The vote last week was 3 to 2 Commissioners Ron Haven and Paul Higdon voted no, and Commissioners Jimmy Tate, Ronnie Beale and Kevin Corbin voted yes.
The county has been eyeing the purchase for months now but was awaiting the results of engineering, environmental and archeological reports before making the decision to move ahead. Although relatively flat and seemingly fit for baseball fields and recreation amenities, the 50-acre property along the river had caused doubts about whether Cherokee artifacts and flood plain regulations could hinder its potential for development once purchased.
However, the majority of commissioners were content with recent findings showing that those two factors would not interfere with the site plans.
“Everything looked very positive,” said Commissioner Ronnie Beale, who voted in favor of making the land purchase. “Our due diligence was done, and we can do the project as planned without interfering with the flood plain and the archeological finds.”
The results of the awaited archeological study were presented to commissioners last week. Paul Webb, an archeological consultant who surveyed the plot, reported that there are four separate Cherokee historic sites on the property, littered with shards of pottery and post holes marking the outlines of pre-historic dwellings.
He said the location would probably be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. However, he said, the findings were not atypical for Western North Carolina — or for Macon County in particular, where large Cherokee settlements once dotted the area.
The remnants of Cherokee settlements affects what kind of work can be done there, limiting the amount of site excavation that can take place. Nonetheless, Webb said those sites would most likely not be disturbed in the construction of baseball fields.
“From the cultural resources point of view, this is a good location, and it’s very feasible to use as a park,” Webb told commissioners.
Yet, following Web’s report, some commissioners expressed concerns that the sites restrictions on excavation and grading, coupled with the county’s ordinances prohibiting fill dirt from being trucked in to a flood plain, would stop development in its tracks.
“If we can’t develop it, then we don’t need to buy it,” said Commission Chairman Kevin Corbin.
Instead commissioners decided to postpone the decision several more days to consult with county planning staff and reassess the site. They reconvened later in the week and voted to buy the land.
Worth the cost?
A master plan pegged at $5.1 million would outfit the site with everything from paved parking lots, walking trails, a playground, a disc golf course and more.
But for now, the county is focused on the first phase, which would cost just more than $550,000 to build two fields, a parking lot and picnic pavilion, in addition to the purchase of the property.
Critics pointed to the $5.1 million price tag attached to a master plan as too much for the county to spend on a recreation complex.
But Corbin became frustrated at Tuesday’s meeting with the repeated mention of the $5.1 million figure in the master plan
“There’s no discussion to spend $5.1 million,” Corbin said “It will not cost anywhere close to that to build ballfields. Where’s the motion to spend $5.1 million? I’m lost.”
The county has planned to have part of the complex ready for the 2014 baseball season. The county is also banking on about $500,000 from the state Parks and Recreation Trust Fund to help curb costs.
Nevertheless, Commissioners Haven and Paul Higdon were still not on board with the plan. Higdon, who ran on a platform of fiscal conservatism in the last election, said he also took issue with the purchase price — not to mention the cost of developing it into a recreation complex.
“No one else is lined up to buy the property; it’s over-valued,” Higdon said. “If it comes to a I vote will oppose entering into this contract for purchase.”
A recent property value assessment had placed the worth of the property at more than $700,000. However, Higdon claimed it was probably worth more in the ballpark of $200,000. He thought it may be a better idea to look at upgrading existing baseball fields in the county.
A group of Little League players and coaches came to the commissioners meeting in a show of support for the new ballfield complex and decried the deplorable state of softball and baseball fields in Macon County
“It’s worse than I ever dreamed. I can’t believe how bad it is,” said Billy VanHook, a Little League organizer. “We are way behind.”
Higdon countered with whether spending so much money was indeed the right thing for youth, if it means saddling them with future debt.
“I know some people have promised them fancy new ballfields,” Higdon said. “But in the same breath, teach those children in full the political process. There’s no magic wand.”