. “You could use a strainer; as long as you got the results like [in the table], I’d be happy. We all care about water quality. We’re all in the same boat. I’m glad to see we’re working toward good quality water.”


NC comments to be given weight

In the subsequent interview, EPD’s Bullard sought to reassure North Carolina residents about both the process and the outcome of the permit evaluation.

“We’re definitely going to take [Macon residents’] comments into consideration,” he said.

Bullard sought to downplay the hot-button issue of interbasin transfer. But his comments made it sound as if the permit would probably not ban it.

“I think it would be too early to be definite about that, just like whether we’re going to require the UV disinfection,” he said. “We don’t really have any laws against interbasin transfer.”

But Bullard also said the transfer would not be allowed.

“They wouldn’t have authority to do interbasin transfers,” he said.

“There is a wastewater plant in Clayton that is in the other basin,” he said. “It sits on a ridge between the Little Tennessee and the Savannah. The plant is owned by the city of Clayton; it pretty much serves everything on that end of the county. They should be able to handle everything on that side of the county.”

Bullard said the process of evaluating the permit application would take at least a couple of months.

“We have to get the rest of the comments and then evaluate all the comments in total and determine if there are some modifications to the permit warranted,” he said. “Then we have to put together a document that we call a Response to Comments. We will issue a Response to Comments to everyone who commented at the hearing or who sent us a letter while it was out in draft. If we make any changes to the permit, that will be addressed in the response.”


A regular guest at the Dillsboro Holiday Inn Express upset by phone and Internet outages at the hotel discovered it is no longer affiliated with the Holiday Inn corporate brand.

The inn’s de-listing was confirmed by a spokeswoman for brand owner and hotel chain operator InterContinental Hotels Group.

“The property in question, an independently owned and operated franchised hotel, was removed from the Holiday Inn Express system in March 2009,” Caroline Sanfilippo wrote in an e-mail. Sanfilippo declined to state reasons for the de-affiliation from the brand, citing contractual obligations.

A Holiday Inn 877-number reservation agent said he no longer had access to information on the establishment in his database.

The hotel’s longtime, regular guest, Richard Bernier, does medical sales and travels one week per month.

“I’ve been staying there for four years with no problems; they always know my name,” Bernier said. One day last March though, when he came to check in, “they didn’t have my reservation.”

Bernier had been frusturated on recent visits by the phone and Internet service being out for days at time.

“Each time they’d say it was due to a storm,” he said.

So when they didn’t have his reservation, “I picked a phone and called Holiday Inn’s customer service number. They said that hotel was no longer affiliated with them.”

Bernier had been told by the Dillsboro hotel’s management that he could still accrue Holiday Inn member points for his stays, but Holiday Inn customer service subsequently told him he could not.

“If I checked in just assuming I was earning points, I’d be in for a surprise,” he said.

Bernier wrote in an e-mail that the Dillsboro hotel had been given until April 19 to change its signage, according to contacts he had with Holiday Inn.

As of mid-July, the signs still represent the establishment as a Holiday Inn property.

“Hotels that leave the system are required by their license agreements and by federal trademark law to immediately remove all items that identify the hotel’s association with Holiday Inn Express,” according to Sanfilippo. “A written demand to immediately remove all Holiday Inn Express trademarks was sent by IHG to the licensee on June 2, 2009.”

While changing signage is not something that can be done with a snap of the fingers — and would presumably involve significant expense — the hotel still also had a table display of postcards bearing Holiday Inn’s 800 number and the Dillsboro property’s local number on its face.

One hit that turned up in a Google search indicated it was no longer affiliated with the Holiday Inn brand, but many others did not.

Julie Spiro of Jackson County’s Travel and Tourism Authority said she was made aware of the hotel’s status by a visitor.

“She said, ‘Where is your Holiday Inn Express? I’m on the Web site and I don’t find it,’” Spiro said.

Spiro said she has been unable to speak to Patel, who also owns the local Comfort Inn, though she has left messages for him. Patel also did not return messages seeking his comment for this article.

Spiro said the Comfort Inn’s Chamber of Commerce membership is paid through August, while Patel’s other hotel’s membership expired June 30. However, the chamber allows a 90-day grace period for overdue dues, she said.

Bernier said in an e-mail he felt the matter would be of public interest in that the inn commands higher room rates and benefits from brand loyalty in representing itself as a Holiday Inn.

