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Humane Society makes appeal: Watauga's animal care nonprofit facing 400K mortgage balloon payment

BOONE – For 50 years, the Watauga County Humane Society has taken care of the county’s stray pets, those given up by owners and much more. However, the society says it’s facing an upcoming financial hurdle that could severely impact the nonprofit.

The building that currently houses the humane society, the 17,000-square-foot Irma Baker Lyons Adoption and Education Center, opened in 2011. The nonprofit at that time took over animal intake and housing services from Watauga County Animal Control Center and expanded the total number of dogs and cats that could be held at any one time. The government entity, now known as the Watauga County Department of Animal Care and Control, is responsible for investigating animal cruelty, enforcing existing animal control laws and managing stray animals.

The building was originally slated to cost $2.4 million, but Charles Duke, who is currently the vice president of the nonprofit’s board of directors, said the costs ended up around $3 million. In 2012, the humane society refinanced its mortgage to cut down its interest rate from 7 percent to 3.85 percent, according to Duke.

“It was eating us alive,” Duke said of the 7 percent rate.

Since refinancing, Duke said the nonprofit has whittled down the mortgage balance from around a million to roughly $400,000. However, coming up in the first half of 2020, a balloon payment will be due for the remaining balance, which Duke and longtime volunteer and board President Alice Roess say the organization currently could not make.

“If we cannot come up with it, we’ll have to refinance,” Duke said. “And there’s no guarantee we could refinance at the current (interest) rate, which is very favorable. We don’t know what the market will look like in 2020.”

Closing out the mortgage would be a huge relief to the society, which says it could redirect the roughly $7,500 in monthly payments to more services and building upkeep.

According to Watauga Humane Society’s 2016 tax returns, the latest available, the organization ended the year with $329,701 in non-interest-bearing cash. Duke said currently, the reserve fund is around $200,000, which would cover three months of expenses in case of a financial emergency.

Duke said the board might choose to dip into those reserve funds to help pay off the remaining balance.

When asking people to donate, Roess and Duke said they’re going up against bad information.

“A lot of people have the misconception that the county pays all our bills,” Roess said.

The organization’s current operating expenses a year are $760,000, Roess said. Out of that, Watauga County gives $84,000 a year, or just over 11 percent. In 2009, the county agreed to annually grant the humane society $75,000 with a Consumer Price Index escalator each year to shelter animals that wind up in county custody.

In spring 2012, less than a year after opening, the humane society asked for an additional $150,000 from the county to cover unanticipated costs. The county ended up allocating an additional $18,750.

Operating expenses include the mortgage payments, salaries and wages to staff, supplies, utilities and maintenance. The board of directors are all volunteers.

Having to raise most of the funds themselves, Roess says the organization basically lives paycheck to paycheck.

“We operate on a razor’s edge,” Roess said.

The organization is constantly fundraising through its Bare Bones Boutique Thrift Shop, located at 2670 Old U.S. 421 South, spay/neuter fees, adoption fees and various events throughout the year.

One of those funding sources, the Arko Dog Park, operating since 2006, is currently undergoing renovations due to issues with standing water. Ashlee Yepez, humane society director of operations and animal welfare, said the planned reopening will be held in mid-July with a grand reopening ceremony.

“Renovations include french drains, concrete pads around the spigots and hydro seeding to solve standing water and mud issues,” the Watauga Humane Society’s website states.

In the last couple of years, Duke has said the building has encountered multiple issues. Heating and cooling issues have popped up, resulting in actions such as volunteers taking animals home with them for a night and staff staying at the center with propane heaters during cold spells.

In February 2018, Duke told the Watauga County Commissioners that the original building plans called for the installation of two boilers, but only one was installed.

“(The one boiler) wasn’t enough to keep the building heated and cooled in a proper way,” Yepez said. “We had fans installed a while back to keep our lobbies and kennels cool.”

“There are places where decisions were made (in the building’s construction) based on cost and not putting in the highest quality of stuff,” Duke said.

Other recent costly repairs include upkeep on the kennel flooring, filtration system, paving the previous dirt road leading to the center and other general maintenance.

