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Mills River candidates similar in every way but age

MILLS RIVER — James Cantrell and Billy Johnston both have deep roots in agriculture in Mills River. Both believe the town should keep taxes low and proceed cautiously on park development. They probably have more in common than separates them.

One thing that sets them apart is age, and each pitches that as a reason voters might want to choose them for the only open seat on the Mills River Town Council. Cantrell has youth, Johnston experience.
"I'm running because I'm young," said Cantrell, the 24-year-old grandson of Mills River green industry pioneer Art Van Wingerden. "I think it's going to be important for my generation to work with some of the town founders. I think we need to accommodate new growth in Mills River but not lose sight of the fact that we're rural. I definitely don't think we need to lose sight of our agricultural background."
There's little chance that the Mills River board, already stocked with natives who have a farming background, will lose sight of the farming heritage. Both candidates running for the District 2 seat that Lois Pryor are farmers.
Billy Johnston, a seventh generation dairy farmer whose family operates Tap Root Dairy, said his experience fighting for farming interests is an asset.
"I think the voters should know I have been involved in the Farm Bureau on the local, state and national level," he said. "I've served on many committees and state boards promoting agriculture and the rural way of life. I've dedicated the last 18 years to it. My father did it before me and my brothers decided that I was the one to do it."
Both Cantrell and Johnston, 59, praised the current council for looking after farming interests and guiding growth. They want that to continue.
"We're going to have a lot of growth," Johnston said. "Everybody wants to live in Western North Carolina evidently. I think we need to preserve the flavor of the rural mountain community... As industry pops up I think it needs to be environmentally friendly and also needs to create good jobs, not menial jobs."
Cantrell said he would continue the conservative budget approach the current board has adopted.
Both candidates said they would look at options for more affordable housing, although both looked at the issue with caution.
"I do agree that housing in Mills River is expensive. I think it is hard for my generation. I think it's something we need to look at. I think there's right time and right place for that. Right now as it stands I don't know if high density housing necessarily fits with Mills River. There's a lot of rules already in place for that."
Because the Mills River watershed covers much of the town, options for higher density housing are limited.
"It needs to be where you have water and sewer," Johnston said.
Johnston said if Mills River want park improvements, voters ought to approve of the money through a referendum. "If there is a specific tax it would have to be earmarked for the park," he said, and not absorbed into the general fund. "I think there is a good plan already in place and they should move forward as funds are available."
Cantrell is a graduate of West Henderson High School and has a degree in agribusiness management from N.C. State University. His wife, Maggie, teaches first grade. He is a range manager for Van Wingerden International, in charge of a 13-acre greenhouse.
Johnston graduated from T.C. Roberson High School. He said he has "a dairy degree in milking cows." He has two daughters and a stepson and four grandchildren. He is married to Nancy Johnston, a banker.