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Macon budget avoids tax increase, layoffs

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.”

Macon, Rabun leaders eye future of water

Would a water-starved Atlanta ever come after the Little Tennessee River? While it may be a long shot, the prospect — however remote — has made some residents of Macon County uneasy.

The concern has been sparked by forays into the water and sewer business by Rabun County, just over the state line in North Georgia. Part of Rabun County lies in the Little Tennessee watershed, which flows north into Macon County. The rest lies in the Savannah River watershed flowing toward Atlanta.

Once Rabun County gets in the water and sewer business, it could theoretically swap water and sewer across the two watersheds — called an interbasin transfer — which could include sucking water out of the Little Tennessee and depositing it on the Savannah River side bound for Atlanta.

The notion was strongly contested by Jim Bleckley, county manager of Rabun County.

“There has always been talk about an interbasin transfer, but that is smoke and mirrors,” Bleckley said. Rabun County is seeking a discharge permit for a sewer treatment plant on the Little Tennessee River. Bleckley said the theory of an interbasin transfer is being “drummed up” by environmental opponents of the discharge permit.

“Anytime there are people opposed to something they will manufacture things to help their cause,” Bleckley said. “There is no danger of the Little Tennessee water going out of the watershed to Atlanta. No rational person would consider that an issue.”

The concerns emanate from more than merely environmental groups, however. Macon County Manger Jack Horton and Franklin Town Manager Sam Greenwood don’t think it is far-fetched that Atlanta one day might set its sights on water from the mountains.

“That is a potential concern,” said Horton.

Greenwood called it a “real possibility.”

“Atlanta is basically drying up,” Greenwood said. “Even with the drought cycle easing up, the major problem is their growth has consumed their water resources. For any more growth or sustainability, they are going to have to have more water.”

Atlanta’s future water woes have nothing to do with Rabun County’s sewer treatment permit now on the table, however, according to Mark Bebee, Georgia state environmental engineer over 18 counties. Bebee said he doesn’t understand why the discharge permit has people worked up about the prospect of an interbasin transfer.

“That is something that is fictitious and speculative. It doesn’t occur right now,” Bebee said. “They are speculating on things that might happen 10, 20, 30 years down the road. I can’t comment on what is happening 20 years down the road.”

Jenny Sanders, director of the Little Tennessee Watershed Association, isn’t content to sit back and wait, however. By the time such a proposition comes to the table, it could be too late.

“We have to be thinking about it now, because somewhere down the line people are going to do something we never thought they would do,” said Sanders said. “I think we need to pay attention before it is a problem.”

Sanders doesn’t think it is irrational, as Bleckley called it.

“Twenty years from now people are going to be doing things that aren’t rational,” Sanders said. “I think our water needs are going to get to a point where people are going to start behaving unreasonably.”


A history of water wars

Georgia has a knack for getting into water disputes with neighboring states. To the south, the ongoing and litigious tri-state water war centered around Atlanta sucking too much water out of the rivers that flow into Alabama and Florida. And to the north, Georgia waged a border dispute with Tennessee in hopes of getting at water in the Tennessee River outside Chattanooga. Georgia reached back nearly two centuries to justify a border re-alignment, that would have extended across lower North Carolina.

“They were claiming the state line would be up somewhere around Otto,” Greenwood said.

It’s enough to plant a seed of suspicion in the minds of many in Macon County not to put anything past Atlanta’s thirst.

If Rabun County ever tried to sell water out of the Little Tennessee, it would have to be approved by Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources, however. Interbasin transfers are not taken lightly by the permitting agency.

Another consolation is that the Little Tennessee would be a drop in the bucket compared to Atlanta’s water needs.

“The flow in the Little Tennessee River is so small, it would never be thought of as a financially viable project for Atlanta,” Bebee aid.

Bebee said postulating on an interbasin transfer is akin to asking, “If a meteor hit our planet, what would you do?”

Todd Silliman, an Atlanta attorney with an expertise in water rights, said he wouldn’t go so far as to call the concerns ruminating from Macon County paranoid, but thinks the chances are remote.

“That is really hypothetical,” Silliman said of a water transfer from the Little Tennessee. But, “You never know what could happen years and years down the road. There are situations in the West where water is piped half way across California, so I would never say it would never happen, but I don’t anticipate that in the near term.”

Silliman cited the obvious cost-benefit issues: would the cost in exchange for a relative pittance of water from the Little Tennessee be worth it? It isn’t as crazy as some ideas Silliman has heard, however.

“I have heard about every idea under the sun for Atlanta,” Silliman said, including desalination of ocean water and even transporting frozen water from Alaska.

Silliman was hired by Rabun County to help shepherd its discharge permit along. Silliman said Rabun County’s intent was to provide sewer to prospective industry and development.


Rabun’s industrial needs

Rabun County’s plan calls for converting a former industrial wastewater treatment plant at the closed-down Fruit of the Loom textile mill into a sewage treatment plant. The county hopes an operational sewer treatment plant at the former factory site will lure a new industry to set up shop there.

But neither Rabun nor the Georgia environmental division know what that industry might be or what its discharge would contain. Some industries pollute more than others.

