Friday, August 07, 2009

Once again two months have elapsed since my last post. It isn’t that nothing has happened. . .more like so much has been going on that I haven’t really had the energy to sit down and write about it. Since I am currently relaxing in my room in the Inn at Middleton Place and have no way to see what I wrote last, I will operate from memory and bring you all up to speed.

As I am certain has become apparent from my rants about the cigarettes, filth, and general intrusions into just living a simple life that come from the presence of tourists and visitors to downtown, it will come as no surprise to anyone who has been following this blog that my patience with downtown life was wearing thin. Late last winter, when it became clear that the construction economy was in the doldrums here and that builders were eager for work I set about the task of finding someone to build the house I designed two years ago on my land in North Asheville. As it turned out, lots of people seemed interested in the project but in the end I decided that Jason Marshall, who had gone through the bidding process in 2007, knew the house better than anyone new could, and stood a better chance of getting it built on my very tight budget than anyone who would be starting from scratch. We discussed the house in general terms, particularly with respect to what I might be willing to do without for a few years if I could just afford to get the thing built now and get into it. But since Jason wanted to be compensated for his time bidding it again, I decided that I needed to really firm up the financing before starting to run up expenses in the bidding process.

I had read plenty of news stories about how the credit market was changing almost daily since last fall, but hadn’t come face to face with it until I started shopping for a loan. I had done some preliminary work prior to contacting Jason and determined that Morgan Stanley was no longer a competitive source (as they had been in 2007 when I first thought I would be building) and had had some preliminary discussions with a loan officer at Suntrust in Asheville. I had run through the rudiments of my financial situation with him and determined that, in his opinion, I would have no trouble borrowing the amount I had decided upon for construction. Unfortunately, after my preliminary discussions with Jason, when I went back to this same guy, about 5 weeks after assuring me there would be no difficulty, the story had changed. Through an astoundingly rude and brusque email, he informed me that he couldn’t say whether or not something could be done for me but that I would have to go through the entire cumbersome loan application process before he could even pre-qualify me for the loan he had previously said was no problem.

From the abrasive tone of his email, and from the scuttlebutt around town about the losses Suntrust was sustaining in the mortgage meltdown of late 2008 and early 09, I gather there was no future in continuing to deal with this boor and began a voyage around town to no fewer than 5 other financial institutions, none of which was too promising. Two things had happened. One was that stated income loans had vanished from the face of the earth. Since I have been pretty inactive workwise for almost 5 years, and since for the 28 years before that I had been self employed, stated income loans were almost the only form of borrowing I had ever done on all the homes and properties I have owned. The other news that emerged from making the rounds was that I could probably get a construction loan, and I could probably get a mortgage, but it would be pretty much impossible to get construction-perm financing which ties them both together, requires a single closing, and establishes the interest rate for the permanent financing at the time the borrower signs the loan application. More than one banker advised me just to go ahead and borrow the construction money and then worry about a mortgage when the house was close to completed. It amazed me that in the middle of the worst series of loan failures in memory of anyone younger than 80, bankers would advise taking this kind of risk, but that was all they could do.

Finally my friends Matt and Amy suggested that I talk to a guy name Geoff Ferland with whom they had had some dealings through the green building industry. Geoff was an independent mortgage broker who was running his loans through Royal Bank of Scotland and was young and ambitious, and aggressively pursued loan products for his clients. I met with Geoff several times and he was pretty encouraging but couldn’t really say definitively that he could get me what I needed until we ran some numbers using my 2008 tax returns. And so, on St. Patrick’s Day, after weeks of hovering around doing some business, Geoff and I spent 2-1/2 hrs in his office crunching every number imaginable, only to finally conclude, after my brain had turned to Jell-O, that I would only be able to borrow about 55% of what I needed to build. Not good news.

Demoralized, I went to the annual St Patty’s day event put on by the Marshalls and told Brian that I needed to start looking for a house. Meanwhile, I had two weeks left on my lease at the condo. So I negotiated a new lease with Cheryl, Jim and Nancy, the perfectly lovely owners of the condo, and I started looking at houses and condos again. In truth I had never really stopped looking but I began again in earnest after things fell apart with Geoff. He did say he could get me a reasonable mortgage if I decided to buy something but that I didn’t have anything in mind.

