Here in our mountain communities — where most politicians still do their jobs because of a genuine desire to serve — the influence of money is becoming pervasive. It’s not junkets to resort islands or lavish dinner parties, though, that’s making the news. In at least two recent cases its real estate and how to deal with the boom.
As money flows into these mountains in previously unimaginable quantities, the job of local politicians has become even more complicated than before. Very often, now, these leaders have to walk a fine line between business interests and the public good. That sounds easy enough, but a few recent examples reveal how these concerns play out in the real world.
Haywood County commissioners have been embroiled in a debate about a valuable piece of property they own on Russ Avenue. The land is next to the county’s temporary offices. Those offices are in the former home of the Mountain Area Resource Center (MARC), and land is beside it where the old Bargains store is located. The county got the land when MARC self-destructed due to the financial mistakes of its top administrator.
Last year county commissioners agreed in principle to work out a deal so Mountain Projects could get the land. That organization is going to build — somewhere — a joint Head Start-Senior Daycare center. Although a consensus was reached during a work session to proceed with that plan, no formal vote was ever taken. However, negotiations on several aspects of the lease continued between county administrators and Mountain Projects leaders.
When the necessary deadline approached to turn over the land, at least two commissioners faltered. County commission Chairman Larry Ammons’ and Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick’s reasons for opposing the decision were two-fold — one, the land deal had never been formally approved; and two, the land is too valuable for a Head Start-Senior Daycare center.
It’s the second argument that goes to the issue of money and leadership. What is the role of a locally elected leader when it comes to a real estate deal like this? Should the first allegiance be to protect taxpayer money, which in this case would mean holding on to this land and at some point selling it to some commercial entity for a whole lot of money? Doing so would get the county — and its taxpayers — the most money and add to what’s sure to become nearly wall-to-wall commercial development along this sector. That would seem a fiscally sound move.
Or, on the other hand, shouldn’t commissioners help their constituents while sticking to a decision made — again, in principle — by a former set of commissioners? Mountain Projects, for those who don’t know, survives on a patchwork of money from various government and granting sources, serving the poor, the elderly, and children from low-income families. Seems these are the citizens who most need public help.
If the county had followed through on the lease-purchase agreement with Mountain Projects, the decision would have served another end — that of promoting mixed-use development along a commercial corridor. Some have argued that busy Russ Avenue is not a great place for a center that children and senior citizens would visit every day, but I don’t know if that argument is valid. Mixing different uses in the same area, if done correctly, usually leads to a good result.
Mountain Projects has pulled its request for this land, but the debate points out some distinctions that might help voters in coming elections. Commissioners Mary Ann Enloe and Bill Upton both wanted to honor the agreement with Mountain Projects, while Ammons and Kirkpatrick argued — in essence — that it was not in the best interest of the county to part with this valuable land for this purpose. Commissioner Skeeter Curtis was the swing vote, but he never weighed in.
In the end, as another local reporter pointed out, commissioners were torn between acting like real estate developers or advocates for the needy. The distinction, of course, is not that clear-cut, but voters in Haywood County can take from this issue some important knowledge about their county commissioners.
Jackson County commissioners find themselves in a completely different situation. They enacted a temporary moratorium on all subdivisions until they could finalize new ordinances. About 1,300 people showed up at a public hearing back in March, and many of them were damn angry.
Here, the rapid growth spurred by the injection of big, big money into the development business spurred commissioners into action. Developers are buying huge tracts of land in Jackson County, and neighborhoods were being laid out and built very quickly. The county had no ordinances and wanted to get something on the books.
All this sounds simple enough, but here’s the rub. It’s almost all local people being hired by these developers with the money. The construction industry in Jackson County and all around the mountains is perhaps our fastest-growing economic sector. Almost anyone with a truck and a few tools can find work. Which made this moratorium even more controversial. Not only were the moneyed developers against it, so were a lot of working-class citizens who were born and raised in Jackson County.
The easy way out, of course, would be to sit back and do nothing. In the short term jobs would have been created, new residents would flock to the new subdivisions, the tax base would go up, and it would appear that Jackson County was thriving.
But one county commissioner told me that although there were many vocal opponents of the moratorium, his phone calls and emails — contacts with people who cared but did not like to participate in public forums — was running overwhelmingly in support of a temporary moratorium and strong subdivision and steep slope ordinances.
It was a brave move by Jackson commissioners, one I’ll applaud. Voters, as in Haywood County, will have to draw their own conclusions from this moratorium about their commissioners. Four commissioners — Tom Massie, Joe Cowan, Mark Jones and William Shelton — thought good land-use planning outweighed the good of unchecked development. Commission Chairman Brian McMahan did not support the moratorium.
As time goes on, elected leaders will make more and more decisions about real estate that in the past did not matter much. There was plenty of land, and it wasn’t all that valuable. Now, its seems, those decisions about land and how it should be used have moved to the top of priority list for almost everyone. What we do with it in the next few decades matters.
As real estate developers say: “There’s only so much mountain land, and they aren’t making any more of it.”