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Wednesday, 26 December 2007 00:00

2007

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It marked the end of an era for North Shore Road supporters and Blue Ridge Paper Products, and ushered a new wave of progressives into office. Counties tackled tough development questions, voters said no to taxes that would have funded schools, and whispers of election fraud were heard in Swain County and Cherokee. All in all, 2007 was one for the books.

 

The year the North Shore Road was settled

The year started in Swain County like any other: two camps in the North Shore Road debate bickering as they have been for decades.

But in 2007, the controversy of the century came to a close. There will be no road through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Instead, Swain County will be compensated with a cash settlement.

Several key elements fell into place this year to bring about the cash settlement in lieu of the long-promised road.

First, a new congressman for Western North Carolina took office, a congressman who supported a cash settlement, unlike his predecessor who pushed for a road and obstructed attempts at arranging a cash settlement.

Next, the National Park Service finally announced its verdict on the issue. Following a $10 million study that took six years, the park service concluded a 30-mile road costing $600 million through the largest tract of backcountry in the East wasn’t such a hot idea — promise or no promise.

Then, it was up to Congress to ante up cash in lieu of building the road. Congressman Heath Shuler joined a bi-partisan coalition of supporters in the Senate and House. The result: $6 million set aside for Swain County in the transportation bill that passed Congress last week. It’s being called a “down payment” on a total sum of $52 million.

For those who don’t know the background: for 64 years Swain County has gotten the shaft from the federal government. The government flooded a good bit of the county when it built Fontana Lake during WWII — including a primary road leading out of the secluded and mountainous territory.

While families who lost their homes and farms when the lake was built would never see them again, the federal government promised to replace the road with a new one above the lake line. But it didn’t, leaving the county with a bitter wound, and consequently hemmed in against the massive national park with few road outlets.

The cash settlement of $52 million was calculated as the monetary value of the road, plus interest for 64 years.

 

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe — Jackson lands a library site

While the shock has yet to wear off, it indeed appears the Jackson County library saga ended this year.

Opposing camps have scrimmaged over various sites for a new library for more than a decade. Committees were appointed, studies were sanctioned, reports were written, campaigns were launched, and a site was chosen. And rechosen. And rechosen again.

Most recently, an old strip mall on the edge of town was the lucky winner of the new library. The county even bought the land for it, but never got around to starting construction.

Meanwhile, the current library became more and more cramped by today’s standards and grew increasingly subpar for the county’s exploding population. The library lacked the basics — like a decent selection of books and ample computers — but also was plagued by a tired interior.

This year, the county chose a final resting place for the new library: on the hill with the historic courthouse overlooking downtown Sylva. To seal the deal, county commissioners hired an architect and set aside money to start construction in 2008.

The site, while always a runner up, was continually written off as improbable. But county commissioner William Shelton convinced fellow commissioners to sanction yet another report — a feasibility study for placing the library atop courthouse hill. The report deemed the site doable. Ammunition in hand, Shelton won support from two other commissioners, resulting in a 3 to 2 vote to build the library on courthouse hill.

 

Get out the vote — or else!

An aggressive voting drive in Swain County landed one commissioner and a kingpen of the local Democratic Party in the center of a voting investigation this year.

The question still looms whether the voting drive targeting the poor and elderly crossed the line from exceptionally ambitious to improper. The N.C. Board of Elections has concluded its investigation, but hasn’t issued a ruling yet. Meanwhile, the investigation has landed on the desk of the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, D.C.

The voting drive was led by two prominent Democrats — County Commissioner Chairman Glenn Jones and Willard Smith, a long-time leader in the local Democratic Party. The men systematically targeted trailer parks, low-income senior housing and nursing homes. They helped more than 120 residents vote through the mail — by requesting the ballots, filling them out and mailing them back in.

The investigation was initially prompted by a complaint from two trailer park residents who claimed they were forced to vote a straight Democratic ticket under the threat of eviction.

The complaint was never substantiated, but reporting by the Smoky Mountain News uncovered more irregularities in the voting drive. We examined dozens of mail-in ballot envelopes and requests for mail-in ballots, then tracked down more than 20 of the voters targeted in the voting drive. Here’s what we found:

• The men partially filled out absentee ballot requests on behalf of voters. Election law says an absentee ballot request must be written by hand entirely by the voter.