And so, Brian and I started looking far and wide for acceptable non-downtown housing. I looked at houses, condos, new construction and old, and finally found a condo that seemed like it had some potential. It was located within a couple hundred feet of the bottom edge of my land, so theoretically would be a good spot from which to manage a building project eventually. It was in the same neighborhood in which I eventually intended to live and would give Abner and me a chance to meet our future neighbors while waiting out the insanity of the current credit market. The place had three bedrooms and 3-1/2 baths on three floors on a lovely piece of land with a creek flowing by it. It was built in 1985 or 86 and had some slight remodeling done. It had a horrible mid-80s kitchen, and only the Master Bath had been redone well. But there was enough space that I figured we could be comfortable and it would provide me comfortable guest space on a separate floor from the one I would be sleeping on. There were several small decks to enjoy the view of the creek and woods surrounding it, and there were only 4 units in the whole project. . .two in each building with a party wall separating them.

That was the good news. The bad news came when I had home and pest inspections done. We had successfully negotiated a price I felt I could live with and that would afford me some money to fix some of the problems I knew I wouldn’t want to live with for long. The problem came with the laundry list of faults found by the inspectors and a surprising attitude on the part of the owners and their neighbors. As is typical of condo developments, when you purchase a condo, you are only buying the interior finished spaces. All structure, and exteriors are owned by and maintained by the association. Problem was that this association, not only had never, in 24 years, established a reserve account out of which they could pay for needed repairs and maintenance, but they had all had a de facto agreement that in spite of what it said in their bylaws, the association did little other than pay for grounds maintenance and water consumption from the monthly dues. People had, over the years, been responsible for maintaining the decks, attics, crawl spaces and so on. What was apparent from the inspection reports is that the owners of the unit I was trying to buy had pretty much ignored all these issues.

Most of the problems were in the crawl spaces but they added up to potentially as much as $15,000 worth of repairs that I was no willing to absorb. Making matters worse was the fact that when the units were built, they were constructed almost completely on what is called a post-and-pier block system of foundations rather than the more substantial continuous concrete or block foundations that most of us are accustomed to. This resulted in virtually unlimited access to the crawl spaces to any animal that could fit through a 6-8” gap that occasionally appeared between the siding skirts and ground line. There was plenty of evidence of animals, probably raccoons and possums nesting in the batts of insulation until between the weight of the animal and the water with which they were sodden due to failed vapor barriers and a retaining wall holding back the driveway which was a virtual waterfall, the batts fell down and the animals would simply move to the next section still in place.

What I came to realize though was that with no demising wall between the unit I had under contract and the neighboring unit, even if the owners fixed everything in their crawl space, unless the wall were completed, all the moisture and wildlife that was under the neighboring unit would migrate over to mine. Consequently, when the sellers expressed no interest in fixing the vast majority of the defects called out in the inspections, I cancelled the deal, hundreds of dollars poorer from the experience but having dodged a money-pit type bullet.

Things fell apart near the end of April on the condo deal and Brian and I started really looking in earnest as soon as I had the emotional stamina to handle it. We looked at practically every condo on the market in N. Asheville but came up empty handed. The houses were not particularly inspiring either. Asheville has not embraced lowering prices as a method of selling a house in a tough market. Most people seem to be holding onto the 2007 peak prices and would rather simply sit on their properties than lower their asking prices substantially. I looked at houses that had been on the market for as much as a year and a half and found nothing I really wanted. Meanwhile, Geoff was suddenly out in the cold as far as lending since RBS decided to pull out of the Asheville market due to low volume. Thus, I began looking for still another source of financing at the same time the house hunt was proceeding.

Finally, I had lunch with Holly Black one day and was complaining about how depressing the hunt was when she made one of those seemingly off-hand remarks that triggered something in my thinking. Holly told me I had to broaden my horizon in the search. What she meant was that I had to start looking at more expensive places. . .places that would require me to sell the N Asheville property in order to afford them. The advice I took instead was to broaden the search geographically. By adding my old zip code, 28803, a large number of listings popped up for consideration. Many of these were not in acceptable locations as far as I was concerned since I didn’t want to have to drive down either Sweeten Creek Road or Hendersonville Road to go to and from my home. Both of these streets feed large areas of relatively new development in South Asheville and are simply overwhelmed with traffic, and Hendersonville Road is so heavily developed with uncontrolled commercial buildings and parking that it is a very unattractive road to have to deal with on a regular basis.

