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Macon County’s planning board lived to plan another day. Proposed retroactive term limits, which some considered punitive because they seemed to mainly target the most experienced, pro-planning of the board’s members, were rejected by commissioners.

Planning Board Chairman Lewis Penland and longtime members Susan Ervin — very pro-planning — and Lamar Sprinkle — very much not pro-planning — can continue serving under this compromise.

“We have a wonderful planning board,” said Democratic Commissioner Ronnie Beale prior to the vote. “And you’ve been lampooned, laughed at — that’s not right.”

Beale and fellow Democratic Commissioner Bobby Kuppers flatly informed their Republican colleagues that they would not support retroactive term limits, setting the stage for a compromise proposal by two of the board’s three Republicans.

“This is the 500-pound gorilla in the room, so we might as well talk about it,” Kuppers said. “I believe that retroactivity — by making them retroactive — that is a thinly veiled effort … aimed at individuals.”

Many of those individuals were in fact present at the meeting. Some spoke earlier that same evening during a nearly two-hour public hearing on term limits for the planning board. Penland was not there.

 

Out of bounds?

The brouhaha over Macon County’s planning board ignited after Republican Commissioner Ron Haven sent a recent email expressing his concerns and misgivings about the planning board to fellow commissioners. It is unclear whether Haven understood that his email was by state law a public document. But it was, and the contents of his missive landed with the commotion of a pussycat being thrown into a dog party.

Haven, in his email bomb, accused the planning board of running amok and disregarding commissioners’ instructions. Haven openly demanded Planning Board Chairman Penland be ousted, thus targeting the planning board’s most vocal advocate for development regulations. Haven suggested the board possibly be abolished. He dubbed Penland a “dictator.”

Beale, who earlier that evening had drawn laughs and guffaws from the crowd at the expense of speaker and developer Michelle Masta because she doesn’t reside in Macon County, reprimanded Haven for what Beale considered unseemly behavior.

“To attack a volunteer is out of bounds,” Beale said. “To call them a dictator; that is out of bounds.”

Kuppers, too, proved eager to defend the planning board as a whole and Penland in particular. Kuppers is running for re-election. Corbin and Republican Jimmy Tate are running for their commission seats, too. Both Corbin and Tate were originally appointed, not elected, to the board.

“We don’t have to resort to accusations and ridicule,” Kuppers said.

Haven, for his part, acknowledged that he “brought the people tonight.” There was standing room only at the Macon County courtroom, which meant with overflow into the hall probably 150 to 200 people were there.

Clearly emotional and visibly red faced, Haven took a microphone in hand and stood in front of the jury box and addressed the crowd. The four other commissioners remained seated during their public comments.

“I’m not here cutting no one down,” Haven said, then accused some of “flying to conclusions.”

“‘Oh,’” Haven suddenly hollered into the microphone in an apparent imitation of those upset, “‘they are trying to throw us off the planning board.’”

“I done it out of fairness,” he told the crowd. “And this has nothing to do with politics. I want to be fair.”

A victim perhaps of his emotion, Haven never quite successfully elucidated what exactly he had intended to accomplish with the email and subsequent proposed term limits.

 

Macon speaks

Thirty-three people spoke during the public hearing on the term limits. Most appeared to support at least the concept of planning, which, in Macon County, should never be considered a given.

Former Planning Board Chairman Sue Waldroop defended the work done by volunteers on the board, calling it a “thankless, sometimes frustrating, undertaking.”

“Contrary to recently published charges that planning board members wish to dictate to their fellow citizens, no planning board … has that power,” she said.

Waldroop spoke against term limits, saying that it would “cripple” the board’s ability to conduct business.

Bill Crawford also spoke against the concept, saying it seemed an attempt “to remove some specific people. And that’s not right.”

But, several speakers called on commissioners to pass the term limits exactly as Haven had proposed.

“Requiring a turnover in planning board membership will lead to broader citizen participation,” said Vic Drummond. “I believe greater diversity would improve the board.”

Bruce Thorne said he believes a “new infusion” of thought via new board members was needed.

“We need new blood in the system,” Thorne said.

Planning Board Member Jimmy Goodman said he knows “plenty” of residents who want to serve but “can’t get on for political reasons.”

At times the debate went beyond term limits, as when Loretta Newton told commissioners that no one should be allowed to tell her what she can or cannot do on her private property, but that they do anyway.

“You can regulate my private use of my property. You can make it so I can’t even enjoy my property.”

Other Macon County residents called for a more “civil discourse,” as planning board member Larry Stenger put it, when discussions vital to the county surface as they surely will.

 

Term limits passed for planning board members

The Macon County Board of Commissioners agreed to term limits that start only after each of the planning board members completes another term in office. And, instead of the harsh three-year boot off the board before possible reappointment that was originally proposed, commissioners voted on a shortened one-year timeout.

