From the apple crop damage to the fiscal cliff of the Flat Rock Playhouse, 2012 was a year of ups and downs. Here is a roundup of the big news events of the year.
Two nights of temperatures in the low- to mid-20s decimated Henderson County's apple crop. Like the Easter freeze five years before, the 2012 cold snap came after an unusually warm February and March coaxed the apples into early bloom. "It was kind of the perfect storm for a lot of damage," Extension Director Marvin Owings said. "We had those two back-to-back almost identical freezes (April 13-14) and then along with that we had fruit set on most varieties, which is right after bloom." Weeks later, hailstorms damaged fruit in many of the county orchards that had survived the freeze. "This year's crop," Owings wrote in a report to growers, "is shaping up to be the most disappointing apple season since 1955." Even so, apple farmers longer term got some good news. Wright Foods, in Troy, began production at a plant that will buy many tons of apples for a new fresh-pack process. "The outlook for apples is probably the best it's been in decades," said Mark Williams, executive director of Agribusiness Henderson County.
On May 8, retailers and commissioners got their first look at a compromise design that would allow traffic to turn left into the Village Square Shopping Center, a strip mall on Spartanburg Highway east of the Upward Road intersection. The Upward widening and intersection design originally had a concrete median that would have prevented left turns into the shopping center. Six months later, the DOT came back with the left-turn-in option but said left turns out of the strip center would be a safety hazard that the agency would not permit.
The first weekend of May Rosco's celebrated its reopening in Green River, 15 months after a fire burned it down. Rosco Green's widow, Nancy Green, got a bank loan from Mountain 1st and spent $390,000 to rebuild the store, which was not insured. Among the few items that survived was a white ceramic angel. "It's been really good," Nancy's granddaughter, Christina Ward, said of the community response. "They're so glad we're open. They're so glad we're back."
Also in the Green River-Tuxedo-Zirconia community, a planning committee and park committee started working in the summer. The land development committee is making recommendations on land-use in the area. The park committee is helping to design a 6.4-acre park on the site of the old Tuxedo Mill property, which the county owns. The mill has been cleared to make room for the park.
In the May 8 primary, former county commissioner Grady Hawkins ousted incumbent Bill O'Connor, clinching Hawkins' election in a race with no Democratic nominee. O'Connor, a Tea Party leader who was appointed in December 2010, lost the Tea Party vote when he voted along with the rest of the Board of Commissioners to buy the Highland Lake golf course for $1.1 million to use as a soccer complex. The board reversed the vote a month later. Teachers had turned against him for his leadership in a 7½ percent local school spending, Edneyville farmers were angered at his vote against allowing solar panels on unused orchard land and Pardee Hospital employees were furious at his vocal opposition to a proposed Pardee-Mission medical campus on the Henderson-Buncombe line. Charlie Messer won a fourth term as commissioner, easily turning back a challenge from Dennis Justice, who had the strong backing of Park Ridge hospital in its battle with Pardee. In the 11th Congressional District primary, Mark Meadows led a field of eight candidates to win the primary, falling just short of the 40 percent needed to avoid a runoff. Two months later, Meadows, a Highlands real estate developer, defeated Morganton businessman Vance Patterson to win the Republican nomination.
Nightlife and noise may go together but the Hendersonville City Council ordered clubs to turn the music down. On May 3, Councilman Steve Caraker recommended that the council do something about the loud music at T's Blue Note Grill, an upstairs jazz club at 114 N. Main St. that was next door to residential condos. Six months later, the board enacted stricter noise levels. Although T's has closed, the new tenant, Moe's Barbecue, plans bluegrass.
In a rare honor for a small county, Henderson County's public schools claimed two recipients of the prestigious Morehead scholarship to UNC. Andrew Wells, the son of Kathryn and Dr. Andrew Wells, was a three-sport athlete and mock trial leader, at Hendersonville High School. Catherine Swift, the daughter of Tom Swift and Rebekah Ellsworth and stepfather Rex Ellsworth, is a dancer who was editor of the award-winning Wingspan newspaper at West Henderson High School.
