Editor’s note: This story has been updated. See very end of article
By Jesse Wood
Earlier this week, the Watauga County Board of Commissioners heard complaints about the Appalachian District Health Department (ADHD) and the handling of a septic system dispute at the home of Coy Miller, a 77-year-old cattle farmer along Aho Road.
In March, several blocks in Miller’s 55-year-old septic system, which is laid out in block, began to fall. Miller applied for a permit to repair the block. While the structure was falling, the sewer lines and the sewer system were working “perfect,” Miller told the commissioners on Tuesday morning.
An ADHD inspector came over to the site and after perk holes were dug, it was found that the area where Miller’s septic system had been located for 55 years “don’t quite meet” the standards set forth by the state.
The inspector also suggested that Miller relocate his septic system on a different part of his property. But Miller said that the suggested area was a “good lot for weaning cattle” and he wanted to the system to stay where it had been for the previous decades.
Miller said that he was told by this inspector that, “We’ve changed standards 20 years and ago and upgraded them. This doesn’t quite meet standards, but my boss Andrew can approve it.”
Andrew Blethen is the Environmental Health Supervisor with the ADHD.
Miller stated that Blethen didn’t come out to his property in about 2 ½ months “to see if we could working something out.” So he took matters into his own hands. He repaired his own system without acquiring the required permit.
A warrant was then issued for Miller’s arrest.
“You all didn’t have Eustace Conway arrested,” Miller’s attorney Nathan Miller told the commissioners, referring to the 2013 dispute between the Watauga County Planning and Inspections and Conway.
Attorney Nathan Miller is representing Coy Miller in this matter. Recently, Miller’s civil lawsuit against the state was dismissed “because the judge said that we have to exhaust all administrative remedies and then if we aren’t satisfied there, we can re-file our Superior Court lawsuit,” Nathan Miller said in an email. “…What is pending is our administrative appeal.”
Miller said that one of these “administrative remedies” would be the court ordering the health department to issue a septic permit to his client.
“This is the course of action I desire. I guess the court could uphold their denial of the permit. But the permit was never officially denied, so that will be hard for the court to do,” Miller stated.
County Attorney Four Eggers noted that the county isn’t a party in the lawsuit and that once an administrative appeal is filed regarding public health regulations for septic matters, N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Attorney General’s Office handles any lawsuits.
One of the attorneys representing the state is laywer Edwin M. Woltz. When High Country Press reached out to ADHD Executive Director Beth Lovette for its side of the story, Woltz responded.
Local health departments enforce the public health laws of the state. Woltz noted that ADHD doesn’t make laws or set rules under the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
Here is some of ADHD’s statement:
“Mr. Coy Miller installed a new septic system in an area that was not suitable and without approved of environmental health officials. The Health Department provided environmental health specialists to locate a site on Mr. Miller’s property that was suitable for a new septic system, but he declined to re-locate it to the approved site.
“After lengthy delay, and on the advice of counsel, we provided our evidence to a Magistrate who issued a warrant against Mr. Miller for violating North Carolina’s public health laws. The warrant was later dismissed due to a drafting error. We intend to press on unless Mr. Miller brings his system into compliance. We have no intent to send Mr. Miller to jail, but only to compel him to comply with the state’s public health laws.”
The lawsuit aside, Coy Miller stood before the commissioners and blasted Blethen as “arrogant and overbearing.” He told Lovette, who was in attendance, “You seem like a nice person, but if you don’t get control of Andrew, he’s going to ruin you.”
Miller went on about when nearly a dozen people, including staff from ADHD and a lawyer with the state, came to Miller’s property and took pictures of his unpermitted and repaired system, Blethen, according to Miller, said, “For all I know you’ve been running it into the creek for the last 55 years.”
“A man shouldn’t be treated the way I have been treated,” Coy Miller said.
ADHD’s statement didn’t mention the claims by Miller regarding Blethen’s alleged behavior, and Blethen didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday afternoon.
Asked about this, Lovette responded, “Because Mr. Coy Miller, represented by Mr. Nathan Miller, has litigation pending with the Health Department, I have asked our staff not to comment about this situation. And I am unwilling to comment about personnel matters and believe most supervisors, whether in the public or private sector, would agree with my position.”
Attorney Nathan Miller told the commissioners that it has the ability to “reign” in the health department by the county breaking away from the Appalachian District Health Department, which is a three-county agency with Ashe and Alleghany County.
In a memo for this agenda item, County Manager Deron Geouque cautioned the commissioners when talking to Nathan Miller, who recently served a four-year term on the board and knows all the board members, about this situation because of the lawsuit.
(This also isn’t the first time Nathan Miller has railed against environmental health side of the local health department. When he was chair of the commissioners, Miller criticized the health department numerous times for its slow turnaround on septic permits.)
Commissioner Perry Yates said that this was not the first time that he’s heard complaints of “arrogance” from the environmental health side of ADHD. Yates is the commissioners representative on ADHD’s board of directors.
“As a member of the health board, I apologize to you. No matter if you are right or wrong, every citizen deserves to be treated with respect and decency,” Yates said.
The other vocal commissioners seemed to agree with Yates’ stance.
Commissioner Jimmy Hodges noted that the Miller family has lived on Aho Road and have been hardworking citizens and taxpayers for many years.
“I agree. You should not have been treated this way,” Hodges said. “We’ll see what happens.”
Reached for comment following the meeting, County Manager Deron Geouque said, “The Commissioners made it clear that customer service is paramount to them and that the citizens of the County should receive the highest quality of service possible.”
Update: After this story was written, Coy Miller’s attorney Nathan Miller sent this email to High Country Press:
“I just learned late this afternoon that the Health Department swore out another criminal summons for a class 1 misdemeanor against Coy Miller. They did this the day after our presentation to the Watauga County Commissioners.
“This is clear retribution against Mr. Miller for addressing the board of commissioners and letting the Health Department’s actions known publicly. It truly is a sad day in America when a citizen can’t address his local elected officials about a rogue government agency without fearing that same government agency is going to have him arrested. Law-abiding citizens of Watauga County should not be subjected to such harassment.
“Mr. Miller asks his local friends and neighbors to help him by attending the Appalachian District Health Department’s monthly meeting at 6:30 pm at Mountain Aire Seafood and Steaks in Ashe County and telling the Board of Health to stop prosecuting this man and let him and his family live out their lives in peace as he has for last 77 years.”