Brittney Lofthouse – Staff Writer

A group of residents from Nantahala have attended the last few meetings of the Macon County Board of County Commissioners to voice their concerns regarding the lack of service provided to that community’s residents. Nantahala’s population is just shy of 2,000 residents and sits to the west of Franklin. Lead by Howell Jacobs, a Nantahala resident, about a half a dozen community members have attended the board of commissioner’s monthly meetings for the opportunity to be heard about what they feel is a lack of representation for the community.

“I have lived in Macon County for all of my 63 years, most of it in Nantahala, and we are being left behind in terms of facilities,” Jacobs’ said during the December meeting of the board of commissioners. “Look at our convenience center, look at our community building, our library, and even our EMS station — they all need work.”

Macon County as a whole has 33,922 residents. In comparison to Nantahala’s population of nearly 2,000, Franklin, the county seat, has nearly double that population. Highlands, which unlike Nantahala, is an incorporated town with its own set of government leaders, has around 1,000 residents, a number that surges during the summer months due to second home owners. The county’s other 27,000 residents live outside of the towns and townships and live in communities such as Otto, Burningtown, and Cullasaja. Jacobs’ said he believes Nantahala’s 2,000 residents are not getting their taxes worth because they aren’t afforded the same opportunities and services as the other 30,000 residents of Macon County.

Jacobs’ said he felt like the Nantahala Community lacked property representation and support from the commission. Commissioner Paul Higdon is the commissioner elected to represent Nantahala and Jacobs did say that Higdon has been helpful.

Convenience Centers

During the January meeting of the board of commissioners, Jacobs expressed his discontent regarding Nantahala’s convenience center. According to Jacobs the center is gravel, and because it isn’t paved, residents have to get their boots muddy when throwing away their trash. Macon County Solid Waste Director Chris Stahl was in attendance during the meeting and informed commissioners that the majority of the centers in the county are actually all unpaved and experience similar problems.

The Centers were constructed in the early 1990s in order to comply with Sub-Title D regulations. The ban on hazardous and recyclable materials lead most counties to move away from the open, side of the road “green boxes” and construct gated centers that could be monitored and controlled.  These sites were also larger to accommodate recycling. Five centers – Carson, Otto, Iotla, Highlands Road and Buck Creek – are the only paved centers in the county, one of which was paved after receiving a private donation to do it. The remaining six centers, including Nantahala are graveled.

“Otto and Carson were constructed later (late 1990s),” said Stahl. “I’m not certain on the history of Iotla. Highlands Road and Buck Creek are the only centers that have been paved post-construction.  With the exception of Buck Creek, these are our busiest centers and average about 10 times the number of customers of other centers; with Highlands Road experiencing about 40 percent more traffic than the other three. Buck Creek is the only center that has had a full re-design. This project was spurred and partially funded by a family living in the community. I honestly don’t remember the county vs donated funding amounts; but the project most probably would not have happened without their generous support.”

According to Stahl, one of the issues in Nantahala is the the property the center is currently located on is leased, rather than owned, making changes to the property such as paving, more difficult.

“Macon County owns the two centers co-located at our landfill and transfer station,” said Stahl. “Of the nine remote sites, Macon County owns Carson, Holly Springs, Iotla Bridge, and Otto Centers. Buck Creek is owned by the Forest Service. Holly Springs is  owned by the county, donated/assigned to the Holly Springs community. Nantahala School Site is owned by the Forest Service, the Nantahala Junaluska Site is owned by Duke Energy and the Highlands Road and Scaly Mountain sites are leased to the county by private landowners.”

Nantahala Community Building 

Jacobs informed the commission that the community building in Nantahala is in disrepair and something that needs to be looked at. However, community buildings are not items generally funded by the county. Last year, Macon County Commissioners allocated just under $100,000 for repairs, renovations, and upgrades to the Cullasaja and Otto Community buildings, based on requests made by the community organizations. The one time funding allocation also meant the community development organizations entered into a contractual agreement with the county for the public in all of Macon County to be able to utilize the facilities until 2027.

Annually, the county provides $5,000 to the Scaly Mountain Community Development Organization. Those funds are used to fund repairs at the community building as well as to provide recreational opportunities in Scaly Mountain. More so than to fund the community building in Scaly, the funds are for recreation for those residents because Scaly Mountain does not have recreation areas funded by the county like Nantahala does. The county funds a full time recreation employee and for Nantahala to have a recreation park that includes a walking track, baseball fields, and playground.