“Our concern is how to tell what the discharge limits should be without any idea of anyone who is going to be in the plant?” Greenwood asked.

The town of Franklin sees the Little Tennessee River as a possible source for drinking water one day, Greenwood said. The town currently gets it water from Cartoogechaye Creek.

Sky Valley Resort has expressed interest in running sewer lines to the plant once it comes on-line, and even agreed to subsidize the cost of the plant. Sky Valley would only use a fraction of the plant’s 2 million gallons a day capacity, however. That leaves plenty for an industry that may or may not come along — or for the county to run sewer lines in the future to serve residential and commercial growth.

“The main idea was to provide jobs for the community. It would depend on the growth in the future whether there was anything much else added,” Bleckley said. “We have no idea 20, 30, 40 years from now what the need would be, but the idea is the permit and capacity would be there to accommodate growth in the county.”

Rabun County leaders thought they were getting a good deal on the old treatment plant, which was being off-loaded since it was no longer in use.

“At the time they said that it was such a good opportunity we can’t let it pass by,” Sanders said.

The county spent $1.8 million to purchase the old Fruit of the Loom facilities. It will take around $4.5 million to get both a water and sewer treatment at the site plant up and running.

Some have questioned whether Sky Valley will be a viable customer after all. The company that owns Sky Valley, Merrill Trust, has landed in financial troubles, according to the Clayton Tribune. The financial issues, including liens filed against Sky Valley by unpaid contractors, caused Rabun County commissioners to question whether Sky Valley would live up to its promise to subsidize the cost of the sewer treatment plant.

A contract between Sky Valley and Rabun County calls for the first contribution by Sky Valley to be made when the plant is successfully permitted; the second portion when the plant comes on line.

“They are entitled to this payment,” Silliman said. “They have spent a lot up front and they are ready to be reimbursed for some of that.”

The county may not have embarked on the project without the commitment from Sky Valley to offset the costs. Without Sky Valley and with no industrial clients on the horizon, the county would have no customers to speak of unless it started running sewer lines.

There’s another threat to Rabun’s payment from Sky Valley coming through. The contract expires if a discharge permit is not secured by a certain date. (Rabun County has not shared a copy of the contract, so the exact date is not know, but is rumored to be early fall.)

The timeline for the discharge permit has been pushed back, however, due to numerous requests from the public for a formal public hearing on the issue — most emanating out of Macon County, including the town of Franklin, Macon County, the Little Tennessee Watershed Association, and WildSouth. It could take a couple months to schedule and hold the hearing, and weeks or months beyond that to process the comments and render a final decision on the permit.

The Georgia environmental division got 15 written public comments on the permit. All expressed concerns. None voiced support, according to Gigi Steele, environmental specialist with the Georgia water quality division.

Bebee, the state environmental engineer, was irritated by the overt environmental interests trying to derail a treatment plant. The discharge permit is needed to spur industry and provided much needed jobs, Bebee said. The former mill employed 900 people, some from Macon County, he said.

“We are all feeling the pinch on the loss of those jobs,” Bebee said.

Bebee also pointed out that the discharge permit sought by Rabun County will have better water quality than the discharges once put in the river, and will be a smaller volume. But that doesn’t seem to matter to the environmental groups.

“They are against a treatment plant period,” Bebee said.

Group, angry with government, descends on Franklin

An angry crowd stormed downtown Franklin on tax day last week, protesting the federal government’s bailouts, high taxes and pork barrel spending.

The Tea Party protest was one of hundreds that took place across the nation April 15, the first tax day since President Barack Obama has been in office. The demonstrations have been touted as non-partisan, but the Franklin protest had a Republican bent with speakers and sign- wavers denouncing Obama and government-funded bailouts.

Signs waved by the shouting throng stated, “Freedom Works, Bailouts Hurt,” “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Debt,” TEA — Taxes Enslaving Americans,” and one that was a direct attack on Obama’s presidential campaign said, “So How’s That Hope and Change Working Out For You.”

Another sign stated, “We Are Proud of America Mr. Obama, Why Aren’t You?” while another said, “Bailouts + Debt = Fiscal Child Abuse.”

The event featured patriotic singing, with members of the audience singing along and one audience member was waving a Bible in the air.

Approximately 400 attended the rally put on by Freedom Works, a local political organization. The organization’s leader, Don Swanson, urged the crowd to push for change by writing letters to the editor.

“Do not leave this place and do nothing,” Swanson pleaded. “We’ve done that long enough.”

Staunch conservative and Asheville City Councilman Carl Mumpower — who was the Republican nominee for Congress against Democrat Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, in the 11th District race — quipped that he doesn’t need a teleprompter to speak like Obama.

However, Mumpower said the protest was not about political parties, but instead about freedom.

“Enough of Washington policies that make people smaller and government bigger,” Mumpower told the cheering crowd.

Mumpower denounced welfare programs that “rest on the backs of our children through borrowed dollars.”

There also should be no tolerance for people who are indifferent to the U.S. Constitution, said Mumpower.

“We’re here to fight for the lives and future of our children,” Mumpower said.

Duty is the essence of being a human being and the baby boomer generation is the first to leave its children with a smaller vision of the American Dream, he said.

