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An apparent arson fire that burned the Tribal Operations Program building in Cherokee in the early morning hours of Dec. 20 remained under investigation by the police department at press time Tuesday (Dec. 30).

The building, which held ordinances and resolutions passed by the Tribal Council going back decades, suffered “substantial damage,” according to a Cherokee Police Department news release.

Tribal Operations Program Manager Rosie McCoy said there were thousands of resolutions and ordinances in the building and that all of them were in fireproof cabinets. It is unclear if the documents were damaged in the fire, McCoy said.

McCoy has not been able to check on the documents because investigators won’t allow employees back in the building.

“Everything has been under lock and key,” McCoy said.

McCoy hasn’t been told by investigators whether anyone has opened the safe to see if the documents are OK.

She directed the newspaper to contact Cherokee Attorney General Annette Tarnowski, who could not be reached for comment.

McCoy said even if the ordinances and resolutions in the building were destroyed there are backup copies at the Bureau of Indian Affairs office. She said there are also digital copies.

The Cherokee Police Department is releasing little on the case saying it is an ongoing investigation. A news release states, “A criminal investigation is under way and every effort will be made to find those responsible for the crime.”

The Tribal Operations building is located adjacent to the Tribal Council building where the council meets and where the chief’s and vice chief’s offices are. The building is located just down the hill, a stone’s throw from the police department.

The police responded to the fire around 4:17 a.m., according to the news release. McCoy said the front part of the building suffered smoke and water damage while the back portion had “significant structural damage.”

The Smoky Mountain News hit the streets in Cherokee this week to find out what people were saying about the fire, like Patty Lopez, who was puzzled over why someone would want to burn the building. Lopez, who works in Cherokee, said she thinks it was “meanness,” adding the perpetrators were probably bored children.

Lopez added that she is concerned enrollment documents that identify members of the tribe could have been destroyed.

But Nancy Maney, manager of the Enrollment Office, which is in a different building than the one that burned, said none of the enrollment documents were in the burned building.

Other residents in Cherokee were suspicious of the motives behind the fire. Earl Stevens of Cherokee said he thinks someone may have burned the building to hide a “paper trail.” Stevens said he doesn’t think the perpetrators will be caught.

Reg Queen of Cherokee agreed that someone may be trying to cover up something.

Know anything?

Anyone with information that could be useful in solving the arson case in Cherokee is asked to call the police department at 828.554.6168. There is a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrator.

Comment

The Jackson County Planning Board is considering establishing a historic preservation commission to help maintain significant landmarks and districts.

Such a commission would regulate what kind of changes could be made to structures in areas designated as historic districts.

The county Planning Board recently discussed creating a historic preservation commission, but members say they are just beginning to look at the idea.

According to the State Historic Preservation Office, someone in a designated historic district must get permission from the local historic preservation commission before he makes changes, additions or demolitions to his property. To make such changes to a property in a historic district one must obtain a “certificate of appropriateness” from the commission.

The certificate of appropriateness is to ensure that changes are not made to a building that would cause it to be out of character with the other structures in the district. The commission would adopt guidelines of what is appropriate in districts.

If the county decided to form a historic preservation commission, the towns of Sylva and Dillsboro could also join.

Owners of landmarks are eligible for a 50 percent tax deferral, but those in districts are not. However, those in districts may experience stable property values because the character of the neighborhood, for instance, is being maintained.

Also, property owners in a district are comforted that others in the district will have to keep their homes in character with the area.

At the Planning Board’s meeting about two weeks ago, Stacy Merten, director of the Asheville/Buncombe Historic Resources Commission, spoke on the subject.

Merten said Asheville has several historic districts including Montford, which has about 600 homes dating from 1890 to 1920, and Biltmore Village. Most of the cottages in Biltmore Village were designed by architect Richard Sharp Smith, who also supervised the construction of the Biltmore Estate and was the architect of the Sylva courthouse.

Merten said there generally isn’t a problem in terms of property owners in historic districts not being allowed to do what they want with their homes. Vinyl siding is an example of something that may not be allowed in a historic district, she said.

She said most of the time people who live in proposed districts are in favor of the district being established.

“It protects their property value and gives them a sense of community pride,” Merten said.

According to the State Historic Preservation Office, some view the designation as an honor because it indicates they live in an area deserving protection.

However, she admitted that sometimes residents of districts are unhappy when they can’t do what they want to their homes.

Comment

Voters in Cherokee will decide whether alcohol should be sold at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino now that enough signatures have been gathered to put the measure on the ballot.

The Cherokee Board of Elections has certified 1,536 signatures. Only 1,534 signatures, or 25 percent of the registered voters, were required to get the measure on the ballot.

Bob Blankenship, a member of the Petitioners committee that circulated the petition, said he is happy that the public will get to vote on the matter. He hopes the election will be held during the primary election the first Thursday in June.

Blankenship said the next step is for the Tribal Council to approve a resolution authorizing the Elections Board to conduct the referendum.

Chief Michell Hicks could veto the resolution and prevent the referendum from taking place, Blankenship said.

Although the chief in a statement issued last week said, “ Several community members who are in favor of exercising their right to a referendum vote on the issue of allowing alcohol to be sold at the casino have made their intentions clear by signing a petition, and have satisfied the requirement to begin the referendum process. This decision to introduce alcohol to the casino will be put to our enrolled members and I will fully support the results of their vote.”

Alcohol is banned in Cherokee but some believe that it should at least be allowed at the casino to help business.

Comment

Charles Phillips of Waynesville may be monetarily poor, but he is rich in the Christmas spirit.

Each Christmas Phillips covers his small house on Frazier Street with colorful lights and adorns his yard with Christmas trees, Santa Claus statues and a nativity scene.

About an hour away in Cashiers there is an extravagant home with a full slate of amenities: a library, a billiards room with suede walls and a home theater. The owners of the $6 million home, Bill and Melinda Barber, plan to give gifts of ski trips to Vail while Phillips’ idea of a big Christmas is giving a stuffed animal.

Despite the differences in price tags, the true gift of Christmas is the same for both families.

“Christmas is not where you live or what you live in,” Mrs. Barber said. “It’s in your heart.”

To compare how the rich, poor and middle class spend Christmas, The Smoky Mountain News interviewed a local family from each of the socioeconomic classes and found they had more similarities than differences.

The Rich

Melinda Barber said she didn’t decorate the huge home much for Christmas this year because she and her husband are doing the big decorating for New Year’s Eve when they plan to host a party with 80 to 100 people.

The Barber home in all its grandeur, including awesome mountain views, is perfect for hosting large parties.

Mrs. Barber said party guests can chat by the fireplace, play pool and ping pong, watch movies in the home theater or dance to swing music or ballroom dancing.

The party, which sounds more like the Martha Stewart TV show, will feature honey baked ham, turkey and homemade rolls as well as a table full of desserts, Mrs. Barber said. A coffee punch and spritzer-type punch will also be served to guests coming in from across the country.

During a tour of the home last week, the baroque classic Pachaelbel’s “Canon in D Minor” was playing. The elaborate décor includes a deer antler chandelier in the living room, Christmas China on shelves and a large mantle with a mounted mountain lion perched on top.

Mr. Barber points out railing that took a blacksmith more than a year to make by hand, stone flooring from Jerusalem, and beams in the ceiling from an 1840s German settlement.

Mr. Barber owns Barber’s Custom Homes and built the five-bedroom, eight-bath home, and Mrs. Barber owns an interior design company and designed the inside of the home.

The home is on the market now for $6 million. The Barbers, who met at Florida Bible College, have lived there about two years and plan to build a smaller home when they sell it.

Their three grown children — one in the Air Force, one pursuing education and another an employee of SunTrust bank in Greenville, S.C. — will all be home for Christmas.

The family has a tradition of a Christmas Eve dinner and reading the Christmas story from Luke, Chapter 2. The family attends a Christmas Eve service at church and may watch a Christmas movie on TV.

Mrs. Barber will prepare a big dinner of beef tenderloin, mashed potatoes, cranberry Jell-O salad, and fresh green beans. For dessert there is a “Happy Birthday Jesus” cake with a white butter cream icing.

The family spends Christmas Day doing things together like playing football, cards or dominoes. Spending a lot of time together is important especially since the family’s children are scattered.

Though the Barber home is grand and beautiful, the Barbers are humble people grateful for their blessings. That may be because they know what it’s like to live in a trailer.

Mrs. Barber said they lived in a trailer while managing a mobile home park in Florida for about two years in the 1960s. The Barbers say their oldest son was just 7 months old when they moved in the trailer. Friends they made at the trailer park come to their mansion in Cashiers to visit still and they go to the trailer park to visit, they said.

The Barbers love sharing their beautiful home with others. The Chamber of Commerce, Board of Realtors and families have used the home for functions.

“It’s been so much fun for us to open the doors,” Mrs. Barber said.

Mrs. Barber acknowledged that their home is “absolutely beautiful” but is “not our life and not who we are.”

Money is neither good nor bad, said Mr. Barber.

“The scripture says the love of money is wrong — not money,” Mr. Barber said. “You can use money for very good things or self destructive things. It all depends on the attitude of the heart.”

The recession is even taking its toll on wealthy families like the Barbers, who say they are cutting back on giving gifts this year and focusing on the real meaning of Christmas.

“We’re all struggling in this economy,” Mrs. Barber said. “The big guys are even struggling. People are losing everything they worked all their lives for.”

Because the Barbers have a child in the Air Force, it makes them concerned about the war and terrorism.

Knowing that all her children are safe is the best gift of all this Christmas, Mrs. Barber said.

As for material gifts, she said one of her favorites from last year was a coat.

“My husband wanted me to have it,” she said. “I love it and wear it all the time.”

There will still be about four or five gifts for each of the children under the tree, but Mrs. Barber said this Christmas is about giving things that are needed rather than wanted.

For instance, Mr. Barber said his daughter detailed her brother’s car as a gift “because everyone is hurting so bad.”

However, Mrs. Barber said the children are getting a snow skiing vacation in Vail, Colo., that the family will spend together.

The fortune that has befallen the Barbers in life has not blinded them to what they say is the true meaning of Christmas.

“We’re concentrating this Christmas on gifts that family can give each other like being together and serving one another,” Mr. Barber said. “There will be some gifts, but the emphasis will be on the spiritual and more about giving than getting.”

Christmas is a time to celebrate God’s gift to man, which is salvation through Jesus Christ, Mr. Barber said.

Mrs. Barber noted that a small nativity scene that belonged to her mother sits on her coffee table. Mrs. Barber’s mother, 86, is visiting for Christmas from St. Petersburg, Fla.

Mrs. Barber is resurrecting another memento from her childhood Christmas this year: a Lionel train that runs around the Christmas tree.

Another special thing she and Mr. Barber are doing this holiday is babysitting three boys that belong to the general manager of Mr. Barber’s company. Because they don’t have grandchildren, the Barbers will enjoy being around the little ones playing hide and seek in the huge house, baking Christmas cookies, and taking them to a nursing home so they can learn about being compassionate toward the elderly, like Mr. Barber’s mother who is a nursing home resident.

The Poor

Meanwhile, over on blue-collar Frazier Street in Waynesville, Charles Phillips and his family don’t have nearly as much money as the Barbers. Their home is tiny with a living room the size of one of the eight bathrooms in the Barber home.

But like the Barbers, Charles Phillips, 48, and his mother, Judith Clontz, said money is not what’s important even during this time of economic downturn.

“We’re poor, but we’re blessed by God,” Clontz, 65, said. “We’re all three together every day. Thank God we’re alive.”

Watching Fox News, Clontz noted all of the things going wrong in the world and said it’s important to pray.

“Every day we pray. He prays. I pray. If you don’t pray, how do you live?” Clontz asked. “We better pray for our new President. He’s got a hard road ahead.”

On top of the Christmas tree in the home is an angel that once belonged to Clontz’s mother. There is a pin on the angel that says “Mom.”

“She’s with us day in and day out,” Clontz said.

Also on the tree are snowflake ornaments given to Clontz by a blind boy who visited the Ingles bakery where she works part time.

Clontz recalls Christmas as a child and said her family was poor but said the family always had a tree and the children got a toy.

“Dad was a dairy farmer,” Clontz said. “We weren’t rich.”

Neatly arranged in front of the TV is a set of about 20 stuffed animals that play songs when a button is pushed.

The toys belong to Clontz’s brother, Charlie Elmer Parton, who is 62 years old but has the mind of a 2-year-old because his mother had spinal meningitis at the time of his birth, Clontz said.

“He can’t read or write,” Clontz said of her brother.

Listening to the music coming from the stuffed animals brings Parton much joy, Clontz said.

“We usually try to get him a new one every year,” Clontz said. “He loves the bluegrass music.”

Parton came out to wave during the newspaper’s visit but went to a back room by himself.

Clontz bragged about how Phillips put up all the outdoor lights by himself this year. She couldn’t help because she is sick with breast cancer.

But Clontz did tackle the decorations inside, which are equally flamboyant with lights running through the whole house.

There is a Christmas tree in the kitchen that she proudly calls, “My Charlie Brown Christmas Tree.”

She loves Christmas because it celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, and she is proud of her own son for embodying Jesus’ teachings.

“He buys a present for everyone, but he doesn’t ask for anything,” she said. “The Bible tells us it is better to give than to receive.”

For Christmas Clontz said she wants God to bless and heal her.

Phillips said he wants a white Christmas, but he may also want a new model car that he can assemble and add to his collection that is in a glass case in the living room. He likes showing off his ‘57 Chevy.

Phillips loves this time of year and said he strings up the lights because he is infused with the holiday spirit.

Clontz also enjoys the lights. “I just enjoy coming out and looking at them,” she said. “It’s beautiful when they twinkle like this. We love Christmas.”

This Christmas Clontz said the plan is for them to spend the day together and be glad they are alive. A Christmas dinner of ham or barbecue will be served, and one of Clontz’s daughters may visit.

Phillips said he may watch “Walker Texas Ranger” or “COPS” on TV.

Phillips is disabled and cannot work, but he does help put on wrestling events in Cherokee for senior citizens, handicapped children and foster kids, he said.

The Middle Class

Bouncing on her dad’s lap, Abby Grace is excited but probably doesn’t realize Christmas is near.

Her dad holds her upside down and tells her to flip over backward.

It is a scene played out in neighborhoods across the country — a young middle class couple raising their child, living the American Dream, which is getting more difficult to attain these days because of the recession.

But Jared and Jennifer Stull of Sylva say Christmas is recession proof because the holiday is about family.

Christmas is a time to remember the purpose of life, said Mr. Stull.

“So many times we get stuck in the grind of paying bills and maintaining things,” he said. “God sent his son to Earth as a little baby to have a relationship with mankind and bring peace and hope to the world.”

Stull quoted J. Paul Getty, who said one will never get anything out of life unless he helps another person.

This shows the importance of giving, said Mr. Stull, a masseuse.

A millionaire, poor person, or middle class citizen can all be a giver, said Mr. Stull.

“The poor can give time and love,” said Mr. Stull.

He noted a Bible verse that states a widow put two cents in the offering plate and the Pharisees gave hundreds, but God said the widow gave more.

Jesus and his birth are important at Christmas, said Mrs. Stull.

The Stull family tradition at Christmas is to take turns seeing each other’s families.

This year they are going to Mr. Stull’s mother and father’s home near Greenville, S.C.

On Christmas Day, his brothers and sisters will come over and they will have a big breakfast of pancakes, waffles and omelets, and his father will speak about the true meaning of Christmas.

Sometimes at Christmas the Stull family will sponsor a child whose parents are in prison.

On Christmas Eve they will go to a non-denominational church to worship and afterwards go to one of the members’ homes to fellowship by playing ping pong, eating and playing cards.

The Stulls say they don’t make a big deal out of Santa Claus for their child, because it detracts from the true meaning of Christmas.

However, they say they are not anti-Santa Claus and decorate their home with lights and candy cane yard ornaments.

Comment

The North Carolina Court of Appeals has dismissed a lawsuit filed against a domestic violence shelter by the family of a woman who was murdered by her deranged husband at the facility.

Woody Woodring broke into the REACH shelter in Sylva in September 2007 and shot his wife Bonnie Lynn Woodring, who was staying at the shelter with her son.

Mr. Woodring first took Ms. Woodring outside the shelter and beat her, then brought her back inside the shelter and killed her. After eluding authorities for several weeks, Mr. Woodring was found dead on a houseboat on Fontana Lake.

Ms. Woodring’s family filed a lawsuit against the shelter charging that REACH failed to provide “adequate security, control, policies and procedures, measures and/or equipment” to protect the permises.

A trial court dimissed the suit against REACH, but Ms. Woodring’s family appealed.

The Court of Appeals last month also ruled in favor of REACH, saying the shelter had no way of foreseeing that Mr. Woodring would break into the shelter and kill his wife. The plaintiffs have now petitioned to the N.C. Supreme Court for a review, according to the attorney for REACH, David Moore of Sylva. Moore said the

Court of Appeal's dismissing the lawsuit is a "huge vindication."

The plaintiff’s argued, however, that the shelter was negligent in the death because Mr. Woodring accessed the shelter through an unlocked door. The Court of Appeals disagreed.

The court made its ruling on the basis of “independent intervening cause,” meaning that the shelter is not responsible for nor could it predict the criminal acts of Mr. Woodring.

The shelter had no control over Mr. Woodring’s actions, which included breaking into a neighbor’s home and stealing a shotgun, evading law enforcement on arrest warrants, breaking into the shelter, kidnapping a shelter employee, threatening an employee with a shotgun, taking Mrs. Woodring hostage and killing her, the ruling states.

According to REACH, Mrs. Woodring received a copy of the shelter handbook that stated, “You will need to assist staff in determining how dangerous your abuser may be. If you are in danger it will be in the best interest of you, your children and other residents and staff to be placed in a shelter in another county.”

Mrs. Woodring never advised shelter employees that she needed to be transferred to a shelter in another county, according to court documents.

In its 30 years, REACH has never had an abuser come on the property prior to this incident, according to REACH.

The plaintiffs argued that Mrs. Woodring’s husband attempted to murder her in the past and that upon re-entry into the REACH shelter Mrs. Woodring expressed concern about her husband finding her.

Comment

The days of suburban sprawl could be coming to an end as a new type of development — mixed use — is ushered in.

With carbon footprints and gas prices on the minds of so many these days, mixed-use development provides a way of life that doesn’t require driving everywhere.

Shops, restaurants and offices are side by side with houses, allowing residents to walk where they need to go instead of climbing the car.

A mixed-use development under construction in Franklin, Sanctuary Village, was discussed at a League of Women Voters forum at the First Presbyterian Church in Franklin last Thursday (Dec. 11).

A social atmosphere

The compact design of mixed-use developments creates a more social atmosphere than the suburbs where people interact little with their neighbors. In the suburbs the only time some people see their neighbor is when he pulls into the garage at the end of the workday, Franklin Town Planner Mike Gruberman said.

Gruberman said mixed-use developments move away from sprawling suburbs, cut down on driving and the carbon footprint and encourage exercise by walking places.

Older people may like the mixed-use concept because they have less yard to maintain, and once they lose the ability to drive they can still walk down to the store or restaurant. Sanctuary developer Tim Ryan said in typical suburbs older people who can’t drive are held hostage by their homes.

“They have little contact with anyone,” Ryan said. “All those things are unhealthy.”

The homes in Sanctuary Village will be built to resemble early 1900s homes in Franklin and be priced from the upper $200,000s to $700,000, Ryan said.

Sanctuary Village will have amenities such as a grocery store, restaurant and plaza and will be an “exciting and vibrant” community, said Ryan.

In addition to having amenities within the development itself, it will be just five blocks from downtown Franklin on Iotla Street.

