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Legal questions jeopardize Seven Falls roadwork

Work to repair heavy erosion damage, build roads and install water and sewer lines at the abandoned Seven Falls development will be delayed definitely, the Henderson County Board of Commissioners learned today, while the county tries to extricate itself from a complicated legal thicket.

County Attorney Russ Burrell told the board that the county is stuck between the demands of state and federal regulators and the possibility of a lawsuit from landowners if it starts on work it cannot complete.
The county last year received a $6 million payment from a bond that developer Keith Vinson had to take out as part of the planning and zoning review.
The cost of the work the bond was supposed to guarantee — the roads, stormwater drainage and water and sewer lines — is greater than $6 million, he said. If the county spends money without actually completing all the work the bond insured, Burrell said, the county could be exposed to a claim from property owners for failing to do it all.
"They clearly can bring that lawsuit," he said, "for not having done the things that that improvement guarantee was there to cover."
That's not the only barrier to proceeding.
Vinson never paid the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers the $800,000 bill he was supposed to pay for permission to cross streams numerous times on the property. The development includes a substantial covered bridge over one of the streams. And the developer faces thousands of dollars in fines from federal, state and county regulators, all unpaid.
Burrell laid out two options. The board, he said, could file an interpleader lawsuit in federal court seeking clarification and the court's blessing for spending money and going work. The county, he said, would essentially say to a federal judge, "We've got this money, court, what do we do with it?"
The other option, which the board authorized, was to propose a meeting with "all those concerned" — the Corps, the state Division of Water Quality, property owners, mortgage lenders — and seek unanimous approval from every single one on how the money could be spent.
"I won't say I'm particularly sanguine about the possibility of that happening but it could happen and I hope it will," Burrell said.
Either option posed the possibility of a delay of months, if not longer, for even starting work at the site, which has been heavily damaged by erosion along roads that have been cut and neglected. County engineers and environmental advocates say the continued neglect of the property is only worsening the erosion and further degrading streams that run through it.
Commissioners voted unanimously to authorize county officials to send letters to all landowners, mortgage holders and regulators and try to set the meeting.