“We’ve had a lot of pretty-expensive maintenance happening at our building,” Yepez said.

So far in 2019, the Watauga Humane Society has seen 483 animals adopted, as of June 6, and keeps a very low euthanasia rate, only used in extreme cases.

“We’re very proud of the fact that we have a 95 percent placement rate,” Duke said.

Celebrating 50 years

Starting now through the first half of 2020, the Watauga Humane Society will be celebrating 50 years of operation.

“I think it’s a significant accomplishment because the existence of the humane society depends on assistance from volunteers and cooperation from the county in this particular case that would otherwise go unmet,” Duke said.

Roess said that part of the year-long celebration includes all-gold everything, from stickers to decorations.

The nonprofit’s annual mail appeal, which lists the different events and causes for patrons to support, will be mailed out by mid-June, Roess said.

Adoption hours at the humane society are Tuesday through Sunday, 12:30-5 p.m.

The 36th annual Watauga Humane Society rummage sale will take place Friday and Saturday, Aug. 9-10, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., respectively. The location is to be announced, according to Yepez.

For more information on the Watauga Humane Society, visit and click on the paw that says “donate” to direct a donation to specific programs or funds.

ASU takes steps to protect centuries-old oak tree during construction

BOONE — Appalachian State crews are taking precautions to protect one of the oldest trees on campus as a new multi-use pathway is being constructed nearby.

The white oak tree is located between Newland Hall and Wey Hall, where a “pedestrian pathway connector” is planned by the university in an effort to “unite the two halves of Appalachian’s campus” and to allow for temporary vehicular egress during large athletic and arts events.

According to Appalachian arborist Chris Erickson, the tree might not be the oldest tree on campus, but it’s close (there are likely older trees in Appalachian’s Nature Preserve, he said). Erickson said the age of a white oak can be estimated by measuring its diameter and multiplying by five, although the calculations vary by species and many factors skew the results. With a circumference of approximately 16.5 feet and a diameter of 60.1 inches, and allowing for other age factors, he estimates the massive Quercus alba clocks in at between 225 and 300 years.

Despite its age and a changing campus, the tree is healthy, Erickson said, and the university does not anticipate negative impacts due to the pathway construction. The connector will be built with pavers laid in a concrete foundation, and weep holes in the concrete will allow for water penetration — similar to the sidewalks around Sanford Mall, the university said. Construction is under way, with completion expected by the fall 2019 football season.

Money providing for the white oak’s care was included in the construction budget for the $916,866 pedestrian pathway connector, ASU said.

“We plan on really babying this tree during and after construction,” Erickson said. “That includes a trunk injection system to protect it from bugs and hand watering (the tree).”

According to the Arbor Day Foundation, the white oak is “extremely sensitive to soil compaction and grade changes.” However, Erickson noted, although soil becomes compacted by vehicles and equipment, foot traffic contributes more to soil compaction.

Precautions and accommodations in place for the tree during construction include the establishment of a tree protection zone.

“No impacts other than the removal of the existing sidewalk will be permitted in this area,” he said. “We are planning on watering, soil compaction reduction with an air-spade and campus-made compost, replacing all turf within the drip line with mulch or wood chips and monitoring for any pest activity. We have two ISA-certified arborists in the landscape department including myself, so we know what we can do to best help this tree during and after construction.”

Air spading uses compressed air to break up and remove soil, works much more quickly than conventional digging and eliminates the danger of damaging tree roots or utility lines.

Until a few years ago, the sidewalks around the tree were salted regularly to keep pedestrians safe in icy weather. Because runoff from the salt is not tree-friendly, Erickson’s landscape maintenance crew, which is part of Appalachian’s Physical Plant, quit salting there, he explained.

The pedestrian pathway connector project includes removing the sidewalk surrounding the tree — a positive for the oak’s wellbeing.

“Initially we had considered replacing the sidewalk around the tree, but we decided that section of sidewalk is not necessary and that the tree would be much better off without it. The new connector will be the only hard surface in the area,” Erickson said.

However, salting will be used as needed on the nearby pedestrian pathway, ASU said.