Tina Evans, general manager of the Dillsboro property, staunchly defended it in a call seeking comment about the situation.

Bernier said he was not attempting to paint the establishment with a broad brush.

“The hotel overall was very clean and friendly. They had good staff there,” he said. “They always tried to do the best they could. I just wish they would identify themselves as what they really are.”


At a forum on Macon County’s move to begin working on a comprehensive plan to address future growth, the presenter focused on the what, the how and the why.

Following the talk, by new county Planner Derek Roland, audience members focused on “why bother”?

The forum was organized by the League of Women Voters and held at the Franklin Presbyterian Church on July 9.

It’s not as if the audience was hostile to a plan. Far from it. They just didn’t want to be led down the primrose path and then left in the lurch again.

“I like your enthusiasm; I wouldn’t discourage that,” attendee Milo Baren told Roland. “But I’ve seen presentations like this four, eight, 12 years ago. I saw the ideas shelved by commissioners, and I can name the commissioners. I have the feeling that the commission has great influence over your planning board. Aren’t you apprehensive that you’re going to go down the line people have gone before, your ideas will go to the commission — don’t you think they might be shelved again?”

“All this plan is doing is creating a vision for community,” Roland said. “As for other plans created in the past, I’m thinking the community did not help make those plans?”

That comment drew a chorus of rebuttal, if not rebuke. Community input was a major component of the former planning initiatives, but still those were shelved by commissioners.

Following his prepared presentation, Roland — county planner just since March — touted the process for the new plan. He said the planning board would be visiting different communities, soliciting ideas and data, asking for feedback, incorporating multiple perspectives.

“What are the plans beside community meetings?” asked Nancy Scott, who said she’d worked on the former 2020 plan.

Roland responded with an attempt to link those planned local meetings with the idea of guiding development geographically.

“It’s not denoting the kinds of development we want in places, it’s knowing that with population growth, that will bring development,” Roland said. “So, what areas of your community can best sustain that growth when it comes?”

Thinking in those terms is beneficial to taxpayers, he said.

“Suppose you have industry or commercial business coming into an area. The best place to put it is where infrastructure is in place to support it or where infrastructure can be extended with the least expense possible,” Roland said. “For example, what’s the road support ingress-egress? Does road need to be widened a little?”

“We want to plan to make it the least burdensome on ourselves as possible when it does come. It’s a vision,” said Roland.


A dirty little word

But what Scott wanted to know was what it meant to say on one hand that the plan would not be directing certain kinds of development to certain areas, while on the other talking about directing it toward existing infrastructure.

“Are you planning any zoning laws?” she asked

“No. As of right now, we’re not planning any,” Roland said. “I don’t know the why of that, but that’s not on our agenda right now. We haven’t discussed it.”

“Zoning” was evidently a hot-button word, but not because the attendees were hostile to the concept.

“If you’re planning for growth, you have to control it in some way, to make sure it fits into the community,” said Scott.

“Why in the world wouldn’t zoning be right at the top?” asked Baren.

“I hope advocates will make their case,” Roland said. “If commissioners see it’s the best fit for the county, they’ll adopt it.”

Other examples elsewhere

One attendee cited the community of Davidson for the “masterful job of planning in their community. Put a fancy title on it instead of zoning, but we have to stop being afraid of that word.”

“We have looked at some comprehensive plans around us, such as Hendersonville and Jackson County,” Roland said.

Susan Ervin moderated the forum and is a planning board member. She said the board is aware of other planning efforts in the area and intends to leverage them.

“I knew someone who worked on Davidson plan, we’ll keep those folks in mind,” Ervin said. “They used a kind of tool, ‘urban growth boundary.’ It is not zoning, but it may be using zoning powers.”

Ervin said the idea is to “draw a circle around a community,” and that’s how far the locality will build infrastructure — sewer, water, cable. Businesses then locate within that circle.

“It represents a savings to taxpayers,” Ervin said. “It’s not direct zoning, but it directs growth to where investment has been made preparing for it.”


Winds of change

Stacy Guffey, former Macon County planner, said he felt the time may be ripe for some serious planning now.

“Something new happened Tuesday night in the history of Macon County — the entire board of commissioners showed up at a public hearing in different county to show they care about water in Macon (see story on page 11),” Guffey said. “That sent a strong message to Georgia that North Carolina cares about its future. Having worked with board of commissioners for going on 10 years, this action by the board is unprecedented. It really represents a spirit of cooperation, looking at ways to move forward.”