• The men helped voters mark their ballots, then took the ballots with them to be mailed. State law says it is illegal for anyone other than a near relative to be in possession of another person’s ballot for the purpose of returning it to the county board of election.

• The men helped at least five nursing home patients request mail-in ballots and then fill them out. State election law says it is illegal for anyone other than a near relative to help a nursing home patient request a ballot or mark their ballot.

• Mail-in ballots are supposed to have signatures from two witnesses. In some cases, ballots bore the name of a witness who was never at the voter’s home when the ballot was marked, according to the recollections of voters and accounts of the witnesses themselves.

There is some indication the Democrat-controlled state Board of Elections will interpret election law loosely rather than literally, favoring Jones and Smith. But how the Republican-controlled U.S. Justice Department responds could be another story.

 

Southern loop hits the fast lane

Controversy over the Southern Loop reared its head in Jackson County this year after a couple years of lying dormant.

It started when the Department of Transportation began the planning for the road. The planning phase will cost several million dollars. Potential routes will be surveyed and engineering and environmental assessments conducted.

When money was allocated to launch the planning phase this year, the DOT didn’t tell anyone until a routine inquiry by the Smoky Mountain News uncovered the status.

Opponents portrayed the DOT as pursuing the highway in the stealth of the night, even of misleading the public by insinuating that the Southern Loop was on the backburner, all the while pushing it forward behind the scenes. The DOT claims the road was simply moving up the queue on the state’s road building “to-do” list.”

Later in the year, the Southern Loop showed up on another “to-do” list, further igniting the controversy. This list was presumably generated by a regional transportation advisory committee. The list is supposed to convey to the DOT heads in Raleigh what road projects local folks want.

Only in this case, the advisory committee didn’t put the Southern Loop on the list. Instead, it was inserted on the list by the DOT themselves.

Jackson County commissioners and a Jackson County Transportation Task Force decided to leave the Southern Loop on the list, but asked for an addendum. They wanted to see a comprehensive transportation plan for the county that would look at other ways to fix N.C. 107. The DOT agreed, but Southern Loop opponents are skeptical that any study conducted under the arm of DOT would be bias. They hope to counter DOT’s study with one of their own.

The cross-country divided highway would bisect N.C. 107 somewhere between Sylva and Cullowhee with an overpass and freeway interchange. Supporters claim it is the only way to fix traffic congestion on N.C. 107 — which serves as both a five-lane commercial corridor and commuter route.

Smart growth advocates claim it would contribute to sprawl, cutting a devastating 17-mile swath through the mountains, destroying homes, farms and the environment.

 

Progressive candidates sweep town elections

Voters in small towns across the mountains sent a message at the polls this year when electing their leaders. In town after town, voters threw their support behind progressive candidates and ousted those with more conventional philosophies.

In Sylva, there was a major upset by a progressive candidate. Sarah Graham, a newcomer on the political scene, beat out two sitting board members who’d failed to embrace a fresh vision for the town. Graham epitomizes the new bohemian lifestyle trending through Sylva. Graham is a young mother who lives downtown, walking and riding her bike to get around when possible. She is the director of the Downtown Sylva Association and her husband owns a graphic design and marketing firm.

The top vote-getter in Sylva was Maurice Moody, also a self-described progressive. Moody, like Graham, has a vibrant vision for the town’s future. Both were supporters of downtown as the hub of Sylva, while the candidates were against town funding for the Downtown Sylva Association.

In Franklin, the top vote-getter in a crowded race — 10 running for three seats — was the most progressive and liberal on the ballot. Incumbent Bob Scott is an environmentalist and a smart growth advocate. He has his own blog and was the only board member who voted against rolling out the welcome mat for a proposed Super Wal-Mart, namely by extending town sewer service but asking nothing in return.

Getting the second-most votes was Joyce Handley, who subscribes to a similar philosophy as Scott. Handley, a newcomer to the town political fields, ousted one of the sitting board members who wasn’t all that progressive. Handley was a major proponent of tough development regulations for big box stores included in the town’s new land-use plan. Handley recently spoke out against a road proposal by the DOT that would facilitate development while crossing the Little Tennessee River.

