Haywood County braces for economic impacts of prolonged I-40 closure

By all indications, the closing of Interstate 40 due to a massive rockslide will be more than just a minor headache for many.

Through traffic heading west to Tennessee will be directed to I-26 from Asheville, where cars would have to travel 130 miles to link back up with I-40 across the state line.

Though much of Haywood County will still remain accessible off I-40, it’s feasible that widespread news of the rockslide might turn off visitors to the area.

Most likely to suffer from the road closing are the restaurants, gas stations, motels and tourist-oriented businesses that rely heavily on traffic coming through I-40.

Pilot Travel Center, a truck stop in Waynesville near exit 24, was already feeling the impact of a desolate I-40 on Monday afternoon. A few trucks were scattered here and there, but the vast majority of parking spots sat empty.

Ashley Duckett, an employee at the Pilot convenience store, said business was “dead” on Sunday, the day the rockslide occurred.

“It’s usually booming,” said Linda Henry, another employee at the store, adding that business will definitely hurt without truckers stopping by to fuel up, have a meal, or take a shower.

The people who did walk into the store were only interested in one thing: directions.

“Every other person coming in here is asking how do I get to Tennessee? How do I get to Knoxville? How do I get to Gatlinburg?” said Henry.

The store received so many requests for directions that the manager taped up directions on the door and readied a pile of printouts of Mapquest directions at the counter.

Next door at the Midway Motel, owner Brooke Gayne said she didn’t expect anyone to check in Monday night.

“It’ll be bad,” said Gayne. “I don’t see too many people coming past [exit] 27.”

Exit 27 leads to the heavily-trafficked Great Smoky Mountain Expressway.

Summer Smart, a waitress at the Haywood Cafe near exit 24 on I-40, said the restaurant had not seen one trucker all day.

Smart remembered a drop-off in business after the last rockslide in 1997 closed down a section of I-40 for months. Though locals remained faithful customers, holiday travelers who usually flooded the restaurant were hard to find that year.

James Carver, owner of Maggie Valley Restaurant, also recalled facing a hardship after the last rockslide.

“Business went down a great bit,” said Carver. “It just brought everything to a standstill.”

Carver said businesses would continue to feel an impact even after N.C. DOT cleans up the rockslide and restores traffic.

“It takes a while for word to get around that everything’s open,” said Carver.

The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority and the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce are already working hard to spread the word about alternate routes to keep tourists from Tennessee trickling into the region.

The TDA will post these very detailed directions on its Web site and social media sites, attaching to their Web site a map with alternate routes.

“With several alternate routes available, there really is no reason to cancel any travel plans to the area, whether for these last weeks of leaf-looking or the upcoming ski season,” said Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority

Collins reassures those forced to make the detour that there are “terrific scenic routes with some amazing views along the way.”

Wayne Carson, a staff member at the Canton visitor’s center off I-40, said he’s noted a spike in the number of visitors who want to avoid the interstate anyway.

He said all summer, tourists have requested directions for traveling on back roads and visiting smaller communities on the way.

Carson directed some confused visitors headed toward Gatlinburg through Cherokee and then over the Great Smoky Mountains National Park via U.S. 441 on Monday. It is possible that towns along that route will see a pick-up in visitors who would have normally taken I-40 to Tennessee.

Unlike the 1997 rockslide, which shut down roads for the peak summer and fall seasons, this latest rockslide occurred at the beginning of the off-season for most businesses.

“Fall foliage is winding down, but we’re going into ski season. We don’t want to jeopardize that either,” said Collins.

According to Collins, many visitors who come to ski at Cataloochee Ski Area come from the Southeast, not Tennessee.

Tammy Brown, spokeswoman for the ski resort, said they still anticipate a good ski season since a colder than average winter has been forecasted.

Brown said the rockslide will definitely impact business, but by how much is anyone’s guess.

“We’re going to do our best to facilitate individuals from that neck of the woods,” said Brown.

Meanwhile, Alice Mosteller, vice president of a real estate agency in Waynesville, is worried that the rockslide might negatively affect a real estate market that’s just beginning to pick up.

“Just anything that would keep people from coming here is not good,” said Mosteller. “This is the most beautiful time of year possible. What a horrible weekend for it to happen.”

Haywood again looks at old Wal-Mart for DSS building

Haywood County commissioners are once again considering the abandoned Wal-Mart shell for a new Department of Social Services building.

The current DSS building is housed in a cramped and crumbling 80-year-old building that was once the county’s old hospital. Patching the building has become an expensive proposition, with the latest issue a leaking roof that would cost $260,000 to repair. The county’s facility director, Dale Burris, said there is no easy patch that could solve the problem.

“We can’t find where the leaks are to be honest. You patch one area and it comes in a different area,” Burris said.

Commissioners have long known that the DSS building either needed a major and costly top-to-bottom overhaul or relocation to a new building. When Wal-Mart left a gaping hole in the strip mall where it was located to take up new digs on the other side of town last year, commissioners began eyeing the vacant spot. They decided not to pursue it at the time given the county’s economic situation with the recession. At that time commissioners were seeking a federal loan of up to $11 million to purchase and renovate the retail building.

Commissioners decided they should revisit it, however.

“It’s going to be a constant stream of tax dollars going into a building that is 80 years old,” Swanger said. “I think we would be remiss to marry ourselves to this building. If we put a quarter million dollars into it, we will do the same thing the year after and the year after, and at the end of the day we will still have a bad building.”

At the time commissioners were considering the old Wal-Mart site, County Manager David Cotton had said buying land and building a new DSS building from scratch could cost up to $25 million. Commissioner Kevin Ensley said the old Wal-Mart site would save millions over constructing a new DSS building, a cost that his children will bear.