Planning board terms of service will consist of two three-year terms, for a total of six years before the required one-year respite.

The vote was 4-1 with Commissioner Ron Haven, who made the original proposal to enforce retroactive term limits, voting no. Commissioners Kevin Corbin, Jimmy Tate, Ronnie Beale and Bobby Kuppers voted yes.

Swain County commissioners will have to decide in coming weeks whether to pony up $3,000 to $5,000 for an early voting site in Cherokee this election.

The Swain County Board of Elections doesn't have the money in its budget this year to run an early voting site in Cherokee as it did in 2010. The election board decided last week to pass the decision up the chain to county commissioners.

The election board also has given county commissioners the option of funding another early voting site at the West Swain County Fire Department to serve the Alarka, Almond and Nantahala areas.

The cost of running the sites would be between $6,000 and $12,000, said Joan Weeks, director of Swain County's Board of Elections. Right now, the only early voting site would be at the board of elections office in Bryson City.

Board of Elections Chairman James Fisher seemed confident that the commissioners would approve their request and then the board could move forward with election preparations.

"We are going to appear before the county commissioners and get the funding," Fisher said.

All three election board members have declared their support for continuing to operate the early voting site in Cherokee as long as they can line up the funding.

"I am still very hopeful we can make this happen," said board member Mark Tyson. "It would be sad if it didn't."

Tyson wanted the election board to go ahead and vote last week on the additional early voting sites. He made a motion to approve the early voting sites in Cherokee and West Swain pending funding from the county commissioners.

But, the other two election board members felt it was more appropriate to simply ask commissioners first.

"I felt like Mr. Tyson was trying to create a problem," Fisher said. "It would have backed the commissioners in a corner."

Board of Election officials will make their request at the next county commissioners meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 28. And, at least some county commissioners are open to the idea of contributing to the early voting sites.

"I fully support the tribe having a voting precinct," said Commissioner David Monteith. "I think they should have a place to vote."

Commissioner Steve Moon, on the other hand, was more hesitant, saying he wants to discuss the issue with the other commissioners before deciding whether the $6,000 to $12,000 investment is worth it.

"That's a lot of money," Moon said. "That is not something we need to rush into."

County Commissioner Donnie Dixon agreed that the board must meet to talk about the issue collectively but was more optimistic that it might vote in favor of funding the sites.

"That is very possible," said Commissioner Dixon.

After addressing the county commissioners, election officials are planning to meet with tribal council leaders to update them on the issue.

Cherokee leaders have indicated that they would like the early voting site to operate again this election year and are willing to offer the county Internet services and a building on the reservation free of charge.

The request for an early voting site in West Swain came up for the first time this year.

Former elections board member John Herrin filed a formal request with the Board of Elections for a site located at the West Swain County Fire Department in Almond. The location would offer residents near the Nantahala Gorge and Alarka a closer place to vote. Currently, residents must drive into Bryson City — a 20- to 30-minute trip — in order to cast their ballot early.

"It is my intent in requesting this that it will inherently make the 'Right to Vote' much easier for the registered voters of Swain County," wrote Herrin in his request. "This would as well relieve some of the workload on the Election Day for very possibly the whole county."

 

Which costs more, time or money?

When the Swain County Board of Elections first offered an early voting site in Cherokee in 2010, the turnout was poor, with only 226 people taking advantage of the new location. Board of election members said the site may just need more time to gain a following but also questioned whether the county can afford to spend thousands of dollars on a previously underused early voting site. The board spent about $3,500 to run the site in 2010.

Without the additional location, Cherokee residents will again have to drive to the Swain County election office in Bryson City if they want to vote early — a more than 20-minute trek. And, for those living in the far reaches of Cherokee's Big Cove community, the trip is more like 30 to 40 minutes.

However, Cherokee residents aren't the only ones in Swain County who face a long haul into Bryson City to take advantage of early voting. People in Alarka and Nantahala have similar distances to drive. Residents of that area travel about 21 miles, or about 30 minutes, to cast early ballots.

Residents of western Swain County have indicated that they would like an early voting site as well. But, a formal request for an additional location was not submit to the Board of Elections until this year.

Jackson County commissioners this week formally attempted to put the kibosh on 83-year-old Marie Leatherwood’s pattern of outbursts, picketing and general garrulity during meetings.

During a meeting last month, Leatherwood was told she could no longer display signs during county board meetings, as she has done regularly over the past two years. She was instead ordered to hold them in the hall outside.

Monday, commissioners passed a resolution that backed off a total sign ban. They decided to allow Leatherwood and others, if they wish, to hold signs in the meeting room after all. But, only if they don’t hold them so as to create distractions. And, if they insist on standing in the manner Leatherwood seems to prefer, sign demonstrators must position themselves along a back wall rather than the front of the meeting room where arguably they pose a distraction to commissioners and the audience.

