A proposed Madison County resort and its mysterious owners have generated intense scrutiny by neighbors worried about reports of automatic gunfire and the role played by a man once reputed to be the leader of a militia group.
But the point person for the Ark Foundation, which plans to build a resort and spa in the Upper Laurel community, maintains that the neighbors' fears are unfounded, dismissing them as "nonsense."
"What we plan here is a nice, family resort," said Henry Choquet, vice president in charge of new construction and operations at the resort, to be called The Laurels.
But several neighbors aren't comforted by Choquet's assurances, especially since he won't divulge who the principals behind the Ark Foundation are.
The worried neighbors raised their concerns at a recent meeting of the Madison County Planning Board, which was considering the foundation's request to rezone its 269-acre property from residential to resort/residential.
Bibles, bullets, beans and bandages
Ann Ryder, whose property abuts the Ark Foundation's land, told the Planning Board her concerns about the property's developers.
"The neighbors have heard that Mr. Albert Esposito is involved in this thing, and he is a well-known militia leader," asserted Ryder.
In 1985, Esposito was identified in Associated Press and Time magazine stories as the leader of a Monroe, N.C., group called Citizens for the Reinstatement of Constitutional Government. The group advocated stockpiling the "Four Bs": Bibles, bullets, beans and bandages. Esposito urged group members to form an "unorganized" militia to resist the martial law he believed the federal government would impose, according to a 1994 Charlotte Observer article.
But Choquet downplayed any connection Esposito might have to the resort.
County Attorney Larry Leake asked Choquet whether Esposito was currently on the property; Choquet said he wasn't. Then Leake asked whether Esposito had been there since August (when Choquet arrived in Madison County).
"I have no idea," Choquet said, adding at last that he has a good friend who knows Esposito, and that Choquet, himself, has met the man.
"How in the world could we have a militia group and a resort?" Choquet tossed out to the board.
Later in the meeting, Ryder asked Choquet whether Esposito would play an influential role at the resort. No, replied Choquet, explaining that that would be his job.
"Albert Esposito is a friend of a friend of mine," Choquet said. "My friend has brought him up in the past, but he does not pull any strings."
But Madison County Zoning Officer Ronnie Ledford said later that he had met Esposito about six months ago, at a meeting held to inform the Ark Foundation of the requirements for changing its zoning.
In addition, Esposito can be reached at the address listed on the resort property's deeds. Deeds on file at the Madison County Register of Deeds Office list the property's owner as the Ark Foundation, which has a Monroe, N.C., address. At that address is a business called Davis Press Repair. The woman who answered the phone there one recent afternoon said that, although Esposito wasn't there, she could get a message to him. He did not return the phone call.
"I'm concerned about candor," Ryder told the board. "I'm for anything that will increase the value of my property; I'm not stupid. But I don't believe this is the deal to do that."
Planning Board member Bill Clark asked Choquet whether there was anything clandestine or militia-related going on at The Laurels.
"That's just a figment of someone's imagination," Choquet replied.
Sounds of gunfire also have alarmed neighbors.
Kenneth Porche Jr., for example, told the Planning Board that he'd heard bursts of automatic gunfire coming from the property. As a Vietnam veteran, he said he could tell the difference between the sounds of semiautomatic and automatic weapons.
"I have a concern over this," Porche told the board. "The issue is with the guns, the safety of my parents."
In response, Clark declared: "Neighbors have to find a way to get along."
Board member Bill Collins asked Porche if he was sure the gunfire hadn't come from a nearby rifle range. Porche said he was sure.
Clark asked Choquet whether the resort amenities include shooting.
No, Choquet answered, adding: "I've never heard one single automatic weapon" on the property. "We have shot up targets twice," he conceded.
Al Riegal, who said he lives on a knob overlooking The Laurels, said he'd come by one day to find Choquet and others shooting targets, but since he isn't a "gun person," Riegal wasn't sure what kind of weapons they were using. Choquet noted that he'd invited Riegal to shoot with them.
Riegal, who lives off Wilson Branch Road -- a narrow, gravel trail that provides one of the accesses to the resort property -- said he didn't want to have his hearing damaged by gunfire, or get stuck in traffic on the road. The other neighbors also said they were worried about traffic.
"Otherwise, it sounds very wholesome," Riegal told the board.
In one of the meeting's more dramatic moments, Porche's father, Kenneth Porche Sr., who also lives near the resort property, told Choquet that he'd like to be neighbors.