In a budget season that saw most local governments hold the line, the Mills River Town Board voted to raise its property tax by 1 cent, to 2.75 cents per $100 valuation. Overall the town collects tax of 9.74 cents per $100 valuation with 7.5 cents funding the Mills River fire department. An increase of 1½ cents was needed, Town Manager Jaime Laughter said, to maintain town services, continue park improvements and keep the town on a found financial footing. The board pared that to a 1-cent increase.
The Village of Flat Rock spent weeks during the summer dealing with dogs. A few residents had complained that the sheriff's department would not respond to calls about barking dogs and stray dogs. Mayor Bob Staton and vice mayor Nick Weedman both explored the question with Sheriff Charlie McDonald and learned that it would cost the Village around $100,000 a year to ensure such enforcement. Other incorporated towns use their own police or a contracted deputy as a first responder to nuisance calls that don't pose a threat to humans; Flat Rock has neither. Reasoning that dog complaints weren't high enough to warrant the cost, the Village Council dropped the idea of hiring a deputy by contract.
In a warning sign of a financial crisis that would dominate the news in the final six weeks of the year, the Flat Rock Playhouse in June announced a 30-day fundraising blitz. Citing "an urgent need for cash to support its operations," the Playhouse set a goal of $300,000. It included a challenge grant of $60,000 from Peggy McKibbin, the widow of Henderson Oil owner Duane McKibbin and mother of Playhouse board president Bill McKibbin. The fundraising drive raised $120,000 instead, although Mrs. McKibbin gave the donation anyway. Meanwhile, county commissioners got their first look at a proposal to raise the occupancy tax by a penny to raise $223,000 a year for the Playhouse. The idea would blow up into public relations disaster for the Playhouse. Commissioners joined citizens and innkeepers in public criticism of the Playhouse and its management for losing $1.4 million in 2010. Commissioners Larry Young and Michael Edney battled fiercely over the issue. Edney supported the theater and Young opposed any county role in helping it financially.
The city of Hendersonville denied the federal immigration enforcement agency permission to move into a former medical office at 518 Sixth Avenue West. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency ordered renovations and planned to rent the building but when neighbors saw the eight-foot barbed wire-topped fence surrounding the parking lot they moved to stop the occupancy. Inspectors "found a room that appeared to be for interviewing and detention," City Manager Bo Ferguson said. One of the owners, E.D. Bray Jr., said he "couldn't figure out what their hangup is. There's nothing wrong with the building... If it was a detention center, it would have bars, wouldn't it?" As the year closed, the issue still was unresolved. The city Zoning Board of Adjustment in a December meeting heard testimony on the developer's appeal of the city's decision barring the use and set a continuation of the hearing for January.
County commissioners adopted a $107.5 million budget that restored school spending to the 2010-11 level and set aside money for the Flat Rock Playhouse, agriculture promotion, pet neutering and recreation. The board allocated $5.6 million for new spending, taking cash from a healthy reserve fund which at the end of the budget year on June 30 stood at $26.8 million. The county trimmed operating costs by 6.8 percent in the fiscal year that ended on June 30.
On June 4, O'Connor suggested the county should explore the sale of Pardee Hospital. Community leaders had talked about "the idea of leasing the hospital and maybe creating a stream of revenue," he said. "I think we should go farther" and invite buyers to submit bids. The motion failed 4-1. "We've got a relationship now that's a working relationship," Commissioner Messer said, referring to the UNC management agreement.
The Hendersonville City Council voted to spend $1.4 million on the infrastructure replacement and makeover of the 600-700 blocks of Main Street, setting the stage for two public sculptures that would test the council's art evaluation. The work also includes the removal of the 1970s glass box that was added on top of the original open-air balcony. The new plans call for the return to the 36x20-foot balcony look and will open up the space that is obstructed by heavy brick columns and planters.
