Town victorious in Camp Hope case

By DeeAnna Haney | May 16, 2013
Canton Mayor Mike Ray thanks Canton resident Jan Oneil, who sat through the duration of the trial in support of the town.

Hugs of relief and joy filled the courtroom Thursday afternoon when a Haywood County jury revealed that Canton’s historic Camp Hope will remain property of the town.

The civil battle between the town and Asheville couple John and Deborah Prelaz, who own property adjacent to Camp Hope, began in 2011. When purchasing their property from Champion International in 2006, the couple had obtained reverter rights to Camp Hope. In the event the property was not used properly, the Camp Hope land would revert to the Prelazs.

In the lawsuit, the couple claimed that the town violated the deed by leasing a portion of the land to Wellspring Adventure Camp, a summer weight loss camp. According to the deed, the town was not to operate a camp that primarily benefitted people from out of town.

The plaintiff contended that 98 percent of Wellspring campers were from other states and other areas, therefore suggesting the deed violation. But the town argued that they did not control the Wellspring program and that the property remained open for public use.

The jury was asked to find a verdict for two issues: whether the town of Canton violated the section of the deed that said, “the town will not operate on the property a summer camp primarily for the benefit of people from other areas or states other than Canton, Haywood County and adjoining counties,” and if so, what date did that summer camp begin to operate on Camp Hope property?

On the final day of witness testimony from the defense, after a week and a half of trial, there were some tense moments of contention. Jurors vocally expressed their exasperation with moans and groans as they left the jury box at least four times one morning so that counsel could speak outside the jury’s presence.

During closing arguments, Mark Kurdys, lawyer for the plaintiff, said the defense had attempted to “bait” the Prelaz’s by pointing out they live in a gated community and have oil rights on property in Pennsylvania.

“It’s painting a brush trying to paint Mr. and Mrs. Prelaz as villains,” he said.

He used a pie chart to illustrate that out of 978 campers from 2005 to 2011, only nine came from Haywood County on a scholarship that was required by the lease.

And when it came to Wellspring’s revenue, $56,400 went to the town for rent, $180,000 went to scholarship recipients and $7.2 million went to Wellspring.

“If that was my rhubarb pie, I would want to get the Wellspring piece,” Kurdys said, suggesting that most of the camp’s revenue benefitted other areas than Canton.

Kurdys ended by saying that the town was simply seeking loopholes and that “there is no such thing as monsters,” although the town was trying to portray his clients as such.

In response, town attorney Burton Smith said, “There are some monstrous things in this world and that is people who think things are all about money.”

He suggested that the Prelazs were attempting to obtain Camp Hope for its monetary value. But he said it means much more to the town.

“Camp Hope is not about the money. It’s about something that is priceless. It’s about history, it’s about the community and it’s about the public,” he said.

Although the town leased the land to Wellspring, he said the town had no hand in running the camp, and therefore did not violate the deed.

He also reminded the jury of several witnesses who testified to using Camp Hope hundreds of times over the years for everything from basketball games to church picnics to weddings.

“It should not become a personal recreational area. It is a public recreational area,” he said.

After nearly three hours of deliberation, the jury returned the verdict in favor of the town. The judge directed the panel the decision had to be unanimous.

“I am ecstatic that common sense prevailed in Haywood County today,” said Town Alderman Jimmy Flynn, who had sat in on most of the trial.

Moving forward, Flynn said the town board will be more aggressive about bringing events and programs to the property. He said they have already discussed funding options for the upcoming budget to set aside for that purpose.

Canton Mayor Mike Ray declined to comment, but was beaming with joy as he hugged and thanked others who sat through the duration of the trial.

Burton Smith said he believed the town received a fair trial and that he appreciated the jury’s service and careful consideration of the evidence.

Although the trial is over, the Prelazs still have 30 days to appeal the case. Kurdys said they have not had time to decide whether that will happen.

The couple will continue to use their property for recreational use, said Kurdys. But they also retain reverter rights to Camp Hope, meaning another lawsuit could occur if the town fails to use the property according to the deed.

“We’re obviously disappointed in the verdict…” Kurdys said adding that he believed it was a fair trial, although he was interested in talking with the jury to find out what led them to their decision.

Jury foreman Barry Dossenko said when it came to deliberation, the group considered the fact that although the majority of Wellspring campers were from other areas, the program did not exclude local youth.

“It wasn’t the town’s fault that the majority of people showed up from different places,” he said, adding that Wellspring openly advertised scholarships for locals.

“If they hadn’t done that, the result may have been different,” Dossenko said.

An 18-year resident of Plott Creek, he pointed out that he had never even heard of Camp Hope.

“Hopefully they will be more proactive about the public’s use of the camp including getting other programs at the camp,” he said.