“We must keep pedestrian areas as safe as possible, so we will do everything possible to mitigate ice and snow,” ASU spokesperson Megan Hayes said. “While we typically use a salt mixture to do this, we are aware of the impact of salt on the ecosystem and do everything we can to reduce the amount of salt we use, balancing this with the need to maintain walkway safety.”

The new pedestrian path has been intentionally angled away from the tree to mitigate salt damage and root compaction, ASU said. All work in the root zone will be done with hand tools or light machinery.

Steve Behr / Photo by Steve Behr 

Jackson Greene (12) takes over as Watauga’s quarterback in the first game of the season. Greene was awarded the Trail Blazer Award, which is given to the top male athlete at Watauga High School.

Steve Behr / Photo by Steve Behr 

Cailey Haas makes a save against Weddington during the first round of the state 3-A playoffs. Haas was given the Hall of Fame Award, which is awarded to the top female athlete at Watauga.

Second Black Hawk rescue in two weeks takes place at Grandfather Mountain

LINVILLE — A second Black Hawk helicopter rescue in 11 days took place near one of the peaks in the Grandfather Mountain State Park after a hiker suffered a broken ankle on June 5.

Watauga County Emergency Management’s Taylor Marsh, who assisted in the rescue, said the call came at 11:30 a.m. for an injured 24-year-old male. According to Frank Ruggiero of the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, the hiker suffered the injury in the Attic Window area.

Brandon Townsend, a full-time firefighter at Linville Volunteer Fire Department, said the patient was stable but was unable to walk or apply any weight to his ankle. With potential severe weather nearby, Townsend said the patient had found some shelter underneath some rocks.

Attic Window is one of several mountaintops of the Grandfather Mountain area, which consists of the Grandfather Mountain State Park and the privately owned attraction. The incident took place in the state park, Ruggiero said.

“Local rescuers from Watauga and Avery counties hiked in and treated the patient on site,” a June 5 statement from the N.C. Department of Public Safety said.

Marsh said the patient was located 1.5 miles away from the nearest parking lot. Due to the rugged mountain terrain, a carryout would have taken six-plus hours, Marsh said.

Additionally, Townsend said the responders were receiving reports from the National Weather Service of storms producing heavy rain and lightning moving through the area, which posed an increased risk for rescue workers who would have had to perform a high-angle rescue without the airlift rescue.

“He wasn’t exactly where we thought he was going to be but he was close, so we’re looking at the map and we know that we’ve got so many sets of ladders that we’re going to have to negotiate, so we know off the top that’s going to be a high angle,” Townsend said.

Marsh said his department contacted N.C. Emergency Management and requested the assistance of the North Carolina Helo-Aquatic Rescue Team for an airlift rescue.

“While avoiding fog rolling over the mountain, the N.C. HART crew hoisted the injured hiker into the aircraft, flew to a nearby landing area and transferred him to a waiting ambulance for transport to a local hospital,” the N.C. DPS June 5 statement said.

The Black Hawk landed at MacRae Meadows and the man was transported by Avery EMS, Ruggiero said.

“Today’s rescue was conducted by a Salisbury-based aircrew from the N.C. National Guard flying a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, and three rescue technicians from the Charlotte Fire Department,” the N.C. DPS June 5 statement said. “More than a dozen emergency service agencies statewide provide trained rescue technicians that participate in the program.”

Other responding departments included Linville Central Rescue Squad, N.C. State Parks, Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation staff, Linville VFD, Crossnore VFD, Elk Park VFD, Banner Elk VFD and Blowing Rock Fire and Rescue.

N.C. DPS said that since N.C. HART was established in 2004, the first of its kind in the nation, the team has saved hundreds of lives.

“NC HART represents the best of North Carolina, partnering our state’s first responders and aviators to save lives,” N.C. Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry stated. “Today’s rescue required extensive training and skill and I appreciate the dedication and service of our NC HART members and local rescuers.”

A similar incident occurred on May 26 when a hiker suffered an ankle injury in the MacRae Peak area, which neighbors Attic Window. The hiker was airlifted by N.C. HART to MacRae Meadows, where he was transported to Cannon Memorial Hospital in Linville, where he was released later in the day.

Carl Blakenship contributed to reporting for this story.