In return, Chairman Jack Debnam promised to try to encourage speakers to speak up and avail themselves of microphones. Leatherwood, along with others attending, have complained they couldn’t clearly hear county business as it’s being conducted.

“Every commissioner is committed to … making the decisions we believe are in the best interest of the county,” Debnam said. “At the same time, we acknowledge that there will be citizens who have a differing opinion on certain topics and wish to present their point of view. The fact that everyone can express their opinion without fear of retribution or intimidation is the foundation for our free speech.”

Leatherwood heeded neither Debnam’s fine oratory nor the sign and microphone concessions. She appeared more emboldened by the attention than not and was certainly neither subdued nor chastised. Instead of submitting meekly to the yoke of authority, Leatherwood for the remainder of the meeting challenged commissioners and county administrators to speak louder while they were attempting to speak. Leatherwood stood up during the meeting and distributed handwritten notes to members of the news media about free speech rights. She fussed through a laundry list of displeasures to County Manager Chuck Wooten and Attorney Jay Coward as commissioners attempted to transition from a public to a closed session.

Leatherwood, during her rightful three minutes at the podium given each citizen who desires that bully pulpit, sent Wooten meekly trotting after drinking water. Giving an ever-so-slight, discreet cough, Leatherwood explained to commissioners that her allergies were hindering her ability to speak. Wooten’s ministrations came in the form of a small bottle of water retrieved from an adjacent room. He visibly broke the bottle-cap seal in public before handing Leatherwood the water.

Revived by a sip, Leatherwood recovered from her allergy issues and devoted her three-minute address to the board vigorously defending her rights to hold signs in the boardroom.

“The burden of proof is on the board and Mr. Coward, who will prattle about a Louisiana Supreme Court case about holding up signs at meetings,” she said in part in a heated defense of her perceived free speech rights.

The fate of Macon County’s planning board and whether it will exist in a meaningful form will be decided at next week’s commissioners’ meeting.

At stake are the implementation of term limits, and whether those term limits should be retroactively applied to those currently serving. That could eliminate many of the staunchest pro-planners now on the board.

There’s also the question about whether the planning board should be diminished by commissioners from its current role as an ordinance-producing group to something like an “advisory” panel that generates suggestions.

An email last month from Commissioner Ron Haven to fellow county commissioners ignited the firestorm. He accused the planning board of running amok and disregarding commissioners’ instructions. Haven openly demanded Planning Board Chairman Lewis Penland be ousted, targeting the planning board’s most vocal advocate for development regulations, and further suggested the board might could be abolished.

Haven’s email generated more subdued, controlled responses from fellow commissioners during their last meeting. But the iron hand is still in the velvet glove as far as pro-planners are concerned.

“What it really seems like is that they are trying to load the planning board with people who are anti-planning and who are diametrically opposed to planning, though there’s talk about diversity,” said Al Slagle, a member of that board.

The more recent appointments to the planning board — those made since a new Republican majority won control of the county commission a year ago  — have been people who are open about their desires for no, or extremely limited, land-development regulations.

This battle has been decades in the making. Macon County commissioners have long resisted instituting planning regulations sent to them for approval by their planning board.

“This kind of open opposition is new,” said Susan Ervin, the only woman on the planning board and the longest serving member. Ervin has emerged recently — after two decades of service — as a lightning rod for criticisms of that group.

“There have been bumps before, though,” Ervin said. “Maybe 11 or 12 years ago, we tried to introduce a land-use plan that didn’t go anywhere, either.”

Although the county has a subdivision ordinance, it has been stuck on passing a steep slope ordinance despite work on one being in the works for three years. The planning board finally scrapped the slope ordinance last summer and replaced it with more basic construction guidelines, but commissioners have not yet given them the thumbs up or down.

The term-limits idea being floated might not accomplish removing Penland, who declined to comment, or Ervin, if that is indeed the goal.

The county would need to go back and determine exactly when each planning board members was appointed, according to Mike Decker, deputy clerk to the commission board. Additionally, the March 1972 ordinance that formed the planning board underwent revision in 2004. It might prove necessary to start members’ terms from that date, he said.

Mark West, another longtime serving planning board member who is pro-planning but could be considered more moderate in his views than some on the board, expressed discomfort at the tone of the debate.

“We’ve always been able to disagree politely,” West said. “To respect each other and be able to shake hands. I see it turning into a more hostile environment, and one that doesn’t serve the county well.”

The bottom line for West is ensuring reasonable planning measures in Macon County that adequately ensure the public’s safety.

“If you can contain a slide on your property, I don’t have any personal concerns about that,” West said. “But I do think the county has an obligation when it becomes a down-slope hazard to others.”

The open battle over the planning board’s fate has not engulfed those county employees involved in the planning realm. Planner Derek Roland, to date, seems to have risen above the fray, as has veteran County Manager Jack Horton. That has not always proven the case in past county fracases. Learning to handle such situations is part of being a government employee, Horton said.

