Arts + Entertainment

Susan Sakna and her two dogs were far from their home in Massachusetts. But like many Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, Sakna discovered the perfect temporary respite for the night staying at a hotel in Franklin.

This was an opportunity to rest her weary feet — and the dogs’ weary paws — before tackling more of the nation’s most-famous hiking trail. Stopping in Franklin has become routine for AT hikers such as Sakna.

Franklin serves as a chance to get rid of equipment found to be useless and to stock up on items discovered to be essential. Most of the hikers taking breaks here are about one-week in to their six-month journey; Franklin is 100 miles from the trailhead in Springer Mountain, Ga. This means that Franklin serves as the first place to closely evaluate and correct gear needs and equipment problems.

The AT passes just 11 miles from Franklin at its closest point near Winding Stair Gap.

“It’s very pretty here,” Sakna said as she sat outside a Franklin hotel surveying the surrounding mountains with dogs Max and Shay. Sakna was waiting for a shuttle to arrive and transport her and the dogs back to the AT. “And it’s good to get away from the trail — in some ways, you really can’t even see the mountains when you’re on it because of all the rhododendrons around.”

As AT thru-hikers pour into Franklin at an ever-increasing rate each year, town officials and business owners seem to increasingly relish and appreciate their role as an AT trail destination. Twenty years ago, even 10 years ago, the hikers generally came and went with little notice or fanfare. No more: Franklin, these days, prides itself on having close ties to the AT. And, the town is gearing up for April Fool’s Trail Days on March 30 and March 31, capitalizing on the town’s close proximity to the 2,181-mile long trail stretching from Georgia to Maine.

 

Franklin as hikers’ paradise

“We see the Appalachian Trail as one of our main economic drivers,” said Linda Schlott, Franklin Main Street Program executive director. “And Trail Days just continues to grow.”

Franklin started April Fool’s Trail Day’s four years ago. In March 2010, the town officially was designated an Appalachian Trail Community at the invitation of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Franklin became the first location in the South to receive the conservancy’s designation as an official trail community.

The Appalachian Trail Community designation is a relatively new program designed to promote the economic benefits of the trail to nearby communities and to foster local stewardship of the trail. For its part, Franklin showed its tie to the trail by creating a trail advisory committee, hosting an annual trail event, initiating an AT-focused education program through the school and library systems and getting the county planning department to commit to considering the trail in its land use plans.

Franklin has bigger eyes than just mining the AT, however.

“We’re not only looking at AT hikers but to use this as a base for all hikers,” Schlott said of the town’s trail-friendly status.

Macon County, in addition to the famous AT, has a substantial portion of the Bartram Trail, plus easy access to hundreds of miles of hiking trails within the Nantahala National Forest.

 

Important economic boost

Rob Gasbarro, co-owner of Outdoor 76 in downtown Franklin, said the gear-heavy store on Main Street gets a lot of AT thru-hiker traffic.

“It’s a big deal for us,” Gasbarro said. “And, Trail Days is a great opportunity to introduce locals to people doing the six-month pilgrimage.”

Down the street at the Life’s Bounty Gift Shop and Bakery and Café, co-owner Tony Hernandez has grown very fond, too, of the thru-hikers — they come in hungering for the carbohydrates, sweets and the breakfast specials offered there.

“Basically, most of my customers this morning all have been hikers,” Hernandez said one day last week. “And, they are wanting lots of carbs or breakfasts.”

Hernandez welcomes the hikers in, packs and all; just as Franklin these days is doing, too.

 

Franklin a do-or-die town for A.T. hikers

Thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail — those who attempt an entire 2,181-mile trek from Georgia to Maine, from start to finish — are starting to show up in Western North Carolina.

To finish the trail before the New England winter sets in, hikers must set hit the trail in Georgia in March. Of the 2,000 or so who set out to thru-hike the trail, only 25 percent actually make it. Most drop out the first month. That makes the Nantahala and Smoky mountain ranges do-or-die for hikers — this is the stretch of trail where they decide to either pack it in or keep on packing.

Hikers who hop off the trail in Franklin to restock on provisions will find a little extra encouragement in their trying early weeks with the annual April Fool’s Trail Days on March 30 and March 31. Here’s the lineup:

• Hiker bash at 6 p.m. both nights at the Sapphire Inn on East Main Street. A chance for hikers to connect and share stories and advice.

• Trail Days event from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, March 31, with outdoor gear vendors, food, entertainment and more. There also will be workshops, a rock climbing wall, children’s activities. One of the day’s highlights will be the 2012 Go Outside and Play Road Show presented by Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine. This exhibit encourages participants to become more involved with their local outdoor community and to inspire spectators to be more active in the outdoors.

828.524.2516 or www.aprilfoolstraildays.com.

Macon County Planner Derek Roland will leave his post to become the Town of Franklin's planner. Current Franklin town Planner Mike Grubermann will retire this month.

"Derek has been awesome," said Lewis Penland, chairman of the Macon County Planning Board. "He had a hard job from day one, but he really hit the ground running. Derek really cares about this county and the future of this county."

Roland, a Franklin native, joined the county in March 2009. Being Macon County's planner is not exactly a walk in the park — Macon is fiercely divided among pro-planning and anti-planning factions, with the planning board serving as the primary focus of all that ongoing angst.

Roland, however, managed to steer clear of potential hornets nests during his tenure. Despite standing room only public hearings in the county courtroom on planning matters during recent months, not once did Roland become a topic of discussion at any of those gatherings.

