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In this special two-part report from Carolina Public Press, we take an in-depth look at how ridge-top development in 24 mountain counties turned on a dime following the passage of the Mountain Ridge Protection Act of 1983, which was enacted 30 years ago this month. The law signaled a change in mountain politics regarding conservation — and this two-part series explores the impact that single law has had on Western North Carolina’s politics, landscape and economy. Read “Part Two: From the environment to the economy, the state’s ‘most controversial living quarters,’ 30 years later.”
Part One: How one WNC development changed the state’s mountaintops
Three decades ago, the weather in the last days of 1983 in North Carolina was particularly fierce. So cold and windy, in fact, that The Charlotte Observer reported 20 degrees-and-below temperatures and widespread electrical outages in Avery County.
Among the victims were condominiums sitting atop Avery County’s Little Sugar Mountain, where pipes burst, sending water to soak some of the recently completed units in perhaps the most well known – and arguably notorious – structure in the North Carolina mountains.
Just days after that blast of winter weather, the landmark Mountain Ridge Protection Act (of 1983) enacted by the N.C. General Assembly went into effect on Jan. 1, 1984.
Yet, the months leading up to the law’s passage were as fierce as the winter cold. But during that ferocity, which led to the subsequent passage of the law, the public movement to protect ridge tops established a hard-fought, but shared, point of view among North Carolinians: the scenic value of high mountain vistas are too valuable to spoil.
It’s touchstone? The condominium complex — now known simply as Sugar Top.
The 5,000-foot summit
Today, the gated mountain top community of condos looks much as it did 30 years ago. The well-maintained, 10-story white rectangular structure rises 131 feet from Little Sugar Mountain in Avery County. Dozens of concrete columns anchor it to the mountaintop.
In many ways, the high-rise would be inconspicuous in an urban setting. But exposed on a Blue Ridge mountaintop, the right angles and hard lines pose a sharp contrast to the curvy horizon of the surrounding ridges.
When U.S. Capital Corp., the developers of the condominium complex, began blasting in late 1982 on the 5,000-foot summit, there was little opposition. Leaders welcomed the economic impact a home-building boom in the midst of a national economic downturn would have on this rural western North Carolina county, which, in 1980, had about 14,500 residents.
It wasn’t until the building itself starting to rise that the ire of mountain residents soared, too.
Jay Leutze, then a teenager and now a trustee of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, said he watched from the deck of his family’s mountain cabin as the construction cranes went up.
Leutze now lives in that same cabin, which is seven miles west of the complex, and he said that the placement of the building makes it visible from every prominent peak in the area, even from as far as 50 miles away.
“You can say we had a front-row seat (to watch the months of construction),” Leutze recently recalled. “What was supposed to be five stories ended up being 10 stories — to the alarm of everyone in the community.”
According to the Sugar Top website, the developer’s original plan for the complex called for a five-story, steel-and-wood building. It was later redesigned as a 10-story steel-and-concrete structure to withstand gale-force winds.
The 800-member property-owners association with the Sugar Mountain Community Association approved a five-story version. According to a 1983 story in the Asheville Citizen-Times, an association member said up to 50 residents complained to the developer in 1981 about the plan’s height. He said that the plan was revised to 10 stories without notification given to the Sugar Mountain group.
Public outrage about the structure spread across the mountain region of the state, culminating in the passage of the bi-partisan Mountain Ridge Protection Act, which, in many ways, made Sugar Top the beginning and the end of certain high-rise development on high-elevation ridge tops in Western North Carolina. It also signaled one of the biggest victories for a then-fledgling conservation movement in the Southern Appalachians of North Carolina.
‘The people from WNC Tomorrow went to work immediately’
Now, even though three decades have passed, the ten-story structure still elevates the blood pressure of many North Carolinians.
“It’s still a slap in the face when I see it,” said Catherine Morton, whose late father, Hugh, played a pivotal role in the drafting and passage of the legislation. In addition to developing Linville’s Grandfather Mountain — one of North Carolina’s most-visited tourist attractions – Hugh Morton helped usher in High Country development with the Grandfather Golf and Country Club in 1968. He died in 2006.
“We know development is going to happen,” Catherine Morton added. “But it has to be developed for longevity, to be humane, to be respectful of the environment and have a light footprint.”
Initially, she said, Hugh believed the project was slated to be just three stories. But when construction reached the fifth floor, the structure came into view and mountain residents went to work.
Morton remembers her father telling a story of running into Al Traver, a community leader and long-time resident of Avery County, at a restaurant while Morton was with members of the bipartisan Western North Carolina
Tomorrow. WNC Tomorrow was a semi-public leadership council for 17 counties that Morton chaired.
“My dad introduced Al to the people he was with and said, ‘We are going to talk about that ugly building on the mountain.’ Al said to them, ‘What you need here is a ridge law’,” she said. “Daddy and the people from WNC Tomorrow went to work immediately.”
While building restrictions on ridge lines seems an obvious place for regulation – it wasn’t. Not in Western North Carolina anyway.
“A lot of people have negative feelings about any regulations that say what they can do with their land,” Gary McGee, who was then the manager of Watauga County, told the Watauga Democrat in January 1983 in response to a call for the ridge law.
Nothing – other than sheer altitude and difficulty – could then keep developments like Sugar Top from being built – and Sugar Top’s developers broke no laws in their efforts.
With WNC’s popularity among the rich, mountaintop development demand soars
At the time, Morton was aware of that sentiment as multiple attempts between 1973 and 1975 by then-Gov. Jim Holshouser failed to pass legislation to regulate development in the mountains.
