Holly Kays

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fr cherokeehymnsIt’s Sunday afternoon, and a quartet of musicians — one guitarist, three vocalists — stands at the front of a small room whose rows of chairs hold about twenty people. The guitarist strums a few chords, and the voices join in a familiar tune, “Amazing Grace.” 

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out frWhen the North Carolina Audubon Society announced its campaign to install 10,000 small-holed bird boxes to bolster the population of brown-headed nuthatches, Russ Regnery was intrigued. But, like many environmental issues coming down from Raleigh, the plight of the little songbird had little relevance in the mountains. The birds just don’t live much above 2,000 feet. 

“We kind of felt left out because we didn’t have the bird,” said Regnery, president of the Highlands Plateau Audubon Society. “Then we started thinking, ‘Well shucks, the same principal may apply to other small cavity-nesting birds as well.”

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With 10 candidates coming out for four seats on the Haywood County School board, the races was certainly a contested one, but there will be only one new face on the school board in the next term. Bobby Rogers, senior pastor at Dellwood Baptist Church, ousted incumbent Bob Morris for the Crabtree-Ironduff seat with 62 percent of the vote. 

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Chip Hall closed out a grueling race for the Jackson County sheriff’s seat with a landslide victory against his opponent, Curtis Lambert. The Democrat took 64 percent of the vote compared to Lambert’s 36 percent. 

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The Macon County Board of Commissioners will soon see a new face at the table, and it will be that of the top vote-getter in the four-way race for the Franklin seat — Gary Shields will replace incumbent Ron Haven after pulling down 40 percent of the votes. 

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When Katie Messer first presented her plan to improve water quality and generally spruce up a little-used park in Waynesville, she was just trying to pass a class. The report was intended as her capstone project for the low-impact development program at Haywood Community College, a degree that prepares students to reimagine spaces and construction projects so as to have the least environmental impact possible. 

Now, the East Street Park project is up for a $20,000 grant from the Pigeon River Fund that, if awarded, could translate Messer’s report into real-life change. 

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Of the shoppers polled while coming and going from the Bi-Lo parking lot in Franklin on a recent Thursday, none had to be told what Nikwasi Mound was, and nearly all were aware that the town of Franklin and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are currently at odds about the mound’s future. 

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coverAt 7:30 a.m., darkness is just barely beginning to lift from the pre-dawn fields and forest of Cataloochee Valley. Joe Yarkovich steers his National Park Service vehicle through the valley and past a herd of elk bedded down in a field just past the ranger station. A handful of cars already lines the road, their occupants standing bundled outside holding binoculars and long-lensed cameras. We pass a few more fields, empty of both elk and people, before reaching a pull-off near the Caldwell House. An impressive bull and his harem of cows are practically on the road, close enough to toss a rock at. Or, more importantly, to make a great photo. I tighten my grip on the camera.

“That’s the bull I was looking for,” says Yarkovich, a Great Smoky Mountains National Park wildlife biologist who specializes in elk. This particular elk had lost his radio collar when his neck swelled during mating season, called the rut — for that reason, Yarkovich typically replaces collars on male calves with larger ones as the animals mature.

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fr flyfishingIt’s been two years since Alen Baker, the self-described “instigator” of the effort to create the Fly Fishing Museum of the Southern Appalachians, sent an unsolicited pitch to the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce. But now, the building is renovated and the chamber has moved its offices into part of it. Opening day is slated for May 1, and the museum will hold its first annual fundraising dinner Nov. 1 to gather funds to purchase and display fly-fishing memorabilia from across the region. 

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fr parkwayfriendsWith park funding falling and visitation increasing, keeping those iconic views open along the 46 miles of Blue Ridge Parkway in Haywood County — without breaking the bank — is a challenge. Fast-growing trees and shrubs grow up around the overlooks irrespective of budgets, so when Parkway Superintendent Mark Woods visited the Haywood Tourism Development Authority’s board meeting last week, it was with a view to talk about how to make those dollars stretch. 

