State could help Conway, but not soon
by Anna Oakes
The N.C. Building Code Council on Monday unanimously voted to direct Department of Insurance staff to try to help find a solution to the issue of building code violations at Turtle Island Preserve.
Eustace Conway, founder of Turtle Island Preserve in Triplett, spoke at the council's meeting in Raleigh Monday to request that the preserve's primitive-style structures be exempted from the state building code.
"They said currently there's not something that addresses it and obviously there's a need and that they would work on it," Conway said Tuesday. "And they seemed very sincere about it."
Turtle Island Preserve, which has hosted educational camps and workshops for the public since the 1980s, 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 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."
Conway argues that his buildings are safe and that they employ building techniques widely used for hundreds of years.
Dan Tingen, chairman of the Building Code Council, said he apologized to Conway that "unfortunately, we can't move quickly enough."
While Tingen believes the Building Code Council has the statutory authority to make changes that would permit educational, historically representative structures such as those at Turtle Island, the council's rule-making procedures involve "a very long and drawn-out process," he said.
"By the time we could do what we could do, it would take at least a year," he said.
The General Assembly is another avenue, however, as the legislature is not subject to state agency rule-making procedures and is able to move more quickly, Tingen said.
The legislature could establish a special classification for primitive structures, he said.
In the meantime, Turtle Island could seek injunctive relief from building code violation penalties from the court system. The Building Code Council does not have injunctive powers, Tingen said.
But, Tingen said, if Turtle Island's structures are indeed unsafe, "neither the Department (of Insurance) nor the Code Council wants to see that. Public health and safety is always going to be a paramount concern."
Tingen said he believed Conway and the county could work together in the interim to identify corrective actions that would allow parts of the preserve to remain open to the public.
At a press conference held at the preserve last week, however, Conway said the shock of what he viewed as a human rights violation made it difficult for him to imagine working with the county.
"It's a big deal to me to have my rights violated on that level," he said. "I could retrofit some (buildings), but I'm not at all interested in it -- that's not at all what we're trying to do here."
State Sen. Dan Soucek visited Turtle Island last week 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."
Watauga County Planning & Inspections Director Joe Furman said he had not yet heard from the Building Code Council about Monday's meeting but that he anticipated that the county would be in for "more waiting" before taking additional actions.
The preserve also faces several notices of violation from the Appalachian District Health Department primarily related to the preserve's outhouses and septic systems.
At the press meeting, Conway said he was assembling a legal team of attorneys and engineers interested in defending Turtle Island.
"We're by no means at all finished or done with the situation," Conway said Tuesday.