“Sometimes you just have conflicts to deal with,” he said. “And we are here to do a job and to give advice where advice is necessary. But the commissioners are the ones who are elected to make the decisions. As staff, we give all the facts about an issue that we can, and bring back to them the best information that we can on a particular subject.”

Horton pointed out that those commissioners also must face the repercussions “of praise or blame,” whatever that turns out to be.

In town and county governments there are those dedicated members of the public who speak out and stand up to help hold elected officials accountable … and then there are gadflies. Marie Leatherwood, with a history of flinging wild accusations of thievery and wrongdoing against Jackson County’s leaders, seems squarely in the latter camp.

Last week, Jackson County commissioners clearly had enough — at least enough of Leatherwood’s signs. The 83-year-old, who is less than 5-feet-tall and must rely on Jackson County Transit to get to meetings, was told that she could no longer bring signs into the boardroom. She can display them outside in the hall, however.

The dispute between Leatherwood and Jackson County’s elected officials appears a simple matter of free speech rights versus political leaders’ duties to conduct public business. But the situation isn’t as clear-cut as it might seem.

Legal experts are divided on whether signs alone constitute disruptions. And then there’s the Leatherwood factor: her attacks are highly individual, even vile by most people’s standards. The accusations are at times untethered in reality. She uses an allotted three minutes of time, given to any member of the public who wishes to address the board at meetings, to abuse her chosen target’s character, personal integrity and ethics.

Leatherwood can weave a tapestry of conspiracy out of a single cat’s hair, with just about as much evidence to support her claims. She routinely exceeds her three minutes, requiring constant prodding by Commission Chairman Jack Debnam to finish talking so that others have an opportunity to speak. And under a different chairman and previous board of commissioners, Leatherwood once left the meeting room escorted by sheriff’s deputies.

About two years ago, Leatherwood began using props, holding up signs in the board room during meetings.

 

‘It’s a disruption’

Debnam’s decision to ban Leatherwood’s signs follow an initial decision made a few months ago to remove her from  “press row,” an area reserved for county employees and members of the news media. Seated then directly behind county administrators, Leatherwood chatted distractingly to anyone nearby while business was conducted.

Leatherwood had her signs then, too. Debnam said that he hoped to hinder her ability to distract by asking that she sit in the publicly designated area.

That certainly didn’t work, he noted. Leatherwood promptly took up a new post, standing in the aisle to one side of the board room, signs in hand, in an even more prominent position than before.

“I don’t have anything personal against Mrs. Leatherwood,” Debnam said Monday. “We give her the three minutes to do what she wants to do. I don’t care if she brings an 8-by-10 signboard and props it up while she speaks, but I don’t think it’s fair to allow her to stand in front of everybody during meetings and hold up a sign. I think that’s a disruption, and that it’s uncalled for.”

State law gives elected officials the right to conduct meetings without disruptions. Backed on his legal reasoning by County Attorney Jay Coward, Debnam pulled the plug on Leatherwood’s signs. Leatherwood, predictably but perhaps not entirely inaccurately, cried foul.

“It’s a violation of free speech,” Leatherwood said, adding that she had been shocked by Debnam’s action.  

Leatherwood’s signs are generally slightly larger than a desk calendar. They display points she wants emphasized and often excerpts the state’s general statutes. The content varies according to who serves as her latest target.

 

Violation of law?

There’s no doubt Leatherwood’s behavior is difficult, and that her accusations are hostile and, to date, mostly unfounded. But that’s not the issue, according to longtime N.C. Press Association Lawyer Amanda Martin.

Here’s the bottom line, as Martin framed it: would Leatherwood be allowed to hold her signs if she had a history of delivering verbal flowers, kisses and accolades to commissioners instead of flinging wild accusations?

“Is bringing a sign disruptive? I don’t think that simply having a sign is disruptive,” Martin said. “It could be because they don’t like it, that it’s just bugging the commissioners. And that’s not disruptive. I don’t think that’s a violation of the law.”

Debnam said in response that he doesn’t care what the signs say, whether they are in favor of him or against him or for fellow board members or against them.

“I don’t want her to hold anything up,” the Jackson County chairman said.

Leon “Chip” Killian, Haywood County’s lawyer since 1971, supported the neighboring county board’s decision to deem signs in the boardroom disruptive.

“I don’t think my board would look kindly upon someone holding up signs anymore than we would someone interrupting,” Killian said. “I think a sign is a major interference.”

But John Nowack of Sylva, who was an eyewitness to the events unfolding in Jackson County’s boardroom, said that he believed the county’s leaders fell short in understanding and compassion. And, Nowack said, of upholding the simple “human dignity” of an aging, elderly resident.