Only one home is under construction now, which Ryan calls an “idea home” to give potential buyers an idea of what the homes would look like. The build out of the development depends on the economy, but Ryan expects more homes to go up this spring and summer.

Compact Design

Mixed-use developments are known for their high density. Whereas a suburban neighborhood may have one house per half-acre, Sanctuary Village will have seven units per acre.

Ben Brown of Franklin, a consultant for the Sanctuary development and regional smart growth champion, said over the years people have become “transfixed with having homes on acre lots.”

He noted that in big cities, like where he used to live in Washington, D.C., people don’t reside on acre lots. Instead housing is close together and surrounded by businesses and restaurants. That same density and village-like atmosphere will be replicated in the Sanctuary.

The development calls for 160 to 180 housing units on just 24 acres.

About 40 percent of the acreage in the development is green space for “pocket parks,” Ryan said.

Ryan praised the town of Franklin officials for being progressive in establishing an ordinance that accommodates such development.

There are not more mixed-use developments going in around the country because many towns don’t allow it and it is less expensive to build a subdivision with half-acre lots, Brown said.

Banks are more comfortable lending money to a developer building a typical subdivision as opposed to the new concept of mixed use, Ryan said.

Town encourages mixed use

Gruberman said the town adopted an ordinance in early 2007 to encourage mixed-use developments. Gruberman said under the town’s ordinance there can be up to eight units per acre, and if the development is located within one-half mile of downtown, that the density can be increased by 75 percent.

He said the mixed-use concept replicates what is done in larger cities. He said he grew up on the Southside of Chicago where he could get his shoes fixed and eat, all within a half-mile of his home.

In fact, mixed-use developments encourage walking so much that in the town’s ordinance rather than stipulating a minimum number of parking spaces, which is the case in most developments, there is a cap on parking.

The cap for a mixed-use development is 20 percent of the project area. A typical Wal-Mart project is about 75 percent parking, he noted.

Waynesville Planner Paul Benson said his town also allows for mixed-use developments. However, he said there is no bona fide mixed-use development in Waynesville.

He called mixed-use development “smart growth” because people who live in them don’t have to drive as much.

Mixed used gets away from the need to expand infrastructure, such as roads, and water and sewer lines, therefore preserving the environment, Benson said.

Smaller towns often don’t have as many mixed-use developments as larger cites because everything is already close to stores, Benson said.

“We’re across town in five minutes,” he said.

Benson said he thinks mixed-use developments will become more popular in the future as the demand for fuel by places like China continues.

However, in Western North Carolina mixed use may not be what is desired, said Gruberman, because people move here from places like South Florida to live in a cabin in the woods and “want to be the prince in their castle.”

Comment

U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, voted against the proposed bailout of the auto industry last week.

Gary Tallent, manager of a Chrysler/Jeep/Dodge dealership in Franklin, said he is disappointed in Shuler’s decision.

“I don’t know if he understands what it will do to the U.S. economy, “ said Tallent.

Tallent balked at a statement Shuler made in last week’s Smoky Mountain News in which Shuler said the bailout wouldn’t have any effect on the auto dealers.

“If they go out of business we will, too,” Tallent said of the Big Three. “Do the math for Pete’s sake.”

Co-owner of Smoky Mountain Chevrolet in Franklin Bob Crawford said he can understand Shuler’s voting against the bailout.

“Heath’s obviously thought through his answer,” said Crawford. “I respect his decision.”

Crawford agreed with Shuler that giving the auto industry a loan wouldn’t fix the problem but would only be a short-term solution. However, a loan would buy the auto industry the time to fix problems before going bankrupt, Crawford said.

Crawford fears that several million people could lose their jobs if the American auto industry fails.

Scott Rodes, owner of a GM dealership in Sylva, said he isn’t surprised Shuler is against the bailout given his track record voting against the $700 billion Wall Street bailout.

Rodes, however, questioned a portion of Shuler’s statement that says, “(I) look forward to working with all interested parties – management, labor, dealership owners, and parts suppliers – to ensure the continued operation of the Big Three for years to come.”

Rodes wondered how the Big Three can continue on without a loan, adding that Shuler’s idea may be to let the auto companies fall into bankruptcy.

Shuler wants reform, not bailout

Here’s the statement issued by Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, on why he voted down the bailout last week:

“There is no question that the U.S. automotive industry is an essential part of our Nation’s economy. There is also no question that its current business models are not sustainable and the companies must reorganize. I support those efforts and look forward to working with all interested parties — management, labor, dealership owners, and parts suppliers — to ensure the continued operation of the Big Three for years to come.

“However, today’s $15 billion bridge loan offers little hope for creating that needed restructuring. Instead, it only puts off those difficult decisions for a few weeks, maybe months. That is wrong, just as it was wrong for this Congress to give $700 billion dollars to rescue Wall Street bankers.

“The job of Congress is not to be the bank of last resort for businesses. It is our job to be responsible with the money of those we represent, and this package does not meet that standard.”

Comment

Although Jackson County and the Airport Authority prevailed in a lawsuit this month blaming them for slope failure at the airport, they can’t rest easy yet.

Work on projects to make the airport more geologically stable is set to begin in January.

Earlier this month Superior Court Judge Ronald K. Payne of Buncombe County ruled in favor of Jackson County and the Jackson County Airport Authority in a lawsuit that was filed by airport neighbors Douglas Pruett and Robert Ammons two years ago.

Payne ruled in favor of the county on the basis of the statute of repose, saying if a lawsuit was to be filed against the airport regarding slope stability it should have been done in the first seven years of the airport’s existence. It is similar to a statute of limitations.

Attorney for the plaintiff’s, Eric Ridenour of Sylva, noted that the statute of repose means that his clients would have had to sue the airport in 1984 over an incident that occurred in 2005.

Pruett and Ammons filed the lawsuit claiming the airport was built on an unsteady slope and poses a risk to their lives. Pruett and Ammons filed their lawsuit after mud and dirt slid off the airport’s hillside and landed 500 feet down slope on their property during an August 2005 storm.

Airport Authority Chairman Greg Hall said the projects at the airport include constructing two stormwater detention ponds that will retain rainwater and release it slowly rather than the water rushing off the side of the airport.

The detention ponds were recommended in a study commissioned by the county that was conducted after the lawsuit was filed.

The projects are being funded by federal funds the airport gets annually, Hall said.

He said the airport gets $150,000 a year from the federal government that it can use for airport projects. To receive the money the county has to provide a 10 percent match, he said.

For several years the county was unwilling to match the money but eventually did in 2007 and 2008, which unlocked about $800,000 that had accumulated over time, Hall said.

Of that, about $400,000 is going toward building the retention ponds and building a new parking lot, he said.

Hall said a new parking area is needed so the current parking lot can be used as a location for additional hangars.

He said there is a waiting list of more than 50 pilots who want hangars. Hangars could rent for $250 a month, providing additional revenue for the airport, Hall said.

Of the approximately $800,000, another $200,000 went toward various improvements such as a weather station, runway lighting, a terminal building and a new septic system.

The remaining approximately $200,000 is being earmarked for the new hangars, he said.

Comment

There may not be enough money to build a new K-4 school in Macon County because of the economic downturn, two county commissioners told school board members on Monday (Dec. 15).

Commissioners Ronnie Beale and Jim Davis agreed the new school is needed but said it may not be possible now because of the economy, which has impacted county coffers. Davis said he would favor cutting other county expenses to finance the new school, adding that raising taxes would be the “last resort” to funding the new school.

The school board meeting this week was the first one by a newly elected slate of school board members — four out of the five seats on the board turned over in the November election. As a final action before stepping down last month, however, the former school board approved the architectural plans for the new school.

School Board member Tommy Baldwin, the only remaining member from the old board, said so much money has already been spent on planning the school that it must be built. New school board member Bobby Bishop agreed.

A new K-4 school is needed because there is a lack of space at Cowee and Iotla school, which are using mobile classrooms to house students, according to Superintendent Dan Brigman.

The school is proposed to cost $15.2 million.

A new 5th and 6th grade school that is estimated to cost $14.3 million is under construction now.

Now is a good time to build because material and labor costs are low, said the architect for the project, Mike Watson. Watson said his goal is to receive bids for the K-4 school by April 2.

Beale and Davis also told the school board that if the school is built, the county does not have enough money to extend city water and sewer to the site.

Beale said extending the sewer would cost an estimated $7 million as opposed to an onsite system that would cost about $1.4 million.

School’s fate in limbo

The Macon County commissioners will discuss whether the county can afford the new K-4 school at this time as part of their annual planning retreat to be held Saturday, Jan. 10, at the Southwestern Community College boardroom in Franklin.

Comment

Organizers of a petition drive in Cherokee believe they have enough signatures to force a referendum by voters on whether alcohol sales should be allowed at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.

Don Rose, a volunteer with the committee that circulated the petition, said 1,534 signatures, or 25 percent of the tribe’s registered voters, are needed to get the measure on the ballot for a public vote.

Rose said the Petitioners Committee gathered 1,875 signatures — 341 more than required — in case some didn’t count. The Board of Elections has to verify the signatures to ensure those who signed the petition are registered voters and enrolled members of the tribe, said Rose.

As of press time Tuesday (Dec. 16), Rose said the Board of Elections had verified 1,487 of the signatures. Rose said the Board of Elections still had about 100 signatures it had not looked at yet, so it is likely there will be enough verified signatures.

“We’ve got enough now to meet the required number once we go through the ones we haven’t looked at,” Rose said.

Staff at Cherokee Board of Elections office declined comment.

Alcohol sales are banned on the Reservation but some believe alcohol should at least be legal at the casino.

Once the signatures are verified the Tribal Council must pass a resolution directing the Board of Elections to hold the referendum, Rose said.

The chief can still prevent the election from taking place by vetoing the referendum, Rose said. But Rose doesn’t think the chief will stop the election, because it is the will of the people.

If the chief does not veto, the election must be held within 90 days of the chief’s signing the resolution, Rose said.

Cherokee Principal Chief Michell Hicks in August vetoed the Tribal Council’s 7-3 vote to allow the alcohol issue to be put on the ballot. (One council member abstained from the vote and one was absent.)

The council couldn’t override the chief’s veto because it didn’t have a two-thirds majority.

Rose said the election might be scheduled in June during the primary election to prevent the costs of having two separate elections.

Chairwoman of the Tribal Gaming Casino Enterprise Norma Moss has said that allowing alcohol sales at the casino would generate an additional $40 million to $70 million annually.

If alcohol was sold at the casino the tribal members would receive larger per capita checks because half of the casino’s profits are distributed amongst the tribe’s members.

According to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino spokesman Charles Pringle, revenue was down 1 percent for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 compared to the previous fiscal year.

He said the income for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 was 5 percent less than what the casino anticipated.

Pringle did not have specific revenue figures.

Comment

It appears local government officials obeyed the Open Meetings Law when they attended a private N.C. Department of Transportation meeting about the controversial N.C. 107 connector last week.

The Smoky Mountain News reported in the Nov. 26 edition that the government officials were poised to violate the Open Meetings Law because the meeting had not been advertised to the public.

The towns of Webster, Forest Hills, Sylva and Jackson County all had representation at the meeting, but stayed within the bounds of the law by not having a majority of their respective boards present.

According to the N.C. Open Meetings Law, an official meeting occurs when a majority of a public board is present at a meeting pertaining to public business. Such a meeting requires that the public be given notice of the meeting, which it was not in this case.

A meeting open to the public followed the private meeting between DOT and the government officials.

DOT said that it wanted to have a meeting with the public officials first to inform them about the project so they would be prepped to answer constituents’ questions. At the meeting, elected leaders were called on to talk about concerns and questions they may have involving the road project.

Franklin Alderman Bob Scott tipped The Smoky Mountain News off about the meeting, saying he thought it was a violation of the Open Meetings Law. By not informing the public about the meeting, it seemed as if DOT wanted to tell the local officials something it didn’t want to tell the citizens, Scott said.

The Smoky Mountain News attended the meeting.

Comment

Jackson County resident Susan Leveille opposes the construction of a N.C. 107 bypass.

“I am very hopeful DOT and all other powers who make decisions will take a look at the alternatives to a bypass for alleviating traffic concerns,” Leveille said.

Leveille told The Smoky Mountain News her concerns about the project last Thursday (Dec. 4) during a public information meeting put on by the North Carolina Department of Transportation at Western Carolina University.

Constructing a bypass would destroy mountain scenery and communities that have been a part of Leveille’s family for five to six generations, she said.

“It would destroy why we like living here and why people like visiting here,” she said.

A bypass connecting N.C. 107 with U.S. Highway 23/74 would also create noise, runoff and pollution problems, she added.

About 150 residents attended the meeting, which featured large maps stationed around the room with DOT officials on hand to answer questions . DOT Project Planning Engineer Ryan White said the purpose of the meeting was to gather input from the public on the project.

DOT is currently evaluating the traffic problems on N.C. 107 and determining possible solutions. DOT plans to have list of solutions in late 2009 and choose one in 2012.

DOT’s timeline also calls for buying right of way in 2015 and construction beginning after 2015.

Building the bypass is not a sure thing, as DOT is just in the beginning phases of the project, according to Joel Setzer, head of the DOT for the 10 western counties.

Setzer said the community must come together to determine if a connector is the best solution to ease congestion. Many would say simply redesigning N.C. 107 is all that is needed, Setzer said, adding that all alternatives need to be explored.

Setzer sees advantages to a new road, however.

“I think a connector would provide an alternative for people,” he said.

N.C. 107 gets congested during the morning and afternoon from traffic going to Western Carolina University, Southwestern Community College, Smoky Mountain High School and Fairview Elementary School. Traffic from Lowe’s, Wal-Mart, Ingles and other businesses contributes to the congestion.

“There’s definitely a need to improve traffic flow on N.C. 107,” said White.

With so much traffic on N.C. 107 the likelihood of accidents increases, White added.

Rather than building a bypass, other alternatives such as redesigning N.C. 107 could possibly alleviate congestion. The situation could also be improved if more people used public transportation, such as students riding school buses.

DOT is currently conducting a feasibility study to determine if N.C. 107 should be redesigned.

Norma Medford of Blanton Branch, which is near where the proposed connector would be located, said she opposes the project because it would destroy forests.

White said environmental concerns are taken into consideration by DOT. He said DOT cannot do anything without approval from several environmental agencies.

Medford doesn’t think the traffic on N.C. 107 is bad enough to warrant a new road.

“I don’t know why there has to be a new road,” she said. “I’m extremely opposed to it.”

Throughout the process DOT is scheduled to have several public information workshops. The project is estimated to cost $132 million.

Comment

Scott Rodes’ first job in the automobile industry was 30 years ago washing and selling cars for his grandfather in Sylva.

Rodes was in high school, and the car business was much easier then.

Now the owner of a GM dealership in Sylva, Rodes is losing sleep about the future of the American automobile industry. He and other dealers in Western North Carolina hope Congress bails out the Big Three automakers with $34 billion to save the industry.

If the bailout fails, Chrysler, GM and Ford may fall into bankruptcy, possibly dooming Rodes’ dealership and millions of other jobs connected to the industry. No one is going to want to purchase a vehicle from a bankrupt company that can’t cover a warranty or provide service, Rodes said.

“I don’t feel we’ll be here very long (if the bailout fails),” Rodes said. “We’re definitely under a lot of stress.”

Times are hard

Business at area dealerships is down from 15 to 60 percent and workers, from sales to service employees, are being laid off, dealers say.

Rodes said this is the worst condition he’s seen the industry in. New car sales at Rodes’ dealership are down 40 to 50 percent, he said.

Bob Crawford, co-owner of Smoky Mountain Chevrolet in Franklin, has been in the vehicle business 40 years and agreed this is the worst it’s been. Crawford’s first job in the automobile business was cleaning the bathrooms and the showroom on the weekends at a dealership in Sylva where his father was the service manager.

Today business is down 60 percent and several employees have been laid off, Crawford said.

Business at the Chrysler/Jeep/Dodge dealership in Franklin is down 30 percent, and if Congress doesn’t pass the bailout, things are going to worsen, said General Manager Gary Tallent.

Consumers are scared to purchase big-ticket items like vehicles now because they are worried about their job security, Tallent said.

Unlike many dealers in Western North Carolina, Tallent has not had to lay off any employees.

“Everybody’s got a family, so we try to hang on to them as long as we can,” Tallent said.

Things may turn around when president-elect Barack Obama takes office, he said.

Luckily salesmen always hope for the best.

“In general a salesman is an optimist,” Rodes said. “He thinks today is going to be the day. There are still customers out there.”

To weather the problems Rodes said he is reducing his new vehicle inventory, watching his expenses and depending on his service department and used car sales.

“If we get the bailout money hopefully things will start picking up,” he said. “If we don’t, I don’t know what to expect. I hope service holds until sales pick up.”

Rodes and several dealers say the service side of their business has increased because people are maintaining their older cars rather than trading them in for a new one. (see related article.)

Rodes said he laid off a finance manger and an oil change employee. However, he said he hired a mechanic.

To deal with the hard times, Anton Pontiac Chevrolet/Buick closed its Canton location and moved everything to its Waynesville dealership. Scott Shepherd, manager there, said it is the worst he’s seen the industry in 30 years.

Consolidating the dealerships made sense because only one service manager is needed now, and the Waynesville location is next to the new Super Wal-Mart.

About six employees have been laid off to deal with the downturn, Shepherd said. Overall business is down about 15 percent, he said.

One big problem with the auto business in Western North Carolina is that there are too many dealerships, Crawford said.

“When there are that many it’s difficult for any to be profitable,” he said.

He noted that part of GM’s plan if it gets the bailout is to close hundreds of dealerships.

“It could affect any of us,” he said.

Crawford is dealing with the difficult times by “hunkering down and living as simply as we can.”

The difficulty getting a car loan nowadays is exacerbating the problem. Lending standards have tightened with the credit crisis.

“Some lenders went out of the auto loan business,” Rodes said. “GMAC has really restricted car loans.”

However, it is not impossible to get an auto loan, although higher credit scores and more down payment is required, Rodes said.

Crawford said there is no problem getting car loan these days: “90 percent can still get a loan,” he said.

Senior loan officer at WNC Community Credit Union Patty Sutton said her organization is still making car loans but is being a little more cautions with the economy.

Thoughts on the bailout

The American automobile can still have bright future, Tallent said, adding that he still has a lot of pride in the industry.

“I believe there’s a terrible misconception about the quality of the vehicles,” he said. “If I thought we made crap I wouldn’t have spent the biggest part of my adult life in this job.”

Even with all the problems facing the industry Crawford still holds much pride in the American automobile and says he will put it up against any foreign car.

“I think the product is the best it’s ever been,” Crawford said.

Crawford hopes the bailout passes but said for it to be effective, Congress and the auto industry must solve the root causes of the problems.

“Neither side is looking at the long term consequences or fixes,” he said. “They need to look at the root, fundamental causes of the problems.”

The bailout won’t work unless the government makes the playing field between foreign cars and domestic cars even, Crawford said.

Crawford doubts the bailout will pass.

“I don’t think the auto business is perceived as being that important to elected representatives. I don’t see them supporting anything that deals with infrastructure and job creation. Most of what they’ve done is stop-gap measures with catastrophic failures.”

Another reason he doesn’t think Congress will pass it is that, “Everything in society is ‘I and I don’t care about you,”’ he said.

But some, like Benjamin Daniels of Sylva, are fed up with the U.S. auto industry and oppose the bailout.

“It seems to be rewarding the wrong kind of behavior,” Daniels said.

The bailout would spend billions of taxpayer dollars and might not even fix the problems, Daniels said. But the fact that so many jobs will be lost if the auto companies go bankrupt makes it hard for Daniels to oppose the bailout, he said.