Roland on Monday described going to the town as "a good opportunity — not a better one, but a good one."

"I think going to the town is an opportunity for him," County Manager Jack Horton said.

Horton said he expects hiring a new planner will take some time. The county plans to start advertising the position next week. Until someone is hired, Jack Morgan, who oversees code and planning enforcement for Macon County, will cover Roland's duties. Horton said other county staff would be used, too, as needed.

He starts March 26. Roland said his first task would be to learn Franklin's Unified Development Ordinance, the town's primary planning document.

Lewis Penland doesn't attempt to deny he's a stubborn man, or soften the suggestion that he digs in the heels of his work boots ever deeper the more people try to push him around.

"The only people I care about are the ones I care about. And if I don't care for them, to hell with them," Penland said in a recent interview.

Which goes a long way toward explaining why Penland, chairman of the Macon County Planning Board, hasn't given one inch to anti-planning forces in the county who've painted him as a mad man run amok. A planning zealot, to hear them tell it, a rude and overbearing tyrant on a mission to corral and impede the God-given property rights of residents living in Macon County by saddling them with unnecessary and liberty-defiling rules.

That, however, is a difficult measuring tape to successfully use for sizing up Penland, given that this Macon County native is an actual, in-the-flesh land developer himself. And not a putt-putt sized mini developer, for that matter. Penland, who previously developed golf courses across the Southeast, now works for the commercial real estate arm of the Texas-based Keller Williams Realty as a golf course sales analyst. Penland's work these days is international in scope.

Penland is an unapologetic, flat-out believer in planning regulations. But Penland's reasons for supporting development guidelines might come as something of a surprise to his detractors: Yes, Penland wants to protect individual property owners, but additionally he fervently believes that the only way Macon County will ever attract the multimillion dollar housing developments is by offering protections to developers. And those, he said, come in the form of planning regulations.

"It all boils down to jobs," Penland said. "If regulations are so bad, why is there commerce going on in the other counties? Look east — Jackson, Haywood and Buncombe are starting to show signs of growth. And Jackson probably has the most stringent guidelines of anyone. Look west — they are as bad or worse than we are, and they also don't have regulations. Look at the numbers: Numbers don't have a dog in this fight. And I want jobs to come back to Franklin."


'Why bother?'

While planning detractors hoped to see him ousted, Penland last month was reappointed to his seat on the planning board by a 4-1 vote of the Macon County commissioners . Only Commissioner Ron Haven voted 'no' to Penland's reappointment.

Haven had pushed for term limits on the planning board, a move some saw as a thinly veiled attempt to get rid of the long-serving Penland — a theory undergirded by an email Haven sent lambasting Penland.

While there are now term limits, they're not nearly as strict in nature as what Haven wanted. Under the newly approved term limit guidelines, given the thumbs up by the other four county commissioners, Penland can serve a three-year term, wait one year, and serve again. The limits were not retroactively applied so the limit to Penland's tenure starts now.

The planning board, and in particular Penland, emerged in the past year as a lightning rod for anti-planning factions in Macon County. An attempt by the planning board to craft a steep-slope ordinance crashed and burned after some two years work. It was replaced, under Penland's guidance and by his suggestion, with so-called "construction guidelines" that have yet, after some four months, received neither commissioners' approval nor disapproval. The guidelines, routine in nature by most counties' measures, mainly deal with how tall and steep cut and fill slopes can be and with basic road-compaction standards.

The email written by Haven about Penland led to high political drama, even by Macon County standards, and this is a community well rehearsed in dramatic showdowns over planning issues. In a bushwhack job of the English language and, more arguably, Penland's character, Haven wrote to his fellow commissioners a couple months ago: "So with us being at the crossroads at putting Lewis Penland back on board for another upsetting three years to keep doing the same thing the people are tired of, it seems the timing is just right with nothing in the way. It is time right now to make changes and you commissioners know it. Penland with his rude attitude, close minded, self agenda ideas has no place on the planning board."

Early in February, in a public forum with up to 200 people present, Haven did not retract the content of his email but did openly assert that he believes Penland is "a good man."

And Penland, for his part, speaks with apparent real respect for Haven. The hotel owner turned elected political leader is someone who doesn't flinch under fire, Penland said.

"I admire Ron," Penland said. "He will stand there and he will stay the course. That's admirable."

Niceties aside, Penland still hasn't particularly enjoyed being a metaphorical marshmallow on a stick roasting over the planning-board campfire. Serving on the planning board, after all, is a volunteer job done as a form of civic duty.

"Some days, you wake up and wonder: 'Why did I even bother?'" he said, and then explained why he does: "I love the county and I do worry about the future of kids here."

Penland is married and has children. He grew up in east Franklin; Penland lives now west of town in the Cartoogechaye community.


The two sides

Sue Waldroop served as chairman of the Macon County Planning Board for six years. Though her job was tough enough, filling that role wasn't anything like what Penland has experienced.

"He's had a lot of sticks poked at him," Waldroop said.

Like Penland, this former planning board chairman is a native-born "Maconian," as the local newspaper likes to dub in print those who live in this county. Any dirt under Waldroop's nails, though, came from farming, not development.

Waldroop doesn't like what she's seeing and hearing these days in Macon County when it comes to passing what she, at least, considers reasonable, prudent safeguards on development.

"We're polarized by a group of naysayers," Waldroop said. "They've made a religion out of screaming about property rights. ... They have hindered, in particular, steep slope regulations that are so desperately needed."

