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 One: How one WNC development changed the state’s mountaintops” here.
Part Two: From the environment to the economy, the state’s ‘most controversial living quarters,’ 30 years later
On a blustery November afternoon, there are no views from the 5,000-foot summit of Little Sugar Mountain in Avery County. Situated on the knob is Sugar Top, the 10-story steel-and-concrete structure is veiled in a blanket of fog. Three decades ago, the construction of this very building launched a public debate on how the state should protect one of its most valuable resources: mountain views.
Ironically, the legislation this high-rise inspired — the Mountain Ridge Protection Act (of 1983), which banned certain tall buildings on ridge lines above 3,000 feet — gave Sugar Top an exclusive mountain apex location, making it an even easier sell by its developer, the Columbia, S.C.-based developer U.S. Capital Corp.
“Not much said about Sugar Top in the press has ever been positive,” said Dennis Lacey that November day. General manager of the building’s condominium association, Lacey is also a long-time resident of Sugar Top and the village of Sugar Mountain’s mayor.
From his windowless office on the first floor of the high-rise, Lacey points out that the building has many long-time employees and supports local businesses and charities.
“We are good stewards,” he said. “Sugar Top is a magnificent structure, and I wouldn’t choose to live anywhere else.”
While there are only 30 full-time, year-round residents here (most of the 320 units are second homes), the soft-spoken Lacey acknowledged the discord that overshadows the structure.
After all, he lives in what the building’s own website calls the “most controversial living quarters” in the state of North Carolina. Indeed, for some, this building’s profile is perhaps as recognizable as the Biltmore Estate or the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
And, even 30 years after its construction, Sugar Top still represents a turning point in what Western North Carolina’s mountaintops mean for North Carolina politics, conservation and business.
‘It was the only way to get the ridge law’
In fact, the outrage spawned during the complex’s construction led to a public debate over the future protection of North Carolina’s scenic beauty and the rights of developers. And after a January 1983 proposal from Hugh Morton, who then owned the Avery County tourist attraction Grandfather Mountain, and the nonpartisan group Western North Carolina Tomorrow calling for the creation of a state ridge law, the rhetoric flared.
“We’re interested in getting the thing [ridge law] before they start building some more big garbage buildings on the mountain,” said Sen. R.P. “Bo” Thomas, a Henderson County Democrat and sponsor of the Senate’s version of the proposed ridge law who also referred to Sugar Top as “Avery County’s abomination”.
Rep. Margaret Hayden, a Democrat from Allegheny County, also proposed a state House version of the measure.
But despite widespread support for a ridge law there was opposition, such as from Rep. S.B. Lacey, a Republican from Avery County, who pointed out that the project provided 70 jobs and $20 million of spending in his county – all of which would have been prevented by the law.
“I’m afraid we may be creating MAMA [Mountain Area Management Act],” he told the Watauga Democrat, referring to failed legislation to regulate development in the mountain counties in the mid-1970s. “The engine is revved up and ready to go, but I’m concerned about all those boxcars and cabooses that will follow.”
Yet Morton and the designers of the legislation, said they believed that the primary authority and responsibility of administering and enforcing ridge-top development should rest with local government, not the state.
Buncombe County Democratic state Sen. Martin Nesbitt, who was then a member of the House, introduced an amendment to Hayden’s House bill allowing counties to opt out of the ridge law, but only after holding a binding public referendum. The original House bill proposed by Hayden included an opt-out provision that was voluntary.
“The mountain people in power decided we had to do something; we can’t let this [Sugar Top] happen again,” recalled Nesbitt, who worked with other mountain legislators – including House Speaker Liston Ramsey of Madison County — to craft the opt-out clause.
While their amendment was more restrictive, having an “opt-out” clause was a necessary condition, many believed, for passage of the law in the state Senate and the House.
Yet the drafters of the ridge law generally felt that this type of land regulation — in spite of an historic regional disdain for government rules — would be widely supported. Nesbitt and others were betting that no county would choose to opt out, particularly in light of the public fury over the Sugar Top condos’ impact on mountain views.