“If the bailout fails a lot will lose their jobs, and I don’t know what to say about that,” he said.

Daniels is simply disgusted with the industry.

“When all three CEOs showed up (at Capitol Hill) in their own three individual private jets, I lost a lot of sympathy,” he said. “I think a lot of them need to be fired.”

Cullowhee resident Tim Singleton said he reluctantly supports the bailout. It is not the government’s responsibility to bail out business, but with so many jobs on the line it needs to be done, he said.

Some of the blame for the problem is on the auto companies for being slow to respond to changes in the industry such as developing hybrid cars.

But the American auto industry is beginning to catch up with foreign manufacturers and make more hybrids, Tallent said.

Crawford agreed that many probably view the American automobile industry as “slow, stupid and unresponsive to change.”

But he said Chevrolet is coming out with a half-ton hybrid pickup and hybrid Malibu soon.

GM has a hybrid Yukon that is in high demand and is also coming out with a hybrid pick-up in 2009, Rodes said.

Widespread impact

Crawford said he is more concerned about the trickle-down effects of the auto industry going bankrupt such as parts manufacturers going out of business.

“It will work its way through the economy,” he said. “That concerns me more than my personal situation.”

The problems with the auto industry are already rippling through the economy. Towns and counties are losing out on sales taxes paid by car buyers. Newspapers and TV stations are hurting from a decrease in advertising. And auto parts manufacturers are laying off workers, including the Fletcher plant of Continental AG, a German company that makes auto parts.

The company, which has 10,000 employees in North America, laid of 10 percent of its workforce in June. It anticipates another 10 percent is coming next month, according to Kathryn Blackwell, spokeswoman for Continental AG.

The layoffs are a result of “the downturn in the industry,” she said

“This obviously is the sharpest downturn we’ve seen in decades,” she said.

The general state of the economy, mismanagement of the Big Three automakers and competition from foreign vehicles have led to the problems.

Another problem: it costs more to build an American vehicle because of high wages and pensions demanded by the United Auto Workers Union, said Shepherd, manager of Anton Pontiac/Chevrolet/Buick in Waynesville. In order for a bailout to be effective the union would need to give in a little so U.S. autos can be more competitive with the foreign market, Shepherd said.

Both the government and the auto industry are responsible for the situation, Crawford said.

The government did not protect the manufacturing industry from foreign competition, and the industry failed because “they all quit being car companies.”

“They gave into the unions when they should have held their ground. They became more concerned with the manufacturing process rather than developing new products,” Crawford said. “GM is not the smartest but they are the biggest. They lost sight of what they are — a car company.”

Will the bailout pass?

US. Rep Heath Shuler, D-N.C., voted against the $700 billion Wall Street bailout, but dealership managers are hoping he votes for the auto industry.

Tallent and Crawford asked Shuler to “please” vote for it.

There is a good chance Shuler will vote for the auto bailout even though he didn’t for the Wall Street one because he seems to favor blue-collar workers, Tallent said.

Shuler told The Smoky Mountain News on Monday (Dec. 8) that he is unsure if he will support the bailout. (see related article).

Tallent said he didn’t know whether the bailout would set a dangerous precedent with the government bailing out the private sector. Although, he said the government helped Chrysler in the 1980s and the company paid back every penny.

To let the American automakers just go out of business would be disappointing, he said. With American Henry Ford inventing the automobile, it “would be sad to see the domestic automakers go out,” Tallent said.

Western Carolina University Professor of Economics Dr. Bob Mulligan said he is against the bailout, and thinks it would be better if the American auto industry fell into bankruptcy.

Many economists think the bailout is a good idea, but he views it as “beyond idiotic.”

A bailout will only delay the auto companies’ financial problems by about 10 months, Mulligan said.

What the auto companies really need is structural change to survive, Mulligan said. The companies need to offer more products than gas guzzling SUVs, Mulligan said.

A bailout would simply give the companies billions of dollars to lose, he said.

Japanese automakers have been more successful than U.S. companies because they have a cost advantage of not being burdened by unions.

The Japanese companies pay a comparable wage but are not saddled with large pensions, Mulligan said. U.S. automakers are paying its workers for not working, he said.

Bankruptcy is the only solution for the U.S automakers because it would enable them to get out from under the labor unions and financially reorganize, Mulligan said.

But the car dealers in the region would say otherwise.

“I think it will work,” Tallent said. “Hopefully they’ve learned some lessons.”

Comment

The Macon County commissioners on Monday voted to start having two regularly scheduled meetings a month, rather than just one — a move that follows a Smoky Mountain News article that criticized the board’s meeting practices.

Macon County Commissioner Brian McClellan said the idea to have two meetings a month is something that has been discussed for some time, but thinks the news article brought the issue to the forefront.

Commission Chairman Ronnie Beale said the reason for adding a new meeting is that there is so much business that it cannot be accomplished in one meeting a month.

The article, “Macon’s irregular meetings keep public guessing,” published in the Nov. 26 edition of the paper.

According to Assistant County Manager Wilma Anderson, the county has not had two regularly scheduled meetings a month since the 1970s.

The meetings will now be on the second Monday at 6 p.m. and the fourth Monday at 2 p.m.

The commissioners voted unanimously for the additional meeting, but McClellan and County Commissioner Bob Simpson said they were concerned that the 2 p.m. time might not be good for the working public.

Commissioner Jim Davis said the 2 p.m. time may be good for senior citizens who don’t want to be out late in the winter months. The new meeting schedule will begin in January.

County Manager Jack Horton said the Smoky Mountain News story had nothing to do with the county going to two meetings a month.

Davis also said the article was not the reason.

“We’ve been talking about this for months,” Davis said.

Two meetings a month are common for most counties of Macon’s size: Haywood, Jackson and Swain counties have all conducted two meetings a month for years.

The news article spotlighted how the Macon County commissioners have a habit of recessing their meetings rather than formally adjourning. It recessed at least 17 meetings in the first 10 months — far more than Jackson County, which has recessed three this year and Haywood County only one.

When a meeting is recessed rather than adjourned, commissioners verbally announce when and where they will reconvene. They are not required to provide formal public notice other than the verbal announcement, making the meetings more difficult for the public and media to keep track of.

North Carolina Press Association Attorney Mike Tadych said the Macon commissioners were not violating the Open Meetings Law by recessing so much but called it a poor practice.

Comment

The newly formed Jackson County Water Study Task Force met for the first time Thursday (Dec. 4) to begin discussing ways to combat water shortages.

The task force was formed after several county residents recently reported that their wells and springs ran dry due to the drought.

“My guess is that there are a lot of people in Jackson County who are dry or about to go dry,” Jackson County Commissioner Tom Massie said.

Growth in the county will also decrease water supply. Massie pointed out that golf courses being built in the area will use a lot of water.

Massie led the first meeting of the task force, which was merely an organizational gathering to introduce members and explain the group’s purpose. Massie said the group will explore ways water can be conserved. Even if the current drought ends soon the task force needs to be proactive in looking at how water can be saved in the future, Massie said. The task force needs to look at short and long-term solutions to the problem.

“That’s the job of the task force, to come up with recommendations,” he said.

Ideas may include providing residents with water saving devices for their showerheads. The county building code could even be modified to require water saving devices in homes.

Residents could use cisterns to collect rainwater and use it for irrigation, he said.

“I think that makes real good sense,” Massie said.

Also large developments and golf courses could possibly capture run-off during big rains and use it for irrigation, he said.

“Those are going to be more long-term solutions,” Massie said.

The drought is not only affecting those who rely on the groundwater table to feed their wells, but could impact those who get water from the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority, which pulls its water from the river.

Massie said the river is at all-time lows since flow was first measured in 1895. He added that the Chattooga River near Cashiers registered 60 cubic feet per second this summer when it had never been recorded at less than 200 cubic feet per second.

Drought is an unusual phenomenon for Western North Carolina, Massie said, adding that the area has traditionally gotten an average of 85 inches a year until about four years ago.

The task force is made up of representatives from several entities, including the town of Webster, Village of Forest Hills, Sylva, Jackson County, Southwestern Community College, and Western Carolina University. The Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority is also represented on the task force by its Executive Director Joe Cline.

Some members of the task force, such as Dr. Mark Lord, department head of the Hydrogeology, Geomorphology and Soils Department at WCU, are specially trained in water issues.

Comment

U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, said he is unsure if he will support a bailout of the auto industry.

The auto industry over the years has made poor decisions that led to its current situation, Shuler said.

Shuler wonders why the companies didn’t come up with a better business plan years ago rather than waiting until they were in financial trouble.

In an interview Monday, Shuler said he hasn’t seen any specific legislation to rescue GM, Ford and Chrysler.

“I want to see what the legislation says,” said Shuler. He expects legislation to come before the Senate and House this week.

He is reluctant to support a bailout unless the auto industry restructures and comes up with a new business plan. When the companies came before Congress asking for $25 billion two weeks ago, they were told to come back with a plan of how the loan would be used. But now they have only come back with a larger request for $34 billion, Shuler said.

Shuler twice voted against the $700 billion Wall Street bailout for financial institutions because he didn’t trust the money would go to good use. Shuler said his skepticism proved accurate, citing the use of bailout money by AIG for a party.

He said none of that money has gone to “Main Street.” Shuler wants the financial institutions to lend some of their bailout money to the auto companies. He said he finds it ironic that the banks won’t loan that money.

Western North Carolina auto dealerships are hoping Shuler will support the bailout, saying their livelihood depends on it. But Shuler said none of the money in the proposed bailout is intended to go to the dealers.

“This doesn’t have any impact on the dealers,” Shuler said. “It’s not going to them directly.”

The dealers, however, say that their future depends on the Big Three avoiding bankruptcy. Thousands of other jobs connected the auto industry could also be in jeopardy if the bailout fails.

Shuler agreed that the most important thing is that jobs be saved, but said he opposes writing the auto industry a blank check.

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Comment

The town of Franklin has settled a disagreement with a man who took slate and doors that belonged to the town without first receiving permission from the town board.

Under the agreement, the former resident, David Whitmire, now of Alaska, will pay the town $5,000 for the property. The town originally asked Whitmire to pay $19,600 for the property.

Town attorney John Henning Jr. said he thinks it was a good idea for the town to settle.

“For both parties it would have been costly to go into litigation,” Henning said, adding the outcome of a lawsuit would have been uncertain and it wasn’t worth the risk.

Town Alderman Bob Scott, who had called for an independent investigation into Whitmire’s taking the slate, said he is not happy with the settlement but it was the best the town could do.

“I would have liked to have pursued it, but apparently it’s been settled now,” Scott said.

Scott was primarily concerned with the fact that Mayor Joe Collins and Assistant Town Administrator Mike Decker unilaterally authorized Whitmire to take some slate without first checking with the town board. The incident occurred about three years ago.

Scott has said he doesn’t think the mayor has the right to give away town property without first getting approval from the town board.

Alderman Verlin Curtis agreed.

Collins has said he didn’t think it was necessary to check with the town board to allow Whitmire to take a few pieces of slate.

Collins said he felt he had done enough by asking Decker if it was OK.

According to Collins, Whitmire asked him if he could a take a couple of pieces of slate as a memento from the property, which was his childhood home. The town had purchased the property as a possible location for Town Hall.

The problem came to a head because Whitmire allegedly took more than a couple of pieces of slate.

District Attorney Mike Bonfoey did not prosecute the case, prompting Scott to seek the independent investigation into “who said what and when.”

Asked if he thinks the mayor actually gave Whitmire permission to take more than a few pieces of slate, Scott said he couldn’t say: “It would be nothing but pure conjecture.”

Comment

Waynesville defense attorney Don Patten has noticed an interesting trend among jurors in recent years.

They are hungry for hard and fast evidence like hair samples, DNA, blood traces and firearm analysis — tidbits most likely picked up from TV shows like “CSI” and “Cold Case.”

“Nowadays they’re (juries) thinking this is ‘CSI’ world and local police and law enforcement are able to do extremely complex forensic exams,” Patten said. “In reality it is a extremely time consuming and tedious process.”

Patten admits that he plays on the jury’s naïve belief that things are like they are on TV by demanding such evidence from the prosecution.

“Of course we play off it,” Patten said.

However, he does not feel it is unreasonable.

“All I’m trying to do is create reasonable doubt. In every criminal case the state has the burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt,” Patten said.

The scientific side of crime scene analysis and the field of forensic anthropology is rapidly growing. Patten recalls when he became a defense attorney 25 years ago and there was no such thing as DNA analysis.

“Now it’s very common,” he said. “It’s used every day in paternity cases.”

“Back then we were getting into fiber analysis,” he said.

Forensics has improved the field of criminal investigations, he said.

“It adds another level of certainty one way or another,” Patten said. “Depending on what it is, it can be completely damaging or exonerating.”

Macon County Sheriff Robert Holland has seen a big change in forensics since entering law enforcement in 1991. He said it has helped him solve many crimes.

Forensics technology has not reached the point of how it is portrayed on TV, Holland said.

“While ‘CSI’ is a good show, it causes law enforcement nightmares,” he said.

He laughed that shows like “CSI” show someone putting a drop of blood in a machine that then produces a sculpture of the person’s face.

But Holland often sends forensic evidence such as blood left at murder scenes and DNA from rape suspects to the state Crime Lab in Raleigh and Asheville for processing. Holland said all of his investigators are trained in collecting forensic evidence, but the State Bureau of Investigation is also called in to assist in investigations, including all homicides. With forensic technology always improving, Holland said his detectives are continually in training.

The best evidence to have

The “CSI” syndrome among jurors has been an issue for District Attorney Mike Bonfoey of Waynesville.

“Juries expect everything to be solved,” Bonfoey said.

But when investigators can get their hands on it, forensic evidence can be the lynch pin needed to seal a case. When DNA evidence is collected at the scene of sexual assault cases, for example, it can be compared against known suspects making for a cut-and-dry case if there’s a match.

In other cases, gunshot residue tests can be done on suspects to determine if they recently fired a gun, Bonfoey said.

Particles or powder from the gunshot might still be on suspect’s hand, he said. Gases from the gun’s chamber and barrel may also be on the suspect.

Fingerprints, unlike on TV, are often not very helpful, Bonfoey said.

Blood splatters on the wall can be helpful in determining what the victim was doing when he was shot. For instance, was the person killed the initial aggressor, defending himself, or kneeled on the ground execution style.

This type of evidence is helpful when defendants say they were defending themselves.

“Forensics fill in the puzzle,” Bonfoey said.

Ballistics are also helpful identifying the type of gun used in a crime. Bonfoey explained when a bullet is fired from a rifle or handgun it picks up markings unique to certain guns.

Unique pin markings are also left on fired shotgun shells.

Paint left behind from hit-and-run accidents, plaster casts of tire tracks and shoe prints, and hair samples are other forms of forensic evidence Bonfoey said he uses.

Crime lab hold-up

In some cases forensic evidence is a must, Patten said.

“In sex cases and murder cases I’m going to be looking for DNA and hair because the penalties are so severe that it’s not unreasonable,” he said.

Patten said he thinks the state Crime Lab is slow in turning around evidence.

“Right now if a cop finds what is believed to be pot and sends it to the state lab, it could be six months before the lab gets it analyzed and returned to local law enforcement,” Patten said. “If it’s DNA or something more complicated it may be eight to 10 months.”

He suggests the state hire more chemists and forensics experts to work in the Crime Lab.

“When you’re not able to get a lab result for six months the client is in limbo with a cloud over his head,” Patten said.

Holland agrees getting evidence returned from the state Crime Lab often takes a long time, Holland said. Sometimes it takes several weeks to a year, he said.

Evidence he sends runs the gamut including stomach matter, bullets and rape kits.

Drugs have to be sent to the Crime Lab to prove they are actually drugs. A delay in getting evidence back from the lab means it takes longer to get a case through the court system.

“It delays the proof of innocence or guilt of a person,” Holland said.

However, Holland said the court system is backlogged anyway, and getting evidence turned around more quickly probably wouldn’t make a difference.

Crime lab on overdrive

In response to the growing demand for forensic evidence, the State Bureau of Investigation has ramped up the number of DNA experts working in its crime lab from five in 2001 to 42 now. DNA was used to catch more murderers, rapists and other criminals in the first six months of 2007 alone than in the first 10 years of the DNA program combined.

Bonfoey said he would like to get evidence from the state Crime Lab turned around faster. But he said he does not think there is a backlog in getting his evidence back.

“I’d like to see the state have more forensic analysts of various types to see this move quicker,” he said.

Public Information Officer for the state Department of Justice Noelle Talley said there is no backlog at the state Crime Lab.

She couldn’t give an average turnaround on evidence, saying each case is different.

She said a state law passed in 2004 that requires all convicted felons to provide a DNA sample has helped the state clear cases. The Crime Lab has dramatically improved DNA evidence turn-around time and cleared all untested rape kits from local law enforcement shelves, she said

The database now has more than 150,000 DNA samples compared to about 18,700 in 2000.

The database had 342 hits in 2007 compared to just 64 in 2004 — up substantially from 1995 when there was one hit.

Comment

A lawyer for Duke Energy told the Jackson County commissioners on Monday that if the county continues to hold up permits necessary for removal of the Dillsboro dam that “further legal action” will be taken.

Duke wants to tear down the dam, but the county wants the dam to stay. Before the dam is demolished the backlogged sediment behind the dam must be dredged to prevent it from rushing downstream when the dam is removed.

The dredging is a mandatory condition of state and federal permits allowing dam removal — if Duke doesn’t dredge, it can’t tear down the dam. But in order to dredge, Duke has to get two permits from the county: a floodplain development permit and a land development compliance permit.

Duke says the county is withholding those permits to keep it from dredging the sediment, and in turn from tearing down the dam.

“If the permits are not issued within 30 days following the date of this letter (Nov. 25), Duke Energy Carolinas will have no alternative but to take further legal action,” a letter from Duke’s attorney, Molly L. McIntosh, to county Planning Director Linda Cable states.

The letter states, “For your office to withhold issuance of the permits Duke Energy Carolinas has applied for and to which it is entitled is both unjustified and illegal.”

The attorney read the letter to the county commissioners on Monday night. The commissioners had no response.

The county has said it does not want to issue any permits related to dam removal until appeals to litigation involving the Dillsboro dam are resolved. Duke says the county has already lost its appeal.

Comment

By Josh Mitchell & Julia Merchant • Staff Writers

The downturn in the economy is forcing schools to send back some of their state money.

The state has asked local school systems to send back $39 per student, or 0.75 percent of their budgets. Statewide, a total of $117 million is being recalled from public school budgets.

In Western North Carolina, most school leaders are still trying to figure out where that money will come from. School districts must report to the state by Dec. 19 how they plan on covering the reversions, so those that don’t know yet will have to figure it out soon.

Here’s how each is dealing with the funding cut so far.

Haywood County

Bill Nolte, assistant superintendent of the Haywood County school system, said the cut in funds will put the school in a financial pinch. He hopes to make the cuts in administration.

“We’re going out of our way to make the most cuts at the district office level to impact classrooms and programs as little as possible,” said Nolte.

But exactly what will be cut yet hasn’t been decided.

Macon County

Macon County School District will cover its reversion by sending back state money that was being used to pay two principals’ salaries.

The district’s finance director, Betty Waldroop, said the salaries will now have to be covered with local funds set aside for staff development and instructional supplies.

She said instructional supplies such as paper, pens and pencils might be cut as well as expenses for staff development, such as sending teachers to training.

However, Waldroop said the staff development and instructional supply expenses could possibly be covered with “other pots of money.”

She said she doesn’t think the reversion is going to have that big of an effect on the school district.

