A group protesting ever-earlier school starts in North Carolina has turned the heat down for now on its shining Bad Example in the state, Macon County, but that reprieve might prove temporary.

Save Our Summers-NC joined forces with Highlands resident Sabrina Hawkins, who has three school-aged children enrolled in Macon County Schools, in legal action earlier this year against the state’s school board. The N.C. Board of Education granted Macon Schools’ request to start school early so it could offer three weeks of concentrated reading help for remedial students during the course of the year.

When all was said and done, however, many parents in Macon County said the early Aug. 4 start really didn’t prove that big a deal for them or their children.

“It was tough with the summer being shorter, but it will all equal out in the end,” said Tara Raby, who has a school-aged daughter in Macon’s school system.

Students who aren’t targeted for the catch-up instruction will be off for those three weeks spread across the school year.

Hawkins and Save Our Summers-NC asserted that Macon County skirted the intent of the state’s school calendar law, which prohibits the use of waivers like the ones Macon received, to “accommodate system-wide classroom preferences.”

The group asked a judge to stop the Aug. 4 back-to-school date in Macon County. The judge did not intervene with an injunction as the group hoped but did allow the initial lawsuit to move forward. The group recently opted to drop the case in favor of focusing efforts, and dollars, toward next year, however.

In other words, Save Our Summers-NC is taking a mini vacation of its own before possibly launching another salvo in the calendar battle.

“They are ready to intervene should the school board choose to re-apply next year for an improper waiver,” Louise Lee, a spokesperson for Save Our Summers, said in a press release. “School districts should take note that any efforts to evade the school calendar law will be closely scrutinized in the waiver process.”

 

Superintendent: It’s all about student needs

That prospect doesn’t seem to deter Macon County Superintendent Dan Brigman, even though records indicate the school system spent about $26,000 in legal fees because of Save Our Summers’ calendar battle.

Brigman wanted, and received, with his school board’s approval, the waivers for each of the county’s 10 schools to use a “nontraditional calendar.” A traditional calendar, according to state law, in comparison has “one track” in operation for at least 180 days, with a long summer break of about 10 weeks in length.

Macon’s schools started early, for the most part, to allow local educators two opportunities to intercede with students needing extra academic help. That could happen again, depending on what exactly the schools’ calendar development committee and the Macon County Board of Education decide best serves students, Brigman said.

“There is always the threat of opposition to the school calendar,” he said. “But student learning (not fear of legal threats) is at the forefront of our decisions.”

It may be a moot point in Macon anyway for next year. Counties with more than eight missed days due to snow are exempt from the mandatory start date. While Macon County didn’t have enough snow days to qualify for the exemption this school year, next year it will be.

Macon’s school superintendent emphasized that the school system “followed state protocol” in requesting and receiving its waivers this year. Although all of the schools in the county ultimately got a waiver, each applied individually, and so it did not amount to a “system-wide waiver,” the N.C. Board of Education decided when ruling on the Macon schools’ request.

And, now that the first intercession is complete, Brigman maintains that he believes Macon County Schools made a good decision. About 400 students participated each day, at a cost of $163,834, according to the schools’ finance officer, Angie Cook. That number includes the salaries of teachers, bus drivers, child nutrition workers and other staff.  

Students not needing extra help could take part in certain “enrichment” activities. That’s what Kyra Doster’s nine-year-old son did.

“The intercession week was good and bad,” Doster said. “It does give the kids a break and a chance to catch their breath.”

Doster said she and her husband were luckier than some parents when it came to finding childcare for these mid-year, week-long breaks. Other family members helped watch over the fourth-grader when he wasn’t taking part in the special activities, allowing the couple to continue with their jobs as normal.

“If we had to have a babysitter, it would have been kind of tough,” Doster said.

The next intercession in Macon County Schools takes place March 5-9.

Motorcycle rallies are all the rage these days in Western North Carolina, and Franklin tourism leaders are busy finalizing plans to take their first bite out of that tempting economic pie.

“Rumble in the Smokies” is scheduled to take place for three days next August. This is Macon County’s initial foray into hosting a large-scale, officially sanctioned motorcycle rally.

Starting in January, the event’s promoter will be hyping the rally via booths setup at events such as the Great American Motorcycle Show in Norcross, Ga., and the International Motorcycle Show in Charlotte, plus handing out fliers at rallies later in the year in Daytona Beach, Fla., and in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

“Riders want to see the vendors, and what Franklin has to offer, and to get out and ride. What better place to lay your head down at night after riding than in Franklin?” said Sylvia Cochran, of USRiderNews, the Georgia-based promoter, when asked whether she was concerned that the WNC motorcycle-rally angle might be a tad oversaturated.