In Bryson City, four candidates went after the seat for mayor. The winner, by a hefty margin no less, was the progressive on the ballot. The new mayor, Brad Walker, is an advocate of land-use planning, pushing the town to create its first land-use plan from his seat on the town’s planning board. Walker supports downtown revitalization, renovating a building of his own located downtown while living in the upstairs. He supports the tourism sector, working in the tourism industry himself and having served as the chamber of commerce director for two years and now sitting on the county’s new tourism board.

In Waynesville, an open seat on the board of aldermen was hotly contested, and the progressive candidate won. A safe margin separated LeRoy Roberson from the more conservative candidates. Roberson is a stronger supporter of the town’s land-use plan than his opponents. Roberson, whose optometric office is on Main Street, is more in touch with the town’s progressive downtown community.

In Canton, voters tossed out three long-time board members and replaced them with newcomers. The three who were tossed out had been on the board so long — 66 years between them — their opponents in the race accused them of being stagnant and complacent. All three of the newcomers cited a desire to try and attract young people to move to Canton.

 

Let me try: new players in charge of tourism boards

Tourism leaders were subjected to an unsolicited game of musical chairs in more than one county this year. In both Haywood and Swain, the existing tourism development boards were unseated and new ones given power. A similar overhaul was launched in Macon but is not yet finished.

Shuffling the make-up of the tourism boards is supposed to bring more tourists here. The boards oversee several hundred thousand dollars in their respective counties used to lure tourists. The best way to spend that money is a constantly moving target, however, and everyone has their own ideas of how to do it best.

In Haywood County, the upheaval of the tourism board was hardly alarming. The tug-of-war over tourism promotion dollars lands the tourism board there in a state of controversy more often than not. The shake-up expanded the board from nine to 12 members and changed the criteria for being on the board. The old board was dominated by people in the lodging business. The new board has a more diverse representation from the tourism industry, as well as some from the general business community. Haywood County also upped the tax on overnight lodging from 3 to 4 percent. The extra money is supposed to reduce fights by having more to spread around, but instead is already causing more controversy over who should get it.

In Swain, the upheaval of the tourism board was unexpected. The board was historically controlled by the chamber of commerce. While some felt the arrangement was incestuous, disapproval was never publicly vocalized. The overhaul was instigated by the county manager with little warning. Under the new model, county commissioners decide who serves on the tourism board, not the chamber. Word was the county wanted a board that is more inclusive of the county’s entire tourism industry.

In Macon, the overhaul under way now was launched for similar reasons. There, the Franklin and Highlands chambers of commerce had sole discretion over how the county’s tourism promotion dollars were spent. For years, critics accused the chambers of being too exclusive in how they spent the money.

Plus, the arrangement wasn’t exactly kosher according to state law. Since the tourism money in question is public tax dollars — namely a 3 percent tax tacked on to tourists’ lodging bills — it must be overseen by a public entity, not a private organization like the chamber of commerce.

That revelation necessitated the creation of the county’s first official tourism board. That process is still under way. The new tourism board could still give a large portion of the money to the respective chambers to market the county as a tourist destination, but it would be subject to public oversight.

 

Canton paper mill

Skeptics doubtful of the staying power of Canton’s paper mill were put in their place this year. Blue Ridge Paper Products was bought by the second-largest drink carton maker in the world, a company seemingly interested in what Blue Ridge was churning out on the cardboard market.

While promising on some fronts, the buyout dashed the hopes and dreams of many mill workers. Mill workers owned 40 percent of the company’s stock — shares they earned by giving up $88 million in wages and benefits collectively over the past seven years. They made the sacrifice in hopes of a payout down the road. But that payout amounted to 18 cents on the dollar of what they gave up.

The mill sold for $338 million. The lion’s share, some $213 million, went to pay off the mill’s debt. The mill had borrowed heavily over the past five years to prop up operations in the face of steady losses.

The mill’s financial backers, a venture capitalist firm in New York, were next in line, claiming $88 million, leaving a relatively small amount for the workers.

The union had the chance to veto the sale if workers weren’t pleased with the offer. In Canton, the vote failed. But it passed at the company’s five satellite plants, tipping the scale in support of the buyout.

Whether the buyout was good news or bad remains to be seen. But little old Blue Ridge — now Evergreen, by the way — is still churning while other paper mills across the county failed to weather the death of manufacturing in America.