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With its landfill nearing capacity, Macon County is taking steps to add a new cell before the existing area fills up about two years from now. They’ve had another phase permitted for about 20 years, but rather than just install a liner in that property and call it a day, the Solid Waste Management Department is looking to buy an adjoining property to add to that already-permitted cell. 

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Things are back on track at Tuscola High School after some threatening graffiti found in a boys bathroom last week caused school officials to send students home a few minutes early. 

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fr animaltherapyDomestic violence in Haywood County — and its effect on children — could take a hit as the Thirtieth Judicial District Domestic Violence-Sexual Assault Alliance starts using the $1 million it won through a competitive federal grant. Only $10 million was dispersed nationwide, but the Alliance’s share of the three-year grant, given through the Office on Violence Against Women through the U.S. Department of Justice, jumped from $400,000 in the last grant cycle to the $1 million it now has to work with. 

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out fr2Ken Czarnomski has always loved sketching and writing, but as a department chair for the sustainability and construction management programs at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, his projects consisted mainly of razor-straight lines and technical engineering language. There wasn’t a lot of room for freehand sketches or colorful commentary. 

After retiring, Czarnomski began looking around for ways to pick up some of those hobbies he’d left untouched as a working professional. At the same time, he wanted to find a way to give back to his community, Haywood County. So, he started sketching hiking maps.

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fr hospicehouseHospice House of WNC passed a hurdle in its fundraising effort when the Macon County Board of Commissioners voted to submit a grant application on the organization’s behalf. In a 4-0 vote, the commissioners unanimously agreed to support the hospice house’s bid for the $100,000 Building Reuse Grant from the N.C. Department of Commerce. 

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When a property tax bill for the old town hall building showed up in the Town of Franklin’s mail, John Henning, the town’s attorney, was surprised. The bill called for a payment of $2,872.22 on a property that Henning said, as a piece of public property, should be exempt from property tax. 

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fr magistrateIn the short walk from the doors of the Swain County Courthouse to the steps outside it, a couple of people stopped Gilbert Breedlove to shake his hand, ask him if it was true he was resigning his post as magistrate judge and express support. After holding the job for nearly 24 years, this was the last day that Breedlove would spend his working hours in the courthouse.

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Waynesville Middle School is set to get a new roof, following a vote by Haywood County Commissioners to approve a project that the Haywood County School Board OK’d Sept. 8. The project will finish off a campaign against leaky roofs that Tracy Hartgrove, the school system’s maintenance director, has been championing since he arrived eight years ago. 

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out fr2A lot of people familiar with Great Smoky Mountains National Park got a surprise earlier this month when an article began making the rounds online claiming that a hiker had discovered an abandoned town in the middle of the park.

“Sometimes it’s easy to take for granted how much land there is in America. Sure, it’s harder and harder to find places that haven’t been explored, but it’s also become easier to forget places that we’ve already been. Kind of like the entire friggin’ town in the middle of Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” read the lead of an article featured on road trip planning site Roadtrippers, later reposted in The Huffington Post. 

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State issues are trickling down to the election debate surrounding the Macon County commissioners’ races. Three of the five seats are open, bringing out a total of six candidates looking for a place on the board. Chief among the topics of discussion surrounding the race are education funding, how to prioritize spending in the wake of the real estate bust and what stand, if any, the county should take on fracking. 

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With shrinking budgets, cries for higher teacher salaries and the struggle to keep test scores high while working with limited funds for resources such as textbooks and technology, local school districts have had their share of challenges this year. Four seats are open in this year’s race for Haywood County School Board, and those opportunities brought out a field of six challengers to face the four incumbents running for re-election. 

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out frAfter landing back in the Eastern Time Zone, Jessica Metz had a hard time keeping her thoughts still. Eight days aboard a ship, circumnavigating the island of Newfoundland and absorbing all she could about the region’s ecology and culture had set her mind spinning. 