What did come up though is an area I had never really considered or explored that is sort of East Southeast of central Asheville. Off US74A there are a number of quiet mature residential neighborhoods tucked away but still only 8 to 10 minutes from the center of downtown. As luck would have it, a house appeared on the market in one of these neighborhoods that looked like it had potential, so I called Brian and we scheduled a look. As it turned out, the house had a lot going for it but some significant problems as well so I was not prepared to jump in and make an offer but was considering it. I decided to drive out to the area myself later on and just scope out the whole neighborhood to see if it might appeal to me. In the course of doing that, I saw a house on a different street that had a sign in front and it looked more appealing than the other house had. I got home, called Brian and arranged to go look at it. It had only been on the market for a little over a week when I went through, and rather than wait for someone else to scoop it up, I got onto the due diligence stuff immediately. I spoke with the chairman of the homeowner’s association to make certain there were no weird things going on that would scare me off, and read all the bylaws and CC&Rs thoroughly. Within 4 days of seeing it, we revisited the house and I made an offer.

The sellers were apparently not expecting anything quite this quickly, and were pleased to have an agreement , but had plans to move that didn’t coincide with my desire to get to a quieter dwelling. They are moving to an established seniors community in Black Mountain, NC and didn’t feel that they could get in before early September. I on the other hand, really wanted to be out of my place before Bele Chere weekend in Asheville since downtown isn’t fit for human occupancy during this orgy of bad food and beer on the streets.

The compromise turned out to be a close in mid-August. And so, after navigating what is currently a fairly apalling process of obtaining financing, during which I had to prove pretty much everything but my blood type (twice) I am scheduled to take possession of my new home in the quiet Laurel Creek neighborhood of Asheville, on August 14th. Since there are a number of things that have to be done before I can move in, there will be a delay until the 25th for the actual move, but the excitement is building, and I am starting the process of packing.

Meanwhile, since my close and move couldn’t occur prior to Bele Chere, and since there was no way I was willing to be here during the wild days of funnel cake and beer behind barricades, I took the advice of Peter and Sandra and booked a room at the Inn and Middleton Place for Abner and me to hide out. This, it turned out, was just what we both needed. Peter and Sandy drove down for Friday and Saturday and Abner and I stayed over until Monday noon, and we all had a great time.

I had visited Middleton many years ago to tour the remains of the plantation’s buildings and the gorgeous gardens overlooking the Ashley River, but had never stayed at, nor even seen the Inn.
Middleton was established in 1741 as a show plantation for the wealthy owners to entertain and wow their friends. It is just upriver from Magnolia and Drayton Hall, the two other principal historic plantations along the Ashley outside of Charleston. The Middleton family had, according to our tour guide, upwards of 20 functioning plantations in the area, but built Middleton more for show and gracious living than actual productivity. There were rice fields and a mill, but the large acreage of lush gardens on a bluff above the river located at a sharp bend turned out to be the really important element of the place.

There had been three large houses, a central mansion and two similar flanking structures that held guest accommodations, a library and assorted other functions of gracious 18th and 19th century life for a wealthy plantation family. The gardens have large formal patterned sections surrounding grand water features and then soften to rolling lawns and other less geometric ponds stepping down to the river.

At the end of the Civil War, the Union Army arrived at Middleton, took what they needed and wanted and burned most of the rest. The owner at the time had been one of the signers of South Carolina's articles of Secession and the Union apparently intended to punish him for that. The family fled to other locales and the remains of the plantation fell on hard times. Its condition was worsened with the great earthquake of 1886. What the Union Army and neglect didn’t destroy, the earthquake took care of. The remains of the main house and one of the flankers were leveled, and the ponds were torn apart and emptied into the Ashley River in minutes. Over a century of development and care were decimated.

In the early 20th Century, though, an heir to the Middletons decided to begin an ambitious restoration project that eventually led to the foundation that now operates the estate. It is stunningly beautiful and well worth a visit. See:
Then in the late 20th century, the owners decided to build the Inn at Middleton Place on wooded land immediately southeast of the gardens and remaining buildings of the historic plantation. It is small and contemporary, set in clearings in the woods. The Inn was built as a series of small buildings strung along line of the bluff of the river but back far enough that they are discrete. All rooms have fireplaces and clean contemporary designs even though it is now approaching 20 years old. Most importantly, smoking is prohibited and the place is dog friendly.

