With calls on the federal and state level growing louder for businesses to reopen and a subsequent easing of COVID-19 coronavirus restrictions, Highlands Mayor Patrick Taylor preached patience on Thursday night.
During the first-ever town board of commissioners meeting held via Zoom online platform, Taylor thanked members of the community on the COVID-19 front line and noted that it is too soon to begin lifting restrictions.
“First, I want to thank our police officers, fire fighters, EMS workers, hospital staff and all of the people who have been working so hard to keep our community safe during these very difficult times,” Taylor said. “As of right now we do not have any COVID-19 patients at our hospital and only one patient in our county, and that is a testament to everyone taking this threat seriously and doing their part to stop the spread.”
Taylor added that he is part of a weekly briefing with town and county officials as well as hospital executives from both Highlands and Franklin regarding how to proceed during the ongoing pandemic.
“We realize that the ‘Stay at home’ orders have been tough on a lot of people, and a lot of businesses, but we also realize that lifting the restrictions all together and just going back to the way things were would put a lot of people in danger,” Taylor said. “Whatever measures we take as a town when it comes time to begin lifting the restrictions will come with guidance from the state and Macon County.”
“It must be a coordinated effort, and the public’s safety has to remain the priority,” Taylor added.
Under the Town of Highlands most recent state of emergency proclamation, all hotels, motels and rental businesses are closed. Second homeowners are discouraged from coming to Highlands at all, and if they decide to make their way up the mountain they are required to self-quarantine for 14 days.
All non-essential retail businesses are closed, as are all restaurants, with the exception of those that offer curbside takeout or delivery.
All North Carolina public schools are closed through at least May 15.
Commissioner Amy Patterson offered the board an update regarding the ongoing contract negotiations between the Town of Highlands and prospective network administrator Wide Open Networks.
Patterson noted that the two sides had reached an impasse and that a request for proposals would be resubmitted in coming months to seek out a new network administrator for the town’s fiber network, which is currently under construction.
“We have not entered into a contract with Wide Open, and it doesn’t appear that their terms are going to be acceptable,” Patterson said. “We have been contacted by two other companies who have shown interest in being our network administrator and we anticipate that both of those will submit proposals when we open up that process.”
Taylor noted that one of the contract terms the town is willing to concede is a longer lease period for whatever company is chosen to be the administrator.
“One thing that seems to be a sticking point was our request for the lease term to be 10 years,” Taylor said. “Based on what we have learned during this process, it looks like a 20 or 25 year term may be more appropriate.”
Town manager Josh Ward added that the build out of the fiber network, which will bring high-speed internet access to customers all over town, is on schedule and should be completed later in the coming summer.
The $4.6 million network will be leased to an administrator upon its completion, because it is against North Carolina General Statutes for municipalities to operate as an internet service provider.
The board approved a subdivision request from Bill Futral for a parcel of land on Foreman Road.
Assistant town planning director Michael Mathis presented the proposal and noted that the proposed subdivision met all town requirements.
“The current parcel is 2.15 acres and the proposal states that it will be divided into four lots of 0.51, 0.56, 0.53 and 0.54-acres respectively, Mathis said. “Those lots will each be connected to town water and sewer as well as town electric.”
Mathis added that the town planning board had already approved the subdivision request at a previous meeting.
The commissioners approved the request unanimously.