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Haywood passes budget that includes tax hike

After months of struggling to solve a $7 million budget shortfall, Haywood County commissioners voted 3 to 2 Monday night (June 15) to raise property taxes by 1.7 cents in lieu of more severe cuts to county workers.

The two commissioners who dissented gave different reasons for their vote: one opposed any tax increase while the other thought taxes might need to be raised even more. Commissioners Mark Swanger, Bill Upton and Kirk Kirkpatrick voted for the budget and associated tax increase. The county’s new tax rate will be 51.4 cents. The increase amounts to an extra $42 a year on a $250,000 home.

Commissioner Kevin Ensley, the lone commissioner opposed to the tax increase, said there was no easy answer to solve the budget shortfall. But ultimately, he believes county government should do what a business does when income dries up.

“In private business we have to cut expenses to the level of operating revenues,” said Ensley, who owns a surveying company and has seen his revenue cut in half by the recession. “As a business owner maybe I am more acclimated to making cuts.”

Ensley suggested furloughs and shortened work weeks for more county employees instead of raising taxes.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Skeeter Curtis voted against the budget because he felt the cuts were too deep and perhaps taxes should be raised more instead.

“Are we increasing the tax enough or are we going to have to hit it harder next year?” Curtis said. “If times continue to go bad, we’ve got no other cuts to make.”

The bare bones operation in the current budget will come back to haunt the county, Curtis said. Whether its deferring the purchase of computer software or replacing roofs on buildings, it will pile up in the laps of future commissioners to deal with, he said. Curtis partly blamed past boards of commissioners for today’s budget crunch. They kept the tax rate artificially low by dipping into the county’s savings, leaving the current board with little options, Curtis said.

Curtis also said county workers are suffering too much of a blow. The county is reducing its workforce by 32 employees. Thanks to early retirement and natural attrition, the county has already eliminated the lion’s share of those jobs, leaving only seven people that actually have to be let go. Another 11 employees will be cut to a 36 hour work week.

Curtis’ larger concern was the decrease to county benefits, namely a suspension of retirement contributions and reduction in health insurance benefits.

County employees will see their deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums skyrocket. Curtis questioned how some county employees will afford it, citing some who earn only $20,000 a year.

“I don’t know how in the world if you are making $20,000 a year you are going to afford an increase in your deductible going up from $900 to $3,000 a year for a family,” Curtis said. “How do these people survive?”

Commissioner Mark Swanger, who voted for the budget, said it went against his principles but had to be done.

“I have always opposed tax increases, but again, circumstances demand in the absence of an acceptable alternative that I vote in a manner that is in the best interest of our county,” Swanger said.

Swanger said the county made many difficult cuts to get this far, from no increase in teacher supplements this year to a total elimination of contributions to non-profits, be it programs for the elderly or Folkmoot.

Commissioner Bill Upton said there were simply no more places to cut.

“We don’t need to go in our budget and find more positions to cut,” Upton said.

The budget process has seen a high level of public input, with many residents turning out to voice their opinions any time commissioners convened. Opponents even pitched in to comb the county budget for more places to cut in lieu of the tax hike.

The county enacted temporary measures over the past six months to make ends meet. Those included a hiring freeze, furloughs, a shortened workweek and suspended benefits. Some employees that have been operating on furloughs and shortened workweeks will return to normal hours with the enactment of the new budget.

Haywood commissioners exhaust search for budget cuts, tax increase looms

A proposed tax increase that Haywood residents have fought hard against could likely be avoided if residents would just pay their taxes on time in the first place. But property tax collections are down this year, presumably due to the economy, and is a major factor in the county’s budget woes.

The amount of delinquent property, personal property and vehicle tax payments is so high among Haywood County taxpayers that the total amount owed in back taxes could make up for the county’s budget shortfall and help commissioners avoid raising the property tax rate.

The situation was brought to light at a workshop commissioners held last week in an effort to take a last look at the county’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Public outcry over a proposed property tax increase prompted commissioners to make a final evaluation of places to trim, but to no avail.

The outstanding revenue from delinquent property taxes is about $1.4 million, according to county tax collector David Francis. Additionally, another $500,000 in vehicle taxes and personal property taxes is past due, bringing the total amount of past due taxes to about $1.9 million.

In a normal year, the tax collection rate is about 97 percent, but collections for the year are currently running about 94 to 95 percent.

The estimated revenue that would be generated by the proposed 1.7 cent property tax increase is just $1.2 million. The current property tax rate in Haywood County is 49.7 cents per $100 valuation.

Commissioner Skeeter Curtis argued that the county had not figured delinquent tax payments into the budget, and therefore was not considering all options when it came to balancing it.

“We’re going to let 5 percent of our people who have not paid their taxes have a tax increase for all of (the residents), and we haven’t put one dime in the budget for this money,” Curtis said. “We would not have to have a tax increase. I don’t understand how we can sit here and put a budget together when people owe us.”

But other commissioners cautioned against assuming that everyone will pay up.

“We are making a lot of assumptions right there that everybody is going to pay and everything is going to get better,” said Commissioner Bill Upton. “Some people think it’s going to get worse.”

The county hopes to recoup $500,000 of the outstanding taxes over coming months and factored that into the proposed budget. But that’s just an estimate of what the county could recover, said Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick.

“There’s no guarantee,” Kirkpatrick said. “If everybody paid their taxes when they ought to, we wouldn’t have this problem.”