“I was surprised,” said Nowack, adding that this had been the first commission meeting he’d attended. “They really presented themselves poorly in the way they handled this.”

 

A difficult task

Longtime Macon County Commissioner Ronnie Beale, who previously served as chairman of that county’s board, said balancing free speech with the need to conduct business can prove a delicate undertaking.

“But that’s the privilege of being in America,” Beale said. “You don’t want people to disrupt, and there’s rules to cover that. But if they want to be a part, we welcome them in this community.”

Beale isn’t joking. During one commission meeting in Macon County, the then-board chairman had a speaker during public session flop down onto the floor, apparently making a point that escaped the reasoning of others present in the room.

“I tried to be cordial and respectful, but I said (name of flopper) ‘If you fall on that floor again, I’m going to call 911 and have you carried out of here,’” Beale recounted.

Problem solved, at least in that particular case, Beale said. After that, the flopper remained standing and spoke respectfully.

“It’s a lot how you handle things. If you are antagonistic, it’s not going to get any better,” he said.

That said, Beale heavily underscored the absolute need and right for boards to avoid disruptions by members of the public.

Sylva’s interim Town Manager Mike Morgan echoed Beale’s thoughts. He said that striking the correct balance is difficult. Many board regulars are simply grandstanding, Morgan said. He noted that when Buncombe County, which televises its meetings, opted to turn the cameras off during the public comment segment, the number of people angling to address that board plummeted.

When Haywood County was being inundated by public comment at its commissioners’ meetings two years ago — with the same line-up of speakers taking 90 minutes at the start of nearly every meeting — the county likewise contemplated taking the public comment period off the air to discourage grandstanding. Instead, the county began more strictly enforcing the three-minute time limit and quit answering questions posed by speakers at the podium, a practice that tended to lead to prolonged exchanges.

So far, Leatherwood has reserved her protests for the county, although last week she showed up at Sylva’s town board meeting with a sign in hand. The town has not taken any action to ban signs.

Morgan said that while serving as town manager of Weaverville he cautioned his former staff to listen closely to those who spoke to that town’s board, no matter how familiar and boring it might seem. Every once in a while, Morgan said, board gadflies knock the ball out of the park.

Or, in other words, the fool sometimes emerges the Shakespearean fool: wiser, that is, than the rest of us.

Jackson leaders will likely pushback a countywide property revaluation from next year to 2016 following a strong recommendation by their tax man.

“Truthfully, if you want this thing done and you want it done right, we don’t have an adequate timeline,” Tax Assessor Bobby McMahan told commissioners last week. “The more time we have, the better quality our work is going to be.”

Commissioners had instructed McMahan and his staff to move forward with a revaluation in 2013, which was already one year later than originally planned.

In a revaluation, every home, lot and tract of land is assigned a new property value to reflect the going real estate market — a value that in turn dictates how much people pay in property taxes.

Several residents made a public appeal to commissioners earlier this month to delay the revaluation beyond 2013. Falling real estate prices for high-end homes means affluent property owners will see their taxes come down in a revaluation, and the burden would be redistributed to the county’s middle-class residents.

Most of the property tax burden is currently shouldered by property owners in Cashiers-Glenville area, dominated by high-end resorts and second- and third-homes. Delaying the revaluation means the county could continue could taxing these high-end properties at an inflated book value.

But that isn’t the reason the county is giving for the delay. McMahan said there simply is a lack of sales data — not enough homes and lots being bought and sold — for the county to know what the going rate is for property.

The drop in sales is staggering: there are 444 sales from the past three years that could be considered for the revaluation, noted Commissioner Mark Jones who is from the Cashiers-Glenville area. That, McMahan added, compares to nearly 8,000 property transactions during the last revaluation period.

“It just makes our position of trying to proceed less defensible,” Chairman Jack Debnam, a real estate agent in real life, said of the woeful sales numbers.

The lack of sales makes it difficult to set accurate values that Jackson County could defend in potentially costly legal appeals. Property owners who disagree with a county’s revaluation have the legal right to challenge on a state level. Counties must be able to prove how they arrived at property values by using data from actual sales.

“Would you say the big driver is the lack of sales?” Commissioner Doug Cody asked in reiteration of the shifting county position about when exactly to conduct a revaluation.

“That data is the most important thing you have to have,” McMahan said in reply.

“If postponed, what portion of your work would be in vain? How much of that would still be used?” Commissioner Charles Elders asked McMahan.

“None of it is in vain,” the tax assessor said in response. “You never truly quit, never totally stop working on revaluation.”

“And to do the job you should do, you really need this (extra) time,” Elders said. “You don’t need guess work?”

“Right, you don’t need to guess,” McMahan said in reply.

Tax Assessor Richard Lightner in neighboring Macon County successfully encouraged commissioners there to delay until 2015, the legal eight-year span allowable since the county’s last revaluation in 2007. He, too, cited likely indefensible legal action in his recommendation.

