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North Carolina's mountaintop homes stir debate

New ridge-top developments in western North Carolina create jobs, but they can ruin trout streams, opponents say.

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Nearly 5,000 feet high, Charles and Deborah Ericksons' ridge-top cabin is perched like a falcon's nest on a cliff face.

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It's one of a rapidly growing subset of vacation homes called "ridge-top development" – where homes are literally bolted to the mountaintop.

"It's almost heaven," says Ms. Erickson, a retiree who spends half the year in these mountains, the other half in Naples, Fla. She has been drawn to the Smoky Mountains since she visited in her childhood.

The price range for these mountaintop homes? $225,000 to $1.5 million.

But these scenic views come with other costs: Ridge-top building may cause downstream water pollution and wreck trout streams by causing too much silt to pour off denuded slopes. Others worry that as rooftops, decks, and greens poke out from the ridges, this pursuit of the perfect view may ruin the view for others – and compromise the region's most precious asset: its beauty.

"These mountain communities face a dilemma where they've got an eroding economic system and the only choice is to take in things that are going to damage the environment and change the culture," says Charlie Derber, a sociologist at Boston College.

The western North Carolina mountains have attracted wealthy outsiders since the late 1800s. More recently, many of them have come from Florida, says history professor Chuck Watkins at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C.

Today, the mountains are seeing a "perfect confluence" for mountaintop development, as hurricane insurance costs have tripled in Florida over the last year due to the hurricanes and Americans are looking for more security post-9/11, says James Chung of Reach Advisors, a consumer research firm in Boston.

As the overall real estate market slowly cools, high-end resort development is booming, experts say. For example, in 2000, just over 500,000 vacation homes were sold. That figure tipped 1 million homes for the first time last year, according to Reach Advisors.

The trend of mounting homes onto ridge tops also results from lax zoning laws, a culture that values property rights, and the skill of savvy resort developers who can easily influence local communities hungry for tax revenue and job opportunities, experts say.

"Ridge-top development is in part a geographical quirk of the Appalachians and in part [the result of the fact] that people are wealthy enough to actually be able to afford the high cost of construction and engineering that make it possible," says Mr. Chung.

The largest ridge-top enclaves in these parts are Wolf Laurel near Mars Hill and Mountain Air in Burnsville, N.C., but there are dozens of smaller developments in the North Carolina towns of Boone, Highlands, and Cashiers.

Here at Wolf Laurel, developers, including Rick Bussey and Orville English, have already built more than 600 homes and have plans for a total of 1,000 homes in the next few years.

"They're building the biggest town in Madison County on top of 4,000-foot ridges," says Gracia O'Neill, an outreach coordinator for Clean Water for North Carolina, a volunteer advocacy group that works to ensure clean water for low-income residents. By contrast, the largest town in the county, Mars Hill, has about 530 homes.

Some officials in the county have a different view. "I can understand people's feelings about too much development too fast, but ... the people at Wolf Laurel are doing some good things, bringing money in, bringing jobs into a rural county that doesn't have a lot of jobs, that isn't going to get any huge factories," says Hall Moore, a Madison County commissioner, who voted to approve the newest phase of development at Wolf Laurel. The per capita income in Madison County is just over $16,000.

Yet all the construction has an effect downstream.

Martin Fox, a retired tobacco farmer and magistrate in Madison County, has seen the ridge-top development ruin his attempt to become a trout farmer. Careless logging dislodged a current of sediment that filled the tanks of his trout farm and killed 60,000 fish. Today, he grows a garden in the rich silt. His $70,000 investment flowed away like so much water under his homemade covered bridge.

Despite his loss, he hasn't gotten involved in a nascent grassroots opposition. "Everyone in my family has a temper [about the development] but me," Mr. Fox says.

Indeed, many local residents, environmentalists, and advocates for the Appalachian Trail have been speaking out against such construction. A citizens' committee around Boone is trying to convince elected officials to outlaw construction on steep slopes. In March, 300 local residents showed up at a planning board meeting to oppose rezoning proposals at Wolf Laurel, which were eventually approved.

At Mountain Air, investigators with the North Carolina Division of Land Quality found that developers had shifted the course of a trout stream by diverting it through a culvert without permits. Higher-than-usual amounts of silt in the water have been found, which can affect trout breeding.

Also under scrutiny is a possible air- strip at Wolf Laurel just a few hundred yards from the watershed for Mars Hill.

But, perhaps, the central concern is the view – especially from a cliffside deck held up by 80-foot supports. "You can't let developers erode the best asset the region has for its own development," says Dr. Watkins. "It's really an age-old question about Appalachia: Who controls its destiny? Outsiders or the people who actually live and work here?"

Newcomers, too, are worried about backlash. "People talk about what will happen if there's too much development and what will happen to this sense of privacy," says Erickson. "And though local people treat us real nice here, we realize this development does have an impact on them."

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