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Chatham County woman holds her ground in the shadow of a "Mountain of Bucks"

In the crosshairs of progress 

Chatham County woman holds her ground in the shadow of a "Mountain of Bucks"

One late November night 12 years ago, Peter Lafata woke up in a panic. Shaking awake his longtime girlfriend, Jo Hill, Lafata declared that he had come to a realization about his mortality.

Grabbing a pencil and a scrap sheet of paper, he wrote: "I give Jo Hill 2 acres land with barn and studio. If anything happen to me, that belong to Jo."

The small-time New England businessman then drew a rough map of the 17 Chatham County acres that he'd bought a few years before for $59,000, cash. He marked the old barn he and Hill had labored to convert into a snug little home for two. Around it, he drew a square of land he intended for his partner's inheritance.

At the time, Hill says, she couldn't imagine ever leaving the little homestead where she worked as a medical transcriptionist at her kitchen computer, and gardened in her spare time, while Lafata pursued various projects, like building a driving range nearby on Marshall Road.

Almost exactly three years later, in November 1994, Lafata died of a heart attack, leaving Hill alone in their converted barn along N.C. 87 northwest of Pittsboro.

In the nine years since his death, Hill has waged a full-time battle to keep her home--first asserting her claim over the objections of Lafata's estranged wife and daughter, who inherited his estate, and now over the eviction efforts of Tommy Fonville, the Raleigh real estate magnate who wants her out of the way of his bulldozers.

The conflict began shortly after Lafata's death, when his heirs contested his longtime lover's right to the land in probate court in Connecticut. A judge eventually ruled that Hill was entitled to the house and two acres designated by the handwritten codicil, but that victory was just the beginning. Her opponents then sold the entire 17 acres to Fonville before the exact details of Hill's ownership were defined.

"We washed our hands of it," says Cynthia Lafata, who today runs the Fairway driving range her father built on Marshall Road. "The buyer basically bought Jo Hill and what was left of the dispute. It was up to them to carve out the boundary lines."

The co-founder of Fonville-Morisey Realty in neighboring Wake County, Fonville has amassed about 2,000 acres of raw Chatham land in the last few years. About 800 of those acres, along and between N.C. 87 and Old Graham Road, will soon erupt into the development called Buck Mountain. A controversial project not so affectionately known among its critics as "Mountain of Bucks," the golf-course community of luxury homes is just one symptom of the Chatham land-development rush resulting from last fall's county commissioners election, which put growth advocates in control of the Triangle's least-developed county.

While Chathamites seeking to preserve their rural neighborhoods and environmentalists looking after the health of the Haw River have protested on many public fronts, Hill's tangle with Fonville has taken the politics to a much more personal level.

"Tommy Fonville has found a county with absolutely no regulatory protections to keep him from doing what he wants," says Hill. "His land surrounds me, and Mr. Fonville just wants me out of his soup."

Fonville first came into Hill's life in 2001, after Lafata's heirs sold the land to Fonville's Chatham Partners development company for $90,000, according to land records. The parcel is just one of 13 properties Fonville has assembled in northern Chatham, which range from 1-acre lots to huge tracts of several hundred acres each.

A Florida-based company called BlueGreen Communities plans to put 700 homes on part of Fonville's property for the Buck Mountain project northeast of Hill's property. BlueGreen is the same company that developed The Preserve at Jordan Lake, a similar luxury-home neighborhood in eastern Chatham. Fonville has not yet submitted any proposals for the roughly 1,200 additional acres he owns that are not part of Buck Mountain, says county planner Lynn Richardson.

Fonville himself says he hasn't yet decided what other projects he wants to pursue. He will say the land around Jo Hill's house is key to his development plans, because it provides access from N.C. 87, a main highway, into the bulk of his 2,000 acres.

Fonville and his Chatham Partners colleagues wanted the Lafata parcel badly enough to assume some risk along with the deed, which notes Hill's claim to part of the property as an outstanding issue at the time of the sale.

In addition, Hill says they have tried to bully her off the land by cutting off her access to drinking water.

In early 2001, Hill says, a man named Brad Schrum appeared at her door several times, saying he represented Chatham Partners and asking her if she would sell. She told Schrum no four or five times that spring. Eventually, she says, Schrum gave her a deadline of 60 days to use the well, which sits on land that by then belonged to Chatham Partners. Her water stopped running on April 14, 2001. While Fonville admits that he sent Schrum to negotiate with Hill, he denies cutting off her water intentionally.

"I don't know what Brad told her," Fonville says. "I was not aware she was without water--she never contacted me about this."

For almost two years, Hill carted 1,000 gallons of water a month to drink and cook and bathe. Outside the sliding-glass door to her living room, sandwiched between the riding mower and the turquoise tarp that covers the former barn's large archway, a mountain of empty plastic jugs offers evidence of her labor.

"This man ruined my hands," Hill says, puffing on a hand-rolled cigarette and indicating the braces that stabilize her wrists, a result of injuries she says she sustained hauling water.

As the dispute moved through the court system and into mediation this spring, Fonville says he sent an employee to turn the well back on as soon as Hill told him she was without water. Since then, however, talks have stalled. Fonville says he believed they had reached a compromise and was simply waiting for Hill's signature to finalize the deal.

"I want to do what's fair and right," Fonville says. "We've agreed to confirm her inheritance and give her the use of the well."

In late April, Hill refused to sign a settlement that would have given her lifetime access to the well and a legal deed to her house and two acres. She contends the proposed written agreement does not accurately represent the terms she agreed to in mediation.

While Hill has stood her ground in the path of development, her personal battle has become part of a larger conflict now raging in Chatham County's public landscape. In one of several similar stand-offs between residents and developers, Hill's neighbors have joined together to protest Buck Mountain, calling it out of character for their rural community and a disaster for the fragile ecology of the Haw River. A major Haw tributary, Dry Creek, runs through the steep slopes of the proposed golf-course development and is endangered by damage from sediment during construction and pesticides and fertilizers on the golf course greens, says Elaine Chiosso, executive director of the Haw River Assembly.

The growth-friendly politics of the newly configured county commissioners allowed Buck Mountain to slip easily through the approval process in January, and it's just the beginning of the landslide.

"There is a lot of development coming really fast, with no brakes on," Chiosso says. "They have resources we can't even dream of, and the people in this county weren't prepared."

For her part, Hill says she plans to stay put.

"If he's going to put a fancy gateway to big expensive houses right here next to me, maybe I'll put up a big sign: 'Mountain of Bucks Private Massage,'" says Hill. "That sounds absurd, but it's not nearly as absurd as everything I've gone through to hang onto this property." EndBlock

  • Chatham County woman holds her ground in the shadow of a "Mountain of Bucks"

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