Pigeon River board is left with a lone Haywood representative
A shake-up on the Pigeon River Fund governing board leaves only one Haywood County resident with the background and history to make strategic decisions on water quality projects in the Pigeon and French Broad river basins.
The other four Haywood County members, along with two others were unceremoniously booted from the board.
Established in 1996, the board distributes about $400,000 annually to projects that will improve surface water quality, enhance fish and wildlife management habitats and increase public waterways access.
The funds are contributed annually under a license agreement the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued to Carolina Power and Light, which has since merged with Duke Energy, to divert water from the Pigeon River to operate a power plant on the river. The license requires the company to contribute to a fund to improve water quality and states the majority of the funds are to be distributed in Haywood’s Pigeon River basin.
The new appointments made by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources Director John Skvarla went into effect before the terms of existing members expired. Tim Richards, the long-time staff member who oversees the Pigeon River Fund activities for the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, was left with the task of notifying the majority of the board he has worked with closely — some for years — they had been ousted.
A DENR spokesperson said he was unable to learn whether any efforts had been made to recruit other board members from Haywood County.
Haywood had five local residents who were familiar with the county, its history and the projects funded through the years — Lee Galloway, former Waynesville town manager; Peggy Melville, former banker, community volunteer; Bill Teague, former superintendent of the Mountain Research Station, Carrie Keller, who has property in both Haywood and Buncombe counties and Kathy Ross, who farms with her husband in the Crabtree community.
Two other board members were also replaced, leaving only the DENR agency representative, Ross and the power company representative with any experience on the board.
Ross, the only Republican in the group, kept her seat, but the others who were either registered Democrats or listed as unaffiliated with any political party, were replaced by Republicans, and none of the appointees list Haywood as their place of residence. Ross declined to comment on the shake-up at this time.
Whether it was the suddenness with which new board members were appointed or their distance from Haywood, none of the new members participated in the Haywood site visits this month where projects requesting funding were to be reviewed.
A decision will be made next week, and Ross, along with Craig DeBrew, who represents Duke and is a former Haywood resident, and DENR representative Judy Francis, were the only board members who participated in the Haywood site visits and will be able to report on what they saw.
“In January, we were notified the secretary would appoint a new board,” Richards said. “Unfortunately, that did not happen until the end of April and site visits had been scheduled. Eight of nine members have participated in site visits.”
Teague, a long-time basketball player, said it was the first time in his life he ever got cut from a team.
“Both my grandparents and my farm border the Pigeon River, so you think that would have qualified you to serve on the board,” he said. “This was something I was interested in, and I don’t understand how being with one party or another would make a difference on that board.”
Galloway said the board was “anything but political.”
“My term would have expired in August, so I would have had to been replaced,” Galloway said, “and certainly the secretary of the department has the prerogative to put the people on the board he wants, but you wonder why an entire new board was appointed.”
As a former board chairman, Galloway explained much of the time spent by the nine-member board, was understanding how projects would meet the guidelines, whether certain projects would provide new knowledge that could be used in other parts of the region and what type of long-term benefits a project could expect to produce.
“There were a lot of times when it was beneficial to have past knowledge about projects,” he said, “but the captain of the ship can pick his own team, and that’s what he’s done."
Through the years, Pigeon River Fund grants awarded locally have helped support Haywood Waterways Association, the Haywood Soil and Water Conservation District projects such as Kids in the Creek of the Envirothon programs and towns or agencies interested in expanding river access, to name a few.