Swain County

Swain County hasn’t decided where it will come up with the money yet either, according to Steve Claxton, community schools coordinator.

“We are trying to look at programs and find what is possible that can be cut. The main thing they don’t want to do is anything that will affect the students,” Claxton said.

Swain is working at a disadvantage compared to other counties: the amount of funding it gets from the county versus the state is extremely small.

“Our local funding is one of the lowest in the state,” Claxton said.

A committee of school officials and department heads met Monday afternoon to tackle the problem, but haven’t finalized anything. A recommendation will be ready by next Monday (Dec. 8) to present to the school board at its meeting.

Jackson County

Jackson County Superintendent Sue Nations said she does not yet know what they will cut.

“We’ve got to come up with the money somewhere,” she said.

Nations said the district probably can’t cover it out of instructional supplies because those funds have most likely been spent already. She said some of the reversion could possibly be covered with textbook money.

She said Jackson County will consider doing what Macon County did by picking up some of its salaries with local funds rather than the state paying for them.

“Most of our budget is personnel,” she said.

She said she hopes layoffs are not necessary.

However, she said the national economic conditions are projected to get worse. If staff reductions are necessary, she hopes it can be done through “natural attrition,” for instance, someone retiring and the job remaining unfilled. She expects budget issues will be worse next year.

Community colleges

Additionally, Haywood Community College and Southwestern Community College must send back 3 percent of their budget.

SCC is an advantagous position — it had already set aside money for the eventuality of a state budget cut, according to Janet Burnette, vice president for administrative services.

The school was anticipating the reversion after being warned by the N.C. Community College System Office in Raleigh.

“They advised us early we might want to set aside funds for a possible reversion,” she said.

As a result of the reversion she said the school has had to hold back on funding two counselor positions and staff development such as training and workshops.

Likewise, Haywood Community College officials say they were prepared for the state cuts, according to Karen Denny, the college’s executive director of business operations. As a result, the college had budgeted enough money to meet all funding requests. However, there’s little extra money available for things like faculty salaries, instructional supplies or faculty travel and professional development.

Not so fast

The state is asking every school system to cut costs by $39 per student to help make up for a state budget shortfall. Here’s what that means for each county.

Haywood $313,772

Macon $174,039

Jackson $148,172

Swain $75,000

Comment

When a hunter discovered human skeletal remains in the woods in Macon County last winter, investigators didn’t know who the dead person was, how long he’d been there or if foul play was involved.

It was a classic situation for deploying forensic anthropology, the scientific side of crime scene analysis, to solve the puzzle.

Eventually, DNA and dental records helped identify the body as missing hiker John Bryant, 79, believed to be shot to death by serial killer Gary Hilton. Hilton, a Georgia drifter who targeted hikers, allegedly kidnapped Bryant in October 2007 while hiking in the Pisgah National Forest, but his body wasn’t found until February.

The field of forensic anthropology has taken center stage in crime solving in recent years. Law enforcement has been eager to capitalize on the latest scientific capabilities, juries have demanded it and state crime labs have grown exponentially. (see related article)

In response, Western Carolina University has launched a program in forensic anthropology to fill the need for trained workers in the field.

John Williams, forensic anthropology program director at WCU, said there’s another reason it’s a “hot field” right now: TV shows like “CSI” and “Bones” have romanticized the profession (although Williams said he avoids the shows).

“They are Hollywood’s view on how crimes are solved,” he said. “We don’t dress like that and drive Humvees.”

Unlike the action-packed way forensics is presented on TV, there is a lot of tedious work.

“There is a lot of boredom involved,” Williams said.

Forensics is a field for people who have investigative minds and like to solve puzzles, Williams said.

Williams has worked in forensics on murders, missing person cases, plane crashes and helped with victim ID at the World Trade Center after 9/11. He has done work for the FBI, medical examiners’ offices, and sheriff’s offices. He’s worked about seven murders.

Studying human corpses

Western is unique in its forensics program because it has a facility where corpses are dumped and allowed to decompose so students can study them.

The site provides invaluable experience for forensic students. They get to work hands on with an actual human corpse and see the rate of decomposition.

The research at Western will give a better understanding of how bodies decompose in the North Carolina mountains.

Williams and Assistant Professor of Anthropology Cheryl Johnston gave The Smoky Mountain News a tour of the facility but asked that its exact location not be revealed, other than across N.C. 107 from the Western campus. A tall fence with barbed wire on top surrounds the facility. It is on state land and measures about 50 feet by 50 feet.

The facility is often called the “body farm.” But Williams prefers not to call it that, saying it has a negative connotation. He prefers Forensic Osteology Research Station.

When the site opened about two years ago, Western was only the second school in the nation to have such a facility after the University of Tennessee. The University of Texas at San Marcos has now opened one as well, Williams said.

There is only one body at Western’s facility. The man, who is from out of state, requested that his body be donated to the University’s forensic program.

Williams would not identify the donor.

The man decomposed a lot since arriving at the site in June. His skeleton is basically all that remains. He is still wearing his blue jeans.

The man died suddenly of natural causes nine months ago, Williams said.

Insects that land on the body are also studied to better understand decomposition.

Williams does not know how the man who donated his body learned about the forensics program at Western, but said he may have read about it in the media.

In fact, Williams said he gets inquiries at least once a week from people thinking about donating their bodies to the program.

Those interested should contact Williams.

He noted that it is a serious decision to donate one’s body to the program. Giving up your body is “personal” and “generous,” he said.

An Interest in Death

The forensic anthropology instructors at Western have fascinating backgrounds working in the field.

Williams worked after 9/11 as part of DEMORT — a federal agency that goes to mass fatality situations. He was assisting the New York City Police Department in identifying victims.

In another case Williams said he was an expert witness in a civil case in Georgia against a crematory operator who was guilty of giving relatives of the deceased dust instead of the actual ashes.

Instructor Johnston worked on a case involving endangered species.

A vendor at a state fair in Ohio was selling orangutan skulls. The man said the skulls were imported from Borneo as antiquities.

Johnston found evidence that the skulls were not that old. The bone was waxy, not dried out. And there was evidence that the orangutans had been beheaded.

There was also a pig tooth in one of the tooth slots. It looked like someone had tried to put the skull back together so it would sell.

She worked that case for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The man was not arrested but the orangutan skulls were seized.

In another case in Ohio the coroner had identified bones found under a porch as belonging to a child and an adult.

When Johnston read about the case in the newspaper and saw pictures of the bones, she knew they weren’t human, but cow, pig, deer, and chicken bones. She informed the sheriff, and the case was dropped.

Johnston said her husband believes a childhood incident spurred her interest in forensics. She was five years old and a large airplane crashed near her relative’s yard.

Body parts were everywhere, she said. Officials were covering the limbs with towels, and Johnston was curious.

“I asked ‘what is that,’” she said.

The biological aspect of death is what interests her.

The most interesting case she worked was in Ohio involving a man buried in the woods.

The body had been buried for 12 years in a 6-foot grave.

A barrel had been placed on top of the body to keep the ground from caving in and revealing the grave.

Agricultural lime had been put in the grave, apparently because the perpetrator thought it would decompose the body.

Quick lime will decompose a body, but the agricultural lime combined with the ground water and formed a cocoon that preserved the skin while the inside of the body, except for the bone, decomposed.

Another case in Ohio she recalls involved a dysfunctional family in the country with about 11 children. The parents were alcoholics and had scalded one of the children in a hot bath, killing the child.

One of the child’s bones was found in a fire pit two or three years later. The director of the social services department in the area lost his job for letting the child fall through the cracks, she said.

Johnston noted that some forensic anthropologists do human rights work by identifying victims of war atrocities. By creating a historical record of those killed, regimes cannot deny that the atrocities took place. Bosnia and Rwanda are areas where this type of work has taken place, Johnston said.

There is a facility in Hilo, Hawaii, where forensic anthropologists help identify U.S. military war dead and repatriate them back to their families.

Real world skills

Johnston said there are plenty of jobs for people wanting to get into the field.

“It’s not like we’re going to quit killing each other,” she said.

With a master’s degree in the field, students can go into careers with medical examiners’ offices and crime labs, and identify war dead.

With a bachelor’s in forensic anthropology, students can work in law enforcement, Williams said.

Students in Johnston’s human osteology class at Western want to do different things with forensic anthropology.

Alex Berry said he may want to be a defense attorney.

“If you know as much about bones as the experts you can set up a better case,” Berry said.

Student Heather Nichols said she wants to work in Hilo identifying the war dead.

Student Holly Williamson said she was thinking of becoming a lawyer but decided against it.

“I wanted to be in the crime solving process rather than prosecuting,” Williamson said.

Williamson said it would satisfy her to help identify victims of murders and give information on how they died so justice can be served.

Student Olivia Moses said she wants to work with forensic anthropology in the military investigating explosions and mass gravesites.

She said part of her motivation is that two of her friends were killed in Iraq.

And student Dawn Mayes said she wants to use her forensic anthropology degree to work in ballistics.

In ballistics the type of gun used in a crime can be identified and possibly lead to solving the crime, she said.

The students said they are not bothered by dead people, saying death is a part of life.

Williams praises WCU Chancellor John Bardo for improving the forensic anthropology program. “It’s all due to his vision,” Williams said.

Comment

A proposed expansion to the Sylva Volunteer Fire Department building could be up in the air now that the project has come in almost $500,000 more than expected.

The overruns are due to parking and drainage issues that weren’t originally thought of.

The cost has risen from $1.89 million to $2.38 million.

The 25 percent increase is mostly due to extra parking spaces. Sylva town ordinances require an additional 16 parking places would have to be put in if the expansion were built, Interim Sylva Manager Chris Carter said.

Most towns mandate maximum and minimum parking spaces based on the size of the building the parking lot serves. In this case, a bigger building forces them to put in more parking.

There is currently a dirt cliff where the additional parking would go, and it would require expensive dirt work to make way for the parking, Carter said. The cost amounts to roughly $30,000 per extra parking space.

The town is moving forward on the project by seeking a finance company, and Carter hopes bids for the project can be approved by mid-March.

However, the county, which would fund the entire project, has not decided to move forward now that the cost has increased.

Sylva Fire Chief Mike Beck approached the commissioners last week about the project, but the commissioners said they would have to study the issue at their workshop on capital projects in February.

Carter said he can understand that the county wants to further consider funding the project now that the cost has increased.

The fire department expansion would add four bays, a meeting room, office space, sleeping quarters, a laundry room, kitchen and storage. Beck said the expansion is needed because the county has grown.

The fire department was built in 1980, Beck said.

Comment

A controversial bill to regulate development on steep slopes to prevent landslides will be reintroduced in the state legislature this year after dying in committee last time.

The bill was crafted by Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, who said it has a “much better chance” of passing this time because people are beginning to see the value of such laws. A recent landslide in Maggie Valley that destroyed a home brought to light once again the need for such regulations, Rapp added.

The bill doesn’t say that you can’t build on steep slopes, but instead requires oversight when doing so — namely by mandating that builders consult an engineer when building on slopes that exceed a threshold of 40 percent. The bill calls on mountain counties to adopt slope laws, providing minimum standards to go by.

However, Rep. Roger West, R-Marble, said he opposed the legislation last time and likely will again because he doesn’t think landowners should be restricted.

Such regulations make it impossible to develop land and build roads, West said. The recent landslide in Maggie Valley does not change his opinion either, saying that it’s an isolated case.

Rather than the state developing a “one-size fits all” bill for steep slope development, it should be left up to individual counties to develop the laws, said West.

Macon County, which he represents, does not have such a law, nor does Swain County. Haywood and Jackson do, but they are rarities in WNC.

The recent landslide in Maggie involved a home built prior to Haywood’s slope ordinance. While county officials flagged the slope as unstable and issued warnings to the property owners, the construction was grandfathered in and didn’t have to comply.

Had the slope law been triggered at the time of construction, however, the slide likely wouldn’t have occurred, county officials have said. Rapp’s bill is patterned after Haywood’s slope law.

Many of those opposed to the bill work in real estate or home construction, although Rapp said he has support from some in those groups this time. Rapp would not elaborate on how many people from those fields were backing him.

The goal is not to harm the real estate business or the home building industry, he said, but to provide a level of assurance to homebuyers that they are purchasing a safe piece of property.

Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, co-sponsored the legislation last time, and said it needs to be looked at again.

The bill not only has to clear the House, but the Senate as well. That means finding a senator willing to shepherd it through the Senate. Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy, said he thinks such regulations are needed but could not say if he would support the bill because he has not seen it.

And Sen. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, said he would also give the bill serious consideration, adding that work into mapping dangerous slopes in the region needs to continue.

Comment

An effort to end a six-year-long dispute between Jackson County and Duke Energy failed in a 3-2 vote last week, as the county commissioners decided to move forward with the case to save the Dillsboro dam.

County Commissioner Tom Massie made a motion to end the legal fight against Duke, allowing the utility to dredge the river and move forward with tearing down the dam.

Massie has been the lone commissioner in favor of ending the fight against Duke, saying it is a waste of time and money for the county to continue. For the first time he was joined in that sentiment by Commissioner William Shelton.

By continuing to fight the matter, Jackson County is “squandering” taxpayer money on an “un-winnable case,” Massie said, adding that some $200,000 has been spent by the county so far on legal fees and technical assistance in the case.

County Commission Chairman Brian McMahan voted against dropping the case because he still thinks it is “winnable.”

Commissioner Mark Jones said the county might as well continue to fight the case because it has already invested so much money and it doesn’t look like much more will have to be spent to see it through.

“I am for the preservation of the Dillsboro dam,” said Jones.

Commissioner Joe Cowan also voted against stopping the fight.

Shelton, even though he voted to throw in the towel, also favors preserving the dam, but thinks it is a lost cause because Duke has so much more money and resources that it can bury the county.

“I agree with the fight in principle,” Shelton said.

 

Hedging its bets

There are basically three different tracks the county is pursuing to stop demolition of the Dillsboro Dam and to exact higher compensation out of Duke for its host of dams straddling Jackson County rivers.

One track is refusing to issue certain permits that the county says are necessary to tear down the dam. The county says it can’t issue the permits until the other matters are resolved, but Duke thinks the county is simply trying to delay the razing of the dam.

Another track involves a challenge to the state water quality permit needed to tear down the dam. According to the county, the permit is flawed for a host of reasons, from lack of public notice to the lack of a proper environmental review.

The county got word late last week that the challenge, which was previously denied a hearing, now has a green light to move forward under an administrative law judge (see related article).

The final track deals with a federal permit issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The county says that permit is invalid because it was granted based on the invalid state water quality permit. The county also claims that FERC has not required Duke to provide adequate compensation to the region and overlooked environmental issues related to Duke’s dams.

That case is now pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington.

Through the years, several decisions have been handed down against Jackson County, and Massie doesn’t think things will change.

“I am against a federal court challenge,” he stated.

Massie added that the county’s arguments against Duke are merely technicalities.

The permits the county refuses to give Duke deal with dredging sediment backlogged behind the dam. The county says the silt must be dredged to prevent it from rushing downstream and causing environmental problems when the dam is removed.

Duke says it may not even need the county permits because it already has a state permit. But Duke has said it will not move forward without the county permits. Meanwhile, the state permit Duke is relying on is what’s being contested by the county.

Massie sees no reason why the county should withhold the permits for Duke to dredge, saying dredging the river “benefits all.”

There are several reasons why some want to save the Dillsboro dam. The dam is seen by some as a water feature that draws tourists, while others think it has historical significance. The dam could also be used to generate hydroelectricity.

 

Re-licensing

Duke must have a federal license to operate it series of hydropower dams, but those licenses are up for renewal. In order to get the new licenses, Duke must give back to the area it has profited from.

Duke has profited from using the Tuckasegee River to generate electricity, and therefore should make some payment to Jackson County when it comes time to re-license its dams.

Duke has proposed that it can pay back Jackson County by tearing down the dam, which will open up the river. Whitewater enthusiasts, such as the American Whitewater organization, have favored this.

Shelton said rather than Duke giving something back that benefits the entire county, it is simply pleasing special interests.

Instead of tearing down the dam (which Duke is no longer using to generate power anyway), Duke could give back to the county by providing slope stability and conservation easements, Shelton said.

What Duke is proposing doing for Jackson County “pales in comparison” to what it and other utilities have done in other areas in re-licensing agreements, Shelton said.

Duke may be refusing to give in to the county because it doesn’t want to set a precedent of giving more than it wants to, Shelton said.

Also Duke has proposed to give Jackson County $350,000 over the term of the re-licensing — potentially 40 years. Massie and Shelton agree that $350,000 over 40 years does not come close to compensating Jackson County for what Duke has made off its series of dams.

Shelton said Duke has not acted in good faith and said it is giving “very little back.”

“Our area deserves to be compensated for our resource,” he said.

Shelton said another option is taking over ownership of the dam through condemnation. By giving into Duke, Shelton said he is waving his white flag of surrender but at the same time the flag says, “Shame on Duke.”

Comment

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has recently begun funding the school lunches for enrolled members of the tribe who attend school off the Qualla Boundary.

The tribe has funded the lunches of those who attend school on the reservation for years and decided it should do the same for the others. Cherokee students who attend school in Swain, Jackson, Haywood and Graham counties — either because they live in those communities or commute off the reservation for school by choice — now have their lunches paid for by the tribe.

Haywood County Schools Associate Superintendent Dr. Bill Nolte said he thinks it’s “very honorable” for the tribe to pay for the lunches and breakfasts. The tribe only pays for those who do not already receive free lunch through the federal government as a low income student.

The tribe began the program in most counties last spring, but Haywood County is just getting going with it because of the paperwork required, including identifying enrolled members.

The tribe simply reimburses the schools for the lunches. For instance, the tribe has paid Jackson County $23,858 so far this year for the lunches. There are 333 Cherokee students in the Jackson County school system, but 119 get free lunch already through the federal government, while the others are covered by the tribe.

Haywood County Schools Child Nutrition Director Sandy Brooks said she thinks all students should have their school lunches funded by the government, adding that students don’t pay for books or bus rides so why should they pay for lunch.

If student lunches were free it would be less hassle to run the school cafeteria because there would be less paperwork, Brooks said. Some urban school districts, from D.C. to Denver, have launched free breakfast as an incentive to get students to school on time every day, and found that it is working.

Director of the Cherokee Youth and Adult Education Program Pam Straughan said the Tribal Council passed a resolution last year to pay for students’ lunches off the reservation after parents from Graham County complained that their children had to pay for lunches while enrolled members who went to school on the reservation did not.

Comment

The state legislative session began in Raleigh this week with the big issue being the budget during tough economic times.

The current fiscal year budget of $21.35 billion is expected to have a shortfall of $2 billion, and Gov. Beverly Perdue has asked state agencies, colleges and universities to cut back on spending. For the first half of the fiscal year revenue is running $625 million below what was expected.

During the session the legislature also has to develop budgets for 2009-2010, which begins July 1, and 2010-2011.

The revenue picture is bleak as the recession is expected to continue into 2010. The state is collecting less in sales and income taxes as well as corporate and franchise taxes. Raising the sales tax and increasing the taxes on alcohol and gasoline could generate additional revenue, noted Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva.

According to the Associated Press, the state also has a $780 million rainy day fund that could possibly be tapped. Sen. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, said the legislature will have to determine what are priorities when developing the budget, and he said education and job creation are his.

Local legislators are also waiting to see what effect President Barack Obama’s proposed $825 billion stimulus plan will have on North Carolina.

“I’m hoping for solid revenue sharing from the federal side to get us through,” Queen said.

The state’s unemployment rate increased to 8.7 percent in December, the highest since June 1983 when the rate was 9 percent.

“Layoffs continue to hamper many job sectors throughout the state,” Employment Security Commission Chairman Moses Carey Jr. said in a news release.

