A slippery slope

Battle lines are drawn as mountain counties try to balance development with preserving the region’s natural beauty.
By Edward Martin

It was February, when trees are bare and secrets hard to hide. Not that Jackson County has many. Though strangers keep pouring in — its population has grown by more than a third since 1990 — it still has only 36,000 residents, so it didn’t take long for rumors of a protest to reach Sheriff Jimmy Ashe. One held that contractors and developers would overrun Sylva, the tiny county seat, using construction equipment to block streets. Another suggested they would target a large meeting planned at nearby Southwestern Community College. Ashe, a 25-year lawman, knew there was always a chance some loudmouth with a mattock handle behind the seat of his pickup would get hot and all hell break loose.

“I’ve never seen a situation where you had friends and neighbors facing off like this with such opposing ideas,” he says. Better to take no chances. He would have all his deputies on duty, plus Sylva police. He would even call in state troopers and the state Department of Transportation.

On the last Tuesday before March, Susan Fortner, a manager at Nick & Nate’s pizzeria in Sylva, crested a knoll on N.C. 107, headed for her home six miles away in Cullowhee. “There were trucks lined up everywhere. Dump trucks, cement trucks, trailers and backhoes for miles. Traffic was pretty well crippled totally.”

By dusk, more than 1,300 people filled Southwestern’s Myers Auditorium, and hundreds more milled around outside. Ashe estimates 3,000 jammed the small campus, including truck drivers, carpenters and others — many given paid time off by employers to stage a show of force. Under threat of being hauled off to jail, all kept their tempers in check. They had been drawn by a public hearing for a proposed six-month moratorium on new housing subdivisions, but despite all the theatrics, county commissioners ended up passing the ban. It’s being challenged in court.

Once, elected officials joked that they could hold planning and zoning hearings in telephone booths. Now, variations of the scene in Jackson County are repeated throughout western North Carolina almost weekly. In April, more than 500 showed up in Buncombe County, which passed its first countywide zoning ordinance. In Boone, home of Appalachian State University, about 400 packed the Watauga County Courthouse for a hearing on restricting home building on steep slopes.

Western North Carolina sprawls about 10,000 square miles from the state line of Virginia to that of Georgia. It’s roughly the size of Maryland, and throughout the region development pressure is increasing, frequently pitting newcomers and outsiders against descendants of pioneers, contractors against conservationists. Even within those groups, there’s room for dissension.

Demand from second-home buyers and retirees, many of whom have soured on Florida’s seasonal sameness, is pushing houses closer to the summits of the state’s tallest peaks and up mountainsides long considered unfit for buildings. Geologists fret over houses and condos being built in landslide zones and flood plains. Soaring land prices — in Laurelmor, a 6,000-acre residential development near Boone, 1,500 building lots start at $500,000 each — tempt owners to sell long-held family land.

Construction has become more important to the state and regional economies. Statewide, employment reached 246,000 in March — up about 25% in the past 10 years. Each year, it gets harder to make Business North Carolina’s ranking of the state’s 20 largest general contractors. North Carolina revenue for No. 20 went from $101 million on last year’s list to $110 million.

With the decline of manufacturing, construction jobs have become more precious — especially in mountain counties where unemployment rates historically have run high. A study paid for by opponents of the Jackson moratorium concludes that an average construction worker earns $40,000 a year, about $12,000 more than the county average income. “A lot of the people who spoke at the hearing really pulled at the heartstrings,” says William Shelton, a Jackson County commissioner. “We had people who would stand up and say they had babies to feed and the moratorium was going to cost them their jobs.”

Ultimately, though, struggles such as those in Jackson County touch a deeper strand. Opponents of development regulations accuse recent arrivals of wanting to raise the drawbridge now that they’re settled in their castles. Regulation, they argue, amounts to taking their property without paying. “I don’t believe the police powers of the county include confiscation of private property on these private ridges, but that’s the intent,” says Marty Jones, an organizer of the Jackson County protest and owner of Marty Jones Realty in Cashiers.

Others argue that contractors and developers threaten their property rights by turning mountain vales into suburbia with an altitude. Shelton hears increasingly often from people in that camp. He received more than 475 e-mails in the 10 days before the vote on the moratorium, 75% asking him to support it. Most writers got his address from newspaper advertisements paid for by developers and real-estate agents. They urged construction workers and landowners to bombard commissioners with protests. “It backfired,” he says.

