Webster Enterprises, a community rehabilitation program serving those with disabilities and disadvantages in Jackson, Macon and Swain counties, wants money from the three counties so the nonprofit can create additional jobs.
“I wouldn’t ask, if we didn’t really need it,” said the group’s executive director, Gene Robinson. “I wouldn’t have the nerve if I didn’t think it was an excellent investment.”
Robinson asked Jackson County commissioners this week for $20,000 to be given to Webster Enterprises during the next fiscal year, and for a low-interest loan of $50,000.
The group plans to ask both Macon and Swain counties for $20,000 each, too.
“We’re going to create jobs, a lot of jobs,” Robinson told Jackson County’s commissioners.
Webster Enterprises wants to provide training and support to more than 50 people with disabilities. Robinson said the workers would make disposable drape covers used by hospitals during surgeries.
“Do you have immediate contracts with hospitals, suppliers?” Commissioner Charles Elders asked.
Robinson said not exactly — Webster Enterprises sells to a third party buyer who packs a to-go kit, complete with the drape, goggles, sponges and more, to hospitals.
Times are tough, and in response Jackson County department heads have been ordered to reduce spending by 3 percent between now and June 30, the end of the current fiscal year.
Additionally, a hiring freeze will continue and the use of part-time employees will be curtailed as much as possible to save dollars, interim County Manager Chuck Wooten told the Jackson County Board of Commissioners this week.
Every county in North Carolina has braced for upcoming cuts as a result of the state’s $3.7 billion shortfall. But Jackson County is having problems just getting through the next few months, at least in terms of meeting its projected revenues and expenditures for the current fiscal year.
Wooten, who took over the county’s top paid slot in January on a temporary basis after serving as Western Carolina University’s finance officer for 30 years, crunched the budget numbers and determined Jackson County was facing a shortfall of its own: $336,004, to be exact.
Property taxes haven’t been collected at the rate projected, and the failure of residents to pay vehicle taxes compounded the problems, he said. Jackson County’s budget for this year assumed a property tax collection rate of 95.4 percent. The actual collection rate is running about .62 percent behind.
Wooten instituted these additional steps:
• Travel to conferences and for professional development will be approved only when it is necessary to maintain a license or certification. All travel must be approved in advance, and out-of-state travel is out, unless it involves licensing.
• Equipment not yet purchased has to be approved by Wooten before being bought, and the purchase won’t be approved unless it is absolutely necessary.
• Employees have been asked to avoid stockpiling supplies, and to buy only what is needed to get through the year.
County employees must submit lists of budget savings to Finance Officer Darlene Fox by Feb. 11, according to a memorandum sent this week by Wooten to department heads.
“In addition to these immediate budget actions, I will be evaluating other county policies and practices to determine if budget savings are available by implementing modifications,” he wrote.
Wooten warned county employees that the new budget for fiscal year 2011-12 would likely reflect an expected three to five percent reduction in tax and locally generated revenues, and to plan accordingly.
“It is apparent that our tax base will not increase at levels similar to past years,” Wooten wrote.
A meeting to form a new Friends of the Green Energy Park organization in Jackson County is set for 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 18.
“In order to continue operating and moving forward, the Green Energy Park will need a lot of volunteer help,” said Timm Muth, the park’s director. “We can use help with everything from working on equipment to pulling weeds, and a whole lot in-between.”
Muth will share long-range and short-term plans, and lead a discussion about the future form of the park.
Jackson County commissioners have discussed weaning the Green Energy Park from county subsidies over five years, which translates to about a 20 percent cut in county funding annually until that goal is reached. Jackson County has budgeted more than $1.2 million for the park since it opened in 2006.
The Green Energy Park uses methane created by decomposing trash at the old Dillsboro landfill to help fuel a blacksmith shop, greenhouse and glassblowers’ studio.
Volunteers with skills are needed — or an interest and willingness to learn — in the following areas: bookkeeping, giving tours, planning art classes, marketing, fundraising, gallery operations, landscaping, equipment maintenance and more.
The meeting will be held in the new Jackson County Senior Center off Webster Road near Southwestern Community College.
There aren’t any strip joints, dirty bookstores or other adult establishments currently in Jackson County, but Sheriff Jimmy Ashe wants regulations put in place ... just in case.
Passing an adult establishment ordinance, Ashe said this week to the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, is “more of a preventative matter” at this juncture.
“I think we are just getting ahead of the game in case this is ever facing us,” the sheriff said. “It may never happen, or it may happen in five years.”
Besides, Ashe added, “I think this is the Bible belt of North Carolina, and we have traditions and cultures here.”
And those traditions and cultures apparently don’t include off-color shim-sham shops.
Ashe said he became concerned about the lack of regulations in Jackson County when Harrah’s Cherokee Casino started work on being allowed to serve alcohol. About that same time, the state loosened laws on alcohol-serving clubs, and Ashe said he started getting concerned.
The Jackson County Planning Board put together an ordinance with the guidance of County Planner Gerald Green. Commissioners decided to hold a public hearing March 7 at 1:30 p.m. on the proposed regulations.
Green explained the ordinance, if adopted, would require businesses pay a $5,000 fee to open up, and entertainers $2,500 each to strut their stuff. The county-issued licenses would be good for one year before requiring renewal, at 50 percent of the initial fee. Other requirements would include criminal-background checks, buffers from institutions such as churches, and standards on “touching” and “covering.”
Macon County Schools, like other local school systems in North Carolina, has been warned by state leaders to plan for cuts that could mount as high as 15 percent.
Along with other county departments, the school system will have to make some difficult choices in the days and months to come, Macon County commissioners agreed during a recent work session. Such as tapping into the schools’ fund balance — broadly speaking, the difference between assets and liabilities on its balance sheet — to help reconcile financial needs with actual available dollars.
Macon County Schools Superintendent Dan Brigman said this week the schools’ current fund balance comes to about $3 million. This money, Brigman noted, includes certain money allocated last summer by the federal government.
“We have worked very hard in the Macon County school system to preserve the fund balance in preparation for the loss of (some state money) to be removed July 1,” Brigman said, which will create an immediate “$2.4 million deficit in our state budget allocations for Macon County as a result of these dollars being taken away.”
Also important to understand, Brigman said, is that additional cuts might well come from the state.
Hard times, however, might call for hard choices.
“I always sound like I’m down on the school board,” Commissioner Bobby Kuppers said, adding that he’s not against school board members — rather, Kuppers emphasized, he’s a big supporter.
However, Kuppers said, “their fund balance is our fund balance — the bottom line is, they can’t look to me for $2.5 million while protecting $3 million … we’ve got to be really smart, and really careful, about what we invest our fund balance in.”
Macon County Manager Jack Horton told commissioners a 15-percent cut by the state to local schools could translate to the loss of 5,000 teaching positions statewide.
Kevin Corbin, a long-time Macon County Board of Education member who stepped in to complete the final two years of commissioner-now-state-senator Jim Davis’ term, said he doesn’t believe the county’s fund balance would be well spent funding continuing expenses such as salaries.
“(But) if this year and next year we have truly bottomed out, then using the fund balance (to bridge the gap) isn’t a bad thing,” Corbin said.
“We’ve had to make some very hard decisions the last three years,” Commission Chairman Brian McClellan said. “It’s going to be more of the same, and nobody is exempt from that.”
Macon County Schools’ entire total budget to operate the school system is $31,579,444.
Hear that lonesome whistle blow? Dillsboro a little less alone with limited train service this winter
In many ways, Brian Hockman and wife Carrie of Claymates, a “paint your own pottery experience,” serve as the perfect business portrait of the new Dillsboro.
This is Dillsboro post the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. A Dillsboro that maybe hasn’t exactly risen from the ashes like some resurrected phoenix, but a town that has, nonetheless, persevered and survived.
Claymates is located in the downtown section on Front Street: within a hop, skip and a jump of the railroad tracks that run through the town. The train once served as a major business conduit, disgorging crowds of tourists — about 60,000 a year — into the waiting arms of merchants.
Brian and Carrie Hockman came to Dillsboro a short time after the tourist train pulled out in 2008. In the midst of the recession, the train consolidated business operations to its new headquarters in nearby Bryson City and canceled passenger service to Dillsboro. The train moved just one county away, but the shift might as well have been to the moon as far as Dillsboro merchants were concerned.
People lost jobs — 22 full-time railroad employees and a handful of part-time workers were stranded. Stores lost money. Businesses went elsewhere.
So why did Brian and Carrie Hockman settle on the economically (and for merchants, emotionally) depressed Dillsboro during such a bleak period?
The rent was low in those just post-train days, and Pennsylvania native Brian Hockman was eager to start a business showcasing his photography. As a sideline, his wife started Claymates, a pick-out-a-cute-porcelain-figure-and-paint-it-yourself business — and the sideline became the mainline as the couple built a successful store. Brian and Carrie Hockman don’t depend heavily on tourists and walk-ins. Claymates instead relies more on events such as birthday parties, girls-nights out and office parties.
So recent news that the Great Smoky Mountains Railway has once again expanded seasonal excursions into Dillsboro doesn’t matter that much to Brian Hockman. Truth be told, he really just hopes his rent won’t increase as a result.
Other business owners in this small Jackson County town are more excited than that. But they, too, remain cautious — any help during these hard economic times is, of course, welcome news. Just be clear on this: Dillsboro won’t ever put all of its eggs back in that one basket again.
Here’s the deal
Great Smoky Mountains Railroad started four-hour roundtrip excursions from Bryson City to Dillsboro in January, and plans to continue them through this month. Tourists riding the train have an hour-and-a-half layover to wander the town.
On occasion, that layover means an extra customer or two for Jill Cooper at Haircuts by Jill on Front Street. Men who decide they need a trimming and a place to sit while their wives shop, she said, or men ordered in by their wives who want to visit other stores without them hovering nearby. Additionally, some of the train’s employees get their hair cut while in Dillsboro.
But even though the direct business benefit might be of marginal importance for Haircuts by Jill, Cooper is very happy the train is back — no matter for how briefly, or for such a short layover.
“It’s exciting,” she said.
The train has brought back a certain liveliness missing since it left, said Cooper, who lives — as well as works — in Dillsboro.
Limited runs by Great Smoky Mountains Railroad started back up in 2010, with the train bringing tourists in June, July, August and October. Peak season summer and fall runs were a good sign, but trips in the winter are an even better indication that Dillsboro might again secure a place in the train’s long-range regional vision.
“It is a bigger deal because we are coming in the winter,” agreed Sarah Conley, marketing manager for Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.
It turns out Dillsboro’s character was popular with train riders, and that had a lot to do with the train’s decision to restore passenger service to the town.
“Dillsboro is such a quaint little lively town, and it has a lot of strongholds. It is an added bonus for riders to have a destination. When they get off they say, ‘Oh this is neat. It is a little quaint historic town,’” Conley said.
Additionally, the 32-mile roundtrip from Bryson City to Dillsboro has sights that interest most riders, Conley said. There is the 836-foot Cowee Tunnel to pass through, The Fugitive movie site to eyeball, and the scenic Tuckasegee River to enjoy.
“Another thing that is really neat on the way to Dillsboro is they go by the train shop where our engineers work on the trains,” Conley said.
While the recession is still taking its toll on tourism, Conley said ridership was up last year compared to 2009.
Many of the passengers on these winter excursions are day-trippers, the marketing manager said. People who have visited Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and are looking for more things to do. Tourists who come over the Smokies by way of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tenn., for an opportunity to ride the train, and North Carolina residents who are in search of something to do on the weekend.
In early January, new customers came into Twin Oaks Gallery and told owner Susan Leveille they had learned about her shop after visiting Dillsboro via a ride on the train.
“That was more than I had heard in a long time,” Leveille said of the train-Dillsboro connection.
Twin Oaks Gallery, which features works in pottery, glass, iron and such by local artisans and craftspeople, isn’t in direct sight of the train tracks. That means Leveille can’t be sure exactly how much business Great Smoky Mountains Railroad funnels into her store — she must rely on customers to tip her off.
“In concept, though, I think it is a great thing they are making trips here and connecting with Dillsboro again,” the longtime business owner said. “It can’t be anything but good for us.”
Staff writer Becky Johnson contributed to this report.
The situation doesn’t look promising for the formation of a new wilderness area in the Nantahala National Forest, the dream child of Brent Martin, the Sylva-based Southern Appalachian program director for The Wilderness Society.
Martin envisioned easy political passage of the Bob Zahner Wilderness Area. He now acknowledges that his early optimism was misplaced. This veteran environmentalist remains puzzled, however, as to what exactly — politically speaking — happened to what he initially considered a “no-brainer.”
U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, has promised to support the designation, but on this condition: the Macon County Board of Commissioners must first pass a resolution of support. That, however, isn’t likely to happen when the five-man board meets Feb. 8, with a vote for or against the resolution set to take place.
Nor is the vote breaking down along predictable party lines — Democrats for the proposal and Republicans against. In fact, the only certain “yes” vote at this point would be cast by a Republican — Board Chairman Brian McClellan, who represents the Highlands district near where the new Bob Zahner Wilderness Area would be carved out.
A survey of commissioners taken last week by The Smoky Mountain News revealed two flatly against the proposal: Democrat Ronnie Beale and Republican Ron Haven. Two say they are still studying the issue but have reservations about whether it deserves their support: Democrat Bobby Kuppers and Republican Kevin Corbin.
What’s at stake
Martin wants to see more wilderness areas designated in North Carolina. He believes in wilderness, he loves the idea of wilderness, and he makes no bones about his commitment to the concept of permanently protecting special areas in these mountains by having them designated wilderness.
A protected, designated wilderness rules out certain uses. Logging, of course. But also machines such as chainsaws and vehicles can’t be used, the biggest sticking point for new Macon County Commissioner Haven.
“There are residences near there,” he said. “What if there is a fire?”
Martin also has run up against fears that a road through the Overflow Wilderness Study Area might eventually be closed to vehicular use. This even though, he said, any local resolution by commissioners and legislation by Congress would specifically spell out that the road would remain open.
The Wilderness Society representative has gotten plenty of support for the concept, but probably not enough to overweigh a thumb’s down from county commissioners. Voting yes to the idea: The Highlands Town Board, Highlands Biological Station, Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust, Jackson-Macon Conservation Alliance, Western North Carolina Alliance and the N.C. Bartram Trail Society, among others.
So, what happened?
That’s hard to pinpoint, frankly. Martin himself is unsure. In nearby Buncombe County, commissioners there supported his proposal to change the 2,890-acre Craggy Mountains Wilderness Study Area to designated Wilderness without so much as a murmur of protest.
• Did Martin underestimate the power of the word “wilderness” in the farthest reaches of Western North Carolina, where many natives remain emotionally bruised by the forced exodus of residents during the formation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — and, during World War II, by the creation of Fontana Lake in Swain and Graham counties and Lake Glenville in southern Jackson County?
• Did a forest service recalcitrant to more stipulations placed on forest-health management throw a monkey wrench in the works by raising questions about what a wilderness designation might really mean?
• Or, is the formation of a designated wilderness area simply unnecessary, as several of the commissioners indicate they believe to be the case, because the acres being eyed already have protection as a wilderness study area? As a study area, no road building and no timber management now.
Whatever the truth, Macon County Commission Chairman McClellan wants the issue resolved, and soon. He is more worried about what the $3.7 billion projected state budget shortfall might do to his county.
“We just need to make some kind of decision and move forward,” McClellan said.
Nuts and bolts
What: The 3,200-acre Overflow Wilderness Study Area southwest of Highlands would be designated the Bob Zahner Wilderness Area. The area is accessible by N.C. 106, Forest Service Road 79 (1.79 miles, accesses the popular Glen Falls trailhead), and the Bartram Trail.
The area contains the headwaters of the West Fork of Overflow Creek and ranges from 2,500 feet to 4,000 feet in elevation. It includes upland oak forest, with some cove hardwoods and white pine, according to the U.S. Forest Service, with most timber stands 60 to 80 years old. There is also old-growth forest in the area, conservations say. Heavy recreational use of the area includes fishing, hiking, camping and backpacking.
Why: The name suggested is in honor of the late Highlands conservationist Bob Zahner. The purpose is to protect this area permanently from logging and any kind of future development.
How: A Wilderness designation would require approval by the U.S. Congress, via legislation introduced by Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville. He wants Macon County commissioners’ OK, however, before doing so.
1979: During the nationwide Roadless Area Review, the Overflow Area was recommended for “further planning.” This meant that additional review was necessary before the Forest Service could recommend the Overflow Area be designated wilderness.
1984: The N.C. Wilderness Act designated the Overflow Area as a Wilderness Study Area. This meant the Forest Service should conduct a wilderness study and make a recommendation to Congress.
1987: The Forest Land Management Plan for the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests recommended the area not be designated a wilderness Area. Usage directions were for semi-primitive, non-motorized recreation.
1991: A bill introduced by then U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor would have released the Overflow Area from the designation as a wilderness study area, but did not make it out of committee.
Source: U.S. Forest Service
Back in the day, say the late 1980s through about 2000, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s hate map featured Western North Carolina prominently. In fact, along with a few states such as Idaho and Montana, in many ways this section of North Carolina was the group’s hate map.
I found our notoriety depressing. I’m proud to have grown up in this area, but I certainly wasn’t proud about what some of my neighbors were up to: hate mongering, intimidation and nutty-over-the-edge political shenanigans.
Such as, a shadowy White supremacist printing press in western Swain County, with the post office in Bryson City reportedly (unknowingly, mind you) serving as a hub for the sending forth of hate-spewing books on the “intellectual” reasons why Whites are superior to other races. I’m not sure there was ever much news coverage on that fellow, who has since gone to meet his maker. He wrote under a pseudonym I no longer remember.
In the Otto community of neighboring Macon County, Ben Klassen stayed busy penning other contributions for the we-hate-anyone-different literary world.
Klassen wrote five books. Members of the neo-Nazi The Creativity Movement still use Klassen’s The White Man’s Bible as their main text, and adhere to his calls for RaHoWa, or Racial Holy War. Klassen originally dubbed his group the Church of the Creator. Members had to change the name in 2003 because of a trademark dispute. There’s something humorous about that, but The Creativity Movement is so violent and over the edge nutsoid, I can’t summon even a faint attempt at a joke.
Klassen, a former Republican state representative in Florida and early inventor of the can opener, didn’t just write about hate, he taught it — at the School for Gifted White Boys outside of Franklin. He killed himself in 1993 with an overdose of sleeping pills. Not out of guilt, mind you, but apparently because he was severely depressed following his wife’s death.
In the mid-1990s, after Klassen mercifully and permanently went away, common-law courts became all the rage. This wasn’t so much about hate as evading taxes, in my humble opinion. Plenty of WNC residents who’d probably rather I didn’t mention their names in print happily jumped on the bandwagon, declaring themselves “sovereign citizens” and refusing to give the government its annual due.
Members held pseudo-courts (Waynesville and Franklin were hotspots), and placed various government authorities on “trial.” These fine men and women pushed for a return to gold as the main currency (still a hot topic among some right-wingers), and filled up local register of deeds offices with pages and pages of their “court transcripts.” Complete, thoughtfully, with members’ thumbprints as proof of identities. Which no doubt came in handy when the FBI got interested, as ultimately occurred after Peter Kay Stern, another fine Macon County resident who styled himself chief justice of a common-law court, was charged with threatening real U.S. judicial authorities.