If there's a Daddy Rabbit in the anti-planning faction in Macon County, that would be Don Swanson, a no apologies-sort of fellow when it comes to standing up and backing his political beliefs. Swanson calls it like he sees it, and the way he sees the situation, the planning board has long been an outright "source of agitation and embarrassment" to Macon County.

Swanson said there are too many members on the board (there are 12), and that most of those serving "are there for political reasons rather than any expertise they might offer."

"They have overreached in their efforts to regulate Macon County to the extent that our largest industry, construction, may never recover from the current economic slowdown," he said. "Land use planning at the expense of maintaining employment opportunities seems to be the aim of the board."

Swanson pointed to a recent code of conduct passed by commissioners to govern the planning board as reflecting a general "lack of civility that has been pervasive in their activities."

Those activities having taken place primarily under Penland's leadership as chairman of the planning board. One could argue that any lack of civility has been the fault, if fault it is, of both factions, and that Penland has simply been trying to ride herd, as it's said, on the equivalent of a bunch of cats.

Some of it might be unavoidable given the polarized positions. Ardent opponents of planning at the same table as advocates, expected to find common ground on a highly passionate issue, is a recipe for strife.


Decision time

Penland likes the makeup of the current board, pointing to the extremes of two current long-serving members as demonstrative of its overall balance: Susan Ervin, representing the pro-planning residents of Macon County, and Lamar Sprinkle, representing the other end of that spectrum.

"You don't need 'yes' people, and you wouldn't want all pro-planning or all the other way, either," he said.

But Penland does have concerns about future members that commissioners might opt to appoint to the planning board.

"I'm worried. You need planners who want to do planning," Penland said.

As to what exactly the planning board can accomplish at this point is unclear. They have no real direction as of yet.

"All of that's going to be up to our commissioners and to the people of this county," Penland said. "And if we really don't want planning, we need to just be done with it."

To hear Franklin Alderman Bob Scott tell it, fellow town leaders and tourism experts haven’t begun to adequately plan for and consider what an influx of some 4,000 bikers could mean to a small town of 3,500 residents.

Franklin will hold its first-ever town sanctioned motorcycle rally Aug. 17-19. The town plans to block off streets downtown for motorcycle-specific vendors to set up, plus have live bands providing entertainment during the day on Franklin’s town square at the gazebo. Also on tap is a beer garden to help slake the thirst of motorcyclists.

To say this is new for Franklin, a fairly staid mountain community in most respects, is to indulge in understatement. But, hard economic times have communities such as this one willing to experiment in the name of attracting additional dollars from tourist billfolds.

That’s not enough reason, in Scott’s book at least, to ignore possible planning-preventable pitfalls.

“Every other festival we have ever had in here has come to and worked with the town board,” Scott said. “This outfit has never come to the town board, despite this having the probability of being the biggest impact event we’ve ever had here.”

USRider News out of Georgia will be putting on and orchestrating the rally. It received a $14,000 grant from the Franklin Tourism Development Authority to market the event, using proceeds from the town’s 3-percent tax on overnight lodging.

Scott Cochran, publisher of USRider News, said Tuesday that they hope to talk to the Franklin Board of Aldermen next month.

 

A done deal?

Franklin Mayor Joe Collins said he believes the town simply won’t know if the motorcycle rally was a good move until it has happened.

“I am certain the event is being tendered and proffered in good faith and in the belief that it would be beneficial,” said Collins, who is a veteran attorney in Macon County.

The mayor said the modern motorcycle rally tends to be “a different breed of animal” than they once were. Motorcyclists, he noted, “have gone from the have nots to the haves,” and have the money and means that go with professional lifestyles.

“We’re obviously going to try it, then we will be able to gauge its value much more after we have one,” Collins said.

Scott, like Collins, emphasized that he, too, believes rallies have come a long way from their once scruffy, rowdy and hard-partying days.

“I’ve had three motorcycles myself,” Scott said. “But, this is something more than just a family reunion. Where are we going to put 4,000 people for three days? My feeling is that a biker rally just isn’t in keeping with what Franklin is. But, it looks like it’s a done deal.”

Maggie Valley, king of motorcycle rallies in WNC with five on its calendar this year, has grappled at times with the onslaught of bikes on the town’s roads. But while Maggie Valley and Cherokee, too, have long hosted motorcycle rallies, they generally are held in fields and outdoor festival venues rather than directly in downtowns.

Cochran, the promoter, said he believes Franklin will be happy with the results of its first motorcycle rally.

“There are always going to be some concerns we won’t be able to address until the event happens,” Cochran said Tuesday. “It’s just going to take the rally happening to see what we are saying is true.”

 

Merchants seem to favor rally

An informal survey of merchants and business employees on Main Street seemed to mainly reveal curiosity about what this could mean for Franklin, with the hope that cash registers will be working overtime.

“We’ve never had a problem with those motorcyclists who come through Franklin,” said Linda McKay of N.C. Mountain Made. “Their wives always want to shop.”

McKay said that the downtown closing will take place from Macon County’s Courthouse to Harrison Avenue, which means downtown businesses won’t suffer. That area is fairly limited in nature, to funeral homes, a restaurant and a few other places.

“Bob (Scott) is the only one I’ve heard about who is against it,” McKay said. “But anytime you have anything going on downtown, it helps the merchants.”

Rennie Davant, who volunteers at the Macon County Art Association’s Uptown Gallery, agreed with McKay. A recent downtown festival, she said, “brought people in, and it was fun.”