He urged the crowd to believe in the Constitution, not live off the labor of others and to believe in the American Dream. Mumpower quoted Gandhi, saying when someone tries to affect change, the first thing people in power do is ignore, then they laugh, then they fight and finally they surrender.

It is not too late to bring the change to America that is needed Mumpower said. In fact, the fight has just begun, he said. The nation’s founding fathers should be the role models as they were thoughtful, courageous and persistent, he said.

He turned to the American flag on the stage and pointed to the bronze eagle.

“We have to fight for that eagle,” Mumpower said.

As the most conservative member of the Asheville City Council, Mumpower voted against hiring new police officers for the city because they wouldn’t be allowed to enforce immigration laws.

Franklin businessman Phil Drake, who owns Drake Software and is the second largest employer in the county with 500 employees, spoke against the government bailing out corporations and banks.

“There is a place for government,” Drake said. “The primary role of the government should be defense.”

Drake then applauded the Navy seals for their recent rescue in the pirate standoff.

The real tax rate imposed by the government is not what is taken but what is spent because eventually that money will have to be paid back, Drake said. The money will be paid back by either raising taxes or printing more money, which will make “your money less valuable,” Drake said.

The tax code has 74,000 pages and no one understands it, Drake said, adding that the federal deficit is $11 trillion.

The problem in this country is that the government is demanding things today that it is not willing to pay for. Also, the 30 million babies killed by abortion could be alive today and contributing to Social Security, he said.

The government’s No. 1 expense is the “redistribution of wealth,” he said, adding there is only one way out of the current situation: “Stop spending.”

Macon leaders question Georgia sewer headed their way

Macon County commissioners voiced concern this week over a proposed sewer treatment plant that would discharge into the Little Tennessee River just across the state line in Georgia.

The river, considered an environmental treasure and a future source of drinking water, flows north through Franklin and on to Lake Fontana

“As the county adjacent to and directly downstream from the proposed Rabun County facility we have significant concerns about the impact of this project on the water quality in the Little Tennessee watershed on both sides of the state border,” Macon wrote in a letter to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division states.

Rabun County, Ga., needs a discharge permit to convert the closed-down Fruit of the Loom plant into a sewer treatment plant. While a written public comment period was held on the permit, Macon commissioners called for a formal public hearing in their letter.

The letter also states that the river is listed as polluted in Georgia and North Carolina and potential further degradation must be approached carefully.

The town of Franklin also has plans in the works to use the river as an alternative source of drinking water, the letter states.

“There are many questions we would like the opportunity to discuss,” the letter states.

The application process for a permit provides holding a public hearing if there is sufficient public interest. Commissioner Bobby Kuppers, who brought the issue forward, said he believes there is enough public interest to warrant a public hearing.

The Little Tennessee Watershed Association has been leading a public campaign over the past month encouraging the public to send comments on the permit. The environmental group previously spoke at a commissioners meeting about the issue.

Macon airport lands more money for artifact surveys

Opposition to the airport runway extension in Macon County continues to mount, with a standing-room-only crowd attending last week’s Airport Authority meeting and an environmental group threatening to sue and stop the project.

The controversial runway project would pave over Cherokee burial grounds and artifacts. The Airport Authority has agreed to have 25 percent of the artifacts at the site excavated, but the remaining will stay in place and be threatened by the construction.

There are approximately 400 burials at the site, according to an archaeological assessment done on the site in 2000. All of the burials will remain in place at the request of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

The Airport Authority has been very sensitive to the Eastern Band’s concerns about artifacts and burials at the site, Airport Authority Chairman Milles Gregory said. Excavating 25 percent of the artifacts at the site will cost $535,000. Gregory said 100 percent excavation cannot be done because it would cost around $2 million, which is more than the Airport Authority can afford.

However, Gregory announced at the meeting that the Airport Authority is now attempting to secure additional funding to do “stripping and mapping” of the entire site. He said the Eastern Band is very pleased with this.

Federal Aviation Administration Spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen confirmed that the FAA will provide additional funding for the stripping and mapping, but she didn’t know how much.

Archaeologist Mike Trinkley of South Carolina, who performed the archaeological assessment in 2000, said stripping and mapping does not remove the artifacts and burials from harm’s way. It simply involves taking off the top layer of soil and documenting what is there.

“Simply mapping the site does little in resolving the loss of information,” said Trinkley. “There will be a map showing where stuff was found, but by the time construction begins the stuff will be destroyed.”

Several project opponents at the meeting asked the Airport Authority how it could justify paving over gravesites.

The artifacts are not the only reason opponents are against the runway extension. Some just want to preserve the rural character and peaceful nature of the Iotla Valley.

Many at last week’s meeting were nearby residents of the Iotla Valley and wore buttons urging that the valley be saved.

Dolly Reed of Franklin said she has Cherokee lineage and urged the Airport Authority to “let my people rest in peace.”

Resident Olga Pader said those who live in the valley have been excluded from meetings. Airport Authority member Tommy Jenkins said every Airport Authority meeting has been publicly announced. But Pader noted that there was a private meeting a couple of weeks ago with state, local, federal and Eastern Band officials discussing the project.

