Although Madison County officials had little luck in lifting the veil of secrecy surrounding a proposed resort, they may have hit on a solution that its uneasy neighbors can accept.
The Madison County commissioners held a public hearing June 29 on whether to grant a request by the mysterious Ark Foundation to rezone its property to accommodate The Laurels, a planned resort and spa.
Representatives of the Ark Foundation — who refuse to identify the principals in the organization — want the zoning on their 269 acres in the Upper Laurel community changed from residential to resort/residential. The property is near Wolf Laurel, a popular WNC resort.
Rezoning is an intermediate step toward getting permission to operate a resort, since The Laurels also would need a conditional-use permit from the county’s Board of Adjustment.
But neighbors have been alarmed by reports that automatic-weapons fire has been heard coming from the property, and by the alleged involvement in the project of Albert Esposito, who once led a Monroe, N.C., group called Citizens for the Reinstatement of Constitutional Government. Press reports have described the group as a citizens’ militia, and a paper trail that starts with the property’s deeds leads to Esposito (see the June 28 Mountain Xpress).
However, Esposito called the Mountain Xpress after the meeting to assert that he’s never been in a militia. Prior press reports and a 1994 Anti-Defamation League report identifying him as a militia leader were lies, he emphasized.
“In fact, I’ve never been a militia leader,” Esposito thundered. “I’m a citizen who wants the Constitution used.”
(At press time, Xpress had just received a letter from attorney Daniel D. Quick, representing both Albert Esposito [see below] and Rehab Trust and Management Co. The letter maintains that press reports linking Esposito to militia groups — cited in the June 28 Xpress story — are false.)
In addition, an Ark Foundation representative maintains that the neighbors’ concerns are unfounded.
Those worries were aired at two meetings of the county Planning Board, which recommended that the commissioners grant the foundation’s rezoning request.
At the commissioners’ public hearing, the neighbors reiterated some of their concerns, such as increased traffic. And uneasiness over the project’s secrecy permeated the meeting.
By the end of the hearing, Ark Foundation representatives appeared ready to accept a suggestion by the county that the group close down the rear entrance to its property to satisfy the neighbors.
Many questions, few answers
Coming on the heels of a three-hour county-budget session, the hearing on the rezoning didn’t start until 10 p.m. But even the late hour didn’t keep resort representatives and concerned neighbors from attending.
Armed with a site map, Henry Choquet — representing both the Ark Foundation and The Laurels — told the board about the plans for the property. They include a restaurant, a cafe, campsites, expensive log homes (in which guests will stay) and activities such as hiking and horseback riding. The group plans to sell vacations rather than lots, Choquet explained, saying that up to 200 people at a time might be staying there.
Despite the commissioners’ pointed questions, however, they didn’t learn much about either the Ark Foundation or The Laurels.
Commissioner Reese Steen asked Choquet whether he has a board of directors.
“The Laurels itself?” Choquet responded. “No.”
“Who are The Laurels?” Steen asked.
Choquet said The Laurels is an LLC — a limited liability company.
Steen then turned to County Attorney Larry Leake, asking him who’s in charge of the operation.
Leake replied thatthe Ark Foundation is a “blind trust” established by unknown people. He also added that there’s nothing illegal about someone acting as the agent for such an organization.
“To be candid,” added Leake, “I think it’s the first time I have heard that it’s a limited liability [company].”
After several questions from Leake, Choquet clarified that the Ark Foundation owns the land, but not the resort business (which is the LLC).
But it was the Ark Foundation that applied for the rezoning, which would appear to be out of order, noted Leake. The discussion moved on, without that point being fully addressed.
The secrecy surrounding the foundation also perplexed another neighbor, Asheville businessman James W. Stickney IV, who owns property adjoining the Ark Foundation’s land.
“From what I’ve read and heard, it’s not possible to learn who the neighbors are going to be,” Stickney told the board later in the meeting.
Doug Yeager of Charlotte, who identified himself as an Ark Foundation trustee, told the board that he has been supervising the project on-site for the past four or five weeks.
But instead of saying what the foundation is, Yeager spoke only of what it isn’t.
“It’s not tax protesters,” Yeager said. “We will file and pay taxes.”
No one at the meeting had accused the group of failing to pay taxes. But Citizens for the Reinstatement of Constitutional Government was an offshoot of a tax-protest group called the Carolina Patriots, according to a 1995 Greensboro News & Record article.