Davant noted that it was about 2 p.m. on a Saturday and that this reporter was only the fifth person to cross the store’s threshold. A little more customer action, she said, would be nice. Davant had been whiling away time talking by phone with her sister.

“We’re all for it,” Tony Hernandez hollered out emphatically from his place in the kitchen of Life’s Bounty Gift Shop and Bakery/ Café. Hernandez added that by then the store planned to be serving food in a banquet room downstairs and hoped to be offering beer and wine by then, too.

Betty Sapp, who works two days each week at Rosebud Cottage on Main Street, was slightly more reserved than Hernandez.

“If the motorcyclists are well behaved, I have no objections because it will bring business into town,” Sapp said. “If it is an unruly crowd, next year will be a different thing. But, our economy needs a shot of help.”

Macon County Schools Superintendent Dan Brigman once again has landed squarely in the crosshairs of a group devoted to protecting that legally mandated chasm between state and church.

Brigman sent a December email to his employees that included the line: “And finally, Christmas is a time of joy and celebration as we have already received the ultimate gift and sacrifice that continues to present each of us with hope.”

And in a similar message posted on the schools’ website under “superintendent’s blog,” Brigman wrote: “And finally, Christmas is a time of joy and celebration as we have already received the ultimate gift and sacrifice that continues to present each of us with hope.”

Big no-nos, according the national group Freedom from Religion Foundation, which last year also censured Brigman after the Rev. Daniel “Cowboy” Stewart served as a commencement speaker for tiny Nantahala School in the northwestern corner of Macon County.

Stewart offered prayers at the graduation and delivered a sermon that involved wrapping a student volunteer in ropes to demonstrate the hold of the devil. Brigman initially defended Stewart’s performance but later, under pressure, conceded that the vetting procedure by Macon County Schools for speakers had failed.

Rebecca Markert, attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, sent a letter to the school system at that time after a local resident contacted the foundation expressing concerns about the commencement. Her letter asked that the school system take “immediate steps to ensure that religious ritual and proselytizing” stay out of graduations in the future, which Brigman said it would do.

Markert, contacted following this more recent incident, said she was amazed that after such a recent go-round Brigman would again openly defy what the foundation considers a clear and unmistakable instance of violating the separation of church and state. A Macon County resident, as before, contacted the foundation with complaints.

“It just seems really surprising since we were in such recent contact that he’d make these overtly religious messages not only to the staff, but to the public,” Markert said from her office in Wisconsin. “I think he crossed the line and it was proselytizing.”

In her letter to Brigman this time, Markert wrote in part: “It is grossly inappropriate for you, as superintendent of Macon County Schools, to include religious references in any official public school email or blog posting, especially when those communications reach students. You, as a public school employee, have a duty to remain neutral towards religion.”

Markert noted that Brigman used a public school email account, which “cannot be used as a means of imposing your own personal religious beliefs.”

“As the ultimate educational role model for your district, it is incumbent upon you to not model unconstitutional communication lest it be emulated by principals and teachers who follow your lead,” she wrote.

For his part, Brigman said he is fully cognizant of the federal law mandating the separation of church and state.

“I am award of what can and can’t be done,” Brigman said. “I meant to wish (his staff) a Merry Christmas.”

Brigman said he planned to send Markert and the foundation a letter acknowledging their concerns.

Markert said there wouldn’t be additional fallout if Brigman did indeed follow through by doing that as promised.

Macon County’s planning board lived to plan another day. Proposed retroactive term limits, which some considered punitive because they seemed to mainly target the most experienced, pro-planning of the board’s members, were rejected by commissioners.

Planning Board Chairman Lewis Penland and longtime members Susan Ervin — very pro-planning — and Lamar Sprinkle — very much not pro-planning — can continue serving under this compromise.

“We have a wonderful planning board,” said Democratic Commissioner Ronnie Beale prior to the vote. “And you’ve been lampooned, laughed at — that’s not right.”

Beale and fellow Democratic Commissioner Bobby Kuppers flatly informed their Republican colleagues that they would not support retroactive term limits, setting the stage for a compromise proposal by two of the board’s three Republicans.

“This is the 500-pound gorilla in the room, so we might as well talk about it,” Kuppers said. “I believe that retroactivity — by making them retroactive — that is a thinly veiled effort … aimed at individuals.”

Many of those individuals were in fact present at the meeting. Some spoke earlier that same evening during a nearly two-hour public hearing on term limits for the planning board. Penland was not there.

 

Out of bounds?

The brouhaha over Macon County’s planning board ignited after Republican Commissioner Ron Haven sent a recent email expressing his concerns and misgivings about the planning board to fellow commissioners. It is unclear whether Haven understood that his email was by state law a public document. But it was, and the contents of his missive landed with the commotion of a pussycat being thrown into a dog party.

Haven, in his email bomb, accused the planning board of running amok and disregarding commissioners’ instructions. Haven openly demanded Planning Board Chairman Penland be ousted, thus targeting the planning board’s most vocal advocate for development regulations. Haven suggested the board possibly be abolished. He dubbed Penland a “dictator.”

Beale, who earlier that evening had drawn laughs and guffaws from the crowd at the expense of speaker and developer Michelle Masta because she doesn’t reside in Macon County, reprimanded Haven for what Beale considered unseemly behavior.

“To attack a volunteer is out of bounds,” Beale said. “To call them a dictator; that is out of bounds.”

