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Parkway School teacher named WCS Rookie Teacher of the Year

Parkway School third-grade teacher Kari Riddle was recently named the Watauga County Schools Rookie Teacher of the Year.

WCS started the inaugural award this school year. Like the school system’s longstanding Teacher of the Year awards, rookie teachers are selected by their peers for the honor. To be eligible for the award, a teacher must be in his or her first year of teaching in a full-time position.

Riddle earned her elementary education degree from Appalachian State University and is currently working toward a master’s degree in reading education, according to Parkway School.

“I am so excited to be working at such an amazing school in such a fantastic school system,” Riddle stated on the school’s website. “I hope to inspire my students to have a love for themselves, learning and their community. I am sure I will continued to be inspired along the way too.”

USFS: Linville Gorge Fire 100 percent contained
Firefighters continue to monitor, mop up hot spots

NEBO — Less than two days after a wildfire was reported at the end of the Brushy Ridge Trail near the Linville Ridge in the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area, firefighters have completely contained the blaze.

“Firefighters were successful in direct suppression efforts to contain the Brushy Ridge Fire, which is now 100 percent contained,” the U.S. Forest Service said in an April 30 statement. “A total of 52 firefighters worked to contain the fire (April 29). Hiking 2.5 miles down into the Gorge along the Brushy Ridge trail, the Asheville Interagency Hotshot crew dug fireline around the fire to limit its spread to a small area along the Linville River. The final containment area of the fire is three acres. Today (April 30), fire crews returned to the fire to monitor and mop up remaining hot spots near the fire lines.”

The fire was first reported at 3:44 p.m. on April 28, with USFS crews first reaching the blaze at 6 p.m., according to USFS spokesperson Lisa Jennings. The USFS confirmed the cause to be an abandoned campfire.

“Anyone with information about the cause of the fire is encouraged to call the Grandfather Ranger District Law Enforcement Officer at 828-652-2144,” the USFS stated.

Firefighters hiked the area in the night of April 28 to assess the fire and determine strategies for suppressions, returning in the morning and working to contain the fire to its area. The USFS noted that firefighters dealt with steep terrain and thick vegetation.

The Brushy Ridge Trail will remain closed until the fire is fully extinguished, the USFS said. All other trail closures have been lifted.

“While there are currently no active flames, hot spots may remain in the interior of the fire until significant rainfall is received,” the USFS stated.

Located in Burke County near Morganton, the 11,000-plus-acre Linville Gorge Wilderness Area is a popular hiking and camping destination.

With over 1,400 feet in elevation change, forest fires can be hard to effectively combat. Previous Linville Gorge fires, such as the White Creek Fire in March 2017, grew to 5,538 acres before being fully contained.

Jennings said that visitors need to be careful with campfires, noting it’s still wildfire season.

“As we move into the summer camping season, the U.S. Forest Service reminds visitors to be careful with fire,” the USFS’s April 30 statement said. “Make sure all flames are extinguished with water or soil and coals are out cold before leaving your campsite.”

Along with the Asheville Interagency Hotshot crew, the USFS response effort is supported by the Jonas Ridge Volunteer Fire Department and the North Carolina Forest Service.

Family waits for answers in WCSO officer-involved shooting

BOONE – A month following the officer-involved shooting death of 22-year-old Andrew John Mason, the wait continues for the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation’s findings on the report.

“I just want to know the truth,” said David Mason, Andrew’s father, speaking earlier in April.

According to Watauga County dispatchers’ communication logs from the incident, the first 911 call came at 11:24 p.m. from 2145 Hardin Road, where the occupant described a suspicious male banging on the front door demanding to be let in. Watauga County Sheriff’s deputies responded to Hardin Road to investigate. Two more 911 calls at 11:39 and 11:40 p.m. described a male screaming while walking up Hardin Road.

According to WCSO communications, Deputy Adam Gragg encountered Mason and after what WCSO Sheriff Len Hagaman described as a “violent struggle,” Gragg shot Mason around 11:45 p.m.

Mason was later airlifted to Wake Forest Baptist in Winston-Salem, where he was pronounced dead. Gragg was subsequently put on administrative leave, pending the investigation.

According to a 2018 traffic ticket, Andrew Mason’s residence was 2342 Hardin Road as of December.

Questions about the incident – including what exactly caused Gragg to fire his weapon and whether Mason was armed or appeared to be under the influence of substances – have not been answered.

“With this boy being his size and without a weapon, I can’t imagine why anybody would have shot him,” said Boone attorney Tom Speed, who is representing David Mason.

Hagaman has repeatedly said all questions on the case should be referred to the NCSBI. The NCSBI, based out of Raleigh, has declined comment on multiple occasions, stating they don’t comment on active cases.

When asked April 15 if Gragg was still on leave, Hagaman declined to comment.