County taxpayers have indeed been hit hard in the recession, and the effect has trickled down to the county’s budget. Francis said that the county has experienced two major bankruptcies in the past year — Ghost Town in the Sky theme park, which owes the county $43,000 in back taxes, and an excavating company, which owes the county $21,000.

Francis said that personal bankruptcies throughout the county have risen dramatically this year. Last year at this time, there were 30 declared bankruptcies; this year, there are 65.

Commissioner Mark Swanger joined the chorus cautioning against assuming the county can recoup too much of the outstanding taxes.

“It’s not a projectible revenue stream,” Swanger said. “You can’t spend anticipated collections.”

The county is still stuck between a rock and a hard place as it looks to make up for a projected budget shortfall. Many of the budget cuts suggested by citizens have already been made, or they are mandated services that the state says the county must provide.

“At the end of the day, the state and the federal government tell the counties in North Carolina that you will provide these services,” said County Manager David Cotton. The county doesn’t have cart blanche discretion to cut anywhere wants, but instead has few areas where it can actually cut.

The county has already trimmed back personnel, where it spends the majority of its dollars. Cotton said the elimination of a proposed 32 full-time positions will put the county back six years in terms of staffing levels.

The state is also talking about passing on more mandatory expenses to counties in order to make up for its own severe budget shortfall, so counties are anticipating the possibility of deeper budget cuts in the future.

Still, citizens are none too happy about the county’s proposed property tax increase.

“The burden is falling too heavy on us,” Johnnie Cure, a leader in the tax opposition movement, told commissioners at the budget workshop. “Where is this going to end?”

Kirkpatrick said commissioners have almost exhausted every option in looking where to cut.

“Who else can we pass it on to?” Kirkpatrick responded to Cure. “It’s not going to come out of the sky. If the state says the county has to do it, we have to do it. We don’t have a choice. We’re trying to be the best stewards we can.”

So far, the county commissioners have been unable to come up with a good alternative to offset the proposed property tax increase, so that option still seems likely to pass.

The county commissioners will vote on the budget at their regularly scheduled meeting at 5 p.m. Monday, June 15.

New landfill proves money pit for Haywood

Haywood County commissioners grappling with the $4.4 million price tag of a landfill expansion briefly eyed the steep engineering costs as a place to trim this week.

During a county meeting, commissioners questioned the hiring of two separate engineering firms for a total of $345,000 to design and oversee landfill construction. Commissioner Kevin Ensley was the first to broach the subject, asking why the county couldn’t just hire a single engineer rather than contracting with two entire firms.

Stephen King, the director of solid waste, cited the litany of state and federal regulations involved in building a landfill, from geotechnical permits to myriad testing of soil samples by various labs.

“It is very specialized,” King said. “It will take a whole team to get done what needs to be done.”

A engineer can be the county’s best friend in a project of this caliber, serving as both as a liability shield and a taskmaster to keep the contractors on time and on budget.

“I think having a good engineer is critical,” advised Chip Killian, the county attorney.

Ensley questioned a clause in one of the contracts, however, that would bill the county $900 a day for engineering services should the project extend beyond the estimated nine-month time frame.

“If we run into a problem like with the historic courthouse and it goes on and on, that could get expensive,” Ensley said. Ensley said the bid for the job should cover the work, period.

Commissioner Mark Swanger asked whether the county attempted to negotiate the terms. It appeared not. County Attorney Chip Killian said he had not read the contracts yet and couldn’t comment on whether the language was standard or troubling.

“We really need some of these questions answered,” Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick said. “I would also like to know if this is the best price they can come up with. Everybody is having to give a little now. Let’s see if they can, too.”

The contracts were with Asheville-based McGill and Associates for $175,000 and a second contract with Joyce Engineering, landfill specialists based in Maryland, for an additional $170,000.

Killian worked over the two contracts following the meeting. The county was unable to lower the price but altered some of the language.

“Mostly to protect the county against anything, essentially to make sure if they don’t perform their task we aren’t liable for it,” King said of the changes.

As for the heafty $900 a day Joyce was seeking should the project run over schedule, the language was clarified so the contractor, not the county, would be responsible for paying up. Both were approved by commissioners following the rewording.

Restoration blends function with history

After more than two years, the Haywood County historic courthouse has finally been returned to its original grandeur.

The painstaking process of restoring the stately 1931 building, long an icon of the Haywood County community, has had its share of bumps and challenges along the way. The project fell severely behind schedule during the first year, prompting the county to fire the contractor, which resulted in a costly lawsuit. Others — like the ghosts workers allegedly saw — were easier to overcome, or at least learn to live with.

The building, which will host county offices, was slated to open in June, but likely won’t be ready until later this summer.

In the end, lead architect Chad Roberson with Asheville-based PBC&L is happy with how the project turned out.

“It’s a substantial civic building, and it was an anchor of the community, so it was built to be around for years,” Roberson said. “Now, we’ve given it another lifespan.”

The courthouse was literally built to last. To get the project started, significant demolition had to take place in order to begin updates.

“The existing courthouse is built very well, and so we had to do a lot of demolition in there to make it usable for modern needs,” Roberson said. “The demolition was very substantial.”

To figure out how the courthouse originally looked, Roberson and his crew pored over old photos of the building. Those proved key in helping to restore the building’s grandest space — the old courtroom. Photos came in handy when reconstituting the courtroom’s mezzanine balcony, which had been walled in and turned into offices over the years. Missing sections of ornate trim that once lined the walls of the balcony were handcarved to once again return the beautiful detail to its original glory.

