High cost puts public access to Parris cabin on hold

A plan to build an amphitheater and stage next to the cabin where Sylva author John Parris once wrote newspaper articles and books celebrating life in the mountains of Western North Carolina has been nixed — for now, at least.

“I think it’s a great idea, and in my mind I can see a beautiful setting and a lot of great events that could take place there, but with that being said at $680,000 that’s a whole lot more than I ever imagined it would ever cost, and I couldn’t support doing it right now,” Jackson County Commissioner Chairman Brian McMahan said after hearing the project estimate July 11.

Originally, commissioners had asked Sylva-based Lofquist & Associates to look into the cost of addressing pressing safety and visual issues at the site, yielding a preliminary estimate of $96,000. But when the amphitheater got added to the potential project, that estimate increased seven-fold to $681,000.

“The thing that’s really challenging is you got 20 feet of vertical elevation change from the parking spaces down to this stage area,” engineer Victor Lofquist told commissioners July 11.

The Americans with Disabilities Act would require at least five ADA seats in the 180-seat amphitheater, with a series of eight ramp sections needed to reach the area. Building those ramps — a requirement to allow any kind of public access to the cabin, even without an amphitheater — would account for about half the construction cost.

In addition, the project could have faced a zoning issue. The 0.14-acre property on which the cabin is located is zoned for residential use, so the county would need a conditional use permit from the town of Sylva to build an amphitheater. County Manager Don Adams said he’d heard concerns from neighbors that programs at the amphitheater would result in noise and related issues they’d rather not have next door.

The other commissioners agreed with McMahan’s assessment that, while the amphitheater project was a worthwhile goal, it didn’t justify spending $680,000 — at least not in this budget year. Lofquist suggested that commissioners consider moving the cabin up the slope a bit to reduce the cost of ADA compliance. Commissioners were receptive to the suggestion.

“The cabin is not original to that property — it was brought there from somewhere else,” McMahan said. “It might be worth that consideration to think about at some point.”

For the time being, however, the project is on hold.

The county purchased the 0.14-acre property containing the cabin for $75,000 in 2016. It’s adjacent to the Jackson County Public Library, just downhill from the parking lot, and looks out over downtown. After purchasing the property, the county spent about $31,000 to remove vine-laden trees and a decrepit house on the property.

No decisions have been made as to what the cabin will be used for, though options discussed include an office for a nonprofit, a location for library programs or a small museum commemorating Parris’ work. None of those uses would be possible until the ADA access issue is addressed, however.

While the amphitheater project won’t happen, at least for the time being, the county will likely move ahead with the safety and visual issues that were part of the original $96,000 estimate. Those issues include installing a storm drain and replacing a failing retaining wall.

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