“They will say ‘Why didn’t you seize the opportunity when you could have,’” Ensley said.

The former DSS director, Tony Beaman, stepped down earlier this year. The department now has a new DSS director, Ira Dove.

The old Wal-Mart could also house the health department, which is in need of new quarters.

Haywood says state shirking responsibility

Haywood County commissioner sent a strong message to Raleigh this week, chastising state government for not stepping in to help when the county got sued by a landowner when trying to enforce erosion control standards.

The county spent $282,000 on attorney fees to defend the case. The county lost and chose to cut its losses and settle out of court, forking over another $75,000 from county coffers.

“The state needs to step in with its attorneys and defend a lawsuit like this,” Commissioner Kevin Ensley said. “They should not expect the taxpayers of that county to fund it.”

Fewer than half the counties in the state handle their own erosion enforcement, but instead turn the job over to the state, since the erosion laws are in fact state laws.

Commissioners said it was unfair that the county should bear the burden of liability and was a deterrent to continuing erosion oversight in-house.

The head of the state sediment and erosion control division, Mel Nevils, came to the meeting from Raleigh to beg the county not to give up on local erosion oversight. Nevils said the lawsuit was unwarranted and the county had acted appropriately, even following Nevils’ own recommendation in the matter.

Ensley told Nevils that if the county is doing such a great job then the state needs to ante up should the county get sued in the course of doing its job. Ensley told Nevils to take that message back to “whoever his bosses are.”

Commissioner Skeeter Curtis jumped on Nevils as well.

“Can you tell the people of Haywood County why you refused to come in a defend this case or provide legal fees?” Curtis asked.

Commissioner Mark Swanger said the county wants to develop a threshold or litmus test for high-risk cases, which could then be handed off to the state to absolve the county of the liability.

“The state has deeper pockets and resources than does Haywood County,” Swanger said.

“What we don’t want is for everyone to send us all their problem sites,” Nevils said. “I can’t tell you we would take a case just because y’all felt you might get sued by it.”

Swanger pointed out the hypocrisy of the state’s stance. Haywood County could walk away from local erosion oversight altogether, dumping the entire responsibility on the state. The state would then have to assume oversight of every erosion permit in Haywood County, not just one or two that the county wanted to pass off as high risk.

Swanger didn’t let up, but continued to push the point, asking again and again over the course of the nearly two-hour discussion whether Nevils would make a commitment to take certain cases.

“We need something that can act as a buffer,” Swanger said. “We simply cannot afford that kind of fees for this program without some kind of assistance from the state.”

“The state can’t afford to pay that either. That is taxpayers money as well,” Nevils replied.

Nevils said he couldn’t make any promises, and that perhaps a change was needed at the legislative level.

Swanger said Nevils indeed had the power to accept certain cases referred up the ladder to the state. Nevils said he would not make a wholesale promise but at least agreed to consider it.

The lawsuit has unfortunately made county erosion inspectors gun shy, commissioners said.

“It weakened the local program. There has been a lot of damage,” Curtis said. “It is a shame it has to be that way.”

Nevils said the state has seen a handful of cases with facts very similar to this one — where a landowner claimed roads were for logging but appeared to be for development — and all were won by the state.

“Then why didn’t we win this one?” Curtis asked.

The audience shifted uneasily in their seats waiting for Nevils’ nswer. Critics of the outcome have largely pointed fingers at the judge as being off base. Judge Laura Bridges heard the case while on temporary assignment in Haywood County due to a vacancy on the bench locally.

Nevils hesitated before saying that in his opinion the ruling was “not an appropriate ruling.”

“I was shocked at the ruling,” Nevils said.

N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, attended the commissioners’ discussion of the issue.

“This is a judicial decision that absolutely leaves me dumbfounded and puzzled,” Rapp said. “Haywood County to me is a model. You have top-notch people.”

What the case was about

When Ron Cameron built a 1.6-mile road network on a 66-acre tract up Camp Branch in Waynesville, he claimed the roads were for logging. Logging activity falls under a laxer set of erosion rules than residential development, which is held to a more stringent standard.

The county questioned the landowner’s true motives, however, citing Cameron’s creation of a development master plan, registering a subdivision name with the county and applying for a septic tank evaluation. The county insisted on holding him to the higher erosion standard and levied him with hefty fines. Cameron sued to get out from under the county’s jurisdiction, ultimately prevailing in a three-week trial in May.

Today, Cameron has the land up for sale. It’s being billed by his Realtor as perfect for development. One of the selling points listed in ads: “Roads already in.”

Cameron recently applied for a septic tank permit for a five-bedroom house on this presumed forestry tract.

Robust citizen input vexes public officials

Johnnie Cure said she never expected to become a local celebrity when she started speaking up during the public comment period of Haywood County commissioners meetings.

Typically taking the county to task over what she perceives as excessive spending, Cure has become a regular fixture on the front row of county meetings in recent months. As a result, she gets primetime on the county’s government access channel where the videotaped proceedings are aired repeatedly in the days following the meeting.

“People I don’t even know will say ‘Good going,’ ‘Thank you,’ ‘Glad you are standing up for us,’” Cure said.

While he can’t hold a candle to the number of Cure’s appearances, Ted Carr gets his share of street compliments following meetings where he speaks out.

“I am surprised at the number of people who say ‘I saw you on the commissioners meeting. You made some good comments,’” Carr said. “A lot are people I wouldn’t expect to be paying attention but who watch it quite religiously.”