“I feel like I am just humming with ideas,” Metz said. “I have so many ideas and so many things I want to get started, and connections that I’m excited to tell the students and the teachers about.”

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Haywood County Commissioners have released a collection of minutes from closed sessions going back to August 2013, detailing discussions surrounding the sale of Haywood Regional Medical Center to Duke LifePoint Healthcare. 

The now-public documents deal with the bidding process, site visits to potential buyers and county commissioners’ questions surrounding the process.

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The Franklin Town Board unanimously approved a petition to rezone a small piece of property off Clyde Street at its meeting Oct. 6, but the public comment preceding that decision was far from unanimous.  

“My main concern is if it does become commercial, things may change and some of the improvements we’ve done to our home will start to fade,” Miguel Santos, 15, told the board, “and I would just really appreciate it if it would stay residential for the peace of our neighborhood and our home.”

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fr altschoolTucked away on the corner of Kentucky and Virginia avenues in the old Hazelwood Elementary School building, the Alternative Learning Center in Waynesville doesn’t look much like a high school. It’s got just four classrooms, and a stroll through the hall during school hours doesn’t reveal the usual scene of a teacher standing in front of orderly rows of desks. In fact, though about 200 students are enrolled at any one time, only 40 or 50 show up each day.

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Work is underway on a multi-million-dollar environmental remediation project on the Old Francis Farm landfill near Waynesville. The first load of dirt was dumped Oct. 7, and on Oct. 6 Haywood County Commissioners approved a $44,500 contract for McGill Associates Engineering to do construction, landfill permitting and stockpile design for the fill dirt.

“It’s been a whirlwind of work from our side, the engineers’ side, and the N.C. DOT,” David Francis, the county’s tax administrator, told commissioners.

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fr seeingeyeWith a visitor in the house and his crate door open, Adam is all kinds of excited. The lanky black lab bounds down the hall, eager to have his head rubbed, his back petted, his chewy bone tossed.

“He’ll try to eat the baby toys, or if [my son] Owen has food, he’ll want it and that kind of stuff, and he tries to get into everything he shouldn’t,” his owner Crystal Plemmons says, nabbing Adam’s collar.

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fr pisgahWith a long construction process coming to an end, students and teachers at Pisgah High School are enjoying a bit more space in their building, and Haywood County Schools Maintenance Director Tracy Hartgrove is happy to be putting the final touches on a project that’s been in the works for more than two years.

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Franklin leaders made their intention to keep Nikwasi Mound in town possession clear this week, rejecting a formal call from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to hand over the property. 

The resolution, passed unanimously, declares that the mound will continue to stay in town possession but that Franklin is open to working out an agreement with the tribe for them to maintain the site.

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out frOrange chaps clipped around their legs, Rankin Fender and Zac O’Connor square off inside the sawdust-and-bark-filled woodshed at Haywood Community College. Late afternoon sunlight angles through the lean-to’s open walls, and the two students each grab hold of one handle of a razor-sharp crosscut saw. They slide the blunt end back and forth along the bolted-down log between them, marking out a groove.  

“Timer ready? Sawyers ready?” asks Ethan Bolick, a seasoned member of the HCC timbersports team. “Three, two, one, go!” 

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fr penningtonTy Pennington is a celebrity carpenter best known for “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” a show that involved lightning-quick remodels of less-than-stellar homes for families with compelling stories about why they needed a better living space. After taking the grand prize in a nationwide voting contest sponsored by home loan company Guaranteed Rate, Haywood Pathways Center won Pennington’s help for a day to help make their vision of a prison turned to a center for healing a reality. 

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coverIt was a scene that any fan — or casual viewer — of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” would find familiar. A crowd, ramped-up and excited, gathered together wearing matching T-shirts. A decrepit property in the background. And Ty Pennington, host of the show, running up in front of them, throwing his arms in the air yelling “Let’s flip this house!” 