Kuppers, too, proved eager to defend the planning board as a whole and Penland in particular. Kuppers is running for re-election. Corbin and Republican Jimmy Tate are running for their commission seats, too. Both Corbin and Tate were originally appointed, not elected, to the board.

“We don’t have to resort to accusations and ridicule,” Kuppers said.

Haven, for his part, acknowledged that he “brought the people tonight.” There was standing room only at the Macon County courtroom, which meant with overflow into the hall probably 150 to 200 people were there.

Clearly emotional and visibly red faced, Haven took a microphone in hand and stood in front of the jury box and addressed the crowd. The four other commissioners remained seated during their public comments.

“I’m not here cutting no one down,” Haven said, then accused some of “flying to conclusions.”

“‘Oh,’” Haven suddenly hollered into the microphone in an apparent imitation of those upset, “‘they are trying to throw us off the planning board.’”

“I done it out of fairness,” he told the crowd. “And this has nothing to do with politics. I want to be fair.”

A victim perhaps of his emotion, Haven never quite successfully elucidated what exactly he had intended to accomplish with the email and subsequent proposed term limits.

 

Macon speaks

Thirty-three people spoke during the public hearing on the term limits. Most appeared to support at least the concept of planning, which, in Macon County, should never be considered a given.

Former Planning Board Chairman Sue Waldroop defended the work done by volunteers on the board, calling it a “thankless, sometimes frustrating, undertaking.”

“Contrary to recently published charges that planning board members wish to dictate to their fellow citizens, no planning board … has that power,” she said.

Waldroop spoke against term limits, saying that it would “cripple” the board’s ability to conduct business.

Bill Crawford also spoke against the concept, saying it seemed an attempt “to remove some specific people. And that’s not right.”

But, several speakers called on commissioners to pass the term limits exactly as Haven had proposed.

“Requiring a turnover in planning board membership will lead to broader citizen participation,” said Vic Drummond. “I believe greater diversity would improve the board.”

Bruce Thorne said he believes a “new infusion” of thought via new board members was needed.

“We need new blood in the system,” Thorne said.

Planning Board Member Jimmy Goodman said he knows “plenty” of residents who want to serve but “can’t get on for political reasons.”

At times the debate went beyond term limits, as when Loretta Newton told commissioners that no one should be allowed to tell her what she can or cannot do on her private property, but that they do anyway.

“You can regulate my private use of my property. You can make it so I can’t even enjoy my property.”

Other Macon County residents called for a more “civil discourse,” as planning board member Larry Stenger put it, when discussions vital to the county surface as they surely will.

 

Term limits passed for planning board members

The Macon County Board of Commissioners agreed to term limits that start only after each of the planning board members completes another term in office. And, instead of the harsh three-year boot off the board before possible reappointment that was originally proposed, commissioners voted on a shortened one-year timeout.

Planning board terms of service will consist of two three-year terms, for a total of six years before the required one-year respite.

The vote was 4-1 with Commissioner Ron Haven, who made the original proposal to enforce retroactive term limits, voting no. Commissioners Kevin Corbin, Jimmy Tate, Ronnie Beale and Bobby Kuppers voted yes.

Not long ago Kristina and Bruce Oliver invited a local couple they’d met in nearby Franklin to come play cards with them at their newly constructed house in Diamond Falls Estates.

The phone rang about the time the visitors were expected to arrive at the subdivision, a 285-acre development in the Cartoogechaye area of Macon County bordered on three sides by the Nantahala National Forest.

The local couple apologized and said they’d misunderstood the Olivers’ directions. They had driven somewhere else by mistake. They were lost in a construction zone and weren’t sure where they were or which way to go next. Not to worry, Kristina assured them after getting a description of what the couple saw from their vehicle’s windows. Just keep going, Kristina said, that house on the hill a short distance ahead was indeed the Olivers’ new home.

Drive into Diamond Falls Estate, just out of sight of the entrance gate and the ubiquitous-to-every-mountain-development clubhouse, past the perfectly manicured expanse of lawns, and you might understand why that visiting couple was confused. The subdivision does indeed in places resemble a construction zone, even now some two years after buyers started handing over dollars for lots in what the developer touted as “North Carolina’s latest green community.”

“The primary issue is the roads. We were all told that they would be paved,” Oliver said. She and her husband paid $61,000 for their lot and built a two-story house that was completed last fall.

“We’ve put a good chunk of our retirement savings into this,” said Oliver, a former financial controller and vice president of finances for a specialty store chain.

On this rainy day the roads in Diamond Falls Estates were rough quagmires of gravel, red subsoil mud and pools of water. Without four-wheel drive, they would be impassible. The Olivers, who live fulltime in Birmingham, Ala., purchased a full-sized Nissan four-wheel drive pickup truck because, they said, of the poor condition of the subdivision’s roads.

 

‘A bill of goods?’

Michelle Masta and L.C. Jones of Franklin represent Diamond Falls Estates’ developer, Shirley Buafo. A message left with Buofo’s secretary at her workplace Monday in Macon, Ga., went unreturned as of press time.

To hear Masta tell it, Oliver is a bad apple spoiling an entire barrel of subdivision fun. Masta flat out accused Oliver of “telling lies” about the true situation in the subdivision. Masta said that there aren’t any issues with the roads in Diamond Falls Estates. At least, she said, on the part of the developer of Diamond Falls Estates. The real estate company that might have made promises buyers relied on? Well, that’s a different matter.