The unemployment rate a year ago was 4.7 percent.

In December there were 396,846 people unemployed in North Carolina. The national unemployment rate was 7.2 percent in December.

The downward trend in employment in the state is expected to persist for most, if not all, of 2009, and maybe into 2010, according to a report from the Fiscal Research Division of the state Legislature.

Comment

In the latest in Jackson County’s quest to save the Dillsboro dam from demolition, the county will get its day in court to argue the merits of a state water quality permit that makes or breaks whether the dam comes down.

The county has secured a rehearing over the permit by an administrative law judge. The judge, Selina M. Brooks, ruled that based upon the county’s arguments there should be a rehearing to determine whether the state violated the N.C. Environmental Policy Act when issuing the water quality permit to Duke Energy.

The county alleges that the state did not assess whether dam removal was in the best interest of water quality compared to other alternatives. The county also charges that the state violated the State Environmental Policy Act by failing to conduct an analysis of the impacts of dam removal.

County Manger Ken Westmoreland said SEPA kicks in when public funds are used for a project, and in this case, the state has allocated $400,000 to help Duke with dam demolition. That should have triggered an extensive environmental review to determine whether state funds are being used in the best way

“They have done no such studies, and those studies don’t just happen overnight,” Westmoreland said.

The rehearing on the state permit could spark a rehearing on Duke’s federal permit as well. Westmoreland said the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington has ordered the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to conduct a rehearing into granting Duke a dam removal permit.

As a side note, an endangered species survey of the Appalachian Elktoe mussel is out of date, Westmoreland said. Duke’s survey of the elktoe mussel in the river is three years old, but federal law requires a survey no more than two years old before embarking on an activity that could impact the species’ habitat.

“There is a lot of backtracking that needs to be done,” Westmoreland said.

Comment

Jackson County Commissioner Tom Massie is skeptical of whether it is legal for the county to withhold permits that Duke Energy may need to tear down the Dillsboro dam.

Massie also questions whether Duke actually needs the county permits to tear down the dam.

“First, I am unsure that Duke even needs a permit from Jackson County, as the state of North Carolina and the Army Corps of Engineers are responsible for issuance of any permits for sediment removal within the state’s waterways,” Massie stated in a letter to County Manager Ken Westmoreland dated Dec. 15.

Massie is the lone commissioner wanting to back down from the fight with Duke over saving the dam, urging fellow commissioners for the past six months to back down, but to no avail.

Massie is also concerned that Duke isn’t being treated fairly by the county: “If anyone else had the necessary state and federal permits our issuance of a Land Development Compliance Permit or any others would be simply a formality to comply with our local laws.”

Massie added that the county must avoid any appearance of discrimination against Duke.

Moreover, Massie said the removal of the sediment from the river is a benefit to all, and the denial of the permits can be “construed as petty and/or obstructionism at best.”

The legality of withholding the permits is “questionable” and could embroil the county in an unnecessary legal battle, Massie wrote in the letter.

In the letter Massie urged Westmoreland to make sure the county is within its legal rights prior to issuing or denying the permits, including checking with the N.C. Attorney General.

“If these permits are denied, I would like to have a copy of the formal findings, including the legal basis for any denial,” Massie wrote.

If the legal findings are unclear, Massie urges the county to issue the permits.

Comment

The attorney representing Jackson County in its legal fight against Duke Energy was expected to meet with county commiseting Tuesday (Jan. 20).

The meeting will fall after The Smoky Mountain News’ deadline, but be sure to check smokymountainnews.com for a Web Extra or any developments in the case.

Jackson County Commissioner Tom Massie said the county’s attorney on the matter, Paul Nolan of Alexandria, Va., was scheduled to meet with the commissioners Tuesday.

In the latest in the legal battle, Duke has sued Jackson County for failing to issue permits the county says are needed to tear down the dam.

Massie said he will have lots of questions for Nolan, including whether the county has a legal basis for withholding the permits from Duke.

Massie has suggested that the county stop fighting Duke in the case and allow destruction of the dam. The county has exhausted all its legal options in the case, Massie has said.

Massie has questioned whether Duke actually needs county permits to tear down the dam.

“First, I am unsure that Duke even needs a permit from Jackson County, as the state of North Carolina and the Army Corps of Engineers are responsible for issuance of any permits for sediment removal within the state’s waterways,” Massie stated in a letter to County Manager Ken Westmoreland dated Dec. 15.

Massie also called the legality of withholding the permits “questionable.”

The county is requiring Duke to remove 70,000 cubic yards of sediment from the river before tearing down the dam but is refusing to issue the permits to do the work.

The county says it does not want to grant the permits until all appeals regarding the dam’s demolition are resolved.

The county wants to save the dam, and Duke wants to tear it down.

Duke says the county’s withholding of the permits is simply a move to delay demolition of the dam.

Comment

Duke Energy, which sued Jackson County two weeks ago for failing to issue county permits to tear down the Dillsboro dam, says it may not even need the contested permits.

But Jackson County Manager Ken Westmoreland and County Planner Linda Cable are adamant that Duke indeed needs the county permits.

Even though Duke doesn’t believe it needs the county permits it has applied for them anyway and doesn’t plan to go forward without them.

Duke is seeking permits to dredge the sediment out of the Tuckasegee River that has backlogged behind the Dillsboro dam. The state is requiring Duke to remove 70,000 cubic yards of sediment before tearing down the dam to prevent the sediment from rushing downstream and causing environmental problems.

Cable said Duke needs a Land Development Compliance Permit and the Floodplain Development Permit, but the county thus far has refused to grant them until the county’s legal appeals over tearing down the dam are resolved.

Duke believes the county is simply attempting to delay the demolition of the dam because the county wants to save it. Duke has obtained a state permit to dredge the river, raising the question of whether a county permit is also required.

“While the state permit and the local permits are not identical, we question whether such local permits are needed and have not received any explanation for the basis of the county’s withholding them,” said Duke Business Relations Manager Fred Alexander.

County Manger Ken Westmoreland admitted that it is “questionable” whether Duke needs the county Floodplain Permit but said the Land Development Compliance Permit is definitely required.

Comment

An effort to end a six-year-long dispute between Jackson County and Duke Energy failed in a 3-2 vote Tuesday night (Jan. 20), as the county commissioners decided to move forward with the case to save the Dillsboro dam.

County Commissioner Tom Massie made the motion to end the legal fight against Duke and allow the utility to dredge the river and move forward with tearing down the dam.

Massie has been the lone commissioner in favor of ending the fight against Duke, saying it is a waste of time and money for the county to continue, but he was joined in that sentiment Tuesday by Commissioner William Shelton.

By continuing to fight the matter, Jackson County is “squandering” taxpayer money on an “un-winnable case,” Massie said, adding that some $200,000 has been spent by the county so far on legal fees and technical assistance in the case.

County Commission Chairman Brian McMahan voted against dropping the case because he still thinks it is “winnable.”

Commissioner Mark Jones said the county might as well continue to fight the case because it has already invested so much money and it doesn’t look like much more will have to be spent to see it through.

“I am for the preservation of the Dillsboro dam,” said Jones.

Commissioner Joe Cowan also voted against stopping the fight.

Shelton, even though he voted to end the case, also favors preserving the dam, but the thinks it is a lost cause because Duke has so much more money and resources to fight the case.

“I agree with the fight in principle,” Shelton said.

 

Three issues

There are basically three different tracks the county is pursuing to stop demolition fo the Dillsboro Dam and to exact higher compensation out of Duke for its host of dams straddling Jackson County rivers.

One track is refusing to issue certain permits that the county says are necessary to tear down the dam. The county says it can’t issue the permits until the other matters are resolved, but Duke thinks the county is simply trying to delay the razing of the dam.

Another track involves an appeal of the state water quality permit needed to tear down the dam. According to the county, the permit is flawed for a host of reasons, from improper public notice to the lack of a proper environmental review.

The county’s challenge of that permit is now awaiting a decision from an administrative law judge.

The final track deals with a federal permit issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The county says that permit is invalid because it was granted based on the invalid state water quality permit. The county also claims that FERC has not required Duke to provide adequate compensation to the region and overlooked environmental issues related to Duke’s dams.

That case is now pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington.

Through the years, Jackson County has been ruled against in several decisions, and Massie doesn’t think things will change.

“I am against a federal court challenge,” he stated.

Massie added that the county’s arguments against Duke are merely technicalities.

For example, another reason the county says Duke’s state water quality permit is invalid is that the permit states that no public money will be used to pay for the demolition of the dam. In fact, $400,000 of state money has been earmarked for the demolition of the dam.

The permits the county refuses to give Duke deal with dredging sediment behind the dam. The county says the silt must be dredged to prevent it from rushing downstream and causing environmental problems when the dam is removed.

Duke says it may not even need the county permits because it already has a state permit. But Duke has said it will not move forward without the county permits.

Massie sees no reason why the county should withhold the permits for Duke to dredge, saying dredging the river “benefits all.”

There are several reasons why some want to save the Dillsboro dam. The dam is seen by some as a water feature that draws tourists, while others think it has historical significance. The dam could also be used to generate hydroelectricity.

 

Re-licensing

When a utility such as Duke re-licenses it must give back to the area it has profited from.

Duke has profited from using the Tuckaseegee River to generate electricity, and therefore should make some payment to Jackson County when it comes time to re-license its dams.

Duke has proposed that it can pay back Jackson County by tearing down the dam, which will open up the river. Whitewater enthusiasts, such as the American Whitewater organization, have favored this.

Shelton said rather than Duke giving something back that benefits the entire county, it is simply pleasing special interests.

Instead of tearing down the dam (which Duke is no longer using to generate power), Duke could give back to the county by providing slope stability and conservation easements, Shelton said.

What Duke is proposing doing for Jackson County “pales in comparison” to what it and other utilities have done in other areas in re-licensing agreements, Shelton said.

Duke may be refusing to give into the county because it doesn’t want to set a precedent of giving more than it wants to, Shelton said.

Also Duke has proposed to give Jackson County $350,000 over the term of the re-licensing — 40 years. Massie and Shelton agree that $350,000 over 40 years does not come close to compensating Jackson County for what Duke has made off the Dillsboro dam’s hydroelectricity.

Shelton said Duke has not acted in good faith and said it is giving “very little back.”

“Our area deserves to be compensated for our resource,” he said.

Shelton said another option is taking over ownership of the dam through condemnation.

By giving into Duke, Shelton said he is waving his white flag of surrender but at the same time the flag says, “Shame on Duke.”

Comment

When Brandon Lenhart of Sylva was laid off from his construction job, he looked for work for four months but didn’t have any luck.

Finally, he turned to one place that is always hiring — the military. With unemployment on the rise, Uncle Sam’s call of “We Want You” is becoming more attractive.

“A lot of companies aren’t hiring, and people are turning to the military as an alternative,” said Kenneth Teague, Air Force master sergeant with the recruiting office in Knoxville, Tenn. “It has steady pay, benefits, a retirement plan.”

With the war in Iraq calming down and President Barack Obama pledging to bring troops home, the military seems like a better idea to many young adults than it has the past several years.

Starting out in the Army, Lenhart will make $18,000 a year and also receive housing, medical insurance and food.

Lenhart said two out of every three soldiers he met at the military entrance processing station were unemployed.

“Basically it’s a guaranteed job, and even after you’re out they take care of you,” said Lenhart.

Lenhart, 23, thought about joining up after high school but decided not to because the war was too dangerous. But now with a new president and declining combat action, he is willing to give it a shot.

“It seems like Obama is a good guy,” Lenhart said. “It seems like the war is winding down.”

 

Recruiting numbers up

In the first three months of the military’s fiscal year, which began in October, 5,943 more people have been recruited to the armed services compared to the same period of time last year.

But some think it may be too early to tell if the poor economy is causing people to turn to the military for work.

“We’ve had strong recruiting for several years, and now people want to say it’s because of the poor economy,” said Department of Defense Spokesman Lt. Col. Les Melnyk.

But there is plenty of evidence that suggests the poor economy is driving more to the military.

Air Force recruiter Michael Beutler of Sylva said lately there have been numerous people coming to his office saying they want to join because they can’t find a job. College students unable to secure jobs after graduation are joining the armed forces to give themselves additional leadership skills to help them stand out, according to Marine recruiter Sgt. Jesse Ross of Asheville.

But joining the armed forces just because you need a job is not enough, said Teague.

“You have to want to serve the country,” said Teague. “If you don’t, you won’t be happy.”

Army recruiter Jamie Wagoner of Sylva also thinks the poor economy is boosting recruitment.

“I don’t know how many 18-year-olds I’ve talked to who said, ‘I can’t find a job at a fast food restaurant,’” Wagoner said. “They say ‘I need to do something for myself to get out of this.”’

But many can’t get in the military because they are unable to meet the academic or physical requirements.

Wagoner said he is having difficulty finding people who can score high enough on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, and others have medical problems or law violations, he said.

“Of any 10 people, two are qualified,” Wagoner said. “People are confused and think anyone can get in.”

Those who are qualified may be eligible for a signing bonus of up to $40,000 to join the Army.

However, now that the economy is bad, signing bonuses may no longer be needed to entice people to join the services, Wagoner said.

“There are still bonuses, but they are definitely less,” said Wagoner.

There is other evidence that suggests the poor economy is luring people to the military.

According to U.S. Army Recruiting Command Spokesman Douglas Smith of Fort Knox, Ky., this is the first year since 2005 in which the Army met its recruiting goal the first three months of the year.

The Army’s goal is to recruit 80,000 new active duty soldiers this year. Last year the Army recruited 80,517.

Smith noted that over the years the Army has met its recruiting goals in terms of the number of soldiers, but the Army has fallen short of meeting its goal that 90 percent of recruits have a high school diploma.

“The wartime environment is part of the issue,” Smith said.

Last year the high school diploma percentage improved to 83 percent, and now that more people may be interested in the military the goal could be achieved.

 

Re-enlistments

The poor economy is also causing some people who have been in the armed forces in the past to re-enlist.

“I definitely like waking up every day knowing I’m going to get a paycheck,” said Wagoner.

In fiscal year 2008, the Army exceeded its retention goal with 73,913 soldiers reenlisting.

Spc. Ronald Rittenberry of Waynesville had been out of the Army for two and a half years before deciding to re-enlist earlier this month.

The Iraq war vet makes $2,250 a month in the military compared to $1,200 a month at his job working security at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.

“I was stuck in jobs making $10 an hour,” he said. “I make better money in the Army than any job as a civilian.”

Rittenberry also joined back up because he simply loves the Army.

When he was being processed back into the military, Rittenberry said there were 57 others who had previously served.

“Some came back because of the economy,” he said. “Others got married and it didn’t work out with their wives.”

He agreed that some people may join now that the war has calmed down. He served in Iraq from 2003-2004 and said it is much less violent now.

“It’s a completely different war now than when I was over there,” he said.

The chance that he may go back to war doesn’t worry Rittenberry, who is now stationed at Fort Benning, Ga. “It’s part of the job detail,” he said.

 

A recruit’s story

With student loans and other bills, Robert Ehlers is barely making it as a cook at a Murphy restaurant.

“It’s hard to make ends met,” said Ehlers, who joined the Air Force last week.

Ehlers has an associate’s degree in culinary arts and hopes to cook in the Air Force. The small town of Murphy doesn’t give him much opportunity to expand his culinary horizons, but in the military he can travel the world and sample cuisine from different cultures.

In the volatile job market it will also be good to have the job security, he said.

His dad agreed: “You don’t think about how hard it is in the military when you think how tough it is in civilian life to make it.”

As Ehlers sat in the Air Force recruiter’s office last week with his mom, dad and sister, he said he is comforted by the fact that the war has subsided and that Obama plans to bring the troops home.

“I keep it in the back of my mind that he wants to pull the troops out,” Ehlers said.

He brought his family along so they could ask the recruiter any questions before he signed the final papers to enlist.

His mother said she is frightened that her son may go to war, but his dad, Jack, a Vietnam veteran, said, “I went to war, and I didn’t have a choice. I made the best of a bad situation.”

With both of his grandparents serving in World War II and his father a Vietnam vet, Ehlers says he loves America.

His father, though, doesn’t think the United States should be in Iraq.

“That war is the silliest damn thing,” he said. “It’s just like Vietnam.”

Over the past year, Ehlers said he has fallen into a rut and was no longer a go-getter.

“This is the first thing I’ve been excited about in a long time,” he said.

The military can also help pay down Ehlers’ $44,000 in student loans, and will also pay his tuition if he pursues a bachelor’s in culinary arts.

Basic training, a tough eight and a half weeks of physical and mental tests, is facing Ehlers. When he begins basic training his head will be shaved almost bald. Ehlers’ dad shared a humorous story about his days in the military when a soldier asked for a little hair to be taken of the sides and all the hair was shaved.

The father also warned that Ehlers should not wink or smile at the drill sergeant.

“You’ll be doing more damn pushups,” the father said.

Looking at her son with loving eyes, Ehlers’ mom said, “You’re going to look cute in a uniform.”

 

Another recruit’s story

Sitting next to his father in the Air Force recruiting office in Sylva, Chris Scharf explained that he is joining the armed forces because he lacks focus in life.

Scharf was only 13 years old when the war in Iraq began and now could be headed there himself.

“I didn’t have any discipline,” said Scharf, 19, of Maggie Valley. “I know I need to be straightened out a little bit.”

The recruiter, Beutler, said he was the same way. “I was a very wild child before the Air Force,” Beutler said.

Beutler asked Scharf a series of questions, including whether he has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, asthma, problems with credit, law violations or a drug history. Scharf answered no to all the questions.

The recruiter then asked Scharf about his future plans.

Scharf said he wants to get married and have his own house and boat.

“I want the great American Dream,” Scharf said.

The Air Force can make that dream come true by providing stability, job security and an education, the recruiter said.

Scharf tried college but didn’t have the drive. Concerned about his son’s future, Scharf’s father, Gary, wants his son on a “career track,” possibly in the fields of physical therapy or bio-medicine.

“I want to prepare him for life,” his father said.

“You’re going to have a guaranteed job in the Air Force,” Beutler said.

With the largest community college in the world, the Air Force can provide Scharf with a solid education for free, Beutler said.

As a member of the Air Force, Scharf also wants to form tight relationships with other airmen, adding that he likes encouraging others.

“When you join the Air Force, you join a big brotherhood of airmen,” said Beutler.

Scharf is the first in the family to join the Air Force, and his dad is proud of him.

As a patriotic American, Scharf said he would be proud to serve the country in war.

“I believe in what this country stands for,” Scharf said.

 

The recruiting strategy

Sgt. Beutler picks up the phone and says, “Sounds like you made a decision.”

Beutler just landed another recruit.

“Congratulations on your decision,” he says.

Beutler picked up the recruit like he does so many others —just by talking to people when he is going about his daily life.

He saw this recruit at the Wal-Mart about six months ago and stopped and talked to him about the Air Force.

Beutler may also talk to people at the gym, grocery store or the movie theatre, and he visits high schools.

Sylva had lacked a strong Air Force recruiting presence until Beutler arrived about a year and a half ago. He covers Jackson, Macon, Cherokee, Swain, Haywood, Clay and Graham counties.

Beutler was named rookie recruiter of the year in 2008 for an eight-state region for recruiting 32 to join the Air Force in 2008 when his goal was just 18.

Beutler said he creates a no-stress atmosphere.

“There is no pressure,” he said. “I only want you to join if you are committed.”

It has been said that the standards to join the armed forces have been lowered to get more people enlisted, but Beutler said the Air Force has not loosened its requirements.

In fact, the requirements may be more difficult because the Air Force is now requiring credit checks and is more stringent on criminal background checks, he said.