The barrage of public comment — both the volume and repetitiveness — has tried county commissioners’ patience over recent months, however.

“Rumor has it they want to move the public comment session to the end of the meeting, which would require common citizens to sit there for the whole meeting before we have the opportunity to speak,” Cure said.

Carr said he hopes the commissioners won’t change the format, either by moving comments to the end of the meeting or by taking them off the air. If they do, it will be perceived as trying to stifle the public, he said.

“I think it would hurt the community. The community wouldn’t get the impact of what individuals have to say,” Carr said.

But commissioners say they have no intention of changing the meeting format.

“Everybody has a voice and should be heard,” Commissioner Bill Upton said. “We aren’t trying to suppress that. I feel like we are very open. I think this board has been very patient.”

Those who are regulars during the public comment period say they aren’t purposely grandstanding or filibustering.

“What is being expressed are legitimate comments that do have merit,” said Bruce Gardner, part of an organized grassroots movement called the 9-12 Project.

Gardner said shifting the public comment period wouldn’t silence them.

“It wouldn’t stop me,” Gardner said. “But it would lose some effectiveness. All the good ideas don’t generate from the front of the room anyway. We elected these people and need to interact with them.”

Cure thinks any move on the commissioners’ part to shift public comment to the end or even take it off the air would be perceived as stifling public comment.

“I think I am getting on their very last nerve,” Cure said. “They want to shut us down, turn us off, they want to reduce our exposure. They don’t like us. They do not want to held accountable. They don’t want to be asked any questions.”


Local activism, national movement

The recent outpouring at Haywood commissioners meetings — centering around fiscal restraint — is a local manifestation of conservative activism witnessed nationwide since the loss of power by Republicans in the last election. With the national Republican Party struggling to redefine itself, the social issues that had galvanized the party for the past two decades are being traded in for economic talking points.

“The Republican Party is in a bit of an idea vacuum and leadership vacuum,” said Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at Western Carolina University. “Instead of coalescing around a national leader, you are seeing this bottom-up activism.”

Ted Carr, a Haywood County Republican, said the commissioners are “caught in the firestorm.”

“Nationwide, citizens feel like they aren’t being heard,” Carr said while speaking to the board during its public comment period this week.

Linda Bennett also drew a comparison to national movement when speaking to commissioners last month.

“Over the past several weeks and months, we have seen the town hall presentations on the TV where people have had a lot of passion,” Bennett said. “I think you have also seen record numbers in your courtroom you haven’t seen it the past. They are here for a reason.”


Accommodating despite the costs

Haywood County commissioners’ approach to the recent wave of public comments has varied. In general, they are polite and accommodating, listening intently and often taking notes. They usually devote a portion of the meeting to addressing concerns raised during public comment, and have even assigned county staff to prepare PowerPoints and compile timelines to address recurring points of contention.

“We are trying to be as transparent and open to the public as possible,” Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick said.

Nonetheless, commissioners have shown signs of aggravation, witnessed by an exchange between Kirkpatrick and Cure at a county meeting this week.

“Ms. Cure, I am never going to be able to answer all your questions for you to your satisfaction,” Kirkpatrick said.

Kirkpatrick has pointed out that the cost of airing public comments costs all the taxpayers.

“The more we televise, the more cost that is to the county,” Kirkpatrick said. “We would televise everything we did if it didn’t cost. But it does cost us money.”

Despite concerns over cost, commissioners said they have no plans to discontinue public comment as part of the televised meetings.

“I don’t want to deter the public from seeing what people have to say on television,” Kirkpatrick said.

Haywood County is one of the few counties in the region that tapes and televises their meetings. For those who don’t have cable, a copy is placed at each library and can be watched online. Commissioners even tape and air their work sessions in addition to regular meetings.

“We are the most open board by far. We have taken to televising work sessions,” Commissioner Upton said.

Cure questioned just how much the public comment really costs, however. The cost of actually airing the meetings is the same no mater how long they are. The added expense is related to the filming, done by a private video production company that charges $175 an hour. Assuming public comment takes up an hour at each meeting — although it is often half that — it comes to less than $5,000 for the whole year to televise the public comment portion of the meeting.


Who is listening?

Haywood County commissioners have become visibly irked that the entourage present at the beginning of their meetings dissipate rapidly following the public comment period and have all but evaporated by the midway point in the meeting. Often later in the meeting, county commissioners take up the issue raised during public comment or provide the information that the critics had been seeking. But by then, they are gone.

During the public comment period at a meeting two weeks ago, county commissioners were asked for a copy of the legal settlement brokered with a landowner suing the county over its enforcement of erosion laws. The county had brought a copy to the meeting in anticipation of such a request. Critics of county spending had previously criticized the legal costs incurred as a result of the suit. The county asked the speaker to come up during a break and get the copy of the settlement, but the individual left without the copy — a point that didn’t go unnoticed by commissioners later in the meeting.

“The settlement offer that they asked for, we have a copy of here, but they have left,” Commissioner Mark Swanger said, then turned to the camera to address the TV audience. “If you are listening to the broadcast, they are available to pick up.”

Commissioners have also shown irritation when the same points are raised again and again, even after they have been addressed. Cure has repeatedly advocated for privatizing the county trash business and during one public comment period accused the county of not seriously examining the option.

But Commissioner Skeeter Curtis said the county had indeed talked about it.

“The majority of people here tonight got up and left after they made their comments. I was hoping after they left they would at least look at our meeting on television to see what we were talking about, but evidentially y’all didn’t do that,” Curtis told the audience during one meeting last month.

The point hit home again at the county’s meeting this week. County staff had prepared a 20-minute PowerPoint presentation in direct response to a recurring public comment.