“A lot of things can be misconstrued through hearsay and innuendo,” cautioned Yeager, adding, “We want to run this development as a family resort.”
He said his group wants to act as a good citizen of the community.
“We have done things in the past that we see we can’t do,” Yeager told the board, without elaborating. “You have to run things by the book.”
His job, he said, is to make sure that things are done correctly, stressing that the Ark Foundation doesn’t want anything “junky” on the property.
“This will help improve the tax base,” promised Yeager.
Much of the meeting centered on concerns about Wilson Branch Road, a gravel lane that provides access for neighboring property owners and serves as a back entrance to the Ark Foundation’s land.
Leake said he thought Wilson Branch Road was a state road (although not state-maintained) and that the only way the Ark Foundation could satisfy its neighbors was to seal off its back gate.
But Choquet maintained that he’d like to keep the access open for emergencies — and because it had been “bought and paid for.”
Choquet also stressed that his group had gone to great expense to build a new road and a bridge (on the Puncheon Fork Road side) to the property.
To that, Leake said, “You either are building a resort or are close to building a resort without being properly zoned to do that.”
Choquet answered that his group has built some homes and made improvements to the property but isn’t doing anything commercial.
“We’re interested in pre-selling,” Choquet said; “I’m not aware of anything sold.”
Leake told Choquet that he would make a good lawyer: “One of your favorite expressions is, ‘I am not aware.'”
Noting that Choquet is the person in charge, Leake asked again whether anyone is selling time-shares.
“No one is selling time-shares,” Choquet replied.
But the Rev. Lyn Ballentine, a retired Baptist minister from Winston-Salem, told Mountain Xpress earlier that he had purchased “points” that can be redeemed at The Laurels once it opens.
After the meeting, Leake explained that he considers it illegal for The Laurels to sell time-shares before it’s been authorized to operate as a resort.
“You shouldn’t be selling a resort unless you can build a resort,” Leake said.
And you can’t build a resort on property whose zoning won’t support it. Besides a zoning change, the project needs a conditional-use permit from the county Board of Adjustment before it can legally operate a resort, Leake said.
“You can’t sell time-shares in a resort that doesn’t exist,” Leake added. “You can’t sell something that’s not legal. It’s not legal for them to sell.”
Stickney told the board that he’s interested in “preserving the peace and tranquillity” of his property, adding, “Anything that disturbs that would be against my interests.” He said he doesn’t want anyone abusing the road — a sentiment echoed by other neighbors, including Oma Porche.
“I don’t know why they have to overburden our road,” she told commissioners. “I’m concerned about the way they use Wilson Branch [Road]. I just don’t think it’s right for us owners to tolerate this.”
Commissioner Jerry Wallin suggested that the neighbors wouldn’t mind the resort if people connected with it didn’t use Wilson Branch Road. Several of the neighbors nodded their heads in agreement.
Leake repeated that closing the access to Wilson Branch Road from the Ark Foundation’s property would be the only way to ensure that any agreement made now will be honored in the future.
“We would agree to close that existing gate off Wilson Branch Road,” Choquet said at last.
But Yeager asked about medical emergencies.
“If you put one little loophole in it, that has a way of getting stretched and stretched,” warned Leake.
The county attorney noted that the Board of Adjustment can set conditions (such as closing down the back entrance) for its approval of the project. The county also could require other conditions, such as forbidding the use of automatic weapons on the property, added Leake. (Kenneth Porche Jr. had said at a previous Planning Board meeting that he’d heard the sound of automatic weapons coming from the property.)
Secrecy and uncertainty
Questions about the property’s owners came up repeatedly during the public hearing.
Kenneth Porche Sr. told Yeager, “I’d sure like to ask you who your bosses are, but I’ll leave that up to the board.”
Ann Ryder, whose property abuts the Ark Foundation’s land, noted that, although Choquet maintains that Esposito isn’t involved in the project, she has heard otherwise through friends who spoke to someone who planned to stay at The Laurels.
“He told them that Mr. Albert Esposito was, indeed, the head man for this development,” she said.
The county attorney openly acknowledged this issue as well.
“I think you can sense that a real or perceived problem with this project is secrecy and uncertainty,” Leake told the developers.