It’s been a long and frustrating situation for town leadership, but town aldermen were finally able to breathe a sigh of relief last Thursday when they signed a settlement agreement that will put an end to a four-year legal battle to keep Camp Hope. The price has been high, but everyone agrees that losing Camp Hope was not an option.
“You cannot assign a dollar value to the prized memories of those who have experienced the camp nor to those who will experience its potential,” said Canton Alderman Ralph Hamlett. “Without the resources that Canton was willing to invest to keep the property, what would have remained would have been the memory and regret for the forever loss of potential.”
Under the settlement agreement, the town has agreed to pay $175,000 plus survey costs to the plaintiffs — John and Deborah Prelaz. The Asheville couple that owns abutting property to Camp Hope filed a lawsuit against the town in 2011 in an attempt to gain ownership of the Camp Hope property.
Camp Hope is 110 acres of pristine greenway property along the East Fork of the Pigeon River that has been used for recreational purposes for more than 100 years. Champion International Paper Company donated the property to the town in 1972 with a number of deed restrictions, including the requirement that the town keep the property open and available to local residents.
Battle for Camp Hope
The Prelazes’ lawsuit claimed Canton hadn’t lived up to the requirement because the property was at one time leased out to a private company to run a summer camp that accepted children from outside the county. The town of Canton denied their claims, but the Prelazes were hoping the courts would agree with them because it would mean they were next in line to receive the property.
When Champion gifted the property to Canton, they included a “reverter clause” that stated the property ownership would be turned over to the adjacent property owner in the event Camp Hope was not kept open to the public. The Prelazes acquired that revisionary interest in 2006.
The town has already won two court cases against the plaintiffs, but the Prelazes made it clear they would continue to appeal the case as long as it took. Even though the town has to pay $175,000 to settle the case, that money is paying to get rid of the reversion rights owned by the Prelazes.
“The reverter clause is gone and at one point that wasn’t even an option so we are very pleased with the settlement,” said Alderwoman Gail Mull. “With that (reverter) hanging over our heads, they could keep taking us to court and it would be hard to make any decisions about funding Camp Hope in the future.”
The town has already spent more than $250,000 in legal costs during the last four years fighting to keep ownership of Camp Hope. Compared to the $1.5 million value of Camp Hope, aldermen say the cost is worth it. They also have a peace of mind knowing that the case will not end up back in court.
“We did what was necessary to make sure that Camp Hope is forever Canton,” Hamlett said. “We did what was necessary to end the uncertainty of legal battles and those costs to remove the ever-present Sword of Damocles — the reverter clause.”
Alderman Zeb Smathers said taking back the reversion rights of the property was key to the settlement agreement so the town could end the potential for continued litigation.
“I feel we won. This brings an end to a very long and expensive journey,” Smathers said. “The future of Camp Hope will no longer be determined by lawyer fees and unknowns but by our own determination of what we want to do with Camp Hope.”
Future of Camp Hope
Now that a settlement has been reached, the town can proceed with plans to revamp the property and offer recreational opportunities for residents of Haywood County.
When the lawsuit was filed in 2011, community members came together to form Friends of Camp Hope with a mission of helping the town maintain the property.
The town took over the committee and turned it into the Camp Hope Commission to begin looking at ways to better utilize the camp.
Even during the legal battle, Canton Town Manager Seth Hendler-Voss said the Camp Hope Commission has held volunteer work days to clean up the property and the facilities, updated the rental policies to allow people to rent parts of the property for events and is in the process of replacing the roof on the dining hall pavilion.
“The commission has not only helped to bring a lot of fresh ideas to the table, they’ve also rolled up their sleeves and have contributed sweat equity to the property,” said Hendler-Voss.
Now the town and the commission can really start to consider programs that will fit well at Camp Hope. The town wants to keep the property for passive recreational use, including fishing, hiking, mountain biking and possibly camping. The property includes 10 cabins that can be restored and used for rentals.
Hendler-Voss said the town has also been in discussions with Clemson University’s landscape architecture program about the possibility of the program’s students designing a master plan for the camp.
The Shining Rock Riverfest is a local music festival that has been held at Camp Hope for the last three years to raise awareness of the camp. The event was rained out in September but has been rescheduled for April 2016.
If there is any silver lining in the town’s legal troubles, it has been that the lawsuits have shined a brighter spotlight on the assets available at Camp Hope. For years the camp didn’t see much use, but now residents have rallied to keep it and utilize it.
“Camp Hope is a prized jewel which allows Canton citizens and other area residents to enjoy a respite from the hustle and bustle of everyday life,” Hamlett said. “What will Camp Hope be? I don't know — we shall see. But I can tell you what Camp Hope is — it is ours.”