Recruiters are up against a lot of negative misinformation from anti-military blogs about the military, Master Sgt. Teague said.

“ I think it’s had an effect,” Teague said.

For accurate information people should go to airforce.com, he said.

Comment

It appears Dillsboro has launched an official study into the pros and cons of merging with neighboring Sylva, although the planning board chairwoman leading the process was unwilling to release many details.

Dillsboro Planning Board Chairwoman Teresa Dowd asserted that the merger is not a priority at this time.

“It’s a back-burner issue,” Dowd told The Smoky Mountain News. “Nothing’s going to happen. If something happens, I’ll call you.”

Dowd offered little comment on what the Planning Board has done so far to study the issue. She said the Planning Board is gathering demographic data, such as the budgets and populations of the towns, to see if merging is a good idea.

She would not elaborate further on what data had been collected and charged The Smoky Mountain News to do its own research.

However, Dowd did say that the Dillsboro Planning Board may take a field trip during its next regularly scheduled meeting Jan. 21 to Hazelwood, a district of Waynesville. Hazelwood used to be its own town but merged with Waynesville in 1991, providing an example the Planning Board could study.

 

Under review

Planning Board member Beauford Riddle said making Dillsboro part of Sylva is just in the discussion phase.

“At this point in time we’re seeing if it would be feasible,” said Riddle.

If Dillsboro became part of Sylva, Dillsboro could receive police protection and trash pick up from Sylva. In exchange, Sylva’s tax base would increase.

Dillsboro Alderman John Faulk said he has not made up his mind on the possible merger, noting that the issue is being studied by the planning board, and he is waiting to see what it comes back with.

He realizes that many are opposed to the idea, but Faulk said he is going to keep an open mind until he has all the information.

“Tell us the pros and cons,” Faulk said. “It’s very early in the game.”

Dillsboro Alderman Mike Fitzgerald said he would oppose such a merger.

 

The process

If and when Dillsboro moves forward with the idea, it would be broached with the town leaders of Sylva. But Sylva Town Commissioner Sarah Graham said the merger is far from being in her board’s hands.

“I have no comment on it until they (Dillsboro) bring it to us as a possibility,” Graham said.

For a merger to happen, the town boards of both Sylva and Dillsboro must approve it. The process would include public hearings.

However, a townwide vote allowing residents to decide the issue isn’t necessarily required, according to David Lawrence at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Institute of Government.

Lawrence said a referendum would be necessary if Dillsboro had a lot of debt, and Sylva voters could decide if they wanted to take on that debt.

The state Legislature must finalize any merger.

Comment

While Dillsboro leaders claim the idea of merging Sylva is in its mere infancy, opinions on the issue are already swirling in the small town.

Several Dillsboro residents interviewed around town last week said they are opposed to the merger. A top concern is higher property taxes.

“I’d like to see the autonomy of Dillsboro remain,” said resident Robert Stevens. “Right now we determine our own taxes.”

Stevens doesn’t think Dillsboro wouldn’t benefit from a merger. One of the only tangible services is patrol by the Sylva police department. But Stevens said the town is already well-served by the county sheriff’s office, which can get to Dillsboro just as fast as the police department, said Stevens.

And Jill Cooper, owner of Haircuts By Jill in Dillsboro, also opposes the merger.

“I think I like Dillsboro the way it is because it has its own identity and uniqueness,” Cooper said. Cooper moved here from Eastern North Carolina, where she said people all over know about Dillsboro.

While Cooper has lived in Dillsboro only three years, she monitors the pulse of the town through her customers. Many of them are older residents opposed to the town being absorbed by Sylva.

Some interviewed around town though are indifferent to Dillsboro becoming a part of Sylva.

Sylva resident Ted Kay said it doesn’t matter to him either.

“It wouldn’t make any difference to me,” he said.

He said he supports whatever it takes to help Dillsboro survive, adding that Dillsboro probably has trouble generating enough revenue on its own.

However, Kay said it would probably be a burden for Sylva if Dillsboro became part of the city.

It may be a good idea if Dillsboro dissolved as a town and became part of the county, said Dillsboro resident John Clark. Clark said as a resident he isn’t getting anything in return for his taxes anyway, including no garbage pickup or police service, and it would drop the taxes if Dillsboro was part of the county.

Comment

Franklin’s role on the Appalachian Trail

Franklin is an important town on the Appalachian Trail because it is one of the first or last towns depending on which direction you’re coming from. It is about 106 miles from the start.

Nantahala Hiking Club President Bill Van Horn said if hikers make it to Franklin, chances are they can hike the entire trail.

The trail is 2,175 miles long and runs from Georgia to Maine.

 

About the Nantahala Hiking Club

The NHC is one of 30 trail clubs that maintain the 2,175 miles of the Appalachian Trail The NHC maintains 60 miles of the AT and 47 of those miles are in Macon County. The NHC, based out of Franklin, has a membership of more than 240. From October 2007 to September 2008, the club’s membership contributed more than 5,300 volunteer hours to maintain the AT and promote hiking.

Every spring, hundreds of Appalachian Trail hikers pass by the doorstep of Franklin en route from Georgia to Maine, many hitting town to buy supplies, clean up, check into a hotel and generally take a break from the trail.

But the town could do more to capitalize on its proximity to the A.T. A push is underway to seek designation as an official Appalachian Trail Community Partner, clearly associating the town with the world-famous trail.

In essence, it would make Franklin a “gateway city” on the trail, showing that Franklin welcomes hikers.

The Nantahala Hiking Club, which is leading the charge in making Franklin an AT Community Partner, believes Franklin and Macon County are not taking advantage of the Trail’s economic potential.

According to the hiking club, over 1,800 hikers pass through Macon County between March and May each year, and the Nantahala National Forest has one million day visits a year.

If Franklin achieves the designation and lures more hikers to ventuer the 10 miles into town and use it as a stop over, the trail could prove an economic boon.

 

The path to being an AT Partner

For Franklin to qualify it must meet at least two of four criteria, although Nantahala Hiking Club President Bill Van Horn said the town will probably meet all four.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which sponsors the program, is expected to decide in April whether Franklin receives the designation.

One requirement is establishing an advisory committee that focuses on the Appalachian Trail and the community. Groups such as the town, the county, the Chamber of Commerce and the schools may be interested in having a representative on the committee.

In order to receive the designation Franklin must also host an annual AT event.

Franklin already has an established event with the April Hikers Fools Bash put on by Ronnie Haven at the Sapphire Inn.

This will be the fifth year for the event that features music, food, and hiking vendors. The event allows hikers and community members to come together; last year about 1,500 attended.

During the hiking season, Haven runs a free bus service that picks up hikers at the trail and drives them into town to get supplies.

Franklin deserves to be designated an AT Community Partner given how much it offers hikers, said Haven.

He said the town has one of the nicer outfitters along the trail with Three Eagles Outfitters, grocery stores, drug stores, medical facilities, a movie theater, museum and post office.

Another requirement to becoming an Appalachian Trail Community Partner is using the trail for educational purposes.

Van Horn suggested fifth grade classes taking annual field trips to the trail could meet this requirement. He added that the trail offers a great opportunity to combine physical education and science.

And the final requirement deals with installing language in city and county ordinances that protects the trail from development.

The county could state in its ordinances that the Appalachian Trail Conservancy will be notified and included whenever there is a proposal to impact the trail, Van Horn said.

Examples of developments that may disturb the trail are erecting wind turbines and cell phone towers nearby, Van Horn said.

 

A symbiotic relationship

One benefit of designation is simply increasing awareness that the trail is near Franklin and easy to access. If Franklin receives the designation there may be signs displayed in town identifying Franklin as an AT Community Partner.

Franklin would be one of the first to receive the distinction. The towns of Hot Springs, N.C., Boiling Springs, P.A., Erwin, Tenn. and Unicoi County, Tenn. were designated Community Partners in a pilot program.

Another benefit is the additional publicity Franklin would receive nationwide from being a member of the program. The town would be highlighted on the AT Conservancy Web site — appalachiantrail.org — as well as in the organization’s press releases, trail guide and quarterly magazine “A.T. Journeys,” Van Horn said.

Franklin teachers could receive training and education on how to incorporate the Appalachian Trail into their lessons.

And another benefit is that Macon County teachers could take workshops from the AT Conservancy on “placed-based” education that deals with teaching students about the area they live. For instance, instead of learning about the Himalayas, students could learn about the “Nantahalas,” Van Horn said. The workshops are called “A Trail to Every Classroom.”

Teachers could also receive special training from the AT Conservancy in service learning to teach children about volunteering. For example, students could take a class on the Appalachian Trail and could adopt a mile of the trail to maintain.

Comment

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino is cutting 100 jobs because of the national economic downturn.

The cuts represent about 5 percent of the casino’s approximately 1,800 employees. Harrah’s hopes to achieve the workforce reduction voluntarily, with the offer of a severance package spurring people to step up. But it will force layoffs if enough volunteers don’t materialize.

Darold Londo, general manager of the casino, said the softening economy with no apparent turnaround in sight has forced the casino’s hand.

“We continue to see fewer customers as they, like all consumers, are being prudent and cautious with their discretionary incomes,” Londo said. The casino’s gaming revenue has declined 4.4 percent over the past year.

This is the first time Harrah’s Cherokee has had to lay off employees in its 11-year history, Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise Chairwoman Norma Moss noted. Moss said the employees are being offered a “fair and lucrative” severance package.

Employees were notified of the cuts Monday and told to come forward by Jan. 19 if they want to be part of the voluntary layoffs. The casino hopes the cuts will be made by the end of the month.

All of the casino’s profits are given to the Cherokee government. For the first time since the casino opened, that amount has gone down. In the 2007 fiscal year ending in September, $253 million was given to the tribe, compared to only $244 million for 2008, Moss said. Moss said the casino is trying to manage its operating costs to minimize the impact on the money distributed to the tribe.

Half of the profits go for tribal programs and the other half is distributed to the tribe’s approximately 13,500 members in the form of “per-capita” checks twice a year.

A $633 million expansion under way at the casino will not be impacted by the economic problems, Moss said.

“It will continue,” Moss said.

The expansion includes doubling the restaurants, hotel rooms, seating in the showroom and the gaming space, Moss said. The expansion will continue because the casino secured good financing and construction costs are affordable because of the lack of other construction work, Moss said.

Moss said the casino is excited about the expansion because when the economy rebounds Harrah’s Cherokee will be ahead of the competition.

Londo said as the economy improves he hopes that many employees can be rehired, and as phases of the expansion are completed additional employees will be needed.

Comment

K-4 school on hold due to economy

Due to the national economic downturn the Macon County commissioners have decided not to fund the construction of a new $15 million K-4 school at this time.

County Manager Jack Horton said it appears there is no way the county can incur that level of debt without imposing a property tax increase, which, he said, is out of the question during hard times.

Horton acknowledged that the county has not abandoned the idea of building the school but has simply put it on hold.

The commissioners made the decision on Saturday while reviewing budget figures during their annual retreat.

The new K-4 school was proposed to relieve overcrowding at Cowee, Iotla and Cullasaja schools.

Now that the new school is on hold, “We’ll just carry on as we are now,” said Macon County Schools Director of Auxiliary Services Terry Bell.

Bell didn’t argue with the commissioners’ decision.

“They are in a position better than I to know the current conditions,” Bell said. “If they looked at everything and decided it wasn’t in the best interest, who am I to disagree with them?”

The school being put on hold is not unexpected, said Bell.

“That doesn’t come as a great surprise,” Bell said.

Bell said he wasn’t aware that the commissioners had decided to put the school on hold until The Smoky Mountain News contacted him.

“I have received no official notification on it yet,” said Bell.

Superintendent Dan Brigman was at an orientation in Raleigh with the new school board members on Monday, Bell said. Bell said he planned to meet with Brigman on Wednesday.

The county has already spent about $900,000 on the new school for architectural and engineering plans. County commissioners hope they won’t have to spend more money on architecture and engineering once the school construction does go forward.

Macon County is facing an almost $1.4 million budget shortfall this fiscal year because of the recession.

County commissioners discussed an array of budget cuts to keep the county in the black during their annual retreat at Southwestern Community College’s Macon campus Saturday.

The county’s finance department came up with a list of possible budget cuts, but the recommendations only totaled $583,264, still leaving an $815,336 shortfall. That left the county commissioners with a lot of tough choices to make about where to come up with the rest of the cuts.

The commissioners directed the county manager and finance office to return to the drawing board to find more cuts.

None of the cuts so far include layoffs or salary reductions. But County Commissioner Bob Simpson said if the county can’t find other areas to cut, it could mean layoffs.

Scaling back employee hours is a second resort to meeting the shortfall, as is pulling money out of the county’s reserves. And a third resort is across-the-board-cuts to all county departments including the school system.

Commissioner Brian McClellan said he does not think layoffs will be necessary to cover the remaining shortfall. Dipping into the county’s reserves to cover the shortfall is also a bad idea, said McClellan, adding that if the coming year is equally bad it will be good to have that savings in place.

To avoid layoffs, Commissioner Jim Davis said he would favor cutting retirement benefits, teacher supplements and pay raises. But he doesn’t think those moves will be necessary this year. However, for the coming budget year starting in July, “Everything will be on the table,” Davis said.

Postponing the remodeling of the old library for a new senior center and putting emergency medical services in the current senior center could be delayed to save funds. The project is expected to cost around $878,000.

But the commissioners said the project is crucial to help the senior center and EMS, and decided to move it forward.

Ideally, county commissioners could trim $1.4 million from the county’s budget without altering the level of service to citizens, County Commission Chairman Ronnie Beale said. But whether such a goal is realistic remains to be seen.

Commissioner Bobby Kuppers suggested that each department head be given an opportunity to suggest ways to cut their budgets by 2 percent, rather than the commissioners deciding for them.

The county also has about $245,000 in contingency funds built into the budget every year that could possibly be used to cover the shortfall. Beale said contingency funds are set aside in case projects go over budget.

 

Less revenue

The $1.4 million projected shortfall primarily comes from the county collecting less in taxes and fees. Building permit fees are down because construction is down.

The county is bracing for a $100,000 shortfall in sales tax revenue, and the interest on the county’s investments will likely be $350,000 less than expected.

Putting the shortfall in perspective, County Manager Jack Horton said it isn’t that bad given the county has a $47 million budget.

Construction in the county was down significantly in 2008. Typically the county adds about $150 million to $200 million to its property tax base through new construction, but in 2008 it only added about $100 million, according to Horton.

Fewer vehicles being purchased is also hurting the county’s sales tax collections and personal property taxes.

Horton said the state is facing a $3 billion shortfall, putting it in a far worse situation than Macon County.

However, Horton cautioned that when the state gets in a bind it passes some expenses down to the counties.

The county also has a lot of debt to pay down. It has to pay for $4.3 million in debt this fiscal year; $5.1 million in 2009-2010; $4.9 million for 2010-2011; and $4.8 million in 2011-2012.

Comment

It appears a piece of property in Nantahala had something to do with Macon County pulling out of a fight against Duke Energy over the utility’s hydroelectric dams.

Macon County wants to renew a lease on the land — which is owned by Duke but used by the county for a recreation complex — but the fight over Duke re-licensing its dams was putting the two at odds in lease negotiations.

County Commissioner Bob Simpson said it is possible that Duke may have refused to lease the land if Macon County didn’t back down.

Now that the county has withdrawn from the fight, Duke may be “more amenable” to leasing the land, Macon County Commissioner Jim Davis said.

“We prefer to work in partnership with Duke rather than be in an adversarial role,” Davis said.

Macon County had joined forces with Jackson County and the town of Franklin several years ago in challenging Duke’s quest for new federal permits for a host of profitable hydroelectric dams. Duke is required to cough up environmental and recreational benefits in exchange for operating the dams, but many felt the region was getting shortchanged by Duke.

In the suit, Macon County was attempting to get “a lot of money” from Duke in return for the company using local rivers to generate electricity, according to Davis. Some think Macon County should have remained in the fight to get more money out of Duke.

It appears the land lease did, in fact, have something to do with the county withdrawing from the fight. According to the minutes from the Oct. 13 commissioners meeting, County Manager Jack Horton alluded that it may be best to withdraw from the fight since the county was negotiating renewing the lease.

The minutes state: “The manager advised the board they should consider if it is in the best interest of the county to continue with the intervention or withdraw. He added in the meantime this issue is putting the county at odds with the power company when it comes to negotiating property and extending leases for recreation purposes, i.e., Nantahala Recreation Park. The manager recommended the board study this situation before the Nov. 10 meeting.”

Horton could not be reached for comment as he was out of the office last week and Monday (Jan. 5).

Davis said Duke did not promise the county a good deal on a lease in return for withdrawing from the fight. Nor did Duke threaten to deny a lease if the county remained at odds.

“There was no quid pro quo on that issue,” said Davis.

For more than 20 years Duke has leased the property to the county, but the current lease is expired. The county continues to use the property anyway.

Duke and the county are in the process of negotiating a lease renewal.

Simpson said the county is considering building a gymnasium on the site but first wants a long-term lease in place to ensure the land will be available.

“We can’t do anything without a long-term lease,” Simpson said.

Duke Business Relations Manager Fred Alexander of Franklin said with Macon County withdrawn from the lawsuit it makes negotiating a lot easier.

In a statement about Macon County withdrawing from the fight Alexander said, “We certainly believe Macon made a good decision to get out of re-licensing at this stage.”

However, Alexander said he has “no doubt” that a lease agreement would still be worked out if the county were still in the fight.

Alexander added that the county and Duke are currently working on a “revised draft” of the lease agreement.

Davis said the county also dropped out of the suit because it didn’t look likely that it would win.

Alexander agreed that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission turned down “every single request” Macon County made.

 

Is compensation due Macon County?

Some, like Franklin Town Alderman Verlin Curtis, think Macon County should be compensated in return for Duke utilizing the county’s waterways to generate millions of dollars worth of electricity.

Duke realizes “great profits” off using Macon County’s waterways and should pay the county back for their use, Curtis said.

If the county would have stayed in the lawsuit, it could have gotten Lake Emory dredged at Duke’s expense as well as received bank restoration along the Little Tennessee River, Curtis said.

Now Macon County “stands to get nothing,” said Curtis.

“Look at what Duke has done for the area — nothing,” said Curtis. “Look what they’ve taken.”

Alexander said Duke does not owe Macon County anything. Those who feel Duke is indebted to Macon County for using the waterways are “completely misinformed over the nature of re-licensing,” Alexander said.

He said the water Duke uses in Macon County is owned by the state and that residents have benefited from Duke providing “lower cost electricity.”

Some have been misinformed into believing that when a utility is re-licensed that it means there is a “pot of gold” available for the taking. He said this belief could have come from other utilities giving away large sums of money when they re-licensed.

For example, Progress Energy ponies up $325,000 a year for a single dam on the Pigeon River in Haywood County, with the money managed by the Pigeon River Trust Fund. The dam there isn’t nearly the size of the one at Nantahala Lake in Macon County.

Also, Alcoa, a Tennessee power company, agreed to provide an environmental trust fund of $125,000 annually as mitigation for four dams — Cheoah and Santeetlah lakes in North Carolina and two lakes in Tennessee. Like the Pigeon River Fund, Alcoa’s payments are doled out by a board comprised of community members. The fund is in addition to a 5,000-acre conservation easement.

But Alexander said Duke did not want to hand out cash for a “small group” to spend as it wanted years later, but would rather go ahead and fix certain issues.

Duke has proposed a host of small perks for Macon County, like adding more campsites, lighting, parking, a toilet and a handicap-accessible pier at Nantahala Lake. Also on the list are a wildlife-viewing platform and boat launches. The biggest ticket item, however, is $40,000 for water and soil conservation, but it can only be spent on “Duke approved initiatives.”