“Everybody knows that there’s been a traditional feeling of independence on the part of mountain people. I’ve been a subscriber to that philosophy,” Morton was quoted as saying to the Watauga Democrat. “I’m glad that they did what they did over there on Sugar Top in such an abusive way, it was the only way to get the ridge law.”
On May 18, 1983, the Asheville Citizen-Times reported that a subcommittee of lawmakers was formed to recommend action on the two proposed ridge law bills and adopted provisions from the House and Senate versions. The House voted in favor of the law, with only seven members opposed. The law was passed unanimously in the Senate and was ratified on July 5, 1983 — three months before the building opened for residents on Oct. 18, 1983.
What the law means today
The Mountain Ridge Protection Act would ban the construction of buildings greater than 40 feet on ridges above 3,000 feet that are 500 feet above an adjacent valley floor.
The law gave counties the ability to design their own ordinance using a state model, follow the state law, or hold a voter referendum to opt out of laws to restrict ridge top development.
An Asheville Citizen-Times editorial praised the law as a “laissez-faire regulation favoring local governments and as a flat ban against high-rise construction that cannot be challenged.”
Still, some developers railed against the legislation. The (Raleigh) News and Observer reported on Jan. 3, 1984 that James Ring, the president of the North Carolina Home Builders Association, said the law is an “ill conceived notion that the legislature was remiss in passing and didn’t know what they were talking about.”
He also said the law was flawed since it doesn’t clearly define a ridge.
Nevertheless, the law quietly went into effect on Jan. 1,1984, with a total of 24 counties eventually impacted. Eleven adopted the state law; 12 approved local ordinances based on a state model, and one county, Cherokee, elected to hold a referendum to adopt the state law, which passed by a 2-to-1 margin in May 1984.
State environmental officials don’t enforce the law, so there is no single entity tracking whether any residential or commercial developments have faced challenges under the law. Still, the N.C. Geodetic Survey, which is no longer part of the N.C. Department of Natural Resources but is now part of the Department of Public Safety, provides maps of protected ridges here.
“It was a bipartisan common sense protection for the common good of the region,” said Rep. Joe Sam Queen, a Democrat from Haywood County and former state senator. “Everybody owns the view. It is a public asset like clean air and clean water. The law helped preserve mountain views which is an absolute essential to our economy and our sense of place.”
Jay Leutze, an Avery County resident and a trustee of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, views the debate over the ridge law in 1983 as a sea change in how the public considered the scenic value of the mountains.
According to the N.C. Department of Commerce, tourism expenditures exceeded $2.7 billion in the 23-county AdvantageWest mountain region in 2012.
“The consensus that building on ridges is a bad idea for local economics was impressive,” he said. “It is fascinating to me how scenery was quickly identified as an economic engine.”
A blustery fight
Arguably, the potential economic value of scenic tourism is adequate incentive to protect mountain views, yet according to Leutze, safeguarding ridge lines, steep slopes, and the viewshed is not a given and is still a top priority of the state’s conservation community.
This time, the fight might be a bit more complicated. Rather than a clear-cut battle between developers and conservationists, the future struggle to protect the state’s scenic value may be dimmer.
It may, for example, pit some environmentalists against each other.
The biggest threat so far to the ridge act came in 2009, when the state’s Environmental Management Commission proposed legislation to address wind energy in the mountains. The Wind Promotion Act of 2009 laid out a permitting process for utility scale wind farms. It also recommended allowing local governments to opt out of the Mountain Ridge Protection Act after adopting a local ordinance to regulate wind energy facilities.
This raised the concern of WNC legislators since the proposed legislation made an exception for traditional windmills on rural property without clearly banning industrial-size wind turbines, which can reach up to 400 feet tall.