Listeners were left to extrapolate from this response that no, Cochran in fact doesn’t consider the market too crowded.

But such events have become increasingly commonplace in WNC over the past decade, perhaps nowhere as much as in Maggie Valley, boasting five major rallies every year. The rallies, along with Maggie’s proximity to the Parkway and a world renowned motorcycle museum, have cemented the town as a motorcycle haven, witnessed by the diners, bars and motels plastering their placards with motorcycle friendly messages.

“It is extremely important to Maggie Valley’s economy. I’d estimate it at well over 50 percent,” said Marion Hamel, director of the Haywood Hotel and Motel Authority.

Cherokee also has its share of rallies. The Survivors Motorcycle Rally was held there twice a year since the mid-1980s — until this year when Cherokee pulled the plug on the twice-a-year event.

And that vacancy in the regional rally calendar, according to Franklin tourism officials at a Tourism Development Authority workshop last weekend, is helping ensure the likely future success of their new rally.

But they might be counting Cherokee out of the mix a bit too soon.

Matthew Pegg, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce, said that although Cherokee didn’t have the spring or fall rally in 2011, “it is something that is being looked at for 2012,” as well as other events.

“I don’t believe the market is oversaturated, but in order to have a strong rally there should be something that sets it apart from the others,” Pegg said. “WNC is an ideal setting for motorcycle enthusiasts and continues to be a strong market for regional tourism. With the natural beauty we enjoy, and an abundance of great riding roads, people are naturally drawn to the area. Our job as a region is to take good care of them while they are here.”

Maggie Valley business owner Robert Leatherwood believes another motorcycle rally will prove good news for all merchants in the region. He said it would help to further solidify the grip on this all-important motorcyclist-as-tourist niche.

Rallies such as the Rumble in the Smokies, are the best way to attract those particular dollars, he said.

“I’m glad that Franklin is doing one,” Leatherwood said. “We’d help if needed — it’ll be good for WNC, and it’ll do good for Franklin to have one over there.”

Leatherwood owns the new Stingrays bar, strategically positioned near Maggie Valley’s Wheels Through Time motorcycle museum. During rallies, he gets crowds of motorcyclists visiting his bar. His waitresses, dressed in bikinis, offer free bike washes, a popular draw indeed, Leatherwood said. And he opens the normally day-closed bar instead of just at night.

Macon County commissioners decided last week that they needed more time to study whether to implement construction guidelines recommended by the county’s planning board.

During a workshop on the issue, commissioners heard a stern warning from a licensed engineer and PhD that if they planned on weakening the regulations beyond their current form, then they pretty much shouldn’t bother to implement them at all.

“These standards right here are about as close to nothing as you can get,” Dan Marks of Asheville told commissioners. “If you water it down, you’re not going to have anything. … If you are going to pass this thing, please don’t take it down another notch  — and I think you need to go back up a notch.”

The planning board was originally tasked two years ago with developing rules for steep-slope development but got bogged down and instead settled on so-called “construction guidelines” as a means of salvaging a few of the more salient building rules. The guidelines include stipulations that limit how high and steep cut-and-fill slopes can be and require compaction of fill dirt.

Planning Board Chairman Lewis Penland told commissioners they have a “responsibility to protect property owners from substandard development.”

“People who might otherwise invest in Macon County don’t feel like they’re investing in land that’s secure, and they don’t feel like they have all the best available information to make wise decisions,” Penland said.

Penland said residents and move-ins to Macon County need some assurances there are “basic public safeguards” on the books.

Commissioners indicated they would hold another meeting to again review the planning board’s construction guidelines.

When Walmart of Franklin moves from U.S. 441 to its new location next spring, at least two — perhaps three — of the other businesses in Holly Springs Plaza will move right along with the retail giant.

That’s not a happy prospect for the strip mall’s nine or so remaining tenants. Those business owners are looking at working in a virtual ghost setting if new merchants don’t come in to fill the void of those leaving.

The Walmart Supercenter will be at the corner of Wells Grove and Dawdle Mountain roads, just off the U.S. 441 bypass on a 33-acre site.