Macon County didn’t get everything it wanted. The county had asked for $700,000 upfront, then an annual payment based on how much electricity Duke generated off its hydro operations within the county. Macon also sought payments of $150,000 annually for sediment and erosion control initiatives — rather than a single payment of $40,000 as Duke has proposed.

 

Jackson County, Franklin continue the fight

Jackson County and Franklin are continuing in the fight against Duke’ re-licensing despite the fact that rulings have consistently been in favor of Duke.

Currently Jackson County and Franklin are awaiting the rescheduling of an administrative hearing in the case. That hearing will take place in Jackson County District Court.

Some, like Jackson County Commissioner Tom Massie, advocate Jackson County throw in the towel and stop spending money on legal fees. Jackson County is fighting Duke to prevent demolition of the Dillsboro dam and also hopes to get monetary payments from Duke.

Comment

Duke Energy filed a lawsuit against Jackson County and county Planning Director Linda Cable on Monday (Jan. 5) for failing to issue permits necessary for the removal of the Dillsboro dam.

Duke warned the county about a month ago that if the Land Development Compliance Permit and the Floodplain Development Permit were not issued within a month that further legal action would follow. Yet the county has continued to hold up the permits.

The state is requiring Duke to remove approximately 70,000 cubic yards of sediment backlogged behind the dam before tearing it down.

Duke already has state permits in hand for the dredging, but seems to need permits from the county as well. But the county refuses to grant them until an administrative appeal over tearing down the dam is resolved. It is unclear when the appeal may be resolved.

Duke believes the county is purposely delaying tearing down the dam. The county wants to save the dam and has been involved in a lengthy battle against Duke over the issue. (see article on page 8)

The lawsuit seeks damages in “excess of $10,000 for defendants’ illegal actions.”

The removal of the dam is required by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Duke notes in the lawsuit.

“Jackson County’s actions are utterly without legal foundation and taken for an improper purpose in violation of plaintiff’s constitutional rights and have and will continue to cause the plaintiff damage,” the lawsuit states.

Duke has met all requirements for the permits, and the county’s withholding of them is arbitrary and capricious, according to the lawsuit.

And the county’s refusal to grant the permits violates the due process clause of the U.S. Constitution and the equal protection and law of the land clauses of the N.C. Constitution, the lawsuit states.

Duke Business Relations Manager Fred Alexander of Franklin said Duke does not believe it needs the permits but in an effort to be non-confrontational applied for them. Duke applied for the Land Development Compliance Permit in July and the Floodplain Permit in November.

The normal practice of the county is to issue the permits within one week, the lawsuit states.

Duke received a state permit from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources in June for the sediment dredging.

County Commission Chairman Brian McMahan had no comment on the lawsuit Monday, saying he had not read it.

Comment

The national economic downturn is taking its toll on married couples dealing with financial stress, according to area marriage counselors.

Dr. Helen Andrews of Waynesville said the poor economy seems to be the primary issue on her clients’ minds.

Money is always a factor in relationships, she said, adding that couples often complain about each other’s spending.

“They’re having to cut back on so many things,” she said.

Money does not cause problems — the problems were already there, Andrews said. A lack of money can magnify existing problems, she said.

“If you haven’t got enough to make ongoing expenses, you’re likely to be frustrated,” she said. “Everything looks bigger.”

Worrying about money can cause couples to be more upset about everything else, she said. Couples having money problems should learn to communicate better.

“The work is to have them talk and listen to each other,” Andrews said.

When economic times are good couples can escape by going shopping, going out to eat or doing something else that is fun.

When there is not money, all there is to do is sit at the house, she said.

Couples need to be better partners and work together rather than blame each other, but many couples have not developed a skill base to work together, she said.

Victor Hamilton, owner of Sylva Christian Counseling, said children’s behavior may worsen when the parents are having financial problems.

Dr. Mary Ellen Griffin, a licensed clinical psychologist in Sylva, said children are aware of their parents’ emotional state and when the parents are worried, the children are, too.

Couples often argue over how money should be spent and what gets higher priority, Hamilton said.

During hard economic times a man supporting a stay-at-home mom may have to take on a second job, which means more time away from home, and that can cause other problems, he said.

And when there is anxiety about money, feelings are more sensitive and emotions can take over, he said.

Anxiety over money can often come out as anger and frustration, he said.

“That’s what therapy is all about — looking under the obvious presenting behavior and seeing what motivates their fear and anxiety,” he said.

Hamilton recommends couples engage in stress reduction techniques to release tension in the body. He said being aware of “proper breathing” is important.

Also, he said, a “spiritual dimension is a crucial element.”

“The times are causing people to return to their roots of spiritual beliefs,” he said.

Divorces probably are not on the rise, he said. Instead, there may be fewer divorces because couples are so focused on making ends meet that they are not thinking about separation. Moreover, divorces can be expensive.

There were 100 divorces in Jackson County in 2008, according to the County Clerk’s Office.

Monty Beck, a Franklin attorney specializing in divorce, said he hasn’t seen an increase in the number of people seeking divorces, but the recession has made it more difficult when it comes to dividing assets.

A couple’s most significant asset is often its home, but now homes are not selling, so the equity can’t be divided.

During economic hard times couples may think twice about getting divorced because of the cost, said Beck, who is a board certified specialist in family law

And when couples separate, that means two households must be maintained when there used to be only one, he noted. The cost of a divorce depends on what issues are involved such as custody, alimony and property, Beck said.

Comment

A member of the Jackson County Smart Roads group told county commissioners on Monday (Jan. 5) that there needs to be more planning when it comes to the proposed N.C. 107 connector, a.k.a. Southern Loop.

The proposed road would connect N.C. 107 with U.S. 23/74 to relieve congestion on N.C. 107.

The Smart Roads representative, Jeanette Evans, said it is up to the county to develop a vision for future growth and development, particularly along the county’s primary commercial artery. She suggested that now is a good time for the county to launch a plan for N.C. 107 since the N.C. Department of Transportation is footing the bill to come up with solutions to congestion, whether it’s building a by-pass or improving the existing roadway.

It may be a good idea to develop an individual plan for N.C. 107 similar to what has been done on the 441 corridor, Evans said.

Evans, who is the Smart Roads representative on the Jackson County Transportation Task Force, said whatever is done to N.C. 107 will have a permanent affect on the county. The transportation task force is just in the “modeling stage” of determining how growth will affect N.C 107.

The fear is that the Southern Loop would destroy mountain landscapes.

County Commissioner Joe Cowan said N.C. 107 has been discussed for 10 years and has been “talked to death.” Cowan said Smart Roads has not developed one plan that addresses traffic concerns on N.C. 107. He said Smart Roads is “stagnant.”

But Susan Leveille, who is also a member of Smart Roads, said it is not her organization’s fault that progress has been slow. She laid the blame on DOT.

Cowan said DOT is not going to “decimate” a scenic area but said a bypass needs to be built to provide motorists with some relief.

Evans said Smart Roads is in place to advocate the community’s input on the road.

County Commissioner Tom Massie said there is already a county land use plan in place that addresses protecting scenic and cultural resources. Massie noted that the land use plan should be used in planning for N.C. 107 since the plan was developed with input form the public.

Massie suggested that the county planner and DOT planner communicate more about the county’s land use plan.

Comment

A 7-year-old Jackson County boy is fighting for his life after being mauled by a dog last week, according to Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe.

Dalton Mathis is listed in critical condition in the Intensive Care Unit at Memorial Mission Hospital in Asheville.

“Hopefully he’ll heal very soon,” said Ashe.

Mathis suffered severe injuries to his neck, face and head in the attack last week, said Ashe. He has gone through one surgery already. The parents were not at home during the attack.

Mathis’ 11-year-old sister witnessed the attack and called 911 on a cell phone after unsuccessfully trying to get the dog off by striking it with a belt, Ashe said. The boy was airlifted to Mission Memorial Hospital in Asheville. It is unclear how long the dog attacked the child, Ashe said.

Jackson County animal control officers shot the dog to protect themselves against its aggressive behavior. The dog’s remains were sent to a lab in Chapel Hill for analysis to determine if it had diseases such as rabies, but the results weren’t back as of press time Tuesday.

Ashe said the dog appeared to be a mix of a chow and a St. Bernard between 80-100 pounds. The dog was owned by Carolyn Higdon who lived at the residence but is unrelated to Mathis, Ashe said.

Ashe said the boy had just arrived home from school when the attack occurred. There were three children under the age of 11 and a disabled 22-year-old at home at the time, said Ashe. No one has been charged in the incident that remains under investigation by the sheriff’s office and the Department of Social Services.

Comment

U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, spoke to a crowd of about 200 town and county government officials from Western North Carolina last Thursday at the Renaissance hotel in Asheville about the $787 billion stimulus plan.

North Carolina is set to receive $6.1 billion in stimulus funds for various infrastructure projects. Shuler voted against the stimulus bill but said that does not mean he will not fight to get WNC its share of the money. He said now that the bill has passed he supports it.

Shuler said there are some good pieces to the stimulus bill and it can help with the budget shortfalls towns and counties are dealing with.

“No group can manage money better than local government,” Shuler said.

He added that WNC must fight for its portion of the funding, saying the state doesn’t stop in Charlotte, Winston-Salem or Asheville. Shuler added that he thinks there will be another stimulus package to continue bolstering the economy.

Following Shuler’s speech, officials from the Department of Energy and Natural Resources spoke on how towns and counties go about applying for the funds.

— By Josh Mitchell

Comment

Split votes are becoming increasingly common on the Sylva town board, throwing into question whether the board can meet its stated goal of agreeing on a new town manager.

Town commissioners Harold Hensley and Ray Lewis often vote together against commissioners Stacy Knotts, Sarah Graham, and Maurice Moody.

Hensley and Lewis voted against funding the Downtown Sylva Association, opposed improvements to Bridge Park, support hunting in the Fisher Creek Watershed, and were against steep slope regulations.

Hensley offered little explanation on why he thinks there are split votes.

“I’m not going to comment on that,” said Hensley. “I like to have unity instead of division.”

Hensley suggested that, “Maybe mine and Ray’s ideas are wrong.”

Moody said he, Graham and Knotts are “probably” more progressive than Lewis and Hensley in certain ways. He would not elaborate on how he thought they were more progressive.

“I’m not going to say anything that could be construed as being critical,” said Moody.

As for Moody saying he, Knotts and Graham are probably more progressive, Hensley said, “I guess he’s right.”

“I’m not going to get into tongue lashing,” Hensley said. “I’m trying to keep a lid on this. I don’t think it would do anyone any good to get into an argument, so if that’s the way he feels, that’s the way he feels.”

Hensley said it depends on what Moody means by “progressive.” Hensley said if it means spending money on unnecessary things, Moody, Graham and Knotts probably are more progressive, but if it means watching out for the taxpayer money, it probably means he is more progressive.

Graham said she would never vote to spend taxpayer money on something that doesn’t benefit the town.

Asked if she thinks Lewis and Hensley hold the town back, Graham said, “I’m not going to say.”

She noted that one of the bigger issues that Lewis and Hensley have opposed the other board members on is funding the Downtown Sylva Association. Lewis and Hensley have voted against any town funding for the Downtown Sylva Association for the past three years, running counter to rest of the board.

The DSA received $12,000 from the town this year, and Graham said the money goes toward downtown revitalization and supporting small businesses.

“I wish we could be more cohesive at times,” said Graham.

But she said she thinks the differences on the board are representative of the population of the town.

Knotts said each board member was elected by the people of Sylva to vote “the way we see fit.”

The board is now trying to hire a new town manager.

Moody said he would like the vote to be unanimous when the new town manager is chosen because each board member has to work with the manager.

Graham also hopes the vote on the new town manager can be unanimous.

“It’s an important move for the town,” she said. “I hope we can agree.”

In the most recent 3-2 vote Hensley and Lewis voted against making improvements to Bridge Park, while the others supported the upgrades.

Hensley said he couldn’t support the town spending $79,000 with all of the economic problems facing the country.

“Maybe I’m a little too conservative,” said Hensley.

Lewis admitted that he and Hensley don’t see eye to eye with the other board members. But he wouldn’t say he and Hensley do a better job.

Another issue that has resulted in a 3-2 vote was terminating the former Town Manager Jay Denton. Hensley and Lewis voted to keep Denton, while the others voted to fire him.

Moody said anytime there is a group there is going to be “some give and take and compromise.”

As for why Hensley and Lewis vote opposite of the others, Moody said. “I think they see things differently.”

However, Moody said there are times when he, Lewis and Hensley vote together and Knotts and Graham oppose.

In fact, Moody said he doesn’t necessarily think it is a bad thing that there are split votes on the board.

“You need various viewpoints,” said Moody. “People have different backgrounds. I think everybody is doing what they think they ought to do.”

Comment

Tobacco is no longer the cash crop it once was in North Carolina, but its partner in crime — hops — could be on the way up.

Several small farms across Western North Carolina are experimenting with hops to supply regional microbreweries that pride themselves on a fresh, distinct beer taste.

“What we’ve discovered is ‘yes it will grow here,”’ said N.C. State University Cooperative Extension Agent David Kendall.

The next step is to see if it can be expanded, said Kendall. The mountains are probably the best part of the state for growing hops because the area has low humidity.

It is still “speculative” as to whether there is a market for the hops, said Kendall, but it looks promising.

WNC’s real chance to get into the hops business is by supplying local breweries, said Rita Pelczar, a Madison County hops grower.

Pelczar just started growing hops last year. She was successful with 20 plants, prompting her to add 160 plants this year. She and her husband grew five different varieties.

“They grew real well,” she said. “We spoke with several microbreweries and brewery supply companies and everyone seems excited about using locally grown hops.”

Because of her success, Pelczar received an $8,200 Sustainable Agriculture Research grant, which she will use to expand her operation. Growing hops requires a modest upfront investment in infrastructure, such as 12-foot trellises, she said.

If hops were grown locally, breweries would not have to pay transportation costs to get them from the Pacific Northwest, where most hops are produced, said owner and braumeister of Heinzelmannchen Brewery in Sylva Dieter Kuhn, who brews seven different kinds of beer.

Western North Carolina is beginning to take off as a hot spot for microbreweries, providing a viable market for hops growers.

Dieter’s wife, Sheryl Rudd, said beer at microbreweries is better than mass produced beer because it has an identity, is fresher and has not been sitting on a shelf.

Chuck Blethen, whose group Jewel of the Blue Ridge Marketing put on a workshop last week about growing hops in WNC, said the area is good for the crop because of its low humidity. Blethen noted that the environment is similar to Germany’s where 86,000 acres of hops are grown a year.

“We have potential for supplying hops for the East Coast,” said Blethen, adding that he thinks the idea might start gaining steam. “We think it’s got a great chance to go.”

With Asheville, which has numerous microbreweries, the area is becoming a popular place for specialty beers. Blethen said there are 68 microbreweries in WNC and eastern Tennessee.

There could be a demand for hops nationally and internationally as several large hop farms have recently gone out of business driving up the price as much as 500 percent.

Though there is a market for hops, WNC will never compete with Washington state, the leading hops producer with farms that are hundreds of acres.

In order for this area to be a strong producer of hops there must be a processing station, Kendall said. He is looking into how much such a station would cost.

The processing facility could turn the hops into pellets, dry the hops and include a lab to analyze the alpha and beta acids in the hops, Blethen said. The idea is that the station would be centrally located and available to the regional hops growers, said Blethen.

Wine grapes could also possibly be grown in this region and coupled with hops could be the basis of a good agri-tourism industry, Kendall said.

Comment

Two Franklin aldermen said they didn’t whip up controversy regarding slate to get back at Mayor Joe Collins but because they sincerely thought it was a situation that needed to be looked into.

Aldermen Bob Scott and Verlin Curtis said there are no hard feelings between them and the mayor and that they think Collins has provided effective leadership, despite the controversy.

Curtis and Scott haven’t had the most cordial relationship with Collins over the years. The question is whether their personal conflicts motivated Scott and Curtis to create controversy surrounding the mayor and the slate or if they were genuinely concerned over the slate issue.

Scott and Curtis claim they were honestly concerned over the slate. The mayor refused to comment on the record about his feelings regarding the aldermen’s motivations.

 

A history of tension

Scott said he was a “little upset” and “disappointed” when the mayor came to his house about a year and a half ago to tell Scott he would not be vice mayor. Scott remembers it clearly, saying it was a Sunday afternoon and the mayor’s exact words were “ain’t gonna happen.”

Scott said the vice mayor position generally rotates among board members every two years, but Collins said it wasn’t going to happen for Scott.

The mayor doesn’t have a vote when it comes to who is vice mayor. The aldermen select one of their fellow aldermen for the post.

“I mentioned I would like to serve as vice mayor,” said Scott. “Apparently the board didn’t want me as vice mayor.”

Collins would not comment on the record regarding the incident at Scott’s house.

“What I did or didn’t say would be a private conversation with Mr. Scott,” said Collins. “I don’t feel an obligation or need to talk about that. I’m not going to get into what I did or didn’t say on that occasion.”

Scott said the incident has nothing to do with him looking into the controversy surrounding the mayor and the slate.

“Absolutely not,” said Scott, adding his intentions were to protect town property.

“The statutes are clear, you can’t give away town property without a formal process,” Scott said.

Scott also seems to take umbrage with the mayor’s communication skills.

“I have not heard from the mayor in 14 months,” said Scott.

Ever since that day the mayor came to this house, the only time the mayor speaks to Scott is at a board meeting or some other official gathering, Scott said. The mayor doesn’t call him at home or come see him anymore, said Scott.

“I don’t think there is any relationship (between us),” said Scott.

Scott said he thinks the mayor has a responsibility to be a better communicator and not just talk to him in official settings.

“I would think the mayor has an obligation to keep the board informed, not just at meetings,” said Scott.

 

Mayor and Curtis Dispute

Curtis and Collins have disagreed the past few years over where to locate Town Hall.

Curtis wanted to build a new Town Hall on the 12.7-acre Whitmire property just outside downtown at 15 First St. The town purchased the tract for $1.6 million.

But town board members changed their minds and instead decided to renovate an existing downtown building for Town Hall. Mayor Collins thinks this is the best idea because it keeps civic functions downtown.

Curtis disagrees and thinks it is best to put Town Hall on the 12.7-acre site.

But Curtis said he did not make a big deal out of the slate controversy to fire back at Collins over the Town Hall issue. Curtis, like Scott, said he was just looking out for the town property.

Curtis ran for mayor against Collins in 2005 on the platform of relocating Town Hall.

 

The ‘Slategate’ controversy

The slate controversy centers on the 12.7 acre-site that was to be the location for Town Hall.

After the town bought the property, the former owner’s son, David Whitmire, approached Collins and asked if he could take some slate from the property as a memento from childhood, because he grew up at the home.

Collins, after going through Town Administrator Mike Decker, authorized Whitmire to take the slate.

Exactly how much slate Whitmire took, and whether Collins should have unilaterally given him the OK, has led to a bitter debate. Scott and Curtis claim the mayor overstepped his bounds by parting with town property.

In an attempt to set the record straight, Whitmire, now of Alaska, told his side of the story in a full-page ad in The Smoky Mountain News last week. Whitmire said the mayor never specified the amount of slate he could have.

“We didn’t talk about specific amounts of anything,” Whitmire wrote in his ad.

In a Smoky Mountain News interview, Collins disagreed: “We absolutely did discuss it would be a few pieces. His memory is different.”

Scott and Curtis got up in arms over what they considered a large amount of slate that was taken from the property — about 625 square feet, according to Curtis, and 500 square feet, according to Whitmire.

