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Turtle Island founder Eustace Conway, squatting, and his supporters rally outside the Watauga County Health Department on Tuesday in protest of regulatory actions that closed his nonprofit environmental education camp in 2012. Photo by Anna Oakes

Originally published: 2013-04-23 18:25:13
Last modified: 2013-04-24 10:30:46

Demonstrators support Conway

by Anna Oakes

Appalachian State University students on Tuesday hosted a stand-in and march to show support of Eustace Conway's Turtle Island Preserve and its ongoing efforts to overcome health and building code violations.

The preserve, located in eastern Watauga County, was ordered to close in fall 2012 after county officials issued health code violations and advised Conway of building code violations at the site. It has hosted educational camps and workshops for the public since the 1980s.

The stand-in took place at ASU's Sanford Mall, and supporters marched to the Appalachian District Health Department and to the Watauga County Planning & Inspections Department on Tuesday afternoon.

The ASU chapter of Young Americans for Liberty organized the event. Andy Bratton, president, said his organization is a nonpartisan political group that promotes freedom and liberty.

"This is a blatant property rights issue," said Bratton.

Turtle Island is private property and everyone there is there voluntarily, he said.

Speaking to demonstrators in front of the health department, Conway said he has been so distraught by what he feels is a violation of his rights that he recently had a nightmare that he was in jail for breathing.

"I think it's really important to look at basic human rights," Conway said. "Natural law is bigger than state or federal or county law."

The health department issued several notices of violation of state health regulations outlined in the N.C. Administrative Code and on Oct. 17 ordered the preserve to cease and desist any food, lodging or primitive camp activities offered to the public.

The violations relate to outhouse facilities and compliance with state regulations for primitive camps, for which Turtle Island applies from the health department annually.

Health department Director Beth Lovette said she met with Conway and another representative on March 28.

"We established open communication between the health department and Turtle Island Preserve," Lovette said. "We developed different options to allow primitive camp activities to resume this upcoming season, in compliance. We're kind of waiting to hear back from Turtle Island and what direction they're going to take."

According to its website, Turtle Island summer camps for adults and children are scheduled to begin June 14.

Lovette said it's up to Turtle Island to submit applications to bring all of their outhouse facilities into compliance.

"I know I understand more about the goals that Turtle Island would like to achieve," she said. She said some goals would likely require some rule changes, which would take some time, but that she is willing to reconvene a multi-disciplinary committee to help move those forward.

Conway said he appreciates Lovette's interest and sincerity in trying to help. He is hopeful that common sense and human rights will prevail, he said.

In March, the N.C. Building Code Council accepted a petition from staff to provide flexibility in the building code for primitive structures and camping cabins, such as those at Turtle Island Preserve.

As drafted, the state building code amendment would create provisions for primitive structures and roof-only structures, such as pavilions that exempt them from building code requirements, except for code sections on structural stability, clearance from combustibles, recreational fires and egress from sleeping rooms.

The council is expected to consider the amendment in June.

House Bill 774, co-sponsored by Rep. Jonathan Jordan of Jefferson, would direct the council to adopt rules exempting certain primitive structures from certain provisions of the building code.

If approved, the bill could provide flexibility for Turtle Island in the interim while the state building code is being amended, said Joe Furman, director of Watauga County Planning & Inspections.

"Beyond that there is no leeway for us to waive the building code or to exempt somebody or something from the building code," he said. "As it stands right now, we are withholding any sort of action pending what happens with (the state building code)."