The weather was pretty steamy but this is the South Carolina Low Country we are talking about and we were there in late July so it was pretty much expected. Abner and I walked in the woods on the trails that have been created for pedestrians and bicyclists from the Inn. You can also walk to the formal gardens, the historic buildings, and the shops on the plantation proper. The one thing I hadn’t quite counted on was mosquitoes. There were gigazillions of them. It got to the point where it was hardly worth swatting them when they landed on my legs for a drink. These were very peculiar mosquitoes though. First of all, they were smaller than ones I have known from growing up in the Midwest and from having spent 5 summers in the South. Not only were they tiny, and seemingly indifferent to being pulverized on my calves, but the strangest thing of all was that the bites only itched for about 15 minutes. I would get a bite, and the predictable circular red raised welt would appear, and itch as one might expect, but frequently, by the time I got back to the room and went to apply Stop Itch to the targets, they would have all but disappeared. If you are interested in the Inn, check out for most of the information you might need. The place is quiet and private. The staff are wonderful, and the experience of being away from crowds of people grabbing at Abner, smoking, and cracking the same jokes about polar bears and saddles was what I needed.

We drove into Charleston both Friday and Saturday nights for dinners at my two favorite dining spots in town. Friday we ate at Fish on King Street. They have remodeled and expanded since I was there last but the dinners are still memorable. Sandy and I both ate bouillabaisse and agreed that it was simply the best we had ever had.

Saturday night we dined at Slightly North of Broad (aka SNOB) for what I think was my 6th or 7th time there. It never disappoints. They still have a bowl of Prince Edward Island mussels on the appetizer menu for $8.50 that is so huge it is effectively all you can eat. They are wonderful, as is pretty much everything else I have ever eaten there. If you are in Charleston, I highly recommend both of these places. Along with Wren, in Beaufort, they are topping my list of favorites in this region. Of course I have a large list of places in Asheville that I love as well, but that can wait for another post.

Abner and I returned home on Monday the 27th and I started the serious business of getting down to planning my move. I still need to find a tenant for my condo, and there are some odds and ends that aren’t quite solved, not to mention a huge amount of packing that remains, but the loan has been approved, the movers are lined up, and I am really ready to be in my new place.
The bluebird monitoring at Biltmore seems to be winding down for the season. Of the 14 boxes I am checking, only one was still in use this week and the occupants who are now about 2 weeks old look like they will probably move out before I check back next week. This has been fun and educational, and occasionally sad. Nature is sometimes cruel to its more vulnerable citizens. I was saddened to see a dead bluebird mother on her empty nest where the previous week she had been incubating 5 eggs. Black snakes have figured out how to get into many of these boxes and the birds are no match for them.

But the flip side comes from opening up a box and finding 5 healthy babies with tiny yellow beaks agape in anticipation of being fed. They develop their feathers and coloring so fast and then fly away to their adult lives. The experience of taking one bird out, one day a couple weeks ago, to count the ones underneath him was particularly enjoyable. When I placed him back in the nest, he apparently decided that he had had enough of the crowded conditions and flew out the front opening as I closed the side flap. His flight was flawless and he headed straight to a large oak tree where there were a dozen or so other birds already perched. One of his siblings then climbed into the opening and stared at me as if trying to decide whether or not he too should fly. Eventually, he dropped back down into the nest to wait a bit longer but it makes me feel good to see these little birds make it from egg to healthy fledgling in a few short weeks.

I think I should finish this post. It seems like I have told you little of the day-to-day drama that has gone on for the last couple months but I guess I just wasn’t in the mood this time. I hope you enjoy the pictures though, and the next post will be from the new house.

Best to all.
On a hike I did with Matt and Amy and the dogs, we came across 5 or 6 monumentally stupid college age guys with a little too much testosterone, who had decided to drive their jeep up the Laurel Creek Gorge hiking trail. The trail is narrow. . .some spots are barely 18 inches wide, and it is strictly for pedestrians and bicyclists. When we met them the first time they were more than a mile in, with nowhere to turn around and a big downed tree and boulder blocking their way. They apparently moved enough to continue but we then saw them on foot later. This was where they had to leave their Jeep. This is so illegal that we were amazed that anyone would try such a stupid stunt. When we found the car, it was on a 45 degree angle, leaking gas, and wedged in between some boulders with no way to move it anywhere.