County Commissioner Bobby Kuppers, who serves as the Airport Authority liaison, said that was not an official Airport Authority meeting, but was a special conference called by the Eastern Band. Kuppers said the public cannot continue to be suspicious of the county government.

“If this sort of suspicion grows we’re in trouble as a county,” said Kuppers.

A distrust of county officials will destroy the county, said Kuppers, adding that the county commissioners are more open now than they’ve ever been.

The runway extension appears to be getting personal for some, as tempers were flying at the meeting.

Lamar Marshall, with the environmental group Wild South of Asheville, said one of the Airport Authority members called him “crazy as hell” at a recent County commission meeting. Airport Authority member Harold Corbin admitted he was the one who called Marshall “crazy as hell.”

In response to the insult, Marshall wore his Crazy Horse T-shirt to the Airport Authority meeting last week. He said his group is planning a lawsuit against the Authority and others involved in the project.

Corbin became impatient with Franklin resident Selma Sparks, who was trying to speak:

“Sit down, because you’re through,” Corbin told Sparks.

However, not all those in attendance at the meeting last week were against the runway extension. Macon County resident Dwight Vinson said extending the runway 500 feet is good for the county’s economic development.

Franklin resident Norm Roberts agreed that the runway extension is needed for the county to thrive.

“This airport is essential to the economy of the area,” said Roberts.

Others also stated that the runway extension could help bring jobs to the area, but those in favor were heavily outnumbered by those against.

Airport Authority Chairman Milles Gregory said he agreed with some of the statements made by the public and disagreed with others.

Gregory then stated, as he has numerous times in public forums since the controversy erupted about a month ago, that the runway extension has been planned for eight years and that the public has been aware of the project for that long but is just now beginning to express concern.


Want to be on the board?

The five-member Macon County Airport Authority is appointed by the county commissioners for six-year terms.

Terms for members Tommy Jenkins and Harold Corbin are set to expire June 30 of this year, while terms for members Gary Schmitt and Pete Haithcock don’t expire until 2011. Chairman Milles Gregory’s term doesn’t expire until 2013.

The board meets the last Tuesday of the month at 4 p.m. at the Macon County Airport.

Macon eyes steep slope ordinance

The Macon County Planning Board is in the beginning stages of developing an ordinance that would regulate development on steep slopes.

Haywood and Jackson counties shared presentations on their steep slope ordinances with the Macon planning board last week. Marc Pruett, program director for Haywood County Erosion Control, presented a slide show with pictures of houses and roads that have collapsed as a result of being built on steep slopes.

He showed several pictures from Maggie Valley in which houses slid off the side of cliffs, like a recent slide there, and destroyed the home. One house he showed a picture of had not been built a year and was already beginning to slide off the side of the mountain.

The Macon County Planning Board wanted to hear presentations from Haywood and Jackson counties to get ideas about what it might want to put into its ordinance.

Before the planning board officially begins working on putting together an ordinance it must receive the go ahead from the county commissioners, which has not been granted.

Macon County Director of Planning, Permitting and Development Jack Morgan said a steep slope ordinance is something that may be a part of a future comprehensive plan for the county.

Developing a steep slope ordinance may not happen without some backlash from the Macon County Homebuilders Association and Realtors. Such organizations often fight against rules that restrict home development.

Haywood County’s slope ordinance was actually endorsed by the Homebuilders Association there, after a round of revisions that loosened the standards from what was originally proposed. Jackson County Planning Director Linda Cable said the ordinance in her county did not get that kind of support. Jackson’s ordinances are tougher and more comprehensive than Haywood’s.

The Macon County Homebuilders Association was not invited to the meeting, said President Reggie Holland. Holland said he is unfamiliar with any plan to develop an ordinance but thinks his organization would like to have some input on it.

“We would like to be included in the process,” Holland told The Smoky Mountain News.

Holland was unable to say whether his organization would oppose an ordinance if the county indeed decides to pursue one.

Planning Board member Susan Ervin advocates a steep slope ordinance for many reasons, including safety, environmental and aesthetic. Building homes on steep slopes can be dangerous for those who live in the home and below it, Ervin noted.

Such development can also cause environmental problems when land is stripped, resulting in erosion. When slopes are disturbed rain runs off faster and the groundwater is not recharged as well, Ervin noted.

Putting so many houses on the side of the mountains also damages the views, Ervin said.

As far as property rights go, Morgan said they stop at someone’s property line. Building on slopes presents an “inherent danger” and should be addressed, Morgan said.

Planning Commission Vice Chair Larry Stenger was not at the meeting but said he whole heartedly supports developing a steep slope ordinance.

Sedimentation can run off the side of mountains and get into creeks and damage marine habitat, said Stenger.

The key to responsible steep slope development is education, said Stenger. Realtors need to let their clients know about developing on steep slopes, he said.

Over the years several roads in Macon County have washed out because they were built improperly on steep slopes, Stenger noted.

Developers should not be allowed to get a permit to build a home until they go to a seminar about building in the mountains, said Stenger. Much of the problem comes from “shyster” developers trying to make a profit building roads and homes without concern for their future stability, said Stenger. And people from out of the state come in and buy the homes ignorant of the potential dangers, Stenger said.

