Residents in Highlands will be determining new leadership for the town this November as several candidates ended up filing for the upcoming municipal election just before Friday’s deadline.
During odd-numbered years (so as to alternate with statewide general elections) most Municipal Elections are held to elect the governing officials (Mayor, City Council, Town Council, etc.) of cities, villages and towns across North Carolina.
Although Municipal Elections are conducted by county boards of election, only residents of the municipality are qualified to vote in the election. These voters must have resided in the municipality for at least 30 days prior to the date of the election.
The seats up for election in Highlands this November are the Mayor seat – currently held by Pat Taylor and two Commissioner seats currently held by Amy Patterson and Donnie Calloway.
Commissioner Donnie Calloway will not be seeking re-election.
Incumbent Mayor Patrick Taylor will see a challenger in Marc Hehn who completed filing paperwork for the Mayoral seat just before deadline. Hehn currently serves on the Town Board and if elected as Mayor, his seat would then be filled by appointment by the Town Board.
Mayor Taylor has served in his official capacity in Highlands since first being elected in 2013. If re-elected this year, Taylor will begin his 4th term as the Mayor (and Commission seats) are a four-year term.
Incumbent Commissioner Amy Patterson filed for re-election and will face challengers – which is vastly different than the 2017 election when both Patterson and Calloway ran unopposed.
Challengers this election include Eric Pierson, who has previously served on the Town Board, Thomas Craig, Pat Allen, Nicolaus McCall, and Mary Alice Bynum. With two open seats on the Highlands board up for election, the top two vote-getters will be elected.
Since the Mayor as well as the Town Board seats were unopposed during the last election, voter turnout was miniscule. There were only 79 votes cast in the Mayor race – 75 for Taylor and 4 write-ins, and 78 for commissioner – which included all votes for the incumbents with the exception of six write-ins.
In 2013 when both the Mayor seat and the Town Board saw multiple candidates, the election was decided by less than 500 people. Mayor Taylor was elected with 60% of the vote in 2013 – which only amounted to 264 votes.
Election Day is scheduled for Nov. 2 and only voters who live within the town city limits will be allowed to vote. Voters will be able to vote at the Highlands Civic Center from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Voters wanting to cast their ballots early will be able to do so beginning October 14 when one stop early voting begins. Early voting will also be held at the Highlands Civic Center and will run from October 14 trhough October 30 at 3 p.m.
A Candidate Q&A will be featured closer to the election but to kick-off the campaigns, each candidate was asked a simple question: Why do you want to run?
Mayoral Candidate Mayor Pat Taylor
I believe I have provided steady and responsible leadership for this community in the last eight years. I would be honored to serve the citizens of Highlands as their mayor for the next four years. Our community, as the community plan has revealed, will face major challenges in the coming years. I want to continue to stay on duty and lead the town in meeting these challenges. My guiding principle has been to balance progress with preservation.
Mayoral Candidate Marc Hehn
The duty of the Mayor is to work with the community to support its needs. We have three huge needs.
Healthcare: I believe the Town Board should be a true partner in the effort to support healthcare on the Plateau. The Eckerd Living Center provided excellent healthcare for my mother. That experience afforded me the opportunity to observe first-hand the outstanding services available on the Highlands Cashiers Hospital campus. I want to do all possible to keep it that way. In 2019, we had two Family Practice Physicians now we have four. More physicians are coming to the area in January, but we still need support staff. My wife and I funded a study by the Clemson University College of Architecture, Graduate Program in Health Facilities Design. The students determined we need 16 housing units of varying size to meet the needs of our Healthcare workers. When presented with the proposal and asked to honor a 1987 commitment by the town to provide 50,000 gallons per day of sewer service and a 2001 Agreement to provide 70,000 gallons per day of water service from lines that are in the ground our Town Board voted 4-1 to deny the request. I could not believe that vote as the total water used on the hospital campus today is using less than 20% of what was committed to. Affordable worker housing is also a huge problem to maintain the services we have become accustomed to from the business community.
