Turtle Island forced to close
by Anna Oakes
Turtle Island Preserve, a 1,000-acre, nonprofit environmental education camp in eastern Watauga County founded in 1987, was forced to close last month following notices of violation from the Watauga County Planning & Inspections Department and Appalachian District Health Department.
Eustace Conway, founder of the camp, and his supporters say Turtle Island, which educates adults and children about primitive lifeways and sustainable practices, has annually passed health inspections for primitive camps and that Turtle Island should be exempt from modern building regulations. They have appealed to the community and the N.C. Building Code Council for help in the dispute through an online petition.
"I've never felt like they're not safe," Conway said about his buildings. "No one has ever been hurt from a building or structure from Turtle Island. There's never been a health issue at Turtle Island Preserve in 26 years of operation. Both of those I think are pretty strong statements of a track record."
Conway and Turtle Island have garnered much publicity over the past decade. Conway was profiled in Elizabeth Gilbert's book "The Last American Man," Our State magazine and most recently on the History Channel reality show "Mountain Men." Turtle Island hosts summer camps for adults and children and also houses interns and volunteers.
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 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 N.C. State Building Code. An Oct. 17 letter from county attorney Stacy Eggers IV advised the preserve to bar the general public from the vicinity of the buildings.
"The problem is bringing people in and out," said Joe Furman, county Planning & Inspections director. "It's a public safety issue and concern."
Furman said his department received a complaint by phone from a resident near Turtle Island alleging "that there had been building going on without permits and perhaps even grading without permit."
"It has been suggested that the county's interest in the property occurred as a result of a television show featuring Mr. Conway. This is incorrect. WCP&I was not aware of the show until after the initial visit," a statement from the department said.
But Conway said Furman spoke to him by phone prior to the county's initial visit and mentioned the History Channel show and "unacceptable" things seen on the show.
"That completely breaks my trust," Conway said.
With Conway's permission, representatives from Furman's department visited the property June 19 and determined the need for an additional "in-depth" visit. Conway said he agreed to a meeting of the county attorney with his attorney, with no inspectors, but that inspectors showed up to the meeting. Furman said the county assumed the meeting would also include staff. Conway denied them entrance to the property.
The county then executed an administrative search warrant on the property Sept. 19, with health and building inspectors, the fire marshal and sheriff's deputies visiting Turtle Island.
"We didn't really expect any problems, and there certainly weren't any," Furman said. The county retained Carolina Code Studies & Consulting, which completed a 78-page report with photos.
"It was a unique circumstance, as we had never been involved with potential violations involving so many buildings, or such an extensive operation that is open to the public," Furman said. "We wanted to make sure we were thorough and fair."
The report states that "the buildings are not structurally sound," noting the lack of approved foundations among other issues. But Conway said his rock foundations are more stable than modern foundations, which are susceptible to cracking and failure.
"I have been designing and building buildings for 48 years," he said. "Rocks under buildings -- that's all anybody's put under a building for the last 200 years."
Conway said his building techniques were widely used throughout the mountains until the recent adoption of modern building codes, which he said favor corporate industries and do not support sustainable practices.
"Maybe we should have been more aware that our freedom was being taken away when the first code went in," he said.
The Oct. 17 letter from the county instructs Conway that he has three options: obtain permits and bring the buildings up to code; demolish some or all of the structures; or obtain permits and have a licensed architect or engineer certify that the buildings comply with building codes.
Turtle Island has requested to be heard at the Dec. 10 meeting of the N.C. Building Code Council. Furman said the deadline for applying for permits expired Nov. 16 but that the county would likely wait until the council's meeting before proceeding further.
"Our goal is to help them come into compliance with the codes with which they need to comply with," he said.
Most of the notices issued by the health department relate to outhouses on the property.
Under the N.C. Administrative Code, outhouses are permitted for public use for facilities with primitive camp permits, but all privies must be permitted, inspected and meet health codes for privies.
Desiree Anderson, an assistant at Turtle Island, said four outhouses and three cabins on the property have been inspected annually by the health department. Andy Blethen, environmental health supervisor for Appalachian District Health Department, said this is true but that the issue is with new structures constructed on the site and not updated in the annual primitive camp permit application.
"There were quite a few buildings used for lodging and campers that we weren't aware of," he said. Blethen said the preserve needs to apply for new permits and improve some septic systems.
"If we can get some correspondence, most of these can be taken care of pretty quickly," he said.
Conway said he feels correspondence from the county has not always been made in a cooperative spirit.
"They didn't seem to be people interested in helping, but more like attacking," he said. "I see it as an attack on all educational facilities in the state and an attack on human freedom."
"(What) they're seeking is for us to restructure ourselves so that we can fit in their mold, which would completely contradict what we're doing in teaching primitive (living experiences)," Anderson said.
A petition on the website change.org asks the N.C. Building Code Council to exempt Turtle Island from state building codes. In two days, the petition garnered 1,229 signatures.
"I'm brought to tears by the beauty of the support that we've got," said Conway.