WCSO has a body camera policy that requires that deputies turn on the camera at the onset of all investigative and enforcement contacts, although it hasn’t been indicated if there is footage of the incident. WCSO does not have dash cameras, Hagaman said.

“I am waiting to see the full body cam before any decisions are made concerning action that will be taken,” Speed said on April 25.

Mason owns M&M Stone Masonry, and he said Andrew worked full time for him. Mason described his son as a hard worker, despite physical limitations from what Mason described as a neck injury Andrew suffered when he was 16.

“My son worked five to six days a week,” Mason said. “He had a sense of honor at just 22 years old.”

Andrew had two older brothers, along with an 11-year-old sister, said Mason, who also said his son attended Watauga and Ashe high schools, but did not graduate due to missing too many days due to the aforementioned neck injury.

Mason said he last saw his son at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 30, when he left work hours before the incident.

An autopsy was completed on April 2, according to Mason, but he said he won’t know the results until late May or early June. Wake Forest Baptist declined to share preliminary autopsy results, referring all questions to the NCSBI.

Mason made note that the location of the March 30 incident in the 2000 block of Hardin Street was in the same vicinity of 2130 Hardin Road, where WCSO Deputy William Mast Jr., 23, and Mitchell Allen Trivette, 33, were killed in July 2012. According to the NCSBI, Mast and his partner Deputy Preston Russell responded to a domestic disturbance at the residence at 2130 Hardin Road. On arrival, Trivette shot Mast and then Russell shot Trivette. Both men were later pronounced dead.

In the 2012 incident, the NCSBI’s report was finished and a summary was released in December 2012. The NCSBI determined Russell was justified in his actions.

Leaders reach consensus on ASU temporary uses

BOONE – The Boone Town Council, Appalachian State University and local real estate agents seemed to reach a consensus on a Unified Development Ordinance change with a 10-year sunset provision for ASU to rent commercial space in Boone’s B3 General Business zoning district.

The proposed temporary agreement, which came during a April 29 joint meeting with the Boone Planning Commission, will have to be incorporated in draft code language and approved by council at a future meeting.

With several campus construction projects ongoing, ASU engaged in the practice of leasing privately-owned space on a temporary basis for its employees, also called “swing space.” In December 2017, the town of Boone regulated these uses, including implementing time limits, in M1 Manufacturing and O/I Office Institutional zoning districts, but stopped short of allowing them in B3. The M1 and O/I zoning district time period goes five years from the start of the use, with a one-time two-year extension available upon a formal request requiring a demonstrated need.

Now, the April 29 consensus would pave the way for ASU to start renting space in B3 zoning districts during the next 10 years. The B3 zoning district mostly includes areas along N.C. 105, Blowing Rock Road/Hardin Street and East King Street.

Appalachian State Vice Chancellor for Business Affairs Paul Forte called it “a great compromise,” saying ASU wants to minimize commercial rentals as much as possible.

Appalachian Commercial Real Estate owner James Milner said he and his client, Jeff Carter, commercial asset manager of The Standard of Boone, can live with the 10-year sunset provision. Milner said that allowing ASU to rent new commercial space would benefit the next renters as ASU will invest in their rental spaces.

Bill Aceto of Blue Ridge Realty and Investments said he would like to attract additional occupants into the former BB&T Bank space on N.C. 105, saying there’s currently more vacant space than demand in Boone.

“I look at these spaces and it makes sense to me,” said Boone Planning Commission member Frank Veno. “All I’m seeing are windows that are empty.”

Council and planning commission members discussed whether the temporary uses sunset clause should be seven or 10 years. Councilman Sam Furguiele originally proposed seven years, but was fine with a maximum of 10.

A controversial 400-foot exclusion zone proposed for the university’s temporary uses going from the center line of U.S. 321/Hardin Street between King Street and N.C. 105 was dropped as part of the compromise.

The council decided to hold off on changing the language for university temporary uses within the M1 Manufacturing and O/I/ Office Institutional zoning districts, which was also on the public hearing agenda.

Furguiele was cautious about ASU’s growth, saying council shouldn’t allow the university to take over business districts in what he called “ad hoc rezoning,” and said he wants to protect Boone commercial corridors.

“People are complaining we have this empty commercial space … as the community grows, the need will grow,” Furguiele said.

ASU Associate Vice Chancellor for Facilities Management Nick Katers said that with construction projects set to start at Sanford Hall and future renovations at Wey Hall and elsewhere, the university has a need for 200 temporary spaces for employees while various constructions projects are ongoing.

“We have no intention to move into these places permanently,” Katers told the council.

Currently, ASU houses 50-70 employees at Charleston Forge on Industrial Drive, Katers said, noting that most of the future relocations will be IT professionals and administrative staff. Charleston Forge is zoned M1.