Lawyer: Camp Hope lawsuit is a "land grab"
The long-awaited trial involving Canton’s historic Camp Hope property began this week with opening arguments and the first of many witness testimonies.
By the end of what’s expected to be at least another week’s worth of trial, a jury will determine whether Camp Hope remains in the town’s possession or falls under private ownership.
Asheville couple John and Deborah Prelaz brought the lawsuit in an attempt to obtain the property after receiving reverter rights when they purchased an adjacent tract of land in 2006.
Despite the passion that surrounds the controversy the lawsuit has created, the focus of the trial so far is the complex and dry content of property deeds, titles and leases.
About a dozen Camp Hope supporters fill the audience each day, some of whom will be testifying on behalf of the town about past and continued use of the property.
During opening statements from counsel, Mark Kurdys, lawyer for the plaintiff, laid out the basis of his argument against the town.
The Prelazs contend the town has not used the property as dictated by the original deed for the land, which stated “the town will not operate on the property a summer camp primarily for the benefit of residents of other areas and states.”
The lawsuit claims that when the town leased the primary facilities at Camp Hope to Wellspring Adventure Camp, they violated that part of the deed.
He pointed out that of the 978 Wellspring campers from 2005 to 2011, only 21 were from Haywood and surrounding counties. The rest came from other states and countries.
“As many campers came from Mexico as came from Canton,” Kurdys said. “98 percent of the campers who got those benefits were residents of other areas and other states."
And of the 272 employees of the camp, 51 were from western North Carolina.
Another claim is that the town has not made the property open and available to the public by leasing part of it to Wellspring, which is another rule in the deed.
He also said because the Prelazs obtained reverter rights, they are the rightful owners of the Camp Hope property.
“This lawsuit is essentially to get the town of Canton off the Prelazs property,” he said.
But Burt Smith, lawyer for the town of Canton fired back during his opening statements.
“What this case is about is pretty simple,” he said. “It’s a land grab.”
He said town leaders have made efforts to preserve the property and make it available for public use, just as it always has been, even while Wellspring was in operation.
“The town has remained the steward of this property. It doesn’t make a profit for the town. It’s there for the people,” he said.
The public has continually been welcome to hike, fish, camp, walk and use any facility on the property
In addition, Wellspring made significant capital improvements to the cabins.
“Without the contribution of Wellspring making these improvements, any town would probably be hard pressed to keep up a facility like this…” he said.
On the stand
John Prelaz took the stand as the first witness Tuesday afternoon, explaining that he purchased the land adjacent to Camp Hope, about 48 acres, for $7,000 per acre, in 2004. But he immediately ran into a problem.
“It was a significant issue because it was landlocked and there was no access to the property,” John Prelaz said.
The town refused the Prelaz’s request to use Camp Hope for access to their property and instead offered a different route, which John Prelaz described as “very steep and pretty undesirable as far as getting access to the property.”
When the Prelazs offered to purchase Camp Hope for $7,000 per acre, they were denied by former Canton Town Manager Bill Stamey.
“I thought it would have been a generous offer and something that would have been beneficial to the town,” John Prelaz said, adding that it was shortly after the town had experienced a financial blow from the floods of 2004.
Soon after, the town signed a lease with Wellspring Adventure Camp, a weight loss program for youth, to use the main facilities of Camp Hope during the summer months.
The current lawsuit was filed against the town in 2011.
In March 2012, John Prelaz took several pictures of “No Trespassing” signs that he believed were on Camp Hope property at the time. He also recalled one instance when he was asked to leave the property by a Wellspring staff member.
That, Kurdys said, shows the town restricted public use of the property.
John Prelaz also took several recent photos of the property, depicting open windows at the cabins, downed trees and trash.
He said one of the buildings was in “deplorable” condition and the roof of another had “not been property maintained.”
Kurdys called former Canton Mayor Pat Smathers to the stand as the second witness for the plaintiff. He probed Smathers, saying the lease with Wellspring gave campers “primary” use of the facilities during summer months, therefore restricting public use.
“They had primary control of that limited area, not exclusive control. We could still use it with Wellspring there. We could use all the remainder of the property,” Smathers said.
He recalled a number of events that took place at Camp Hope while campers were there such as high school football camps, picnics, weddings reunions and more.
Kurdys also said that the town did not make efforts to keep the property open as it had been traditionally used. But Smathers said Wellspring was part of their efforts to do just that.
“If you can take a facility and not have to spend taxpayer money and improve it with at least a half million dollars and bring people into the area to use it and let local people continue to use it, then I think that’s the best efforts,” he said.
In response to questions regarding the "No Trespassing" signs, Smathers said the town never posted any sign restricting use and he believes those particular signs were posted outside Camp Hope property.
Court is scheduled to reconvene Monday at 9:30 a.m. with continued witness testimony from the plaintiff.