SEE ALSO: An interview with Ty Pennington

Except when Pennington came to Hazelwood last week, he didn’t say “house.” Instead, he was there to flip a prison. Specifically, the old Hazelwood prison, which dates back to the 1920s and was closed in 2011. Starting Nov. 1, the facility will serve as a center for healing, housing a Christian-based halfway house, soup kitchen and homeless shelter, jointly referred to as Haywood Pathways Center.

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out franklinAll 11 Macon County schools will now have their own school resource officer, called an SRO, after county commissioners voted unanimously Monday night to institute the eleventh position at Cartoogechaye Elementary School. 

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out fr“I’m gonna mark the spot with an X, right here,” says Tim Petrea, program supervisor for the Waynesville Parks and Recreation Department, tracing his kayak paddle through the water. “That’s a good spot.”

Katie Durbin, 8, maneuvers her stand up paddleboard over to the place Petrea’s indicated.

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Noise was the main topic of conversation at the Sept. 18 meeting of the Macon County Planning Board. The county’s board of commissioners had charged the planning board with looking into a noise ordinance last month after Matlock Creek resident Betty Bennett approached them complaining of noise and partying so bad she and her husband could not sleep at night. 

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The retirement of Jackson County’s current sheriff — and widespread dissatisfaction with the way Jimmy Ashe ran his office — brought out a field of primary election candidates nine deep. And with the general election just around the corner, change is a prime topic of conversation for the two candidates remaining, Democrat Chip Hall and Republican Curtis Lambert.

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The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has joined a growing number of local governments opposing the state legislature’s decision to allow hydraulic fracturing, called fracking, in North Carolina. Earlier this month, tribal council passed a resolution outlawing the practice on tribal lands, a force of authority stronger than what county and municipal governments possess. 

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Osborne Farms is no longer in the dairy business, according to Joe Reardon, assistant commissioner for consumer protection in the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The farm has sold its herd of roughly 30 dairy cows, and but for a few calves the farm is now empty of bovines.

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fr prisonIt’s going to be an eventful next few days in Waynesville. Haywood Pathways Center is in the final stretch of planning a three-day blitz on the old Hazelwood prison, transforming the former state detention center into a combined soup kitchen, halfway house and homeless shelter. They’ll be doing it with the help of an army of volunteers, untold gallons of paint and board-feet of wood — and help from TV personality Ty Pennington.

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coverDowntown Cullowhee doesn’t look much like the thriving little town Rick Bennett found when he first moved to Jackson County in 1966. In the golden era of the 1970s, he reminisces, the little town boasted 17 restaurants, four gas stations, three grocery stores.

A far cry from the struggling crossroads in existence now, where cheap student housing fills buildings once inhabited by small businesses that just couldn’t make it and abandoned buildings punctuate the space between the few that have managed to stay open. The decline stems back to the construction of four-lane N.C. 107, which allowed traffic en route to Western Carolina University to bypass Cullowhee. 

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The U.S. Forest Service is planning to install a gate on Wine Spring Road near Franklin after communications equipment housed less than a mile up the road at Wine Spring Gap was repeatedly stolen and vandalized. Damage has totaled $20,000 in losses, and one of the victims, Macon County Emergency Services, requested that the Forest Service do something about it. 

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Attendees at Cullowhee’s hearing on the proposed oil and gas rules Sept. 12 were overwhelmingly anti-fracking, but a small contingent of men showed up on a bus from Winstom-Salem — provided by the N.C. Energy Forum —  wearing sky blue t-shirts bearing the words “Shale Yes.” Except, fracking opponents are saying, the men weren’t exactly informed proponents of the fossil fuel extraction practice.

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fr frackingIt didn’t take but a glance around the lawn of the Liston B. Ramsey Center at Western Carolina University to see that Sept. 12 was going to be an eventful evening.

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out frBryson City will soon have another feather in the cap proving its worth as an outdoors Mecca. If all goes well, the town will get its name added as a Mountain Heritage Trout Water City by the time summer rolls around again. 