“I don’t appreciate Kristina Oliver making accusations that aren’t true,” Masta said. “We are doing everything we can out there. If a real estate agent told them something that was not true, we have no control over that – they need to go after the real estate company or report it to the N.C. Real Estate Commission.”

Masta said, not entirely accurately, that Oliver is the only one of 65 lot owners in Diamond Falls who “has a problem.” In fact, other homeowners besides Oliver are also concerned about the roads.

“We were sold a bill of goods,” lot owner Mark Moore of Atlanta said bluntly in a telephone interview.

But, Masta is correct in noting that not every lot owner is unhappy about the subdivision’s progress. Catherine Shea of Florida, who with her husband owns two lots in Diamond Falls Estates and is building on one of them next to Oliver, said she has found Masta and Jones responsive to issues and complaints.

“I’m not concerned yet; I’m really not,” Shea said.

Not that she’s A-OK with the condition of roads in the subdivision, either, however.

“The real culprit in planting a seed of negativity in Diamond Falls was the real estate company,” Shea said. “They out and out lied.”

That would be the group that marketed Diamond Falls on Oct. 4, 2010, when many of the lot owners first saw the Macon County subdivision.

“We’re not the bad guys,” Masta said of the development side of Diamond Falls Estates.

 

Expect tenacity

The chirpy advertising slogans that worked to attract buyers in 2010 sound so inviting: “indulge in an oasis away from the everyday;” “pure natural beauty preserved for the fortunate few.”

And there’s this paragraph in the online sales literature: “Have peace of mind knowing that protective, yet simple, building covenants will help maintain the overall beauty, theme and value at Diamond Falls Estates.”

Oliver finds it difficult to overlook the audacity of that sort of sales pitch. But, you are mistaken if you believe she’s angry. Oliver isn’t a woman who wastes much time on anger: a member of Mensa International, the high IQ society, she’s marshalling her facts and figures and laying out a strategy for moving forward. She and husband Bruce are members together in the society, a fact that was mentioned incidentally when the discussion turned to Western North Carolina’s own serial bomber, Eric Robert Rudolph, who blew up an abortion clinic in Birmingham. The Olivers, it turned out, were in Mensa with nurse Emily Lyons, who was disfigured in the explosion.

Moore said those involved have likely just crossed paths with one very intelligent woman who will work without respite to hold them accountable. Moore said he and some others in the development rely on Oliver to keep them abreast on what, for now, they claim is a lack of development in the development.

 

Few regs, big loopholes?

Some of the roads in the subdivision are an undeniable mess. But it could have been worse, Oliver told commissioners during a public hearing last week on planning issues (see accompanying article). That’s because the county’s subdivision ordinance will require the development company to pave the roads in at least a portion of Diamond Falls Estates, she said.

Development in Diamond Falls Estates was divided into two phases. The second phase, which included Oliver’s lot and house, was bonded, ensuring that the road will eventually be paved. This thanks to the subdivision ordinance, which was passed, enacted and amended by the time she and her husband bought a lot there last year.

A void in planning regulations is hampering development in Macon County, Oliver said. Not, as developers and anti-planning forces claim, the other way around.

“And there are a million regulations that are imposed by the developer on home owners,” Oliver said. “They just don’t want any imposed on them.”

Dan Kelley, another lot owner in Diamond Falls Estates, made a similar argument in an email sent to planning board member Al Slagle that was provided to Macon County commissioners.  

“I know of four other houses (in addition to his) that would currently be under construction if not for the lack of development in Diamond Falls,” Kelley wrote. “My position on this and others within Diamond Falls is the quickest way to stifle business is for the word to get out that promises are not being honored.”

That said, Kelley wrote a follow up the next day via an email. Masta provided Kelley’s follow up to The Smoky Mountain News. That second email noted: “I do expect promises to be kept but at the same time I believe that L.C. (Jones) has acted in good faith to comply with owners’ needs.”

Kelley noted that he believes “the main issue” involves the original real estate company “promising roads completion and then when people go to Diamond Falls and see that no roads have been asphalted that leads to suspicion and people drawing conclusions.”

For his part, however, Moore is refusing to build until there is clarity about whether the roads will or will not be paved in Diamond Falls Estates.

“I’ve always wanted to have a house back up in the mountains,” the Atlanta resident said by phone late last week. “This looked perfect, and I loved the lot.”

Moore planned on building a 2,700-square-foot house, initially to serve as a second home and ultimately to become a retirement destination. Moore has the architect’s design already in hand. He estimated that it would probably cost him a total of $700,000 to build, which isn’t chump change to local builders and contractors struggling to survive in a dour economy.

“But I’m just not going to spend that kind of money until the roads are done,” Moore said. “It’s crazy — those are four-wheel dirt tracks.”

When it comes to fundraising, there are a lot of different methods employed to get attention and raise critical dollars for doing good deeds. The Macon County Community Foundation, however, stands out from a crowded field with its annual mystery dinner theater.

Because in this community, the nonprofit doesn’t just hire an acting group to come into town and put on the entertainment — here, and in the recent past in Swain County under the guidance of that community foundation, members of the Macon County group’s board put their dignities on the line and participate as actual actors.

This puts Franklin Mayor Joe Collins in the role, this year, of Jack in “The Grimm Tales of Mother Goose.” Jim Breedlove, a school board member, stars as the Big Bad Wolf. Louise Henry appears as Mother Goose, Michele Hubbs as Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary, Theresa Ramsey as the witch and Sue LeLievre is Jill.

LeLievre, the Franklin-based regional associate for the N.C. Community Foundation, said the dinner theater play, “The Grimm Tales of Mother Goose,” came with the warning “not for children.”