Macon runway likely to clear hurdle of cash shortfall

It appears an $853,000 shortfall facing the Macon County airport runway extension may be covered with additional state and federal funds.

The shortfall arose in part after a $550,000 federal grant previously earmarked for the project was pulled after the airport authority failed to use it within a four-year timeframe, said Rick Barkes with the state Department of Transportation Aviation Division. While federal money, it is administered through the state and had been diverted to another project.

The Airport Authority hoped the money would be restored, and now seems to have confirmation that will be the case. Barkes said the Macon County airport will be reimbursed the $550,000 because the delay in using the money was beyond the Airport Authority’s control. The delay stems from a significant archaeological site that lies in the path of the runway extension. The Airport Authority was trying to negotiate an agreement with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and others over the archaeological excavation to save the artifacts from being destroyed.

Barkes said if the Airport Authority had just been sitting on the funds and doing nothing with them, it probably would not get reimbursed.

Even if the Airport Authority is reimbursed the $550,000 it will still be about $350,000 short, according to Airport Authority officials.

Barkes said the N.C. DOT Division of Aviation will likely provide the remaining funds necessary, whether they are federal or state dollars, to cover any remaining shortfall.

Barkes said the project has been in talks for about eight years and needs to be completed. There is a “very slim chance” the airport won’t get the funds it needs to cover the shortfall, said Barkes.

The remaining shortfall could possibly be covered with state Vision 100 money.


Priorities questioned

The total runway project, including archaeology and engineering, is expected to cost $3.5 million. Of that, almost $2 million is in state dollars, said Barkes.

Norma Ivey of Franklin, an opponent of the runway extension, questioned the budget priorities of the state to fund something like the runway extension while cutting education.

“I hate to see the money go to the airport instead of other things I see as more important. There are better investments for public money right now than a runway at the airport,” Ivey said. “Whether it is elementary school or community colleges, to not put the money in education is very short sighted.”

Same goes for county coffers. The county is contributing at least $187,000 in matching funds to make the runway extension possible, but has budget problems of its own.

“I do not see the airport as being a positive move for the county,” Ivey said.

The airport has been controversial because some, including the Eastern Band, believe there isn’t enough archaeological excavation taking place at the site. There are also Indian burials at the site, according to an archaeologist who did a survey of the property in 2000.

The Airport Authority has agreed to excavate 25 percent of the artifacts, but the Eastern Band wants all of the artifacts removed before they are erased by construction.

The burials are staying in place at the request of the Eastern Band.

— Becky Johnson contributed to this story.

Airport officials hold private meeting about runway

Local, state and federal officials involved in the controversial Macon County Airport runway extension held a private meeting last week.

The Smoky Mountain News showed up at the meeting at the airport after being tipped off by an anonymous source.

When a reporter from the newspaper entered the boardroom, Airport Authority Chairman Milles Gregory said it was a “private meeting.”

As the newspaper reporter waited outside for the meeting to end, County Commissioner Bobby Kuppers showed up but wouldn’t comment. Kuppers went into the boardroom.

Airport Authority attorney Joe Collins, who is also the Franklin mayor, came out of the boardroom to speak with the newspaper. Collins said the purpose of the meeting was to update the signers of a Memorandum of Agreement on the progress of archaeological excavation at the site.

He said the goal was to keep everyone informed of the situation.

Asked why the public could not also be kept informed on the progress by sitting in on the meeting, Collins said it was not a meeting the public was entitled to attend.

Collins noted that part of the MOA states that any discussion regarding burials at the site will be done in private at the request of the Eastern Band of Cherokee.

Tribal Archaeologist Russell Townsend, who attended the meeting, also told the newspaper afterwards that burials were discussed and that the tribe prefers that it be kept private.

Townsend said the tribe is pleased with how archaeology is progressing but would still like more of the site excavated before the construction destroys it. He suggested that 60 percent excavation of the site may be a compromise the Tribe could agree to. The Airport Authority is doing 25 percent recovery.

Townsend also said another compromise is that the Tribe could assist Macon County in securing grants to recover 100 percent of the artifacts, but he said he has proposed that for eight years to no avail.

Others in attendance at the meeting were County Manager Jack Horton, State Archaeologist Steve Claggett, Parks Preston from the Federal Aviation Administration of Atlanta, Paul Webb with TRC Environmental — the company doing the artifact recovery, WK Dickson Project Engineer Eric Rysdon of Charlotte, FAA Environmentalist Lisa Favors, and Tyler Howe of the Cherokee Tribal Historic Preservation Office.

The officials participated in a conference call with the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, Collins said.

Runway extension faces funding shortfall

The Macon County Airport Authority is short about $853,000 of what it needs to pay for a controversial runway extension, according to airport officials.

The total runway project, including archaeology and engineering, is expected to cost $3.5 million, according to Airport Authority member Tommy Jenkins.

Airport Authority Clerk Teresa McDowell said about $777,000 has already been spent or committed for archaeology and engineering on the project.

According to McDowell, it will cost the Airport Authority about $1.87 to million finish the runway, which means the Airport Authority is about $853,000 short of what it needs, she said.