 

Cherokee election titillates conspiracy muses

Cherokee witnessed a tumultuous election for chief this year, from an alleged break-in at the elections office to a supreme court lawsuit deciding the final outcome. When the dust settled, Chief Michell Hicks won re-election by a mere 14 votes.

The election for chief was hotly contested. The night before election seasoned opened, one candidate even camped out at the election office to be the first one to announce his candidacy, thus claiming the first spot on the ballot.

Following the primary election, the security tabs on the boxes of ballots were discovered severed, leading election workers to suspect a possible break-in. The rumor mill began churning out complex theories of how the election was rigged.

Following the final election — which initially came down to a 30-vote spread between Hicks and his challenger Patrick Lambert — an onslaught of protests had many on the Reservation calling for a new vote.

The roster used to verify voters had been full of errors at one precinct. Names were left off, causing legitimate voters to be turned away. Other voters in the same predicament had their names added to the end of the roster by hand. Once again the conspiracy theorists were rolling.

Meanwhile, the margin tightened to only 14 votes after illegitimate absentee ballots — ones that came in after the deadline — were thrown out. When the election board refused to call for a second election, Lambert filed a lawsuit, but the Cherokee Supreme Court rejected it.

 

Shady meal deal exposed in Swain jail

Swain County commissioners called for an investigation into a long-standing system of kickbacks for the county sheriff — one they had long known about but pretended they didn’t.

For decades, the Swain County commissioners paid the sheriff a flat rate to feed inmates in the jail. The sheriff was never asked to account for how he spent the money. If he could feed the inmates for less, he used the remainder of the meal fund however he pleased.

The meal kickbacks were frequently used to supplement the sheriff’s personal salary, which otherwise is the lowest in the state. In recent years, the surplus left over from feeding inmates potentially amounted to tens of thousands of dollars, according to county records.

Swain County commissioners decided to end the practice, seemingly a good move. Only they did so when the long-time Democratic sheriff was beat by a Republican. With the commissioners being Democrats themselves, the timing came off as partisan retribution.

The spotlight on the meal deal posed a new problem. The slush fund became public knowledge and the commissioners looked bad for allowing it to go on so long.

So the commissioners called on the district attorney to investigate spending practices by the former sheriff, thereby condemning the practice they’d once turned a blind eye to.

Whether playing dumb will keep the commissioners out of the frying pan for their historically tacit approval of the kickbacks is unclear. District Attorney Mike Bonfoey has been mum on the issue for nine months — refusing to say whether he was looking into it or not when questioned.

Meanwhile, the new Republican sheriff was left with the lowest salary in the state and no slush fund to supplement it. He asked for a raise repeatedly, but was turned down.

 

Sylva downtown tax dies, but merchant support flourishes

Merchants in downtown Sylva balked at the idea of a special taxing district — one that would raise money to support the work of the Downtown Sylva Association.

According to its backers, the tax would be used to promote and improve downtown, theoretically increasing foot traffic and luring more customers. Opponents didn’t like the idea of a mandatory tax for downtown activities that may or may not be helpful to their individual business.

The special taxing district had to be approved by the Sylva town board. When merchants opposed to the idea joined forces, signing a petition and appearing before the town board, the Downtown Sylva Association dropped the idea.

Merchants supported the concept of the Downtown Sylva Association, however, and said they wouldn’t mind contributing voluntarily through membership dues. The Downtown Sylva Association took them up on the offer, raising $11,000 in a membership and fundraising drive this year, beating their goal of $10,000.

 

Real estate industry, 1; county commissioners, 0

When county commissioners in Swain and Macon counties put the idea of a land transfer tax on the ballot in November, they vastly underestimated the work that was cut out for them.

They pitched the tax as an alternative to offset property taxes — the real estate transfer tax targets only those buying and selling property. It amounted to $800 on a $200,000 house.

Leaders in both Swain and Macon wanted money to pay for new schools. In Swain County the measure would have generated $800,000 per year, while in Macon County’s lucrative real estate market it would mean $2.5 million per year.

The idea went down in flames, however. Voters rejected the real estate transfer tax by a margin of 3 to 1 in both counties.

The theory behind the tax is to make newcomers ante up when buying a house or land, since newcomers are putting an extra burden on county services. But the tax would also hit anyone who bought and sold a home. Opponents argued it would hurt first-time homebuyers or even crimp the economy by affecting home sales. Many who turned out to vote no were quoted as being against any tax, period.

