From the Ground Up

by

Published: August 26,2002

Editor’s note: This column first ran in the August 20-26, 2001, edition of the Mississippi Business Journal.

Have you ever had a neighbor annoy you? A loud party perhaps? A blocked driveway? Use of your land for access?

Most property owners have been offended to one degree or another by their neighbors. Most people would also agree that they do not prefer restriction of the use of their property by the government. The balance between an owner’s right to use and protection from annoyance by other property owners is delicate and perilous.

Just two weeks ago the Jackson City Council discussed the possibility of an ordinance forbidding residents from parking cars in their front yards for extended periods of time. In Malibu, Calif., a lawsuit was filed not long ago by a property owner who claimed that a neighbor had built a structure that blocked his view of the ocean. Recently, The New York Times reported on upstate residents’ complaints about odor from a hog farm. No doubt, such cases will increase across the United States. It’s all about property rights, and it is a controversial issue.

Having said all that, I would like to tell you about a case in Haywood County, N.C. It is a case about property rights and silt. It is also about turning something ugly into something beautiful.

Lake Junaluska is a familiar place to many Mississippi Methodists, hundreds of whom have attended retreats or vacationed there. It is a conference center located in the western North Carolina mountains and is owned by the Southeastern Jurisdictional Administrative Council. The setting is idyllic, featuring the 200 acres of lake surrounded by awe-inspiring mountains. The lake is fed by Richland Creek and its tributaries.

Western North Carolina property development is on the upswing as increasing numbers of people move into the area.

Therein lies the problem. The development is causing an increase in the sedimentation that flows into the lake. By last year, the problem had gotten so bad that a resident group feared that a portion of the lake could soon become a marsh unless a significant amount of the sediment was not removed. Making matters worse, it was estimated that hundreds of thousands of dollars would be needed annually to dredge the lake if the extra sedimentation flow was not halted.

This is a general problem in mountainous areas and not new to Haywood County. It even has a County Erosion and Sedimentation Office and a law on the books regarding sedimentation. Essentially, the ordinance requires property owners to keep soil within their property’s boundaries. Violators can be fined.

Something had to be done and money was needed just to begin dredging out the existing sedimentation. Indeed, if the dirt did not come out soon a portion of the bottom of the lake could rise enough to support vegetation and then be declared a wetland, which would bring about federal regulations.

This past winter a massive silt removal process halted the immediate danger, but there was still 140,000 cubic yards of excess silt that needed to be removed, according to Jimmy Carr, executive director of the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church. According to an article in the Enterprise Mountaineer, the local newspaper, the idea of using the silt to make pottery was put forth. Carr went to Phillip Johnston, a local potter who helps operate Mud Dabbers Pottery and Crafts in Waynesville, N.C., and inquired as to whether lake silt could be made into pottery.

Johnston investigated, experimented and made a few trial runs. Further discussions took place. The result is a line of pottery that contains silt from Lake Junaluska, with much of the proceeds going to the sedimentation removal project.

But would it sell?

Joetta Rinehart, who handles public relations for the Assembly, told the story to a large conference one weekend this past spring. The entire summer supply of 1,100 necklaces and 550 Christmas tree ornaments sold out immediately, and orders were taken for 600 more. The 35 coffee mugs, which were priced at $16, “…went like wildfire and orders were taken for another 100. The 30 chalice and paten communion sets were gone in a flash at $50 a set, and orders were taken for another 30. The water pitchers, berry bowls and bud vases were also sold out, and orders were taken for another 50 to be shipped later on.”

The event netted $10,000 for lake maintenance. That’s only a drop in the lake — pun intended — but it really increased the awareness of the situation, according to Rinehart.

Each piece is hand made and unique. Phillip Johnston is working overtime and has even enlisted his family in helping with the project. He says that he wants to keep each piece hand made.

“Everybody in the family is helping,” said Johnston. “I mix the glaze, my mom strings the pieces up, my dad helps glaze.

My wife helps some and even my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter has helped put strings through the medallions.”

Last week my family and I spent our vacation at Lake Junaluska. I had heard about the pottery so I ventured to the administration office and inquired. When I asked about how the silt pottery project was going the response was, “The things are selling like wildfire.”

There are so many angles to this story, one scarcely knows where to begin. There is the property rights angle, the artists in the community angle, the making lemonade out of lemons angle, and the community coming together angle.

All I know is that on my desk I now have a Lake Junaluska silt coffee cup, and on my wife’s desk is a beautiful pot for flowers. They are good reminders of how something ugly can be turned into something beautiful.

Phil Hardwick’s column on Mississippi Business appears regularly in the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is phil@philhardwick.com.

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