Guffey said there are a lot of people now in the county who are supportive of such forward-looking planning efforts. Still, he said, not everyone is on board.

“When the rubber meets the road, comes a time you’ve got a plan, you have a hard discussion what regulations you need to come up with,” Guffey said. “There is still a segment able to turn out a big crowd and intimidate people. Folks like those here haven’t been able to do that. There needs to be citizens responsible in the end to show up and show we support the planners and what they do.”

Guffey said the county needs to have an honest discussion about property rights and competing values, “not yelling and screaming at each other.” He also pointed out one person’s property rights can infringe on someone else’s.

He referred to comments made by an attendee who was anti-regulation until a junkyard was built in her neighborhood.

“What does it mean for property rights when you’ve invested in land you own and someone comes in next door with something that impacts you,” Guffey said. “Doesn’t that affect your property rights? Or do they have absolute right to do what they want with their property?”


A much smaller contingent of Rainbow Family members than North Carolina’s Nantahala National Forest has sometimes experienced descended on Buck Creek in the forest’s Tusquitee District in late June.

In 1987, an estimated 12,000 Rainbow Family members converged on Nantahala Forest in Graham County — an invasion that caused substantially more problems than the recent incursion.

A group of Rainbowers numbering 50 to 60 had converged at a campsite in the national forest in Clay County off U.S. 64 west of Franklin. Clay County Sheriff Joe Shook said it was actually four or five Clay County residents that ended up with citations from the U.S. Forest Service, however. It’s not that the local residents were arrested for harassing — or trying to join — the campers.

Instead the locals got tickets for various mundane violations, like dead tags, expired licenses, no insurance, improper registration and the like. Shook surmised the locals were driving out to the area to get a look at the campers, Shook said.

“They was just out there looking seeing what was going on and the Forest Service had set up some checking stations on Buck Creek. A couple cars and trucks didn’t have insurance, so they had them towed in,” Shook said.

Shook said the checkpoints were also not meant as a deterrent to people bothering the peaceable campers, but were a routine practice. Shook emphasized that the Rainbow Family campers presented no law enforcement issues at all.

“If they don’t cause us a problem, let’s not create a problem,” Shook said of his attitude toward them. In fact, the only concern was whether they would overstay the 14-day limit on camping. Leading up to Fourth of July weekend — when they would have hit the 14-day mark — Shook said a deputy would continue to check on the encampment until the campers left.

Attempts to get more detail from the Forest Service about the tickets issued were unsuccessful.

The Rainbow Family is a decidedly unorganized, uncentralized group or movement with its origins in the 1960s counterculture. The group subscribes to a philosophy of love and peace. The Fourth of July is apparently a traditional occasion for mass Rainbow campouts, which they reportedly call “harmonic convergences.” The events are said to develop by word-of-mouth and through information made available on the web.


By May 2008, members of Earla Mae Cowan’s family had begun to suspect a trusted nephew was stealing from her.

And, in the first few months when they were most anxious to see the matter taken seriously and looked into by law enforcement, it appeared the case was languishing in the District Attorney’s Office.

Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe formally referred the family’s allegation to the district attorney, according to a notation on an incident report dated June 9, 2008, asking that the investigation be handled by the State Bureau of Investigation in Asheville. The suspect was a county employee, and Ashe said he feared an investigation by his department into a county employee potentially raised a conflict of interest.

“We all work in the same building,” Ashe said. “He was the housekeeping supervisor, and he was also responsible for maintaining the cleanliness of my office.” Ashe said referrals to outside agencies often occur in cases of investigation of a county employee.

But for about two months — from early June to early August 2008 — the SBI repeatedly told Cowan’s family they never received that request. Meanwhile, the sheriff and the DA’s office kept telling the family it had been forwarded.

District Attorney Mike Bonfoey doesn’t dispute that the case may have gathered a bit of dust in his office over the summer of 2008, but said it is proceeding now just as it would have been if run with sooner.

Marc Hawk, a longtime Jackson County employee, has now been charged with several felony counts of embezzlement from Cowan, his aunt, along with related indictments for elder abuse. Those charges are not for physical abuse, but under state statutes covering exploitation of a disabled or older adult.

