Building a road by eye around the mountain

First reports from the 2008 Mountain Landscapes Initiative’s charrette in western North Carolina

‘The homes at the crest actually devalue the homes down below’

By Tom Bennett
Special to Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition

Cullowhee, N.C., May 14, 2008 – The blade of a bulldozer is an unforgiving thing, and once you advance it on the side of a mountain and start scraping off vegetation without any real plan, you are creating a scalded surface that will take years to grow back.

This is the moment of destruction for that slope and any stream below it. In the absence of any land-use planning or enforcement of state regulations, as is commonplace out here in the western part of the Tarheel state, one man can spoil a 2,900-foot mountain and miles of stream. One man can do that.

The mountains and streams do matter a lot, at least to the people from all over this area who came here to Western Carolina University to participate in the non-profit Mountain Landscape Initiative and its week-long charrette, or series of workshops.

Does venting lead to real reform? Time will tell. Perhaps the difference in this latest of many initiatives to get modern government and land use out here is that the sponsors videotaped the comments of dozens of people. Surely this will bring to more decision makers a greater understanding of the problems. See citizens’ testimonies about what is needed to protect North Carolina’s mountains and waters at

The passion that many feel about these issues was apparent during the charrette.

“I’m from Clay County and I was watching the other day as a man was building a road by eye around the mountain,” said Jim Padgett, an architect.

“People feign ignorance about what they’re allowed to do,” said Susan Ervin, a member of the Macon County Planning Board in Franklin.

“The people who drive the backhoes don’t know the rules,” said Roger Clapp, executive director of the Watershed Association of the Tuckasagee River in Bryson City.

ONE OF THE PLEASANT SURPRISES in these mountains is that there are developers who apply conservation design concepts to subdivision development voluntarily. They do so at their own expense, even though the county they work in lacks any ordinance requiring them to do it.

Tom Lasley is a land developer in Asheville who says he has repeatedly run business-plan matrixes that show it is more profitable to cooperate with, not sidestep, the regulations.

“The homes at the crest actually devalue the homes down below,” said Lasley.

He attended the charrette to tell western North Carolina people to go to his web site and post comments to him telling how to be more environmentally friendly as a developer.

If only all builders were like Tom Lasley.

Callie Moore of the Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition said builders traveling here from the sunshine state often don’t adapt well.

“Erosion control measures that work in Florida don’t work here,” Moore said.

In her view, three main environmental problems in the mountains are:

  • “lack of enforcement of existing erosion control and stormwater rules;
  • poor subdivision site design resulting in poor development practices; and
  • poor private access road design.”

A total of about 100 persons attended hour-and-a-half-long water and mountains segments of the Southwestern Commission of Sylva’s five-day event here. This organization says when all this is over, it will present a “tool box” of steps for local governments to voluntarily take to achieve better government.

Forums in seven counties and the Qualla Boundary of the Cherokee Indians preceded this culminating event.


Among other comments and news developments from various persons around the meeting room today:

“We need to get to the point where each county is in charge of its own destiny.”

“Our newspaper in Cashiers asked, ‘Where does our water come from?’ And the answer was, ‘Nobody knows.’ The source of our water is a rather mysterious thing.”

“The two Jackson County commissioners (who supported passage last year of its historic steep-slope and subdivision ordinances) were re-elected, and so the ordinances are safe for another two years (when two other seats on the commission will be contested).”

“Counties ought to hold seminars and certify citizens to be observers and check on water-quality issues.” (Callie Moore thinks that counties would be better served to spend their time implementing the regulatory programs locally, instead of training citizens to call the state.)

“We need a tool box that reduces the adversarial nature of protecting water quality.”

“Roads need to be engineered so fire trucks can get up to homes and put out fires.”

“How did we get to this? I mean, where there are high mountain developments versus the traditional communities down in the valley.”

“(To learn how to achieve reform here in western North Carolina) go to Colorado and get information from there and other places telling how this has been done.”

“There are stormwater requirements here only if the developer wants to do that.”

“(In trying to limit development and protect the slopes) you’re up against people who have got a major investment in them and are looking for a major return.”

“We have not been able to get a transfer tax in North Carolina, and so the cost of the services (of homes on the mountains) falls on the general population of the county.”

“Boone passed a watered-down steep slope ordinance.”

“The (multi-story) Sugartop Hotel in Boone led to the Mountain Ridge Protection Act of 1983.

“Wind power is an alternative to coal in the mountains… The Tennessee Valley Authority has a pilot wind power program on Buffalo Mountain.”

“The Land-of-Sky Regional Council has model ordinances that counties and cities can adopt.”

Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River operates a “mud meter” on Scotts Creek in Sylva.

Macon County’s Planning Board asked a developer how so much sediment got into a river near his project. “Oh, that’s just red water,” he replied.

“Water groups can do two things: they can educate and they can enhance.”

Tom Bennett of the Martins Creek community near Murphy, N.C., is a retired newsman, Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition member/volunteer and winner of the 2015 Holman Water Quality Stewardship Award. E-mail him at