The so-called patriot movement kept going strong until Eric Robert Rudolph took the fun out of wearing camouflage and saying ugly, threatening things aloud about the federal government. Rudolph lived in the far northwestern corner of Macon County. Which, I’m sorry to say because I’m very fond of Macon County, keeps popping up in this account. I truly can’t figure out why, but Macon County gets more nuts per capita than anywhere else in WNC.
Mentioning WNC’s very own convicted serial bomber triggers remembrances of Nord Davis in Cherokee County (Nord lived just a few miles away from Macon County. I figure his car must have run out of gas near Andrews when he was moving to this region). Davis was a longtime anti-government and Christian Identity member, which is a particularly virulent strain of hate. Davis was leader of the 130-acre North Point Team compound and possibly had ties to Rudolph.
Regardless of whether they really knew one another, Davis is dead now and Rudolph is enjoying the rest of his life in a federal jail cell. Just down the hall, in fact, from unabomber Ted Kaczynski. (Both Rudolph and Kaczynski were represented by lawyer Judy Clarke, who has been tapped to represent Jared Laughner — he of the Arizona-shootings, kooky crazy-eyes mug-shot fame. Clarke, in it’s-a-small-world-after-all note, was born in Asheville and attended T.C. Roberson High School)
Mark Potok, who heads the watch on extremists for the Southern Poverty Law Center, agreed “things have quieted down” in our neck of the woods since Rudolph bombed the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Ga., and two abortion clinics.
A lot of the militia activity, Potok said in a recent conversation, appears to have moved over the border into neighboring South Carolina.
But there is still some activity in WNC, at least among the so-called “patriot” groups. Waynesville, it seems, has its very own N.C. Citizen Militia. Don’t you feel safer in Haywood County knowing this fact? Interestingly enough, learning about an armed pseudo militia in Waynesville has exactly the opposite effect on me. Probably because I’m suspicious I’m the very sort of person they are “protecting” themselves from.
Efforts to contact the group and ask what they are up to weren’t successful. But it looks like the same old junk to me, just, this time, not based in Macon County … though I’m sure some link to Franklin will surface soon.
From the N.C. Citizen Militia webpage:
“While government continues its decades long effort to diminish and otherwise disavow the role and identity of the unorganized militia, (and continues to abdicate their Constitutional responsibility to support it), in fact the authority, duty and responsibility of armed citizens as the unorganized militia has never changed. The ultimate responsibility of maintaining a free nation has always and must remain in the hands of America’s citizens.”
Fortunately, the N.C. Citizen Militia states it disavows violence and aggression, and is a self-described “defense-oriented organization,” whatever that means.
The overall language sure sounds familiar, though — like a tune we’ve heard in WNC too many times before.
The Green Energy Park would stand on its own financially within five years if Jackson County adopts recommendations made last week by interim County Manager Chuck Wooten.
The park, which uses methane created by decomposing trash at the old Dillsboro landfill to help fuel a blacksmith shop, greenhouse and glassblowers’ studio, touched off a storm of criticism and a corresponding groundswell of support recently after county commissioners questioned expenses.
In particular, new Jackson County Commissioner Doug Cody, a Republican, has wanted to know when — as promised by the previous commissioners — the Green Energy Park would be financially self-sustaining.
Wooten laid out a solution during a county work session last week. He suggested the county wean the Green Energy Park gradually, reducing support to the park by 20 percent starting the next fiscal year for each of the next five years.
Jackson County has budgeted more than $1.2 million for the park since 2006. The county anticipated spending $1 million anyway to deal with methane gas issues related to closing the landfill. Under Wooten’s plan, the county would cover expenses related to the maintenance of the closed landfill that would exist regardless of the Green Energy Park.
Wooten, in prepared comments, noted: “In addition to the gas reclamation, the jobs created at the park, and the educational value provided to the community, the county has also benefited indirectly from the park.”
The grounds department, Wooten said, estimated it saves about $39,000 each year by using the greenhouses at the park for growing annuals and propagating shrubs and trees. Additionally, the park has assumed some of the expenses for dealing with the volatile pollutant that otherwise would fall to the county.
Wooten added that he believes building a volunteer force to help cover costs and needs associated with the innovative project won’t be difficult.
“There’s a lot of support out there for the Green Energy Park,” Wooten told commissioners.
Board Chairman Jack Debnam, a conservative Independent, told park Director Timm Muth: “The supporters of your park are passionate, and I appreciate that … my question to these people is, ‘What can you do to help us keep the park?’”
Debnam went on to extol the Friends of the Library organization, which has raised the money necessary to build and furnish a new library for Sylva. He suggested that group of volunteers could serve as a model for something similar for the Green Energy Park.
Muth seemed receptive to Debnam’s and Wooten’s suggestions. He went on to apologize to commissioners in the event they believed he behaved less than professionally when questioned by them in a previous meeting.
The director went on to note he believes Jackson has “transformed” the former Dillsboro landfill from “an eyesore to something the county can be proud of.”
Muth, who had earlier noted to commissioners: “I know I just kind of talk and talk,” then proceeded to express his apparent ongoing discontent with news coverage over the five-year history of the venture. He said special events at the park haven’t received the front-page placement in local publications that he believes they merit. Muth concluded his soliloquy with bemusement about how to “engage the media.”
There is one surefire, never-fail method of engaging reporters and getting that coveted front-page coverage: continue having commissioners raise questions about management of the Green Energy Park, and about whether taxpayers’ dollars are best spent underwriting the park and Muth’s $64,626.12 annual salary.
The road to solvency
Weaning the Jackson County Green Energy Park from county subsidies in the next five years could be possible under a plan outlined by interim County Manager Jack Wooten.
• Continue a freeze on the vacant administrative support position at the park. Volunteers instead will be found to help Director Timm Muth staff the office and serve as administrative helpers.
• Actively pursue grants in support of the general operations or program expansion at the park.
• Reactivate an advisory committee to guide the director concerning park operations.
• Review and update all operating procedures and policies for the park.
• Develop a comprehensive marketing plan, and put up signs to guide visitors to the park and give them information once inside.
• Seek additional tenants.
• Identify partners within the community and identify new business opportunities for the park.
• Continue providing grounds maintenance and routine building maintenance.
• Have the park’s director provide written quarterly updates to commissioners and appear annually before the commissioners with representatives from the advisory committee.
The second and final public hearing on whether the N.C. Department of Transportation should widen and pave Needmore Road took place in Macon County last week.
Needmore Road is a rough, one-lane, 3.3-mile gravel road along the Little Tennessee River in Macon and Swain counties. It parallels N.C. 28, but on the opposite bank. The road runs through the protected Needmore Game Lands. A broad coalition of environmentalists, hunters, local residents and others saved the 4,400-acre tract from development some six years ago after raising $19 million to buy the land from Duke Energy.
Twenty-seven people spoke at the recent hearing. Additionally, the entire five-member Macon County Board of Commissioners turned out to listen, along with transportation department officials. These comments come on top of nearly 800 signatures on a petition supporting some type of paving or resurfacing, and at least 66 written comments sent in to the department of transportation earlier. Plus, about 25 people spoke publicly at a previous public hearing last fall.
In a follow-up discussion, DOT spokesperson Julia Merchant told The Smoky Mountain News a post-hearing meeting would be held in about six weeks “to discuss each and every comment that has come in on the Needmore project. Then, we’ll make a decision as to whether future studies will be conducted.”
Merchant said no percentage weight is assigned directly to public support or opposition.
“So I guess you could say it’s more intuitive,” she said. “Public comments certainly weigh in the decision making, but we have to balance them against engineering criteria. We also have to weigh other engineering criteria such as cost, traffic surveys and impacts to the human environment in order to come up with the best solutions.”
Local boards are finding themselves on the wrong end of the dog when it comes to putting together budgets for the upcoming fiscal year.
In Jackson and Macon counties, at work sessions held by commissioners in their respective counties last week, much of the discussion at these relatively informal get-togethers involved speculation on when — and what — might be expected from the state General Assembly.
The state, as it were, would be the front end of the dog.
North Carolina is facing a projected $3.7 billion shortfall. Thousands of state jobs are threatened, with massive cuts expected to come for health and human services, schools and other critical services offered on the state and local level.
So, what does that mean for counties?
“There are certain things we have to provide,” said Evelyn Southard, finance officer for Macon County.
And not knowing how much money will come down the pike from the state complicates matters, she said. When counties will know the full extent of the financial devastation is unknown, but that knowledge is critical to local boards starting preparations on budgets for the next fiscal year.
Macon County Manager Jack Horton warned his board that even though members of the General Assembly are making happy noises about having their budget passed by the end of June, August is more typical, and the state has actually lagged before into October.
“We have to have the (ability) to take care of the county business whether the state gets their house in order or not,” said Horton, a veteran administrator who has also worked over the years in Swain and Haywood counties.
Jackson faces immediate shortfall
In Jackson County, officials were concerned about staying within this year’s budget in addition to preparing next year’s.
Jackson County must either slow its spending, interim Manager Chuck Wooten said, or the county must dip into the fund balance — those are the two choices facing Jackson’s commissioners. An across-the-board cut for county departments seems the most palatable option of the two, Wooten said.
The problem is not enough people are paying their taxes in Jackson County. A gap between the budgeted tax-collection rate for the current fiscal year, and the actual collection rate occurring so far is 0.62 percent off what was originally projected. Sounds tiny, but that adds up to big bucks: there is a projected revenue shortfall for the current year of $336,004, including failures to pay vehicle taxes.
The recession has taken its toll on all counties when it comes to people paying their taxes. Jackson’s budget for this year assumes a property tax collection rate of 95.4 percent. Last year, the tax collection rate was only 94.8 percent, but county leaders apparently banked on it coming back up.
Wooten said as a result this year’s budget is “too optimistic,” though he stopped short of assigning blame. Wooten replaced longtime County Manager Kenneth Westmoreland in January.
In response, Jackson County commissioners indicated they would probably become more aggressive in tackling tax scofflaws.
“Why have we not gone after this?” Jackson Chairman Jack Debnam asked, presumably of the only two (Democrats) commissioners who remain from the previous board.
Debnam then answered his own question: “I know, we’re a small county — they could be friends and relatives.”
New Commissioner Doug Cody, a Republican, warned his fellow members that favoritism must play no role.
“If we go down this road, it is important to treat everyone equally,” he said.
Macon County leaders, by comparison, were merry about having a mere $34,283 projected discrepancy.
“And I think there’s some room in here for our expenditures and revenues to be even better than is shown here,” Southard said.
In other state-local government news, the N.C. Association of County Commissioners last week passed a list of legislative goals the group wants state leaders to adopt. Beale, who attended the meeting, summarized the top five priority goals of the group:
• Oppose shifting road maintenance from the state to the counties.
• Reinstate Average Daily Membership, a formula that uses school enrollment to determine funding levels, and lottery funds for school construction.
• Ensure adequate mental-health funding by seeking legislation for adequate capacity of state-funded acute psychiatric beds; oppose closing state-funded beds until there is adequate capacity statewide, and seek legislation to maintain the existing levels of state funding for community mental-health services.
• Preserve the existing local-revenue base (don’t take money streams away from already-hurting local governments).
• Authorize local revenue options by allowing counties to enact by resolutions, or at the option of boards of commissioners, by voter referendum any or all revenue options from among those that have been authorized for any other county.
I detect signs of spring. Whether this is fantasy or reality, that’s for you to decide, but I choose to cling to these wisps of hope. Just this past week I grew heartily tired of winter, after cheerily pretending to myself since November that I enjoy snow and cold. Which I truthfully did like for a time, but enough is enough: I’m sick of it now. Here are my signs:
• White-breasted nuthatches are starting to hang out together. My recollection is they stay paired more or less all year, but the males and females grow less fond of one another after the mating season, and pursue individual interests until January or so. Then they grow amorous once again, and the male decides it’s not such a bad thing after all to allow his beloved first crack at the sunflower tray instead of chasing her away and greedily devouring said seeds himself without sharing.
Or, that might not be exactly how the bird-behavior experts describe the nuthatch-mating ritual, but I enjoy my version enough that it would be a shame to look it up and find truth and reality is otherwise, which so often is the case in life. I do remember for sure and accurately (I think) that white-breasted nuthatches are the earliest of our year-round birds to begin the mating process. And mine do seem to be visiting the feeders together; or rather, one flies in to feed while the other patiently waits a turn, and they are making “yank, yank, yank” or is it “hank, hank, hank” noises at one another (that would be “I love you” in nuthatch speak, by the way. See if you get a True Fact like that in a run-of-the-mill nature or birding column).
• The garlic bulbs I planted in November have sprouted through the heavy layer of straw mulch placed on top. Now that’s not really a sign of spring — they probably sprouted on a warm day shortly after being planted — but it is pleasing to me, so I note it here. Seeing the sprouts trigger a warm self-congratulatory glow when I pass them, because I actually got them in the ground when I was supposed to — this instead of letting them molder in a paper bag tucked away somewhere in the corner of the shed or garage, which is often the fate for bulbs in my care.
• The hellebores are budding. I believe it was Elizabeth Lawrence, one of my favorite garden writers, who so accurately noted the earliest flowers are the most important. (That might not be exactly what Lawrence wrote, but the sentiment is close enough, and her books are out of reach on a shelf about 5 feet away from where I’m writing. It would be a hardship to actually get up, walk over there, and hunt down the passage I’m referencing.) Lawrence, as I recollect, was writing about the delicate spring flowers, which if they bloomed in summer would be overshadowed by the great drama queens flowering then. The delicate whites and pinks that charm us early on would be lost in the bawdy colors of summer.
• The tips of the maple trees seem to have developed a slightly reddish tinge. That is good — maples are one of the important early sources of nectar for honeybees in Western North Carolina. My journals indicate they usually start flowering about the first of March, at least down in the lower elevations along warm, sun-facing slopes. I believe the three stands of honeybees I’m nominally supervising have survived the winter. On the few warm days we’ve had, I’ve seen them fly, which surely they wouldn’t do if they were dead. These next few weeks are the most dangerous time of all for beekeepers and their charges, because honeybees could well starve if not fed sugar water between now and when the maples actually bloom. In fact, it would be a good thing if I heeded my own warning and fed them this afternoon.
• Like the maples, Sophie the ewe is swelling, too, the good and excellent work of her mate and ram, Leo. I’m looking forward, for the first time in my life, to seeing lambs gambol, just as they so often gambol in the Victorian novels I sometimes read. (“Gambol” is a lovely word, and it gives me immense satisfaction to work it into a sentence. The pairing of the words “lamb” and “gambol” seems as natural together as the words “mint jelly” and “leg of lamb,” though more cerebral in this case than gustatory, of course),
With Gov. Beverly Perdue reversing her stance on her previous suggestion to privatize liquor sales, towns can rest assured they’ll probably not soon see this important revenue stream go dry.
In Waynesville, beneficiary of about $170,000 in annual profits from its ABC store, Perdue’s announcement might give the local ABC board the reassurance it needs to decide how to best handle cramped quarters. Should Waynesville build a new store as previously considered near the big, new Super Wal-Mart; or, should Waynesville simply expand its existing ABC store? said Town Manager Lee Galloway.
The state’s ABC commission in March approved Waynesville’s request to build a second store. Indecision over whether the state might privatize liquor sales put the plan into limbo, however.
Though, truthfully, Galloway wasn’t all that worried about this looming financial threat to the town’s coffers. He said he believes if the proposal moves forward, which seems highly doubtful now without Perdue’s backing, the state would find another method of reimbursing towns for the docked dollars.
Perdue made her I’m-now-against-privatization announcement last week at a meeting of county commissioners attending a legislative goals session in Durham. In the audience was Macon County Commissioner Ronnie Beale, whose primary concern centered on consumption, not revenue. In this, the local Democrat had an ally in the Christian Action League of North Carolina, which bills itself as having the largest networks of members, volunteers and churches of any Christian public-policy group in the state.
The Christian Action League opposed privatization on the grounds people might drink more if access wasn’t state controlled. Walter Harris, president of the Association of ABC Boards, flatly stated he, too, believed privatization would result in increased imbibing.
“I think it is a wise decision not to put liquor at every stop,” Beale said, adding that North Carolina’s less-than-happy experience with privatizing mental-health care raises serious questions about such initiatives.
Billed as “reform,” many critics — including Beale — have said the new mental-health care system in North Carolina fails to provide the state’s most vulnerable residents with basic, much less adequate, care.
Some highly placed Republicans in the now GOP-controlled legislature had expressed their concerns, too, about letting private business owners sell liquor out of grocery stores or other retail stops. North Carolina currently controls every aspect of the more than $5 billion business, but the governor was eyeing privatization as a means of generating dollars to help with the state’s $3.7 billion shortfall.
Adding fuel to the idea of letting vendors handle liquor sales were a number of lurid headline-generating stories about high times by, and high salaries of, some ABC board members downstate.
Such issues, Beale said, can best be handled through other means than simply handing off sales to private business owners.
Franklin Mayor Joe Collins said he believes the current system works, and that by confining liquor sales to (in Franklin’s case) a single store, “certain challenges” surrounding alcoholic beverage sales are more easily controlled. The mayor added he was pleased that, after study, the governor was willing to squelch her own idea.
Canton Town Manager Al Matthews said he isn’t so sure the matter is closed, however, and said the issue merits continued monitoring. Canton, particularly, might have been in a bit of a pickle if privatization had occurred — it has a relatively new ABC store, and sales revenue is being used to offset the building costs.
“Somebody was going to be stuck with a debt,” Matthews said.
2010 gross sales at area ABC stores
Maggie Valley $1,588,210
Bryson City $1,751,508*
SOURCE: North Carolina ABC Commission
* Bryson City and Sylva sales include alcohol purchased by Harrah’s Cherokee Casino
Bud Talley said this week he plans to move forward on building a dirt-bike track on his farm in Macon County despite opposition from neighbors.
The size and scope of the project hasn’t yet been determined, Talley said, but “something” will be built come spring.
“The economy is failing everywhere, and I’m not sure how much money I want to invest,” the farmer and owner of Nantahala Meats in Franklin said.
Talley set off a firestorm of controversy in Macon County after his neighbors in the largely residential Clarks Chapel community learned he intended to build a dirt-bike track. Talley asked the Macon County Board of Adjustment in December for a setback variance that would have given him the needed wiggle room to build a sanctioned track. He withdrew the variance when board members signaled their intention to deny the request.
More than 100 people turned out for the hearing, most to speak against Talley’s planned dirt-bike track.
Even without a setback, there is apparently nothing to prevent Talley from legally building a dirt-bike track, or motorcross, albeit it smaller than originally intended to comply with the county’s setback requirements. He became interested in the sport because his son is involved in dirt-bike racing.
With what they claim is hundreds of thousands in unpaid rent and loans on the line, Jackson County commissioners have ordered three delinquent tenants at county-owned industrial sites to pay up, or else.
Precisely what “or else” means hasn’t been spelled out. But, in a 5-0 vote, commissioners did make clear last week they want the money they believe is owed the county. That would be $92,700 from QC Apparel; $104,550 from Stanton and Stanton; and $83,166.72 from Clearwood Lumber.
The county has been prodding at least two of the industries to pay up since last summer. The former board of commissioners discussed the issue in closed session on more than one occasion.
Their less-than-stellar track record with the county goes back years, however. Their failure to stay current on revolving loan payments portrayed the old Economic Development Commission as being lax in its oversight of the revolving loan fund. That in turn triggered a county takeover of the EDC, but the county hasn’t done much better since it has been at the helm.