“This place will pretty much be empty,” said Jordan Myers, an 18-year-old Franklin native who works at Cato in Holly Springs Plaza. Her job, via her employer, is making the shift with Walmart to the new site, along with Shoe Show, and, reportedly, Dollar Tree, though officials in that store declined to comment. “Maybe people will put some boutiques in,” Jordan said.

Maybe.

But that didn’t happen in Haywood County in November 2008 when Walmart made the move from Clyde to Waynesville to build a new super store. In Haywood County, Walmart left behind a huge, vacant building with an equally huge, vacant parking lot in front.

Finally, in early 2010, Haywood County’s commissioners decided to purchase the vacant shell to house the Department of Social Services and Health, which had long awaited a move from their aging facilities. The new county offices will cost taxpayers an estimated $12.5 million. A facelift of the building is under way now.

Franklin Manager Sam Greenwood said the soon-to-be-vacated building in Franklin is serviceable, and could possibly be repurposed for another company.

Maybe.

There is some talk about town that Ingles might acquire the shopping center, and build a larger grocery store to compete with Walmart.

“It’ll shut this place down,” predicted Irene Hughes of Walmart’s impending move.

The Franklin resident was overseeing a Toys for Tots collection drive from a site in the Holly Springs Plaza.

Hughes currently drives to neighboring Clayton, Ga., to a Walmart Supercenter there for groceries. Though she’s not a fan of the new Franklin site because it might cause traffic problems for two nearby schools and people making their way through the area, she readily admitted, “it’ll be more convenient than driving to Clayton.”

“And, it’ll mean more jobs, because they’ll need more people,” Hughes said. “But what about all these places that will be sitting empty? What will happen to them?”

Indeed.

“It’s great to be one of the retailers going, and not staying,” said Ali Travis-Bonard, assistant manager of Shoe Show. “I’m really looking forward to it — we have a space issue here.”

Unlike Hughes, Travis-Bonard believes Walmart’s site selection for the new store is “ingenious — because everyone needs to go for something at Walmart after school.”

Kim McCloud, who works for U.S. Cellular in Holly Springs, is one of the retailers staying when Walmart leaves. She, however, isn’t particularly worried.

“We have a steady base of customers, people who have been with us for awhile,” McCloud said. “I really don’t think it will hurt us.”

In a town that has long thrived on competitive, and sometimes markedly heated, political contests, the prospect of an incumbents-only race this November in Franklin seems ghastly. Even to several of the shoo-in incumbents themselves.

“Maybe they’re afraid they might actually get the job,” a curmudgeonly sounding Mayor Joe Collins said when asked for an explanation.

“Maybe they love you, and the voters think you’re a fantastic mayor?” he was queried.

“No, no, no,” Collins replied unequivocally. “It’s just that nobody is running against anybody.”

Collins, unless upset by an unknown, unexpected and unlikely write-in candidate, will win a fifth, two-year term in office. Also running without competition? Four aldermen candidates: Bob Scott, Farrell Jamison (appointed to fill the unexpired term of the late Jerry Evans), Joyce Handley and Verlin Curtis.

It isn’t as if there aren’t important issues in Franklin. The board will be hiring a new town manager to replace governmental veteran Sam Greenwood, and a new police chief to replace Terry Bradley. Several more of the town’s top employees have enough years in that they could opt to leave, too.

“It is nice not to have to go through the process of putting up signs, raising money and going through the suspense of how the election comes out,” Collins acknowledged, “but it would absolutely be better” for the town if there were competition.

“That brings discussions, and different ideas, and maybe even different people around the table,” he said.

George Hasara, co-owner of Rathskeller Coffee House, a popular Franklin watering hole and unofficial discussion-central for the town, agreed with Collins that “it’s a shame” to have uncontested elections.

“Everyone should be challenged,” Hasara said. “If nothing else, to highlight the issues. But, sometimes it just happens that way. The town’s not rife with corruption — these are good people, so there’s no groundswell of indignation.”

Alderman Scott, who came within 14 votes of unseating Collins as mayor during the last election, agrees with his former political adversary that the lack of competition really isn’t healthy for Franklin.

“I can’t explain it,” Scott said. “I have two theories. Nobody wants to have anything to do with us or else we are doing such a good job nobody wanted to interfere with us. That’s my theories, and I am sticking with them. I am disappointed that there is no opposition. No opposition takes the fun out of politics.”

Millie Griffin, who co-owns Millie and Eve’s Used Bookstore on U.S. 441 south of town, believes the apathy in Franklin is simply a reflection of overall problems at the local, county, state and federal levels. She added that “outsiders” probably don’t signup as candidates because, “If you’re not from this area, you won’t get in — so why bother?” And that right there, Griffin said, narrows the pool of contenders considerably.