Haywood County, unlike counties farther to the west, moved forward with a revaluation last year after postponing it by just one year. Property values on a whole remained flat, although there was variation between types of property and neighborhood. Haywood does not have nearly the same volume of high-end second homes, however.

Swain County did a revaluation two years ago but tossed the results out. It will conduct a revaluation in 2014.

Jackson County leaders have decided that tradition is overrated.

Six months after the new Jackson County library opened, commissioners have decided whose name to put on a plaque in the foyer — a spot that until now featured a cardboard placeholder.

The verdict?

The names of two different boards of commissioners will be listed on the commemorative plaque for the new library, not just the board of commissioners who took the political heat when it was built.

“Can we talk about the plagues?” Chairman Jack Debnam asked fellow board members during a daylong retreat last week, a reference to a typo on the agenda sheet that was supposed to read, “library plaques.”

County Manager Chuck Wooten added, also amused by the typo, “I have not taken any steps to order those plaques. And I just need some direction, and it will be a plague I can eliminate from my agenda.”

The tempest in a teacup first burbled to public notice last summer, when Jackson County in June celebrated the opening of its $8 million public library in Sylva, a project that included renovations to the historic courthouse.

Before new commissioners and a new county manager took office last fall, former County Manager Ken Westmoreland had submitted the design for a plaque with a typical inscription used on new-building plaques in Jackson County. The plaque was to list the names of the political leaders who were responsible for funding the library; the county manager’s name leading the effort; and the names of the architect and general contractor involved.

When three new commissioners took office, that plaque design was placed on hold.

Wooten told commissioners that on his own initiative he decided that giving sole credit to the former commissioners wasn’t fitting. The new commissioners were making a substantial investment in the new library by increasing its annual operating budget. Wooten felt the three new board members should be included, too. But Wooten decided not to include the name of the previous county manager’s name, or his as the current county manager. He did opt to keep the architect and general contractor.

“At that point in time, I said, ‘Well, maybe we should take a different approach to it,’” Wooten said in explanation.

Debnam, in typical fashion told fellow board members that he’d rather take yet a different approach, an even more radical one than that being offered by the county’s manager — Debnam questioned whether any commissioners at all should attempt to claim plaque acclaim.

“Well, I for one have an issue with self gratification,” Debnam said, adding that county buildings are “built by and for the people of Jackson County.”

“What did we do?” Debnam said as he expounded on his individual theory of plaque appropriateness. “It’s not our money we’re spending. I know there seems to be a history of doing this — somewhere it started, somewhere it needs to end.”

It didn’t end this time, though. Commissioner Joe Cowan, who in fact voted against building the new public library at the site of old historic courthouse, agreed that both boards should be included on the plaque. Cowan did not touch on his opposition to where the new library was sited, even though he has gone on record recently reminding people that he had been against the site when predictions of a parking shortage on courthouse hill came true.

But that was then, and before Jackson County residents posted record numbers in library attendance and the facility won a statewide award for general loveliness and excellence.

A plaque, Cowan said as he expounded on his own theory of plaque appropriateness, “identifies who was around, and maybe who had the guts to stand up and build the building, by golly — that you are willing to stand up and put your neck and maybe your next election on the line.”

Cowan said that he believed there’s no shame in credit being given where credit was due.

“I don’t have a problem whatsoever with both boards being on there. In some ways, it’s more reflective of what has happened,” Cowan said in summation, still minus mention that he opposed the new library being built as an add-on to Jackson County’s historic courthouse.

The plaque will cost between $1,100 and $1,900, based on whether it is aluminum or brass, Wooten said, after receiving enough of a consensus from the board to combat this ongoing plague.

Driven by a Republican-dominated commission, Macon County’s beleaguered planning board will undergo wholesale changes that likely include member term limits and a lessened, some might argue silenced, voice in writing development ordinances.

But these steps, agreed to in concept by commissioners during a Saturday workshop, might not repair growing chasms among the county’s leaders regarding the planning board’s proper role. Or, who should lead the planning board.

Commissioner Ron Haven didn’t mince words in a recent email to fellow county commissioners. It went viral almost as quickly as Haven hit the “send” button last Friday night.

In the email, Haven demanded the ouster of Planning Board Chairman Lewis Penland. Penland has been a vocal champion for steep slope regulations, and was instrumental in pushing for mountainside construction standards — a stance Haven apparently disagrees with, based on his characterization of the planning board as dictators and his call to possibly abolish it.

At the workshop, Haven accused the planning board of running amok and disregarding commissioners’ instructions. While feuding on the planning board has been shared by both sides — with opponents of steep slope regulations at least as vocal about their own positions as pro-planning advocates — Haven blamed Penland.

Penland’s term on the planning board is expiring. Commissioners must decide whether to reappoint him. Haven warned commissioners not to renew Penland’s appointment. He said if they did, they would pay for that decision during the next election.