The shot above is some of the damage they caused driving through lush growth of rhododendron and smaller more delicate plants. What a bunch of idiots.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Even these blackeyed susans were wild. I have no idea what the delicate white stuff is below but it too seems to be abundant everywhere Abner and I hike. The bees really seem to like the susans. Almost every flower had a bee on it.

This is the bird I mentioned in the text of this blog. A sibling of his had just decided the time had come to fledge and he flew away while I was standing next to their birth box. This guy then came up and sat in the opening staring at me deciding whether or not his time was due. In the end, he went back into the nest with the other remaining baby but I am certain they had flown within a day.

There has been a lot of rain this summer and the forest floor is covered with every imaginable variety of fern and moss. It is all so lush and green. I wonder how people can stand to live in the desert.
Some of the wildflowers were new to me this year. I don't know what this is, but I love the green patch inside the petals.
One of the bird boxes I monitor is right by an old family cemetary on the grounds of Biltmore at the top of a hill. This is the memorial stone naming the family members buried on the site. On the way back down from the cemetary, I came across a very tall and beautiful thistle that had bloomed and was providing a feast for this bee.

This orchid is one that Jim Rogers grew in the greenhouse attached to the Conservatory at Biltmore. I had never seen a flower with actual black coloring on it before. The fungus below was growing on the Bent Creek Trail in the Arboretum and to me looked exactly like some of the coral I have seen while diving.
We have had some very dramatic weather this summer. The shot above is of Biltmore as you approach the house from the South on the Deerpark Trail. The three shots below were all within minutes of each other as a rip roaring thunderstorm went through and spawned a tornado that blew through Biltmore and took out numerous huge old trees. Cleanup took weeks.

What is there to say about mushrooms. They come in so many sizes, shapes and colors. Who knew?

Wild flowers were abundant this spring and summer. Above are the very common Mountain Laurel blooms we see all over the place here, but I still think they are beautiful. The flower below grows wild in many of the forests around Asheville, and I still don't know what it is.
The photo above is of one of the buildings of the Inn at Middleton Place. I am not sure about the creature below. He was a huge flying insect that was resing on one of the tires of my car when I was ready to leave. He wasn't.

Those of you who have followed this blog remember my fascination with all the mushrooms and other fungi that proliferate the forests here.
Above is one of the ponds in the gardens at Middleton Place. The three photos below are of the Inn. Immediately below is the Lodge where there is a game room-library space in which they serve wine and cheese to guests every afternoon. The other shots are actually of the buildings with the guest rooms. This place was fabulous.

This guy is an Ibis who was walking around in the heat of a July afternoon at Middleton Place poking his curved and pointy beak into the ground for something tasty. I would have been in the shade if I had to hunt for food that afternoon. Below is the remaining residential building at Middleton. It was originally used as a guest house adjacent to the now ruined main house.

The gardens are fairly formal until you get close to the Ashley River, which you can see below as it flows toward Charleston and the Atlantic.
This whole group of shots were taken late on Sunday afternoon in July at Middleton Place. It was hot, and very humid. I thought I would collapse from the heat but wanted to get these photos. Abner stayed in the room where it was air conditioned.

I didn't get too close to the swan. My recollection is that they can get quite aggressive, and I decided not to test it out.
These shots were all taken on a hot Saturday in July at Middleton Place outside of Charleston. You have to see this place to believe it. The Great Blue Heron below was not only probably the biggest one I had ever seen, but he also was the least concerned about the proximity of people. I couldn't have been more than 30 feet away when I took this photo and he showed no interest in moving.

In the above shot you can see the construction of Antler Village below the Inn on Biltmore Estate. Below is the French Broad which is looking a little muddy these days with so much rain. Better than drought though.

This year in the fields along the river, they have planted rows of sunflowers and what I think are soy beans surrounding the corn fields. It is so beautiful. The shot below is of one of the ponds at Middleton Place.
So many baby birds were born this season, I feel like a father dozens of times over. These shots will give you an idea of how crammed into these nests the birds are when they are starting to mature and get ready to fledge.

The babies above were only a couple days old and thought I was mom. Below is the beginnings of the new Antler Village project at Biltmore. It will contain a number of new buildings including a new Outdoor Center, a pub, and some interactive exhibits relating to the farm and dairy. Can't wait.