In addition to the back rent, QC Apparel has an outstanding revolving loan of $410,094, and hasn’t made a payment since January 2008, interim County Manager Chuck Wooten told commissioners. Clearwood has an outstanding revolving loan of $76,716.87, and hasn’t made a payment since May, he said.
Neither QC Apparel nor Clearwood Lumber returned phone messages seeking comment. Wooten said he had not received a response as of earlier this week to the dunning letters sent to any of the three companies.
Charles Stanton, owner of Stanton and Stanton, told The Smoky Mountain News on Monday that commissioners are mistaken. He does not owe back rent, because his woodworking company put in “a lot of money fixing up the building” per a lease agreement. Stanton said he planned to meet with Wooten this week and attempt to clear up the matter.
Stanton said his company has six full-time employees and six to 12 installers working at any given time under contracts.
QC Apparel and Stanton and Stanton are located in the former Tuckaseigee Mills building on Scotts Creek Road. Clearwood Lumber is in Whittier.
Jackson County Development Corp., a nonprofit arm of the county’s Economic Development Commission, originally purchased Tuckaseigee Mills.
Faculty and staff at Southwestern Community College will take part in a daylong session this week on how to identify and deal with troubled students.
The program has been in the works since last fall, but the Arizona shootings have added new urgency to officials’ need to be proactive when it comes to campus security, said Phil Weast, SCC dean of student affairs.
The shooter in Arizona, police say, was a former community college student who had been expelled from the school for bizarre behavior. Officials at Pima Community College, where Jared Loughner was a student, had told the 22-year-old and his parents that he could not return to classes without completing a mental-health evaluation.
Arizona law, unlike in most states, probably allowed school officials to force Loughner into mental-health treatment. Arizona permits anyone to register concerns about someone else’s mental health with local or regional health authorities. These health authorities, in turn, are required to follow-up on such complaints.
Much of the security now in place at SCC, Haywood Community College and Western Carolina University was in reaction to an earlier massacre: The April 16, 2007, shooting deaths of 32 people at Virginia Tech by a student, Seung-Hui Cho.
“We’ve been concerned about being prepared for these types of things since Virginia Tech,” Weast said.
Rose Johnson, president of Haywood Community College, said the college created “a very comprehensive” management plan that would kick-in automatically in the event of an emergency. This plan was developed with the help of local emergency management officers after the Virginia Tech shootings.
WCU has not made any changes as a direct result of the Arizona shootings, spokesman Bill Studenc said. The university uses a “case management” approach to identify and reach out to students having issues, he said, before a situation progresses to violence.
Among other intervention efforts, Student Affairs at WCU sponsors an “early alert” email service so that those on campus can alert authorities to concerns.
Studies show more students are arriving on campus with mental health issues, according to the Associated Press, which cited a recent American College Counseling Association survey finding 44 percent of students who visit college counseling centers have severe psychological disorders, up from 16 percent a decade ago. One in four students is on psychiatric medication, compared to 17 percent in 2000.
In related news, the North Carolina Community College Board unanimously voted last week not to except potential students who pose a significant health or safety risk. Local colleges will determine exactly who, and why, warrants a denial of admission. The UNC system already allows universities and colleges to bar admission.
When Jackson County’s new commissioners announced they would oversee all hiring to determine whether positions should be filled or wiped off the books, the mandate had a fiscally prudent, vigilant-watchdogs-of-taxpayer-dollars sound.
“I have to admit, this is causing somewhat of a problem in being able to manage this,” interim County Manager Chuck Wooten told the board last week, just more than a month after commissioners so tightly grabbed the reins.
Though commissioners control the budget, statutorily speaking the sheriff and register of deeds — both elected positions — have full powers to do the hiring and firing in their own departments, Wooten pointed out.
Wooten also asked: did commissioners really want to clog-up the system (about 4 percent of the Jackson County workforce is currently open) by scrutinizing positions mainly paid for using state dollars, such as at the health department and in social services, which have their own overseeing boards? And, what about contracted and grant-paid positions? Take a transit driver, 85 percent grant funded, as an example of the latter category, Wooten said. Do you need to personally approve who is hired?
Well, no, now that the problems being created by practically their very first official decision as commissioners (during a Dec. 6 meeting) has become clear, it turned out the board didn’t really want oversight of those hiring decisions. In a 5-0 vote, they agreed in those cases to let others — the departments or boards directly involved, or Wooten — make the hires.
Unlike municipalities in North Carolina, county commissioners must vote for their manager to be given hiring oversight. State law gives town managers that right without elected leaders’ say-so. Most of the state’s 100 counties’ board of commissioners automatically extend that power to the county manager hired to, well, “manage” the county.
Jackson County commissioners did, however, retain the review-before-advertising-any-county-positions paid for purely with county money, via the general fund. Though, it should be noted, Wooten advised the five men they might want to reconsider that decision, too.
Wooten was hired as a temporary replacement for former County Manager Ken Westmoreland, who either elected to leave voluntarily before the new board convened in December, or who was shown the door. This depending on whom you believe, Westmoreland (who said he was forced out) or Chairman Jack Debnam (who said “it was his decision”).
Wooten retired Jan. 1 after 30 years of experience overseeing Western Carolina University’s finances. He has said he expects to help commissioners hire a replacement county manager within six months or so.
Jackson County has three new commissioners: Debnam (a conservative independent); Doug Cody (a Republican) and Charles Elders (a Republican). Democrats Mark Jones and Joe Cowan round out the board.
Supporters of Jackson County’s methane-powered Green Energy Park urged county leaders last week not to slash funding to the innovative project.
“What is the Green Energy Park?” Aaron Shufelt, a glass artisan and intern at the park, asked rhetorically during the public session of the county commission meeting, one of seven people who spoke about the issue.
“(It is) a place where creative and passionate people come together to experience the arts. The Green Energy Park is unique because they are dedicated to preserving the arts through education and the utilization of green energy. The result is economic growth for Western North Carolina.”
Jackson County’s new three-man-slate of conservative commissioners have sharply questioned the viability and future of the Green Energy Park. The project was launched about five years ago (under a board totally dominated by Democrats, now just two remain) as a means of capturing methane from a closed landfill in Dillsboro and turning that waste byproduct into energy. Today, methane helps power a blacksmith shop, glass-blowing facilities and a large greenhouse, with the artisans paying rent and fees to the county.
Republican Commissioner Doug Cody, a successful businessman in private life, has been crystal clear about his beliefs that the park needs to pay its own way. This isn’t out-of-the-blue posturing on Cody’s part — the previous board of commissioners, too, said they intended for the park to become economically self-sustaining. The sticking point is when, exactly, this should take place.
Green Energy Park Director Timm Muth notes previous commissioners never set a timetable. This year alone, the Green Energy Park is set to receive $218,422 in taxpayer dollars. Total, the park has received $1.2 million from the county’s general fund since 2006.
John Burtner, a blacksmith who has used the park as an incubator to grow his business, credited the venture with keeping him gainfully employed. Burtner said he believes he would currently be out of work without use of park’s shop and tools. The blacksmith has used his two-and-a-half-years there to start equipping his own shop elsewhere, he said.
“This whole time, I’ve been busy, profitable,” Burtner told county leaders.
Commissioners, while deciding the fate of the Green Energy Park, might want to factor in the following. According to the January 2006 minutes of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, then County Manager Kenneth Westmoreland noted: “The county had anticipated spending approximately $1 million to satisfy requirements imposed by the EPA and DEHNR concerning the unfavorable release of methane (from the landfill) into the atmosphere. The dollar amount will be expended (in building the park), but for a beneficial use and is a ‘win-win’ situation … because it is so unique, the project will more than likely receive national attention and visits to the area.”
The Department of Transportation isn’t sure how long it will take to investigate anonymous allegations of fraud among road maintenance contractors and DOT employees in Haywood County, according to a spokesperson for the agency.
A second anonymous letter was distributed last week alleging favoritism by DOT’s maintenance supervisors in awarding contracts for roadwork in Haywood and Jackson counties, prompting DOT officials in Raleigh to ratchet up the caliber of their internal investigation.
Routine maintenance such as cutting brush from roadsides, hauling gravel, cleaning-out ditches and even building secondary roads is not done in house by DOT maintenance crews, but instead is done by private contractors.
The letter alleges that one private contractor who pulls down the lion’s share of the work overbills the DOT, while the DOT maintenance division looks the other way. The letter details several examples of jobs where DOT maintenance supervisors were complicit in overpaying the contractor.
After receiving the first anonymous letter, Joel Setzer, the head of the 10-county division of the DOT that includes Haywood and Jackson, initially assigned someone in his own office to conduct the internal investigation. However, DOT officials in Raleigh have turned it over to the office of inspector general, an autonomous arm of the DOT that handles internal investigations.
“We take every report of any kind that we get very seriously, whether they come from employees internally or people outside DOT,” said Greer Beaty, director of communications for DOT in Raleigh.
The DOT’s office of inspector general is a recent creation under the administration of Gov. Bev Perdue, who has pushed for openness and accountability of state government. It has eight fulltime investigators — seemingly a large staff to do nothing but look into allegations of wrong-doing within a single state agency, but DOT is a massive operation.
DOT has between 12,000 and 14,000 employees, a budget of $4 billion and hundreds of contracts it oversees.
Many allegations don’t pan out. But in the process, the office of inspector general will make recommendations on new ways of doing business, Beaty said.
“There are going to be instances where we can do things better,” Beaty said. “The investigation will point out where we might strengthen a policy or procedure.”
That might indeed be the case with this investigation, where the way in which DOT maintenance divisions award work to contractors will undoubtedly be examined.
“It will be a good time for us to look and say ‘This policy is appropriate,’ or ‘Gosh, we could make this policy stronger by doing this,’” Beaty said.
Investigators are handicapped when looking into anonymous claims, Beaty said.
“There is no way to ask questions or get supporting documentation. We have to start from ground zero and turn over every rock,” Beaty said.
While the letter names DOT maintenance employees and specific contractors, The Smoky Mountain News will not print those names unless the allegations are substantiated.
The Macon County businessman and farmer who stirred up controversy recently by announcing plans to build a dirt-bike racetrack in a residential community said he’s still deciding whether to move forward with the plan.
More than 100 people turned out for a public meeting last month after Herman “Bud” Talley, owner of Nantahala Meats in Franklin and of a 45-acre farm in the Clarks Chapel community, asked the Macon County Board of Adjustment for a variance to the county’s high-impact use law.
A nod of approval would have allowed Talley to build a sanctioned track. He needed a setback exception — reducing a 750-foot buffer zone to about 350 feet — to meet parking and other needs stipulated by the American Motorcyclist Association. Board members appeared poised to reject the request, and Talley backed off in response.
But, as he and his attorney pointed out then, that rejection means he might just move forward with building a legal, but unsanctioned, facility for dirt-bike practice.
The devil is truly in the details on this one. If granted the variance, Talley had promised to build a track that would be used, at most, 16 days a year. Or, he could opt for the smaller practice facility — which would fit within the confines of the setback requirements and therefore doesn’t need a variance — and operate 365 days a year.
Opponents told the Board of Adjustment in December they’d rather gamble on Talley not following through rather than see him open a track under the auspices of county-granted legitimacy.
“I’m in limbo right now,” Talley said this week. “I’m kind of just exploring all my options.”
There’s no particular rush to decide given the harsh winter weather, which has shutdown construction projects across the mountains. Talley has characterized the construction of a dirt-bike racetrack as a last-ditch effort to save his farm.
John Binkley, who lives within earshot of Talley’s property and who has helped organize neighbors to derail the construction of a dirt-bike racetrack, said the loosely affiliated group is monitoring the situation the best they can.
“We’re keeping an eye on it,” he said recently. “No machinery has actually appeared and started digging.”
Binkley added he hopes the situation in Clarks Chapel helps other mountain residents understand why land controls are needed.
“When these kind of things happen, hopefully more and more people catch on,” he said.
Opponents have cited land devaluation and loss of peace and quiet as reasons they don’t want Talley to move forward.
Jackson County has pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the Green Energy Park since launching the innovative project about five years ago.
Rent and usage fees offset a portion of the costs. Taxpayers, however, largely underwrite the venture, an examination of county finance records show. The county has kicked in a total of $1.2 million since 2006 (see infobox).
The park is built next to a closed county landfill near Dillsboro. Methane, a byproduct of the decomposing trash, is captured and used to heat a greenhouse and help power a blacksmith shop, glass-blowing studios and a metal-art foundry. Plans call for building pottery studios. Some of that structure is already up.
A $204,730 Rural Center Grant is being counted on to help complete the pottery studios, but word on whether the county will actually get that money hasn’t yet come.
At question is whether the county’s new conservative majority of commissioners will continue subsidizing the project, with or without grant assistance — particularly since the Green Energy Park epitomizes the environmentally friendly, look-toward-the-future thinking of the three Democrats ousted in November.
By the numbers
An examination of the current year’s budget for the Green Energy Park shows rent is projected to bring in $25,000, and “donations” an additional $10,000. The overall budget for the Green Energy Park is $458,152, but that number is misleading because it includes the Rural Center grant for $204,730, intended to offset the exact same amount in expenditures for building the pottery studio.
No grant, no building, Muth explained in a recent interview.
Utilities get a $17,000 budget line item this fiscal year. Salaries and wages, $99,756 — Muth is paid $64,626.12. His helper, Carrie Blaskowski, who left the county post to join a family business, was budgeted to receive $35,129.38.
Muth, in a commission meeting , asked permission to advertise Blaskowski’s open position. Instead, commissioners ordered — or rather, Chairman Jack Debnam, a conservative Independent, and Commissioner Doug Cody, a Republican, ordered — a top-to-bottom cost analysis of the Green Energy Park. (New Commissioner Charles Elders, also a Republican who ran on a platform of change with Debnam and Cody, hasn’t proven much of a talker during the meetings, leaving onlookers little choice but to assume he is in agreement with his two conservative cohorts.)
Two Democrats, Joe Cowan and Mark Jones, remain on the board of commissioners, but to date have appeared reluctant to publicly defy the board’s newcomers. Perhaps because they want to work together the best they can for the good of the county. Or perhaps because they anticipate running for reelection themselves in two years, and learned from their fallen fellow Democrats that a financially strapped voting electorate doesn’t have much patience.
Cowan, in fact, joined conservative commissioners earlier this month when they peppered Muth with questions about the park. For his part, Jones didn’t exactly defend the project. But Jones did point out that carbon credits from the Green Energy Park could be sold in the future, helping offset some of the project’s cost.
What’s it all about?
“This is about trying to create jobs,” Muth said.
If completed as originally envisioned, the Green Energy Park will create 15 to 20 new jobs for Jackson County. The project was intended to be economically self-sustaining — though Muth said no timetable was ever mandated.
“They never gave me a date,” the park’s director said.
Although the Green Energy Park is clearly Exhibit A for a majority of commissioners anxious to publicly flex their conservative muscles, Muth might have picked up a somewhat unlikely ally: Interim County Manager Chuck Wooten, the darling of the conservative trio of commissioners.
Wooten was picked to temporarily replace County Manager Ken Westmoreland after the three newcomers showed him the door. (Or, that’s what Westmoreland said happened. Debnam claimed the veteran government administrator volunteered to leave on his own.)
Wooten, in addition to having a majority of the board’s blessing, brings 30 years of experience in managing Western Carolina University’s budget and the nimbleness required to survive in that position. In other words, Wooten has virtually unassailable financial credentials, vast political know-how, and an ability to leave the job of county manager at any point if his relations with the board prove untenable.
“Tim and I have met a couple of times, and I have had the opportunity to visit the Green Energy Park and take a tour, so I have a better understanding of what’s going on,” Wooten emailed The Smoky Mountain News in response to questions about the park.
“We’re going to hold on the request for filling the position until we can complete the cost analysis,” he wrote. “I’m going to propose to the commissioners that they have a work session on possibly the afternoon of Jan. 28, and the Green Energy Park would be one of the items for discussion. I think we can complete our fact-finding by then and provide some better information to the commissioners for their consideration. …It’s obvious to me that the Green Energy Park can probably not be self-sustaining in the short term but when we consider some of the indirect benefits of the park then the numbers become more manageable.”
Wooten this week said he does not feel Jackson County is the point of actually abandoning the project, but rather re-examining and rescaling the venture. The interim county manager said he needs, with Muth’s help, to understand commitments made on previous grants — particularly, would the county have to repay money in the event of changes to the Green Energy Park?
County contributions to Green Energy Park
• 2006-2007 – $100,000.
• 2007-2008 – $210,000.
• 2008-2009 – $447,383.
• 2009-2010 – $264,530.
• 2010-2011 – $218,422.
There are many issues to discuss in the wake of the tragedy in Arizona that left six dead and 13 wounded.
The ugliness of the political discourse in this nation is one. We took that subject up last week in news article and column form in The Smoky Mountain News, and I suspect we’ll probably explore this particular topic in greater depth in the future. Gun rights might be another subject to eventually tackle. Though I, frankly, find this particular angle as a potential outcome to the Arizona shootings less than convincing. Perhaps because I own firearms, my family owns firearms, and I grew up in these mountains where almost everyone I knew growing up had guns in their homes, too.
Having acknowledged my tepid interest in the debate concerning gun ownership, I do concede controls of a sort might be worth discussion — such as whether we should truly allow the insane easy access to weapons such as a semiautomatic handgun with a high-capacity ammo clip.
Which ties neatly into what I believe is the single most important lesson being offered in the wake of the Arizona shootings: the consequences of denying the mentally ill the care and monitoring required. The potential outcome of such neglect has been spelled out in graphic, heartbreaking detail. We can ignore what happened in Arizona only at great peril. And, if we choose to do so, I think it should be openly acknowledged that a repeat of what happened there could easily happen elsewhere, and probably will.
Just making sure we’re all on the same page: does anyone have the smallest doubt, simply by looking into the alleged Arizona killer’s eyes in that creepy mug shot taken a short time after police say he gunned down so many, that this young man is seriously mentally ill?
I’ll give a nod of approval to the community college he once attended. After Jared Lee Loughner exhibited bizarre, scary behavior, they apparently acted properly and promptly. Officials expelled him, and agreed they’d let the 22-year old back into school only if he underwent a mental health evaluation (and, I assume, passed it, if one “passes” such a thing).
Then what happened, though? There the storyline of attention paid to Loughner seems to end. At least until all the dead and wounded piled up outside a Tucson grocery store.
In case you’re curious, North Carolina doesn’t offer much support to the mentally ill or their families these days, either. In the name of savings, the state largely dismantled a not-that-great-to-begin-with system a few years ago. Here’s a bit of what I wrote in 2008 in a series of investigative articles on the state’s mental health system for a local newspaper chain. We were examining North Carolina’s then new (translation: cheap) approach to helping the mentally ill:
“Reform, to hear proponents tell it, would empower people with choices. No longer would patients be shut out and shut up when it came time to decide on treatments. Now they would get to pick from a virtual smorgasbord of choices, all conveniently located in their hometown or county.
This, taxpayers were told, would save money – lots and lots of money. Millions, in fact, because more people would be treated in their own communities instead of being admitted to one of the state’s four psychiatric hospitals.
Who could argue with empowerment and saving money? Actually, a few people did, but not effectively enough for anyone in power to heed their warnings.