“So with us being at the crossroads at putting Lewis Penland back on board for another upsetting three years to keep doing the same thing the people are tired of, it seems the timing is just right with nothing in the way,” Haven wrote in the email. “It is time right now to make changes and you commissioners know it. Penland with his rude attitude, close minded, self agenda ideas has no place on the planning board.”

Democrat Commissioner Bobby Kuppers defended the 12-member planning board, which he served as liaison to until recently.

“We handed them a prioritized list,” Kuppers said. “We told them as you complete one, move to the next — that list was approved by the commissioners. To their credit, they have followed that list … in fairness they did what we asked them to do. And to say they didn’t is really unfair.”

Haven, a conservative Republican, defended his take on planning and the planning board.

“I have always felt planning is a good thing,” Haven wrote in his email. But, “I feel this board is a nonfunctioning tool to the commissioner board and the citizens. When all that is important it [sic] to make citizens surrender their property rights, hinder job growth, and be a dictater [sic] then where if [sic] freedom in America if it can’t start at home.”

Penland on Monday said that he does find some common ground with Haven. The commission board needs to “quit kicking the can down the road” as Haven asserted in his email and make decisions about planning in Macon County, said Penland, who is a golf-course developer in real life. Penland for now declined further comment on Haven’s unflattering description.

Saturday, in what at times included terse and sharp exchanges among the five commissioners (three Republicans and two Democrats), the future shape of the planning board began to emerge.

For pro-planners in Macon County, it isn’t pretty: the board likely will not make decisions or have much meaningful say regarding land planning. Instead, it would make what Republican commissioners’ are dubbing “recommendations.”

“For lack of a better term, I’d call it a bullet list,” Commission Chairman Kevin Corbin said.

In an interview with The Smoky Mountain News two weeks ago, Corbin laid out a vision for the planning board that would reduce its role from writing proposed ordinances to suggesting general parameters, and then having the county attorney develop ordinance language.

Commissioner Jimmy Tate of Highlands had a front-row seat of when serving on the planning board. Tate was selected to be the commissioners’ new liaison to the planning board.

“They get bogged down … on how to rewrite one word,” Tate said, adding the bold promise he’d “get them on a sled and slide right through that.”

The spillover from Haven’s email and the Saturday commissioners’ discussion are likely to reverberate for the foreseeable future. Conservationist Bill McLarney, a highly regarded aquatic biologist in Macon County who is married to longtime planning board member Susan Ervin, shot back in defense of polite manners in a widely distributed email of his own.

“I am dismayed by what appears to be the low level to which political discourse has descended in this county,” McLarney wrote. “Hopefully Mr. Haven’s letter is an anomaly; it is certainly an embarrassment to us all. To the extent that the commissioners and we the public allow this sort of ignorant outburst to inform county policy and decisions, we are all losers.”

 

A long and winding road

Commissioner Ron Haven’s push for planning board reform comes as county leaders continue ruminating (three months and counting) on whether to pass construction guidelines developed by the advisory group.

By most counties’ standards, the guidelines are routine — they mainly deal with cut and fill regulations and with road-compaction standards. The planning board hoped to see the construction guidelines incorporated into two existing county ordinances, the soil and erosion regulations and subdivision regulations. The subdivision regulations are now under review. This marks at least the fifth or so time in Macon County the subdivision regulations have been re-examined at commissioners’ request since being adopted.

The construction guidelines were the result of a two-year effort by the planning board to write a steep-slope ordinance. But following dissent on the planning board and lukewarm support from county commissioners, the proposed ordinance was replaced with more basic construction guidelines.

With the advent of new leadership for commissioners, Macon County’s planning board could undergo a metamorphosis into what’s being dubbed a truer “advisory” role.

In recent years, the planning board has been a magnet of negativity for factions on both sides of the land planning issue.

Kevin Corbin has been the new chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners for less than a month, but has already identified land-use planning as one of the county’s most pressing issues. A date has not yet been settled on for the board’s annual retreat where the topic will be discussed.

Corbin was appointed to the county board to replace Brian McClellan, who resigned following his second DWI arrest in two years. Corbin was elected to the leadership seat by his fellow four commissioners the same week shortly after McClellan stepped down.

The chairman has just one vote but does have real power to steer the board’s agenda and structure meetings. Corbin, a Republican from Franklin, isn’t new to the county’s political sphere. He served for two decades as a member of the Macon County Board of Education. And, like father like son: Corbin’s Dad, Harold, served as chairman of the commission board from 1998 to 2002.

Other issues Corbin wants reviewed during the retreat include economic development initiatives, school needs and the county’s budget for the next fiscal year.

Corbin on Monday said he believes that the planning board has become polarized by its members’ fundamentally different views. Commissioners, he said, must assume more prominent roles in the land-planning arena for meaningful progress on planning to take place.