 

Value of property disputed

Curtis and Scott said Whitmire had no right to take that slate just as no one has a right to take a plaque off the wall in Town Hall. The slate belonged to the city and had a value of $19,600 if you include the cost of labor to reinstall it, the town said.

But Whitmire said 500 feet of slate only has a value of $500.

Lowe’s in Sylva has slate slabs for $1.88 a square foot or $940 for 500 square feet.

Whitmire said in his ad that it was wrong for the town to demand $19,000. He not only had permission to take the slate, but the tax value for all structures on the property was appraised at $17,800.

“So I’ve got $500 worth of salvaged stone and they want $19,000,” Whitmire stated in his ad. “That’s right; the board demanded I pay more for the mixed slate pieces than the value of the entire house, one the city had completely ignored.”

Curtis said the town’s $19,600 figure was not the value of the materials alone but was mainly the labor costs for reinstalling it.

Macon County Tax Administrator Richard Lightner confirmed that the entire property — the buildings and the land — is valued at $1.9 million, with the buildings only being worth $17,860.

The home has been destroyed by vandals who have busted windows and painted graffiti on the walls.

 

Case put to bed finally

The town threatened to sue for the $19,600, but the matter was eventually settled with Whitmire paying $5,000 for slate he said was worth less than $500.

Curtis and Scott said they have no evidence to suggest that the mayor actually gave Whitmire permission to take as much slate as he wanted.

“I have to take him for what he (mayor) said he did,” said Curtis.

At one time Scott called on an investigation to determine who said what, but it didn’t go forward.

On a tour of the property, which still has the old Whitmire home on it, Curtis pointed out that slate had been stripped from everything, including the fireplace, and that solid oak doors and a cherry desk were also taken. Curtis said the case should have been prosecuted by the DA as a felony.

In his ad Whitmire said his family members were generous supporters of Franklin and it isn’t right that the town is treating him like this.

Curtis agreed that “the Whitmires were very kind to me” when he did work for them such as appliance repair.

Comment

Dr. John Bunn of Sylva lived through the Great Depression and said people bind together during tough times to help one another.

The same will stand true, Bunn believes, when it comes to donating to the new Jackson County library during the recession.

Library use actually sees a spike during hard times. When things like movies and cable are cost prohibitive, the library offers an escape through books and magazines. And when people cancel their home Internet subscription they’ll still have the Web for free at the library, Bunn noted.

“I see the library as a fantastic boon to all people,” said Bunn, the co-chairman of the Friends of the Library Fundraising Committee.

A large effort is under way to raise $1.6 million to pay for the furnishings of the new Jackson County Library and the renovated historic courthouse in Sylva. Fundraisers are half way there with $800,000 in commitments.

But the going could get tougher from here. The first leg of the campaign is targeting large donors making up to six-figure contributions, while the second half will call on the general public cutting much smaller checks.

“We still need a lot of broad community support to make this happen,” said Mary Selzer, Friends of the Library President.

The new 20,000-square-foot library will be built onto the back of the historic courthouse overlooking downtown.

Donors should be comforted by the fact that 100 percent of their donations will go toward furnishing the library, not administrative costs, said Betty Screven with Friends of the Library.

Fundraising began last May, and the remaining $800,000 is needed by July 2010, and Selzer thinks things are on schedule.

The library is scheduled to open in December 2010. Construction, including the courthouse renovation, is estimated at $7.9 million, but the county is funding that.

 

Big money, small money

Even in a recession Selzer believes people will donate to the project because it will benefit the lives of everyone in Jackson County from the “southern end to the northern end.”

Bunn thinks Sylva will pull together to support the fundraising. Bunn’s dad was a minister in a railroad town that collapsed during the Depression, but he saw the great side of people when they would do such things as share chicken and dumplings with a neighbor.

“I saw people reaching out to other people,” he said.

But because of the poor economy Bunn anticipates that donations may be smaller than they would normally be. There will be more competition when it comes to getting funding from the big foundations because of the recession.

“They will be more selective and careful of who they give money to,” he said.

Grants are always competitive and now even more so, agreed Selzer. But she feels it’s a strong project and hopes it resonates well with various foundation advisory boards when they are deciding how to dole out money.

“In a time like this in fundraising you have to take a different approach,” Bunn said. “You don’t go out and ask for the ultimate gift.

He said people will be asked to give what they can at this time to help put the library in place. For instance, he said people may be asked if they could afford to donate the cost of a doughnut or Coke a day.

In the end it is going to be the “little person” who gets the fundraising effort over the top, he said.

“I’ve never seen it fail,” he said. “The closing out of the campaign will depend on the man on the street, the woman on the street, the child on the street.”

The Depression was not the last time he saw a community rally for a good cause. He saw it in the ‘70s when $9 million was raised over two years to expand the CJ Harris hospital in Sylva.

People may also be motivated to donate not only because of the library, but the renovations to the iconic historic courthouse.

“We’re talking about a building on the National Historic Register, an icon, one of the most photographed buildings in this state,” said Bunn. “I know there is a strong attachment of the local people to that building. It’s been used to glorify the veterans of the Confederacy, those who lost their lives in the Korean conflicts. They want to see that thing preserved and kept intact.”

Letters seeking donations might be mailed to Jackson County property owners, Bunn said. That was done for the hospital fundraiser. Bunn said a letter was sent to landowners with property valued at at least $200,000. It cost $1.37 to send out a letter, and the average return was $2.42, Bunn said.

The elderly will be significant donors, he expects because they read the newspaper at the library daily.

Donating to the project should not be thought of as an obligation, said Bunn.

“I would say if they love what that place is going to represent then they will want to support it,” said Bunn. “It represents the history of Jackson County; it represents the glory and beauty of learning. The third thing it represents is the literary heritage of the world. The other thing it represents is the absolute freedom to anyone who wants to come and enjoy what has become theirs.”

 

Build it and they will come

Donations will probably start pouring in after the ground-breaking ceremony slated for May 17, when people can actually see tangible work taking place, Bunn said.

When work starts on the project with bulldozers and backhoes humming, people may be more inclined to donate because it will be more real to them, Selzer said.

People should be encouraged to donate because books are an important part of people’s lives, said Joyce Moore, owner of City Lights Book Store in Sylva and a member of Friends of the Library.

She added that during tough economic times library usage goes up, but admitted it’s harder to raise funds now.

Building the new library and restoring the old courthouse at the same time kills two birds with one stone, said Jackson County Commissioner William Shelton, an original proponent of the idea.

“That old courthouse was sitting there and deteriorating,” said Shelton. “I don’t think anyone wanted to see it fall in or be destroyed.”

Tying the courthouse into the project may also motivate people to get more involved in fundraising, said Shelton, and may open the project up to more grant money.

Donating to the library and courthouse project is a once in a lifetime opportunity, said Screven.

Once complete, the library and courthouse will hold offices for the Arts Council, the Genealogical Society, and the Historical Society, serving as a one-stop shop.

 

Money Talks

Every donor of $1,000 or more will have their name inscribed on a plaque or permanent location in the library complex. There are also opportunities for donors to have a certain area of the library named after them; for instance, a donor of $250,000 will have the community room named after them, while a $25,000 donation will get the reference desk named after you.

Donors have already reserved some areas of the library, but there are plenty left. The town of Sylva claimed the children’s area, for example.

The fundraising strategy has been to focus on entities that can give larger gifts before launching the public campaign. With large donations already in place it won’t seem so overwhelming for the public to raise the remaining money.

The Friends have targeted about 10 foundations that would possibly donate to the project. Of those two declined; one donated; and two were recently contacted and haven’t responded. The remaining five will be contacted soon, Selzer said.

The public fundraising campaign may begin at the ground breaking May 16 at Bicentennial Park where there will be story telling, family friendly activities and free hotdogs.

Throughout the summer, the Friends will continue to try to raise money at events such as Greening Up the Mountains, and Selzer will also try to spread the word to the public by speaking to civic groups.

 

Macon County did it

A similar effort to raise money was undertaken in Macon County when the Friends of the Library embarked on a mission to raise $1.1 million for furniture fixtures and equipment, said Karen Wallace, director of Fontana Regional Library, which covers the libraries in Swain, Macon and Jackson counties.

It took a couple of years to raise the money for the Macon Library with the majority of funds coming from grants and large donors and the remaining from the community at-large.

The bad economy may not hurt fundraising efforts that much, said Wallace, adding that people are sometimes more generous during tough times because they realize how difficult it is to raise the money.

The amount of the donation is not always the most important thing either, said Wallace. She noted that when money was being raised for the Macon County library, that two young boys gave their allowance money to help out.

When the public donates to a project such as a library they have some ownership in it, said Wallace.

 

The Cashiers factor

Getting donations from Cashiers, which has a lot of wealthy residents, may be difficult because they have their own library, Bunn said.

Cashiers residents will think of their own library’s needs before they think about the one in Sylva, he said, adding he doesn’t blame them.

“They want to see it continue to grow,” he said.

But Selzer said Cashiers residents should be inclined to donate, even though it has its own library.

“This is the main county library and will be connected to the historic courthouse,” Selzer said.

Not only will the library benefit all of Jackson County, but may also have a “multi-county use” with people from Swain, Haywood and Macon also utilizing it, said Screven.

 

Preserving history, looking to the future

The women love the idea of adding a new state-of-the-art library onto the back of a historic courthouse that they say is the “emblem” of Jackson County.

“This is a class project,” Screven said. “Jackson County will have something it can be truly proud of.”

In the past tourists have been upset when they’ve stopped in Sylva to go to the courthouse after seeing it from the highway only to find it closed.

Much architectural expertise is going into designing the library to make it blend with the historic character of the courthouse.

For example, the signature large arched windows of the courthouse will be replicated on the library. Screven said the architectural design is in keeping with the Friends of the Library capital campaign slogan: “Honoring the Past, Embracing the Future.”

As for the remodel of the inside of the courthouse, it will be done to make it resemble what it looked like when it was built in 1914.

Selzer explained that the courthouse lost a lot of its historic charm on the inside when it was “gutted” and modernized in the 1960s.

The good news is that the architect was able to look at the Madison County courthouse to get an idea of what the interior design, such as the molding, flooring and trim, may have looked like 95 years ago. Screven explained that the Jackson County Courthouse is the “younger sister” of the Madison County courthouse because they were built using the same plans.

The architect, Donnie Love, visited the Madison County courthouse and got pictures of the interior to incorporate into the remodel.

Screven praised Love, saying he is a specialist in refurbishing old buildings for new use and has been on his hands and knees of the old courthouse to plan the project.

The new library will measure 20,000 square feet compared to the current one that is drastically short of space at only 6,400. Selzer said the new library will be the size it should be for a county of Jackson’s population.

With the new library tied to the courthouse and perched on a hill with great views of the mountains and the town, it will be one of the prettier libraries in the country, said Selzer.

The new library will have an outside seating area with café tables, something that cropped up as a request from the public during a series of visioning meetings held during the planning process.

The county commissioners decided at a budget meeting on the project a couple of weeks ago they would go ahead and bid the project with some additional features such as a terrace and faux sky lights that look like stained glass on the ceiling. If those items come in too high they can be taken out of the project.

 

Renovations and donations

The second-floor courtroom will be renovated and have 100 fixed seats, providing a place for plays, author talks and musical groups.

A need for places to hold community meetings will also be met with the new facility, said Selzer. The ones here now are at Western Carolina University and Southwestern Community College, which are usually only for those affiliated with the institutions, or you have to pay, Selzer said.

The children’s area will be three times the size of the current one and have a story time room. The adult collection will also be about three times as large, and there will be a teen area to replace the current one that is a mere bookshelf. The computer lab will be expanded from the current seven stations to around 30.

People have always liked the way that the courthouse looks from Main Street, and that will not change, as the library will be put on the back of the building out of the line of sight.

There are about 30 volunteers working on the project, and about six to seven are spending “quite a bit of time every month” fundraising said Screven.

 

Why they’re interested

Selzer said she became interested in the project several years ago when there was discord over where to locate the library. A library should be a positive thing in the community, not a source of frustration, she thought.

Her experience with international finance and insurance gave her the skills to organize the project, she said.

By taking her four grandsons to the library it was obvious it was short in space, said Screven. So with her professional career in public relations she joined the effort as chair of the PR and special events subcommittee.

 

Big donors push campaign along

The Jackson County library campaign is half-way to its goal of $1.6 million. Donations include:

• $150,000 from the Janirve Foundation of Asheville

• $105,000 from the town of Sylva

• $100,000 from Jackson Paper

• $100,000 from an individual who prefers to remain anonymous

• $15,000 from United Community Bank

• $10,000 from the Sylva Garden Club

• $10,000 from Jackson Savings Bank

• $10,000 from Duke Energy

 

Ways to Donate

• Jackson County Friends of the Library Web site: www.fojcml.org.

• Call Jackson County Public Library Complex Campaign Steering Committee Co-Chair Mary Selzer at 828.293.0074 or Campaign Coordinator Connie Terry at 828.507.0476.

Comment

Standing next to a display that showed pictures of West Virginia mountains scarred by mountaintop removal coal mining, Austin Hall with Appalachian Voices of Boone bemoaned, “That is wrong on such a gut level.”

But with the new Barack Obama administration in place, things may be looking up for environmentalists, said Hall, who was manning a booth at an environmental fair at Western Carolina University last week. The fair featured an array of advocates promoting their causes whether it was green-built homes, doing away with coal-fired power plants or recycling.

During George Bush’s presidency mountaintop removal “exponentially grew” while Obama is “ardent” about ending the process that has leveled one million acres of mountains in Central Appalachia, said Hall.

Other environmentalists at the fair also hope their causes continue to gain momentum.

 

Manning the booths

Avram Friedman, executive director of the Canary Coalition of Sylva, used the fair as an opportunity to speak out against coal-fired power plants. There are already 14 coal-fired power plants in the state, and a new one proposed by Duke in Rutherford County should be stopped, he said.

His grassroots organization promotes clean air and is attempting to get the N.C. Division of Air Quality to rescind a permit to build the plant. Duke claims the plant is needed because of the growing energy demand, he said.

“They are using $2.5 billion in ratepayer money to commit us to burning coal for the next 50 years,” Friedman said. By ratepayers, Friedman means that every Duke customer in the state is shouldering the cost of building the new polluting plant.

The legislature should impose measures to reduce energy consumption such as creating a sliding scale for power bills that charges more as more energy is used, Friedman said.

“This will give households and businesses an incentive to invest in energy consumption, so we don’t have to build polluting power plants,” he said.

Nitrous oxide from coal plants causes childhood asthma, sulfur dioxide creates a haze over the mountains and mercury can cause neurological damage in children like autism, Friedman said.

He also said the state’s power grid needs to be “decentralized,”adding that 60 percent of the power from the grid is lost. He advocates putting solar panels on people’s roofs.

The Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River also had a booth at the fair to broadcast its message against water pollution. The organization believes that some developers are violating the county’s sediment control ordinance that seeks to protect streams from muddy runoff.

When developers cut down trees and bulldoze sites for homes, silt and dirt can run into steams and ultimately into the Tuckasegee River.

“We just want people to follow the rules and not cause more damage,” said Myrtle Schrader, a member of WATR. “One person’s footprint can be huge and affect the quality of life for everyone.”

One person particularly interested in his ecological footprint is Lenni Humphries with the WCU Environmental Science Program, who was filling out a online questionnaire during the fair at myfootprint.org while manning a booth. His booth featured a display on how idling a vehicle uses more energy than cutting the engine and then restarting it.

His display also showed how things should be reused before they are recycled because recycling takes energy, too. He showed how eggshells, lint and tea bags can be used for compost and how used tea bags can act like baking soda to make the refrigerator smell fresher.

Cell phones can be given to battered women’s shelters for 911 use and to troops overseas, he said.

Another way things can be recycled is by wearing them, said Emily Lauro, a WCU senior and fashion minor who was at the fair signing people up for her recycle fashion and art show.

Necklaces made out of bottle caps, a wrapping paper kimono and a mask were some the recycled fashion items on display.

The contest features two categories — 2D and 3D art and recycled and restyled fashion. Recycled fashion can mean buying a couple of items at the thrift stores and using portions of them to make a new garment.

Those interested in participating should e-mail her This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Other than making your clothes environmentally conscious you can also make your home that way, according to Candice Black, outreach coordinator for the WNC Green Building Council, which seeks to educate on environmentally friendly building practices.

Comment

Despite tough economic times, Jackson County commissioners decided last week to move forward with three multi-million dollar projects.

In a capital projects meeting last Thursday, the commissioners reached a consensus to pursue upgrades to the solid waste transfer station estimated at $3.9 million, expanding the Sylva Volunteer Fire Department at a cost of $2.3 million and the joint venture of building a new library and renovating the historic courthouse for $7.9 million.

“We’re tentatively moving ahead while being aware of what’s going on economically,” said Commissioner William Shelton.

Shelton added that if bids come in high the projects can always be abandoned.

There could be even more capital projects on the county’s plate. Another workshop to discuss construction of a Cashiers Recreation Center and Smoky Mountain High School renovations is scheduled for Thursday (Feb. 19) in room A227 of the courthouse.

Also on the table, commissioners got a surprise request from Southwestern Community College to construct a new $847,000 early college building. SCC leaders claim they need more space for the early college program, which allows high school students to take college level courses.

Since the commissioners were just presented with the SCC project they decided to give it more evaluation. Shelton said the county has historically supported SCC, but it is difficult to fund projects when they don’t get presented until mid-year.

The library, which is expected to open in December 2010, and the fire department expansion will stay on track since they’ve been planned for years, and the transfer station expansion is simply a must have, Shelton said.

Commission Chairman Brian McMahan said the current transfer station building is not large enough to handle all the garbage in the county and a new building to hold household trash must be constructed.

It was unknown how the county would react to a $500,000 cost overrun on the Sylva fire department, upping the price tag from $1.8 million to $2.3 million. Fire Chief Mike Beck has said the existing fire department doesn’t have enough space.

Town ordinance requires that an additional 16 parking places be put in because the building is being expanded. A dirt cliff sits in the way of the additional parking spaces, requiring expensive grading.

Under an agreement between the city and the county, the county will fund the fire department expansion. The expansion will add four bays, a meeting room, office space, sleeping quarters, a laundry room, kitchen and storage.

It is unclear how big a hit the county will take from the economic downturn. According to the county finance office, it depends on where sales tax figures come in at the end of the fiscal year June 30.

So far the county has asked each department to cut its budget by 3 percent, which would save a total of $1.5 million.

The commissioners are hoping that federal stimulus money could help fund some of the capital projects. County Manager Ken Westmoreland said the county has submitted a total of $31 million in capital projects to the governor, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Association of County Commissioners for possible stimulus package funding.

The county is waiting to see how much the state will get from the stimulus package and how the state will divide that money up. It is expected to be about a month or two before it is clear how much the county will get, Westmoreland said. Some of the stimulus money may also go toward water and sewer projects for the Tuckasegee Water and Sewer Authority.

Comment

Commissioner Tom Massie wants to see the county formalize how it funds capital projects.

Under the current method entities simply approach the county when they are in need and ask for funding. Massie suggested that entities fill out an application requesting capital project funding, and then county staff can study the forms to determine if the projects are really needed.

The application would give different capital projects a ranking and help the county prioritize projects. He said the N.C. Institute of Government recommends that local governments handle capital projects this way.

Under the county’s current system there is some disorganization, he said. For instance, he said SCC said it didn’t need anything eight months ago and now needs about $1 million for a new building.

Having a formal system will provide a rational and logical explanation as to why projects are needed. He said since he has been on board, some projects that have been approved were nice but not necessarily needed. The application process would enable the county to plan five to 10 years down the road, Massie said.

Massie made the recommendation to fellow commissioners at a capital projects workshop last week.

Comment

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