Shelton’s family has lived near the small town of Whittier, close to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, since the 1700s. He grows greenhouse vegetables and hydroponic tomatoes. Last year, he was elected by promising to slow growth, as were two others on the five-member board. “You have to bring order to chaos, and the writing’s on the wall. I’m being approached by people who 10 years ago would never have supported any kind of regulation. Now they’re saying, ‘Stop. You have to protect us.’ We’ve reached the tipping point.”

The pace of development in western North Carolina, opponents and supporters agree, is breathtaking. On a Saturday morning in downtown Murphy, vendors under bright tents hawk squash, tomatoes and handicrafts. Sparrows peck crumbs from visitors’ fingers. It’s often cited as the westernmost town in North Carolina, but today more than half the license plates are from Georgia and Florida. Town houses for weekend getaways dot hillsides. “It’s become an exurb of Atlanta,” says Jim Smith, an economist at Western Carolina University.

Georgia’s capital is just 135 miles away — not much farther than Asheville — and the driving time is about the same. Larger houses frequently are occupied only spring and summer or owned by “halfbacks,” those who moved to Florida from the North but have come halfway back. Contractors and real-estate agents say they’re responding to the changing tastes of wealthy newcomers who want larger, more expensive houses and — the source of much of the current controversy — lofty perches.

Nearly 200 miles northeast of Murphy, Laurelmor reflects the trend. Its size is staggering, covering about 4% of Watauga County. In addition to what’s built on the 1,500 lots, it will have 60 miles of roads carved into forest and mountainsides, two golf courses and more than 400 condominiums and chalets. Developed by The Ginn Co. of Celebration, Fla., its acreage and potential market value make it the largest development in state history, real-estate executives say. So far, says Doug Miller, president of the Ginn division that develops projects in eastern mountains, about 150 lots have sold. The average price has been $600,000, and Floridians have bought a third. The rest have gone mostly to out-of-state buyers from the Northeast. North Carolinians bought fewer than 50 lots.

It’s not a new phenomenon — western North Carolina marketers have targeted Floridians for decades — but something else is. “When I was a kid, the high-dollar land was the bottom land,” Shelton, 45, says. “We sustained ourselves in the low country and were content to look up at the mountains. Now, the higher you go, the higher the value. People want to be on top of the mountains looking down.”

Helicopters from Atlanta frequently buzz southern Jackson County, showing potential buyers mountaintop land. “The development pressure isn’t because we’ve run out of flat land,” Jones says. “But suddenly, local people are seeing big homes on ridges where for generations there haven’t been any — places where they used to go to bear hunt. Lots are selling for $600,000, which means you’re going to have $2 million homes on them.”

High-visibility developments bring high dollar but also spark plenty of outrage. Critics point to Saluda Mountain in Henderson County. New houses visible for miles dot its landmark peak. The legislature, prompted by a high-rise atop Sugar Mountain in Avery County, passed a law in 1984 prohibiting mountaintop projects more than 40 feet tall, but today’s buyers and developers again are pushing the limits. That’s forcing confrontations between regulation supporters and skeptics such as Asheville City Council member Jan Davis, who recently opposed, unsuccessfully, tighter rules on how many homes can be built on steep slopes. Though “not happy” that a mountainside above him is being stripped, he says, “That’s not my mountain to develop.”

In Buncombe County, commissioners this spring adopted height limits on buildings — mostly condominiums — pegging them to altitude. Asheville sits at about 2,200 feet above sea level. At elevations of more than 2,500 feet, buildings can’t be taller than 35 feet, effectively three stories. Higher than 4,000 feet, they can’t be more than 25 feet tall, or two stories. Some opponents of development unsuccessfully lobbied for a temporary ban. “We’ve learned not to use the ‘M’ word here,” says Planning Director Jon Craighton.

Richard Crepeau struggles with the issues of regulation versus property rights. A member of the Boone Board of Adjustments, which hears pleas from those who want to relax zoning rules, he teaches classes on land-use and private-property issues at Appalachian State. Opposition to development, he says, does not always come just from longtime landowners. It’s often from those who have moved to Boone in the last 10 years.

“Most come from outside Watauga and North Carolina, so living with some type of development ordinance isn’t out of the ordinary. Generally, the Watauga native is more suspicious of the government’s role in the land market. It’s the newer arrivals who say, ‘I’m aboard. Pull up the ladder.’” The rush to develop, he adds, is being fueled in part by longtime residents who are concerned that growth pressures will lead to regulations that might prevent them from developing their land or leaving it to their children.