Around 2012, the county also provided funds to Holly Springs Community Development Organization for renovations to their community building. Those one time funds were made by request of the community development organization and the county was presented with a plan of how the funds would be spent.

To date, neither the Nantahala Community Organization nor any resident has  approached the county with a specific request to improve the Nantahala Community Building.

The county doesn’t own any of the county’s community buildings aside from the Robert C. Carpenter Community building, which is a countywide facility. Rather, community organizations in the outlying communities own, fund, run, and operate the buildings. The county’s community organizations are run through the Macon County Cooperative Extension office.

“We have nine community development clubs in Macon County:  Carson, Clark’s Chapel, Cowee, Cullasaja, Holly Springs, Nantahala, Otto, Pine Grove and Upper Cartoogechaye,” said Alan Durden, director of the Cooperative Extension. “Since the beginning of the Community Development Program in the 1950s, Cooperative Extension has partnered with individual communities as well as WNC Communities, originally known as the Western NC Development Association, to establish and assist our county’s organized community clubs. We facilitate and coordinate the county program through the Macon County Community Development Council, an organization made up of representatives from each of the organized community clubs that meets quarterly at the Cooperative Extension Center.  The council allows the organizations to communicate and share activities, concerns and needs of their individual communities and to cooperate in common projects. Each community has its own community building. Most community club buildings are renovated historical structures such as schools and churches or are facilities shared with their community volunteer fire department.”

Nantahala Community Library 

Jacobs’ shared his specific discontent regarding the library in Nantahala, which is located in a mobile unit at Nantahala School.

Macon County currently has three libraries, all of which are part of the larger Fontana Regional Library System. In total, Fontana Regional Library operates six libraries, three in Macon County, two in Jackson County in Sylva and Cashiers, and one in Bryson City.

The Macon County Public Library in Franklin was built on county property and was funded by the county in 2005. Prior to moving to the current building, the library was located within what is now known as the Senior Services Center.

The Hudson Library in Highlands was built in 1985 and the owner of the property is listed as Hudson Library of Highlands Inc., a nonprofit organization. The Hudson Library, Inc. is a private nonprofit corporation with a working Board of Trustees. This board conducts fundraising activities to raise money for materials, furnishings, and to maintain and enhance the library building and facilities. Macon County did not fund the library in Highlands nor does it own the property on which it is located.

Macon County provides Fontana Regional Library with about $1 million a year in operation costs for all three libraries in the county. In addition to the operation budget, Macon County pays the utility bills on the facilities, as well as the maintenance on the buildings. In the past, as the Nantahala Library has needed repairs, funds have been provided for such out of the county’s maintenance budget, in addition to the operation dollars provided to Fontana Regional Library.

While Macon County owns the building in which the Franklin area library is located, the management and operations of the library is solely handled by the Fontana Regional Library System. According to Macon County Manager Derek Roland, to the best of his knowledge, the Fontana Regional Library System has never included renovations or repairs to the Nantahala Community Library, or plans to construct a new library in its budget. As the managing agency of library services in the three county network, such a project would have to come from the library, as Macon County is just a partner in the system.

Fire Department 

Jacobs said residents in Nantahala were unhappy with the current state of the Nantahala Fire Department, especially when fire departments in the Franklin area, such as Highlands, Cowee and Burningtown, have recently built brand new facilities.

Fire departments in Macon County are not funded from the county budget and the county does not operate the fire departments. Fire departments in Macon County are funded through a fire tax, which is set by the respective fire departments. When a fire department has a need for renovations, new constructions, or new equipment that fall outside of the department’s existing budget, individual fire departments can request an increase in the fire tax for that community, which is funded by the residents in that community.

When Highlands built a new substation in 2015, the community funded a large portion of the project. The community raised $400,000 needed to purchase the property of the substation. The new substation in Burningtown was built on land leased to the fire department for $1 a year. Funds for the project were possible after the department saved and budgeted for several years to make the project a reality. The same was true in Cowee, who also opened a new substation last year. Preparing for the new substation, the community raised $17,000 to build the new facility. Cowee was able to build the newest substation without raising taxes and within the department’s existing budget.

The Nantahala Fire Department has two stations for the department’s 74 miles and 1,216 structures served. The department’s budget was $229,300 in 2016 and in the same year, the department responded to 145 calls, up from 97 in 2015. The department listed $49,860 in personnel services in 2016 and an additional $96,440 in operational costs for the department.

While Jacobs’ and other community members have shared their concerns about the state of Nantahala’s fire departments, the department has not requested a tax increase for any improvements in the last five years.