Take note — members of the public with an agenda to push could learn a thing or two from the mass of Haywood County residents who came out repeatedly to protest the county’s proposed nuisance ordinance.
Commissioners voted unanimously at their Monday (April 6) meeting to indefinitely discontinue discussion of the nuisance ordinance in light of mass public opposition.
The nuisance ordinance seeks to crack down on junk on peoples’ property, and prohibits everything from outdoor storage of scrap metal to junked motor vehicles to non-maintained swimming pools. Though the ordinance aims to maintain public health, many county residents attacked it for infringing on their personal property rights.
The Monday meeting marked the third consecutive commissioners’ meeting that was overwhelmed by as many as 200 residents coming out to protest the nuisance ordinance — many of whom had never attended a governmental meeting in their life. The crowd was so large some were diverted into an overflow room to watch via closed-circuit television.
Residents missed work and other commitments in order to take part in the public outcry. Some offered apologies as they nervously stumbled over their public comments, explaining that public speaking was something they had little experience with.
The opposition even went so far as to form its own official group, called ‘We the People,” which attracted a crowd of 100 to its first meeting. Their organization was impressive.
Eventually, residents opposing the ordinance got exactly what they wanted — commissioners killed the nuisance ordinance. It was a display of democracy in its truest form. Even commissioners seemed impressed.
“It is apparent by the number of people in this room that the process works,” said Commissioner Mark Swanger.
“I hope everyone has learned a lot about county government,” remarked Commissioner Skeeter Curtis.
The learning process was evident. People who had never plowed through a county ordinance read the nuisance ordinance front to back several times. Members of the opposition questioned how they could get access to information like minutes, and asked commissioners when and how meetings were scheduled.
The learning curve wasn’t all good. If anything, many members of the public learned most of all that they should pay more attention to what their government is doing.
“It really woke us up — it’s made us realize we can’t trust this government,” said Randy Burris on Monday. “It’s made us realize how quickly our freedoms can be took away from us, and it’s up to us to stand and defined it.”
If opponents of the ordinance stay true to their word, commissioners will have a new breed of watchdog looking out for county interests.
“You have awoken a giant that I hope will stay with the decision that they have made to be attentive to their government for a change, and to watch what’s going on with this county,” said Rusty McLean on Monday.
Of course, it is not the first time mass crowds have turned out in protest at commissioner meetings with a sustained presence, only to have the audience thin out when the issue at hand was concluded. In the past 10 years, commissioners saw repeated standing-room-only crowds on two other occasions. One surrounded construction of the justice center, with debates centering on the price tag and location. Another heated and extended controversy broke out over a proposed maximum security state prison in the county. After both died down, the audience at commissioner meetings returned to nothing more than county staff and reporters.
A proposed Haywood County ordinance that prohibits various kinds of waste and junk was harshly criticized by speaker after speaker at a public hearing Monday (March 2).
The “Public Nuisance” ordinance prohibits everything from outdoor storage of scrap metal to junk cars to non-maintained swimming pools. Though the ordinance aims to safeguard public health, many county residents attacked it for infringing on their personal property rights.
The ordinance drew more than one reference to communism.
“All of this is like something right out of Karl Marx’s handbook,” said Randy Burris, a Cruso resident. “We have drawn a line today — I will not surrender any more of my rights to any government.”
Russell McLean, a Waynesville resident and the first to speak, called the ordinance “unconstitutional.”
“It completely rips away property rights,” McLean said. “I can’t even have a lawnmower sitting in a shed unless it’s fully enclosed.”
Colin Edwards of Maggie Valley said the ordinance had some good intentions, but ultimately was too restrictive.
“Some things I can understand, like garbage piling up, but you can’t tell somebody what they can and can’t have on their land,” Edwards said.
Maggie Valley resident Burton Edwards said things that appear to be uselessly taking up space can have value to someone else.
“One man’s junk is another man’s treasure,” he proclaimed. “If all you’ve got from your dad or granddad is a tractor that don’t run, that’s your heritage.”
The speakers professed an overwhelming live and let live attitude. That’s the way it’s traditionally been in Haywood County, they said, and if newcomers have a problem with that belief, they can take a hike.
“If people moves in here and they don’t like what they see, why don’t they move back out and leave us alone?” said Pauly Sidler of Canton.
The stiff opposition was a marked change from the official public hearing on the nuisance ordinance held two weeks before. Then, just a handful of speakers voiced messages of support for the ordinance.
Phyllis Brockman, a resident of the eastern end of the county, was one of the speakers. She hoped the ordinance would target the auto salvage yard near her property, where she witnesses mosquitoes and rats breeding in discarded tires.
“I believe that anybody should be able to do with their property what they want, up to the point where it begins to infringe on the rights and properties of their neighbors,” Brockman said.
Brockman’s neighbor, Noreen Langford, said she and others “have been held hostage in the community.”
Brockman asked that the ordinance have “an extraordinarily sharp set of teeth in it.”
Commissioners had few comments at the initial public hearing. Commissioner Skeeter Curtis told the speakers, “this ordinance is considerably stronger than we have now, and I think it will solve a lot of problems” near their properties.
At the public hearing on Monday, however, Curtis said he wouldn’t support the ordinance.
“The way the draft is written now, there’s no way I could vote for it,” he said.
The rest of the board agreed with Curtis.
“I don’t think any of us support it in its present draft,” said Commissioner Bill Upton.
Though many in the audience called for the county to drop the ordinance altogether, commissioners didn’t promise to do so. Instead, the board implored residents to attend the next planning board meeting to vent their concerns. That meeting will be held at 5:30 p.m. on March 23 in Haywood County Annex II.