It was not until after a county social worker with Adult Protective Services independently referred the matter to the district attorney, on July 29, 2008, that the case was indeed brought to the attention of the SBI. Ultimately, the backlogged SBI wouldn’t take the case and it ended up being investigated by the Jackson Sheriff’s Department anyway.


Power of Attorney

Hawk was indicted in June 2009 on 10 criminal charges: five each for embezzlement and abuse. From October 2006 to May 2008, Hawk held power of attorney as granted by Cowan, which meant he was legally authorized to handle various affairs on her behalf. But the time frame for the charges dates back to March 2006, prior to when Hawk held power of attorney.

The embezzlement indictments acknowledge the power of attorney, but charge that it was illegally misused. The charges state that Hawk “abused a position of trust and a fiduciary duty by writing checks to himself via the power of attorney [Cowan] had given him and using said moneys for his own interest. As a result, Earla May Cowan lost possession and control of money in the amount of [x]”

The sums allegedly embezzled are $11,060; $22,390; $17,840; $4,355; and $4,325 — a total of $59,970.

That’s one of the things that still concerns Cowan’s niece, Kay Clemmons: she’s not sure the charges reflect the full amount of money allegedly taken, which she estimates could be upward of $100,000 based on sums they think were missing from accounts.

Hawk does not agree with the criminal charges.

“This is money my aunt had given me. Apparently there was a misunderstanding on my part with the way things were arranged,” Hawk said.


Inordinate delays?

Apart from the amount of time it took to get the matter looked into and nearly fell through the cracks altogether, Clemmons and other relatives have been frustrated with the pace of the prosecution.

The initial delay was from May to late August of 2008. That’s the period from initial contact by the family with the DA — before they went to the sheriff — until the case was finally referred to the SBI and eventually handed back to the Sheriff’s Office.

The case was presented to a grand jury in December 2008. There were initial arrest warrants issued for forgery in January, Clemmons said. Indictments on further charges were issued in June.

From her point of view, Hawk was treated with kid gloves — allowed to turn himself in for both arrests and released each time on unsecured bond. And several court appearances — all those scheduled before this month — were continued, she noted.

According to the Jackson County Clerk of Court’s Office, new dates for Hawk to appear in District and Superior Court were set for July 7 and July 13, respectively. The District Court date was for a probable cause hearing, while the Superior Court date would be for the commencement of trial, according to Sheriff Ashe.

Clemmons said she and other family recognize the matter may be a difficult one to build a provable case out of.

During the time covered by the indictments, Hawk did have power of attorney, and the family recognizes that complicates the prosecution, Clemmons said. In addition, Cowan and Hawk did have a genuinely close and loving relationship, she said — so that may be clouding Cowan’s willingness to be a witness against her nephew in the case.

“Some of that applies, there’s some reluctance” on Cowan’s part, Clemmons admitted.


Issues of aging

Cowan is in her 90s, and she recognized a few years ago she was getting to where she needed help with her affairs.

Clemmons guesses Cowan lost her husband in the late ’80s or early ’90s. He had handled financial matters; she was a homemaker. They had no children. The funds from which Hawks is accused of embezzling “was money she had saved for 30 years, her Social Security checks; and her husband had a small retirement,” Clemmons said. “She owned her home and property.”

She’s in a nursing home now, and a different family member holds power of attorney for her, Clemmons said. She’s not “all there” all the time, but mostly is: “Sometimes she’s fine, sometimes not,” Clemmons said, adding that Cowan is lucid more often than not; she remembers events and family members and generally recognizes visitors.

“She recognizes that her money’s gone, but doesn’t understand the implications of that,” Clemmons said. As for Hawk, “She’s forgiving or ambivalent toward him, because she doesn’t understand.”

Clemmons said the family currently isn’t burdened financially by Cowan’s care and needs, “since Medicaid set in. But for three months through the end of August 2008, we did have financial burden” caring for her and addressing her expenses after initially discovering money was missing, she said.


County’s judgment calls

Clemmons said the slow pace of the case — and especially the initial difficulty verifying whether it was even going to be investigated — led to the family to wonder if the county was closing ranks around one of its own. She said they wondered what county policy was regarding possible firing or at least suspension of an employee charged with felonies and whether he was close enough to retirement that he was being allowed to hang on until that milestone.

County Manager Ken Westmoreland said those issues required some judgment calls on his part, as well as fairness to Hawk, against whom nothing is proven yet.

