Seven Devils residents sound off on Hawksnest course plan
By Scott Nicholson
A standing-room-only crowd packed the Seven Devils Town Hall Monday for a public hearing to determine the fate of an unused private golf course.
Leonard Cottom, one of the three owners of Hawksnest Ski & Snow Tubing, presented a petition opposing the action, saying it was signed by 104 people.
“Do you property owners want the town council of Seven Devils to tell you what to do in your backyard? If the town council decides that your backyard would make a good volleyball court, would you allow them to take your land by eminent domain?” asked Justin Grimes, a long-time Hawksnest employee who read a statement on behalf of five other people.
“The golf course is private property and when the golf course was open, less than 1 percent of the Seven Devils property owners used the Hawksnest facility,” he said.
“Does this town council really think the that the public good is best served by indebting itself long-term by getting into a losing business on behalf of a privileged few?”
Grimes presented data saying the town’s property valuation in 2005, the last year the golf course was open, was $98 million. This year, the property is valued at $133 million, he said.
Grimes also questioned the town’s ability to fund a golf course. “You better have deep pockets,” he said.
“Golf courses are expensive to maintain and the general consensus in the golf business is that a good businessman would not invest in one unless the development had lots of additional land from which to make revenue or make the course private and let membership dues underwrite the costs.”
Grimes also referred to a recent court case involving the Sugar Mountain Golf Course, saying the nearby resort town of Sugar Mountain had received $121,000 in subsidies from the town over two years.
“The golf course needs millions of dollars of work and the erosion problem from impervious town streets will need addressing, the cost to you taxpayers enormous. You already have one of the highest tax rates in North Carolina.
Adding millions of dollars in debt to purchase the golf course will not improve your tax rate, it will skyrocket when burdened with the deficits the golf course will likely incur,” he said.
Grimes also touched on the ski resort’s failed attempt to get a permit to expand the related ski slope operations into the golf course property. He said a ski slope was more environmentally friendly and said the ski expansion would increase local rentals.
Hawksnest employee Justin Grimes speaks out against a plan to take the golf course by eminent domain during a meeting of the Seven Devils Town Council Monday. Photo by Scott Nicholson
He also criticized a group called “Save the Seven Devils Golf Course,” saying the town had not tried to help save the golf course by offering assistance or subsidies or attempt to purchase the property outright. He also said three town council members and the town manager’s wife sit on the board of adjustment that had turned down the expansion of the ski slopes.
Much of the crowd attempted to shout down Grimes, saying “Time!” The council eventually cut Grimes off.
The remainder of his statement included, “Isn’t time to bury old personal animosities that have been driving too many of the town’s decisions and work together on a development that will truly benefit all the people?” he asked, calling the eminent domain proposal a “scheme to take the golf course away from its rightful owners by eminent domain.”
Mayor Bob Dodson characterized it as “an informal meeting or hearing,” not a legally required meeting.
David Hooper opened comments by saying he missed the golf course but said the government should only use an eminent domain for public health and safety. He said if the town does pursue the action, it should be handled by an independent appraiser for cost projections and profit-and-loss statements.
Butch McLean said eminent domain should be used for critical things and said he’d love to see golfers enjoying the course but that the town should not be funding a golf course.
Mary Hooper said she lives across from the golf course property but said she had three properties taken from her through eminent domain actions, though she voluntarily agreed to the property taking. She said the town would need a larger tax base to support a golf course.
Jim Jones said he’s owned property for 11 years in town and used the golf course a lot while it was open. He said his property would be more valuable with a golf course but higher taxes would affect him. He encouraged the town to investigate the economic effects before embarking on any action and to avoid divisive and emotional issues. “I’m afraid the town of Seven Devils will go bankrupt,” he said.
Yardy Williams, former mayor of the town, asked the council to not compromise the town’s long-range plans and zoning maps and to protect the town’s drinking water.
Al Harris said the community needs the golf course but said an independent study is needed. “One of the problems I see is why in the world they shut down the golf course to begin with?’” he said, asking whether it was lack of golfers, poor promotion, or mismanagement, but warned against “turning this place into a carnival.”
Ken Smock said a lot of people in the baby-boomer market wanted second homes with golf available. He said other improvements were possible, including a gazebo and walking trails. He said there were a number of people “who could come in here and do the job for us.”
Hugh Jernigan said money was his chief concern and that the issue felt contentious at times. He said the state was seriously addressing eminent domain and a bill under consideration would limit its use by local governments.