“There was 1970s paneling on the inside, and when we pulled it off, they found the trim and the ornamentation,” Roberson said.

Painstaking measures were taken to restore the courtroom, including hand carving to fill in gaps where the ornamentation had been damaged or was missing and adding antique wooden benches to reflect how the courtroom looked in 1931.

“The courtroom was the most challenging by far,” Roberson said. “It’s a very monumental space and needed to be restored carefully to what it was originally. It was definitely the toughest room.”

Other measures were taken to make sure as many original materials as possible were used. For instance, in the first floor historic corridor, unique tiles line the walls. However, some of the tiles were missing — forcing contractors to go searching for matching replacement tiles elsewhere in the building. They found some on the third floor under a layer of 1970s era paneling.

Additionally, all the doors and windows of the buildings are original. Some of the doors still bear the sign for their old use, such as lawyer’s and sheriff’s offices. The doors were refurbished, and in some instances relocated from one floor to another.

Roberson said one of the most challenging parts of the project was adding the stair tower and elevator tower addition at the back of the original building.

“Joining those two different architectural styles was one of the biggest challenges we had,” Roberson said. “One part was built in the early part of the 20th century, and we had to add a modern addition to it in the 21st century.”

In the end, the rewards were worth the obstacles.

“The building is an amazing building, and there have definitely been challenges in getting it completed,” Roberson said. “But I think in the end, it was definitely something we are very proud of and the county is very proud of.”

Haywood residents protest property tax hike during bad economy

Scores of Haywood County taxpayers criticized the county’s proposed budget at a public hearing Monday (June 1) saying commissioners had not looked thoroughly at every possible option before proposing job cuts and a property tax increase.

Nearly 150 residents attended the meeting, many waving signs denouncing additional taxes.

The proposed budget recommends cutting 35 county positions and increasing the property tax rate by 1.7 cents from the current rate of 49.7 cents per $100 to make up for a $7 million budget shortfall. The 2009/2010 fiscal year starts July 1.

“Come up with cost saving ideas instead of the typical knee jerk reaction of raising taxes,” county resident Bill Davis suggested to commissioners.

Resident Ted Carr said it was ludicrous for commissioners to even consider a tax hike at a time when the economy is causing many to struggle.

“With the economy in the tank and the jobless rate as high as it is, I think it’s unconscionable that you’d suggest a 1.7 cent increase,” Carr said.

Others said county residents would suffer with a tax increase.

“For the people who are on fixed incomes, I see a heavy hit if you raise the taxes,” warned resident Yvonne Mazet. Though Mazet opposes a tax increase, she could give few specifics when interviewed about how she would make up for the $7 million budget shortfall the county faces.

“I’m just one person. I don’t know all the answers. I don’t know where to cut. It’s not my job,” Mazet said, adding “I don’t want my taxes raised.”

Commissioner Skeeter Curtis told the audience of concerned citizens that the budget shortfall had left commissioners with few options.

“I want to find some more money, too, but I don’t know where it’s going to be right now because we’ve cut right down to the bottom,” Curtis said.

Some audience members said they understood the county is in a tough position, but that commissioners had gone too far with some of the proposed cuts.

“Our budget is at a place right now where we’re going to have to juggle, but when we cut our health out and we cut our schools off, we cut our throats,” said resident Danny Heatherly, referring to proposed cuts to the Department of Social Services and the public school system.

Audience members had plenty of suggestions, but in many cases, commissioners had already taken them into consideration.

Resident Linda Bennet suggested the county cut funding to programs that don’t benefit all citizens, like nonprofits.

“I’m not saying they’re not good causes, I’m not saying you’re not being sweet by paying for them, but if it’s not a program that benefits every single person, that’s the program you look at first,” Bennet said.

But the county already plans to cut all funding for nonprofits next year, and pre-emptively pulled funding for the remainder of this fiscal year. The cuts have impacted organizations like the Haywood County Arts Council and the Haywood County Fairgrounds.

Resident Pat Carr agreed with many other audience members, saying that the county should pare down to the essentials like many residents have had to do.

“When I have to cut my budget, I look to see at what is a necessity and what is not a necessity,” Carr said. “I’d much rather see recreation programs cut than teachers cut.”

The county has already proposed significant cuts to recreation, including yanking all funding it provides to individual towns.

“We’re not giving any money to the town of Waynesville (for recreation) this budget,” Curtis said. “Canton is getting zero dollars this year.”

Audience members had other suggestions. For instance, Tammy Maney suggested increasing room taxes paid at area hotels and motels to alleviate some of the tax burden from county residents.

But Commissioner Mark Swanger pointed out that hiking the lodging tax requires approval by the state General Assembly.

“A couple of speakers mentioned the ... increase in occupancy tax, but that requires legislation in Raleigh,” Swanger said. “That’s a state statute that authorizes that.”

State law also dictates that room tax money must be invested back into tourism and can’t be spent on general county services.

Other audience suggestions included closing county administrative offices one day a week, raising the deductible county employees pay on their health insurance premium, reducing the salaries of some of the highest paid county administration, and consolidating some county and town services.

Resident Bruce Gardner said the commissioners need to examine cuts to even the smallest expenses, like turning the lights of the county justice center off at night.

“It’s the little things, it’s the dollars,” that add up, Gardner said.

Some residents blamed the county for frivolous spending in the past, saying it contributed to the county’s tough position today. Tammy Maney made that point just after Commissioner Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick asked her to limit her speech to three minutes.

“If you’d been as strict with money in the county as the time limit to get up here and talk about it, we’d all be a lot better off,” Maney said.