“Unfortunately we have no one here that normally attends the public comment periods,” Kirkpatrick said, looking around the meeting room that was empty except for two local reporters. “The county is trying to be responsive and put the information out there for the public to hear, and it is disheartening sometimes when no one is here who had asked the questions.”

The meeting had nearly hit the three-hour mark, and given the empty room, Kirkpatrick suggested postponing the presentation until the next meeting. The presentation would have detailed how the county does its purchasing, be it supplies or contracted services. The purpose was to lay out the process so local businesses and contractors could hopefully snag a piece of the county’s business.

“I think there should be a priority given to local businesses whether it is goods or services,” said Bruce Gardner, who twice brought up the issue during public comment periods, recommending a crash course to help local businesses navigate the county’s procurement process.

Cure said it is unreasonable to expect the public to sit through three-hour meetings, even longer sometimes, when they have jobs and families to attend to.


Lengthy criticisms, lengthy answers

Some meetings see much heavier comment than others. On Sept. 20 a half a dozen members of the public spoke up. Topics were varied, but all focused on the common theme of fiscal restraint.

“They are spending my money, our money. We have given them a credit card with no limit,” Cure said.

Speakers have criticized the county’s efforts to harness methane, a byproduct from decomposing trash. The county has been condemned for its recent propensity for landing itself in expensive lawsuits. Commissioners were even chastised for not attending a 9-11 memorial held on the courthouse steps.

“None of you showed up,” Al Goodis told commissioners. “Doesn’t anybody care?”

Clearly offended, Commissioner Skeeter Curtis said he did care but didn’t know about the memorial in advance and was out of town.

Often the commissioners’ response to comments takes longer than the public comments themselves.

“Their rebuttal is lengthy,” Cure said.

But Kirkpatrick says it is necessary. Otherwise it appears the county isn’t taking the public’s concerns to heart if they merely listen and don’t respond. So the commissioners have taken to keeping a running list of the grievances brought up during public comment session and then addressing them one by one following the public comment period.

While presented as explanations, they sometimes come across as the last word by the county.

“Personally I am not looking for an immediate answer. I would rather have a studied answer to a serious question,” Gardner said.


Clearinghouse or bottleneck?

In addition to the surge in public comments, the county is also facing a significant volume of public record requests by the speakers. In response, commissioners plan to adopt a written request form for any county documents being sought by the public.

County Manager David Cotton said a clearinghouse for public record requests would solve the problem created when the same person makes the same record request to multiple county employees.

“Had we known, we would have been able to answer once rather than have five or six different county staff answer the same question five different times,” Cotton said.

The written requests would be funneled through the county’s public information officer.

Cure, who frequently requests county finance documents to track county expenses, opposes the idea.

“I believe this protocol to go through an information person is going to be a bottleneck,” Cure told commissioners.

In addition, county staff have been directed to stop compiling information in a specific format, such as spreadsheets, and walking people through the information they request.

“You don’t need to spend special time preparing special documents,” Kirkpatrick said at a meeting two weeks ago.

“Because there’s no end to it,” Swanger added.

Cure said she prefers to go sit down with Julie Davis, the county finance officer, who takes the time to explain the county budget documents.

“She welcomes me to come into her office,” Cure said. “She is a dynamite communicator.”

But Kirkpatrick said it is taking too much time.

“There is not necessarily a requirement she speak to you about everything. All we are required to do is provide the information to the public. She bends over backwards to try to accommodate you,” Kirkpatrick told Cure.

Cure said the budget documents are written in a finance code difficult for a layperson to understand, however.

“It is not an issue of IQ, it is a question of the language. I would bet you lunch you can’t understand it either,” Cure said. Cure said she would have to hire a finance person to explain it to her otherwise.

“You may have to,” Kirkpatrick responded.

“So you are saying I will not be able to sit with her and talk with her?” Cure asked.

“What we are saying is we are having an abuse of that. We can’t have the staff spending several hours of their time at taxpayers’ expense to explain things to certain members of the public,” Kirkpatrick said.

Swanger said it is preventing county employees from performing their primary duties.

“We would have to hire extra people and you would be one of the first people chastising us for that expense,” Swanger told Cure.

Al Goodis, who’s become a regular speaker at meetings, suggested the county scan all the paperwork that passes through its hands over the course of a day and put it on the county’s Web site with a searchable database. Along with it, the county should provide a glossary of terms used by government bureaucrats so the public can keep up.

“I feel like you should be trying to help us save our money,” said Goodis.

“We are trying to be as transparent as possible and provide as much information to the public as possible so they can understand it,” Kirkpatrick said. “We do value your public comment, but we cannot make everybody happy.”

Putting the requests in writing serves another end goal: giving the county cover when the information request is met. The person who requested the documents will have to sign for them when picking them up, giving the county cover should they be accused of not complying.

“They come in here and ask the same questions over and over. We have already provided most of the information they ask for, but they keep asking for it,” Commissioner Skeeter Curtis said during one recent meeting.

While the new method of requesting information appears likely to become county policy, commissioners have backed off from any idea to alter they way they conduct the public comment period.

Cure said it would have been a bad move politically, particularly with three of the five commissioner seats up for election next year.

“They will nail the last nail in their coffin if they cut the public comment out. It is a death wish,” Cure said.

As for Cure, she doesn’t plan on running herself.

“I’ve been asked, but I will not do it. My place is at the podium,” Cure said. “I am going to ask questions for a long time.”

Marc Pruett earns praise from all sides for his work

When Haywood County commissioners convened this week to discuss the fate of the county’s erosion control program, they were met by a deep bench of prominent community members who turned out to show support for Marc Pruett.

