By Nathan Ham
The ongoing dispute between Valle Crucis community members and the Watauga County Board of Education took another turn with a recent lawsuit filed by the Mast Farm Inn and its owners against the board of education to place an injunction on the property purchase for a new school.
The lawsuit was filed on October 10 in Watauga County Superior Court and lists the plaintiffs as The Mast Farm Inn and owners Henri Deschamps, Marie-Henriette Deschamps and Danielle Deschamps as well as Deschamps Holdings, LLC and Deschamps Enterprises, LLC. Defendants in the cast are the Watauga County Board of Education, board chairman Ron Henries, vice-chair Brenda Reese, and board members Dr. Gary Childers, Steve Combs and Dr. Jay Fenwick. The plaintiffs in the case are represented by Four Eggers of Eggers, Eggers, Eggers and Eggers of Boone and Robert Hunter of Higgins Benjamin Law Firm in Greensboro. The defendants are represented by John Henning of Campbell Shatley PLLC of Asheville.
“I regret that the owners of the Mast Farm Inn have decided to take this action. I believe the lawsuit lacks any merit and the Board of Education is prepared to aggressively defend themselves against these allegations. Mr. Deschamps has had ample opportunities to give input into this decision and to provide public comment to the board of education and the board of commissioners,” said Dr. Scott Elliott, the superintendent of Watauga County Schools.
According to Watauga County Superior Court documents, The Mast Farm Inn claims that the school board has “conducted meetings concerning the property acquisition in secret and has taken steps to silence citizens’ efforts to speak about the property acquisition at public comment periods in violation of Article I, Section 14 of the North Carolina Constitution.” The complaint continues that the board’s public comment policies are “arbitrary and capricious because they restrict citizens’ freedom of speech in violation o the North Carolina and the United States Constitutions,” and that any decisions made by the board should be declared null and void.
Dr. Elliott quickly pointed out that Deschamps “spoke publicly in opposition to the location of a school beside his property during the county commission’s public hearing on May 21.”
“He was invited to give public comment to the board of education on August 12 and said he would do so. He did not attend that meeting,” Elliott added. “He attended the joint meeting of the board of education and board of commissioners on September 3 but chose not to speak. He has not attended a regular board of education meeting, including the work session held this week at the school. I have met personally with him twice. One meeting included his daughter and his attorney, and the second meeting included his wife. All three members of the Deschamps family are plaintiffs in the case.”
The work session that Dr. Elliott referred to took place on Tuesday evening at Valle Crucis Elementary School. The school board heard presentations from their attorney and architect regarding the due diligence evaluation of property currently under contract by the board for the construction of a new school in Valle Crucis. The public was invited to attend and encouraged to participate in the public comment portion of the meeting according to a press release sent out by Garrett Price, the Director of Communications for Watauga County Schools.
Elliott said the board policy that the lawsuit refers to is #1410 that “prohibits the public from speaking in public comment about matters related to the purchase of property.”
“The policy did, in fact, say that ‘closed session’ topics such as the acquisition of property were not appropriate for public comment, however it has never been enforced that the current board and staff can recall,” said Dr. Elliott. “In fact, the board has now held two open meetings specifically for the purpose of sharing information and hearing public comment regarding the purchase of this property and has allowed public comments during their regular meetings. The board corrected the policy during their October 14 meeting to reflect their practice of allowing the public to speak in open meetings about the purchase of property. Mr. Deschamps was invited to provide public comment on this matter prior to the lawsuit and declined to do so.”
A motion was filed on October 11 in district court at the Madison County Courthouse in Marshall to delay the closing of any property purchase until the pre-trial hearing, which will be coming up on October 29 at 9 a.m. in Watauga County Superior Court.
The Deschamps have owned The Mast Farm Inn since 2006 and purchased it at the price of $2.7 million. Court documents show that they have also added approximately $1.2 million in improvements to the inn that has been in operation since 1910.
“Valle Crucis is in the heart of the High Country, and in the zeal to replace the old Valle Crucis School the Board of Education is on the verge of damaging the essential character of the Nation’s first rural Historic District. Placing such a large and institutional building at the gateway of this rural community destroys the nature of this historic farming community, and that is one of the numerous reasons why the Valle Crucis Historic Preservation Commission voted unanimously against amending the Valle Crucis ordinance to allow it,” the Mast Farm Inn released in a statement. “Despite repeated pleas to the school system to pursue other locations, they have chosen to press forward with this one plan. This plan, and the unsupported price for the flood plain property it will sit on, is a costly error for the taxpayers that will not solve the schools flooding problems. Additionally, this plan will cause the Mast Farm Inn and all of Valle Crucis irreparable harm. The Mast Farm Inn respects the work of the Watauga County Board of Education. The Mast Farm Inn is staunchly in favor of rebuilding or building a new school. And it is with great reluctance that they have had to appeal to the courts to help protect themselves, and Valle Crucis, and to urge Watauga County Officials to refrain from making this monumental mistake.”
Another issue that was included in the court documents regarding the lawsuit was the appraisal price for the property. Court documents state that the appraisal performed by Michael B. Sweeting of Sweeting Appraisal in Blowing Rock is “deficient, contains errors and is insufficient to support the conclusion of value reached and contained in the Agreement to Purchase.” According to the complaint, the appraisal does not address other issues, including the affect of the value of the property being “89 percent flood encumbered” and the appraisal lacking “sufficient information and analysis to justify the intended use of the site for the new school.”
Elliott said that the school board used a “highly regarded and experienced appraiser from Watauga County” and added that the appraisal was also reviewed by an independent appraiser from outside of the community.
When asked if the current lawsuit will force the county to consider other property locations for a new Valle Crucis School, Elliott said that would not be the case.
“The board of education will remain focused on making the best decision possible about the construction of a new school based on careful investigations and facts. The lawsuit will not impact their decision one way or another,” Elliott added.
The next board of education meeting will be November 4 at 6 p.m. at the board of education office located at 175 Pioneer Trail in Boone.