“‘Everybody’s happy,’ you could say. But a cynic would say, ‘Nobody gives a rat’s ass, they don’t want to be burdened with it,’” soon-to-retire Town Manager Greenwood said in his usual polished diplomatic manner. “I just hope it is not going to be the new trend. It would show that people aren’t interested. And that’s really not good for the community, long term.”

Historic Downtown Franklin is gearing up for the 15th Annual Pumpkinfest to be held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 22. During this event you can take part in some traditional and some very non-traditional fall festivities.

Bring your pumpkin (or purchase one downtown) and sign up early for the World Famous Pumpkin Roll sponsored by the Franklin Fun Factory. The “roll” takes place from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. with signup running from 9 to 1. The winner receives $100 cash. Other highlights of the day include a pumpkin carving contest sponsored by DNET, a costume parade and contest along with crafters, food, and live entertainment for all ages.

Among this year’s acts scheduled to perform is Magic by Chaz. Magician Chaz Misenheimer, a North Carolina native, is a festival specialist with more than 20 years experience and though he often performs from the stage, he’s best known as an elite roving entertainer.

Roxy, the miniature horse, will be back offering rides to kids beginning at 10 a.m. Roxy, a pintaloosa, will be located in front of the Macon County Historical Society on Main Street. There is a rider weight limit of 80 pounds. A small fee will be charged.  

www.pumpinfestfranklin.com or 828.524.2516.

Efforts are well under way in both Sylva and Franklin to build dog parks, places where folks’ canine companions can run off-leash in safely fenced, assigned areas.

If the two communities do build dog parks, they’ll be joining their neighbors to the east: the town of Waynesville already has two fenced romping grounds for dogs along Richland Creek Greenway. The town of Highlands in Macon County also has a half-acre dog park, complete with a five-foot-tall fence. Highlands is roughly a 40-minute drive from Franklin, however, putting it out of reach for regular use by Franklin’s dog owners.

Friends of the Greenway in Franklin has been talking about building a dog park for about six months, according to Doris Munday, a member of the nonprofit support arm for the greenway along the Little Tennessee River. Her dog “uses the mountains” as its dog park, Munday said, but that hasn’t blinded her from seeing the needs of others.

Dog owners, if their pooches are leashed and they cleanup waste deposited by their animals, can use the nearly five-mile paved greenway path in Franklin. But the dogs are not allowed off-leash along the popular trail, where upwards of 20,000 people a month can be found during the summer months. Munday said there have been some problems with “neighborhood dogs” trotting about the greenway unleashed and uninvited and apparently illiterate, too; these rowdy dogs are brazen in ignoring rules about leashes and cleanup that are posted along Franklin’s greenway.

Plans this week call for the Friends group to check in with the Macon County Board of Commissioners to make sure the county doesn’t have any objections to a dog park.

In this case, asking permission seemed optimal to begging forgiveness: Munday said no one is exactly sure whether commissioners’ permission is needed for the project to move forward, but that the group decided it seemed proper to find out.

Assuming everyone is OK with the idea, private funds would be solicited to purchase fencing. The hope is to enclose the dog park this winter. Later, if people want to donate more money, the dog park could be enhanced with additional doggie attractions, Munday said.

Some dog parks have separate areas for small and large dogs. Other parks even offer such amenities as dog-agility courses. One standard feature, which would be included if a dog park is built in Franklin, are baggie dispensers so that dog owners can easily cleanup any canine deposits.

Other than the upfront cost of fencing, maintenance on dog parks is relatively minor. In Waynesville, the Haywood Animal Welfare Association buys non-toxic flea control and volunteers regularly sprinkle it on the grass.

In Jackson County, an ad hoc group of dog owners in Sylva requested via a letter sent to the county that they be allowed to use a portion of Mark Watson Park on West Main Street. The Sylva Dog Park Advocates noted in the letter, sent to county officials last month, that it believes a dog park would be “a low cost yet high benefit” addition to Jackson County.

The letter is signed by Stacy Knotts, who serves as a town council member but isn’t acting in that official capacity on this particular project.

She wrote that the group of dog owners believes 10-acre Mark Watson Park, a county-owned facility, would be the best place for a dog park because it is centrally located in Sylva on the county’s (unfinished) greenway; there is open space in the park; there are already pet-owner education classes and the “Bark in the Park” festival taking place in Mark Watson, and such a park would encourage Jackson County’s residents “from letting pets run free on the ball fields, particularly the newly designed fields in the park.”