Pruett is the county’s lead erosion enforcement officer.

Commissioner Kevin Ensley, a land surveyor, said he has received several phone calls from developers urging him to keep the local erosion department.

“It is running 10 to 1 positive from the people who deal with it on the day to day,” Ensley said. “They prefer dealing with local people.”

Mel Nevils, the head of the state erosion enforcement division, came to the meeting from Raleigh and begged commissioners not to do away with the local erosion department, calling it among the best in the state. If erosion oversight was passed off to state control, the environment would suffer and developers would be more likely to see after-the-fact fines than under Pruett’s proactive approach.

“We don’t have time to work with people to get them back in compliance,” Nevils said. “We don’t have the time to sit there with people and figure out how to get it right.”

State erosion inspectors for the region are based in Asheville. Each one carries a case load of up to 350 development projects spanning three to four counties, Nevils said.

“We would do the best we can. We would pick it up and get here as often as we can, but you will not get the level of service you get from your own folks,” Nevils said.

In Pruett’s approach to erosion enforcement, he strives primarily to educate developers on how to protect the environment.

“My staff can tell you that I often said we must be problem solvers and peacemakers first. Enforcement is a last resort,” Pruett said.

Erosion running off construction sites is detrimental to the environment, muddying creeks, rivers and lakes, Pruett said. But it can also be hazardous when it washes down on public roads, making them potentially slick.

It seemed commissioners never intended to do away with the local erosion control program, but felt compelled to address the issue after the county landed itself in a lawsuit with a landowner as a result of its erosion enforcement. A few members of the public had appeared before commissioners at their meetings calling for them to do away with the erosion enforcement at the local level and pass the duty off to the state.

Members in the audience backing Pruett included General Contractor Ron Leatherwood, Builder Dawson Spano, Rep. Ray Rapp, James Ferguson, Bill Yarborough, Leslie Smathers and more.

New and improved appraisal method aims to better calibrate property values

An analysis of property values in Haywood County aims to reduce disparities between the value listed on the county’s tax rolls and the real-life value.

The project will more precisely hone in on characteristics that affect home values, hopefully resulting in a more accurate assessment in a pending countywide reappraisal of property values due out in 2011. Since the values are used to calculate property taxes, the consequence is whether some people pay too much or too little in property taxes compared to everyone else.

The county commissioners voted last month to hire the firm RSM associates for $211,000 to conduct the analysis.

“It gets us closer and closer to accurate and fair values,” said David Francis, Haywood County tax collector.

When doing an appraisal on a mass scale — roughly 52,000 parcels of land and 40,000 structures — it is simply too costly and time consuming to personally visit each one.

Instead, properties are weighed by key variables such as number of bedrooms, whether there’s a garage or even if it has a good view. Each variable takes the value up or down a notch, but is only as good as the baseline assigned to the neighborhood. The method is often accused of painting with too broad a brush.

The analysis aims to create more distinctions between properties on a micro level.

“I feel like this will give a more accurate appraisal,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley, who owns property throughout the county and in the past has felt the county-assigned values were a little off.

Francis had to look no further than his childhood home for a classic example of what many in the county face. The home dates back to the early 1960s in what was then rural Francis Cove. During the building boom of the past decade, wealthy houses cropped up all around it.

“Right next door to the house I grew up in is a development where no house sold for less than $500,000,” Francis said.

While that would naturally push up the value of neighboring properties, there’s no way his boyhood home built in the early ‘60s was worth as much as those houses next door, Francis said. Under the conventional reappraisal method, however, it would have been lumped into the same category.

While the technical lingo for the project is “neighborhood delineation,” Francis likes to call it “fine-tuning.”

For example, while a home with a view is already valued higher than a similar home without a view, the new methodology will adjust not just for a view but the caliber of the view.

“My idea was to drill it down even further,” Francis said.


Worth the cost?

A couple of residents have questioned the expense of hiring the outside consultants.

“I believe that department is fully capable of doing this process on their own,” Ted Carr, a Bethel resident, said during a public comment period at a county meeting last week. Carr was among a group of vocal residents who have become regulars at county commissioner meetings. Members of the group regularly speak during the public comment period, largely preaching fiscal restraint.

When county commissioners voted to hire the consultants, they justified a portion of the expense by tapping into money already allocated for a reappraisal. The county budgets for a five-person staff in the property appraisal department. But it currently only has four staffers, resulting in a savings of $48,000. By not filling the fifth position, the county can apply the savings to offset the cost of the study — in effect only costing the county $115,000 instead of the full $211,000, the commissioners rationalized.

Carr challenged the mentality, however.

“What I am asking is to do what I do at home. When I find some extra money, I might apply it to the mortgage,” Carr told commissioners. “Please, don’t say ‘So where can we spend it?’”

County commissioners don’t see the expense as frivolous, however.

While there will always be inherent disparities in a property appraisal of this scale, the analysis should level the playing field, according to Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick.

“I believe this project will help to even out or create more fair market values,” Kirkpatrick said.

Francis said the lessons learned from the consultants could be applied in future years by the county’s in-house staff, making the one-time cost worth it in the long haul.

“They are teaching us a way to do a more fair appraisal,” Francis said.

Haywood County used to contract out the entire job of the countywide appraisal, but brought it in-house following the 2002 reappraisal.

That’s when the county switched from an eight-year reappraisal schedule to conducting one every four years. The shorter timeframe aimed to reduce “sticker shock.” Property values had been rising so rapidly in the mountains that over a span of eight years property was doubling, tripling or even quadrupling in value. While the state only requires property reappraisals to be conducted every eight years, nearly every county in the region has adopted a more frequent schedule.