Several legislators, including then-Rep. Martin Nesbitt, a Democrat from Buncombe County who is now a state senator, sponsored the last version of that attempted legislation. But those multiple efforts died under opposition led by Rep. Liston Ramsey, a Democrat from Madison County, who later led support of the ridge law; from local governments that opposed state control; and from environmental groups that believed that, if given control, rural governments lacked the capacity to manage development.
Historically, Western North Carolina’s high ridges had little value. Few roads led to them, the conditions were difficult for farming or grazing and land owners generally bought and sold them for little value.
In fact, First Union National Bank sold the 10 acres Sugar Top complex site to a local developer for $12,000 in 1981. That sale came in the wake of the liquidation of the bankrupt Sugar Mountain Company, which was, ironically, a corporation established by members of Hugh Morton’s family.
Yet, the value of ridge tops – particularly ones with stellar views – was about to defy gravity, particularly in the High Country around Avery and Watauga counties.
For decades, Blowing Rock, Banner Elk, Linville and other mountain spots were destinations for the wealthy. But in the 1960s, a ski boom in the mountains led to a wave of development. Slowed in the 1970s by a crippling recession, the boom was revived in the High Country in Avery and other counties in the early 1980s.
The Charlotte Observer reported in September 1982 that despite the recession, 600 homes and condos — many of them second homes — had been built or were under construction that year in Watauga and Avery counties. That number essentially increased the number of residents in six resort developments in the two counties by a third.
Morton quipped to the newspaper that he’d seen more Florida tags running up and down highways than North Carolina plates. In fact, according to the Sugar Top website, 60 percent of the first units were sold to people from out of North Carolina, with half of those new residents being from Florida.
Since that second home boom of the 1980s, said Leutze, the hurdle for protecting the view shed has been that markets have placed such a high value on residential developments that have a scenic view, including those that aren’t located on ridge tops but are still visible to others.
“We are competing to protect land that is worth a lot of money; landowners are torn between finding a solution or selling for financial gain,” he said.
Nevertheless, as developmental pressure mounted – first with the ski boom and then with the surge of second homes in the 1980s – locals became uneasy.
“People were becoming concerned about losing the way they’ve related to the landscape for generations,” said Leutze, whose 2012 book, “Stand up that Mountain,” chronicles a five-year effort to shut down an illegal mining operation within view of the Appalachian Trail in Avery County.
So when WNC Tomorrow passed a resolution calling for a ridge law on Jan. 7, 1983, its leaders knew it had to maximize local control of development but have enough teeth to restrict some high-rise mountaintop projects.
The following month, the Watauga Democrat reported that a state ridge law was soon to be introduced in the N.C. General Assembly and a draft had been sent to mountain county commissions for their review.
Some, including then-Gov. Jim Hunt, were enthusiastic about the possibility of protecting mountaintops. Hunt said in a prepared statement that “our mountains are too valuable, too important and too beautiful to be damaged by inappropriate construction. The beauty of these mountains is the very basis of the vast tourist industry in the western part of our state.”
An op-ed in the Watauga Democrat from March 14, 1983, echoed that view, saying that “what should be remembered, of course, is that the concept of a ridge law has widespread support among the public, even though land-use controls have been practically non-existent in the mountains.”
But not everyone was on board with the lofty goals of the legislation.
Assemblyman Donald Kincaid, of Caldwell County, told the Asheville Citizen-Times in late January 1983 that he was leery of a state law that could lead to a regional land use act and excessive restrictions on development.
‘Everybody who is rich desires to be on top of a mountain’
Although the developers of Sugar Top broke no laws, they found themselves on the defense.
Dan Tomlin, president of U.S. Capital Corporation – the building’s developer – was reported as saying in the Watauga Democrat that the condos would bring up to $800,000 in taxes to Avery County annually. He also estimated that local revenue from construction would exceed $15 million. Tomlin claimed, according to a March 8, 1983, story in the Asheville Citizen-Times, that the project had created about 5,000 jobs, a statement repeated in the Watauga Democrat.
In the Winston-Salem Journal, Tomlin accused other developers in the area, including Morton, of opposing the project out of fear of competition and suggested that Morton had originally favored it.
But Morton denied any business-related jealousy and aggressively pushed to gain political and public support for a ridge law.
“We feel if Sugar Top is successful financially, there is going to be a bunch of other people who will race to break ground before we can pass anything to prevent it,” Morton said in the Watauga Democrat on Jan. 24, 1983.
Morton’s fears appeared to be a reality by late January 1983. Then, 75 percent of the 320 Sugar Top units had been sold at prices ranging from $115,000 to $150,000 – similar to the asking prices they boast in today’s real estate market. Not only that, U.S. Capital had plans to begin work on another high-rise condo project on Big Sugar Mountain, which was later postponed.
Tomlin put it bluntly: “What is world class to (one person) is not world class to another. Some like red ties, some like green ties.
“The public desires a view. Everybody who is rich desires to be on top of a mountain. Period.”
Coming up: The battle over the law takes shape, and what — 30 years later — the law means to Western North Carolina’s environment and economy.
What does the law say?
The Mountain Ridge Protection Act applies to development on mountain ridge tops located above 3,000 feet in elevation that are also 500 feet above the adjacent valley floor. The law also limits construction of buildings by restricting them to be no taller than 40 feet.
The law applies to 24 North Carolina counties with elevations of more than 3,000 feet: Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Buncombe, Burke, Caldwell, Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford, Surry, Swain, Transylvania, Watauga, Wilkes, and Yancey counties.