County Manager Chuck Wooten said the request is being reviewed.

The disembodied voice crackled through the walkie-talkie: “I’ve got someone who wants to buy two lots, cash deal.”

“Sell ‘em,” L.C. Jones urged, seemingly to himself, but his response included Michelle Masta, a passenger in the backseat of his big, eggshell-colored Ford King Ranch 4X4. The radio was tuned to the NASCAR station; the volume turned off. No one in the truck was interested in listening to races on this day, not with land to sell and money to make. Masta, dressed in French jeans and heels, serves as Jones’ right-hand woman on the development, The Ridges. The development is better known as Wildflower, the Macon County subdivision’s original name. The Ridges is made up of about 500 acres of Wildflower’s original 2,200; just fewer than 100 lots were being offered through this one-day extravaganza last Saturday (Oct. 1).

Masta, who lives most of the time in Atlanta, dreams one day of permanently moving to this region with her daughter and, perhaps, gardening organically and caretaking hives of honeybees. Masta won’t buy land in this high-elevation development for that future homestead, however. She’s got a piece of nice bottomland in mind, down in one of the valleys far below.

Jones was casually attired in Levi jeans and tennis shoes. The Cullowhee native doesn’t happily sport a suit and tie, not even at an event such as this. Jones doesn’t look or talk much like a land developer. In fact, the paving company owner comes across as a man who would be perfectly comfortable operating a backhoe.

On this project, however, Jones isn’t the backhoe operator — he’s the boss, along with a couple of investors out of Atlanta. The Ridges marks Jones’ second housing development in a year in Macon County. Other developers in Western North Carolina and across the nation have seen business grind to a halt because of the crippled housing market. Jones, owner of Black Bear Paving in Franklin, has instead discovered seemingly endless financial opportunities.  

The walkie-talkie crackled. Sam Pinner of Southland Marketing & Development, based in Knoxville, Tenn., was on the other end. Jones hired the former University of Tennessee football player turned time-share seller turned real-estate developer turned real-estate marketer to oversee the sales event.

Pinner has 60 to 65 sales reps spread across the 500 or so acres of The Ridges.

Jones and his investors recently purchased the development for a cool $1 million, an amount they anticipate recouping easily. BB&T was eager to get the property off its books after foreclosing on the former developer of Wildflower after that company failed to make payments. BB&T was owed $1.9 million on the property when the bank foreclosed.

“Just say, ‘Yes, that’s a deal,’” Pinner instructed the sales rep via the walkie-talkie. Like Jones, Pinner needed to hear nothing more than the word “cash” to welcome the buyer to a seat at the table.

Jones’ plan is to generate “life” into the subdivision by selling lots that were previously priced at highs of $100,000 to $300,000 for $14,000 to $30,000. Higher-priced lots were available, too, but even they weren’t priced anywhere near those heyday numbers of the real-estate boom, when scenes like the one that took place in The Ridges last weekend were commonplace.

Jones slashed the prices in The Ridges with one purpose in mind: to sell as many lots as possible, as quickly as possible. He and his investors anticipate developing more lots in the subdivision. They’ll sell those at higher prices, but the asking price on these is what the depressed market will bear, Jones said.

Jones believes he can command higher prices later if he can convince people that The Ridges is a viable, happening development with an on-site, caring developer. This is the first step in his many-stepped plan for The Ridges, and for other abandoned developments in WNC that he might take on. Jones is currently checking out another development in the Asheville area. He is a man who envisions dollar signs where others see vast money pits.

Jones and his investors can take their pick: the region’s landscape is littered with these tombstones of the once prosperous, or preposterous, WNC real-estate scene.

The selling in The Ridges started just after 9 a.m. The first lot sold in two minutes. Eight lots had sold in 10 minutes, nine lots in 12 minutes, 12 lots in 20 minutes, 21 lots in an hour. Thirty-one lots were sold by 11 a.m. A prior advertising blitz targeting Florida, Georgia, Alabama and other states paid off. Jones was having a very good day; indeed, by day’s end he’d unloaded 43 lots — 18 of them cash payments.

 

Truth will out

Wildflower was conceived and launched during the height of the housing boom. Riding the crest of the towering Cowee mountain range on the Macon-Jackson county lines, the development boasts truly spectacular views from its vantage point of more than 3,600 feet.