Resident Sharon Miller pointed to the county’s grading of the Beaverdam Industrial Park in the east end of the county in hopes it would lure industry as an example of wasteful spending.

“(You spent) $1 million for the tearing down of a mountain where a year later there’s still no development there,” Miller said.

Resident Johnnie Curé, one of the most vocal of the tax opponents, pointed to the former county board’s purchase of 22 acres of land on Jonathan Creek over a year ago, intended for recreation purposes, as an example of wasteful spending. The former board of commissioners spent more than $1 million on the parcel.

“Why did we spend it when we didn’t have it?” Curé demanded. “You must have a great deal more stewardship when it comes to our money. Stop asking for more and more of it. There is no more to take.”

Curtis encouraged audience members to stay involved in the budget process.

“Stay engaged, because it is your budget, and it is your county,” Curtis said.

Commissioners will go back to the drawing board for another budget work session at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 4, at the Haywood County Justice Center. A vote on the budget is scheduled for Monday, June 15 at the commissioners’ meeting at 5 p.m.

Haywood considers cutting jobs, raising taxes

Tight times in Haywood County have forced commissioners to consider significant job cuts and a tax increase in an attempt to make up for the county’s falling revenues.

The county has $72.5 million in requests for the 2009-2010 fiscal year but just $62 million in projected revenues.

At a budget workshop May 14, County Manager David Cotton told commissioners he was recommending cuts of up to 35 positions to balance the county’s budget, which must be adopted by June 30. Cotton called the recommendation “agonizing.”

Cotton said he hopes some of the reduction of force will be done voluntarily through expanded early retirement incentives and employees who take a voluntary 10 percent pay cut, equivalent to a 36-hour work week.

Departments that have seen a slowdown in work due to the economy will likely be among the first hit by layoffs.

“Some of the departments still are not seeing the demand for service,” Cotton said.

One of the most significant slowdowns has impacted the building inspections department. Building permits were down 50 percent in recent months, Cotton said.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people in the industry that see lots of positions the county ramped up for that aren’t as busy as they used to be,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley, who owns a land surveying company. “Unfortunately, because of the national and state economy, we just don’t have the workload we used to have.”

Commissioner Mark Swanger said the job cuts were tough, but necessary.

“I don’t think anybody likes the idea of people losing their jobs,” Swanger said. “It’s just a fact that if the demand for services decreases and there’s no near term expectation that that service demand will recover, we’re faced with a choice.”

Cotton also recommended that employee benefits like pay increases, the county’s 401K match, and the annual Christmas bonus be eliminated or scaled back.


Hike taxes, gain revenue

Commissioners are considering a property tax increase to help balance the budget. Cotton recommended hiking the tax rate between 1.3 and 2.3 cents per $100 of valuation.

The more property taxes are raised, the fewer job cuts county employees will face. Raise the rate by 2.3 cents, and the county could cut the minimum of 25 positions. If the rate is raised by 1.3 cents, job cuts could total in the mid-30s.

Commissioners debated how much of an increase they supported, and finally proposed one in the middle — 1.7 cents.

A wave of public opposition to raising taxes has confronted commissioners at recent meetings, and the board seemed well aware of the delicate balance necessary in making the decision.

“There’s a lot of anxiety out in the community,” Swanger said. “Between 1.3 cents and 2.3 cents isn’t a lot, but it might be the difference between grudging acceptance of a tax increase and revolt. I do sense a level of anxiety and anger out there that I haven’t experienced before. There’s a point where if we go beyond that point, I think we’d regret it.”

Commissioner Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick said despite the opposition to a tax increase, the county was left with little choice.

“Nobody on this board wants to raise taxes,” Kirkpatrick said. “However, we also have a civic and fiduciary responsibility to this county to run it properly and provide for our citizens. That is why we’ve made the decision that we’ve made.”


Schools, nonprofits slashed

Other areas will also see a big reduction in county funding under the proposed budget, such as the school system. Haywood County Schools requested $775,000 from the county for capital projects; Cotton recommended half that amount. Haywood Community College requested $500,000 for capital projects, but would be awarded just $165,000 under the proposed budget.

Nonprofits are also taking a serious hit, which Cotton called, “one of the tougher decisions.”

“The budget essentially eliminates all funding to non-mandated nonprofits,” Cotton said.

The Haywood County Fairgrounds, the Good Samaritan Clinic, Folkmoot USA and the Haywood County Arts Council are among the organizations that won’t receive funding in the coming budget year.

Project will restore courthouse’s grandeur

While the feeling of stately grandeur evoked by Jackson’s historic courthouse has remained over the years, many of the original features of the building have not. Little by little, the courthouse architects, McMillan Smith and Partners out of South Carolina, hope to peel away layers of renovations and return some of the historical detail to the structure.

The three-story old courthouse was built in 1912 in a neoclassical, neotraditional style of architecture, says lead project architect Donny Love. A concrete foundation, unusual for the time, was poured, and wooden beams, including hemlock, were trucked up the steep hill to form the structure. It probably wasn’t an easy process, Love says.

“It would have been difficult, especially for the time, to build in that location,” he says. “With the types of equipment they had, it would have been seemingly difficult to transport the materials to the top of the hill and place them.”

The original building was actually red, not the stark white it is today. Most of its features were very much in keeping with the trends of the early century, including two story columns and a second story porch. Intricately carved banisters ran along each stairwell, and detailed wood trim covered the walls. Arches provided architectural detail common to the period.

