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Eustace Conway, founder of Turtle Island Preserve in Triplett, speaks to members of the media
outside of an outhouse at the preserve. Anna Oakes | Watauga Democrat

Originally published: 2012-12-06 18:12:09
Last modified: 2012-12-12 18:18:02

NC Building Code Council to hear Conway

by Anna Oakes

Nearly 10,000 people have signed a petition asking the N.C. Building Code Council to exempt structures at Turtle Island Preserve from the state building code following the issuance of numerous violations there.

The preserve's founder, Eustace Conway, will address the state council on Monday, Dec. 10, in Raleigh. On Wednesday, Conway hosted a press conference for members of the regional media at the preserve.

"The public is interested in supporting what we're doing," Conway said.

Conway, who has earned international recognition for his primitive lifestyle with publicity from the History Channel, author Elizabeth Gilbert and many others, founded the 1,000-acre camp and environmental education center in eastern Watauga County in 1987. Turtle Island hosts summer camps for adults and children and also houses interns and volunteers.

As Watauga Democrat reported Nov. 20, Turtle Island Preserve was ordered to close this fall after county officials executed a search warrant on the property in September and compiled reports and notices outlining health and building code violations.

The Appalachian District Health Department's notices of violation relate primarily to what it says are unapproved outhouses on the property. Although Turtle Island representatives say outhouses and lodging facilities on the property were permitted and inspected annually, the health department said it discovered new outhouses that were not permitted during the September search.

On Wednesday, Conway acknowledged that health officials had discovered a new outhouse at his residence but said it was one that would not be used by the public.

"I don't think my outhouse is hurting anybody," he said.

The Watauga County Planning & Inspections Department found that no building permits had been issued for any structures on the property and that the structures fail to comply with the state building code. A report compiled by a consultant concluded the structures "are not structurally sound."

"It's a public safety issue and concern," Joe Furman, county Planning & Inspections director, said last month. Conway called this claim "absurd," stating his building techniques were used throughout the mountains for years.

Asked if he could retrofit his buildings to meet code, Conway said, "I could retrofit some, but I'm not at all interested in it -- that's not at all what we're trying to do here."

Conway said he was shocked and hurt by what he called a violation of his human rights and that he didn't feel he could work with county officials until he received an apology.

"It's a big deal to me to have my rights violated on that level," he said.

A reporter at the press conference asked Conway if he would engage in civil disobedience and if he would be willing to go to jail over the dispute.

"I'd be willing to die for this," Conway replied.

Records on file with the Secretary of State's office show that Turtle Island Preserve filed with the state as a limited liability company in April 2008 and as a nonprofit corporation in June 2010. The organization has been registered as a public charity with the Internal Revenue Service since 2011, according to the information service A Form 990 for Turtle Island, which details receipts and expenditures of nonprofit organizations, is not yet available online.

State Sen. Dan Soucek visited Turtle Island on Thursday to meet with Conway.

"I think that his overall philosophy and goals are very good," Soucek said. "I think where our challenge is going to be is how to alleviate that with the concerns, standards, laws and policies of the state and what he's trying to do. It's unusual. It's kind of hard for that to fit into today's society. Everyone I've talked to is working to come up with a solution to do that."

Soucek said he is gathering information about the issue currently and that he believed the matter would require a "unique solution." He said the Building Code Council may not have the authority to exempt Turtle Island from the code and that the dispute may need legislative assistance.