Henderson County commissioners claimed victory in a lawsuit that forced former Sheriff Rick Davis to disclose a settlement agreement that forced his resignation from the department. Superior Court Judge Mark Powell ruled partially in favor of Davis and the county, upholding their position that personnel records are closed under state law. But he ruled that the settlement was a public record. "We won the lawsuit," chairman Tommy Thompson said. "That's what we've been asking for the whole time." Davis resigned and claimed medical disability after the county settled a lawsuit brought by a female deputy alleging misconduct.
In July county commissioners shot down a request by the Flat Rock Village Council for expanded zoning jurisdiction on the town's outskirts in the Zirconia area. When the Green River-Tuxedo-Zirconia community began working on a land-use plan, Village Council members worried that the county might apply incompatible zoning to the area on its southern border. Commissioners strongly opposed the request for extraterritorial zoning jurisdiction. They got support in a memo from Planning Director Anthony Starr listing several reasons for denying the village request. "ETJ residents may object to being regulated by an entity for which they cannot vote in their elections," Starr said. Thompson, the commission chairman, told Mayor Staton on July 20 that the village's request was dead.
Throughout the summer and fall, farmers warned that a state law set to become effective in July 2013 would have a devastating impact on their ability to harvest apples and work the nursery crop in Henderson County. During a forum on migrant labor in Mills River, Van Wingerden Greenhouse general manager Bert Lemkes said the e-verify system mandated by the North Carolina law could deny farms the migrant labor they rely on. "When asked how E-verify works for you, my answer is those that are willing to do the work fail the system, but many of those that pass the system fail to do the work," he said. "The jobs of American employees, which includes growers, supervisors, merchandisers and managers, are at stake when we cannot find the labor we need. Around 70 percent of the labor force in Hendersonville is estimated to be undocumented. These are honest, hardworking and loyal folks who have come here only seeking work and better pay." The county Board of Commissioners urged the state Association of County Commissioners to make immigration reform a priority for the 2013 legislative session. The association said no. Ag development director Mark Williams, Edneyville apple grower Kenny Barnwell and Lemkes have led the effort for reform that preserves farm labor in Henderson County. A federal migrant labor program called H2A "is an absolute nightmare to anyone that's tried to work with it," Barnwell said. "It is cumbersome. It does not fit Henderson County agriculture very well at all."
Saluda residents on Aug. 19 celebrated the conservation of Twin Lakes, a popular picnic and recreation area that generations of young people and families have enjoyed. The Wilkes family donated the land to the Saluda Community Land Trust, which will manage and preserve it in partnership with the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy. Neighbors were mostly positive, although they did not want the conservation agreement to impose regulations on their land. "It's got some good points," said Joseph Forrest. "Nobody can build on top of us. It can't be sold. But the bad point is, how restrictive is it going to be." Bought in the 1950s by James T. and Helen Wilkes, Twin Lakes has been used by churches, Boy Scout troops and wedding parties for five decades.
The county's new ABC board, formed after voters approved countywide liquor sales in package stores and restaurants, began exploring options for a new store or consolidation of other local ABC boards in August. Hendersonville, Laurel Park and Fletcher ABC board members responded that neither is a good idea. Laurel Park and Fletcher opposed consolidation and recommended against a new store. Hendersonville ABC officials are expected to convey the same message next month. "This is a solution to a non-existent problem," Laurel Park ABC chairman Mike Hodes said. "There's nothing here that's going to benefit the county or benefit the consumer." Meanwhile, the county board is looking into hiring a marketing consultant to guide its decision. Laurel Park and Fletcher operate one store each with narrow profit margins; Hendersonville has three stores and a higher profit margin. All three towns say a sixth liquor store will draw sales from existing stores and could put one out of business. State officials say the county should expect to spend $1 million to build a new store and $250,000 to stock it.
