#6. Camp Hope moves forward in 2013

Fate of property still up in the air
By DeeAnna Haney | Dec 30, 2013

A piece of the county's history was one of the most followed stories of the year as the Town of Canton battled to retain rights to Camp Hope, a sprawling piece of property open to the public since 1926.

For many who grew up in Canton, Camp Hope was a part of their daily lives. From fishing and camping trips to football and band camps, the property has always been open as a superior recreation destination in the county.

However, a lawsuit filed in 2011 threatened the town's ownership of the property. This year brought victories big and small when it came to the case as well as more questions when it comes to the future of the beloved property.

The battle for Camp Hope

Asheville couple George and Deborah Prelaz initiated the lawsuit to gain possession of the 101-acre land valued at about $1.2 million. After purchasing an adjacent piece of land, the couple received reverter rights to Camp Hope, meaning that if the land was being misused according to the original deed, the ownership could revert to them.

After several pretrial court dates and attempts to settle outside of court, the civil trial finally came before Superior Court Judge David Lee in May.

The Prelazs' chief complaint was that the town operated a summer camp primarily for the benefit of residents outside of Haywood County when they leased the property to Wellspring Adventure Camp, LLC, a summer weight loss camp. The plaintiffs also claimed the property had not always been open to the public, although the deed stated it should be.

Town attorneys brought forth several witnesses including former Mayor Pat Smathers who testified the property had always been open to the public, even while Wellspring was operating the camp. After two weeks of trial, the jury ruled in favor of the town.

No end in sight

Winning the trial was a victory for the town, however the celebration was short lived. The Prelaz's filed for a retrial following the court's ruling, but the same judge denied the motion in July. The couple then seized the opportunity to appeal the case by the deadline Aug. 2. It will take several months before the case reaches the Court of Appeals, where a three-judge panel will review the facts of the case and check for any errors that may have been made in trial.

Town Manager Al Matthews said as of last week, lawyers on both sides were still in the process of submitting documents and evidence to the appeals court but the date of when the case will be heard is still unknown.

The town has spent upwards of $130,000 in legal fees since the lawsuit began and will be spending more on paperwork as the case continues to move through the court system.

Making changes

In this case, the risk of losing the historic property forced the town and even the entire county to realize the true potential of Camp Hope. If any good has come out of the lawsuit, it's the renewed vigor from the town and the community to make sure the property is better marketed and taken care of.

After the trial was complete, one juror who has lived in Waynesville for several years said he had never even heard of Camp Hope. However, since May there have been many steps to make sure everyone in the county — and even people outside it — will know that the property is available.

Though the fate of the property remains in limbo, it hasn't been forgotten. Following the trial, a group of people came together to form the Friends of Camp Hope, many of them neighbors who wish to see the community take more interest in the property and to see to it that the rules set forth in the deed are adhered to.

A tour of the property shows exactly how much the town stood to lose at trial. Of the 101 acres that make up Camp Hope, 10 acres are covered with cabins, a dining hall, open air pavilion, picnic areas and a basketball and tennis court. The rest is river front property and heavily forested areas.

The volunteers have put in hundreds of hours of work on the property doing everything from scrubbing down the cabins to hauling out trash to pruning the trails. They were also responsible for organizing the first fundraiser to support the property. The Shining Rock Riverfest, a music festival held in September, brought nearly 100 people to the property to watch seven bands perform and to support Camp Hope.

The group has plenty of goals including purchasing new nets at the tennis courts, building indoor bathrooms and re-roofing the pavilion.

The town has also put in hours at Camp Hope using town crews to make plumbing and other structural improvements on the buildings.

After sifting through about eight applications, the town board also appointed 24-year-old Edward Rogers to the caretaker's position at the property starting in September. Rogers now lives at the caretaker's cottage on the property for free in exchange for maintaining the land and buildings.

The Friends of Camp Hope recently informed the board that a youth group from Knoxville has expressed interest in bringing 100 children to spend five weeks at Camp Hope for an annual service project camp in June. They are willing to pay full rent to house the children in the cabins at the property during that time.

During their stay, the campers would be split up into teams and perform service projects needed across the county as well as working on needed projects at Camp Hope. The group would also hold a youth day camp open to youth in Haywood County and beyond.

"This would of course meet one of the requirements of the deed restrictions because it would not just be for their campers, but will also be open to local youth," Al Matthews said.

Since the trial, the town has booked at least a dozen events at Camp Hope including two weddings, several family reunions and company picnics, and those are just the events with more than 10 people. Anyone is welcome on the property at any time without a reservation or fee for groups of fewer than 10, and there have been plenty of people who have come to swim, fish, play ball, picnic and walk at the grounds, he said.

Even after all the time and money spent, there's a chance the town could lose the property in the long run. But by quitting the fight, the town would be sure to lose it.

Though a whole new board of aldermen has taken the helm in Canton, they all have expressed the desire to see the court case through as long as the town can afford it. As the case moves forward, the legal fees for which town taxpayers are footing the bill will likely begin to take more of a toll.

In conjunction with efforts from the Friends of Camp Hope, the town continues to accept monetary donations which may be marked "Camp Hope" and sent to the Town of Canton, 58 Park St., Canton, NC 28716. Those interested in volunteering at Camp Hope may email friendsofcamphope@gmail.com. Events may be booked by calling the Town Hall at 828-648-2363.