Jonathan Hale, a Winston-Salem resident, said as a ski patrol member, the golf course expansion as a ski area would allow “this mountain to compete with other ski mountains in the area.”
Brent Rockett said it was a resort and that the ski mountain has lots of activities with “a great mountain and a lot of challenging terrain,” saying an expansion would make for a safer ski operation.
Loren Williams said he’d been a full-time town resident for 13 years and many of his friends had enjoyed the course. He said either eminent domain or patience had a lot of uncertainties. He said a detailed business plan and construction and operation costs should be reviewed and evaluated before any eminent domain action.
Robert Royster said he was a golfer whose home overlooks the golf course and said he’d gathered information about the local residents who had played golf during 2004 and 2005, and said 69 residents were believed to have played in those two years. He said 56 people had played in regular golfing events during the year and encouraged the town council to get more specific information on those who had played there and asked the town to pursue the reopening of the golf course. “I, for one, would not mind my property taxes going up a little bit if we got the golf course,” he said.
John Beucus, former mayor, said he supported the town taking the golf course either by negotiations or eminent domain. He also asked that four acres in the middle of the golf course be rezoned from housing use to recreation. He said he first played the course in 1973 and it was in good condition then. He said damaged drainage pipes had to be addressed whether the course operated or not.
Bill Diercksen said the golf course could be profitable again given large-scale development within a 20-minute drive of the town. He said he didn’t want to see any high-density development around the golf course and said he hoped another management group bought the entire recreational resort. “First do no harm, protect the vision statement and the comprehensive plan,” he said.
Ernie St. Louis said he’d lived in the town for more than 34 years and understood the original resort owners’ concept and vision. He said the golf course was the “pride and joy” of the resort, with the first nine holes opened in 1969. “Seven Devils without a golf course is not Seven Devils,” he said.
Noble Hendrix said he was president of “Save Seven Devils Golf” and said no new taxes would be needed for the action, and said the town could operate parking lots for money during the ski season. He said the town couldn’t address aquifer issues related to the golf course property. He said his organization would help finance economic studies on the benefits of the golf course.
Bob Bridges said time and energy spent on the issue was wasted and that an $8,000 report basically determined that the golf course was in bad condition, which he said everyone already knew. He said studies and legal battles would be expensive for the town, saying town council members couldn’t operate like entrepreneurs.
Lee Rawlings urged the council members to keep their minds open and pursue a feasibility study and said the town should aggressively pursue a consortium to support a golf course and preserve the open space, saying the council could “leave a legacy.”
Leo Starzec said he supported an “effort to rescue the golf course property from its current state of decay.”
He said it should be self-supporting and not be funded by tax money, and that he also didn’t want the ski slope to close. He also asked the town to explore residual and long-term income and said if direct negotiations failed, then the town should pursue eminent domain action or join with surrounding counties to pursue the property.
Bob Grosby suggested a compromise said a local property association could negotiate with Seven Devils owners to reach a fair market value, whether through appraisal or arbitration. He said the association’s syndicate was appointed to run the golf course and keep town funds out of the mix. Dodson said he liked the idea and asked Cottom if he’d consider it, to which Cottom replied, “Not in this forum; it’s just talk right now.”
Bill Ryan said lots overlooking a golf course command premium price and said the lost amenity trickles down negatively on all real estate values in the community. “It appears that now is the time for the town to act,” he said.
John Buchanan said he’d been involved in municipal golf courses that didn’t have to lose money if they were well managed. He said he was connected with four or five eminent domain actions to take golf courses, saying they were important to communities. He said a competitive golf course could be a money maker and said both golf and ski operations could benefit and said eminent domain could force the golf course owners to negotiate, he said.
Tom McAuliffe, golf director at Sugar Mountain, said he first played the Seven Devils golf course in 1975 and said Sugar Mountain would have its course paid off next year and said Seven Devils would “glow with a golf course.” He said tourism money was funding new facilities and said real estate values would suffer without the golf course.
Applause aroused by the speakers was divided between those speaking on either side of the issue. Dodson said a feasibility study should be done, as well as engineering studies, and cited items from the report that recommended an estimate of rehabilitation costs and recommended the council take no action until the issues were investigated.
After the hearing, Cottom said he was not interested in either managing or owning a golf course and said he was ready to retire. He said any outside offers were “just talk” and said the golf course was part of the 160-acre property that included the ski slope, not a separate parcel. He also said the council failed to give weight to the petition opposing an eminent domain action signed by nearly 200 people.
“I’m disappointed,” he said. “They’re not listening to the taxpayers and residents of this community.”