A mental health system that has wasted, not saved, millions of tax dollars. And worse, many of the state’s most vulnerable residents are unable to obtain adequate treatments. For those people and their families, the price has been incalculable.”
It is time — it’s past time — to face honestly what we are potentially unleashing with our neglect, and in the name of saving pennies. Take a look again at the massacre in Arizona.
Granted, most of those with mental illnesses do not buy guns and start shooting — God knows, I’m not saying that, so please don’t think I’m stigmatizing those who deserve compassion and help.
What I am saying is that we have a responsibility, a duty, to care for and monitor those who potentially pose a danger to themselves and others. The economic costs of doing so be damned — we need a mental-health system in place that works.
Don’t expect business as usual when the state’s General Assembly convenes January 26: not with an epic power shift from left to right and a crippling $3.7 billion shortfall to contend with.
Despite the staggering budget crisis, Republicans — who own a majority in both the state House and Senate for the first time in more than a century — are expressing confidence in their ability to make meaningful progress on other issues.
Such as redrawing voting districts, which could pave the way for conservative dominance to continue for at least the next decade if reworked to the Republicans’ advantage. Or possibly increasing the number of charter schools allowed in the state above the current 100. And returning more control to the local level, where many of these new state leaders found their start in politics, and where those who did experienced firsthand the difficulty of meeting unfunded mandates from on high.
Meaningful legislation, however, simply won’t be possible without working closely with the Democrats, including Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue, acknowledged newly elected state Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin. The professional orthodontist and longtime Macon County commissioner defeated incumbent Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy, in November’s election.
“I can partner with anybody and anyone if necessary,” Davis said. “The challenges we face are too daunting for us to presume we have all the answers.”
From the other side of the aisle, veteran lawmaker Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, places bi-partisan partnership high on his list of priorities in this new, radically different political landscape. The season, he said, for political gamesmanship is gone.
“It’s a very narrow band of issues that tend to divide us, but I think the important thing is that my job as a representative is to represent this district and do it in a way which reflects the will of this district,” said Rapp. “We’re in the governing season, so we need to work together for the good of North Carolina. This is not the political season.”
Nuts and bolts
Republicans rode a tide of dissatisfaction this past November, making significant gains all the way from Congress down to the most local and basic levels of government. Two boards of commissioners in the state’s westernmost counties, Jackson and Macon, both swung right for the first time in many years. In Jackson County, for example, Democrats relinquished a 16-year iron grip — in the previous election, by contrast, Republicans had been unable to win a single seat on that board.
Voters, dissatisfied with economic hardships and what many dubbed empty promises by Democratic leaders, responded to conservative assurances of fiscal responsibility, fat cutting and generalized messages of change.
Now state Republican leaders must pay the bill after winning those elections, knowing full well that high tide can as easily turn to low tide if frustrated voters decide they can’t govern any more effectively than the Democrats they swept from power. Davis said House leaders have already warned members not to introduce legislation containing new spending.
Francis De Luca, president of Civitas, a right-leaning North Carolina thinktank, said he believes that it is important to note this historic power shift extends beyond simply counting up Republicans in both chambers of the General Assembly. De Luca believes the House and Senate will prove more philosophically aligned this go-around than at any other time in recent history. Although Democrats held control of both chambers, De Luca said Democratic senators often proved more liberal than their Democratic counterparts in the House, and so the two chambers subsequently sometimes foundered when passing legislation.
“There will be more cooperation,” De Luca said flatly. “And priority No. 1 and priorities numbers 2 and 3 will be — balance the budget.”
Oh, that pesky shortfall
The number is so large — $3.7 billion — the outcomes can be difficult to comprehend. But here’s what those numbers, in concrete fallout for North Carolina residents, could mean. Sam Greenwood, a longtime county manager in Macon who now serves as town manager of Franklin, pointed to the following issues: possible privatization of the state-run Alcoholic Beverage Control; the looming threat of the state forcing counties and towns to take over maintenance of secondary roads; elimination of state funding that towns rely on to repair or build local streets and sidewalks (called Powell Bill money, it comes from a portion of the gas tax that’s distributed back to local jurisdictions each year).
“Essentially, we are just along for the ride,” Greenwood said.
Gov. Perdue proposed the possibility of privatizing the ABC system as one means of generating additional revenue. The idea has received some support from incoming Republicans, though not from all. Local governments have been busy lately passing resolutions opposing such a move. This amidst worries yet another local revenue stream would dry up.
North Carolina is only one of 18 control states in the nation. This means the state government regulates liquor sales, purchases, transportation, manufacture, consumption and possession, unlike in neighboring Georgia and South Carolina, where private businesses oversee most of those operations.
A report is expected this month by a Chicago-based consulting firm hired to analyze potential revenue gains of letting vendors overtake the business.
Rep. Thom Tillis, R-Cornelius, the Republican’s choice for House speaker, has said he expects the ABC privatization issue will be considered when the General Assembly convenes. He characterized such a move as possibly being in line with Republican intentions to streamline state government.
From a county government perspective, interim Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten is expecting funding for social services, health and transportation to be reduced below current levels.
“If this happens, I would guess that the county can either provide additional funding or make reductions in these budgets,” Wooten said. “I suspect the latter will be the recommendation, since I don’t anticipate significant new revenues for the upcoming year.”
One important challenge for local governments involves timing, Wooten said, as in “when we know the actual (level) of support from the state. With such a large deficit to deal with, it could be late summer before a budget is finally adopted. At the same time, with a new majority in the General Assembly, they could expedite the budget process rather than delay the inevitable.”
Wooten, who just retired after 30 years of overseeing Western Carolina University’s finances, anticipates cuts to the state’s K-12 system and community colleges, and to universities such as WCU.
UNC system President Tom Ross has requested campuses plan for a 15-percent budget reduction.
“Since such a large portion of the budget is related to personnel costs, a 15-percent budget reduction could result in possible reductions in force. I’m sure this would be the last resort, but … it may not be able to be avoided.”
Wooten added that he doubts there will be any new money for capital needs and probably very little repair and renovation money. These needs, he said, are accumulating and threaten to become “a real issue statewide if funds are not provided to properly maintain existing facilities.”
And, for the third year in a row, Wooten said he has serious doubts there will be pay increases for university faculty and staff.
On a secondary-school level, local school leaders are also concerned about what might soon play out. Dan Brigman, superintendent of schools for Macon County, worries more charter schools could mean additional drastic cuts in state allocations.
“Taking away more resources from the K-12 classroom will further undermine our mission — to educate all students who walk through our doors despite their socioeconomic status, nationality or disability,” Brigman said. “I see the charter school initiative as a form of re-segregation of our nation’s educational institutions, and hope legislators will ensure alignment of all standards and accountability for schools that received public funds.”
In anticipation of cuts, Brigman said the administration of Macon County Schools has been reviewing all departments and operations for efficiency and effectiveness.
“Any further reductions in our state or local funding levels will definitely impact the classrooms, as we will see more students per class, fewer teachers to provide the basic educational services to our children and more demands placed on school-level personnel,” he said.
Many legislators, however, have said that keeping classes safe is a priority for them, budget shortfall or not.
Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Spruce Pine, a newcomer to the state political scene and, at 34, the youngest member in the General Assembly, said that he’ll be pushing for cuts to earmarks and appropriations, as well as trimming back administration costs before going anywhere near education funding.
“We need to focus first and foremost on education,” said Hise. “I think there’s tremendous amounts of savings available in all areas of administration.”
Rapp echoed those sentiments, pointing to last year’s extension of an additional one-cent sales tax in an effort to stem the tide of education funding loss. Rapp said he’s not necessarily advocating another extension — something Hise and Republican compatriots are flat against — but wouldn’t be averse to it if all other options outside education are exhausted.
“The reason we put that temporary sales tax on is that after we made all the cuts we could make and we were literally approaching the classroom door, we said ‘We can’t, in good conscience, do that,’” said Rapp. “What you’re doing is eating your seed corn. You’re eating the future, and we cannot do that.”
He went as far as saying that, in light of the budget shortfall, safeguarding education at all levels was the biggest hurdle this year’s General Assembly would face.
“I think the biggest challenge is we protect the classrooms, from early childhood through K-12 to the community colleges and universities,” he said. “We’ve got to make that a priority.”
Drawing the lines
“The budget is obviously the elephant in the room,” Davis said, “but the other big issue is redistricting.”
That, perhaps, is the biggest prize Republicans won — the opportunity to oversee how voting districts are drawn. Districts are redrawn every 10 years when U.S. Census results show where the populations have grown or decreased.
What exactly is on the table? State legislators determine district lines for 170 seats in the General Assembly and for North Carolina’s 13 congressional seats in Washington.
With Republicans set to take control, Perdue (who lacks veto power over redistricting) suggested now certainly would be an excellent time for the formation of an independent commission, instead of Republicans, to oversee the process.
Not only was that suggestion unlikely to be followed for obvious reasons, De Luca maintained there simply isn’t enough time for such a commission to be formed and meet mandated deadlines.
“There are both legal and logistical reasons that couldn’t be done,” the conservative thinktank leader said.
De Luca said he believes the process will be fair — bear in mind, he pointed out, that the Democratically controlled U.S. Justice Department has to give any plan developed by state leaders the thumbs up.
Rapp said that he’d be in favor of a commission, too, which is unsurprising, given the tiny voice his party will be given in the process. However, Rapp said Republicans should be reminded that it’s their party that’s been clamoring for such a commission for nigh upon a decade, and that now’s their chance to make those dreams come true.
“They’re in power now, and they have an opportunity to enact and establish the very commission they’ve been calling for for a decade, and I think, truly, the ball is in their court,” said Rapp.
Hise isn’t exactly calling for an independent commission, but he is in favor of “fair” redistricting, which, by his definition, includes more whole counties, less chopping of communities.
“We want the provision of whole counties, that’s something that’s very important to drawing district lines,” said Hise. “I don’t think you’ve seen anything near that historically. I think we can focus on keeping communities together as a whole.”
They’ll have to wait until mid-February, however, when more complete census numbers are released, to see which districts will get the axe and which won’t.
Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, did not return several phone calls to comment on this story.
Staff writer Colby Dunn contributed to this report.
U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, is getting the word out: from now on, he’ll be carrying a gun when meeting with constituents.
Just a short time ago such an announcement from a member of Congress probably would have been considered outrageous, headline provoking, over-the-top political rhetoric.
But not so much now, in the wake of the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Arizona, and the shooting deaths of six people standing nearby and the wounding of 11 others. Giffords was holding what has been described as a routine meeting with residents in her district when the massacre occurred.
“This weekend’s tragedy has touched many of us in a very personal way,” Shuler said. “With our thoughts on this tragedy, many of us are working with local law enforcement and the capitol police to coordinate safety measure for ourselves and our staff.”
Shuler worked closely with Giffords. He is co-chairman of the conservative Blue Dog caucus that Giffords, a former Republican, also belonged to. The two worked closely together on various pieces of legislation.
“I, like many of my constituents and staff in Western North Carolina, strongly support the Second Amendment and do exercise our right to legally and safely carry a firearm,” Shuler said. “In the days and weeks ahead, we will continue to work closely with federal, state and local law enforcement to ensure that our political process is not deterred by the violent acts of a few.”
The shootings, in the words of one local politician, “give pause” to those who currently hold or might seek public office in the future — the price one pays for serving could be very high, maybe too high, given the level of angry rhetoric many believe helped fuel the attack in Arizona.
“As far as this tragic event preventing good citizens from seeking public office, I believe that if the political environment does not improve it will give pause to anyone willing to get in involved on all political levels, which is very unfortunate,” said Ronnie Beale, a veteran county commissioner in Macon County. “I also think this event speaks to the importance of maintaining and improving mental health services on all levels.”
The alleged shooter in the massacre had been expelled from a local community college for exhibiting bizarre behavior. His ramblings on the Internet also seemed incoherent, though a thread of seemingly extreme right-wing beliefs could be discerned.
Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University and an expert on North Carolina politics, said it’s obvious the nation’s political discourse has grown more virulent in the past few decades.
“There are scores of studies to show that incivility is on the rise in Congress and in our political debate in general,” Cooper said. “Although it’s not ‘the media’s fault,’ name-calling and negative attacks are certainly more newsworthy, and thus more covered than stories about politicians who play nicely.
“The problem, therefore, is not just that there’s more negative, toxic rhetoric, but that we’re more aware of it than we’ve ever been. Did this cause the shooting? Of course not,” said Cooper. “Sarah Palin’s crosshairs ad is no more responsible for this shooting than Marilyn Manson was for the Columbine shooting. It does, however, create an environment that doesn’t suppress this kind of thing.”
Bob Scott, a former news reporter who now serves as an alderman in Franklin, said he believes the antigovernment movement in the U.S. is a contributing cause in the Arizona shooting.
“I am concerned that Congress will do one of its knee-jerk reactions and pass bills to provide security for congressmen and senators at a huge cost to the taxpayer,” Scott said. “But if you think about it, most of the attacks on politicians are at the local level such as town halls and school board meetings. Politicians at the federal level are so insulated by staffers that it would be pretty hard to get near them. It is much easier to get to a local politician who has no staffers and is not surrounded by lobbyists.”
Scott, a Democrat, also raised another issue likely to dominate coverage of the shootings: the right to bear arms.
“I believe in gun ownership for target shooting and hunting,” Scott said. “But you don’t need an AK-47 or a Glock 9 mm with a 31-round magazine to go hunting. Those type weapons that the National Rifle Association wants everyone to be able to own, apparently also including those who are unstable, are designed to kill human beings. Not wild game.”
A spokeswoman with the state Department of Transportation said they didn’t intentionally leave out the state’s westernmost counties on an official logo created by consultants paid $434,590.46 by taxpayers.
That amount, in the interest of accuracy, was a lump sum for work done on the Complete Streets project, not just for creating a logo that — despite transportation officials’ assurances to the contrary — fails to include the state’s westernmost counties.
The transportation department adopted a “Complete Streets” policy in July 2009. The policy directs the department to consider and incorporate several modes of transportation when building new projects or making improvements to existing infrastructure.
The transportation department contracted with consultant P.B. Americas — interestingly, the company is headquartered in New York, so how could they be expected to know about counties west of Buncombe? — to lead and assist the Complete Streets project.
“While I can see what you mean about the Complete Streets logo appearing to lop off the far western counties, I can assure you that’s not the intent,” said Julia Merchant, a transportation department spokeswoman.
Merchant, it should in fairness be made clear, is perfectly familiar with the western part of the great state she now serves. Before taking the job in Raleigh, Merchant worked for this newspaper as a reporter and is a graduate of Appalachian State University.
“The logo is simply a sketch/rough outline of the state, and not a to-scale map,” she said. “So while the sketch may seem to exclude the far western counties, I can tell you they were very much included (as was the rest of the state) when it came to developing the Complete Streets guidelines.”
Don Kostelec, senior transportation planner who works for an Asheville consulting firm, wasn’t amused when he saw the pricey logo adorning the new initiative.
“Yeah, it’s probably a little petty,” Kostelec said. “(But the logo) has chopped off the westernmost counties of the state while the coast and Outer Banks still maintain all of their detail. As a native of Macon County, this infuriates me. And they wonder why there is a healthy distrust of Raleigh in the mountains?”
Kostelec suggested the newspaper use the following headline if it pursued a news story: “Complete Streets … Incomplete State.”
I’ve never been big on New Year’s resolutions. But this weekend I decided to list five and work seriously toward accomplishing them by year’s end. The only resolution of mine worth sharing (unless you find personal self-improvement goals such as exercising regularly and eating more fruits and vegetables interesting) is the quirky one that made this very short list.
I’m going to write a mystery novel. Never mind I’ve yet to reveal any aptitude for fiction writing — quite the opposite is true, in fact. I’m a nonfiction writer to the very marrow of my bones.
I get nonfiction. After almost two decades of being lucky enough to earn my living as a professional writer, I’ve learned a few gee-whiz, golly-wow writing tricks. I’m not unlike the small-town magician who volunteers for a local library program, and, on a good day, convincingly pulls a rabbit out of her hat.
I enjoy playing with structure, and find it fun sometimes to use unusual, or at least unexpected, narrative voices. I get a kick out of tinkering with pacing. Or, to be truthful, I get a kick out of those things when I’ve devoted the hours needed to writing a really good article. When I’m feeling lazy or haven’t allowed adequate time, I rely on experience to just bang it out, which is what a former colleague and I used to bark at one another as deadlines neared and editors increased demands about getting the story NOW. “Bang it out” was our verbal spur to hurry up and get the work done.
In this case, familiarity has bred comfort. I know how to get the job done, and get an editor off my, well, let’s say case. Fiction, however, is another matter. Here I feel adrift at sea, unsure even how to make a beginning.
Where does one start when a girl’s fancy turns to fiction — with an idea, maybe? But once an idea is settled on (which I haven’t, yet, actually accomplished), how does said writer — me — turn that thought into a convincing story? How does one develop characters from thin air? What narrative voice to use?
This is all so intimidating I feel like going to bed and burying myself in a good mystery, one of my favorite forms of escape. I lean toward classic British mystery writers such as Agatha Christie and Ngaio March (a New Zealander who set most of her work in merry England). But I also admire contemporary writers such as Martha Grimes and Ruth Rendell. And I like the late Dick Francis, who told the same good yarn over and over, just changing the names and plot a bit for each new novel produced. That was a man who found a good formula and milked it to fame and fortune, entertaining thousands along the way.
I read and enjoyed Anne Perry until I stumbled over the fact (widely publicized a few years ago, but missed by me) that she is an actual murderess, having helped bludgeon a friend’s mother to death in 1954. This icky fact intrudes whenever I try now to read one of her books. I like my murders and murderers imaginary, thank you very much. I’ve seen enough of the real stuff as a newspaper reporter to not enjoy actual suffering and pain.
As an aside, I admit to enjoying science-fiction fantasy. This embarrasses me because much of it, if not almost all, is appallingly written. You really have to scrounge to find readable sci-fi. Buying or checking out sci-fi fiction at the library requires true bravery on my part. I have to override the snob who resides inside. One cannot take life too seriously and walk through a bookstore or library carrying books that feature such lurid covers as these. They inevitably feature sword-wielding buxom girls and buff studs posing against a backdrop of dragons and castles. No self-respecting individual over the age of 15 should be seen anywhere near such books.
Which brings me back to trying to write fiction myself. I will certainly be less free with tossing literary criticisms about since I’m getting ready to try my hand at a mystery, that’s for certain. Something about the pot calling the kettle black comes to mind. And, what goes around comes around.
But having honestly faced my limitations, and they are indisputably vast, the truth remains. I have a yen, a yet unscratched itch that cries out for appeasing. So, what the heck — I’ll write a mystery. No matter how bad the finished product might be, I’m by golly planning, as my good friend Jon Ostendorff with the Citizen-Times would tell me if we still worked together (and does, to this day, tell me when I call him because I’m stuck on a story) to just shut up and bang it out.
Jackson County’s old solid waste landfill is leaking contaminants in higher concentrations than allowed into the groundwater, and satisfying state demands to safely contain the situation will cost taxpayer dollars.
Altamont Inc. representative Joel Lenk told commissioners this week that drinking water in the area has not been contaminated and is safe to use. The old landfill is less than a mile from Dillsboro. Several families living near the it rely on individually drilled wells for water, according to a report based on the company’s findings.
Altamont, headquartered in Asheville, collects water-monitoring samples at the old landfill for Jackson County.