Turkeys and whitetail deer are everyday sightings, red-tailed hawks soar over the ridges to survey the valleys below. There are walking trails, a fancy clubhouse with a pool and small fitness center, water and sewer already in place at the house sites. There are even some lots with foundations on them, abandoned unfinished as previous owners’ dreams crumbled in the face of financial realities.

The previous developer, Ultima Carolina in Atlanta, sold more than 160 lots in Wildflower before the company went belly up. The largely out-of-state buyers were primarily looking to “flip” the properties they bought, selling for  higher prices than they paid.

Wildflower’s promising beginning foundered on an out-of-control, plummeting market and a hastily designed, poorly executed development — at least in parts of Wildflower. How much, exactly, of the development is ill-built sparks heated debate in Macon County.

The very name Wildflower, for those weary of WNC’s historic abusive cycles of land speculation at the expense of public safety and environmental stewardship, has served in recent years as the region’s worst-case, best-known example. What’s unarguable is that a few years ago there was a landslide in Wildflower. It was about one-half acre in size. Today that landslide serves as an illustrative example of what happens when roads are cut in defiance of a mountain’s grain.

The culprit road was built during dry weather. Then wetter weather came, those snows and cold rains that distinguish winters in these southern mountains. Freezing and thawing, freezing and thawing, with temperatures climbing from single-digit numbers into the 60s and 70s, only to drop back to single digits, over and over again.

So-called “wet” springs soon bubbled where the road overlaid. The springs most likely triggered that massive flow of mud and debris. The landslide raised fears — some say the inevitability — that a developer who could build one road like that might well have cut all of Wildflower’s many roads with a similar lack of respect for the mountains. If that’s true, anybody building here, and those living below, are at risk.

Macon County knows those dangers better than most mountain communities. In September 2004, a naturally occurring landslide originating in the Fishhawk mountains buried a small residential community below. Five people died in Peeks Creek, a tragedy of such proportions that state legislators, in response, funded a project to map these mountains, once and for all, for landslide potential.

Republican legislators, taking control of the state Senate and House last November for the first time in more than a century, have eliminated funding for more maps, with only Macon, Henderson, Buncombe and Watauga completed. North Carolina leaders were responding to real estate agents, builders, surveyors and laborers who called foul, plus a state that was facing huge economic shortfalls. Working men and women said the landslide hazard maps, coupled with the recession, hindered their abilities to make livings, unnecessarily scaring people out of buying real estate here.

Wildflower, however, was mapped for its landslide risk before the state halted the project. Red, the universal signal for stop/danger, colors the steep mountain ranges where Wildflower was built and The Ridges has since emerged.

Map opponents say state geologists greatly exaggerated the dangers of building in areas such as this.

Only time, as it’s said, will tell.

 

Toxic brew

Add over-inflated land prices, under-funded buyers and loosely regulated loaning institutions to the development’s problems. These semi-natural and manmade elements combined into a toxic brew, and Wildflower, literally and metaphorically, wilted and died.

More than half those who bought the original lots in Wildflower went into foreclosure. Some because of an inability to make payments on their lots; others who found themselves upside down on a mortgage, owing more than the lot was worth and opting to let banks take over.

A local financial institution, Macon Bank, filed two civil suits claiming that it had been duped into making questionable loans in excess of $3.5 million to people buying some of those lots.

Macon Bank sued Beverly-Hanks Mortgage Services of Asheville and two of its brokers for, among other allegations, financial wrongdoing, defying bank instructions and setting up an interest cash-back scheme for borrowers. Additionally, the bank sued the lawyer handling property closings at Wildflower, the lawyer’s title guaranty company and five property owners. The lawsuits are wending through Macon County’s court system.

Allan Burkett and Sandra Wilkinson of Newnan, Ga., aren’t aware of The Ridges’ past history; it’s not clear they’d care if they were. They had just agreed to buy lot 142 for $19,900. Wilkinson sported a medallion on her neck that indicated they’d made the purchase.

The pair’s sales rep, Dusten Tipton of Knoxville, Tenn., had whisked them back into the clubhouse where the deals were being finalized. Burkett and Wilkinson seemed weary, a bit overwhelmed by the engineered giddy atmosphere of the sales event. Burkett was wearing a poorly fitted winter coat he’d bought locally the night before, shocked into the purchase by a sudden drop in temperatures from the 80s to the 40s as the first cold-front of autumn moved through the region.

