VALLE CRUCIS — A Valle Crucis business has filed a lawsuit against the Watuaga County Board of Education and is asking the courts to block the board from purchasing property as a site for a new school.
A complaint for declaratory judgment and motion for preliminary injunction was filed on Oct. 10 in Watauga County Superior Court by Deschamps Holdings LLC, Deschamps Enterprises LLC, The Mast Farm Inn, Henri Deschamps, Marie-Henriette Deschamps and Danielle Deschamps. The plaintiffs are represented by Robert Hunter of the Higgins Benjamin law firm in Greensboro as well as Four Eggers of the Eggers, Eggers, Eggers and Eggers firm in Boone.
The defendants named in the case are: the Watauga County Board of Education, Ron Henries (board chair), Brenda Reese (board vice chair), Gary Childers, Steve Combs and Jay Fenwick in their capacity as board members. The board and its members are represented by the Campbell Shatley law firm based in Asheville.
The Deschamps are the owners of The Mast Farm Inn on Broadstone Road in Valle Crucis. The Mast Farm Inn property is adjacent to the 14.4-acre tract of land that the school board has had under contract for the purpose of a new Valle Crucis School. According to the complaint, “controversy exists between the plaintiffs and the defendants with respect to the siting and location” of the proposed new school.
“The Mast Farm Inn respects the work of the Watauga County Board of Education,” the business stated. “The Mast Farm Inn is staunchly in favor of rebuilding or building a new school. It is with great reluctance that they have had to appeal to the courts to help protect themselves, and Valle Crucis, and to urge Watauga County officials to refrain from making this monumental mistake.”
Henri Deschamps first spoke out against the proposed new site — that has since been referred to as the Hodges property — during the May 21 Watauga County Board of Commissioners meeting. He has since been part of a five-person committee behind an online letter and petition opposing the placement of the new school on the Hodges property that launched on July 26.
Watauga County Schools Superintendent Scott Elliott said the school system’s attorneys were notified late on Oct. 10 that the suit was being filed and that a hearing for a temporary restraining order against the school system was scheduled for the next day. Elliott said he was notified the morning of Oct. 11 and immediately drove to the Madison County Courthouse where the resident judge was holding the hearing.
According to Elliott, the attorneys in the case agreed that the restraining order was not necessary at the time since the school board was still inspecting the property and was not ready to close on the purchase. A hearing for the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction to stop the purchase pending a trial on the lawsuit is to be heard on Oct. 29 in Watauga Superior Court, Elliott said. Elliott added that the school board opposes the motion.
“The board of education has reviewed the lawsuit and intends to pursue a vigorous defense,” Elliott said. “We believe the lawsuit and the request for the restraining order have no merit and are premature since the board of education has not yet completed the due diligence evaluations of the property. The board is committed to providing the children of Valle Crucis School with a new, safe and healthy school facility. I remain confident that we will build a school the community will be proud of for generations to come.”
The complaint alleges that the school board’s policy 1410 — regarding public participation at board meetings — illegally limits and restricts speech and comments by the public to the board regarding acquisition of property. It states that public comments and discussion regarding acquisition of the Hodges property were discouraged and suppressed by this policy.
The policy stated that visitors speaking at school board meetings could not speak on closed session matters including attorney-client privilege, anticipated or pending litigation, property acquisition or liquidation or complaints about specific employees and students in open session. In addition, it stated that any member of the board or the superintendent may reject, postpone or halt a speaker listed for public comment based on the guidelines and requirements for public comment set forth in the policy.
The school board voted to strike these statements from its policy during its Oct. 14 meeting.
Elliott said the revision was made in direct response to the allegations in the lawsuit that the board prohibits the public from speaking about land acquisition during the public comment portion of board meetings. He added that the revision was necessary to reflect the reality that members of the public have been permitted to speak publicly to the board about property acquisition.
“The language in the policy dates back to at least 2011, but the board and staff are unaware of any instance when it has been enforced,” Elliott said. “The board has never denied or discouraged anyone from speaking to them in open session about land acquisition. In fact, the board has heard public comment about the possible purchase of this property during recent meetings.”
Elliott said Henri Deschamps has been invited to attend meetings and speak directly to the board and has declined to do so. According to the complaint documents, Henri Deschamps emailed Elliott on Sept. 11 in an “attempt to voice his concerns.” It was at this time that Elliott responded to the email that the board’s attorney had been notified that Henri Deschamps intended to file a suit, and he requested that all future inquiries and requests be made to the board’s attorney.