But around the 1960s, the building underwent some heavy modifications. The wooden detail was removed, and staircases and the balcony overlooking the courtroom were replaced. The floor was covered over. Such updates were common in that era, Love says, and were meant to provide buildings with a more modern look — but they also erased some of the original detail.

“If they make it through that time period, often they’re not renovated and the original detail is still intact,” Love says.

The Jackson County courthouse hadn’t escaped that fate. The county hired Love’s firm to restore the building and design the library wing that will connect to it. But there was a challenge — there weren’t any original plans to draw from.

“There weren’t blueprints. Back then, they didn’t do a lot of drawings,” Love says.

Love’s firm had to go back and measure each room. As for determining what the original courthouse actually looked like, Love and his colleagues lucked out.

“The courthouse in Madison County was built by the same architect from essentially the same set of drawings,” says Love. “We visited that one to get an idea of what this building looked like before it was modified in the 1960s.”

The Madison County Courthouse had not undergone the same renovation cycle that Jackson County’s had, so it’s served as a roadmap for the architects in recreating the historical detail of Jackson’s.

Not every detail will be restored in the current renovation process, estimated at around $1 million for the courthouse alone. The large clock that hangs on the front of the courthouse, for instance, will stay, though it wasn’t part of the original structure. Initially, the area where the clock was likely had a skylight for the courtroom, Love says. The area was closed up, and the clock was placed on the building.

Other parts of the courthouse will look noticeably different than they do today. Plans call for replacing all the stairs leading up to the building, and placing streetlights along them as was the case originally.

With the groundbreaking of the new library last Saturday, work is already under way at the courthouse. One of the biggest challenges encountered so far is the stabilization of the site, which sits atop a steep hill. Plans call for the library building to come up to the edge of the hill, so a large retaining wall has had to be built.

“We’ve had to make the slope work with the building,” Love says.

Despite the challenges, Love says working on an old building, even one that doesn’t exactly resemble its historical self, is endlessly fascinating.

“It’s always neat to go in a building and try to understand what took place in it,” he says. “I think in this building, there wasn’t very much of the historic building left, but nevertheless you can still get kind of a neat feel for what it must have been like to sit in those offices and look over the whole town.”

Erosion laws put to the test

Haywood County’s sediment and erosion control policies are the subject of a bitter legal battle poised to set statewide precedent.

A landowner slapped with a $175,000 fine by the county is fighting back with a lawsuit claiming he is being held hostage by the county’s overbearing enforcement of erosion laws.

The two-and-a-half week court case heard in Haywood County Superior Civil Court concluded last week (May 5). A decision now rests in the hands of Judge Laura Bridges, but will likely not be made for several weeks.

The landowners, Ron and Brian Cameron, built a 1.5-mile road network on a 66-acre tract in the Camp Branch area of Waynesville. They claimed the roads were for logging and were exempt from county erosion laws. The state allows such an exemption, based on the premise that logging reaps a much smaller economic return than development. Should loggers be forced to comply with the more rigorous erosion standards that apply to developers, it would effectively discourage logging.

The county claims the landowners were falsely hiding behind the forestry exemption, however, with no real intention to conduct logging. After building their road network, the Camerons drafted and submitted a development master plan calling for 18 lots, registered a subdivision name with the county and applied for a septic tank evaluation.

The landowners revealed their motives by these forays into development activity, according to the county. The Camerons lost their forestry exemption and were retroactively fined for two years worth of erosion violations dating back to the initial construction of the alleged logging roads.

Both sides in the case argue that a terrible precedent would be set if the other side won. If the county wins, landowners everywhere will shy away from logging, for fear they could never change their mind without their motives being questioned and triggering retroactive fines.

“We believe the county’s actions are discouraging forestry,” Craig Justus, an attorney for the Camerons, said during closing statements in court last week. “Essentially it would make forestry an unsatisfactory option. It would almost force landowners into developing.”

On the other hand, if the county loses, it would provide a road map for developers who want to exploit the forestry loophole.

“Developers will say ‘I’m going to build a big road system and tell them it is for forestry.’ Then four years down the road, they can say ‘You know I don’t want to log this property. Now, I want to develop it,’” countered Reed Hollander, an attorney for the county, during his closing statements. “No logging ever takes place and in the meantime those roads have sat out there eroding and causing damage to the environment, and yet nobody is out there to regulate it because the county’s hands are tied.”

There are three legal challenges pending over the issue. The one heard in court this month was filed by the Camerons in hopes of restoring the forestry exemption and getting them off the hook for compliance with county erosion laws. A second suit against the county is seeking damages and suffering. A third legal appeal is pending in Raleigh over the amount of the fines.


One or the other

When the Camerons began constructing a road system on their property in late 2005, they did not initially seek out the forestry exemption. They simply hired a crew and started grading without applying for permits, either to the county or the state forestry division.

The grader hired by the Camerons realized there wasn’t an erosion control plan being followed and called Marc Pruett, the county erosion control officer, to report it.

Pruett headed out to the Camerons’ property for an inspection. After a couple hours of walking up and down the freshly carved roads, making notes and snapping dozens of photos, he met with Ron Cameron.

Pruett had uncovered several erosion and sediment violations at the site. The exposed soil and steeply graded slopes lacked safeguards to keep erosion out of the streams, he said. Cameron had also failed to file a sediment and erosion control plan, which is a violation in itself.

When Cameron met with Pruett that day, he inquired about the forestry exemption. Pruett explained it was an either-or proposition: forestry or development. Cameron told Pruett during the property inspection he wanted to build a house on the property one day.