“Trout fishermen come and they stay a while,” said N.C. Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, who filed the original bill calling for the trout city designation. “They stay in your bed and breakfast, they eat at your restaurants and often they bring their other family members.”

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Bruce O’Connell was pretty surprised to see Blue Ridge Parkway Superintendent Mark Woods appear at his door Sept. 8. The Pisgah Inn owner had submitted his bid for a contract renewal to operate the inn off the Blue Ridge Parkway weeks earlier and had expected to be holding his breath on the outcome for quite a while. 

But Woods had come to say that, congratulations, O’Connell had won another 10 years. 

“I’m not really thinking right now,” O’Connell said when asked his thoughts on the renewal. “I’m just kind of soaking it in. I’m happy, the crew’s happy, word is spreading. It’s all good.”

O’Connell first came to the inn, located off mile 408.6 of the Parkway, in 1978 when he bought in with his parents, and he’s been through two contract renewals with the National Park Service since. This time, though, he’d been fearful of losing out to one of the big concessions companies that, in his view, have been eating up more and more local operators. He even hired a consultant to write his proposal this time, paying a sum that he would only define as “big bucks.” 

“Mr. O’Connell and his family have provided services to millions of visitors over 35 years on the Parkway,” Wood said in a press release. “We are pleased that Parkway Inn, Inc. will continue this rich tradition.”

The inn includes a 51-room lodge, restaurant, gift shop, country store and employee housing. The contract awards O’Connell management of the inn for 10 more years, through the end of 2024. 

The bid process is closed, and the Park Service would not say whether any other bidders submitted a proposal. Regardless, O’Connell is looking forward to a return to business as usual. 

“I want to get back to normal and doing what we do right now and not worry about all this crazy stuff,” O’Connell said. 

The Smoky Mountain News’ cover story on the contract renewal is online at www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/14046-a-concessionaire-s-conundrum-pisgah-inn-owner-hoping-nps-contract-renewal-yields-10-more-years-of-local-ownership. 

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It was back to school for a group of staunch fracking opponents on Friday, Sept. 5. The corner conference room in the Jackson County Public Library was a bit small for the 20 people crammed in to it, but they were ready to learn. 

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A walk through the parking lot was all that was necessary to see that a diverse crowd had gathered to hear what the group of panelists N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, had assembled had to say about fracking. Cars outside the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts in Franklin sported bumper stickers promoting everything from gun rights to local foods, their owners pouring into the auditorium by the hundreds to settle into self-assigned pro- and anti-fracking seating blocks. 

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Western North Carolina is no longer on State Geologist Ken Taylor’s schedule for this fall’s tour de hydrocarbons in North Carolina. Taylor had planned to come to WNC in September to collect rock samples from road rights-of-way to test their carbon content. That initial test would have determined whether there was any point in pursuing shale gas exploration in the region any further.

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cover 330 200Anyone who’s read a newspaper, turned on a TV or listened to chitchat in a grocery store sometime over the last six months has probably heard about North Carolina’s impending foray into the world of natural gas exploration. At the end of May, the state legislature passed a bill to lift a statewide moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for fossil fuels. And in July, the Mining and Energy Commission released a draft set of rules to govern the industry. 

SEE ALSO: WNC shale gas study cancelled
Fracking panel draws crowd in FranklinFracking opponents prepare for battle

Depending who you ask, that document contains either the strictest regulations of any of the 34 states that allow the practice, or a joke specially designed to favor industry and render citizens powerless. 

The rules document covers a lot of ground in its 105-page span, but some sections are especially adept at drawing out praise from supporters and criticism from opponents.

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Rep. Mark Meadows, R-Cashiers, went head-to-head with Tom Hill, D-Zirconia, his challenger for the 11th District Congressional seat, in a debate last week at Western Carolina University. Open seats were sparse in the A.K. Hinds University Center’s auditorium as the candidates debated everything from income inequality to the Ukraine in a debate sponsored by the university’s Public Policy Institute and Department of Political Science and Public Affiars. 

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