When switching to the four-year schedule, the county realized it would be cheaper to set up its own department and do the job in-house rather than continue to contract it out.


Commercial versus residential

Along with neighborhood delineation, the firm will conduct the reappraisal of all the commercial property. It appears the last reappraisal in 2006 was favorable toward commercial property. Right now, commercial property is undervalued on the tax books when compared to residential, Francis said.

Naturally, property today is selling for more than it was in 2006, the year of the last countywide reappraisal. Residential properties are selling on average only 12 percent higher than the 2006 tax value. But when commercial property is included in the statistics, sale prices are 23 percent higher on average.

“We are seeing a huge difference in the sale prices on commercial property versus the tax value,” Francis said.

Francis pointed to the Sonoco gas station on Dellwood Road between Waynesville and Maggie, which sold for $1.4 million when the tax value was listed at half that.


Calculated delay

The county reassesses property values every four years, with the next one up in 2010. But county commissioners decided to postpone it for a year due to the fluctuating housing market.

Pegging a value on homes and land would have been difficult over the past year, the period when the lion’s share of the reappraisal would have been conducted. Housing prices were still in flux, and to some extent still are, Francis said.

Since a countywide reappraisal hinges on the selling price of existing homes, the lack of a consistent baseline during the thick of the recession led commissioners to delay the process.

“It was just really fluctuating. I thought it was in the best interest of the citizens to wait a year,” Francis said.

Swain County, which had a reappraisal slated to take effect this year, chose not to enact it despite the work already being done. Swain simply tossed out the reval, which had been conducted just prior to the recession but would have taken effect post-recession, and will just stick with current property values until the next reval rolls around in another four years.

Hazelwood clings to its post office under threat of closure

Hazelwood seems to be getting the short end of the stick these days. Once an independent blue-collar town boasting a half-dozen factories, it has seen them close one by one over the past two decades.

Now, the community is in danger of losing another vestige of its identity: the post office that stood on its former main street for nearly 50 years.

This time around, Hazelwood residents are taking firm action. More than a thousand Hazelwood residents have banded together to rescue their neighborhood post office from permanent closure, signing petitions and sending letters to elected officials.

The Postal Service has not made a final decision but continues to study consolidating the Waynesville and Hazelwood postal operations. The Waynesville post office is less than two miles away from the one in Hazelwood, which primarily serves Hazelwood and West Waynesville residents.

The Hazelwood branch is certainly not alone in facing closure, as the Postal Service is considering other consolidations across the country to improve efficiency and save some badly needed money.

Six of the 80 post offices in Mid-Carolinas district have already been shut down this past year.

The government agency cites changes in “consumer preference” and the recession-related declines in mail volume for a revenue shortfall of nearly $4.6 billion so far this year, with that figure projected to push $7 billion.

Bill Burkhalter of North Augusta, S.C., who owns the Hazelwood building that is leased to the Postal Service, said the possible closure is definitely not due to increased rents. According to Burkhalter, the Postal Service is actually getting the better deal.

“They have a very good lease rate, believe me,” said Burkhalter.

Despite plummeting revenues, the Postal Service says it will not lay off employees at closed branches but will transfer them to new jobs, according to spokeswoman Monica Robbs.

P.O. boxes at Hazelwood would be installed in an open section of the Waynesville facility with no change in address. Ironically, that would mean the Hazelwood address and zip code would apply only to P.O. boxes outside of Hazelwood itself. Those who get mail delivered to their doorsteps in Hazelwood switched to the Waynesville address long ago.


Signing for support

After receiving more than 1,400 signatures from constituents railing against the proposed Hazelwood post office shutdown, U.S. Congressman Heath Shuler (D-Waynesville) enlisted in the battle to save the Hazelwood post office. That fight has multiple front lines in Shuler’s district, with the Postal Service’s threatened closings of two post offices in the Asheville area.

“I have seen and heard tremendous local support for keeping these facilities open,” said Shuler in a press release. “I am relaying that information directly to Postal Service officials.”

His relaying has helped persuade the Postal Service to keep doors open at the Biltmore post office, which indicates that the movement to save the Hazelwood facility isn’t all that farfetched.

“It’s not locked in stone that they’ll close it,” said Doug Abrahms, spokesman for Shuler. “If we present enough evidence, we have a chance of getting it off [the list], but there’s no guarantee.”

Shuler said there’s even more hope for success since Congress passed a bill last week that cuts its retiree health benefits fund by $4 billion.

“That should give the Postal Service some breathing room to pursue long-term options other than drastically slashing the number of postal facilities throughout the United States,” Shuler said.

Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown is not so optimistic. Though he has also sent on a letter to the Postal Service, stating it would be a convenience to have both offices open, Brown said the post office would “likely” be closed.

“I’m just another citizen in the community,” Brown said “I don’t think my voice has much weight.”

Mary Ann Enloe, long-time mayor of Hazelwood before it merged with Waynesville, said though the Biltmore facility was saved, Hazelwood has always been a middle-class community and residents there might not have the same clout as the customers in the upscale Biltmore area.

“My honest opinion is that we will probably lose this, not because of any ill will toward the community of Hazelwood but because the U.S. Postal Service sees it as a cost-saving measure,” Enloe said.


Fighting for survival

Whatever the outcome of the Postal Service’s review may be, no one can say Hazelwood residents didn’t put up a fight.

On the day Lynda Baltzell learned the Hazelwood post office might close, she became one of the leaders of a campaign to save it. She and others in the neighborhood took petitions to local businesses where they sat collecting signature after signature for three weeks.