Hawk, who has worked for the county all his adult life, is housekeeping supervisor and reports to Westmoreland.

“Basically his responsibility is supervising the housekeeping crews at the various buildings,” Westmoreland explained. “Until he’s proven guilty before a court, our policy is to let him continue to work. It may be a whole different matter if he was in a different department, such as finance, tax collection. Where he’s located, out of the public eye, having no financial responsibility per se, I saw no need to remove him or put him on administrative leave until a decision is rendered.”

Asked how close Hawk is to retirement, “We probably are stepping over the bounds of discussing him as a personnel matter,” Westmoreland said.

He added he had no first-hand knowledge of family speculation on the retirement question, but said he thought such concerns had been among the things expressed in front of the grand jury. In any case, “They’ve produced a true bill on several indictments; they’ll just have to go forward. Mr. Hawk’s defense is that this has just been a family squabble,” Westmoreland said. “But criminal charges have been filed and they’ll just have to work their way through the system.”


Wheels of Justice

The charges are working their way through the system now, and family members acknowledge that is a slow process — though one whose delays still sometimes confound them.

One speed bump that may have arisen was the appearance of attorney Graham Duls in the case as Hawk’s court-appointed defense counsel. In April, Duls filed a motion for “voluntary discovery,” a routine move phrased in boilerplate language that basically asks the prosecution to turn over all its evidence and files. The response to the motion and time needed for the defense’s evaluation of what was provided would certainly slow down the proceedings.

Clemmons said family wondered why Hawk was deemed eligible for a public defender at taxpayer expense, since he has his county salary and his wife works as a respiratory therapist. Information provided by Hawk in his affidavit of indigency shows substantially more monthly expenses than income — roughly $5,000 coming in against more than $9,000 going out.

Even so, Hawk has begun making restitution to his aunt.

“As I wait for my court date, I’m putting money in her account out of every paycheck,” he said.

Clemmons said the family was aware of an interim repayment plan, but they consider it a slow drip given what was allegedly taken, she said.


Complex investigation

Once it became clear the case would fall to the Sheriff’s Office, the time it took to conduct the investigation and bring it to the grand jury — less than four months — is a reasonable one. Sheriff Ashe wasn’t shy about detailing the intensive and complex investigative work that was done in that timeframe.

“After receiving the financial documents, we had to spend painstaking time with bank officials,” Ashe said. “And we did, and it was very painstaking to determine what the forgery was, and what the embezzlement was. We had to determine dollar amounts, determine periods of time these monies were allegedly taken.

“The banks actually sent representatives to my office with their computers, with information the banks had, via a court order,” Ashe recounted. “To go through the information, that did take a significant amount of time.”

The frustration for Cowan’s family, however, was during the three-month limbo over who, if anyone, would be taking on the case.

Ashe elaborated on how his referral of the case was supposed to be handled, and what he did and did not know about what actually happened. Ashe said he referred it to the DA’s office to ensure an objective investigation, in hopes it would be referred to the SBI. Ashe both sent the DA a letter and met with them.

“Once they received that request, they had to make a determination if they would or should or could investigate that case,” Ashe said. “After it was referred to DA, we waited for the response from SBI. The SBI told the DA they didn’t have manpower to investigate it. From then on we were tasked with doing the investigation. And we assumed that task.”

The Sheriff’s Department’s incident report indicating that the matter was being referred to the DA for possible investigation by the SBI was dated June 9. Ashe said he had no way of knowing how promptly the DA’s office made the referral to the SBI.

“The time we made the referral to the DA was immediate. Now where the referral stood from the DA [to the SBI], I can’t say. The DA said, ‘I will do that,’” Ashe said. “The DA’s office played an integral part from the beginning and they knew this was a reasonable request by me. I don’t know how much timeframe came between the DA getting it from us and their referring it to the SBI.”

As it turns out, District Attorney Mike Bonfoey disputes that, saying he didn’t really see a conflict.

Ashe acknowledged the actual event lighting a fire under the DA to make the SBI referral “may have been correspondence between social services and the DA’s office; I don’t know.” The letter from the Adult Protective Services caseworker indicating the referral to the DA had been made was dated July 29.

Noelle Talley, public information officer for the state Department of Justice in Raleigh, confirmed that no referral was received by Toby Hayes, agent in charge of the Western Region Office of the SBI in Asheville, during the months of May, June and July 2008 when the Sheriff’s Department and DA’s office were telling Cowan’s relatives the case had been handed off.