"Well, me, too," answered Choquet.
The two men shook hands, and then Porche asked Choquet whether someone in his organization had said they'd "take care of" the Porches.
"I have not heard it," Choquet responded. "I can't say it wasn't said."
"That was not good PR," chided the elder Porche.
"We've had a lot of people come and go," replied Choquet.
In the end, the Planning Board voted unanimously to recommend that the Madison County commissioners approve the rezoning.
The commissioners plan to hold a public hearing on the matter at 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 29 at the Madison County Courthouse, said Madison County Manager Anita Davie.
The vote didn't surprise Ryder. "This is Madison County politics at its typical worst," she said later.
Despite neighbors' concerns about gunfire and militia influence, the county attorney said after the meeting that the board may legally consider only one issue in connection with the rezoning request.
"That question is: Is that particular tract of land suitable for resort purposes?" Leake explained, adding, "That's the only issue."
Even Ryder has no problem with the rezoning itself -- she just doesn't trust the Ark Foundation's intentions.
The Ark Foundation
Other than indicating that the Ark Foundation is a for-profit organization, Choquet had little else to say about it, when contacted after the meeting. When asked what kind of foundation it is, he obliquely answered that there are all kinds of foundations.
There are no rules governing whether an organization can call itself a foundation, said Jeff Martin, director of media relations for the Council on Foundations, a nonprofit membership association of grantmaking foundations and corporations, based in Washington, D.C.
"You can call yourself whatever you like," Martin said. "It's a freedom-of-speech thing, and it has nothing to do with the tax status."
But Jane Gallagher, deputy general counsel for the Council on Foundations, said she's never heard of a for-profit foundation before.
Planning Board members didn't get many answers from Choquet, either. Clark asked whether the investors are foreign, domestic or both.
"I'm really not at liberty to say," Choquet responded.
Leake explained his understanding of the Ark Foundation after the meeting.
"They obtained title to the property by way of deed," Leake explained. "And, just as in the case of any entity, a corporation can own property, a blind trust can own property, a partnership can own property. In this case, this is a blind trust."
The property and its buildings are assessed at $412,200, according to Madison County property records.
Leake said it's perfectly legal for the Ark Foundation not to disclose its owners, though the practice is "very unusual."
Choquet, however, disagreed when questioned after the meeting.
"That's very common," he maintained.
The Ark Foundation isn't registered as a corporation with the N.C. Secretary of State's office, according to spokesman George Jeter. The only Ark Foundation registered with that office, he said, is a nonprofit home for at-risk children in Vance County. That organization's executive director, Gary Miles, said he's never heard of either Choquet or Esposito, nor is his foundation connected with any resort property in Madison County.
Even most out-of-state corporations doing business in North Carolina register with the Secretary of State's office, Jeter explained. But some out-of-state corporations are not required to register, he revealed. State law allows 11 exceptions, which include such activities as simply owning property, and conducting an isolated business transaction. The penalty for an out-of-state corporation failing to register properly is minimal -- $10 a day, but no more than $1,000 in a year.
There's no law requiring that businesses incorporate, either. But one benefit of setting up a corporation (rather than a partnership or sole proprietorship) is that corporate stockholders have no legal liability for the business's debts, says George Yates, associate professor of management at UNCA.
"Anybody who would enter into a partnership or a sole proprietorship dealing with the public is crazy today," Yates proclaims.
Still, a business could be a privately held corporation that's not required to divulge who its owners are, he notes -- and that, in itself, is not unusual, he asserts.
"There are many thousands, millions of private corporations," adds Yates.
The Ark Foundation has some ambitious plans for The Laurels, which is not far from Wolf Laurel ski resort, a well-known WNC landmark.
Plans call for a conference center, spa, swimming pool, five-star restaurant, a snack bar and tennis courts, Choquet said. Guests would either stay in log cabins or park their RVs at the resort. They would also be able to hike, fish and mountain-bike there. The resort would have a front gate, but would not be fenced, he added.
The Laurels is affiliated with Interval International, in which guests buy vacations and can stay at any number of different resorts around the world, said Choquet.
"We've had wonderful customer response so far," Choquet said later. "It's an affordable way for some folks to take a vacation."
Choquet said he expects to be able to offer monthly memberships to folks who want to use the facilities during the day. He estimates that the resort should be fully operational by next February.