“It may be a little suggestive,” she said, “but it really is funny.”

The production pokes fun at the uptight “politically correct” atmosphere of the 1990s while standing the traditional nursery rhymes on their heads. Among the twists, Mother Goose is worn to a frazzle trying to fend off the “PC Police” and prevent her characters from ending up in the tabloids. The Old Woman in a Shoe appears as the original “gimme girl,” and the audience learns what Snow White was really doing with those seven little dwarfs.

“When we started these dinner theaters, people were nervous about being in them,” LeLievre said, adding that now, however, the various community members more-or-less eagerly seek out roles.

Breedlove, for instance, a particularly mild-mannered man, inevitably goes for “cad” characters.

“And it’s not a bit like him,” LeLievre said. “But, he really gets into the part.”

Breedlove said he enjoys participating in the plays, and if the audience has fun the actors have fun, too.

“We get to step outside our normal routines and act silly for a while,” Breedlove said.

Members of the cast throughout the performance enjoy adlibing lines. Which is terrifically funny, LeLievre said, except when you are waiting on a cue to start your part in the play.

“You really never know what’s going to happen,” she said.

The audience participates by solving a mystery included in the mystery theater performance. Macon County Planner Derek Roland is starring as the “detective” in charge of that part of the entertainment. He denied being nervous, saying it’s simply performing in front of the community where he grew up and that already knows him well.

“They already understand I’m an idiot anyway, so it’s not like I’ll be a bigger idiot,” Roland said. “It sounded like fun.”

 

Want to Go?

What: Mystery Dinner Theater

Where: Franklin, Fat Buddies BBQ

When: 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 23; Friday, Feb. 24; and Saturday, Feb. 25

Cost: $35 per person; includes dinner

Reservations: 828.524.5200

Land planning, that perennial lightening-rod topic in Macon County, will likely shape if not outright dominate the upcoming campaign for three of the five county commissioner seats.

Up for election in Macon this year are Republicans Kevin Corbin, Jimmy Tate and Democrat Bobby Kuppers.

The current five-member board has been mired in debates about land regulation, with opponents vigorously attempting to block any county efforts toward regulations, and proponents equally intent on seeing something — anything — put on Macon County’s books.

Chairman Kevin Corbin, a Republican who will seek re-election, said the land planning debate certainly dominates discussion. But he said there’s more to conducting the county business than any single issue.

“I think it’s part of it, and it gets a lot of attention. But the truth is, the county commissioner’s role is so broad,” Corbin said. “It’s only a part of what we are doing.”

That might be true, but there’s also no doubt that Macon County’s ongoing battle to determine what role, if any, the county will play in shaping development is going to be at play in this election.

“I think it will, and it’s a discussion that needs to be had,” said Democrat Commissioner Bobby Kuppers, who filed for re-election on Monday seeking a second four-year term in office. “I want us to have a good-spirited discussion.”

Kuppers is facing competition from a Democratic challenger, Rick Snyder, and said that he expects Republicans will vie for the seat, too.

“But I don’t know who that would be, but I’m sure that they will,” he said. “I’d be very surprised if there is not a Republican running.”

Snyder said that he was running because he thought there was “need for a new direction,” with an emphasis on job creation. Snyder manages properties in Macon County. He said land-planning issues, however, were not triggering or influencing his decision to run.

One of the current commissioners up for election, Republican Jimmy Tate, was previously a member of the planning board. He only recently was appointed to fill an empty seat on the board of commissioners. Tate, like most of the other candidates, said he does expect planning issues to heavily influence the upcoming election.

“I wish that weren’t true, but I think it will be,” the Highlands resident said.

Tate said he does believe in land planning, and that he believes there are ways for the county to move forward on the issue.

 

Musical chairs makes Macon election complicated

Macon County’s commission race is complicated to say the least.

Two of the three commissioners whose seats are up for election landed on the board of commissioners after being appointed — not elected — to fill vacancies left by outgoing commissioners in the middle of their terms.

Commissioner Jimmy Tate, who is from Highlands, has only been on the board for a couple of months. He was appointed to fill the seat of former Commissioner Brian McClellan, who resigned in November following his second DWI charge. Tate, if he indeed runs as expected, will be running to fill McClellan’s unexpired term: the seat will open again in 2014.

Kevin Corbin, in turn, was appointed to fill out the remainder of state Sen. Jim Davis’ term after the commissioner-turned-state-politician beat state Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy, during the last election. Corbin, who filed for election Monday, is not like Tate filling an unexpired term; his would last for the standard four years.

Swain County’s Board of Elections will decide this month whether it is worth several thousand dollars to operate an early voting site in Cherokee again this election year.

The three-member election board all agreed the county might not be able to afford an early voting site in Cherokee this year. However, they disagree on whether low turnout at the site during the 2010 election should be a factor in the decision.

“(Money) is really the only factor,” said Mark Tyson, a member of the three-person board and a Democrat. “I am really hoping that we are able to provide the voting site in Cherokee.”

The board of elections currently doesn’t have the money in its budget to cover the cost of an early voting site in Cherokee, but intend to ask county commissioners for an additional appropriation.

Without the additional location, Cherokee residents will again have to drive to the board of elections office in Bryson City if they want to vote early — a more than 20-minute trek. And, for those living in the far reaches of Cherokee’s Big Cove community, the trip is more like 30 to 40 minutes.

“That is a heck of a drive,” Tyson said.