Got going on it. But when?

District Attorney Mike Bonfoey said he didn’t specifically recall that referral, but “in almost any case that DSS refers something to us that may be criminal, what we do is get the appropriate law enforcement agency involved. If that came in, if it came across my desk, I probably told an assistant to get going on the case.”

Why not earlier? Bonfoey had several answers.

He acknowledged the family first came to his office in May 2008.

“Jackson County is within the jurisdiction of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office. We don’t investigate, we prosecute after investigation by law enforcement,” Bonfoey said. “The sheriff did say he felt uncomfortable because it was a Jackson County employee, with his agency doing the investigation. When he told me this, we had a conversation about the SBI looking into it.”

For his part, Bonfoey said, “I never understood what the conflict was, why it was a conflict. They investigate crimes against county employees all the time,” he said. “I don’t think it was in my letter to the SBI that I thought it was a conflict, I think I said the sheriff thought there was a conflict.”

And, in addition to that disagreement, there apparently was a misunderstanding and some confusion about who would actually make the request to the SBI, Bonfoey said.

“At first I thought (Ashe) was going to ask SBI to come in. Eventually, I had one of my assistants call to make a request,” he said. “There’s no formal letter from my office to the SBI until afterwards. They did an initial opening investigation, and it came back to Jackson County anyhow.”

It’s that “eventually” that spotlights the apparent couple-month-plus delay in the referral to SBI. And that it may indeed have been the referral from the DSS caseworker that finally got the ball rolling raises the question: What if DSS had never stepped in?

“In June 2008 there was the Wong case” — in which an out-of-state visitor shot and killed a state trooper — occupying his attention, said Bonfoey.

“Then the double homicide in Swain County in July or August,” he said.

In the end, Bonfoey said, he didn’t think that delay was an issue.

“We’re talking about a case where whatever was done was done, nothing was going to be changed about that. I can’t see that two days or two weeks makes any difference to the investigation,” he said.


The Jackson County Board of Commissioners held a final public hearing on the proposed U.S. 441 “Gateway” Corridor ordinance Monday (July 6).

Michael Egan, the county’s consulting attorney on land development matters, gave an overview of the ordinance before comments from the public were heard. It sets out a vision for the corridor, such as architectural standards, preservation of views and farmland and limits on signage and other aesthetic criteria for new development.

The five-lane corridor, which serves as an entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Cherokee, is still quite rural. But water and sewer lines being extended to the area could change that, and commissioners wanted a plan to guide that growth. If the ordinance is passed, Jackson will be the first county west of Buncombe to adopt land-use planning or zoning in a mostly rural unincorporated area.

The only criticism, however, was not over zoning but billboard rules. Billboards would be banned under the ordinance, but existing ones could remain — grandfathered as “legal non-conforming” signs. Two residents who rent land for billboards said the billboard owners have them over a barrel by threatening not to pay rent. If the landowners made the owners take their billboards down for failing to pay rent, another could never be put back up. So in effect the landowners are stuck with the current billboard owners or none at all.

Other than that issue, comments from the public as well as among commissioners consistently praised the ordinance and the inclusive process by which it was developed.

Bill Gibson, who owns a farm just outside the corridor boundary in Camp Creek, thanked the board for taking on the initiative.

“The need is self evident,” Gibson said said, citing “a number of billboards there that have square footage that exceeds the size of the home we were reared in.”

Gibson also cited the need to ensure better quality buildings and attractive construction.

Gibson praised the process for its “inclusiveness” — especially the invitation to a number of tribal members for their participation. While the corridor is in Jackson County, it is a major entry to Cherokee.

Commissioner William Shelton departed from his role as an elected official to speak during the public comment period.

“As someone born and raised on that corridor, I’ve lived half my life right on 441,” he said. “I’m really proud of this whole process — the steering committee, the planning department, the charrette process participants. We appreciated your input, your patience. At some point in future we’re going to realize great benefit from this.”

Shelton also addressed concerns about limits on temporary structures imposed by the ordinance.

“There is provision for temporary use — seasonal greenhouses, tents — as long as it’s used by that business. I would like to see it be an easy process for people to get those permits,” Shelton said, concluding by saying “I’m really proud of this product.”

A final vote on it is expected after commissioners receive any straggling comments from citizens who couldn’t attend the hearing.


