Town of Seven Devils Contemplates Eminent Domain to Acquire Hawksnest Golf Course

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On June 8th, just as I was walking out of my office to spend a week vacationing in Surfside Beach, I received a phone call from Lenny Cottom advising me of the Seven Devils Town Meeting that was to take place on Monday. June 11th. That is one meeting that I would loved to have been in attendance for simply because while eminent domain probably has a good use…it was never intended to be used in the way that the Town of Seven Devils seems to be leaning. Never was it to be used to help drive home values up, or to prevent them from dropping – as some have suggested.

Scott Nicholson of the Watauga Democrat was in attendance (as were many others of the local news media) and Scott has written a great story that you can read by clicking here

Several of the newspapers (High Country Press, Mountain Times, and the Democrat) have posted articles after the meeting and all have done a great job of reporting both sides to the situation. However, our ski audience doesn’t necessarily read those newspapers and we wanted to make certain that you guys are aware of the latest news regarding Hawksnest.

Without revisiting too much history, Hawksnest’s owners, Leonard and Lenny Cottom, closed the golf course more than a year ago because it wasn’t being profitable for them. That IS their right. They said that the golf course operation was basically open BECAUSE the ski operation funded it. Translation: Without the ski area making money, the golf course would not have made it. Whether that is 100% factual is nobody’s business but the Cottoms. Let’s play devil’s advocate for a second and say that the golf course made a slight profit. The owners again have a right to decide if the little profit that they made was worth all of the work that they had to do to run it. Add in the frustrations of storm drainage ripping through fairways and you can fully understand and support their decision to close the golf operations. I for one HATE the fact that the golf course is closed as I played it quite regularly. The last season that the course was open I played it once or twice a week as the golf course is probably ten minutes from my office. However, I can attest to the fact that when I hit the course there was rarely anyone in front of or behind me. Most often we’d tee off at 4pm and get in 18 holes with no waits and nobody pushing from behind. While that was great for me, it could not have translated into huge numbers of rounds played. The truth is, there was usually 10-15 cars in the lot when we got there and maybe 4-6 when we’d leave.

So while I’m personally upset that the golf course is closed, I fully understand and support the Cottom’s in their decision to close it. Additionally, I’m an avid fan of Hawksnest as a ski resort. I think the idea of a larger, more updated Hawksnest ski area is exciting and makes sense. For reasons that are not clear, the Town of Seven Devils has made it very clear that they don’t really wish to accommodate the Cottom’s ideas of expansion. My own personal wishes would be for someone with very deep pockets to come along and purchase the property from the Cottom’s and develop the heck out of a beautiful golf and ski community. Someone with deep enough finances could get it done no matter what issues the Town put forth. Money has a way of getting things past the legal system. Until that time comes (if it ever does) you have to side with the Cottoms that they should be able to IMPROVE their ski area as long as it is within the good of the community. The fact that a very few residents would like to be able to play golf should not enter into the mix whatsoever. Heck I want to play golf there.

What I believe needs to happen is enough people show up to the next meeting that they end up having to put speakers outside to accommodate the crowd. If enough people showed up to send the message to the "few" that we won’t sit idly by and watch decent, tax paying business owners have their property taken from them for ridiculous reasons, then perhaps some progress could be made.

On June 11th, a standing-room-only crowd packed the Seven Devils Town Hall for a public hearing to determine the fate of an unused private golf course. Leonard Cottom presented a petition that was signed by 100+ people opposing the action. Justin Grimes, a long-time Hawksnest employee, read a statement on behalf of five other people that said, “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 added additional comments that argued the viability of the Town "indebting itself long-term by getting into a losing business on behalf of a privileged few". However, those kinds of arguments don’t REALLY even need to be argued. The ONLY argument is that the land is owned by the Cottoms and it is not full of condemned structures. It is not hurting anyone. In fact, tree huggers everywhere should LOVE the fact that the closed golf course acreage is providing a wonderful habitat for every kind of wildlife indigenous to the High Country.

The only argument should be against the lunacy of how any town government can use Eminent Domain as a means to simply take someone else’s property and make it their own. If I were in the Cottom’s shoes I’d simply have a good laugh and play the waiting game. If the facts are true as they present them then there’s no way that the Town can force them to sell. The Town tried to hint that property values have gone down since the golf course closed – not true – they’ve gone up appreciably. The only other fact is that the Town would love to see golf played there. The only real solution to any "supply and demand" issue like this is come up with the bucks to buy them out (The Cottoms have wanted to sell the property (golf and ski) for years.) or ask nicely for a "sit down" with the Cottoms and discuss how they could possibly work TOGETHER on a solution that both parties get what they want. The Cottoms maintain that they have been willing to work with the town and representatives with the Town aren’t talking.

There ARE solutions that make more fiscal sense, such as figuring out ways wherein the Town could subsidize the golf course and the improvements that are needed to prevent storm drainage from ripping across the course which sits well below many of the residences. 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. He added, "The golf course needs millions of dollars of work and the erosion problem from impervious town streets will need addressing, the cost to taxpayers enormous."

Regardless of all of that, the owners have made failed attempt to get a permit to expand the related ski slope operations into the golf course property. Grimes said a ski slope was more environmentally friendly and said the ski expansion would increase local rentals.
According to some sources, the Town Hall Meeting became a bit of a shouting match at times. At one point some people began to shout down Grimes, saying “Time!” The council eventually cut Grimes off.

Several people spoke up during the meeting and one, 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.”

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.

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.

What keeps getting lost in ALL of these kinds of comments is the fact that the Town does not own that property and they are not providing any reasonable reason as to why they should be able to take it. Eminent Domain HAS a useful place; however, imagine if your town came to you and said we’re taking your house and we’re not going to do anything with it except rent the house out. Add to that the fact that the Town of Seven Devils doesn’t even WANT all of the Cottom’s property. They just want the golf course. That makes it such that the ski are is stuck in the mode that it’s in and can’t compete equitably with other ski areas in the region.

Leonard Cottom has made it clear that he is interested in retiring and has had the property for sale for years. However, he has also made it clear that the golf course is part of the 160-acre property that includes the ski slope…and that it is 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.”

What I most disappointed in is that people are not talking MORE about the real issue. No town should be able to take a person’s property for the kind of reasons that are being put forth by the Town of Seven Devils. People if you want a golf course there, then instead of spending $8000 to look into your options to steal a man’s property, spend that and more on helping him advertise to sell the darn resort to someone that will do what you want! Heck, count me in for a golf membership!

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