“He did tell me that flat footed, eyeball to eyeball standing right there on the ground,” Pruett said during testimony. “He told us he was considering building a house on the property and doing some logging. I explained those are two different things. It really couldn’t be both.”

If Cameron was building the road to reach even one house site, it wouldn’t count as forestry, and Cameron would have to comply with the county’s erosion control laws. If, however, Cameron’s sole intent was logging, he would be exempt, but would have to sign an affidavit to that effect.

“We require the affidavit basically to keep everybody honest,” Pruett said during testimony.

Cameron did not sign the waiver, but instead returned a month later with an erosion control plan and the intention of complying with county ordinances. But a few weeks later, Cameron changed his mind and wanted to go under the forestry exemption after all. In the summer of 2006 Cameron’s roads were officially classified as logging roads by the N.C. Division of Forest Resources.

“At that point, it was off my radar. Once the forest service has got it, we move on to other work,” Pruett said.


Making a master plan

Over the course of the next year, while still operating under the forestry exemption, the Camerons begin setting the stage for developing the site, according to the county.

They hired a development planner to draft a master plan for the tract. The first plan called for 11 lots. The Camerons then hired a second development planner to draft another master plan. Created by Brooks and Medlock Engineering firm in Asheville, it showed 18 lots on the 66-acre tract.

In fall 2007, the Camerons submitted that master plan to the county planning office. When the master plan landed on the desk of County Planner Kris Boyd, it rang a bell. While Boyd isn’t directly involved in sediment and erosion control, he works just down the hall from Pruett. The two regularly keep each other appraised of the plans and permits funneling through their respective offices.

In this case, Boyd remembered Pruett’s past inspection of the Camerons’ property and his pursuit of a forestry exemption. The appearance of a development plan raised a red flag to Boyd, however. He passed word to Pruett, who started investigating the issue.

“We were told this property is for forestry, but here comes a residential development master plan into the office. That calls into question what are the roads for,” Hollander, the county’s attorney, said in court.

The master plan made Pruett wonder whether the roads were ever intended for logging in the first place.

“I scratched my head and tried to figure out what to do,” Pruett said. “I determined at least in my mind when someone walks into a county office and pays fees to have a plan approved for 18 lots on the entire 66 acres, to me that is an intent to create a subdivision.”

In addition to filing the master plan, the Camerons had applied for and conducted a septic evaluation of their property. They also registered a subdivision name with the county.

Also in the interim, the Camerons sold a 3-acre parcel off the larger tracts. The separate parcel was never part of their forestry exemption, but the alleged logging roads happened to lead right past it, making the lot more valuable.

“What do they do under this time they are under a forestry exemption?” Hollander asked. “They’ve hired not one but two companies to do a residential development plan and they’ve sold property for residential purpose. At the same time they are doing no forestry activities whatsoever.”

Hollander pointed out that Brian Cameron is a developer in Atlanta, while his father, Ron, is a real estate broker.

Justus, the Camerons’ attorney, said the septic tank application has nothing to do with whether the roads were constructed for logging.

“My client always said there might be a possibility in the future that he might build a house somewhere on this 66 acres. Then why is it a shock for you to see a septic tank test on the property?” Justus said in court.


Just “exploring options”

In late 2007, Pruett contacted the state forestry division and shared the news of what Pruett viewed as forays into development. The forestry office ultimately pulled the logging exemption, thrusting the property under the jurisdiction of the county erosion control ordinances in January 2008. For the past two years, however, Cameron had dodged county oversight and all the while caused erosion to the streams, Pruett said.

Pruett inspected the property and wrote up a lengthy report on the erosion status of the roads. The county issued a violation notice outlining a litany of erosion control measures that needed to be complied with right away.

The Camerons countered that they should not have lost their forestry exemption. The development master plan was nothing more than an idea they were exploring.

“In a down timber market they were merely exploring options on other uses of the property,” Justus said. “A land owner has a right to explore options without losing forestry exemptions. We should never have been kicked out of forestry based on planning documents.”

The Camerons tried to get their forestry exemption restored. They even withdrew their application for the development master plan. They also signed the county’s affidavit stating their intention was forestry.

But the county claimed it was too late, that the Camerons had already revealed their motives and couldn’t simply duck back under the forestry exemption.

The Camerons filed a lawsuit against the county in protest. When it became clear the Camerons weren’t going to bring the roads into compliance with the erosion law, the county issued its $175,000 fine.

Justus claims the county is trying to make an example of the Camerons, and only slapped them with the fines after the Camerons fought back with their lawsuit.

“Why? Because we didn’t acquiesce. We got whacked because we didn’t capitulate,” Justus said. “There are reasons why we don’t want to be placed into the county’s world until we want to be there by choice.”


Never logged

The Camerons never conducted any logging on the property, a point the county chalks up in its corner.

The Camerons didn’t formally hire a forester until after they were embroiled in a disagreement with the county over their motives. The county claims the belated engagement of a forester was nothing more than the Camerons trying to cover their tracks.

“At that point they can’t unwind the clock,” Hollander said.

The Camerons claim it is inconsequential whether they actually logged anything.

“They county says, ‘Ah-ha! You haven’t cut any timber. You must not have meant the road for that purpose,’” Justus said. But the forestry exemption isn’t contingent on when, if ever, logging is actually conducted. While the Camerons haven’t conducted logging, they likewise haven’t engaged in development activity either, other than on paper.

