Camp Hope was deeded to the town by the paper company Champion International years ago on the condition it be used for recreation by Haywood County residents and those in surrounding counties.
The deed explicitly stated that the town could not operate a summer camp on the property that primarily benefitted people from regions other than Western North Carolina.
Last year, John and Deborah Prelaz filed a lawsuit arguing that the town violated that condition by leasing part of the property to Wellsprings Adventure Camp, a private weight-loss summer camp whose clientele came mostly from out-of-town. The Prelaz’s claimed the town should lose the property since it wasn’t being made available in a meaningful way for local recreation use.
A jury ruled last week in favor of the town, however, allowing Canton to keep the property. But town leaders are worried that if things stay the same that the Prelazes could file another lawsuit in the future.
“We don’t want to get in the same boat again,” said Canton Alderman Patrick Willis. “We may have to look at some of the policies we have with the (property).”
The Prelazes have reversion rights to Camp Hope, meaning if the town did indeed break the conditions of the deed, the couple is next in line to get ownership of the property.
During the weeklong trial, defense attorneys and witnesses for the town of Canton contended that Camp Hope has always been open for use by county residents, even when Wellsprings camp was in session.
“The town of Canton has kept it open — has kept Camp Hope open,” said Waynesville Attorney Burton Smith, who represented Canton in the trial. “There is not a witness who has come forward … who would say Camp Hope property has been restricted,” he added later.
Part of the problem is that no one kept track of who used the property other than Wellsprings.
“Hundreds probably, who knows?” Smith said. “We know hundreds have used it.”
Witnesses testified that weddings, family reunions and picnics have been held at Camp Hope by the general public during the years. But there is no official count or record of how many gatherings were in fact held there.
Others talked about walking or fishing on the property. But recreational use of the property was largely by a select few who were in the know.
For the most part, the larger public had no idea that Camp Hope was akin to a public park and open to all for recreation.
After the trial, some of the jury members, all of who live in Haywood County, admitted that they never knew about Camp Hope or simply assumed the property was private.
“I have been here almost 18 years and have never heard of Camp Hope,” said Barry Dossenko, a Waynesville resident.
Dossenko said he had passed the property multiple times, but it didn’t seem accessible.
“I would not have felt likely to pull in there,” he said.
In exchange for use of the camp quarters during summer months, Wellsprings acted as an overseer, from upkeep to maintenance. The town also off-loaded the job of booking events at Camp Hope. The property is in the rural community of Cruso, a good 15 to 20 minute drive from Canton, so it was easier and cheaper for the town to just have Wellsprings manage the property.
After the trial ended last Thursday afternoon, jurors advised Canton’s Mayor Mike Rey, who was in the courtroom, that the town needs to do more going forward to let people know about Camp Hope.
“I think everybody needs to step up,” Dossenko said.
People who grew up going to Camp Hope with family members or clubs have always know its open. However, people new to the area or with no direct connection to Camp Hope had no reason to know about it.
Willis said he would like the town to promote the property as a public recreation site rather than waiting for people to find out about its availability on their own.
“I don’t think we have been proactive,” Willis said. “It sort of was always there. The situation didn’t come up until these folks filed a lawsuit.”
Fellow Alderman Jimmy Flynn agreed that the town needed to do something to rectify the fact that some of the region’s resident were unaware of Camp Hope. But added that the current town leaders just continued what had always been done by their predecessors.
“I don’t think the town board or the town people ever felt like they violated that lease. We did what was traditionally done up there,” Flynn said.
When Canton first received Camp Hope from Champion International in 1992, the town quickly leased it to Boy Scouts of America. The Boy Scouts handled maintenance and upkeep of the grounds, cabins and dining hall, as well as booked a smattering of family reunions, weddings and picnics held at the site, similar to the town’s agreement with Wellsprings. The town saw it as a win-win — Canton’s end of the bargain was upheld without burdening its finances.
When the Boy Scouts left, Wellsprings moved in and took over care of the property, investing about $500,000 on maintenance and improvements. Once the lawsuit was brought by the Prelazes however, Wellsprings pulled out. It couldn’t risk the possibility of the property being seized, leaving them with nowhere to put on their summer camp, so they ended their agreement with the town and went elsewhere.
That forced the Canton to take a more active role in the operation of Camp Hope, even expending some of its own money to keep the place from becoming run down.
“They’ve been really good in terms of maintenance and upkeep, and we are definitely going to have to look at that now that they’re gone,” Willis said.
The town is working on its budget for next year and will need to make room for the added costs of Camp Hope maintenance or find a way to raise money to help offset expenses.
Willis said the town will need to consider implementing rental rates. Currently, people who want to host larger events, like a family reunion, can use Camp Hope’s facilities for free as long as they schedule it through the town.
There is still a chance that Wellsprings could return to Camp Hope next year. The town and Wellsprings both wanted to see how the trial played out before making any commitments.
Though if the company does resume its use of Camp Hope, Canton leaders will still take a more hands-on approach, said Alderman Ed Underwood.
“I would guarantee you if they did, there would be more cooperation between them and us,” Underwood said. “We will make sure we are more involved with it than we have in the past. We have learned our lesson.”
The town board’s next meeting is May 28, and it will talk about what to do next.
“I really think it is too soon to say what we are going to do,” Flynn said. “I would be in favor of spending money and promoting Camp Hope.”
The Prelazes have 30 days from the end of the trial to file an appeal, but it is unclear whether they will.
“We have got to think about that,” said Mark Kurdy, the Asheville attorney who represented the couple.
During the trial, Kurdy argued that the town did not do all it could to ensure that Camp Hope was run primarily for the benefit of residents in Haywood and the surrounding counties.
Kurdy produced a list of campers who attended Wellsprings from 2005 to 2011. Only 23 of the 978 campers came from Haywood County or one of its surrounding counties.
The attorney claimed that Canton leaders knew how few area kids attended the camp but neglected to act on the information or adequately advertise the property’s availability.
“Some of the things that were done by the fathers of the town of Canton needed to be better,” Kurdy said. “They were not the best they could be.”
Kurdy also stated that the town did not stand by the terms of the deed because it did not offer any programs; it relied on Wellsprings to fulfill that part of the agreement.
“Canton has not held any programs at Camp Hope,” Kurdy said. “The only one the town of Canton has ever held is the one three weeks ago to drum up support,” he said, referencing a recent “Save Camp Hope” event.
Meanwhile, Smith argued that the Prelaz couple was simply greedy, trying to gain ownership of Camp Hope for their own private use.
“This is a financially interested pair of parties who are trying to acquire Camp Hope for, what they said in their letter, personal recreational use,” he said.
The couple had tried to purchase the land from the town before but Canton leaders refused their offer.
“It is a question of maintaining heritage,” Smith said. “The use of it, the access to it is priceless.”