In Whittier, Shelton sees similar reactions. “A lot of people here are conflicted. They hate to see their mountains destroyed, but on the other hand, they have the attitude to get theirs while the getting’s good.” They’d better move fast. More regulation is coming.

Hardwood forest smothers sharp slopes and bluffs. There are few signs that man ever intruded here — only a few cabin ruins on thousands of acres. More than 60 miles of trout streams lace these woods. Houses cannot be built within 30 feet of them. To minimize fire danger, laurel, which has an oily sap that burns easily, is banned near houses. Cut a tree larger than 6 inches in diameter without permission, you’ll pay a $50,000 fine.

In Laurelmor, buyers agree to design guidelines intended to protect the environment, safety of residents and the property values of $2 million-and-up homes. The trade-off: certain liberties. Many of Laurelmor’s restrictions, and those of other new developments, far eclipse those imposed by public bodies. That’s one reason why, except for building bans or height limits for aesthetic reasons, efforts to regulate growth in western North Carolina focus on reining in practices that could lead to disasters.

There already have been some. On a December morning in 2003, about 30 miles west of Asheville, Patricia and Edward Jones were puttering in their house when an ominous rumble from the nearly vertical slope above startled them. He ran out in time to see a 12-foot wall of mud roaring toward their house. It took rescuers five hours with backhoes to recover her body.

The death toll was five times greater in 2004, when a debris flow triggered by remnants of Hurricane Ivan slashed 2.5 miles down a Macon County mountainside, destroying 15 homes. A year later, the General Assembly targeted 19 counties for study. From a base in Asheville, Rick Wooten, senior geologist with the N.C. Geological Survey, heads a two-year-old, $1.3 million mapping of landslide zones in western North Carolina. Wooten and his colleagues have found slides surprisingly common. Since 1990, the state has logged six deaths and 45 structures destroyed.

“Believe it or not, we got off easy with [hurricanes] Francis and Ivan,” Wooten says. In Watauga County, site of some of the most aggressive development, rain from a 1940 hurricane caused an unknown number of deaths and triggered more than 2,100 landslides. “That compares with only 155 we know of during Ivan and Francis.” The most sobering glimpse of what geologists fear came in 1969, when remnants of Hurricane Camille stalled over the mountains of Virginia and dumped more than 30 inches of rain in eight hours. Slides killed more than 150 in Nelson County alone. It could just as easily have happened in North Carolina. “We’ve got in the database now about 4,000 entries — both landslides and landslide deposits — where debris flows happened in the past,” Wooten says. More than 30 slides from hurricanes Francis and Ivan in 2004 were mapped in Macon County. “All had experienced multiple debris flows in the past. Mapping is a good indicator where they can happen again.”

Debris fans, deposits left by past landslides, cover about 3% of Macon County, about 15 square miles. In Haywood County, near where Patricia Jones died, Wooten and other geologists have found an apartment complex built on a debris fan. Faced with more requests for developments on slopes, regulators are forced to deal with the question: How steep is too steep? The answer can be complex, depending on factors such as soil, geology and what’s built above the proposed structure. But some of the ordinances approved or under consideration suggest that the answer often is: very steep.

In Polk County, where more permits for subdivision lots had been issued by April than in all of 2006, a proposed law would restrict building on slopes of more than 50%, a one-foot rise for every two linear feet. Boone’s restrictions begin at 30% but allow building with a geologist’s approval on slopes of greater than 50%. Such terrain can barely be negotiated on foot. “A 50% slope is about 27 degrees,” Wooten says. “When it gets to about 30 degrees, you need a handhold. You just about need to walk on your hands and knees.”

Counties that don’t regulate mountain developments might be forced to. In April, three western North Carolina legislators introduced a bill that would require them to enact slope ordinances that meet or exceed minimum state requirements.

For those who regulate, the presence of such ordinances relieves some, but not all, of the stress of ruling on projects. “One size doesn’t fit all,” says Crepeau, the Boone adjustments board member. “I’d hate to approve a project that slides down the side of the mountain.” That could take the debate to another level. Some county commissioners say they’ve already received death threats over regulatory matters. “The majority of the locals are saying, ‘We just want to be left alone,’” Jones says. “They’re saying, ‘It’s our land, and we don’t want a whole bunch of ordinances.’”

Shelton says there’s more to it than that. “We in western North Carolina are trying to strike a balance between growth and economic development and overdevelopment. What we’re seeing is a lot of corporate developers coming in here with dollar signs in their eyes and then leaving the county hold-ing the bag. Somebody said something that hits home: ‘There’s never been a generation that was willing to sacrifice so much of the future for the present.’”