Two-term Franklin Alderman Bob Scott has wanted a turn as vice mayor going back a while — an honor that traditionally rotates among aldermen. But a couple of years ago, Mayor Joe Collins reportedly told him, Bob, “ain’t gonna happen.”

So instead, Scott’s gunning for the mayor’s spot.

Collins, who’s completing his third two-year term, said he wasn’t taken unawares by the news of Scott’s challenge. “It’s a small town; you hear things,” Collins said. “I look forward to the race and all, it’s not a surprise. Certainly it’s a choice he’s free to make.”

Collins didn’t want to get into personalities. Nor is the vice mayor episode necessarily what’s mainly driving Scott’s run — but his issue with the mayor’s leadership style is clearly part of the picture.

Collins has no official say in whether or when Scott might have been tapped as vice mayor. The board as a whole name one of their own to the post. But Collins seemed to have had an inside line on whether the board had any interest in elevating Scott.

That relates to one of Scott’s ongoing beefs with Collins. He charges that the mayor communicates selectively, outside of meetings, with favored members of the town board — and he isn’t part of that circle.

“I’m learning things on the streets that I should have been told” by Collins, he said.

Collins said he’s not sure there is such a circle.

According to a Feb. 18 article in The Smoky Mountain News, Collins visited Scott at his home one Sunday afternoon a year and a half earlier and, regarding Scott’s chances of becoming vice mayor, said it wasn’t in the cards. In the article, Collins confirmed a conversation was held, but declined to comment on its content.

In addition to believing in a more inclusive board, Scott said a major element of his platform in running for mayor is his advocacy of open government. He said, despite state open meetings and public records laws, too many government entities in Western North Carolina still hide behind closed doors too often — and without proper basis, he believes.

“I bet most public officials aren’t familiar” with those government sunshine provisions, he said. For example, too many deliberative bodies don’t give a specific enough reason why they are going into closed session — and even when they do, it is often not a valid one.

Collins said his re-election run for mayor is based on his belief that things are going well, so why change the lineup? “We’ve got a good leadership group in place. Things are running in a way I feel comfortable with,” he said. “We have a lot of projects that are under way, and if the citizens choose to entrust me with the next two years, I’d feel honored and do the best that I could. It’s a choice the voters get to make.”

Collins said other than the vice mayor issue and “Slategate” flap, he couldn’t think of acrimonious divisions nor even important policy differences between himself and Scott. In the Slategate controversy, Collins was accused of improperly allowing a former resident of the Whitmire property, acquired by the town as a possible new town hall site, to take slate from the property. Collins was caught in the middle when other aldermen blamed him for allowing it, although Collins said he didn’t agree to the amount that was taken.

Scott, too, didn’t cite any significant policy differences with the mayor, but pointed to his own concern “to see that we protect basic town services so that economic growth is not hindered” in the tough economy.

“I believe town employees are our most valuable asset and we need a pay plan and a personnel policy for them,” he said.

If Scott should lose the mayor’s race, he still has two years of his four-year board term to finish out, while if Collins loses, he’s out. Aldermen have four year terms while the mayor’s seat is up every two years.

The seats of aldermen Carolyn “Sissy” Pattillo, Jerry Evans and Billy Mashburn, who is currently vice mayor, are also up this year. They did not return messages seeking to confirm whether they will be running for their offices again.


In the game of musical chairs stemming from the library moving out of its current digs on Sylva’s Main Street, “rear ends” may be landing in unexpected places.

The Sylva Police Department was at least temporarily rebuffed — not “rebutted,” though you might think so — in its inquiry into occupying the old library building.

At the town board’s direction, Police Chief Jeff Jamison recently approached the county about the prospect of buying the old library and converting it into a police station. But Jamison learned the county may have plans of its own for the building. The county currently leases space for a few of its departments, which could be relocated to the old library to save on rent money.

The problem, however, is that the building only has 16 parking spaces, said County Manager Ken Westmoreland.

Another option on the table would be to sell the building to the adjacent Jackson Savings Bank. Westmoreland said the bank has long indicated interest in acquiring the building.

He said the county’s about 18 months out from making a decision. Construction has only just now gotten underway on the new library.