Prominent Hendersonville attorney and influential Democrat Sam Neill pleaded guilty in Henderson County Superior Court on Sept. 17 to five counts of stealing $3 million from clients' trust accounts or estates. Superior Court Judge Lindsay R. Davis Jr. delayed sentencing until federal courts resolve tax evasion charges against Neill. Prosecutors said Neill stole $3 million from trust funds and estates that he was obligated to administer on behalf of the deceased for heirs and other beneficiaries. During the hearing, SBI agent Andrew Pappas testified that Neill had admitted to writing himself checks from the trusts and had promised to pay the money back by signing over property deeds. Attorneys for the victims were skeptical. "Ask him if he'll guarantee that," said Bob Haggard, the attorney for the Community Foundation, which lost a half million dollars in one of the embezzlement cases. "The question I have is when is somebody going to ask what are the liens ahead of those deeds of trust."
Chester Allen "Chat" Jones, a supporter of charitable causes and founder of many projects to help the needy, died at his used car dealership on Oct. 12 at age 63. Jones's death stunned the community he had served all his life, whether in car sales, Kiwanis volunteerism or in his favorite charities, including single mothers at Balfour Education Center and special needs baseball, which he cofounded with his brother, Donnie. "You could see what he was in his life by what he did for others and how he treated others," said his daughter, Lucy Jones Brevard. It was originally thought that he had died when he left a truck running in the closed garage but doctors later determined that exposure to carbon monoxide from an improperly vented furnace caused his death.
Flat Rock mayor Bob Staton announced in October that the Village Council would explore the possibility of buying the Highland Lake Golf Club property and turn it into a town park. Staton appointed the Highland Lake Park Exploratory Committee, which has identified possible improvements and is working on cost estimates and grant options. The committee's survey and a public meeting showed that the community wants passive uses such as walking trails, a playground and a pavilion. It is expected to report its recommendations and come up with cost estimates by February. So far, it has added no cost figures to the proposal but some, including a new road into the property, a paved walking trail and playground, could run into big dollars. The Henderson County Board of Commissioners had agreed to buy the property for $1.1 million before it withdrew the idea amid neighbors' protest over soccer complex plans. The exploratory committee said it won't recommend soccer fields and or night use of the park.
The failed Seven Falls Golf and River Club development in Etowah became a ward of the county when the county won a lawsuit in October and received payment of a $6 million surety bond that guaranteed the construction of roads and utility lines. As the year ended, the county was working with engineer Bill Lapsley on plans to begin road building and utility work and fix erosion. The 1,400-acre development was the largest subdivision ever permitted in Henderson County. The master plan showed 700 single-family homes, 164 townhouses, 36 condominiums, a 24-room lodge, a tennis club, golf academy and dining and shopping area.
The Board of Commissioners voted Oct. 24 to buy the Hendersonville Christian School property for $910,000. It allocated another $1 million in improvements, including artificial turf for a soccer and multi-use field and lights for nighttime play. The 9.5-acre campus of the school, which closed in May, includes a gym and classroom building. It gives the county a gym for indoor recreation for the first time. The county recreation department plans to move many activities from the Stoney Mountain center to the classroom building and has plans for a variety of programs and rec leagues in the gym. The board also agreed to set aside $284,000 for Jackson Park improvements including updated restrooms, scoreboards and other baseball diamond upgrades.
In the Nov. 6 election political newcomer Mark Meadows took back the 11th Congressional District for the Republican Party for the first time since 2006, when Heath Shuler defeated eight-term incumbent Charles Taylor. Meadows handily defeated Shuler's chief of staff, Hayden Rogers of Brasstown, in the newly redrawn district that became overwhelmingly Republican. Meadows announced in December that he would locate the district headquarters office in the ground floor of the Henderson County Courthouse on South Grove Street. Speaker John Boehner appointed Meadows to the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and the Committee on Foreign Affairs. "The Oversight and Government Reform Committee will allow me the opportunity to pursue a more efficient federal government, working to eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse," Meadows said in a statement.
The election held few surprises locally as School Board incumbents Mary Louise Corn, Ervin Bazzle and Rick Wood won re-election. They were joined by newcomer Josh Houston, a former Republican Party treasurer who rode strong support of his party and the Tea Party to capture the seat vacated by Shannon Baldwin. Statewide, Republicans used a strong grassroots campaign and redrawn legislative districts to win the governor's and lieutenant governor's races and pad their already strong majorities in the House and Senate.
