Resort controversy

Neighbors of the mysterious Ark Foundation in Madison County have won a small victory.

At their request — and at the urging of a county commissioner — the Madison County Board of Adjustment voted unanimously to permanently close the Ark Foundation’s access to Wilson Branch Road. The board made the closing a condition for granting a conditional-use permit, which the Ark Foundation needs to operate a resort and spa called The Laurels.

The foundation wanted to keep its access, but neighbors implored the board to close the resort’s back gate, complaining that resort traffic has overburdened the narrow state road (which actually resembles a gravel trail).

The board’s Aug. 28 action marks the final hurdle the Ark Foundation needed to overcome to operate its resort. The project has been dogged by controversy, due in part to the secrecy surrounding the foundation’s owners. Although officials at previous county meetings held to discuss rezoning the property have questioned Ark Foundation representative Henry Choquet about the owners, he has refused to reveal their identities.

However, neighbor Ann Ryder told the Board of Adjustment that the “head man” is Monroe, N.C., resident Albert Esposito. (At the July 10 county commissioners’ meeting, Building Inspector Ronnie Ledford revealed that Esposito is listed as general contractor for the Ark Foundation.)

Ryder also told the Board of Adjustment that she had learned that Ark Foundation employees were required to join an investment club called Secure Future.

She handed board members photocopies of a Christmas 1999 Secure Future newsletter, which mentions the progress being made on the resort. The newsletter also provides an update on Rahab Trust & Management Company’s new building in Monroe (where Esposito has an office). Another item in Secure Future’s newsletter reports that several representatives from the club’s home offices in Grenada had attended a recent Secure Future seminar — including both the chief executive officer of Rahab Trust & Management Co. and the general manager of the Caribbean Merchant Bank.

Ryder also informed the board that, when an acquaintance of hers called to get more literature on Secure Future, that person learned that Secure Future is now under the auspices of a corporation called Red Hen. Red Hen’s Web site (www.redhen.net), which requires a password to officially enter, notes on its “terms and conditions” page that information contained on the site is subject to the laws of the Republic of Ireland.

“Do you smell anything yet?” Ryder asked the board.

When approached after the meeting, Choquet had no comment.

And board members seemed more interested in the road issue than in Ryder’s assertions.

Although Choquet had said at a June 29 meeting of the Madison County commissioners that the Ark Foundation would be willing to close its gate onto Wilson Branch Road, he backpedaled from that position at the Board of Adjustment meeting.

Instead, Choquet argued in favor of maintaining partial access to Wilson Branch Road, with resort and construction traffic using the main entrance on the other side of a ridge, off Puncheon Fork Road.

“We would like the right to retain the road for myself and limited people,” Choquet told the board. “We do not really wish to give it up. We wish to use it in a limited fashion.”

County Attorney Larry Leake told the Board of Adjustment that he had been asked by the county commissioners to convey their “strong request” that the board make eliminating the Wilson Branch Road access a condition for granting the conditional-use permit.

Madison County Commissioner Jerry Wallin later showed up to support the neighbors’ request in person. And Borad of Commissioners Chair Sandra Tolley watched the proceedings from the audience, although she didn’t speak.

Several neighbors voiced their concerns about resort traffic using Wilson Branch Road.

“It’s what you would think of normally as somebody’s driveway,” offered Al Riegal, adding that any amount of traffic on the road would be a nuisance.

Kenneth Porche Sr. even brought pictures of the road to show board members, who seemed surprised by its humble appearance.

His wife, Oma Porche, also made a pitch to shut down the Ark Foundation’s access, adding, “Give them an inch, and they will take a mile.”

After the neighbors spoke, Choquet said he could assure the board that the road would be closed to commercial traffic. But Leake emphasized that allowing some traffic wouldn’t be enforceable — and that simply locking the gate wouldn’t work, either. Choquet finally agreed that the Ark Foundation could permanently block off the gate.

“It appears the answer has been given to us,” announced Board of Adjustment member Terry Gunter.

In the end, the Ark Foundation got its permit, and the neighbors got the resort’s Wilson Branch Road access eliminated.

“We’re happy,” Ryder said.

Kenneth Porche and his family also were pleased.

“I think the board took the situation in hand, and I’m very pleased and proud of them,” Kenneth Porche said. “I am, I really am.”

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