Take the high ground

The Sunshine State style of development casts shadows as Floridians flood into the North Carolina mountains.
By Cynthia Barnett

For a quarter-century, each July University of Florida Foundation officials have packed up orange and blue banners, balloons, Gator cups and other UF paraphernalia and driven eight hours to throw a party at the favorite summer getaway spot of some of the university’s most generous donors: western North Carolina.

So many Floridians now sojourn in the region that UF officials have had to split the bash into two parties over two nights. To treat the Carolina crowd to an evening of “bluegrass, barbecue and Bernie,” President Bernie Machen has to spend one night in Highlands and the next in Linville. “It’s grown so much, we’ve really maxed out the seating,” says Carter Boydstun, senior associate vice president for development at the UF Foundation. “Every summer, we have a lot more names to add to the invitation list.”

Whether chased by the heat, the hurricanes or property-tax and insurance costs, more Floridians are buying second homes in western North Carolina — or packing permanently for the mountains. And Florida home builders are following their customers north. Seeking to diversify as they ride out Florida’s housing downturn, the builders are buying up mountaintops and developing them by the thousands of acres. But they are betting on an uncertain boom. For in these cloud-laced mountains, Florida history is repeating itself in a dozen different ways. In some areas, speculators have lost money on deals that proved too good to be true. In others, rising land values and taxes are leading locals to sell out and move on, homogenizing the mountain culture as Christmas-tree crops become rooftops. Across the region, lack of development regulation has led to environmental problems, from groundwater scarcity to soil erosion.

“People move to western North Carolina communities because they think these small towns are so quaint, and then they perch a 5,000-square-foot house on the side of the mountain,” says Robin Cape, an Asheville City Council member exposed to western North Carolina on summer trips from Tampa with her grandparents. “I wish people could remember that they’re not in Miami anymore.”

Florida’s connection to the mountains of North Carolina dates to the late 19th century. University of South Florida historian Gary Mormino says those who could afford it began to leave coastal Florida each summer to escape annual scourges of deadly yellow fever. During south Florida’s real-estate boom in the 1920s, the Asheville chamber hired director Fred Weede away from the Miami chamber, “a clear statement that Asheville wanted what was happening in Miami,” says Western Carolina University history professor Richard D. Starnes, author of Creating the Land of the Sky: Tourism and Society in Western North Carolina. Boom towns like Palm Beach and Miami had proven that transportation — rail or road — was key to landing tourists and second-home buyers. Weede was among those who persuaded federal officials to route the Blue Ridge Parkway through North Carolina, excluding rival mountain destinations in Tennessee.

Throughout the 20th century, Asheville’s real-estate fortunes were tied closely to Florida’s. “You see many of the same people operating under different business names in both markets, and the same speculators speculating in both markets,” Starnes says. In the 1930s, “when the Florida market crashed, the Asheville market followed.” Starnes, North Carolina real-estate agents and others say they see a similar symbiosis today. “We can pretty much connect the dots,” says Tom Tveidt, director of research with the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, who tracks migration data for Buncombe, Madison, Haywood and Henderson counties. Tveidt’s research shows Florida is the top feeder state by far.

Southwest of Asheville in the rugged but upscale town of Cashiers, Realtor Jane Ebberts shows up for an interview looking ready for fly-fishing: jeans, hiking boots and a backcountry blouse. Originally from Buffalo, N.Y., she and her husband raised a family and pursued careers in central Florida, where she was a software designer. They came here in 1997, when he sold his security firm to a national company and retired early. “We really wanted to get back to all four seasons, but not Buffalo’s four seasons.” A friend recommended Cashiers. They came in May and didn’t want to return home, even long enough to sell their house. “It was love at first sight. It’s beautiful weather and a lifestyle, and you’re not going to get attacked by mosquitoes, either.”

The Ebbertses fall into a large demographic group known as halfbacks — retirees or others who come to Florida from the Northeast or Midwest, then move halfway back home, whether to North Carolina or another midlatitude state. Many halfbacks fall for the mountain weather: Average temperatures are 15 degrees cooler than Florida’s in the summer, with Crayola-bright autumns, light-snow winters and rhododendron-blooming springs.

More Floridians keep second homes in North Carolina than move here full time — in some cases to avoid state income tax. But the ranks of those like the Ebbertses who move permanently are growing. The annual number of Floridians switching to North Carolina residency rose from 13,578 in 1990 to 26,653 last year. While Census data doesn’t reflect a major exodus, moving companies are beginning to pick up a trend. In January, United Van Lines reported that for the first time since it began keeping records in 1977 it moved more people out of Florida than into the state. The company’s annual migration survey found North Carolina was the No. 1 destination state nationally, with a 64% inbound migration rate in 2006. Florida’s rate was 51.2% outbound, 48.8% inbound — a statistical wash.

So many Florida home builders are following customers north these days that they report running into each other on the ridges. Ebberts represents projects by Steven Umansky of Tampa’s LandSource Development, Ian Gail of Sheridan & Gail in Fort Lauderdale, Herb Gimelstob of Boca Raton and Mountain View Ventures, part of Resources Planning of West Palm Beach. Northeast of Asheville in Linville, Naples-based Lutgert Cos. began developing Linville Ridge near Boone more than 20 years ago; more than 70% of the residents are from south Florida. Other southwest Florida developers, including the Bonita Bay Group in Bonita Springs and Stock Development in Naples, say they are scouting development possibilities in North Carolina but cannot go forward until real-estate fortunes in Florida improve.

