A man’s plan to turn his Macon County farm into a motocross track has his neighbors revving for a fight. During the public comment portion of a Macon County Planning Board meeting last Thursday, board members heard from neighbors and other county residents on the issue.
The vast majority – though not all – who attended the meeting were opposed to Herman “Bud” Talley’s plan to establish a motocross racing facility on the 45-acre farm that has been in his family since 1935. Talley, owner of Nantahala Meats in Franklin, says that building the racetrack is a way to save his dying Clarks Chapel community farm from being parceled out for development.
“What I want to do is leave my farm as intact as I can for my children to do as they see fit,” Talley told the packed community center in Clarks Chapel where the meeting was held.
Many of his neighbors, however, see the racetrack as a threat – a threat to their environment, their peace of mind and their property values. John Binkley, a retired economist, has been leading the charge on behalf of a large group of residents who hope to cause Talley to reconsider his plans. Among the group’s tactics has been an effort to change a county ordinance regulating high impact commercial land use as well as threats to sue Talley for damages if he proceeds with his plans.
The controversy began in the fall when Talley applied for a variance to the High Impact Ordinance that would have adjusted the required setback line for motor sports from 750 feet from his property line to 300 feet. This would have given Talley enough room on his property to build an officially sanctioned mile-long motocross racetrack. At that time, Talley claimed he would only run the facility 16 days out of the year, at the most.
Talley met stiff resistance at a Dec. 21 public meeting of the Board of Adjustments to consider the variance and ultimately withdrew his request. Instead, he has been considering his other option – which some view as a threat – to build a practice course for the dirt bikes that would operate under the limits imposed by county regulations.
As the High Impact Ordinance currently reads, Talley (or any county resident) has the right to operate a commercial motor sports facility on his property, with no required setback, as long as he does not operate more than three bikes at one time or limits operation to two hours in any eight hour period, during which time he could run an unlimited number of bikes. “It’s our feeling that that is an unreasonably high level of activity,” Binkley told the Macon County Board of Commissioners at their Feb. 8 meeting.
At that meeting, Binkley proposed that the definition of motor sports be simplified and the High Impact Ordinance be amended so that commercial motor sports would be regulated at all levels of activity, just as he pointed out other high impact industries are currently regulated.
Binkley and his associates were advised by the commissioners to take their proposal to the planning board, leading to last Thursday’s showdown.
Showdown at Clarks Chapel
After the normal business agenda at the meeting, planning board Chairman Lewis Penland opened the floor to public comment. The dialogue that ensued, though mostly civil, revealed the passions on either side of the issue as well as, perhaps, two different worldviews.
“We feel that the existing definition allows far too high a level of activity and would amount to high impact,” Binkley told the board before presenting his proposed amendment to the county’s motor sports definition. “We feel that a more appropriate definition would cause all commercial activity of that nature [motor sports] to come under the High Impact Ordinance.”
Next, Talley addressed the board, and spoke of his family’s long history in the Clarks Chapel valley. He noted that for him, changes such as residential developments along mountain ridge-lines and the fencing off of lands that he had wandered on freely as a child, represented a higher impact use than his proposed racetrack would. On the other hand, he said, he wasn’t going to tell anyone what to do on their own property.
“I don’t go to your property and tell you what you can do or where you can build a townhouse, where you can build a house or a condo,” Talley said. “I don’t do that. That’s not our heritage. Our heritage is, if you have a problem, you come and talk to me and we’ll work it out.”
Talley then produced copies of letters and emails he had received from neighbors in recent months which he claimed were threatening and disrespectful. Among those letters was one signed by Jan and Dave Marks who wrote that they had recently purchased a retirement home in the Clarks Chapel area specifically because of the beautiful and peaceful environment. The letter asks Talley to reconsider his plans, which the Marks say would lower their property values and rob them of their peace and quiet.
“We just cannot understand how you could sell us ALL out for your own personal and dubious gain,” reads the letter. “While none of us want a legal battle, we must protect our collective property values in any way the law allows.” The letter continues, “Because your plan is legally allowable, Mr. Talley, does not make it morally right.”
A number of attendees at the meeting also brought up the issue of property values, with one woman adding that she feared allowing Talley to build his facility would open the door to other similar facilities all around the county. “What’s that going to open up for the future?” she asked, adding, “I don't want to see this town go to pieces.”
At the December variance hearing, Binkley estimated that the impact to property values, should Talley proceed with his plan, could reach as high as $27 million in damages, including both properties directly adjacent to Talley’s farm and others in the nearby vicinity.
One Clarks Chapel neighbor, Danny Baldwin, who supports Talley’s right to build the motocross track, questions these estimates. He said that in his opinion, residential developments which divide up large former farm parcels do more damage to property values than a motocross track would. Baldwin noted that his own grandfather, who did not have the opportunity Talley has, had been forced to divide up his Clarks Chapel farm into residential parcels.
Paul Higdon, who does not live in the area, said that he thought a motocross facility would bring a lot of new visitors to the area who would be a positive economic impact for the county. He noted that many young people from Macon County travel regularly to other facilities, such as one in Georgia where they spend money on gas, hotels and food.
But other neighbors disagree. Binkley’s testimony at the variance hearing was explicitly supported by 23 neighbors both in the direct impact zone and elsewhere in the affected valley. He listed several impacts besides decreased property values including the negative effects of noise, dust and other pollutants, severe traffic impacts, and general negative impacts to the county at large. The retiree market may come to see Macon County as “unwilling and/or unable to control the development of obnoxious activities that greatly reduce its attractiveness as a place for them to retire and live.”
Binkley says that, even though Talley has withdrawn his request for a variance, the way the High Impact Ordinance is currently written would still not protect neighbors. “The level of activity that’s being talked about here now would still have an enormous negative impact on everyone in the vicinity.”
The debate came no closer to resolution at the meeting, but both Chairman Penland and the board of commissioner’s liaison, Bobby Kuppers, agreed that the planning board would have to address the issue in the future. “I feel sure that the board will have to address this,” said Penland. “There's no doubt about it.”