Commissioners this week set a public hearing — as mandated by the regulating agency, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources — on possible remedies. The hearing will be held Feb. 7 at 1:30 p.m. After that, the next step will be to develop a state-approved corrective action plan, Lenk said.
The most expensive remedy, which involves treating the groundwater at the site, could cost more than $1 million. Responding to questions by Chairman Jack Debnam, Lenk said, however, the county will probably be able to pay his company an additional $10,000 per year for sampling and to satisfy the state.
Debnam, newly elected in November, initially proposed setting the hearing time for 1:45 p.m., with a regularly scheduled meeting starting at 2 p.m. Mark Jones, a veteran commissioner on the board, suggested moving the time back because, he said to Debnam, “you might draw a bigger crowd” than realized given the possible environmental implications.
Jones’ concerns that holding a public hearing during working hours might not give people an adequate opportunity to attend, however, were brushed aside. Debnam pointed out the board would be providing people the state-required 30 days notice.
• Groundwater sampling starts in 1998, Altamont company hired.
• Jackson County starts testing residential water-supply wells on annual basis in the late 1990s from residents who consented to sampling.
• At the same time, Jackson County installed and began monitoring landfill gas probes along the perimeter of the property.
• The last shipment of waste was taken at the landfill in June 2001.
• A monitoring well was installed into bedrock in 2004 to determine whether impacted groundwater was migrating northward toward a residential water well.
• In 2005, a full-scale operation of extracting landfill gas started. It was thought that the removal of the gas could provide benefits to groundwater quality.
• In July 2010, an additional bedrock monitoring well was installed to evaluate groundwater quality in fractured bedrock southwest of the landfill.
How fickle fortune can be, Timm Muth, the director of the oft-touted Green Energy Park, found upon tendering a simple request this week to the Jackson County Board of Commissioners.
Muth’s desire to advertise an open staff position gave way instead to a drilling down into the project’s overall worth — or, rather, its continued cost. The park, envisioned at the outset some five years ago as economically self-sustaining, has to date not been.
But it will be, Muth said. Just wait until the original vision is completed: the addition of a new pottery studio and studio spaces. Then, Muth said, the rent received from artists and craftspeople will prove the tipping point.
“I don’t see how you can make that statement,” newly elected Republican Commissioner and local businessman Doug Cody flatly responded after eliciting from Muth that there’s an absence of hard numbers to back that claim. Prove it, Cody told him. Perform a cost analysis, top to bottom.
The Green Energy Park opened late in 2006 to overwhelming public acclaim. This was a time, not so long ago, when Democrats ruled Jackson County and North Carolina.
The park was deemed a “technological first,” an environmental wonder, “the first place anywhere” to take landfill gas and use it to make biodiesel fuel, as Muth said then. By his side were officials eager to share in the glory of such a thing. Those officials included Larry Shirley, then the director of the North Carolina State Energy Office, who proclaimed: “This is an example of what will take place across the nation and the world.”
Maybe not. These days, the wind is blowing right, not left. And the Green Energy Park might not survive conservative commissioners’ efforts to back election promises they made to scrutinize the county for fiscal waste and potential savings.
The Green Energy Park was built next to a closed county landfill outside Dillsboro. The $1.2 million project was a means of recovering methane — a byproduct of the landfill’s decomposing trash — to heat greenhouses and help fuel a blacksmith forge. A crafts village (hence the pottery studio Muth mentioned) was part of the plan.
Last summer, the Green Energy Park served as a backdrop for a visit by Gov. Beverly Perdue and the Appalachian Regional Commission. The officials came for a tour, along the way dubbing the project a symbol of the new green economy.
Less than three months later, Republicans grabbed control of the state’s General Assembly and of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners. In addition to Cody, Republican Charles Elders was elected, as was Chairman Jack Debnam, who ran as an Independent but relied on the GOP’s local political structure and advertising dollars to help secure victory.
Debnam started Muth’s difficulties in front of the board, reeling off a series of questions in Socratic fashion about the project’s cost to taxpayers: some grant money that had been built into the Green Energy Project’s budget hasn’t come through; the irony that thousands of dollars are required from the county to support the park’s utility bill; about rent and such not offsetting other costs.
Muth, who surely had some sense of what was coming because there were references to a prior tour of the facility by the board’s new members, seemed unprepared to answer such pointed questions.
About that pottery studio, Cody said: “All that sounds good on paper, but it costs money.” Cody made additional requests for hard numbers. And he asked the director, “What’s the end game on this thing?”
Democrat Commissioner Joe Cowan joined in with questions. He told Muth the board hadn’t had been given adequate time to review the information that was provided. More time also was needed, Cowan said, to review the director’s request that he be allowed to advertise for a new employee to replace Assistant Director Carrie Blaskowski.
Muth left to Cody’s words, “I’d just like to reiterate that I’d like to see a cost analysis done on the whole thing.”
People for and against the state Department of Transportation’s plans to pave and widen a 3.3-mile section of Needmore Road have another opportunity to tell officials what they think this month.
At the request of the Macon County Board of Commissioners, the transportation department will hold a second public hearing Jan. 25 in Macon County. The state agency fulfilled public law by holding one last fall in Swain County — the road connects Macon and Swain — but Macon leaders wanted to ensure their residents had a say, too.
You do not have to live in Macon County to participate in the public hearing.
“Both counties are involved in this matter, and given geography, there is no convenient location for a meeting to serve both counties. In my opinion, Bryson City was chosen because DOT perceived a better chance of turning people out who would be favorable to their agenda,” Bill McLarney, an expert on the Little Tennessee River (which parallels Needmore Road) and biomonitoring director for the Little Tennessee Watershed Association, wrote in an email.
“… I think it is particularly important to reinforce the will of the Macon County Commission by reminding them that their predecessors (and their Swain County counterparts) voted unanimously to support the Needmore acquisition, and that this is something of which we should all be very proud,” McLarney wrote.
Needmore Road cuts through the Needmore Game Lands, located in Macon and Swain counties. The 4,400-acre tract was protected after a coalition of environmentalists, hunters, local residents and others saved it from development after raising $19 million to buy the land from Duke Power.
What’s being decided is whether to pave and widen this gravel section of Needmore Road to a minimum of 18 feet, with construction work on the roadway’s shoulders.
Most of the major environmental groups in the region have given the nod to paving, citing protections to the Little Tennessee River, which is the beneficiary of dust and sedimentation. The groups have stopped short of endorsing the road widening as proposed, however. That would involve cutting into and removing acidic rock, which carries an inherent danger to the environment.
Want to go
When: Pre-hearing from 4:30-6:30 p.m.; open house starts at 7 p.m.
Where: Iotla Valley Elementary/Cowee School, 51 Cowee School Drive, Franklin.
More than 100 people turned out recently to protest a Macon County farmer’s plan to save his land by building a dirt-bike racetrack.
Herman “Bud” Talley, a well-known figure in Macon County — he’s owner of Nantahala Meats, home of the locally renowned Nantahala Brand Sausage — offered the county’s Board of Adjustment and his neighbors a Faustian bargain.
Endorse a variance needed for a setback and he’d build a sanctioned motocross course that would only open for 16 days a year (eight weekends, total, because the races would take place on Saturdays and Sundays). Or, turndown the request, and risk his building a practice course that could legally operate without restrictions for 365 days a year.
When the Macon County Board of Adjustment showed every indication of voting down the desired variance on a setback — members agreed at the outset of their deliberations he didn’t meet the requirements — Talley’s attorney withdrew his client’s request.
But not before scores of Macon County residents, particularly Talley’s neighbors in the Clarks Chapel community, united (for the most part, though not entirely) in roundly condemning his plans.
What’s going to happen next isn’t yet known. Some dirt-bike racetrack opponents said they view Talley’s threat as a reason to strengthen zoning laws in Macon County. This, they said, will serve as a rallying cry for that to take place.
Maybe, maybe not, what with a new Republican majority dominating the county’s always-conservative board of commissioners. For now, Talley can apparently still move forward if he wants with a practice facility, as his attorney made abundantly clear.
His need for a variance
Talley framed his variance request as a means of saving the family’s 45-acre farm, primarily home now to a herd of beef cattle, located in the Clarks Chapel community. The beef cattle will have to go, Talley said, adding it would break his heart. Motorcycles will replace them.
The 49-year-old Talley told how the land was cleared by hand by his father and grandfather, and had served the family well since being purchased in 1935. The Macon County native emphasized he felt bound by promises made to his late parents to protect the family’s holding, to find new and innovative ways in this difficult economic time for farmers to continue the Talley farming tradition.
Clarks Chapel, once home to acres and acres of prime farmland such as Talley’s, is an increasingly residential community situated just on the outskirts of Franklin. Retirees in particular have gravitated to the community, building houses as fast as Talley’s farming neighbors have given up and sold out.
Response: ‘Oh, bull’
Don’t fool yourself or try to fool us, opponents such as Margaret Crownover, who grew up on a farm near Asheville, told Talley. Build a dirt-bike racetrack and you’re not saving the farm — that’s not agriculture by any name. Farming is about cattle. Vegetables. Pitchforks and manure. Not helmets and motorcycles and throngs of people riding around in circles. Dirt bikes aren’t farming — the argument is, in reality, about one man’s wish to build a motorcycle racetrack in a residential community, pure and simple.
“And no one here tonight would want a racetrack next to them,” said Crownover, who moved to a townhouse in the Clarks Chapel community about 10 years ago.
Others, such as Roger Nelson, told the board of adjustment they would rather gamble on Talley not moving forward with the threatened practice course than see him operate under a cloak of county-granted legitimacy.
Don’t, in other words, grant Talley a variance reducing the 750-foot buffer zone to about 350 feet, which would enable him to add the necessary parking for a sanctioned course. Force him — if he really wants to punish the community for a ‘no’ vote — to open an unsanctioned practice course featuring virtually unhindered motorcycle use.
Not everyone agreed. Danny Baldwin, a nearby neighbor, endorsed Talley’s right to do anything he wants with his own land — including running motorcycles every day of the year, 24-hours at a time if he wants. So be it, because that’s his land and therefore his prerogative.
“That’s Bud Talley’s property, and he should be able to do that,” Baldwin said.
Macon County has few land-use regulations. But one they do have, no matter how weak it’s actually proving under fire, is an ordinance regulating high impact land uses. The ostensible purpose of the county’s law is to protect the welfare of residents by diminishing impacts of land uses that lead to noise, dust and so on, as opponent John Binkley pointed out.
“The direct impact zone is essentially a 400-foot band around the outside edge,” he said. “An analysis performed at my request by the county Land Records/GIS department showed that there are 49 tax parcels wholly or partly within the 400-foot band, of which most include residences.”
Binkley, who has surfaced as the primary force behind those opposing a dirt-bike racetrack being built in their community, argued a variance would create the following problems:
• Neighbors would lose enjoyment of their properties, through noise, dust and other pollutants: “This effect has special significance for certain of the neighbors … including (a) horse-breeding farm as well as retirees, in some cases with health concerns, who have invested a significant part of their savings in their homes with the expectation of a quiet and peaceful life in Macon County.”
• Negative traffic impacts would result. The rural roads in Clarks Chapel were not designed or built to ferry the amount of traffic that would result.
• Property values would decline: “… the loss of real-estate values would eventually come to be reflected in lower tax assessments and lower tax collections, reducing the county’s revenue.”
• Macon County’s economic future would suffer: “Approval of this variance … would send a strong signal out to the potential retiree market that Macon County is unwilling and/or unable to control the development of obnoxious activities that greatly reduce its attractiveness as a place for them to retire and live.”
One of my favorite annual events is set to take place Jan. 15. I share this information now because it takes time to mentally sort through a garden. Additionally, preparing a seed order often proves the highpoint of the gardener’s year. One should enjoy the experience for as much time as humanly possible before reality intervenes.
In my winter fancies, everything I sow germinates and grows on beautifully. Bugs never eat these plants. Early blight never comes and destroys my tomatoes. Just the right amount of rain falls, neither too much nor too little. Weeds don’t grow, voles and rabbits fail to chew, and I plant exactly what’s needed and no more. The harvest fairy comes along at precisely the exact moment she’s needed to pick the resulting bounty at the height of goodness, and she cans and freezes whatever the kitchen fairy hasn’t whipped up into lick-smacking, garden-to-table dishes.
While the dreams feel familiar, this year is actually proving a significantly different experience because I’m not planning out a market garden. Last January, I was ordering enough vegetable and flower seed to support sales at three weekly farmers markets. I’m studying the catalogs as always, but the order will be large enough to plant only a small space.
I confess to liking garden challenges, and enjoy setting yearly goals. This year, I plan to practice seed economy and true small-scale gardening.
Back to the seed order, the brainchild of my friends Ron and Cathy Arps, two superb small farmers who live and work in Sylva.
The group order will take place at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Jackson Street in Sylva from 9 a.m. until noon. You do not have to live in Jackson County to participate.
The seeds will be ordered from Fedco Seeds and Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which Ron noted in a recent email are “two of the leading seed companies that specialize in vegetables that have been chosen for taste, such as heirloom tomatoes, as well as a selection of seeds that are organically grown and not genetically modified (GMO).”
Flower, herb and cover-crop seeds, as well as onion transplants and sweet potato slips, can be ordered.
Catalogues for both companies will be available at the event, and seasoned gardeners will be on hand to help talk beginners through the process. Better yet, take a little time and go online to www.fedcoseeds.com and www.johnnysseeds.com. Take a look at what’s available beforehand, and jot down any questions you might have. Bring the questions along when you place an order. Bring cash or a check, too — you’ll pay that same day. The seeds generally arrive two to three weeks later, and a pickup date and time is sent out.
Many wonderful things are accomplished through this group effort. Everyone qualifies for a 24 percent discount through Fedco, varieties can be ordered that aren’t available locally, and you’re helping small farmers also get that Fedco discount — and believe me, when one’s livelihood is tied to a garden, that’s a nice way to start off the farming year.
Additionally, people who like to grow things are, of course, there. I’ve always found people who garden and farm inordinately fascinating. They talk at great and discursive lengths about those very subjects I myself find endlessly interesting and entertaining, and they never grow bored when I talk about those subjects, too.
When Mountain Projects came calling on Sylva leaders earlier this year because the group wanted to build five affordably priced homes within the town’s limits, commissioners found themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to deny the request.
The problem? A town law written just after World War II requiring almost a half acre of land per each house built. Mountain Projects, a regional community-action agency, missed the mark by a few thousand feet.
For its part, Mountain Projects was stymied by rules, too. The group was trying to meet its own mandated requirements that it build at least five houses, or not build them at all.
The situation underscored the need to reconsider the town’s minimum-lot requirements and make them less burdensome, Sylva Commissioner Christina Matheson said this week.
Sylva’s requirement for an almost half-acre lot per house was twice the required yard as mandated for homes in Canton, and 50 percent more than in Maggie Valley.
“We were probably the most restrictive municipality in the entire area, as far as the lot requirements go,” Matheson said. “Requiring that much property to construct a house makes it almost unaffordable. Particularly for families and elderly people.”
Requirements for nearly a half-acre per new house first surfaced as a hot-button issue here in late 2008, when Planner Jim Aust resigned. He said town leaders — by way of refusing to change Sylva’s excessive lot-size requirements — were preventing affordable housing from ever being built. Aust publicly accused Mayor Maurice Moody of wanting only $500,000 houses in the town he oversees.
The town’s decision to lighten up when it comes to mandating how much land a person must own before building a house came by unanimous board vote. The ‘yes’ votes included those of Commissioners Harold Hensley and Ray Lewis, both subjects of Aust’s “I’m-going-to-quit because what’s-the-point-in-trying-anymore” ire. Moody didn’t get to vote, because the mayor only votes if there is a split decision by the board.
These are the reasons most towns — including Sylva now, too — generally allow smaller lots:
• They keep the costs of building roads and water and sewer lines lower because the infrastructure doesn’t have to be extended so far.
• More homes per acre reduces land costs, helping to keep the building — and selling — price of houses down.
• Intensified density in towns reduces urban sprawl from encroaching on the countryside.
“The (new) lot sizes are more in line with other similar communities, and will offer more housing options for residents,” Town Commissioner Stacy Knotts said.
Matheson did not know if Mountain Projects might be interested in revisiting its affordable-housing proposal. She did say town leaders hope the less restrictive requirement stimulates development and growth in Sylva.
When Aust quit, he said just 78 dwelling units had been built in the town in a seven-year span.
The town law, said Matheson — a former assistant district attorney — was “clearly designed to limit growth.”
New Sylva Minimum Lot-Size Requirements:
• R-1 went from 20,000 square feet to 17,500 square feet.
• R-1A and R-1B stayed at 17,500 square feet.
• R-2 changed from 17,500 to 12,500 square feet, with duplexes at 17,500 square feet.
• R-3 went from 17,500 square feet to 8,000 square feet, with duplexes at 13,000 square feet. Also in R-3, multi-family developments (more than two units) minimum-lot size increases by 5,000 square feet for each additional unit.
• B-1 stays the same with no lot-size requirements.
• B-2 and B-3 changes from 17,500 square feet to 8,000 square feet, and increases to 13,000 square feet for duplexes and 5,000 square feet for each additional structure in multi-family developments.
• G-1 did not previously have requirements, and now has a minimum lot-size requirement of 12,500 square feet and 17,500 square feet for duplexes.
• Professional Business District stays the same at 10,000 square feet, and I-1 changes from 17,500 square feet to 8,000 square feet with a 13,000 square-foot requirement for duplexes, and 5,000 square feet for each additional structure for multifamily.
SOURCE: Town of Sylva
Andrew Whalen, an up-and-coming political insider who helped craft U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler’s entry onto the political scene five years ago, has rejoined the congressman’s staff.
Whalen, 30, announced he would leave his position as executive director of the N.C. Democratic Party at the beginning of the year. He will take charge of Shuler’s leadership political action committee, 3rd and Long.
Shuler was a Swain County High School football standout who went on to play for the University of Tennessee and the NFL.
Whalen, an Ohio native, served as the young congressman’s deputy campaign manager in 2006 and as his campaign manager in 2008. The state party, like the national Democratic Party, took a whipping from Republicans during the midterm elections. Democrats lost control of the state General Assembly, both the House and the Senate, for the first time in more than a century. Nationally, Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Following the state shellacking, N.C. Democratic Party Chairman David Young, a former Buncombe County commissioner, announced he wouldn’t seek re-election to the post. With the party’s executive committee set to meet in late January to choose Young’s replacement, some N.C. Democratic Party staffers in Raleigh promptly started searching for new jobs.
Whalen, however, said he wasn’t forced off the staff. Whalen said he chose to leave because he believes in Shuler’s ability to help a wounded national Democratic party find common ground and rebuild its membership base.
In short, Shuler’s determination to help Democrats regain control in Washington, D.C., simply drew him back, Whalen said.
“As he started expanding his national profile we started talking about this,” said Whalen, who will also serve as a senior advisor to the congressman. “He wants to win that majority back — and I certainly wanted to be part of his team.”
Shuler took a calculated loss in a bid to oust U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for House Democratic leader. His gains on the national stage were huge in terms of coast-to-coast coverage by television and newspapers — the party leadership fight took place during what is traditionally a slow news cycle between the November elections and the holidays.
Shuler took advantage of the national exposure to blame Democrats themselves for the beating they took at the polls. The party has moved too far left, he said, and needs to move toward the center. That’s where Shuler himself — a conservative Blue Dog Democrat — resides politically.