Still on the hunt to relieve crowding at the current town hall and police station, Sylva leaders are now eyeing a couple of former fire truck bays in the main level of town hall that are currently used for storage. Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower said they’re just putting the finishing touches on a grant application to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Facilities Grant and Loan Program to renovate the space, and hope to know by fall if they’ll get the grant.

If so, that’s what they’ll do — and that’s their druthers anyway, Isenhower said.

“I think I would pick what we’re doing [over the county space] because it will put us all in the same place. We want the expansion,” Isenhower said.

Under that scenario, “The renovation is scheduled to begin in fall of 2010,” Chief Jamison said. “The federal Department of Agriculture has money available for municipalities with those kinds of needs to expand.”

Mayor Brenda Oliver said the town would also need to conduct a feasibility study of renovation of the bays for use by police.


The Cherokee School Board is on the verge of appointing a new superintendent following the termination of Rosemary Townsend after three years on the job.

Board Chairman Anthony Sequoyah said Townsend was an at-will employee and that the board chose not to renew her contract “for several reasons,” which he declined to specify. The vote came three weeks ago.

Sequoyah named former Cherokee Chief Joyce Dugan as a leading contender for superintendent, but no action was taken at the board’s Monday (June 29) meeting to confirm a contract offer.

William Geddes, principal of Cherokee Elementary School, also retired last week for health reasons, according to Sequoyah. Geddes had chosen not to renew his Assistant Principal Keith Mallonee’s contract shortly before the time Townsend was terminated, Sequoyah said.

Sequoyah categorically denied that Townsend’s departure had anything to do with a large school budget shortfall, which she sought stopgap funds from the tribal council to cover — albeit unsuccessfully.

Sequoyah disputed a rumor that an exodus of teachers was imminent if Townsend was kept on. Sequoyah called that “ridiculous, especially with all the younger teachers coming up from other school systems. I have no knowledge of anything like that.”


In her nearly six-month tenure as executive director, Lynn Collins has been helping Haywood County’s Tourism Development Authority make strides — especially in using technology to be more effective for tourism operators and visitors.

As a prominent example, the tourism authority plans to implement a top-of-the-line booking system on its website. Visitors to the site will be able to get tickets to attractions and make reservations at local accommodations with just a few clicks of the mouse — making it simpler than the systems on lead booking sites such as, Collins told the TDA board at its June 24 meeting.

Under the new system, “bookings can take only three steps versus five or six” with others, Collins said.

The system will be embedded in TDA’s website, but will connect invisibly and seamlessly to the ticketing or reservation system of tourism businesses, Collins said. The company offering the system will preview it for the board TDA and its members in the near future.

Other advances include installation of a new phone system in the TDA’s office — “with voice mail,” Collins told the board with a hint of mock exultation.

On the outreach and PR front, TDA’s monthly newsletter, “TDA Tidbits,” has gone digital, for the kind of immediate and ongoing accessibility sometimes compromised with a paper publication, which can get tossed aside or lost in piles of clutter.

The TDA also previously launched a YouTube channel, where tourism operators can post short videos about their establishment. And it is leveraging so-called social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook to broaden its reach and appeal. According to TDA’s inaugural March edition of its newsletter, “This presence on these Social Media sites allows us to directly connect with potential visitors, providing interactive content, a blog, video, photos, quick responses to any questions, and more.”

Finally, TDA is grappling with helping tourism operators create and raise their profile with users of the “mobile web,” where people can access travel and tourism information from their cell phones.


Marketing plan

The board also adopted its new marketing plan, following a presentation on it by TDA board member and marketing committee chair Marion Hamel, in absence of Jay Sokolow of The Tombras Group, who developed it. The plan aims to concentrate advertising in what are believed to be the highest-value markets — namely nearby metro areas such as Charlotte and Atlanta. Generally considered the top sources of tourists in the region, Collins said that’s likely truer than ever, with more people vacationing closer to home in a tough economy.

The plan also seeks to be more selective and cost-efficient in how it spreads its advertising dollars around in national publications and other venues. The TDA’s revenue comes from a 4 percent tax on overnight lodging in the county and is pumped back in to tourism promotions. The marketing plan calls for spending $254,000 on advertising buys.

The difficult economy notwithstanding, Collins said tourist spending on overnight lodging in the county is only down about 6 percent so far for the fiscal year ending June 30, while many colleagues encountered at a recent conference reported double-digit declines. She said she believes that is because the area is rather central to key locales where the county draws visitors from, something of a crossroads.


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