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Mills River residents hot about waterway access

Residents who live along the Mills River gather outside Mills River Town Hall with council member Brian Caskey after the residents aired grievances about river access. Residents who live along the Mills River gather outside Mills River Town Hall with council member Brian Caskey after the residents aired grievances about river access.

MILLS RIVER — One thing was clear from the parade of commenters during the public input time at last week’s meeting of the Mills River Town Council. It’s hazardous to mess with a man’s or a woman’s river access.

The Mills River, a key feature in the fishing, social and recreational life of the community’s pioneer families, was the hot topic at the Town Council meeting on Thursday night. The commenters, nearly all of them multi-generational natives whose families settled the area, brought a little of everything to the platform: humor, amateur lawyering, lessons on local customs and mores, anger and righteous indignation. The cause? The speakers accused Jason Davis, owner of North River Farms and a hunting and fishing guide enterprise, of repeatedly calling the law on river users, putting up ropes, no trespassing signs and other obstructions and generally “bullying” people who are fishing, floating or socializing on the river.
The woodshed thrashing that the speakers administered to Davis was all the more dramatic for the awkwardness of it all: Davis’s wife, Chae, is the town mayor. She said after the meeting that her husband had done everything that fish and game authorities had told them too and that, yes, the episode did put her in an uncomfortable position.
Mayor Davis tried in vain to limit the public input to one speaker, who would represent all of the residents. That was a non-starter and she quickly gave up.

‘Disturbing and unlawful’

“Jason Davis keeps bullying and harassing people on the land that they have permission to be on,” said Steve Thomas of Storm Hill Drive. “I find this very disturbing and unlawful. It is wasting our law enforcement’s time and our game warden’s time, they have should been saving lives instead of being called to people enjoy their day without harassing. So when can a man tell you that you are trespassing on land that you have permission to be on? It’s ridiculous.”
Katie Lamb recounted the day Davis confronted her about fishing in the river bordering his land.
“Maybe you should train the fish you stocked to stay on your side of the river,” she responded.
“You been drinking?” he asked.
She left. “As we were get ready to pull into our driveway we see four police cars,” she said. “We knew at that point (Jason Davis) had called them but we didn’t know why.”
Sandra Brown said several sheriff’s cruisers pulled on to her property after her niece had been enjoying to the river.
When she called the sheriff’s office to ask who had called the law, a deputy told her, “You did.”
“I responded, ‘No I didn’t. ‘Well, your husband must have called.’ I said, ‘He did not because he doesn’t use the phone anymore.’ I asked him to check the phone number of the person that called. He came back and said he didn’t have a phone number.’”


River is ‘public property’

Ray Bryson, of Silas Sitton Drive, said conflict over river access is unprecedented in the community’s history.
“I’ve used that river all my life,” he said. “I’ve never had any problems using the river. It’s always been a family or community thing for years. Churches would innertube down the river, they would float the river, we’d fish the river, the river has always been public property.
“According to the Supreme Court, it will always be public property. Nobody has any right or any permission to keep anybody off of the river. It also says the banks up to the high water mark is public property. We don’t need harassment of little children out trying to play in the river. Why does anybody think they have a right to keep anybody out of that river? The river does not belong to anybody. It is public property.”
It is also illegal, Bryson said, reading a state statute, for anyone “to interfere intentionally with the lawful taking of wildlife resources or to deride, harass or to intentionally disturb any wildlife resources for the purpose of disrupting the lawful taking of wildlife resources.”
“Nobody has the right to run ‘em out,” he added. “This stuff of calling the law every time somebody gets on the edge of the river, that’s a bunch of bull. I realize when they’re called they have to go. They have to respond because it could be truly an emergency.”
Rick Messer, of North Mills River, had a dispute about land, not water.
“My complaint is Jason has leased the property behind us and I’ve been hunting there for 40 years,” he said. “And my tree stand comes up missing. So I called Jason and asked him about it and Jason said he didn’t know nothing about it. My tree stand ain’t the only one in Mills River that’s come up missing. Only thing I’d like to say is I’d like to have my tree stand back.”
Phil Brittain, another native who grew up playing and fishing in the Mills River, said everyone always regarded the river as a recreational asset open to all.
“We also had rules to go by which had to do with good manners and treating visitors well,” he said. “And our visitors now are greeted with signs and barriers, unfriendly, one sign after another of basically ‘You’re not welcome here.’ I don’t think that that’s what we want and I think it’s time to change.”
Brittain also said “I think it was a mistake” for Mayor Davis to try to limit public comment to one individual.
“It raises the temperature in the room,” he said. “I know this is uncomfortable. No one here likes conflict. But there’s an easy way to solve this I think and it probably starts by coming together as a community and recognizing that our community is not a place, it’s a group of these people and they’re all individuals. We need to treat each other with more respect and treat our visitors I think with more respect.”

 'We allow people to flat the river'

DB bar D Outfitters, Davis’s company, offers guided and semi-guided hunting, fishing and other outdoor experiences.
“We are dedicated to promoting, preserving, and protecting our natural resources so that future generations may continue to enjoy the outdoors,” its website says. “Whether its hunting large game, fishing the pristine waters of our area, or just a weekend campout with family and friends, DB bar D can guide you on a customized outdoor experience.”
Established in 1999, North River Farms has endured challenges and created ways to be sustainable, Davis told the Town Council. He’s opened the farm to school children and youth groups, and advocated for agriculture and resource conservation, opened his fields to gleaners and showcased best practices.
“My grandfather and father taught me respect,” he said. “They told me if I wanted to go hunting and fishing I should ask permission before I go. That’s what I want to teach my three sons, to do the right thing, to follow the law, to respect those and respect what others have worked for. North River Farms and DB bar D respect family and hard work, agriculture and community. I encourage everybody to get to know my farm, to understand what DB Bar D Outfitters is and why we even started DB Bar D Outfitters, the mission and the vision, on your own, not what somebody tells you.”
Davis said he had given Bryson permission “to run his beagles” on his land and was unaware of any conflict.
“People can float the river,” he said. “We allow people to float the river. If they come and ask, they can put in their canoes, they can put in their kayaks, put in their tubes.”
When the neighbors finished petitioning council members for a redress of their grievances, the members said nothing and moved on to their regular agenda.
“The council did not take a position and does not plan to as far as I know,” Mills River Town Manager Daniel Cobb said. “It’s a private property issue between the landowners. If it’s trespassing, most likely it would be the sheriff’s office” that would respond. A dispute about fishing access would be under the jurisdiction of the state Wildlife Resources Commission, he said.