Shuler handily won reelection in the 11th Congressional District over Republican challenger Jeff Miller. The 11th Congressional District is made up of the state’s westernmost counties.
“It would be hard to find a Democrat whose stock has risen more in the last few months than Heath Shuler,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University who helps oversee a blog on state politics for the school’s Public Policy Institute. “His ploy to feign a run for minority leader achieved its goal — to raise his national profile. He could never win and he knew that. Nonetheless, his move was brilliant political theatre and shows that you can be the winner in politics without actual winning the contest.”
Politicians use leadership PACs such as the one Whalen will head to promote causes and like-minded candidates — usually by raising money. Whalen said he would oversee fundraising, recruitment, communications and Shuler’s political travel.
Though Whalen’s jump back to Shuler’s staff might look like the ultimate inside baseball, Cooper said it serves as an important signal about Shuler’s political aspirations. And it speaks to Democrats’ increasing faith in Shuler’s abilities to lead.
“Now he’s stolen the head of the state Democratic Party away,” Cooper said. “It’s unlikely Whalen would be leaving Raleigh unless he thought Shuler had a chance to be much more than a junior member from a relatively small district. Shuler clearly has an eye on the leadership, and as one of the only Democrats who can survive in a competitive district, there’s every reason to believe he’ll be successful sooner rather than later.”
Shuler now becomes co-chair of the Blue Dog Caucus, a step up from his former position as Blue Dog whip. Additionally, he has been elected to the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, which selects which fellow party members serve on other House committees, and advises party leaders on policy.
It takes a village to tend a congressman
For all offices:
• Hayden Rogers, chief of staff
229 Cannon House Office Bldg.
Washington, D.C. 20515
• Julie Fishman, communications director and senior advisor
• Jed Bhuta, legislative director
• Erin Georges, legislative assistant
• Ryan Fitzpatrick, legislative assistant
• Whitney Mitchell, legislative assistant
• Grant Carlisle, staff assistant
Asheville District Office:
205 College St., Suite 100
Asheville, N.C. 28801
• Myrna Campbell, director of constituent services
• Chad Eaton, director of public affairs
• Kelly Sheehan, director of grants and special projects
• Shelley Townley, constituent liaison
• Erica Griffith, constituent services representative
• Kate Gunthorpe, veterans services representative
• Randy Flack, district field representative for the eastern counties
125 Bonnie Lane
Sylva, N.C. 28779
Phone: 828.586.1962 x223
• Boyce Deitz, district field representative for the western counties.
75 Peachtree St., Suite 100
Murphy, N.C. 28906
• Sandy Zimmerman, constituent services representative
This is a good time of the year to order seeds and plant carrots.
That’s not a misprint: It’s an excellent time to plant carrots. Starting this week, if there’s a weather window allowing for it, go into the garden and pick a place for carrots. Pull a rake lightly across the selected bed, just enough to break up any heavy clods of dirt. Be mindful of not overworking the soil. The ground is very moist, more so now than at most times of the year.
(I’m going to wax philosophical here, so brace accordingly, or skip down to where I get back to the nitty-gritty of planting carrots in December or January.)
Good garden soil is a precious, wondrous thing. As such, it deserves your respect and careful tending. Generally speaking, the less the ground is worked, the better overall.
This holds true in the winter, when you barely work the soil at all. It holds true in the early spring, when the soil requires more amending and turning, but only just so and no more than that. And on through the gardener’s year, which in Western North Carolina can be for an incredible 12 months — if the gardener or farmer has enough energy, passion and willingness to experiment.
Gardening year-round does require paying acute attention to conditions as they really are, not as we might prefer them to be. And to developing, as commensurate experience is gained, what some might wrongly dub an intuitive feel. Don’t be deceived, or believe people at birth were given green thumbs or dark, black ones. Vegetable gardening is not an art — it’s a craft. Anyone with sufficient interest and the willingness to work hard can learn to garden. Or, for that matter, keep honeybees, raise livestock or write essays on a variety of riveting subjects such as these.
But I’m digressing within a digression. Let me find my way toward home (and planting those carrots) by noting I’m big on creating a partnership with your garden or farm. This approach is in stark contrast to how some gardeners seem to view gardening or vegetable farming. Each spring, these folks arm themselves as if for war with their tillers and tractors, synthetic fertilizers and lethal sprays. They start by pulverizing the soil. Next, they dump chemical fertilizer down as some sort of imaginary fertility insurance. The battle — and make no mistake about it, these are battles taking place within an overall war against the earth — is concluded when these gallant warriors have poisoned every living creature, great or small, helpful or harmful.
Gardeners and farmers of this ilk seem to believe they’ve forced the earth into doing their bidding. How very powerful, even godlike, that must feel. Unfortunately for them, this approach simply doesn’t work for long.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not against tillers or tractors. Or using sprays and powders. Select methods that best match your garden and your philosophy. Hey, this is America after all.
Just, please, use powerful machinery and manmade chemicals mindfully and for thought-out reasons, not simply from habit, laziness or carelessness.
Kindness and gentleness in gardening is actually more practical: battling the earth simply doesn’t pay. The soil loses its vitality when overworked and over-fertilized. Indiscriminant poisoning kills good insects along with the bad (though one could rightfully argue there are no “bad” insects. In reality, even those insects with destructive habits serve as a useful signal we’ve gotten the balance out of whack. We might do better to consider why rather than reaching for a spray bottle).
Now, back to carrots. You’ve prepared a bed with due love and attention. Pull any weeds that might be successfully over-wintering. Using a hoe, or the handle of the rake, make furrows 4-6 inches apart. Sow the carrot seed with a heavy hand — no stinginess or frugality here, think joyful abundance as you plant.
This is because winter gardening is about increasing the odds. It’s a crapshoot, and seeding thickly substantially bolsters your chance of producing a lovely carrot crop that will wow your friends and send enemies cowering.
Cover the planted seed lightly with dirt, and pat it down. Put row cover such as Agribon 19 over the carrot bed. I use wire hoops to keep it suspended, but you could lay it down directly (though loosely so the plants have room to grow), and pin the cover along the sides using rocks. Row cover is simply a light fabric available through many garden centers, or you can order it from most seed companies. I’ve read of some thrifty souls using sheers for the same purpose.
It might take awhile, but the carrot seed will germinate. The little plants sit there, seemingly not growing at all, until the days get a bit longer.
On those nights it gets really cold — I’m talking, say, 17 degrees or lower — consider throwing a sheet or piece of plastic on top. Be sure, however, to remove the extra cover when conditions change for the better.
Don’t thin the plants until they are several inches tall, then thin to 1-2 inches apart. Come April or May, if all goes well, you’ll be eating carrots straight from the garden.
Chuck Wooten will become interim Jackson County manager for six months or so starting next month.
Commissioners this week in a unanimous vote hired Wooten for $10,000 a month. Wooten retires Jan. 1 from Western Carolina University after 30 years as vice chancellor for administration and finance. He starts his new, temporary job Jan. 3. Wooten once worked as county manager for Iredell County.
“I’m going to try to help this board bridge this gap,” Wooten said, adding that he believes he can help Jackson County successfully move through an upcoming budget cycle and select a new permanent county manager.
Kenneth Westmoreland is technically Jackson County’s manager until Jan. 1 — but his last official day in office took place earlier this month.
Depending on which man you believe, Commission Chairman Jack Debnam or Westmoreland, the three newest commissioners in Jackson County either asked Westmoreland to leave (the county manager’s version), or he left of his own volition (Debnam’s version).
Westmoreland has served as Jackson County manager for almost a decade. His actions as the county’s top leader became a campaign issue, particularly the implementation of a new pay-scale system that was targeted as too generous to long-time employees like himself.
When Democrats Brian McMahan, William Shelton and Tom Massie lost to Debnam (an Independent with GOP backing) and Republicans Charles Elders and Doug Cody, it was general knowledge that Westmoreland’s tenure as manager was likely over.
Two Democrats remain on the board, each with two years remaining in their four-year terms: Joe Cowan and Mark Jones. For the most part, with two meetings having taken place to date, the Democrats have voted along harmoniously with their more conservative board members.
How much power the future county manager of Jackson County will be allowed under this particular board of commissioners is in question. Unlike city managers in North Carolina, a county manager is not granted automatic statutory authority to hire, fire and discipline employees. The manager performs these duties only if the board allows this to happen.
In their first meeting as a group, commissioners took that power into their own hands. Questioned this week, Debnam said the matter would be revisited at a later time, but for now all hires and fires will come before the board.
“I think we needed a little bit more control over what was happening,” Debnam said.
Town of Sylva leaders have sent a letter to the state Department of Transportation endorsing what supporters would like called a connector — and detractors a bypass — around N.C. 107.
The letter was approved by unanimous vote last week.
“We envision (N.C. 107) to be more of a ‘city street’ rather than a major thoroughfare,” Stacy Knotts, a Sylva town commissioner, wrote in explanation of the vote (an ice storm prevented The Smoky Mountain News from attending this particular meeting). “We are hoping to improve safety and traffic congestion without widening the road — as this would impact many businesses.”
Supporters agree a connector would ease traffic on N.C. 107; detractors say a bypass would do nothing of the sort.
Potential redesigns of N.C. 107 were recently unveiled at a public information session in Sylva that drew a crowd of 200. The state highway is Sylva’s major traffic corridor, taking in the primary portion of the county experiencing business growth. The targeted stretch extends from U.S. 23 Business in Sylva to Western Carolina University.
The transportation department discussed six concepts. Three would include building what was once dubbed the Southern Loop, since renamed the “N.C. 107 connector” by the transportation department … or, in the parlance of Smart Roads, a community activist group in Jackson County opposing the plans, “The Bypass.”
By whatever name, the connector/bypass/Southern Loop would cut a major five-mile-long road through people’s homes, over farmland and streams and forests.
Susan Leveille, a member of Smart Roads, said when the county put together its comprehensive transportation plan, “the N.C. DOT says, ‘the problem on 107 is not traffic volume, the problem is land use.’ As in, how the land along the 107 corridor is allowed to be used by the town and county.”
The answer, Leveille said, is not a connector. Nor massive “improvements” to N.C. 107 to fix debatable traffic issues along the highway. The issue, in her book, is the need for town leaders to “make some hard choices instead of doing what is easy” and pass some development regulations.
Leveille suggested reducing curb cuts — a break in a curb allowing access from the roadway — and perhaps moving toward what Waynesville has done on Russ Avenue: forcing newly built businesses to front the roadway and put parking behind buildings.
“These are not the only two choices,” Leveille said of the either/or “improve N.C. 107” or build a connector/bypass/Southern Loop.
“Sylva should be fighting this tooth and nail,” longtime Jackson County business owner Leveille said. “This could bypass the entire economic center of Sylva.”
In other N.C. 107 matters, former N.C. Department of Transportation employee Jamie Wilson spoke to Jackson County commissioners this week about how the 14th Division does business in this region. He said department leaders have not been open about traffic counts on N.C. 107. Wilson claimed the number of vehicles using the road is actually showing decreases.
Wilson also questioned funding decisions and how road projects are prioritized in the 10-county 14th Division.
Sylva to transportation department:
In response to the N.C. 107 Improvements Feasibility Study presented at the Nov. 9th Citizen’s Information Workshop, the Sylva Board of Commissioners submit the following comments.
The terrain in Jackson County is mountains, ridges, narrow valleys and streams. This terrain is extremely important in the development of Sylva and Jackson County. N.C. 107 in Sylva runs through a narrow valley between two ridges. Between Sylva and Cullowhee the highway is either sandwiched between ridges, or between a ridge and the river. With this in mind, we would like for N.C. 107 to remain a four (4) lane city street with little or no increase in width. Increasing N.C. 107 to six (6) or seven (7) lanes would have a negative impact to business and the growth of Sylva. We have faith in N.C. DOT’s ability to forecast traffic and determine future needs or highway requirements. Therefore, if the current or improved four-lane highway will not carry the forecasted traffic, we would endorse the connector concept, in conjunction with the improvements to N.C. 107.
We would also recommend that N.C. DOT consider increasing the width of the bridge across Scotts Creek at Jackson Paper to four lanes.
Your consideration for our concerns and for the growth of Sylva is greatly appreciated.
Jay Coward, newly hired to serve as Jackson County’s attorney, will receive $175 an hour, commissioners agreed in a unanimous vote this week.
He’ll also serve the sheriff’s department when the sheriff and his deputies need legal advice.
Coward, a Republican, replaces Paul Holt, a Democrat. The change is one of the outcomes of the upending of Democrats and their long hold on the Jackson County Board of Commissioners. Voters in November sent three Democrats packing, and elected Jack Debnam, an officially registered but GOP-backed-Independent chairman, and Charles Elders and Doug Cody, Republicans, in the ousted Democrats’ place.
Democrat Sheriff Jimmy Ashe seemed thrilled Coward was again part of the county government family. He lauded the longtime attorney and former commissioner for bringing a breadth of wisdom and experience to the county’s law needs.
Additionally, Coward served as an excellent reason for Ashe to dump his own hand-selected attorney, Mark Welch. Coward, Ashe said, “will be able to accommodate our needs.”
In 2008, the sheriff requested commissioners (Democrats all, then) give him a full-time sheriff’s attorney. They said OK. The sheriff’s department attorney answered directly to Ashe, and, according to the sheriff’s department website, helped with daily legal matters.
This week, however, what was once cited as a critical need (rising foreclosures, among other reasons) gave way to, the sheriff said, more pressing department priorities.
Welch was paid $67,237 a year. With a cost savings of more than $9,000 tied to his erasure as a county employee, commissioners went along willingly with Ashe. But not before new Commissioner Doug Cody queried the sheriff on this change of heart.
Cody asked if Ashe’s newfound ability to rely on the county attorney for legal advice meant the foreclosure rate had decreased. No, Ashe replied, it is still increasing in Jackson County.
But property crime is also escalating. And some of the savings, with commissioners’ approval, went to fund a realignment of sheriff’s department personnel. Those changes, Ashe said, will help the department in its fight against crime — more, apparently than a staff attorney would.
A tuition hike spells additional hardships for many students at Western Carolina University, at least those who already find it difficult to scratch up the dollars needed to obtain a college degree.
“I’m sure it’s going to be hard on many of them,” said Seth McCormick, who teaches art history.
And on a recent weekend in Cullowhee, a group of students who also double as Subway Restaurant employees agreed. Most of their fellow students were gone from campus. Exams finished, they’d headed home for the holiday break. But not Carrie Collins of Pilot Mountain, or Bethanne Bentley of Raleigh — they were hard at work, earning money to help pay their way through school.
“It will be difficult to come up with,” Collins said of the additional 4.45 percent she will pay for the 2011-12 academic year.
That translates to an additional $471.20 a year for typical N.C. undergraduates who are living on campus and receiving the most-popular meal plan. The total cost for these students each year will be $11,055. Tuition alone for these students would be $3,048 per year, up $232.20.
Collins, a hospitality and tourism major, who described herself as a “super-duper” junior (which she defined as meaning she’s stayed a junior for more time than anticipated), said she’d probably be forced to seek even more help via student loans.
Fortunately, Collins said, books are included in the tuition fees at WCU.
North Carolina is faced with a $3.7 billion shortfall. Cuts are trickling down to universities and other state institutions. The WCU Board of Trustees approved the tuition hike Dec. 8.
Trustees Vice Chairman Charles Worley said in a prepared news release the “only hope we have of maintaining the academic core, or at least minimizing the hurt, is with this tuition increase.”
Bentley said she feels fortunate she will only be going to school part-time next semester. She lives off campus, and believes her goal of becoming a social worker is still reachable.
The increase came as a jolt to one of WCU’s newest students. Freshman Corvin Parker, a Raleigh resident who was buying lunch at Subway, said the tuition hike served as something of a spur.
“It makes me think I want to buckle down,” Parker said.
There are other increases coming, as well. WCU is seeking permission from the University of North Carolina system to also:
• Increase the athletics fee by $71, from $617 to $688.
• Add $24 to the education and technology fee, from $363 a year to $387.
No one could specify exactly who made the decision to remove the maps or when precisely that occurred, but some members of a Macon group studying steep-slope safety want them returned to the county’s website.
The taxpayer-funded Slope Movement Hazard maps were prepared by the N.C. Geological Survey to highlight potential landslide-danger spots. They were taken down without warning from the county’s website “a few months ago,” according to members of the county’s steep-slope subcommittee. The maps remain available through the state’s website for those willing to go in search of them.
This, however, is not particularly helpful to a majority of Macon County residents, area real-estate agents and people considering buying property in the county, said Stacy Guffey, a member of the steep-slope subcommittee and former Macon County planner.
Guffey said he believes people should be able to tap into county-related information (landslide potential, flood dangers and so on) in one easy-to-find location. Subcommittee Chairman Al Slagle agreed, but backed off forwarding the suggestion to the planning board after two subcommittee members — who sell real estate professionally — opposed the idea. Reggie Holland and John Becker explained they believe the maps cause more harm than good. This, they said, because the maps lack meaningful context for laypersons trying to interpret trained scientists’ work.
Additionally, the men raised questions about liability. Lewis Penland, chairman of the planning board and a professional golf-course designer, tried to assuage their fears. He said his understanding is that a real-estate agent’s responsibility ends with directing prospective buyers toward qualified experts. Penland added, however, that attempts to have this interpretation rendered in the form of an actual stand-up-in-court legal opinion hasn’t proven successful.
Slagle, saying he wanted consensus, promised the matter would be discussed again later. Guffey endorsed Slagle’s call for a harmonious resolution and postponement of the discussion, perhaps because there hasn’t been too much getting-along-together-even-when-we-disagree happening these days in Macon County.
Don’t live in Macon, so why should you care?
Good question, but there’s an equally good answer: because the ramifications of what’s taking place in Macon resonates in other Western North Carolina counties. Voters’ decision during the mid-term elections to hand control of state and county governments to Republicans and GOP-backed Independent candidates means land planning, if it occurs at all, is likely to look very different.
The fight for now is taking place in Macon County. Tomorrow, it might well erupt in Jackson, or some other WNC county.
Here’s what happened in Macon County: the county planning board appoints the steep-slope subcommittee. The planning board, in turn, is appointed by Macon County’s Board of Commissioners. The board of commissions fractured internally and came under intense fire recently for placing, in a 3-2 vote, an anti-planning advocate — Jimmy Goodman — on the planning board in place of Subcommittee Chairman Slagle.
Goodman helped found the Tea Party chapter Freedom Works, and won no small favor among some in Macon County with his arguments that the planning board he now serves on should take a hiatus. Goodman was previously a member of the planning board. He was not reappointed because other members wanted Goodman removed from the board for what they deemed obstructive behavior. At least that’s how Democrat Commissioner Ronnie Beale described the problem. And it was Beale who found himself unexpectedly on the losing side when the aforementioned 3-2 decision came about.
Goodman, for his part, told The Smoky Mountain News he has every intention of working hard on the planning board. And that he doesn’t want to get involved in politics. Though, as a point of fact, Goodman of his own accord recently became deeply enmeshed in politics — the professional cabinetmaker ran an unsuccessful campaign against Republican Jim Davis, a Franklin resident, in the May primaries. The two men were vying for a state Senate seat.