Broadband: We all have heard of the Wide Open Networks plan to provide fiber to our homes. I had to retain a lawyer after asking for eight months to read our Broadband file. After reading the file, I learned that Wide Open Networks was never told by the Town there are other providers that are upgrading their systems to provide Gig service. In March 2020, Wide Open declined to sign a contract to operate the system they planned. And, Wide Open even declined to respond to a new Request for Proposals to operate the system. Since this project is at least 18 months past the contract completion date, I have been asking for three months to see the construction file which has not been honored. My minister says problems have solutions and dilemmas have thorns. So here we find ourselves in the position that the town chose to build a much more costly fiber plant of $4.6 million which is more than the Wide Open recommended $3 million project. Further complicating this thorny issue is the system that has been built will only serve the areas that have overhead electrical service. I have not yet been allowed to read the contract the town is negotiating with Hotwire. This is a huge dilemma and I am afraid we aren’t going to get out of this without getting stuck.
Short Term Rentals: At the July Town Board meeting, there was a lengthy discussion of the 2021 Update to the Highlands Comprehensive plan. Recommendation Land Use 5.5 on page 67 of the draft plan reads “consider updating land use regulations to define short term rentals as a use and establish geographic restrictions, approval requirements and/or performance-based standards for the use.” Action Item 7 of the draft plan reads “Monitor and mitigate the impact of short-term rentals on the Highlands Community.” I suggested that we make this a high priority rather that the suggested mid-level priority. The board unanimously agreed that this should be a priority.
Commissioner Candidate Pat Allen
I am running because I’ve always listened to my inner voice and I feel it’s what I’m supposed to do. I have seen big changes in the dynamics of our special town over the last two years. These changes have encouraged positive opportunities for growth but also have introduced the risks of losing what has made our little town so unique. In my 27 years as a full-time resident, I have seen many changes, but never to this extent. I want to use my knowledge and experience to make sure we maintain the character of our small town that led so many of us to want to live here.
Commissioner Candidate Mary Alice Bynum
I am running for the Town Board. My platform is Changes to our Town! What do residents want? I have been a business owner in our quaint village since 1982 and I have certainly seen a lot of changes in Highlands. Change is good, but on the other hand is it always necessary and how do these changes impact our quality of life?
We must ask ourselves if we are ready to turn Highlands into Gatlinburg, TN or Helen, GA. I plan to tackle issues that most affect our residents rather than focusing on expanding tourism.
I realize that weddings are now a major part of the landscape in Highlands, but we want to be more than a wedding destination. I would like to address parking, short-term rentals, access to local venues, healthcare and stress the importance of supporting our police and the fire and rescue departments. I would like to talk to our residents and hear what changes they would like to see made and those they don’t want to be made.
I want to hear your voices and keep the wonderful charm the town of Highlands exudes. I have lived in the mountainous regions of North Georgia and Western North Carolina my entire life. Community means everything to me, and I want to represent the people of this community. Share with me your ideas and concerns so I can invest in you and Highlands. Will work for you!
Commissioner Candidate Thomas Craig
Over the past 33 years I have been fortunate to start a marriage, raise a family, make friends, and watch Highlands prosper. I could not be more thankful and I want to be a part of the future of Highlands.
Commissioner Candidate Nick McCall
I am running for the Highlands Town Board, because I genuinely love this town and the people in it. I have no hidden agenda, nor allegiances to special interests or entities within the town. Coming out of the pandemic, Highlands is now at a critical juncture. Balancing economic growth and environmental preservation. In addition to a plethora of issues from healthcare, broadband, workforce housing to short-term rentals. Preserving the identity, local culture and character of our town, while managing growth is more important than ever. And if elected I would serve to give the community a voice in the decision-making process.
Commissioner Candidate Commissioner Amy Patterson
Highlands is my home. I want to help our community shape its future while meeting our citizen’s current needs.
Commissioner Candidate Eric Pierson
Simply; for my kids. Being seventh generation Highlanders, I want to do everything I can to see that Highlands maintains controlled responsible positive growth, so that they, along with others, will continue to have such a wonderful community to live and prosper in for generations to come.
By Brittney Lofthouse