There were a couple flaws in the commissioners’ approach to the vote. For starters, there was nothing else on the ballot to drive people to the polls. Those who supported the idea were less likely to make a special trip to the polls than those bent on defeating it.

Second, the commissioners did little to combat the campaigns of the real estate industry opposing the tax. Groups formed in both counties — Freedom Works in Swain and the descriptively named Macon County Citizens Against the Transfer Tax in Macon — to lobby the public to vote “no.”

 

Bonds fail in Macon

During the November election Macon County voters defeated a slate of bond measures totaling $64 million.

The ballot read like an a la carte restaurant menu. Voters could pick and chose which, if any, building projects they supported. Turned out the answer was none.

In all, voters defeated a $42.1 million school bond package, a $3 million community college bond referendum, a $3 million library bond referendum, a $6.5 million public buildings package, and a $9.4 million recreation facilities proposal.

 

Balsam dam break

A dam broke on an irrigation pond at Balsam Mountain Preserve in Jackson County, unleashing hundreds of tons of mud downstream from behind the earthen dam.

A sediment plume extended from the Balsam Mountains all the way to Fontana Lake 30 miles, killing fish and most other aquatic life in Sugar Loaf and Scotts Creek. Sediment lingered for months.

Balsam Mountain Preserve is a 4,500-acre development renown for their reputation and standards as an eco-development, a model even among hard-to-please environmentalists.

Balsam Mountain Preserve promised to cleanup the mess, but state and federal environmental agencies found that wasn’t the case at first. They chastized the development for not acting quickly nor aggressively enough to clean up the sediment and not following instructions set out by the agencies.

Meanwhile, Balsam Mountain Preserve was fined $300,000 by the county for ongoing sediment and erosion control violations during construction of their golf course. The development is appealing the fine.

 

Ghost Town reopens

The tourism engine of Maggie Valley reopened after a four-year hiatus.

Ghost Town, a mountaintop amusement park with an Old West theme, once again claimed center stage. Hotels, restaurants and gift shops in the valley rejoiced at the return of the major tourist draw. They reported an upswing in business this summer following a steady decline during the years when Ghost Town was closed.

While the park got off to a slow start — some rides weren’t working nor was the chairlift that takes visitors up the mountain on opening day — the impact of the park on the tourism trade in WNC is undeniable.

 

HRMC

Haywood Regional Medical Center appears to have weathered what started the year as a major controversy.

The hospital ousted a long-time team of emergency room doctors and replaced them with a national physician staffing outfit. It created an uproar in the medical community among both doctors and nurses, as well as among the public.

When a group of nurses spoke out anonymously in the newspaper criticizing the move, they were countered the following week by a letter of support for the hospital administration signed by a couple of hundred hospital employees. The hospital board and administration maintained they were doing what was best for the hospital in the long run by replacing the ER doctors.

When new appointments came up for the hospital board, county commissioners returned all three sitting board members to their seats. Competition included doctors who disagreed with the administration’s tactics. They thought the hospital administration should be more conciliatory and respectful of its doctors and nurses, but the commissioners didn’t give them seats on the board.

Meanwhile, the hospital suffered a string of financial losses this year — the first such trend in a decade. The hospital responded by downsizing by more than 30 positions. At the same time, the hospital announced a $16 million expansion, for a surgery support wing, orthoscopy wing and shell space for future expansion.

The trend of financial losses were reversed by year’s end.

 

Chattooga opens for paddlers

Paddlers floated down the Chattooga River outside Cashiers this year for the first time in 30 years. It was a one time event for now, but won’t be for long if they get their way.

Paddlers have demanded the forest service lift a decades-old ban on the upper Chattooga River, claiming they are an accepted form of wilderness recreation. Meanwhile, hikers, fishermen, backpackers and the like are fighting to defend the river’s sense of solitude from a perceived invasion of paddlers.

A panel of nine boaters was selected by the forest service for a trial run down the river in an on-going study to determine whether to lift the ban. Results of the study were released this year. The forest service is wrestling with how to balance competing interests while protecting the natural resources. The forest service released the study, along with various scenarios for solving the dilemma. Heated public hearings were followed by workshops attempting to bring feuding parties to a compromise. A decision is due out early next year.

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