Not confused enough yet by these internecine political plays? Here’s one more important point: Davis, a Macon County commissioner, ultimately ousted John Snow, D-Murphy, for the 50th Senate District seat. Perhaps as a consolation prize for Goodman and in a gesture toward Macon County Republican Party unity, Davis, in nearly his last act as a commissioner, seconded the nomination for Goodman to be placed on the county planning board.
What purposes the maps might serve
The steep-slope committee headed by Slagle has been working on a set of proposed regulations since June 2009.
Macon County in 1994 experienced a massive debris flow in the Peeks Creek community. Five people died. This was a natural, not man-created event — though in saying that, one must overlook the truth that this obliterated portion of the community was built where the more than two-mile long debris flow did actually occur.
Additionally, Macon County has been the site of several landslides that have been blamed on improper road construction and inappropriate building sites or techniques.
Would the currently available geological maps have helped? That’s probably an unanswerable question. But these are precisely the type situations the maps might help prevent in the future — plus, they could serve to warn where it might be best to avoid land disturbance through building and construction. Or, at the very least, signal whether an expert should render an opinion on how best to minimize or avoid any dangers if building and construction does move forward.
“It just points out areas from a slope stability, public safety standpoint (where) it makes sense to have a closer look,” said Rick Wooten, senior geologist with the N.C Geological Survey.
The General Assembly ordered the geological survey to put together maps for the state’s 19 westernmost counties. In Macon County, Wooten said 600 to 900 locations were studied, and the following maps were the result:
• Slope Movements Deposit Map: Where the ground has moved or is still moving.
• Stability Index Map: Where a landslide seems more likely given the right set of weather conditions.
• Debris Flow Pathways Map: The likely path of a landslide.
Wooten said draft maps have been finished for Henderson County. Work is under way in Jackson County.
Want to get involved?
The Macon County steep-slope committee is set to meet next at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 5, in the agricultural building, formerly the health department in Franklin. The committee wants to finalize its recommendations by February for the county planning board to consider. To that end, the committee plans to meet “as often as possible” over the next few months, Al Slagle, the subcommittee’s chairman, said.
Sunday, 6 a.m.: Get out of bed, stagger downstairs and start grinding coffee beans. What’s that white sheen through the window? Oh goodness, it must have snowed overnight! I should have moved my car. Stupid weather forecasters — they said the snow wouldn’t come through until this afternoon. So much for dinner with friends in Franklin tonight … So much, too, for getting out of here before a significant warm-up takes place. Sorry, Scott. Bet you’ll be laying out the newspaper in Waynesville on Tuesday without me.
8 a.m.: Measure snow. Three inches, and more on the way, according to the National Weather Service. Eat breakfast — French toast drizzled with tasty wildflower honey harvested last summer from the bees. Two slices of bacon. More coffee.
8:30 a.m.: Well fortified, it’s time to head down the mountain … on foot. Put on long johns, jeans, long-john top, T-shirt, sweatshirt, coat, knit cap, gloves, thick wool socks and lined rubber boots. Stop at the shed for a bale of hay, put it on a sled, continue down the mountain. I know there is a crowd of hungry goats, sheep, chickens, two guard dogs and one orange barn cat named Jack at the barn down at the mountain’s base.
8:40 a.m. I’m absolutely burning up. I’m partway down the mountain. It is in the mid 30s, and I could comfortably exist in the arctic with the amount of clothing I’ve put on … what was I thinking? Take off the coat, the knit cap and the sweatshirt. Continue to the barn.
8:45 a.m.: Finally at the barn. Coax the seven goats into their respective stalls for feeding. The billy, Boo, and the wether, Brownie, are in one stall together. Peggy Sue and Delilah in another. Sochan and Chrysanthemum in a third. Thelma — the queen goat — still eats on the milking stand where she was milked until being dried off in November. Feed them.
9 a.m.: Carry water from the spring to the animals. The small pond where I’m dipping the water is gorgeous, unbelievabley clear and ringed about with snow. The water tank was drained last week because it needed cleaning, and there hasn’t been rainfall since. I’ll be carrying hot water down the mountain tomorrow with the freezing temperatures that are expected. Scatter cracked corn to the 30 or so chickens, all absolutely miserable in this snow — they don’t like getting their feet wet. Chickens aren’t that bright, and it doesn’t dawn on them to stay in the barn. Instead, they are standing forlornly in the yard. Feed the dogs, who unlike the chickens, think the snow is terrific. Feed the cat. Feed the sheep. Look at Sophie’s udder. We think she is pregnant, but her udder isn’t showing signs of filling out, which the veterinarian said to watch for. Maybe the ewe is simply really, really fat?
9:30 a.m.: Give each of the goats a penicillin shot. This must be done twice each day for five days. A virulent cold is running through the herd. Runny noses and coughs abound. The does are pregnant, and with the added stress of severe cold, it seemed wisest to start them on antibiotics. I worked as a vet tech during college, so I’ve given shots before, but goats are proving a lot more difficult than I anticipated. It’s really hard to find enough skin to pull out for the shot — maybe I can get a veterinarian to demonstrate if I ever get off the mountain again. The goats hate the shots. I don’t blame them. I feel bad for causing them pain.
10 a.m.: Carry four bales of straw from an unused shelter to the barn, and one farther down to the sheep shelter. Break them open and scatter them about. Fall once, landing on my back, while moving the straw bales. Wonder what would happen if I broke a bone or something. The cell phone is in the house, back on top of the mountain. If I slip in the snow and no one is around to hear me scream, do I really make a sound?
11 a.m.: Dust myself off, nothing broken. Start back up the mountain, hauling the sled behind. No reason to worry about not making it to the gym today — this is enough of a workout.
11:30 a.m. Cup of hot chocolate in front of a fire. Self-congratulations for splitting and stacking wood yesterday.
Noon on: Watch birds feeding. Chickadees, finches, pine siskins, titmice, male and female cardinals in the feeders. Towhees, winter wren and juncos on the ground — all happy until a large hawk perches in a tree nearby, triggering a mass exodus. Eat salad for lunch, made with the last head of Chinese cabbage from the garden. There are still plenty of other greens, though, all tucked away for now under double and triple layers of row cover.
2 p.m. Start on this column. All in all, not a bad day, though it will be time to head back down the mountain at 4 p.m. to feed, give medicine, and tuck the animals away for the night. I like winter, even the brutal days when the simplest tasks become difficult. It makes me feel very alive.
Three years ago, Holly Hooper and sister Heather Menacof had saved enough money to invest in new windows for the lower part of their popular outfitter store in Sylva, Blackrock Outdoor Company.
Then the economy tanked. The sisters were forced to put the money back into the business. They scrimped and saved once more, however, and are moving forward again with dressing up the part of the building that faces Mill Street, better known as back street.
Hooper hopes Black Rock’s individual attempts to aid this part of the downtown gets a significant boost in the form of a state grant being submitted by the Downtown Sylva Association. The grant application is due by Feb. 10. Meetings are being held, ideas have been solicited, and a number of Sylva businesses have expressed keen interest in participating in a general cleanup and refashioning of back street.
After years of neglect, back street actually has received some attention fairly recently in the form of landscaping and upkeep. Currently, there are few vacancies along the street, and the businesses located there generally seem to be holding their own.
But Julie Sylvester, head of the Downtown Sylva Association, decided more could be done. About 40 people turned out for a meeting a few months ago about fixing up back street.
The Downtown Sylva Association is a membership organization dedicated to bettering the business environment in downtown Sylva. It is tasked with helping businesses thrive and prosper.
“We had a good mix of people all wanting to see this project move forward,” Sylvester said.
Grant money is available through the state’s Main Street program. The grants are intended to provide direct financial benefit to towns, retain and create jobs and spur private investment.
Sylvester said an initial phase for back street renovation includes painting, pressure washing, disguising unsightly but necessary items using paint or other means of hiding them (air conditioning units, for example).
“The idea is we try to do something that will make a big difference without a lot of money,” Sylvester said.
Hooper said she hopes to see street lighting installed. And awnings, she added, to protect customers from rain. Eventually, Black Rock would like to open an entrance into the store on back street instead of just having one on Main Street.
That would mean hiring an additional employee, however, and the store needs to see more traffic and business via back street before doing that, Hooper said.
The completion date for Jackson County’s new library is just three months away, but the likelihood the project really will be finished then isn’t that great, construction Manager David Cates of Canton-based Brantley Construction acknowledged late last week.
Additional construction work, coupled with possible weather delays as this its-not-supposed-to-be-a-bad winter starts out with a battering of severe cold and snow, probably forebodes additional delay. A December target date was missed, too, because of poor weather conditions — 62 days of measurable rainfall in the first 90 building days — and complications with restoring the courthouse’s crowning point, the cupola.
The new library is being built as a 22,000-square-foot addition to the historic courthouse, which towers above Sylva on a small mountaintop. The courthouse itself will be devoted to providing community space to Jackson County residents, including an approximately 2,500-square-foot courtroom that will be available for almost any type of function or meeting. Office space for the county’s arts council and genealogical society will be provided in the old courthouse building.
The cupola is back atop the courthouse now, and a re-polished Lady Justice is shining brightly nearby. Inside, the library itself is taking shape. Friends of the Jackson County Main Library led a tour last week to showoff progress and detail the work taking place.
The future Jackson County Public Library is, in a word, gorgeous. Apart from a few libraries located at major universities (the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill comes to mind), it is doubtful any other community in the Southeast will boast of a facility as impressive as this one.
“I’m a little worried it is going to be so precious people will be uncomfortable,” said June Smith, president of the Jackson County Friends of the Main Library. “But I think and hope people will grow into it.”
Jackson County’s future library hasn’t been without controversy. Getting to this point took a decade of debate and a year of planning. There were arguments about the location, the cost and the need.
Budget disagreements concerning future library funding are likely to heat up again in the near future. Particularly since voters gave three of the project’s primary supporters — Democrats Brian McMahan, Tom Massie and William Shelton — the boot during last month’s election. Their replacements — officially-Independent-but-GOP-supported Chairman Jack Debnam and Republicans Charles Elders and Doug Cody — cited costs associated with the library project as prime examples of fiscal waste during their political campaigns.
A passion for libraries
“There are people in this community who are very passionate about libraries, and one of the most important roles the Friends’ plays is that of library advocate,” said Mary Otto Selzer, co-chair of the Friends of the Library committee, which raised more than $1.8 million since May 2008 in donations and grants to furnish and outfit the new facility.
To that end, Selzer and other Friends of the Library members join Jackson County Librarian Dottie Brunette in monitoring — and being visible at — the bi-monthly meetings of the county’s commissioners.
Setzer, who worked as an investment banker, said she hopes to help be able to educate the county’s new commissioners on the important role played by the library.
The three newcomers on the board join Democrats Mark Jones and Joe Cowan. They each have two years remaining on their four-year terms.
“They all are business people,” Setzer said optimistically, “and they like numbers and figures. That’s my background, too.”
In the three-county Fontana Regional Library System, made up of Jackson, Macon and Swain counties, Jackson County historically almost always ranks last in terms of per-capita funding. This even though the previous Democratic-controlled board of commissioners was considered supportive of its libraries, with one each in Sylva and Cashiers.
Swain County — thanks to a low-taxing ability because of the sheer amount of federal holdings within the county’s boundaries, a number approaching about 85 percent — has recently overtaken Jackson as the lowest-ranking funded county in the Fontana System, Setzer said. Swain County is just now beginning to consider whether to build a new library of its own.
Setzer said she believes the massive community response to fundraising for Jackson County’s new library speaks volumes about residents’ commitment for libraries in general. She said the Friends group would need to continue money-raising ventures even once it opens.
That ongoing commitment to fundraising does not, however, abrogate the county’s responsibility to pay for general operating needs, Setzer said, such as overall building maintenance and staffing.
45,000 items to move
Betty Screven, a volunteer with Friends of the Library, said great pains have been taken to retain the original feel of the historic courthouse, which dates to 1914.
Architects and interior designers used historic records to guide restoration efforts. The building, gutted during the 1970s, had almost no original features. So the team instead focused on the Madison County Courthouse, which Jackson County’s courthouse was modeled on when the county seat was moved from Webster to Sylva.
The old courthouse and the addition are connected by a glass atrium. This will serve as the main entrance into the complex.
Librarian Brunette said there would be about 45,000 items that must be moved from the current Sylva library — located near the base of the hill the new library and old county courthouse sit astride. How exactly to move the books, CDs and other library material haven’t been decided yet. Other county employees, with permission of commissioners, helped when the contents of Macon County’s library was moved a few years ago.
New items are being purchased for Jackson County’s new library, as well. But “we don’t want all the shelves full, you want to be able to grow,” Brunette said.
There are gaps in the library collection the librarian would like to see filled. The Cherokee collection is not what it should be, though Ben Bridgers, a Sylva lawyer, plans to donate many historical and scholarly Cherokee books to the library, she said. Brunette also wants more materials for young adults.
Looming budget cuts to the state’s higher education system won’t interfere with Western Carolina University’s goal of creating a town to call its own, the man tasked with drawing up a project agreement said this week.
Tom McClure, director of the office of partnership development for the WCU Millennial Initiative, also said if the project for a Town Center moves forward it would be on the financial back of a yet-unidentified private developer. Not, he said, through or at the expense of the university or state.
North Carolina is facing a $3.7 billion shortfall. Budget cuts are expected to extend to the University of North Carolina system, which includes WCU. In anticipation, the cost of attending the university would increase 4.45 percent for the 2011-12 academic year under a plan approved this month by the WCU Board of Trustees.
McClure debunked any idea that the Town Center concept would lose steam because of the departure of Chancellor John Bardo. The chancellor, who developed and spearheaded the possibility of developing 35 acres on WCU’s main campus, announced he would retire next summer.
Key to the Town Center moving forward is whether the Village of Forest Hills agrees to annex the land. Cullowhee is not currently incorporated as a town, and as a result, stores and restaurants can’t sell beer, wine or liquor drinks. That has proved a major stumbling block in attracting commercial ventures typically associated with a college town.
Nearby Forest Hills consists of fewer than 400 residents. Most are current or retired faculty and staff of the university. The town incorporated in 1997, mainly to prevent an influx of students from taking over the community.
What’s in a name?
A draft agreement between WCU and Forest Hills obtained last week by The Smoky Mountain News calls for a referendum on mixed drinks, beer and wine if the tiny incorporated community moves forward with the plan.
The letter of intent also suggests Forest Hills would lose its name for that of the “Town of Cullowhee.” And that it would adopt a “mutually acceptable mixed-use zoning district ordinance based on an initial draft provided by WCU.”
WCU Chancellor John W. Bard sent the letter, dated Dec. 6, to Jim Wallace, mayor of Forest Hills.
Wallace said this week he’s hoping fellow Forest Hills leaders give the project a green light.
“I myself think it would be extremely good for the community and the Village of Forest Hills,” he said. “But we don’t know the details yet. And I don’t vote.”
Wallace said council members would review the draft “paragraph by paragraph” at its upcoming January meeting.
Bardo, in the draft, noted: “The purpose of this letter of intent is to provide the framework for negotiations between WCU and Forest Hills regarding a proposed transaction, and outline material terms and the basis upon which a definitive development agreement may be negotiated and prepared for execution by Forest Hills and WCU.”
The development agreement would be for 20 years unless the two parties mutually agreed to terminate the bargain.
“The Town Center may involve construction of up to 2 million square feet of building space. … Building space currently contemplated includes, without limitation, general retail business, residential space, food services business and entertainment business. The parties agree that large, ‘big box’ retail establishments will not be permitted in the Town Center,” the letter states.
Not everyone thrilled with WCU idea
Robin Lang, Cullowhee businessperson and community advocate:
“I was shocked to read WCU presented Forest Hills its proposal for a ‘Town Center.’ The nerve to call it a ‘Town Center.’ … A ‘Town Center’ without free enterprise? Chancellor John Bardo stated at the first meeting with Forest Hills that the square-footage prices would be too high for a local business to afford. A ‘Town Center’ where within only alcohol sales are allowed? How will our small business community fairly compete with that? Let’s get a countywide alcohol referendum on the next ballot and take a vote. Level the playing field or we will watch more of our local family businesses go under and fold at the mercy of corporate entities and the university once again.
“What about our economic climate? To create service jobs? For whom? The people the university and Forest Hills put out of business? Maybe for the faculty and staff they lay off next year due to the extreme budget cuts. Our community doesn’t need more underemployment. … Is the fate of Cullowhee and Jackson County allowed to lie only in the hands of WCU, the 400 residents of Forest Hills and its board members? The rest of the community, the vested taxpaying, property-owning community needs representation and has a right to a voice.
“What concerns me most is when I think about connecting all the dots of recent events. Our new county commissioners ran on the Tea Party ticket, which professes that people take back their government. Yet the new commissioners have set Mondays at 2 p.m. for their public meetings, which will exclude most of the pesky working public. … I’m concerned that neither WCU nor Forest Hills made this document public. This is public information. ... What else are they thinking and not telling us?”
Read the draft agreement at www.smokymountainnews.com/multimedia/FOREST_HILLS_DRAFT.pdf
Planning board members in Macon County this week voted against a plan that would have seen their group expand from 11 to 13.
“I sat on a board once that had 25 people, the chairman had to break us out into subgroups that reported back to the main board,” Lewis Penland, chairman of the planning board, said in explanation. “With this many people it was very hard to get anything accomplished.”
Macon County Commissioner Ronnie Beale suggested the expansion. It was Beale’s attempt to mend fences after three of his board colleagues — Republicans Brian McClellan, Jim Davis and Democrat Bob Simpson — voted an anti-planning advocate onto the planning board.
The appointment of Jimmy Goodman, a Tea Party member who helped found the local chapter Freedom Works and a former planning board member others once asked be removed for bad behavior, came at the expense of Al Slagle. This longtime board member, who oversees the controversial steep slope subcommittee, was up for routine re-appointment when he was instead abruptly dumped.
The steep slope subcommittee is studying whether Macon County needs to enact building regulations for development on mountaintops and mountainsides. A series of natural and manmade landslides have plagued Macon County in recent years, including the 1994 Peeks Creek disaster that claimed five lives.
McClellan and Davis (who is heading to the state Senate) apologized to fellow commissioners Beale and Bobby Kuppers for surprising them with their votes for Goodman. The two Republicans also made personal apologies to Slagle. They did not, however, back down from the appointment of Goodman, citing a need for more diversity of thought on the planning board. Simpson, who is no longer a commissioner anyway following his ousting by voters during the midterm election, stopped short of apologizing for how the matter was handled. He did acknowledge Slagle had been badly treated in a very public manner.
The mea culpas and Simpson’s non-mea culpa to fellow Democrats came during a special called meeting earlier this month. More than 100 Macon County residents packed the boardroom for this special meeting, forcing commissioners to shift over to a courtroom.
Slagle, if he chooses, can continue serving as head of the planning board’s steep slope subcommittee despite now being officially off the planning board, said fellow member Lamar Sprinkle. Additionally, the terms of several board members — including Sprinkle — are ending in a matter of months. Possibly Slagle could take one of those slots if he even wants back on the planning board, Sprinkle said this week.
Goodman, contacted by telephone at his home and cabinet-making business, didn’t have a lot to say about the uproar triggered by his rejoining the planning board.
“I’m glad to be on the planning board and I’m going to do the best job I can,” he said. “I’m not going to get involved in that political stuff.”
That seems to be the consensus of the planning board at this juncture. Get along best they can, and get to work on the business of planning.