“There have not been any house sites on that property. There are no driveways placed off the road. A surveyor hasn’t gone out and staked and put pins on every lot, not even one lot,” Justus said.

The Camerons had reasons for not logging right away, namely a depressed timber market, according to forester David McGrew who created the timber plan. McGrew said the Camerons’ roads were built with an eye toward logging — although he wasn’t hired until more than two years after the roads were already built.

The Camerons had talked to a forester in 2003 shortly after the purchase of the property to sign up for forestry property tax breaks. Landowners can get tax breaks by claiming forestry, but to do so requires filing a forestry plan with the county tax office. The Camerons hired a forester in 2003 to write the plan for tax purposes.

That plan revealed there would be no economic return in logging the upper half of the property, particularly because building a road to reach the timber would be difficult.

“This area would be a very sensitive area to harvest due to the soils, rock formations and topography,” according to testimony of William Teague, a forester in Haywood County. “Road construction would be very expensive and difficult due to underlying bedrock. I felt the cost of logging would not have an economical return in portions of (the property) due to access problems.”


Good business sense?

If the Camerons’ motive behind the roads was logging, they are poor businessmen indeed, Hollander argued. They spent $200,000 building roads to access timber worth only half that. Some roads went to tracts that clearly weren’t candidates for logging.

“There has got to be another explanation. It makes no sense if their end goal was forestry,” Hollander said.

When the Camerons hired a grader to start building roads, their only criteria was that it lead to the top of the property.

“He wasn’t told it was for forestry. He wasn’t told, ‘Make sure you get roads to this area because that’s where the better trees are,’” Hollander said. “He’s just told carte blanche go up to the top of the property. He’s giving them weekly invoices and the cost is ticking up and up and up. It makes no sense for two intelligent successful businessmen.”

By the same token, if the Camerons’ aim was to build development roads under the guise of forestry, they didn’t do a very good job of that either. Many of the roads they built wouldn’t work for a development.

“Not only would additional roads have to be constructed in order to implement the subdivision plan, there also would have to be substantial additional work done in order for any of the logging roads to be converted into subdivision roads,” said Kevin Alford, an engineer who provided testimony for the Camerons.

Alford went so far as to say none of the roads appeared to be subdivision roads to him.

When the Camerons hired a development planner to create a master plan, they weren’t adamant about using the existing roads.

“He realized they might not be up to the county codes for subdivision roads, and they might need to be changed,” said Paul Sexton, the development planner.

Ultimately, only half the road network was incorporated into the development master plan. The rest are either too steep or too narrow.

Tim Howell, an officer with the state forestry division, testified that in his opinion, the Camerons’ roads were indeed logging roads. Howell ultimately proved one of the Camerons’ best witnesses. He testified that the roads looked like logging roads, not development roads. He testified that there was nothing unusual about building logging roads to timber tracts that weren’t financially viable. He testified that it was fine to build logging roads and never log, yet remain under the forestry exemption.

Justus asked Howell if he made a mistake by granting the forestry exemption in the first place, and Howell said “no.” A landowner changing their mind down the road or exploring other options doesn’t make the initial designation wrong, he said.

Howell also testified that he would gladly place the roads back under a forestry exemption again, but was held up from doing so until the county relinquishes its enforcement claim over the property.

The county pulled out a heavy-hitter in its camp, too, however. Mel Nevils, the section chief of land quality with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said the county was justified in assuming erosion enforcement of the property.

Nevils said if a landowner is building a road that theoretically could be used for logging but has the dual purpose of serving development, then it should follow the erosion control standards for development.

“Even though the roads may be used for logging that is not the end purpose for the roads,” Nevils said. “If anything other than forestry is going to happen, those roads come under sediment rules the minute they are put in.”

Nevils said in his opinion, the Camerons’ roads weren’t intended solely for logging. In the Camerons’ case, Ron Cameron admitted from the beginning that he wanted to build a retirement house for himself on the property.


Sediment control

In Pruett’s testimony, he shared albums of photos documenting erosion violations. He cited freshly graded earth bulldozed right up to the creek bank. Slopes lacked silt fences to keep erosion back. Ditches weren’t properly lined with rock to slow the scouring effect of water. Basins intended to trap sediment were clogged up, compromising the ability to catch incoming silt as it washed toward the creek. Shot-gun culverts dumped out in a free-fall fashion, eroding the creek banks below, according to Pruett’s testimony.

Justus wanted to know whether Pruett had any photos of sediment actively running into the stream.

“Show me where there is a plume of sediment leading from any road going into the creek,” Justus said. “You don’t have any photo of sediment physically going off the road into the creek.”

“I don’t have a video of sediment actively washing into the creek,” Pruett admitted. But Pruett said he could put two-and-two together based on mud in the creek below exposed soil and scoured slopes.

“It’s a fair assumption to say water runs downhill,” Pruett said.

Justus countered that creeks and ponds are naturally muddy on the bottom. However, Pruett said that most creeks in the mountains have rocky bottoms and aren’t supposed to be silted up.

Justus said the county exaggerated erosion at the site. In one site inspection, Pruett’s paperwork only classified the erosion as “slight.”

While the Camerons were exempt from the county’s erosion laws, they still had to comply with the lesser standards laid out by the state forest division, which they did.

“Forestry is not an exemption from protecting water quality. It’s just a different set of standards that apply to people who are conducting forestry,” Justus said.

If loggers were treated like developers and made to comply with a more rigorous standard for sediment control, the cost of doing so would effectively deter logging. State lawmakers recognized this in creating the forestry exemption, Justus said.