“I think it’s a tough balance,” Corbin said. “But I really do believe there’s a way to have sensible regulations without stopping construction and real estate.”

The new chairman equated land planning to the delicate task of holding a wet bar of soap. Squeeze too hard, the soap squirts from your hand. Hold the bar too loosely and it falls from such a tepid grip.

Corbin wants commissioners simply to receive recommendations from the planning board, not written ordinances ready for adoption or rejection. Commissioners instead would hammer out tricky details; the county attorney would prepare the actual document.

This would remove some of the spotlight from planning board members, Corbin said, and place the pressures where they more rightfully belong — on commissioners. It’s commissioners who’ve been duly elected to make these decisions. Planning board members, in contrast, are community volunteers appointed to their positions by commissioners.

Besides, commissioners ultimately approve any ordinance drafted by the planning board, and in the process end up rewriting portions of it anyway — usually repeating the same debate that already played out at the planning board level.

Where would that leave the construction guidelines adopted by the planning board after great public strife? The guidelines are the result of a two-year effort by the planning board to write a steep slope ordinance. But following dissent on the planning board and perceived lukewarm support from county commissioners, the full ordinance was replaced with more basic construction “guidelines.” Commissioners have been holding the proposed guidelines from the planning board for some three months without any visible signs of action.

Corbin wants those suggested guidelines and the county’s subdivision and soil and erosion ordinances reviewed by Attorney Chester Jones. There is redundancy plus, possibly, needed changes such as what’s involved in the rules for subdivision road building, Corbin said.

In this brave new world, commissioners would clearly and publicly guide Attorney Jones, Corbin said. A prime example would be the actual slope percentages when it comes to cut and fill rules in road building: commissioners would decide on a percentage they find acceptable, not the attorney.

On other issues, Corbin said:

• Macon County is in “very good shape” financially. That said, this Republican-controlled board will look for areas in which to make additional cuts. This could be difficult to accomplish because the historically fiscally conservative board has reduced the county budgets by an overall 15 percent already as a result of the recession.

Also, because of ongoing national, state and local economic maladies, residents’ basic needs are increasing: real help, in the form of additional county dollars, might need funneling toward assisting with heating, food and so on, Corbin said.

“We may find ourselves in a place where we have to support these things aggressively,” he said.

• The Macon County Schools will need financial help, too. Federal funding, up to $2 million worth, has dried up. “You increase what you spend or reduce what you do,” Corbin said, adding he opposes any budget reductions that would hit teachers and teacher assistants. Macon County might look at some one-time spending options for the schools, such as helping replace aging computers, Corbin said.

• Economic development efforts must press forward regardless of whether such efforts bear immediate fruit or, more likely in this woeful economic climate, don’t.

Corbin said that new county economic development leader Tommy Jenkins would discuss planned efforts and economic hopes

An expected rubberstamp by the Jackson County Board of Commissioners to build a new auditorium and gym at Smoky Mountain High School took a brief — but wild while the ride lasted — turn this week.

Commissioners have already expressed support for the $10.5 million project and by all indications, were poised to sign off this week on a $500,000 architectural contract.

Commissioner Doug Cody instead suggested that the county’s leaders give consideration to an even grander concept. Cody said he’d been waking up early in the mornings lately stewing over. Cody suggested combining the gym and auditorium into a multi-purpose arena that could host events with the potential to draw tourists.

“I’m asking the indulgence of the school board and my fellow commissioners here to explore that option,” Cody said. “A high school play isn’t going to fill your hotels, it is not going to fill your restaurants.” But, an events arena might, he said.

Cody’s suggestion received the welcome of a bottle fly landing on a newly baked cake. School board members, sitting in the audience with county school administrators, assumed their best blank expressions, but some unhappy murmurs erupted.

Commissioner Joe Cowan spoke out against the idea, saying that chorus, band and theater students deserve their own fine arts center just as much as athletes deserve a gym.

“We’ve got a plan here that’s been in the making for 35 years. It looks good; it’s what the school board says that they want,” Cowan said.

When everything shook down, commissioners simply voted 5-0 to approve the construction designs as originally presented by educators. Cody ultimately joined in the vote to approve the design contract.

“You know when you’re whipped,” a visibly frustrated Cody said.

Cody wasn’t left totally high and dry on his proposal. Fellow GOP party member Commissioner Charles Elders did attempt to place girders under his sinking colleague, asking forcefully but somewhat obscurely: “This is a bad economy … when are we going to bounce out of it, and who is going to pay for it?”

In an interview after the meeting, School Board member Elizabeth Cooper emphasized to The Smoky Mountain News that her board’s members did deeply appreciate the county chipping-in the required funds. Her fellow board member, Ali Laird-Large, said she was “ecstatic” that the project can now move forward.

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