Election board member Bill Dills said he is in favor of keeping the location in Cherokee as long as it is worth the cost.

“To me, the function of the Board of Elections … is to provide people the opportunity to vote, the way they want to,” he said. “What I want to see is how we can work with those people and get them to take advantage of early vote.”

The board spent about $3,500 to run the site in 2010 and only 226 people used it to vote during that election.

“When you break that down cost wise, it’s not efficient,” said Joan Weeks, director of Swain County’s Board of Elections.

Board of Elections chairman James Fisher echoed a similar sentiment, adding that there is no way to know what the turnout will be this time around.

“We are not against having (early voting) on the reservation or anywhere,” he said. But, “it’s not worthwhile if it’s not used.”

The 2010 election was the first time an early voting site was offered in Cherokee and may need more time to catch on.

Tyson and Dills said they believe more voters will turn out at the early voting site in Cherokee if it is offered again this election.

“Because it was new, a lot of people didn’t know it was there,” Tyson said, adding that the 2010 election did not include a presidential race.

States often see a spike in voter turnout during presidential election years such as this year.

“I think we would see a larger turnout from there,” Tyson said.

However, Dills said that the board did everything it could, including talking to tribal leaders and posting a notice in the tribe’s newspaper, to inform voters about the new site.

“I don’t know what else you could do to make people aware,” Dills said, adding that “a large number” still drove to Bryson City to cast their ballots early.

The cost of holding an election comes from county coffers, namely property taxes. Residents on the Cherokee reservation don’t pay property taxes in Swain County, however, so they don’t directly contributing to the expense.

But the economic benefit — from jobs to tourism — that Swain reaps from the tribe and its massive casino operation far outpaces the about $3,500 outlay the county would pay to staff an early voting site.

The election board plans to meet with Larry Blythe, vice chief for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, to ensure that the tribe indeed even wants the early voting site. In 2010, the tribe worked with the election board to provide a suitable site.

Not having a site would “put people at disadvantage,” said Principal Chief Michell Hicks.

Tribal Council member Perry Shell said that the purpose of the Board of Elections is to make it as convenient as possible to vote.

“I think it’s important that people have every opportunity to vote,” said Shell, who represents Big Cove.

Board members emphasized that discussions about this year’s early voting sites have just begun. The county has until March 1 to submit its list of early voting sites to the state. Early voting for the primary begins April 19 and ends May 5.

“We just opened initial conversations about it,” Fisher said. “A whole bunch of this scuttlebutt is much ado about nothing.”

The board decided to place a voting site in Cherokee prior to the 2010 election after an elderly Swain County resident and member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians made a formal written request.

Early voting has grown steadily in popularity after the state passed a new law in 1990s mandating that the convenient ballot casting be made available to the masses. Before then, it was only an option for the elderly, disabled or those with a qualified excuse that prevented them from getting to the polls on actual Election Day.

 

Going the distance

Of course, Cherokee residents aren’t the only ones in Swain County who face a long haul into Bryson City to take advantage of early voting. People in Alarka and Nantahala have similar distances to drive.

Fisher said he would like to have early voting locations everywhere, but with everybody tightening their budgets it would not be feasible.

John Herrin, a former member of the Swain election board, pointed out that Cherokee is a population center, whereas residents in other parts of the county, despite being a good distance from Bryson City, are more dispersed.

“You have quite a few registered voters in that area,” said Herrin, who helped set up the early voting site in Cherokee in 2010.

Cherokee residents are less likely to come into Bryson City in the regular course of their lives, while residents from rural reaches of the county usually eventually venture to town for groceries or other business.

Although the board has heard that other residents would like additional early voting sites throughout the county, none have made a formal appeal. A community member must make a written request, and the board must vote unanimously to approve a new location.

In addition to deciding whether to keep the Cherokee early voting site, the board is also expected to receive a request for another site near Nantahala. Residents of that area travel about 21 miles, or about 30 minutes, to cast early ballots in Bryson.

Fisher pointed out that people can mail in their ballots.

The decision to add an early voting site is “based on need and funding,” he said. “If (closing the site) would completely inhibit somebody from voting, I would fund it myself.”

The reservation lies partly in both Jackson and Swain counties. Jackson County operates an early voting site in Cherokee for those who live on the Jackson-side of the reservation near the Bingo Hall at a cost of anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 depending on the hours and amount of staffing required.

 

Decision pending

The Swain Board of Elections’ next meeting is at 3:30 p.m. Feb. 15 at the Board of Elections building off U.S. 19.

 

County-by-county

All counties in North Carolina are required to operate at least one early voting site, the result of a new law passed in the late 1990s aimed at making voting easier and more accessible

Most counties offered just one early voting site initially, but as early voting took off and grew in popularity, some counties have added a second or even third early voting site in response to demand. The cost ranges between $2,000 and $5,000 per site for each county.

Here’s what some counties are doing.

Swain

Swain’s main early voting site is in Bryson City. In 2010, it added a second early voting site in Cherokee at the Birdtown Community Center but is contemplating whether to do so again this year.

Macon

Macon County has a single early voting site in Franklin. However, election officials are considering adding a site in the Highlands area this year.

Haywood

Haywood’s main early voting site is in Waynesville, with a second site in Canton every two years during state and federal elections.

Jackson

Jackson County has a main early voting site in Sylva but has also run sites in Cullowhee, Cashiers, Scotts Creek and Cherokee. It has not decided where or how many sites it will open this year.

Page 27 of 47

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