“Public comments upon and discussion of the acquisition of the Hodges property has been chilled, discouraged and restricted,” according to the complaint.
The complaint also discusses Section 31 of Article 1 in the North Carolina Constitution that examines exclusive emoluments. The complaint alleges that this provision prevents local governments — including the school board — from “granting any privilege to one class of persons not enjoyed by all.”
Additionally, it states that the $1,105,000 purchase price for the Hodges property exceeds fair market value and would constitute a gift of public funds by the board to the property owners. This “excessive payment” would violate the provision, according to the complaint. For this reason, the complaint alleges that as the plaintiffs — as Watauga County taxpayers and property owners — are entitled to an issuance of a temporary restraining order, a preliminary injunction and a permanent injunction prohibiting the closing on the property. The other claims made in the complaint are also alleged to be reasons the plaintiffs are entitled to these requests as well.
The $1,105,000 property price has been a source of contention for several community members. Many have voiced disagreement with the appraised amount in several public comment sessions with the Watauga County Board of Commissioners and the Watauga Board of Education.
According to the documents filed in the suit, the appraisal of the Hodges property was conducted by Micheal Sweeting of Sweeting Appraisal Service. The appraisal was completed in January and was based on physical analysis of the site, a locational analysis of the surrounding area and an economic analysis of the market for properties such as the subject, according to a letter from Sweeting to WCS Director of Maintenance Danny Clark.
The letter also states that the appraisal was done so in accordance with the Unified Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice, and the scope of work included a property inspection and a collection/analysis of vacant land sales.
“Mr. Sweeting is a highly respected appraiser with extensive experience in Watauga County and specifically in Valle Crucis,” Elliott said. “Additionally, Mr. Sweeting’s appraisal was reviewed and verified by a third party appraiser who is highly regarded and who has extensive experience in the examination of appraisals. There are very few parcels of land available in Valle Crucis large enough for a school, so supply and demand drive the price.”
The complaint included an affidavit from Lynn Carmichael, a licensed real estate appraiser. Carmichael believed “the comparables used in Sweeting’s appraisal are not appropriate comparables in view of size and nature of the Hodges property and so cannot form the basis of a proper valuation of the property,” according to the complaint. Carmichael alleged that the appraisal did not conform to USPAP standards.
The complaint furthermore claims that the board is obligated to acquire a suitable site for construction of the proposed school, and that the Hodges property is “unsuitable and inappropriate.” It states that the property is in the floodway of the Watauga River and that no final water and sewer or environmental studies had been performed in regards to the sustainability of the property for a school.
“Our architect and engineers have conducted tests and studies related to the wetlands, soil structure, well water and proposed septic system location,” Elliott said. “Permits are not issued until construction begins.”
Elliott added that the school board will hear a report of these studies from their architect on Oct. 22 at the Valle Crucis School, and the public is invited to attend and give input. This is in addition to the public having the opportunity to comment at the school board’s November regular meeting.
Another claim made in the complaint states that the Due Process Clause in Section 19 of Article 1 in the state constitution protects individual citizens against improper governmental action. According to the complaint, the defendants violated this due process by acting to acquire the property without the opportunity for full public discussion including the opportunity to comment on and challenge the acquisition.
The school board and the county commissioners hosted a joint meeting and public comment session on Sept. 3 with a gym full of attendees. Roughly 15 to 20 people spoke to the boards during the comment portion. According to Elliott, Henri Deschamps attended this meeting but did not speak.
Lastly the complaint states that the plaintiffs in their rights and interests in The Mast Farm Inn and as county taxpayers will be damaged and suffer harm if the school board purchases the Hodges property.
“Despite repeated pleas to the school system to pursue other locations, they have chosen to press forward with this one plan,” according to a statement by The Mast Farm Inn. “This plan, and the unsupported price for the flood plain property it will sit on, is a costly error for the taxpayers that will not solve the school’s flooding problems. Additionally, this plan will cause the Mast Farm Inn and all of Valle Crucis irreparable harm.”
Other documents included in the lawsuit were maps, the county’s flood damage prevention ordinance, the school board’s offer to purchase and contract the Hodges property, the county commissioners’ resolution for the property purchase price, a Soil and Environmental Consultants report, listed conditions to obtain a Army Corps of Engineers permit, a letter from the N.C. Natural Heritage Program to Soil and Environmental Consultants and the National Register of Historic Places information on the Valle Crucis Historic District.