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The results of a $14,000 study that assessed the best uses of the town-owned Whitmire property revealed to the Franklin Town Council what residents have been asking for all along.

Franklin alderman candidate Jimbo Ledford had hoped his idea for a multi-day music and beer festival on the languishing Whitmire property would convince the town government and the community that the green space property should stay under town ownership.

The town of Franklin has been sitting on a valuable piece of land for more than 12 years and still doesn’t have any plans for how to best utilize it.

fr whitmireThe Franklin Board of Aldermen has yet to agree on what it should do with a 13-acre tract it owns just off East Main Street, but two proposals from the public are leaning toward utilizing the green space for public recreational purposes.

fr whitmireThe town of Franklin has been sitting on about 13 acres of pristine greenway space for about 12 years with no concrete plans for how to utilize it.

Franklin’s leaders are trying to decide what to do about a valuable piece of property on the outskirts of downtown, and they’re hiring outside consultants to help them.

The town purchased the Whitmire property in January 2005 for $1,585,373 with plans to build a new municipal complex to house town hall, police department and public works.

The town board later changed its mind and decided to renovate a building on Main Street for a new town hall instead, leaving the Whitmire property without an express purpose.

The 13-acre property, appraised at $2.15 million in August 2008, is by far the largest piece of undeveloped land remaining in the greater downtown area. Last week, the Franklin town board voted to hire a development consultant to provide options for the sale of the tract, along with the old town hall building on Main Street.

The fate of the Whitmire property was a point of contention in this year’s town mayoral race between Alderman Bob Scott and Mayor Joe Collins. Collins favored getting the property back on the tax rolls, and Scott wanted to use the property as a public space, possibly a town park.

Scott cast the lone opposition vote to the plan to bring in development consultants.

“My feelings haven’t changed. In no way should the town do anything with that property other than use it for the public. I don’t want to see a big box (store) in there,” Scott said. “I do have a problem with surplusing it because that’s the last piece of undeveloped land in the town, and it has so much potential for public use.”

Collins pushed for bringing in a development consultant.

“We thought by doing that we could take some of the bias and some of the emotion out of it to get as focused an idea as we can,” Collins said.

Sam Greenwood, Franklin town manager, said developing the property could give the town an important source of financial stability, because it would likely realize a profit on the sale while at the same time returning the property to the tax rolls.

Realtor Evelyn Owens of Keller Williams in Franklin said that while the market is down the value of the Whitmire property should remain stable. She estimated that the property would fetch close to $150,000 per acre today with a total selling price between $1.8 and $2 million.

 

The future of Whitmire

The issue now is what to do with it. Scott said he intends to watch the discussion closely because he fears the board is intent on getting money out of the property without looking hard at the future implications of selling it.

“When are we ever going to get a piece of land like that? Most people are still stuck in the 1950s mindset of build, build, build without a thought to what the costs would be in the long run,” said Scott.

Collins said Scott’s fear that the town would develop the Whitmire property without adequate planning is misplaced.

“I don’t think anyone around the table envisions getting a check and just hoping the development makes sense,” Collins said.

Collins for his part said he foresees a mixed-use development that could add housing density and retail space in an important commercial district.

Collins said that because the town owns the property outright, it could dictate terms of any purchase, including what a developer plans to do with the property. It could sell the property with restrictions or partner in a public-private development venture.

“If they come in and give us ideas we haven’t thought about, we should have an open mind,” Collins said. “The bottom line is it needs to be utilized. It’s too valuable to be sitting vacant.”

Alderman Sissy Patillo, who also voted to bring in a consultant, said she wanted to know what the options were.

“Doing this doesn’t mean we sell it. It doesn’t mean we develop it,” Patillo said. “It just gives us options.”

Patillo also touted the potential for a mixed-use development.

“In an ideal world, I would like to see it developed with lots of green space interconnected with other areas with mixed usage and affordable housing,” Patillo said.

Owens supports the idea of a mixed-use space that incorporates small retail, residential condos and town homes and integrated greenspace.

