Wildlife center battles Beech Mountain
by Kellen Moore
While the town’s complaint illustrates a simple landlord-tenant dispute, the founder, board and supporters of Genesis see it as much more.
“Genesis has always and still looks forward to continuing to provide free animal care for needy animals and birds to this area and has been and continues to be a good neighbor to the community,” Genesis founder Leslie Hayhurst wrote in court documents filed in May. “… This ‘dark cloud’ and lawsuit has caused many to question the real motives behind the town’s pursuit of this court action.”
Now it’s up to the courts to cut through the accusations and contention to answer the central question: whether Genesis can continue to lease the small property adjacent to Buckeye Lake.
Genesis Wildlife Sanctuary is a nonprofit organization formed in 1993 that rescues and rehabilitates injured animals, such as hawks, bobcats, raccoons and wolves.
In 1999, the town of Beech Mountain agreed to a 30-year lease of the property to Genesis for $1, including an option for extension of the lease.
The current legal tangle began in March, when the town sent a letter to Hayhurst outlining several perceived breaches of the lease. When Genesis did not comply to the town’s satisfaction, it filed a complaint in Watauga County Small Claims Court demanding that Genesis be ejected from the property immediately.
In its complaint, the town stated that Genesis:
• had not used the property as an educational center
• failed to maintain proper insurance on the property
• failed to comply with state and local ordinances regarding buffer zones from drinking reservoirs and trout streams
• failed to maintain property line setbacks
• failed to keep the property in good condition
• failed to properly screen fuel tanks
In May, a magistrate sided with the town and ordered that Genesis give control of the property back to Beech Mountain, with court costs to be paid by the wildlife sanctuary.
Genesis immediately appealed, and last week submitted its answer and counterclaim.
In the counterclaim, Genesis denies the allegations. It seeks damages for breach of the lease, inverse condemnation, unfair and deceptive trade practices, violation of civil rights and violation of constitutional rights.
Genesis requests that the lease be upheld and that the town pay damages in excess of $10,000.
“Defendant’s uses of the leased premises were those explicitly contained within terms of the written lease and were well-known to plaintiff,” attorney Charles Clement writes in the Aug. 24 counterclaim.
The town now has 30 days — and possibly up to 60 days with an extension — to respond.
While the lawsuit represents the most concrete form of disagreement the town and Genesis have faced in recent years, the upheaval goes back further.
In 2008, Genesis faced closing its doors due to financial difficulties. Developer John Turchin intervened, offering Genesis land at the Lodges at Eagles Nest in Banner Elk. Another large private donation allowed Genesis to construct a facility there, which opened in 2009.
But several problems prevented Genesis from flourishing at the site, and it soon moved back to its location near Buckeye Lake. The Lodges at Eagles Nest has since faced bankruptcy and foreclosure.
In 2010, Genesis was asked to remove all the animals and habitats to comply with state and local laws regarding proximity to drinking water sources. The town provided $1,000 to assist Genesis with the move.
Today, several of the animals are being held at private locations, while others are being held in a modular unit at Hayhurst’s property in Beech Mountain, she said.
Genesis had to euthanize its bobcat because a home could not be found, she said.
“We took them at their word when they told us that the animals and birds were in violation of a state ordinance and regulation as well as one that they had adopted, and therefore that they had to be removed,” said Frank Steele, executive vice president of the Genesis board.
Genesis now believes the local Buckeye Lake Protection Ordinance passed in early 2009 went above and beyond what the state required. The local ordinance requires that no animals be housed within 200 feet of Buckeye Lake or within 2,000 feet of any stream that drains into the lake.
“There were concerns that it went deeper than what we would need,” said Tom Boyd, senior environmental specialist for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. “And it didn’t spell out a lot of things we would need.”
Boyd said DENR and the N.C. Commission for Public Health have not approved Buckeye Lake for recreational uses, such as boating or fishing. He said it would be possible to issue a notice of deficiency if those uses were occurring, but that his office believed the town was still working to address the matter.
Steele and others with Genesis suspect that the current lawsuit is part of a larger scheme to remove Genesis from the land so the town can create an easier access to Buckeye Lake for canoeing, kayaking and other recreational uses.
“Our property is literally right in the way of that, because we go almost right up to the lake,” he said. “… It’s something that they really want and need for other purposes.”
Beech Mountain representatives said they could not comment on the lawsuit.
“I can’t talk on the Genesis situation; that’s a legal case,” said Beech Mountain Town Manager Randy Feierabend. “They can because they’re trying to play the publicity card.”
Beech Mountain Attorney Stacy “Four” Eggers also said he would not comment on pending litigation as a matter of policy.
Until a determination is reached in the coming months, Genesis Wildlife Sanctuary officials say they will continue to fight city hall.
Steele said it’s disappointing that the lawsuit has stemmed from an organization that depends heavily on volunteers and charitable contributions to continue its ambitious goals.
“It’s something that none of us benefit from, other than knowing we helped animals,” Steele said. “That’s the saddest part about the whole thing.”