“I think this storm might die down and everything will be alright,” Sprinkle said. “I want to work with everyone on there, and come up with whatever is best for the county. It is what we all want to do, and I think everybody realizes this needs to be put behind us.”
A draft agreement between Western Carolina University and the Village of Forest Hills calls for a referendum on mixed drinks, beer and wine if the tiny incorporated community agrees to help create a new “Town Center” for its large neighbor.
The letter of intent, obtained Friday by The Smoky Mountain News, also suggests Forest Hills lose its name for that of the “Town of Cullowhee,” and it adopt a “mutually acceptable mixed-use zoning district ordinance based on an initial draft provided by WCU.”
WCU Chancellor John W. Bard sent the letter, dated Dec. 6, to Jim Wallace, mayor of Forest Hills.
“The purpose of this letter of intent is to provide the framework for negotiations between WCU and Forest Hills regarding a proposed transaction, and outline material terms and the basis upon which a definitive development agreement may be negotiated and prepared for execution by Forest Hills and WCU.”
The development agreement would be for 20 years unless the two parties mutually agreed to terminate the bargain.
“The Town Center may involve construction of up to 2 million square feet of building space. … Building space currently contemplated includes, without limitation, general retail business, residential space, food services business and entertainment business. The parties agree that large, ‘big box’ retail establishments will not be permitted in the Town Center,” the letter states.
WCU wants to develop 35 acres on its main campus. The university’s desire to create a commercial hub and vibrant college town hinges on Forest Hills. Cullowhee is not currently incorporated as a town, and as a result, stores and restaurants can’t sell beer, wine or liquor drinks. That has proved a major stumbling block in attracting commercial ventures typically associated with a college town.
Forest Hills consists of fewer than 400 residents. Most are current or retired faculty and staff of the university. The town incorporated in 1997, mainly to prevent an influx of students from taking over the community.
Discussions about some combination of a merger and annexation have come to the forefront since summer. A group called the Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavor (CuRvE) formed almost three years ago and began looking at ways to bring life to the community surrounding the WCU campus. CuRvE opened talks with Forest Hills this summer, and now the university and the town are talking directly to each other about the possibilities for creating a new town.
I have a confession to make. Underneath my tough, no-nonsense newspaperwoman exterior, I’m an individual who is ridden with guilt.
I can go inside myself at any given moment and touch on a multitude of reasons to justify feeling guilty. Having spoken rudely to someone, not believing I’ve put enough effort into a news article, terminal procrastination, not spending adequate time with my cats — anything and everything will do.
This, for me, is normal. And because I’m accustomed to me, life is familiar if not always comfortable. That’s not to say I don’t welcome lightening the load. So I’m happy to note one longstanding issue, where my crime was real and my guilt justified, has been resolved.
I no longer reside in the bad-girl files of the Fontana Regional Library System. I wrote a check to the Jackson County Public Library for $178.65. It didn’t just make me feel better — head librarian Dottie Brunette was delighted. Even the other library employees seemed to enjoy the event, a celebratory moment in an otherwise dull day, I guess.
At a recent dinner party, Dottie had flatly refused a request to expunge my record. I wanted my own library card after relying on borrowed ones for 15 years. Jackson County is building a beautiful new library. When it opens, I want to march in and check out books using my real name.
That’s what friends are for, I reasoned before asking Dottie. To undertake small personal favors for each other and, in this manner, make the difficult journey through life a bit gentler and easier. Kind of like the Freemasons or something, I thought. Except, of course, we don’t have secret decoder rings or handshakes or temples in which to gather.
Ha. I should have known better. Instead, Dottie delivered a l..o..n..g lecture on the library’s needs, its limited budget, the value of books in general, the noble role librarians play in the world, and so on. She capped it off with how she, Dottie, always pays her library fines and dammit, she’s the head librarian isn’t she? So the least I could do is pay my fines, too.
What I wanted to do by that point was have a big glass of wine or two, but because I’ve sworn off drinking for now I couldn’t do that. So I glared at Dottie instead. Then I realized she was (dammit) right. I needed to pay the fine.
Here is where I start looking good.
When I went to the library and asked Dottie exactly how much was owed, she informed me there were choices. In a pained voice, she admitted in a matter of months, because of the sheer length of time that had passed, my fines would erase automatically. Then I could get a library card — for free.
I hesitated. I thought long and hard about the uphill battle for funding the library system is facing during these tough economic times. And of the almost indescribably important part libraries have played in my life and heart.
My father drove the bookmobile at one time for Fontana Regional Library System, so I spent many days after school and during the summer at Marianna Black Library in Bryson City. When my mother worked in Sylva, my afternoons were occupied with reading books and magazines at the Jackson County Public Library. One of Dottie’s predecessors, Jeanette Newsome, and other women who worked there kept a close eye on me. I love them for that to this day.
When I lived in Cashiers and was dreaming of farming instead of writing, I found books at the library to sustain and inform me. Working at The Franklin Press and for the first time truly living on my own, I relied on the Macon County Public Library as a free source of reading material and entertainment.
Which is where I got into trouble — during a move in Franklin from one house to another, a box of library books and records disappeared. I have no idea what happened to them. At that time I was too poor to pay the fine. Later I just used the borrowed library cards and tried not to feel guilty.
Jackson County Library’s workers gave me a list of what exactly I was paying for: 11 books and a double-record album — opera arias, no less. In October 1995, I was reading Jim Chee mysteries, books on feature writing and photography, Spoon River anthology, and more.
I still enjoy Jim Chee mysteries and opera arias. Maybe now the library system can afford to replace the books and buy some CDs. And I can check them out. Using my very own — and very expensive — library card, thank you very much.
To hear Kenneth Westmoreland tell it, the decision to leave his job as Jackson County manager wasn’t exactly “his decision” as portrayed after the fact by new commission Chairman Jack Debnam.
Did Debnam tell a lie, on this his first action as commissioner? Call it a contradiction, Westmoreland said, adding that he would have liked to continue as manager for a couple more years.
A phone message left for Debnam seeking clarification about his comments went unreturned before presstime Tuesday.
“He put it this way,” Westmoreland said of Debnam’s announcement last week that the manager would retire effective Jan 1. “He said, ‘the three of us have talked it over and we would like a change.’”
Westmoreland, who has been Jackson County manager for almost a decade, said Debnam also asked him to stay on a few months and help orient and guide an interim manager. Westmoreland said he understands that Chuck Wooten will fill the post. Wooten, a 30-year veteran of Western Carolina University, retires as vice chancellor for administration and finance on Jan. 1.
After checking on his retirement status, Westmoreland said he frankly saw no advantage to sticking around for a few more months and elected to head out the door. He plans to continue living in Jackson County.
“This is home,” Westmoreland said.
With accumulated leave, his last official day was Tuesday.
In addition to Debnam (replacing Democrat Brian McMahan), who is a registered independent, Republicans Charles Elder, (replacing Democrat William Shelton) and Doug Cody (replacing Democrat Tom Massie) join current commissioners Joe Cowan (a Democrat) and Mark Jones (a Democrat) on the commission board.
Debnam, though registered independent, received support during the election from the GOP.
Westmorland’s actions as county manager became a campaign issue during the election, particularly his role in implementing a new pay-scale system that was criticized as too generous to long-time employees like himself. The Democrat-controlled board approved the pay system.
His leadership during the relicensing battle with Duke Energy, which cost the county hundreds of thousands in legal fees, also had been criticized.
Debnam, asked pointblank just after the Nov. 2 election whether Westmoreland’s job was in jeopardy, deferred at that time to his fellow commissioners.
“It’s not going to be up to me,” he said “There are five commissioners … we are going to scrutinize several positions.”
The new commissioners also are promising to revisit Jackson County’s land-use regulations, which some blame for curtailing building activity.
Westmoreland said commissioners “have every right, prerogative and the authority to put in their own management team … with that authority, I don’t understand why he felt the need to deny it, but it just didn’t come out that way, I guess.”
The long-time manager said he feels the incoming board is being left in “good shape, with $23 million in undesignated fund balance.” Westmoreland said commissioners are facing steep challenges, primarily dealing with whatever comes down from a state government facing a $3.5 billion shortfall.
Macon County commissioners almost couldn’t hold a meeting Monday night because they couldn’t agree on a new chairman.
With newly elected state Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, absent because of a mandatory meeting in Raleigh, the board split 2-2 over whether former Chairman Ronnie Beale, a Democrat, should retain the post; or if Brian McClellan, a Republican, would take his place.
Bobby Kuppers, a Democrat, sided with Beale. Ron Haven, a Republican newly elected to the board, took McClellan’s part.
“We’re the majority now,” Haven said bluntly.
Davis will leave the commission board next month. Republican Kevin Corbin will fill the two years remaining on Davis’ four-year term.
Following a five-minute recess called by acting chairman and County Manager Jack Horton, the Democrats returned to acknowledge they’d lose the battle at some point, anyway. At least as soon as Davis, a Republican stalwart, could cast his vote for McClellan.
Kuppers said he’d learned from Horton and board attorney Chester Jones that legally the commissioners could do nothing until a chairman was appointed.
“If we do not reconcile this logjam, the meeting will adjourn and we will be able to conduct no business,” Kuppers said, adding that he was casting his support to McClellan with “great reservation and trepidation.”
“We are here to do the business of the people,” Beale said in agreement.
The board unanimously voted to elect McClellan chairman and Kuppers vice chairman.
That taken care of, planning issues took center stage.
Franklin resident Shirley Ches told the board during the public comment period that she was “stunned and appalled” by the recent vote to dump Al Slagle off the planning board in favor of Jimmy Goodman.
“There were under-the-radar manipulations going on,” Ches said. “… fairness would dictate Mr. Slagle be reappointed.”
Emily Dale echoed Ches’ call for placing Slagle back on the planning board.
“I’m very relieved I was not given this same treatment when I was chairman of the planning board 20 years ago,” Dale scolded commissioners.
ALSO READ: Lewis Penland, chairman of the Macon County Planning Board, to commissioners
ALSO READ: Susan Ervin, long-time member of the Macon County Planning Board, to commissioners
After a certain amount of polite wrangling, and unheeded pleas from Commissioner Haven to slow down the process, the board of commissioners asked their attorney to look into two matters.
The first question is how they can legally increase the number of planning board members from its current makeup of 11 people to 13 people (there must be an odd number for voting purposes); and at Beale’s specific request, how they can legally remove a member of the planning board who “is detrimental” to the process.
These are the two key factors in whether Slagle can be reappointed to the planning board if he agrees to serve again, and how to kick Goodman off the board if he misbehaves.
Kuppers told Haven dilly dallying serves no good purpose. Best case, it will be January anyway before anything could happen, he said.
“People are excited about this,” Kuppers said, adding that he can’t go anywhere in Macon County right now without hearing people’s concerns about Goodman being placed on the planning board.
Additionally, the Democrat commissioner recommended that at some point the board consider having prospective commissioner-appointed board members vetted by the involved board’s chairman.
McClellan chimed in with the suggestion term limits be reinstated on some boards.
Finally, the board of commissioners agreed to meet with the planning board in January. This meeting, Beale said, is to have the planning board bring commissioners “up to speed on exactly what they are working on.”
Commissioners’ appointment of a man to the Macon County Planning Board who has openly opposed that very concept has sparked outrage and an outpouring of support for the board’s beleaguered members.
The showdown for now is in Macon County, a conservative mountain community with a history of attracting newcomers whose ideologies are on the political fringes. But the questions raised are identical to those also being hotly debated in other mountain counties: Is land planning important? Will this region set meaningful restrictions on development? If so, when?
“Folks, we’re looking at two choices,” Lewis Penland, chairman of the Macon County Planning Board and a professional golf course developer, told a standing-room only crowd last week.
More than 100 people turned out for a special called meeting of the Macon County Board of Commissioners.
“The vision that you can already see on our mountainsides, a vision that will bring short-term profit to a few,” Penland said. “Or, a vision built on our local sensibilities that works hand in hand with developers, property owners, environmentalists, long-term families and newcomers to create a strong stable economy that honors rather than destroys our way of life.”
ALSO READ: New Macon commission chair selected
The stage was set for this debate on the future of land development in Macon County after three county commissioners voted Jimmy Goodman, a member of the Tea Party and a founder of the party chapter Freedom Works, onto the planning board late last month after the November election.
Republicans Jim Davis, Brian McClellan and Democrat Bob Simpson joined forces against Democrats Beale and Bobby Kuppers. Beale and Kuppers were not informed beforehand the game was afoot. Nor was the planning board consulted.
“What happened … has not been business as usual in this county,” said Beale, who openly acknowledged he was deeply wounded by what happened.
“This is Macon County, North Carolina, and we don’t treat people this way,” Kuppers said, and then added, “the process stunk.”
With the majority vote, Goodman replaced Al Slagle, a widely regarded native son and scion of a many-generation mountain family in Macon County. Slagle was up for routine reappointment.
Slagle was chairman of the planning board’s steep-slope subcommittee, a group tasked with studying mountainside development in the wake of natural and manmade landslides in the county. The worst occurred in 2004, when five people in Macon County died in the Peeks Creek community. Their homes were in the path of a natural debris flow. This tragedy helped convince commissioners to ask the planning board (which formed the steep-slope subcommittee) to consider where and how houses are built in Macon County.
This decision — to simply study steep-slope development — triggered widespread opposition, fueled by a slowing economy in which builders and developers couldn’t find work.
Helping lead this anti-planning movement was Goodman, a former member of the planning board. Who, Commissioner Beale revealed, had not been reappointed because other planning board members asked that he not be. Because, they said, Goodman deliberately obstructed their work and ability to function as a board.
Explaining the vote
The decision three years ago not to place Goodman back on the planning board was wrong, Simpson said.
“I was part of it, and I’ve regretted it ever since,” Simpson said during the special called meeting, adding that Goodman’s views on planning are representative of a large segment of Macon County’s population, “and they cannot be ignored.”
“I righted a wrong and I’ll stand by that,” Simpson said.
Republicans Davis and McClellan did express regrets over how the Goodman matter was handled. But there were no regrets in evidence over their appointment of an anti-planning advocate to the planning board — they said the planning board and steep-slope subcommittee, which includes real estate agents, developers and more traditional planning advocates — lacks diversity.
“I am not against planning,” McClellan said. “I am for planning. I am for diversity of thought.”
Davis echoed those sentiments. He, McClellan and Simpson each personally apologized to Slagle, rationalizing aloud that they had not really voted against him per se, but rather for the aforementioned diversity of thought. Slagle, who was offered the opportunity to speak in front of commissioners, declined.
The future of planning in Macon
Simpson was voted off the board of commissioners during the last election.
Davis is moving on to the state senate, with moderate Republican Kevin Corbin scheduled to take his place starting in January. Only McClellan, of the three who voted for Goodman, will remain on the county’s board of commissioners with Beale and Kuppers.
Republican Ron Haven, who has expressed strong reservations about placing controls on growth and flat-out opposed regulating steep-slope development, rounds out the board.
The new commission board has agreed to consider expanding the planning board so that Slagle can be placed back on it (see accompanying article). But Goodman — who has remained silent during this fight over his appointment — remains on the planning board, too.
Despite Republican commissioners’ apologies for how things were handled and assurances they support planning and the planning board as a whole, there is a real possibility many of the current members might yet resign their posts.
“Yes, we are still a board,” member Susan Ervin wrote in an email. “Some of us initially wanted to quit, but have been prevailed upon to hang in there. We will see how this settles out; it could still go completely down the tubes, depending on what happens with additional appointments if they enlarge the board.”
Cast of characters
• Al Slagle — Former chairman of the planning board’s steep-slope subcommittee. Not reappointed to planning board.
• Jimmy Goodman — Appointed to planning board in Al Slagle’s place. Ran unsuccessfully for state Senate against Macon commissioner and fellow Republican Jim Davis. Founder of a Tea Party chapter in Macon County called “Freedom Works.”
• Lewis Penland — Chairman of the Macon County Planning Board. Owns a company that specializes in building golf courses.
• Ronnie Beale — Democrat. Former chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners, reelected to a four-year term. An owner and operator of a construction company, and a strong proponent of land planning.
• Bobby Kuppers — Democrat. Two years are remaining on his four-year commission term. Is now the vice chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners.
• Jim Davis — Republican. Ousted state Sen. John Snow and won election to the General Assembly. His two-year term as a county commissioner will be filled by Kevin Corbin, a moderate Republican and a long-time member of the Macon County School Board.
• Brian McClellan — Republican. Reelected to another four-year term. New chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners.
• Ron Haven — Republican. Newly elected to the Macon County Board of Commissioners. Opposed studying the possible regulation of steep-slope development.
• Bob Simpson — Democrat. Lost a bid for reelection to the Macon County Board of Commissioners.
I don’t particularly remember U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, from our days growing up in Swain County. He is younger than I am by a few years, more my brother’s contemporary than mine.
His father delivered our mail. I don’t remember him at all. Most kids don’t pay attention to their postal carrier, and I was no exception.
I’ve never been an avid fan of the game of football, either. I did, however, take heed of Shuler’s career at the University of Tennessee and in the NFL. Somehow, because he was from Swain County, each time he threw or ran for a touchdown his athletic abilities seemed to reflect positively on us all. Though by then I wasn’t living in Western North Carolina, but downstate in Greensboro.
I remember feeling vaguely saddened when Shuler’s football career faltered and puttered out. For him, for me and for Swain County at large, our shared glory ended ignominiously with his foot injury.
There is something about a small school that makes you hyper-connect with others who attended the same school. Even now, in my mid 40s, I am the girl who went to Bryson City Elementary and Swain County High School, home of the Maroon Devils. And everyone who did the same, at about the same time, remains a classmate.
Since there were only 79 of us in my graduating class, you’d think it would be easy for me to remember who was there. It isn’t, though. I’m terrible at names and faces. This often proves embarrassing, because others don’t seem to have this problem. I’ll be in a grocery store and someone will say hello and use my nickname. Instantly I know they are from Swain County, and I start sorting through who they might be, hoping this wasn’t a particularly close high school friend I’ve inexplicably forgotten. But even if I can’t dredge up specific memories, the association of having been classmates creates bonds and commonalities.
Including, I must acknowledge, with Shuler, whom I’ve covered sporadically for various newspapers since he first ran for political office in 2006. I suspect he feels something along the same lines. There is a kinship, a shared history, and a common background. No matter that my politics and the congressman’s diverge sharply at points. Or that, as a journalist, my job is to monitor and report on how he performs his job representing us in Congress.
Still, all that said, I can’t help but admit to hoping Shuler does us proud.
The truth is the girl who went to Swain County High School doesn’t want Shuler to embarrass us on national television by saying something particularly stupid. As ridiculous as it seems, his mixing up North and South Korea, sounding like an illiterate hillbilly or doing a Dan Quayle and misspelling potato would reflect poorly on our schooling.
So I’m happy to note Shuler seems to have grown into his job, which is the subject of this week’s cover story. He is becoming an increasingly adept politician.
These days, when Shuler gives a speech, it no longer sounds like an approximation of the English language. There is actually a beginning, middle and an end, and even a message one can generally discern without undo straining.
Although I often don’t personally approve of the political stances he takes, I am happy Shuler is capable of articulating his beliefs. We might not have had debate classes at Swain County High School, or lessons in Latin. But all in all, we were given the tools to make of ourselves what we would. And Shuler, at least, is taking full advantage of every gift and tool he was given.