The airport runway extension is controversial because it is proposed to go over Cherokee artifacts and burial grounds. The Airport Authority is only funding 25 percent artifact excavation, which angers the Eastern Band of Cherokee and others who say 100 percent of the artifacts should be saved to prevent their destruction.

Airport Authority Chairman Milles Gregory said the project is being funded with 80 percent federal funds, 10 percent state and 10 percent county funds.

The N.C. DOT Division of Aviation took back $550,000 from a grant last year because the money wasn’t used by the Airport Authority in time, McDowell said.

It is unclear where the money went. N.C. DOT Grants Administrator Nancy Seigler was unable to answer questions before press time on Tuesday.

The grant, which was awarded in 2004, wasn’t used in time because the project was held up by negotiations between the Airport Authority, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Federal Aviation Administration, State Historic Preservation Office and the Division of Aviation. The negotiations concerned how much excavation of Cherokee artifacts would take place at the project site, McDowell said.

The Airport Authority hopes to get the $550,000 back.

Airport Authority Chairman Gregory said he was promised by Richard Barkes, manager of Aviation System Development for the N.C. DOT Division of Aviation, that the $550,000 would be reimbursed.

McDowell said the Airport Authority has been told over the phone by the Division of Aviation that it would be reimbursed the $550,000 in the form of a new grant. But McDowell said the Airport Authority hasn’t received the grant documents yet.

Even if the Airport Authority gets the $550,000 back it will still have a shortfall of about $303,000.

McDowell said the Airport Authority is “optimistic” that more funding will become available to cover the shortfall. Gregory said he thinks the remaining shortfall can be made up with $150,000 “Vision 100” grants that the Airport Authority receives annually from N.C. DOT Division of Aviation. It is unclear if the Vision 100 money is state money or federal funds that pass through the N.C. DOT Division of Aviation.

McDowell said the $550,000 that was taken back was supposed to be used for the environmental assessment for the project. Because that money was taken back, McDowell said the Airport Authority is now using money from its construction grant on the environmental assessment.


County funds in play

Some have urged the county commissioners not to commit county taxpayer dollars to the project. Withholding the county match for the project could sideline it.

According to County Finance Director Evelyn Southard there is $187,000 in county funds currently budgeted for the project.

Southard did not know what year the county appropriated the money.

County Commissioner Bob Simpson has proposed pulling the county dollars from the project unless a compromise between the Airport Authority and Eastern Band is reached.

However, Simpson seems to be alone in that the other commissioners appear to favor moving forward.

Commissioner Brian McClellan told The Smoky Mountain News he doesn’t “have an opinion at this time” but “it would appear” that county dollars are not going to be pulled from the project. McClellan said there is “always a chance” funding could be pulled.

Commission Chairman Ronnie Beale said he feels that the Airport Authority has “done due diligence” in the project.

Beale said there is no doubt that the runway extension is needed to keep insurance costs down for pilots who land there. No one has said the runway extension is not needed, Beale said.

However, several people have publicly said that they don’t think a runway extension is needed.

As far as taking the county dollars from the project, Beale said that money was “appropriated a good long time ago.”

He added that the grants are a good opportunity because they only require a 10 percent county match. Anytime the county can get something done for 10 cents on the dollars it’s good, said Beale.

Artifacts endangered by airport project

When Neal Hoppe dies he wants his body cremated and his ashes spread over the Macon County Airport.

“When I die, my soul will depart my body,” said Hoppe, who manages the airport’s terminal. “I don’t want a hole dug for me.”

The Macon County Airport is the best place to scatter his ashes because, “It’s a beautiful place,” said Hoppe as he drove down the airport’s taxiway.

Once Hoppe’s ashes are spread at the airport, he will join Cherokee Indians who made the Iotla Valley their resting place hundreds of years ago.

The Cherokee bodies buried at the site are now a huge source of controversy because the airport’s runway is proposed to be extended over the gravesites. The project has upset many people who think the Macon County Airport Authority and state and federal agencies are desecrating the Cherokee heritage.

The Airport Authority, however, says archaeology recovery is taking place, burial sites will not be disturbed and state and federal laws are being followed.

The runway extension seemed like a sure thing just a week ago but is now facing opposition from all fronts. Necessary federal permits are still pending for the project, the environmental assessment hasn’t been finalized, legal action from both environmentalists and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has been threatened, one county commissioner wants to withdraw local funding for the project and the Airport Authority’s argument that the project is needed for safety has had a hole shot in it.


Solid legal footing?

Airport Authority Attorney Joe Collins said he thinks the Airport Authority is on solid legal grounds.

Cherokee Attorney General Annette Tarnowski said there has not been any decision made by the Cherokee in terms of what, if any, legal action to take. The Tribal Council is looking at all its legal options, but Tarnowski would not elaborate.

It is a matter of great concern to the Cherokee because of the number of gravesites, she said.

The controversy has been eight years in the making and is coming to a head as archaeologists are now working on excavating the artifacts at the site to prepare to extend the 4,400-foot runway by 600 feet.

The problem is that artifacts are only being removed from 25 percent of the five-acre area that will be impacted by the project. The remaining artifacts will be left in place.