“This is a small post office with a big heart,” said Baltzell.

Apparently, many Hazelwood residents feel the same way.

Those who walked into Within Reach Resale Shop were “very anxious” to sign, according to Linda Dirscherl, assistant manager at the store.

“They felt like it is needed in the neighborhood,” Dirscherl said.

The same went for customers at Smoky Mountain Roasters, where most who walked in also signed.

“All the people who come in and sign it say ‘Heck ya!’” said Lauren Lankford, an employee at the café.

Patty Atkinson, a sales clerk at Waynesville Pharmacy in the Hazelwood neighborhood, said so many people signed the petition there that she continually had to add additional pages.

Atkinson herself wrote to Shuler for the first time to try to save the post office. She sent a letter to the Postal Service’s district office in Charlotte as well. Atkinson stressed that many elderly residents use the Hazelwood post office, including veterans who should have the convenience of a nearby post office.

“I don’t think they realize just how much this post office is used,” said Atkinson.

Joe Moore of Hazelwood is one of the neighborhood veterans who will be saddened to see the post office go. Moore makes daily trips to check his post office box where he receives his prescription medicine. He’s worried about how he will get to his medicine if the post office closes.

“It’s a shame because I’m disabled,” said Moore. “I don’t go too much away.”

Moore said his primary concern is the prospect of waiting in long lines at the Waynesville post office.

“I’m worried about the time that it takes to get all this done, waiting in line if you’re not well,” said Moore. “I have to have my rest.”

But for others, the move would simply be a minor inconvenience.

Tammy Hutchison, who works at Hazelwood Family Medicine, runs to the post office three times a week and said she would miss getting her five minutes of fresh air walking there.

“Now I have to get in my car and go,” said Hutchison. “The parking at the new post office can be horrendous.”

Darlene Lowe, who regularly uses the main post office in Waynesville, said it is obviously busier than the one in Hazelwood.

“Parking can get a little crazy,” said Lowe. “I have been here when both parking lots are full. I must admit, I’ve gone to Hazelwood, and I’ve gotten right in.”

According to Moore, the Waynesville post office sees enough people as it is.

“There is no way that they can handle the traffic, they can’t now,” Moore said.

Kim Medford, manager of Carver’s Cloth Shop & Vertigo, deliberately avoids the Waynesville post office because going there is time-consuming, she said.

“This is a small town, but there are a lot of people here,” said Medford. “I think we need more than one post office.”


Disappearing Hazelwood

According to Enloe, the Postal Service had promised that the post office in Hazelwood would remain open when the towns of Hazelwood and Waynesville merged.

Enloe said she was told it would take an act of Congress to close it, since it was a stand-alone post office rather than a secondary branch.

Robbs with the Postal Service said the Hazelwood facility is now a branch of the Waynesville office, so the agency has full authority to close it.

While saving the Hazelwood post office is about convenience for some, other residents are also concerned about preserving a part of history. The post office was one obvious sign of Hazelwood’s former status as an independent town.

“The whole crux of it is we don’t want to give up that part of our identity,” said Enloe.

Atkinson wrote in her letters that that the post office has long been part of the Hazelwood community’s identity.

“I stressed that it was like losing our heritage because it has been here for so many years,” said Atkinson.

Even if the post office does close, thereby striking a blow to Hazelwood’s identity, few say the actual community will ever cease to be a community for its own residents.

“The people will still have the Hazelwood identity,” said Moore. “As for the rest of the world, they’re not going to know.”

Cat lovers quietly care for wild colonies

Move over rabbits, it’s cats that multiply like crazy in Haywood County. According to the Haywood Animal Welfare Association, there are about 12,000 lost or stray cats in the county, nearly a fifth of the Haywood’s total human population.

To help curb growth of the “community cat” population, HAWA recently received a $10,000 grant from PetSmart Charities. The grant will fund spay/neuter surgery for about 200 stray cats.

Penny Wallace, HAWA president, said sterilizing the cats will make a “significant dent” in their numbers by the end of 2010.

In addition to sterilization, the cats will be vaccinated against rabies, treated for parasites, and have their left ear “tipped,” or squared off to show they’ve already gone through the trap, neuter and return process.

Since launching the pilot program, HAWA has been learning about the explosion of “cat colonies” across the county.

“Daily we’re learning about colonies of 20 or more cats,” said Wallace. “There are huge numbers of people in our county feeding the cats who won’t turn them over to the shelter because of euthanasia. Many of these people have been spaying and neutering the colony cats on their own dime for years.”

Susan Kumpf, a field coordinator and volunteer for HAWA, is currently working with “cat colony caregivers” to humanely trap the cats before transporting them to Humane Alliance for the spay or neuter surgery.

Kumpf said it’s vital to establish a relationship with the cat caregivers since they can aid greatly in trapping the cats that trust them most.

“Sometimes we set them up with traps, stand back and let them do the whole thing,” said Kumpf.

The caregivers, who are usually retired people, those with fixed incomes, and cat lovers in general, have been very cooperative with the program so far — only after they are reassured that the cats will be returned.

“You have to really exude trust and shared care about the animals,” Kumpf said.

Two such caregivers, Ruth and Bill Green of Waynesville, started off feeding a couple of cats that seemed to be starving to death. Now, they take care of approximately 30 cats in their colony.

“We got more than we can handle,” said Bill. “I couldn’t name them all to save my life.”

Bill and Ruth have named a few of their favorites, however. Both say they have never gotten sick from handling the cats.

Though cat lovers obviously have the interest of community cats at heart, they do face some stiff opposition from those who prefer birds.

