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What’s TOBBELL LLC’s true intent up there? Is it to build and enjoy primitive cabins? Or to do commercial logging for a wood chip mill?

By Tom Bennett
Special to Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition

April 13, 2016, near Hayesville, Clay County, N.C. – A hiker’s steep ascent of the east-facing slope of the Valley River Mountains here marks them as a distinctive American environmental priority. To walk there brings home one purpose of national forests. It’s renewing, remote and serene, a splendid Eden. So the 50-acre private inholding at the rim of the mountains is controversial, because 10 Western North Carolina citizens could exploit this Eden at the expense of 330 million other Americans.

I already had 12 pounds of public records about it before thinking to also get the Clay County, N.C. courthouse tax office records in the town of Hayesville for the property taxes charged to TOBBLL LLC. This is a private enterprise oddly and legally far inside a national forest, the Nantahala, which is this state’s largest with 531,270 acres under Forest Service management.

A most recent iteration in records for a forest-products company keeps piquing curiosity. Yet there’s still no explanation of the acronym in minimal annual filings to the N.C. Secretary of State.

In the Clay County courthouse, where the clerks are helpful and well-organized, the entity TOBBLL LLC has two ad valorem taxpayer accounts. The first is for a 5.35-acre parcel. In the last complete fiscal year, the owners paid $3.24 county tax and 19 cents Hayesville fire tax. The second is for a 24.66 acre parcel and for the same period, $15.48 county tax and 90 cents Hayesville fire tax was paid.

The kind clerk provided me the 6,380-word document, “N.C. general statutes pertaining to present use value assessment and taxation of agricultural, horticultural and forestlands.” In this “present-use program,” the document states that “a forest tract thus assessed may consist of more than one tract of forestland, but at least one of the tracts must be 20 acres.”

According to the NC Forest Service web site, “The present use program is voluntary and was created to keep ‘the family farm in the hands of the farming family.’ For forestland, ‘Present-use value’ is the value of land at its current use as forestland, based solely on its ability to produce income, using a rate of 9% to capitalize the expected net income of the property and assuming an average level of management.” The intent is that forest is producing income.

However, TOBBELL LLC’s land might qualify under the following ownership provision: “Land owned by general or limited partnerships, limited liability companies, or corporations will be assessed at its present-use value if the entity’s principal business is forestry, and all the members of the entity are either individuals actively engaged in that business, or are relatives of individuals who are actively engaged in that business.”

A ‘finding of no significant impact’ then goes on for page after page listing impacts

The rim of the Valley River Mountains is the site of an improbable and profoundly hedged April 7 decision notice and “Finding Of No Significant Impact” by the federal agency National Forests in North Carolina. The decision sort of favors the April 9, 2008 applicant Laurel Creek Property Owners Association. While loaded with pre-conditions, it grants the loosely-formed association the ability to construct vehicular access across National Forest System Lands.

I say it’s profoundly hedged because it’s only a first step toward association landowners actually building a road to their property. Ten citizens own seven parcels up there and those parcels roughly comprise the unincorporated 2008 business entity. Now the ten move on. They face a withering gauntlet of federal and state requirements.

I refer to the host of U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and N.C. Dept. of Environmental Quality stipulations that bend the mind. These are described in 45 paragraphs (not a typographical error) that lie deeper in this April 7 National Forests in North Carolina decision notice.

Over perhaps another decade well into the 2020s, the ten now are obliged to pay out of their own pockets to assure continued high water quality, neutralize acid rock; and hire a consultant to monitor it all from now until the end of time.

If you doubt my characterization of them as withering, I ask that you consider the following verbatim sentence from the decision notice’s list (on page five) of ways that the Laurel Creek Property Owners Association is to deal with acid-producing rock:

“In areas where soil disturbance cannot be minimized or avoided in areas where net neutralization potential values (are) 0 TCaCO3/kT, a neutralization strategy will be developed and implemented.”

There’s more. The homeowners must apply again someday to the U.S. Forest Service, if ever they desire to run utilities to the four proposed primitive cabins or to use the access for any type of commercial purpose.

Tom Bennett of the Martins Creek community near Murphy, N.C., was a retired newsman, Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition member/volunteer/donor and recipient of the 2015 Holman Water Quality Stewardship Award. Tom died on December 28, 2020.