Ark Foundation wins rezoning

The mysterious Ark Foundation has won round two in its quest to open a resort and spa called The Laurels in Madison County.

Madison County commissioners voted unanimously last monthrezoningr Laurel community from residential to resort/residential, following a contentious public hearing that spanned two meetings. The commissioners’ action came after the county’s Planning Board had recommended rezoning the property.

The final round will take place Aug. 28, when the county’s Board of Adjustment considers whether to issue a conditional-use permit for The Laurels to open a resort.

The July 10 hearing revealed a few more nuggets of information about the project — although not enough to fully satisfy all of the commissioners.

Commissioner Reese Steen asked County Attorney Larry Leake whether commissioners could legally turn down the project because they don’t know who’s in charge of it.

“I’m in charge,” offered Henry Choquet, vice president for new construction and operations at The Laurels.

In answer to Steen’s questions, Choquet once again said that the Ark Foundation owns the property. Leake added that the board is powerless to force anyone to reveal who’s behind the Ark Foundation — nor can board members cite secrecy as a reason to deny a zoning change.

Steen also worried about what recourse local people might have if they were injured at the resort. Choquet replied that his organization is a member of a national resort association, which has strict requirements. (The group is a prospective member of the American Resort Development Association, explained the ARDA’s membership department representative Mel Grey, contacted after the meeting.)

Commissioner Jerry Wallin noted that the resort looks “excellent” and reiterated that he didn’t think the neighbors would mind the rezoning if The Laurels’ rear entrance (off Wilson Branch Road) were closed. Even Steen said the resort features “good-looking construction.”

While uneasiness over the project’s secrecy lingered, county officials said they doubted that a militia is settling in. Neighbors’ concern over militia involvement has dogged the project, partly because one neighbor said he’d heard automatic gunfire coming from the property. A reception center has been built, and several log homes are under construction.

Another element of the militia concern stemmed from neighbors’ worries over the involvement of Albert Esposito, a Monroe, N.C., man who once led a group called Citizens for the Reinstatement of Constitutional Government. Although press reports in the mid-’90s labeled it a citizens militia, Esposito has emphatically denied ever being a militia leader.

And both Leake and Steen said they didn’t see how a militia jibed what they knew about the proposed resort.

Choquest has downplayed any connection Esposito might have with The Laurels — calling Esposito a “friend of a friend” at a May Planning Board meeting. But county Building Inspector Ronnie Ledford revealed at the hearing that Esposito is listed as the general contractor for the Ark Foundation, and that Choquet is “pulling.” or getting, building permits under Esposito’s license. (After the meeting, Ledford added that such an arrangement is not unusual in the construction industry.) That news appeared to surprise Leake, who had questioned Choquet about Esposito’s involvement at an earlier Planning Board meeting.

The issue of whether The Laurels has been selling time-shares before it has the proper zoning and permit was raised again. Leake cautioned that resort construction and sales shouldn’t take place until The Laurels has both the zoning and a proper conditional-use permit.

Ann Ryder, whose property abuts the Ark Foundation’s land, took the opportunity to chastise Choquet for using what she called “bully tactics” — maintaining that he had stopped by another neighbor’s house and had blamed the nieghbors for making him lay off workers. Choquet’s neck flushed red, but he did not respond.

A couple of other members of the public spoke as well — one to advocate making the Ark Foundation follow the same rules as anyone else in the county, and another (who works for The Laurels) to urge the board to focus on the rezoning issue.

In the end, the board voted 3-0 to rezone the property. The issue now goes before the Madison County Board of Adjustment, which will meet at 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 28, at the Madison County Courthouse in Marshall.

Commissioner Wallin may attend that meeting. He has expressed interest in lobbying the Board of Adjustment (as a private citizen) to set certain conditions on the project before approving a permit. That would suit at least one neighbor just fine.

“I think it had the proper outcome. I really do,” said resort neighbor Kenneth Porche Sr. after the meeting, adding, “I will be disappointed if [the commissioners] don’t come to the other meeting.”

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