“I’ve been saying this for eight years, we really need some town homes closer to the downtown,” Owens said.

Owens said homes between $150,000 and $250,000 would be ideal.

“Affordable housing, yes,” Owens said. “I think it needs to be maintenance free and if they could have condos and town homes with different price points and a nice park area, that would be great,” Owens said.

Owens said consultants would bring impartial knowledge to the table, but they might not fully understand the needs of the community and the market in Franklin.

Greenwood said the board’s intent was to move the project forward patiently.

“There’s no sense of urgency to it other than trying to get the property back to work so to speak,” Greenwood said.

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.

The Franklin aldermen on Monday night (Feb. 2) unanimously voted to formalize a process for releasing the minutes from previously closed-door meetings.

The town attorney, John Henning Jr., has always had the authority to make closed meeting minutes public once it is determined that releasing them wouldn’t do harm. In fact, state law requires the minutes from closed meetings to be released once the reason for being private has passed — such as discussion of lawsuit strategy once that lawsuit has been settled, or negotiations over property after the purchase goes through.

In reality, however, few public boards in this region do this as a matter of course.

Alderman Bob Scott, who brought up the matter, wanted the board to adopt a formal policy for releasing closed meeting minutes, but he compromised with a process that leaves it up to the discretion of the town attorney if the minutes should be made public.

Scott preferred a system, however, where closed meeting minutes would become open after board members agreed in consultation with the town attorney.

Mayor Joe Collins disagreed, saying that would put more responsibility on the board members to determine when minutes should be made public when the town has always counted on the attorney to address that.

Collins said he thinks the attorney being in control makes for a smoother process.

However, under the Monday vote any board member or member of the public may ask the town attorney to review a particular set of minutes to determine if they should be unsealed.

Henning said the new process is not much different than the way it has been done before.

Collins agreed: “I don’t see it breaking any new ground, just formalizing (the process).”

If anything, the vote on Monday was an expression of the board’s intent of how to deal with closed session minutes, Henning said.

Henning said he periodically went through closed session minutes about once every three to four months to determine if they should be opened.

The town owes it to the public to open up the minutes of closed sessions once it is no longer necessary to keep the minutes secret, Scott said.

State laws says that, “The public body may seal the minutes of a closed session if public inspection of those minutes would frustrate the purpose of the closed session,” Scott said.

 

Why now?

Scott called for a formal policy as an advocate of open records in general, but he also wants a particular set of closed meeting minutes made public.

He said the minutes of a legal dispute that was discussed in closed session remain sealed, despite the fact that the case was settled for $5,000.

Scott said no one has refused to release the minutes, but there was no formal policy for releasing them.

“We exist to conduct the public’s business,” Scott said. “I just felt like we should have a policy.”

The dispute involved the town and a former resident, David Whitmire, now of Alaska, who allegedly took slate and doors from town property.

In the case, Mayor Collins said he authorized Whitmire to take a small amount of slate from town property as a memento because Whitmire grew up at the site now owned by the town. Collins asked former Town Administrator Mike Decker if it would be OK for Whitmire to take a couple of pieces of slate, and Decker said it would be all right.

However, Whitmire took a lot more than a couple of pieces, carting off slate valued at $19,000.

Scott and Alderman Verlin Curtis said the mayor and Decker acted beyond their authority when allowing Whitmire to take property. Curtis and Scott said that the mayor and Decker should have asked the rest of the town board if it was OK for Whitmire to take something from the property. Collins said he didn’t think it was necessary to get permission from the board to allow Whitmire to take a few pieces of slate.

Scott had called for an independent investigation into what actually transpired when the mayor and Decker authorized Whitmire to take slate. But the investigation never went forward because the case was settled by Whitmire paying the town $5,000.

Scott said he wanted to know who said what in the transaction. Asked if he thinks the mayor actually gave Whitmire permission to take more than a few pieces of slate, Scott has said, “It would be nothing but pure conjecture.”

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