After plunking the requisite 20 percent down that closed the lot deal, Burkett and Wilkinson were fed barbecue sandwiches and handed endless cups of sweet iced tea. They were told they could take a helicopter ride to view their new property. Wilkinson got to keep the medallion, a prize to take home as a reminder of the couple’s mountain dream.

“This is just like going to the county fair for the first time,” Wilkinson said.

“It’s exhilarating,” Burkett added.

An informal survey of the people buying the lots — most, if not all, were from Southeast states other than North Carolina — seemed to prove a point that Jones and Masta were eager to make. The days of “flipping” properties seem gone. The buyers are predominantly people who want to build houses in Macon County and live in the area either on a seasonal basis or after retirement.

At Diamond Falls Estates, the other development in Macon County under Jones and Masta’s management, 64 lots closed out of 80 being marketed on a one-day sales event last year.

“We already have 12 new houses being built now,” Masta said of Diamond Falls. “And that’s creating jobs in the area for local builders and contractors. Those weren’t speculator people who wanted to flip it in two months. Those were real people wanting to build real houses.”

It also shows that there is still a demand for mountain real estate when the price is right — a price that is far lower than days gone by.

Wilkinson and Burkett hope to build in a year or two. They bought for the view, to get a site ready-made with an existing foundation, and because they felt they’d gotten a great deal — a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a not-to-be-missed chance to own a little piece of WNC.

 

Real estate experts react to Macon sale

The one-day land rush on cheap lots in The Ridges might be a sign of the times: not a real estate turn around per se, but an eagerness by banks to off-load foreclosed property, even if it means taking a loss.

“I think this is the beginning of a new trend,” said Bob Holt, real estate instructor for Southwestern Community College in Franklin and Sylva. “I think the banks are deciding, ‘I would rather take less and be done with it than hang on another year or two or three or four. To get rid of these they are going to get rid of them at rock bottom prices.’”

People buying the failed developments can in turn sell lots so cheaply that prospective lot buyers — who have otherwise proved elusive in the mountains lately — come knocking once more, witnessed by the droves of buyers lured by the fire sale at The Ridges in Macon County last weekend.

“I think we probably will see more of the fire sales,” Holt said. “I think we have waited and waited and waited and waited, and some people are saying it has got to have bottomed out now so it is going to turn around.”

Holt doesn’t think it has, however.

Some banks are attempting to sell the lots themselves, making a foray into the real estate business rather than off-load the property to a middle man. In Cashiers this spring, the bank that had foreclosed on one development orchestrated a one-day fire sale of lots. At Balsam Mountain Preserve, the lender who foreclosed on the property has stepped in as the property manager attempting to see the development through.

Peggy Patterson, who has sold real estate in Macon County for four decades, doesn’t see a return of the market at this juncture.

“I don’t think it is rebounding at all,” Patterson said. “If anything, it seems a little worse.”

Some of the lots in a 2,200-acre gated subdivision saddling the Cowee Mountain range in Macon County are being advertised across the Southeast for what’s being touted as bargain prices. The lots are slated for a big one-day, onsite sell Saturday, Oct. 1.

Prices have been knocked down from former highs of $100,000 to $300,000, to as low as $14,000, and up to the mid $30,000 range. There are 98 finished lots and more than 500 acres under new ownership.

The development, now called The Ridges but known better by its former name, Wildflower, has a troubled history. Landsides and road issues plagued the development, a project of Ultima Carolina of Atlanta, and the project fell victim to a weak economy and paralyzed housing market.

More than half of about 151 property owners in Wildflower defaulted on their mortgage payments by July 2010, walking away from dreams of “flipping” the property during the dizzying financial possibilities of the housing boom.

After Ultima failed to sell enough lots to make the bank loan, the development was foreclosed on by BB&T. The bank managed to offload the development recently to the new entity, Leed Enterprises. BB&T obviously wanted Wildflower off its books, selling it at a rather substantial loss for just $1 million.

The new developers, which include local Macon County businessman L.C. Jones, say any problems associated with Wildflower was then, and this is now at newly named The Ridges:

“There were some issues, but those are resolved,” said Michelle Masta, a spokeswoman for the project. “We have a well-funded group, we have a stake in this community, and we have eliminated any problems.”

Leed Enterprises, in a news release, noted it has retained a national engineering company and a Franklin-based engineering firm and solved the earth-moving issues in the development. Masta said a landslide area has been abandoned and a conservation easement entered into. She said the original developer had built a road “on three springheads,” setting the stage for multiple problems that are now resolved.