Joe Spearman, a longtime leader of Blue Ridge Community College, died on Nov. 6 at age 77. A native of Cleveland County, Spearman built a successful food supply business and furniture store and served the community throughout his business career from 1962 until his death. A staunch Democrat in a county that trended strongly Republican during his lifetime, Spearman was a strong ally of founding president William D. Killian and his successor, David Sink. "Mr. Spearman's financial support of the College Foundation reflected his passion and commitment to offer scholarships to deserving students who cannot afford to attend college," BRCC president Molly Parkhill said.
In its last meeting of the year, the Hendersonville City Council gave the green light to a "mountain fountain" public art project created by Asheville artist Berry Bate, who has designed railings and stone and wrought iron work at the Biltmore Estate and Jump Off Rock. The fountain will be installed at the First Citizens plaza as part of the 600-700 block streetscape work. The council declined to authorize a 24-foot sculpture for the Umi corner on Main Street at Seventh Avenue, saying the design was too abstract.
Flat Rock Playhouse announced on Nov. 13 that it had run out of cash and needed to raise $250,000 to finish the current season, and a total of about $1 million to become financially stable enough for a 2013 season. In a meeting of stakeholders at the Flat Rock Playhouse rehearsal hall, Playhouse president Bill McKibbin told supporters, board members and elected officials that the time to step up was now if they would. What followed was a rollercoaster of bad news-good news. Elected officials and the public reacted to the news that the venerable theater had lost money and turned to the government bodies for support. The Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 to withdraw funding of the Playhouse (with Edney voting no), though a procedural technicality blocked the action. On Nov. 27 the county Tourism Development Authority strongly criticized the Playhouse board and administration and refused to endorse a resolution of financial support or a plan to buy tickets as a lodging promotion. The tide turned on Nov. 29 when McKibbin and business leaders met at the office of Commissioner Larry Young, the theater's most vocal critic among commissioners, and hammered out a rescue plan in a contentious three-hour meeting. A donor pledged $100,000 to help save the theater, and the business leaders formed an unofficial alliance to push elected officials to help. On Dec. 11, producing director Vincent Marini announced a second $100,000 donation in the form of a matching grant. Two days later the Flat Rock Village Council gave $100,000, essentially doubling the donation by matching the Dec. 11 grant. The Playhouse had seemingly averted a fiscal cliff, having raised almost $500,000. But as the year ended, Playhouse veterans Billy Munoz, the production manager, and Sharon Stokes, the public relations director, resigned over what they described as differences with the management and direction of the Playhouse. A Playhouse actor, musician and manager and 25 years, Munoz had spearheaded the Facebook campaign that helped raise thousands of dollars. Some people had differing opinions on the strategy for recovery from the financial crisis, Marini acknowledged, but he urged people to move on as the theater worked toward an ambitious 2013 season.
In Laurel Park, the Town Board gave the OK to a stream relocation as the first phase of a new Lake Rhododendron Park. The small lake is what remains of the historic lake built by the town's founder, W.A. Smith, in the 1920s and enjoyed by local people for decades. Town leaders said the stream location is the highest priority because its current path has undermined Lake Drive and could cause the road to collapse if it is not moved. A group opposing the town's plan offered an alternative. The town rejected that after an engineer reported that the new option could cost $725,000 to design and permit. The $250,000 stream relocation will be paid for as a part of a mitigation swap by a developer, project contractor Clement Riddle told the board.
Zentric Inc., a company that specializes in long-life battery and fuel-cell technology, announced on Dec. 21 that it would invest $7 million and bring 116 jobs paying an average salary of $40,000 to Fletcher. "The decision to consolidate our office locations, and launch assembly operations, came after careful review and consideration of building options in many communities, in many states," Zentric president William Tien said. "Henderson County offered a strong business climate balanced with a focus on sustainability, elected leadership that understood business needs, and access to a qualified workforce – all of which help to ensure our company's successful start-up."