A Senate committee led by mountain legislators including Nesbitt, Queen and others, proposed a provision to amend the ridge law by allowing only wind turbines that are less than 100 feet tall and used only for residential purposes to be placed on ridgelines above 3,000 feet. Their action blocked the development of mountain wind farms.
“I was ‘Mr. Wind,’” Queen said, “but we went through the studies and found it was not a good trade to compromise the viewshed. There was bipartisan support not to violate the spirit of the [ridge] law.”
While the Sierra Club of North Carolina supports wind energy, they support wind power expansion on the coast rather than in the mountains.
“Our stance is very explicit about making sure that every proposed project is appropriate,” said Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, director of communications of the North Carolina Chapter of the Sierra Club. “I think when it comes to a transition to sustainable energy for the mountains, solar makes a lot more sense.”
Changing attitudes or political Kryptonite?
The ridge law may have withstood the test of time, but there are plenty of other challenges ahead in the protection of the state’s ridgelines and scenic value.
“There are constant pressures seeking short term gains at the expense of a long term sustainable economic model that relies on a beautiful intact natural landscape,” argued Leutze, who forecasted that any future proposals to regulate development is likely to be contentious. “We’ll continue to see this battle over the years, the pressure is constant from developers that want access to the most dramatic landscape: the biggest views, the prettiest water, mountain tops and streams.”
And the GOP-controlled state government may be less sympathetic to proposed new land regulations. A case in point: in June 2011, lawmakers ended the state’s landslide mapping unit by laying off five state geologist hired to map steep slopes in western counties.
Mitch Gillespie, a Republican from McDowell County who was then in the state House but is now the assistant secretary of the environment for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, told the Smoky Mountain News in June 2011 that the mapping program was eliminated to save money.
“We had to make cuts throughout government this year,” Gillespie said then, adding that the state shouldn’t meddle in steep-slope regulation and that he feared the landslide maps would become ammunition in pushing through steep-slope construction laws at the state level.
Rep. Roger West, a Republican from Cherokee County, said he is also skeptical of land regulation.
“I am a firm believer in property rights — I believe a property owner should be able to do what he wants with his land as long as he doesn’t infringe on others’ rights,” West told Carolina Public Press recently.
He said he supports wind power depending on the circumstances, and he isn’t so sure a ridge act would pass the current legislature if it were proposed today.
Still, with the public outcry over Sugar Top and the widespread support of a ridge law three decades ago, touching it would be like dabbling with Kryptonite.
“The Republicans tend to respond to business interests more so than environmental issues,” Nesbitt said, “but they all love and honor these mountains as much as I do and would not defile them for short-term gain.”
Improving economy, increasing pressures?
DJ Gerken, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center in Asheville, said that while many conservation and environmental issues are polarized in Raleigh, the success of the ridge law is confirmation that the core value of protecting views are shared and not party specific.
Still, he and Leutze argued that now may be the ideal time to guard the future of mountain views, as, he said, another mountain building rush may be coming.
“We’ve seen these boom-and-bust building cycles in North Carolina over and over again — in the 1920s, the 60s and 80s and the run in mid-2000s,” Gerken said. “It will happen again. We are now seeing the development come back in a robust way that may impact the slopes and ridge tops. This is actually the perfect time to plan for the future. By and large, I think developers want certainty. They want to know what the rules are and don’t want them changing in the middle of a project.”
Whether another building boom is in the cards for Western North Carolina, one thing is fairly certain: another Sugar Top could be as unwelcome as ever.
“The building is an architectural crime; it was something that shouldn’t have happened, but people didn’t realize it could,” Queen said. “I’m not for taking anyone’s property rights, but every building has a lifetime, and I hope I live to see Sugar Top gone. Let’s live through this and never repeat it.”
Yet the controversial edifice is also a symbol of one of the most important pieces of conservation legislation in the state.
“It [the ridge law] was a rational response to keeping this from happening everywhere, but I think the feeling was prevalent that it was a little bit late,” Leutze said. “It taught me a lot about proactivity. It’s very hard to fight battles when you are back on your heels.”
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.