Members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and a contingent of other concerned citizens are outraged that the Airport Authority, the Federal Aviation Administration and the state archaeologist would allow artifacts and human burials to be put at risk.

Those against the project, including Cherokee Principal Chief Michell Hicks, said 100 percent of the artifacts should be excavated before it is paved over. Failure to do so could erase the archaeological record. Hicks said there could be some protests coming to Franklin.

But Airport Authority Chairman Milles Gregory said it would cost $2 million to do total artifact recovery — money the Airport Authority doesn’t have. The Airport Authority has contracted with TRC Environmental of Chapel Hill for $535,000 to recover the 25 percent. Hicks said the tribe is unwilling to pay the difference to do a complete excavation, saying it is the responsibility of the county and Airport Authority to do the right thing.

The entire runway project is expected to cost around $3.5 million, according to Airport Authority member Tommy Jenkins. County officials say the project is being funded 90 percent with N.C. DOT Division of Aviation grants and a 10 percent match from the county.


State archaeologist endorses project

So far, four archaeologists have weighed in on the project. Two support the runway project moving forward, while the other two believe it is an abomination.

The one whose opinion matters most, however, is State Archaeologist Steve Claggett. Claggett decided how much of the site must be excavated before the runway project could move forward. He settled on 25 percent excavation, saying 100 percent is unnecessary because it wouldn’t result in learning anymore about the Cherokee. Moreover, Claggett said many of the artifacts at the site are damaged anyway from being plowed up when the land was farmed.

Claggett said the project is being done in accordance with all state and federal laws. However, some archaeologists disagree with Claggett and say 100 percent artifact recovery should occur.

An archaeological survey done on the site in 2000 indicated the presence of some 400 burials and numerous artifacts.

Claggett said the goal is to focus the artifact recovery on the areas that were identified as having the highest concentrations of materials. So even though artifact recovery is only occurring on 25 percent of the five acres, more than 25 percent of the artifacts may actually be recovered, Claggett said.

As far as the burials go, they are remaining in place at the request of the Cherokee. If remains are accidentally uncovered during work, “all work will cease within 50 feet of the remains,” according to a memorandum of agreement signed by the Airport Authority, Federal Aviation Administration, State Historic Preservation Officer Jeffrey Crow and the North Carolina Department of Transportation. The Cherokee refused to sign off on the agreement.


Archaeologist against project

Columbia S.C. archaeologist Michael Trinkley is appalled at the minimal artifact recovery taking place at the site. Too little work is being done considering the value and significance of the site, he said.

Trinkley is the archaeologist who performed the initial assessment in 2000 and said burials and artifacts will be destroyed. He said he thinks about 250 burials will be destroyed.

“I think it’s terribly disrespectful,” Trinkley said.

If it is not stopped, one of the more important archaeological sites in the state will be destroyed, he said. The burials will be destroyed when soil is removed, when equipment bogs down, when soil compacts and when fill is brought in, Trinkley said.

But Airport Authority Chairman Gregory said the earth will not be cut into during the project, meaning the burials will not be destroyed.

The burials could have been removed from harms way using appropriate techniques, such as hiring Cherokee elders and a shaman for reburials, said Trinkley.

But this did not occur because the Airport Authority never made any effort to reach a compromise with the Cherokee, he said. The Airport Authority denies this, saying it tried for eight years to work out an agreement with the Cherokee to no avail. Furthermore, the Cherokee specifically requested that the burials be left in place.

Trinkley said that the Airport Authority attempted to hide the project from the public rather than discuss it.

The manner in which the project has been handled is “corrupted,” he said.

As for other archaeologists in the mix, Russ Townsend, an archaeologist for the tribe, is opposed, while the archaeologist who landed the half million contract to do the partial excavation work is in support of it.


FAA has final say

The FAA is the ultimate authority on the project, said Claggett. The main law that had to be followed in regards to the archaeology at the site was Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.

According to Claggett, the law does not specify a “magic number” when it comes to how many artifacts have to be removed from a site.

Advisory Council on Historic Preservation spokesman Bill Milhans in Washington agreed that all the law requires is for the impact on archaeological sites to be considered. He said how much artifact recovery takes place depends on the significance of the site.

In this case, FAA consulted with the State Historic Preservation Office and decided 25 percent artifact recovery would be sufficient. Milhans said ACHP agreed that 25 percent artifact recovery is in accordance with Section 106.


Environmental Assessment questioned

An environmental assessment done by the project engineer WK Dickson of Charlotte states that the project will have “no significant impact” on the environment, artifacts or burials at the site.

The consultant’s findings were adopted as the official stance of the N.C. Division of Aviation, which holds the purse strings to the federal grant money paying for the runway expansion.

The state agency ruled that the project is in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act and will not “significantly affect the quality of the human or natural environment.” The public can make comments on the environmental assessment and dispute the finding of no significant impact to the State Environmental Review Clearinghouse until March 17.

Trinkley complained that there isn’t even a copy of the document to review locally, making it difficult for people to comment on something they don’t have access to. Trinkley wondered if that is illegal.

Further, Trinkley questioned the legality of the Airport Authority moving forward with artifact recovery prior to the environmental assessment going through the public comment period. Trinkley has submitted a letter to the State Environmental Review Clearing House disputing the finding of no significant impact.