The American Bird Conservancy states that free-roaming cats kills hundreds of millions of birds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians each year. They are exposed to injury, disease and parasites and are capable of transmitting diseases and parasites like rabies.

The ABC launched the “Cats Indoors!” Campaign for Safer Birds and Cats in 1997 to advocate keeping cats indoors, in an outdoor enclosure, or trained to go outside on a harness and leash.

According to the ABC, managed cat colonies don’t always decrease in size because cats that have been spayed or neutered, vaccinated and regularly fed will also live longer. Cat colonies also attract more cats, whether it’s because of the food provided daily or because the colonies serve as a “dumping grounds” for unwanted cats.

While Wallace admits that the community cats do kill birds, she pointed out that they also handle the vermin population very well.

“The real danger is when they’re not spayed or neutered,” said Wallace. “They expand exponentially.”

What’s in a name? Tourism web site succumbs to proper spelling

The Haywood Tourism Development Authority announced some good news last week for all those miffed by the incorrect spelling of “Smoky” on its official Web site’s address.

The TDA has put up $14 to buy a new URL, www.visitncsmokies.com, to eventually replace the old address, www.smokeymountains.net. Jay Sokolow, who helps market the TDA, said the new URL is advantageous for multiple reasons.

“It’ll be much more recognizable, memorable,” Sokolow said.

For starters, there’s the use of an action word “visit.” Another improvement is the phrase “NC.”

“It really reflects and addresses a concern of the TDA that the Smokies are more heavily associated with Tennessee than North Carolina,” Sokolow said.

But the improvement that may stick out most to sticklers for correct spelling is the nixing of “Smokey” in the site address — which incorrectly boasts the letter “e”.

“They don’t want people to think we don’t know how to spell Smokies,” said Sokolow.

Having a .com ending rather than a .net is also beneficial since most of the well-known Web sites have that suffix, Sokolow said.

Until the new site is fully set up, visitors to www.visitncsmokies.com will be redirected to the existing site. The TDA will soon begin to use the new site address in its marketing materials, literature, and the visitor’s guide.

In addition to news of the new URL, Sokolow said his marketing company would try to decrease dependence on Google Adwords while optimizing SEO terms. In plain speech, that means the TDA will try to help online searchers find its site more easily with tactical placement of keywords, rather than via pay-per-click advertisements that show up at the top of Google search results for those very same words.

Still, the TDA will have to continue paying to show up on top when it comes to such generic terms like “Smoky Mountains,” and even “Smokey Mountains” since there are so many business names and Web sites that include those particular words.

Other keywods the TDA has purchased in the past include “Ghost Town,” “North Carolina Mountains,” and “NC getaways.”

Sokolow said while Google Adwords clients must only pay up when someone actually clicks on the link to their pages, it would be best to pay nothing and have the page show up “organically” in search results.

According to Sokolow, the TDA has spent a ceiling of almost $2,500 a month on Google Adwords alone.

Lasting precedent doubtful as county closes books on erosion suit

Developers looking for shortcuts around erosion laws won’t find amnesty in a recent court case between a landowner and Haywood County erosion officials, according to the state authority on erosion enforcement.

The landowner, Ron Cameron, won a lawsuit claiming he was a victim of overbearing erosion enforcement.

While the county settled out of court for $75,000, the county stood a good chance of winning at the state level had they gone forward, according to Mel Nevils, the Land Quality section chief with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Nevils said state precedent sides with the county, citing at least two similar cases that have been decided by the Court of Appeals and even N.C. Supreme Court.

In the Haywood suit, Cameron claimed he was logging his property and should fall under a laxer set of erosion rules that apply to forestry rather than a more stringent set of rules that apply to developers.

The county questioned the landowner’s true motives, however, citing Cameron’s creation of a development master plan, registering a subdivision name with the county and applying for a septic tank evaluation. The county insisted on holding him to the higher erosion standard, and Cameron sued to get out from under the county’s jurisdiction, ultimately prevailing in a three-week trial in May.

In the state cases, “The basic premise was the same,” Nevils said.

“You had a landowner claiming forestry and we felt that it was not forestry, that it was development,” Nevils said.

Both sides in the Cameron suit argued that a terrible precedent would be set if the other side won. If the county lost, it argued the case would provide a road map for developers who want to exploit the forestry loophole.

Nevils isn’t concerned, however. He said the precedent already on the books in higher court rulings, which sided against the landowners, will trump the Haywood County ruling, which was made by Judge Laura Bridges.

“It is the only time I am aware of this type of ruling has been made,” Nevils said of the Haywood suit.

Meanwhile, Cameron argued that landowners everywhere would shy away from logging, for fear they could never change their mind without their motives being questioned and triggering retroactive enforcement and fines.

Nevils doesn’t foresee that kind of entrapment by erosion officers happening, however.

“Practically, if you are logging now and 20 years down the road you do a development, we are not going to make you do that,” Nevils said. “We look for evidence whether there was intent to develop at the time the road building occurred.”

Nevils, who testified for the county during the trial, said Haywood County’s Erosion Control Officer Marc Pruett was doing his job properly when trying to enforce county erosion laws.

Haywood County initially planned to appeal the ruling, but Cameron was going after damages and hefty attorney’s fees from the county. The county commissioners had already spent $282,000 on attorney fees to defend the case and chose to cut the county’s losses and settle out of court.

Nevils said he doesn’t know if the state law could be clarified to avoid the situation in the future. It might not be possible to clarify it more than it is.

“Technically the way the law is written, it says if you are planning to disturb land, no matter when, if it is for the eventual purpose of residential development you cannot claim forestry,” Nevils said.

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