Still, the new developers have an uphill climb if they want to convince skeptical onlookers in Macon County, who view Wildflower as the pinnacle of out-of-control, speculator-driven mountain land development.

Susan Ervin, a longtime member of the Macon County Planning Board, noted: “We worked hard to get sensible slope development regulation — but it didn’t happen. Now, the lots are back on the sale block. What are the ‘fire sale’ prices going to do to the real estate comps, and the hopes of other landowners and realtors to sell a piece of land at a fair price? What assurance do we have that the development will be done well this time? What control do we have? Do the people looking at lots up there have any idea about the North Carolina Geological Survey Slope Movement Hazard Maps? Do they know there are unstable soils up there?  Down here in the valley, we know it.”

Macon County might postpone revaluating property — again — from 2013 to 2015, a remarkably different response to the crushingly bad housing market than Jackson County is taking.

Richard Lightner, longtime tax assessor for Macon County, said there simply hasn’t been enough property changing hands to set meaningful property values. And most importantly, he said, it would be difficult to set accurate values that Macon County could adequately defend from costly legal appeals. Property owners who disagree with a county’s revaluation have the legal right to challenge on a state level.

By waiting, more selling and buying will have taken place, though Lightner emphasized there’s no crystal ball he’s holding that allows him to read the future — and no guarantees that the market will be better then. Still, just by adding years to the process, one can safely assume some pieces of property will have sold, he said.

Macon and Jackson are similar on the tax fronts because of the communities of Highlands (in Macon) and Cashiers (in Jackson). Both communities are dominated by high-priced, multimillion-dollar homes, at least pre-recession prices. Those homeowners currently shoulder the bulk of the tax burdens in both counties. In Jackson County, by way of example, 57 percent of the tax base is located in just two townships: Cashiers and Hamburg, both in the southern end of the county.

Here is the key issue for taxpayers, the why-you-should-care, bottom-line point: Macon, by likely postponing a revaluation until 2015, would keep the tax burden predominantly on its higher-end residents in Highlands, and spare tax increases for the short term to the county at large. Jackson, by comparison, is looking still to do its revaluation in 2013, which means revaluated property, coupled with a revenue-neutral budget would, almost inevitably, shift the tax burden from the Cashiers area to the less-affluent areas of the county.

“It seemed that most of the pushback about delaying beyond 2013 came from taxpayers in the southern end of the county,” Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten said in explanation. “Property owners in the southern end could see larger declines in tax value while those in the northern end will see smaller declines, which could result in less taxes for the citizens in the southern end versus more taxes for the northern end.”

Revaluations in North Carolina must take place at least every eight years. Jackson County has the option of pushing back until 2016. Macon County must do its revaluation by 2015.

What’s not in question is what revaluation will mean for both counties: declining values when compared to the boom housing years. Jackson County did its last revaluation in 2008, and Macon County in 2007. Both counties opted to postpone revaluation past a four-year cycle, which they’d gone to because escalating land prices were causing sticker shock to taxpayers. This means Jackson County is using property values set in about 2007, and Macon County is using property values determined in 2006.

New values would mean “the $150,000 home on one acre would probably go up; undeveloped land and more expensive home will have a decrease,” Macon County Commissioner Kevin Corbin said in a recent meeting on the revaluation.

And that would shift the tax burden.

“I don’t have a problem with that per se,” said Macon Board Chairman Brian McClellan, who lives in Highlands and works as a financial advisor there. “If a big house loses value, they should get a tax break. My issue is, if we don’t have good comps, then we don’t want to be at risk defending a lot of revaluations we might not be able to defend.”

Corbin said that he does have some questions about whether Macon County should just go forward, like Jackson for now is set on doing, “and let the chips fall where they may.”

“When is our economy going to return? Maybe we are living in the new normal,” Corbin said.

Macon Commissioner Bobby Kuppers, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and former commander of a submarine, said the board should be clear in the message it sends to the county’s citizens.

“I think we can say, with some degree of certainty, where those chips are going to fall,” Kuppers said. “If we do the revaluation (in 2013), we owe it to the people of this county to warn them, ‘Incoming Chips.’”

Lightner added, “Those people you see at the grocery store or getting their car fixed, the burden of the chips are going to fall on their laps.”

Commissioners Ron Haven and Ronnie Beale indicated they would support postponing the revaluation.

“The people this would hit the hardest are the very people who can least afford it,” Beale said.

A vote by commissioners is expected in Macon County next month.

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