While all the Florida cash is a boon to mountain economies, it has created tension. Just as Floridians rely on European visitors even as they ridicule their Speedos, North Carolina’s mountain communities have long counted on Florida summer-tourist dollars while simultaneously deriding “Floridiots” who drive 25 mph on mountain roads where the posted speed limit is 40. In recent years, the concerns have become more serious than pokey drivers. Dominated by early-retiree baby boomers, the newcomers are bidding up land and housing costs, even as wages and job growth increase only slightly, says Tveidt at the Asheville chamber. As a result, just as in many resort areas of Florida, workers in communities such as Cashiers and Highlands that cater to the newcomers often can’t afford to buy homes there. Other familiar themes: sprawl, traffic gridlock, air pollution and loss of prime pasture and forestland caused by rapid, poorly planned growth.

In the most-rural mountain counties, conflicts are arising as developers import new, unfamiliar types of development, says Jody Higgins, a native of Yancey County. Higgins, publisher of the Yancey County Journal, says Floridians are an established part of the culture in such places as Pensacola township, where they have mingled with mountain natives since the 1920s, dwelling in modest cabins with spectacular views of Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountains. Several new communities, however, feature much larger homes and gated entrances — once unheard of in Yancey, a quiet, conservative county that continues to ban the sale of liquor, beer and wine. “Why would you want to live behind a gate in the mountains?” asks Cape, the Asheville City Council member. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

When it comes to importing Sunshine State grandiosity, no Florida developer is doing it bigger than Celebration-based Ginn Resorts. Ginn’s 6,000-acre Laurelmor, a luxury golf community that covers parts of Watauga and Wilkes counties, is larger than the nearby towns of Boone and Blowing Rock combined. With hoopla reminiscent of Florida land companies circa the 1950s, Ginn threw an opening party last November and flew potential buyers — many from Florida — over the property in helicopters. Buyers were impressed, snapping up 240 lots, ranging from $450,000 to $1.2 million, that day. But residents worry that the development will drive up home prices in their communities, which are increasingly unaffordable for families. Environmentalists fear Laurelmor will aggravate water-supply problems.

To ease environmental concerns, Ginn has agreed to put at least 2,000 acres, including 63 miles of streams, in a conservation easement. Other Florida developers also are setting aside land as part of community amenities. However, too many don’t, says Jose Rosado of Coral Gables, developer of Great Camps of the Smokies in Graham County. Rosado is CEO of IBEX Mountain Group, which has purchased more than 1,000 acres of wilderness bordering Nantahala National Forest and Great Smoky Mountain National Park and plans to build four communities with hundreds of high-end, rustic homes. Rosado has pledged 70% of each community will be preserved as wilderness commons areas. “A lot of Florida developers have been doing some real high-quality stuff, but there’s a few that have come in and done it wrong,” he says, for example, taking “checkerboard” plans and plunking them down in the mountains.

Rosado says Florida developers “by and large don’t have experience with steep terrain” and encounter problems with erosion and drainage. Most local governments lack laws, such as “steep-slope” ordinances, designed to avoid such problems. Some counties have no planning or zoning laws whatsoever. Fort Myers luxury-home builder Bill Ennen tells of walking into the Yancey County Courthouse, asking directions to the zoning office and getting a puzzled look. There is no zoning office. “People have been very opposed to any sort of subdivision ordinances here because property rights are sacred,” says Higgins, the Yancey newspaper owner. “But now people are suddenly seeing the mountains being chopped all to pieces, and there’s finally a groundswell to do something.”

Residents were debating growth and development issues in counties all across the Appalachians this summer. In a scenario familiar in Florida, newcomers often were the ones spurring on the local governments to act. Having found a slice of natural beauty and slow pace of life, the most recent batch of immigrants is trying to keep the next batch from lousing it up. Jackson County, home to Cashiers, took the boldest step when it slapped a moratorium on all new development pending a tough new subdivision ordinance, which passed in August. The high-end Florida developers supported the new law. “I don’t think anyone wants to see the mountains chopped up,” says Tampa’s Umansky.

Mitchell County has begun to discuss a subdivision ordinance — but only after a real-estate scheme at a development called the Village of Penland scammed investors out of more than $100 million. Developers, including one from Bradenton, Fla., used inflated appraisals and phony second mortgages as down payments and persuaded investors to borrow millions, promising enormous profits. The developers failed to finish a single home on the 1,200-acre project, using the money on other failed projects in South Carolina and St. Thomas, according to Attorney General Roy Cooper.

Having experienced a seedy side to the housing boom, western North Carolina is beginning to see a downside. Counties that had bucked the national housing downturn noticed a slowdown this summer that in some cases was tied directly to Florida’s. Every real-estate broker seems to have stories of buyers who couldn’t close on the purchase of a mountain home because they couldn’t sell a home in Florida. At Century 21 All Seasons in Asheville, broker-in-charge Joe Grady advises sellers not to make deals contingent upon a sale in Florida. He’s even advising his brokers not to bother with customers who have to sell their homes there: “Do not get them in your car; do not play chauffeur; do not give them the tour,” he says. “In our experience, it is taking them a long, long time to sell.”

Just ask Daniel Longen, 64, and fiancée Susan Brady, 60. Last year, with their Naples home on the market, they bought one in the western Asheville suburbs, looking forward to four seasons. When their Naples place languished on the market, the couple decided to put the Asheville home up for sale, too, and to live in whichever one didn’t sell. Two weeks later, they headed back to Naples. “I’m disappointed, but not terribly because Naples isn’t that bad, and people really seem to be working on the things we were critical of, like homeowners insurance and taxes,” Longen says. “But those mountain vistas sure were nice.”