Justus argued that the Camerons should not be subjected to a $175,000 fine by the county while they were under the forestry exemption.

“That’s very significant to us and one reason this case is important,” Justus said of the fine.

Further, the Camerons should be allowed to stay under the shield of forestry rather than dragged under county jurisdiction, Justus said.

“There are 600 pictures here of what Marc Pruett says is wrong with this property. If we lose this case, that’s the world we are going to be put into,” Justus said. “They are going to hold us responsible for every dirt clod in the stream. We don’t want to do that. We simply don’t.”


When to comply?

Justus claims it is the right of any landowner to ponder possibilities. Drafting and submitting a development master plan was just that: an exploratory move. The Camerons ultimately withdrew the master plan and decided not to go forward.

“As a property owner we can’t get kicked out of forestry merely by pursuing options,” Justus said.

Justus argued that landowners aren’t told that filing a master plan could trigger a loss of their forestry exemption.

“The rules need to apply clear and objective thresholds, so a landowner knows if you go this far, this is the consequence,” Justus said.

The county claimed the Camerons were trying to back-peddle.

“Whether the roads can be used for forestry is not the question. The question is why were they built at the time they were built,” Hollander said, pointing to the development master plan as proof. “They pushed to get those plans done and into the county office and ultimately withdrew them when they realized what the consequences would be.”

Justus said the Camerons were being subjected to the whims of the “rule of man” rather than an objective playbook of laws.

“The rule of man is something that happened in cubicles and behind closed doors,” Justus said. “That’s government officials saying ‘I woke up on this side of the bed and decided this.’”

The county argued that Pruett’s job is to enforce erosion laws, a power granted by the state and the county. Not to do so would be shirking the county’s responsibility to the environment.

“They don’t have a right to pollute. They don’t have a right to put sediment in the creeks,” Hollander said. “All the county ever wanted is to get that site stable to prevent continued erosion.”

Haywood County nixes old Wal-Mart purchase

It looks like the Department of Social Services in Haywood County won’t be getting a new home after all. Haywood County commissioners decided against purchasing the old Wal-Mart building, which would have housed DSS as well as the health department, in a closed session last week (May 4).

“The commissioners decided that now is not the right time in light of everything else what we’ve had to do as a county in response to the global economic crisis,” said County Manager David Cotton.

County officials were seeking a USDA loan between $10 million and $11 million to fund the purchase and renovations to the building.

Finding a new home for DSS has long been on the county’s to-do list. The department is housed in a decrepit, crumbling old hospital, and is so cramped for space that some closets double as offices.

The old Wal-Mart would have been less expensive than building on a new site.

“In our capital improvements plan, we’d actually identified needing $20 million to $25 million to buy a piece of land and build from scratch,” Cotton said.

The old Wal-Mart purchase is not completely off the table, Cotton said. He said the company that owns the building, RBC Ventures, is still open to the idea of if county officials change their mind.

TDA debates where to draw line for events that may not benefit entire county

Should a private business receive taxpayer money to stage an event?

That was the question of the hour at two recent meetings of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority as the board discussed how to dole out its dollars.

The debate was prompted by a funding request from the Waynesville Inn Golf Resort and Spa. The resort had snagged the interest of the Western North Carolina Porsche Club and enticed them to hold a car show on the property in July. The group had never had an event in the mountains west of Asheville, so representatives from the resort saw it as a prime opportunity to attract a new breed of clientele.

“We’re trying to bring some different kinds of business to this county,” Waynesville Inn owner Dave Stubbs told the TDA board. “Our feeling is you have to have that targeted. You can’t just say, ‘come to Haywood County’ — you’ve got to have a specific thing going on. We’re trying to take the lead to design and sponsor a specific event.”

TDA members seemed impressed with the idea.

“I think we’ve got an opportunity to really reach out and do something new,” said board member James Carver.

But would the Porsche show really benefit Haywood County as a whole, TDA members wondered? After all, the whole event would be hosted on the grounds of the Waynesville Inn, with meals and a special room rate included in the package.

“I think what you’re trying to do is certainly admirable, but I think the point is there are many events that come into town but they’re not based at a hotel and the money isn’t going to a hotel,” said board member Marion Hamel.

Hamel continued to argue her case the next day at a meeting of the TDA finance committee, which was coming up with funding recommendations.

“The problem is, you’re setting a precedent,” she said. “We have turned down so many ads and events because it doesn’t include everybody, and we’re in danger of setting a precedent we can’t afford to set.”

Board member Jen Duerr said that attitude, long prevalent in the TDA, was doing the area more harm than good.

“I think that’s what’s holding this area back,” she said.

Chair Alice Aumen said she saw a need for the TDA to be more flexible in its thinking.

“Let’s see if we can make it fit rather than saying no, because I think that makes us look very close-minded,” Aumen said. “If someone has gone to all the trouble to bring in this event, they deserve something.”

TDA Executive Director Lynn Collins told the board to think twice before turning down an event that someone else had done all the effort to attract.

“If somebody out there is willing to take on some of this stuff and help us expand our reach and our markets, then we need to think seriously about letting them help us,” Collins said.

Board member Ken Stahl said that despite good arguments in favor of funding the Porsche event, doing so would still raise some questions.

“We have a problem if we directly subsidize a private enterprise and then they directly benefit from it,” said Stahl.

The board eventually settled on a compromise: it would fund the Porsche event, as well as another event being held at a Maggie Valley hotel, for the events’ inaugural year only.

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