John and Deborah Prelaz, the couple that sued the town in an attempt to gain ownership rights to Camp Hope, have appealed a Haywood County jury’s May ruling in favor of Canton.
The case will head to the North Carolina Court of Appeals, where a three-jury panel will decide whether to affirm the original verdict or send the case back to Haywood County for a new trial. The process could take up to a year depending on how the Court of Appeals rules.
The appeal was not unexpected.
“We are not surprised,” said Canton Town Manager Al Matthews.
Matthews hopes the verdict sticks and the town retains ownership to the 100-acre tract, in turn preserving it as a public use area instead of falling into private ownership by the Prelazes.
“We still feel we were right in the case we presented the first time,” Matthews said.
The Prelazes have reversion rights on Camp Hope, a 100-acre property off U.S. 276 in Cruso should the town fail to uphold certain stipulations that are a condition of the town’s historic ownership of the property. During a weeklong civil trial in May, the couple argued that Canton failed to meet the deed requirements — namely that the property was not adequately made available for public use.
The town successfully countered that the property was in fact always open for public use, even though Camp Hope was rented out to Wellsprings Adventure Camp, a private entity that runs weight-loss camps during the summer months.
However, Canton officials could not say how many people had used the property for planned gatherings, walks or fishing. The town was accused of not making it widely known that the property was open to public recreation.
Some county residents said they did not realize Camp Hope was open for public use because of a lack of advertising.
The lawsuit and the media coverage surrounding it, however, went a long way toward getting the word out. Since the suit, Canton employees have fielded many calls inquiring about the property’s availability for events later this year and next. Since April, Camp Hope has hosted four events. Another eight, including a wedding, are on the calendar to take place between now and the end of September.
Now, whenever people call to inquire about using Camp Hope, town employees send out a packet explaining the rental rates and rules. Most of the inquiries have been for next year. However, the calls could be all for naught if the Prelazes’ appeal is successful, and Camp Hope becomes private property.
As a result of the lawsuit, Wellsprings Adventure Camp pulled out of its agreement with the town. In exchange for use of Camp Hope, Wellsprings had performed maintenance and upkeep of the property, a job and expense that has now fallen back on the town.
During the May trial, Canton leaders talked about reconnecting with Wellsprings Adventure Camp to bring its weight-loss program back to Camp Hope, but Matthews said the town hasn’t in fact spoken with Wellsprings about that possibility since the trial ended.
“We forward the mail to them. That is about it,” he said.
Currently, a community-led group called Friends of Camp Hope is sprucing up the property, maintaining the cabins, planting flowers and clearing walking and running paths.
Everyday, people visit the property, according to Camp Hope neighbor Pam Kearse, who co-founded Friends of Camp Hope.
“Each evening, we have people up here walking,” Kearse said. “We are excited to see more and more people using it.”
Since the publicity surrounding the trial, people who have never visited Camp Hope or have not been there in years have shown up.
“The activity up here has increased each day. That is just real exciting for us in the neighborhood to see,” Kearse said.
Friends of Camp Hope is always looking for volunteers to help clean-up and maintain the property as well as the buildings on it, which include eight cabins, a bathhouse, an open pavilion and a dining hall facility with a kitchen. The group is also asking people to submit pictures and stories from their experience with Camp Hope, so they can start compiling a history of the property.