Lawsuit threatened

Macon County resident Lamar Marshall said the environmental assessment is flawed and plans to sue on the grounds of violations of the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. He said the environmental assessment is flawed because it contains out-of-date information that does not take into account species that have been listed as endangered in the past 10 years.

The Airport Authority failed to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in regards to endangered species, said Marshall.

“The current EA is a cheap and erroneous shortcut that failed to disclose the cumulative impacts of serious environmental issues...,” said Marshall.

The Airport Authority also needs a water quality permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to proceed. Lori Beckwith, a biologist with the Corps in Asheville, said the Airport Authority submitted an incomplete permit application. Once the Corps gets a complete permit it will be open for public comment for 30 days, she said.


What is the need?

Gregory and other Airport Authority members have stressed that the project is needed to make the runway safer. Gregory has repeatedly noted that a husband and wife died in an airplane crash at the airport in 1995 because the runway was too short. Gregory said a life is more important than artifacts.

But Macon County resident Michael Wyrick said the report from the National Transportation Safety Board indicates that the runway length had nothing to do with the crash.

The cause of the crash was determined to be a “the pilot’s failure to maintain flying speed resulting in an aerodynamic stall. A factor was sun glare,” the NTSB report states.

“From this we can see the aircraft never made contact with the runway and therefore the extra 600 feet of runway would not have helped,” Wyrick said.

And he said the plane that crashed was certified to operate on a 2,000-foot runway, so Macon’s 4,400-foot runway should have been ample.

When asked to comment on the crash report’s assertion that the accident was not a result of the runway being too short, Gregory said he had no comment.

Wyrick said he has been a licensed pilot of the past 28 years and was in management at the Asheville airport for 15 years, and he doesn’t think the runway extension is necessary.

He said if there were a lot of large companies wanting to fly in and out of the airport it might be necessary, but that is not the case. He added that the last accident that occurred at the airport was eight years ago.


Voicing opposition

About 10 residents vented their opposition to the project at the Macon County commissioners meeting on Monday (March 9).

The residents said it is disrespectful to the Cherokee to destroy artifacts and burial grounds.

The commissioners took no action on the comments.

Some residents said if it were a white graveyard it would be looked at differently.

The county’s real strength is in its cultural heritage and it should be protected, the residents said.

Resident Kathleen Walker questioned whether a runway extension is necessary. She said rushing to meet a grant deadline is no reason to extend the runway.

Other residents said an extended runway will decrease the quality of life for the area by bringing in more and larger airplane traffic.

The Airport Authority has stressed that the Macon County Airport will never be used for commercial flights. Gregory has said that once the runway is extended to 5,000 feet it won’t have to be extended again.

Resident Norma Ivey said there is a petition circulating with 84 signatures already against the project. And resident Susan Ervin said Macon County has always worked hard to protect its heritage and should do the same in this case.

Tribal Historic Preservation Office archaeologist Russell Townsend told the commissioners he wants to seek a compromise with the Airport Authority. Townsend said he did not have a specific compromise in mind.


‘No room for compromise’

Gregory told the commissioners there is no room for compromise. Gregory said he thinks his board has done everything it can to accommodate the Cherokee.

The project can’t be delayed because the grant money could be lost, said Gregory.

Commissioner Bob Simpson asked Gregory how long the Authority has before it loses the money, but Gregory didn’t know.

Simpson said he supports pulling the county’s 10 percent match from the project if 100 percent artifact recovery isn’t done. But he does not know if the money can be pulled because it was committed years ago.

However, Commissioner Jim Davis said he is “comfortable” with 25 percent artifact recovery.

Commissioner Bobby Kuppers said he thinks more information needs to be exchanged.

Townsend said it doesn’t appear to him that the county commissioners are going to step in and try to change anything.


Economic impact

The Macon County Airport brings in about $7.9 million annually, according to a N.C. DOT Division of Aviation study from 2006.

Airport Fixed Base Operator Neal Hoppe said if the runway were extended more businesses may come in. Macon EDC Chairman Mark West supports the project for its economic development potential.

A longer runway would make insurance on airplanes more affordable, said Hoppe.

Caterpillar does not fly into the Macon County Airport because the runway isn’t long enough, Hoppe said. Caterpillar said it was not taking a position on the issue of whether the runway should be lengthened and offered no further comment.

At 4,400 feet, Macon’s airport is longer than Jackson County’s, which is only 3,200 feet. But it is shorter than the Andrews/Murphy Airport has a 5,500-foot runway where some planes would rather fly into, said Hoppe.

There are about 30 planes registered at the Macon County Airport, said Hoppe.

Hoppe balks when people say that taxpayer money is being spent on a “rich man’s playground.”

The airport is an “economic stimulus” to the county, bringing in people who purchase things here, said Hoppe. Many who fly here have second homes in Highlands, he noted.

John Makinson has a two-seater Cessna at the airport and said the runway length is fine for a plane his size, but he said corporate jets and cargo planes need more runway.

Whether the runway extension is actually needed depends on the type of growth Macon County has, said Makinson.

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