Mountain Air, mountain water

“My family has farmed the land at the base of this mountain for seven generations,” says Nancy Hensley, standing in her brother’s yard in Burnsville (population 1,623). “I can’t bear to look up there; it’s like looking at a dead body.”

Hensley is talking about the Mountain Air Country Club, a 1,000-acre resort/residential community/private airstrip perched on the shaved-off top of Slickrock Mountain, which hovers above her family’s land in Yancey County. Since the gated housing development’s construction in 1996, say unhappy neighbors, traffic on the local roads has tripled, property taxes have increased exponentially, and local streams and wetlands have been devastated. Now, the Banks family — longtime area residents who developed the resort — is preparing to expand it, adding a nine-hole golf course and a national-caliber golf learning center, and some of their fellow citizens are outraged.

For two years during and after the original construction, the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources visited the Mountain Air site every week to monitor compliance with environmental regulations. DENR recorded more than 72 violations — including failing to maintain erosion-control measures, follow plans and provide adequate ground cover, and encroaching on headwater trout-stream buffers, says DENR chief John Dorney — and eventually (in 2001) fined Mountain Air $5,000.

After the site was logged, remembers Burnsville resident Diane Kent, any good rain would flood Phipps Creek, Banks Creek (named for the Banks family) and Bakers Creek, choking them with sediment and making them rank with the smell of oil. “The initial construction process took about six months. In that time, the fish mostly died off.” Those siltation problems, says Hensley, persist today.

An electro-fishing survey conducted by Doug Besler of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission last July showed very low densities of adult rainbow trout for a stream of that size at that elevation. And Besler found no adolescent or first-year fish. “It appears that the heavy sediment load has directly impacted the reproduction of wild rainbow trout in that stream,” he wrote. “At the current rate of sedimentation, I suspect that Banks Creek will lose its population of wild rainbow trout as those adult fish die of old age” within the next few years.

Trout are not the only victims, notes Hope Taylor-Guevara, executive director of the nonprofit group Clean Water for North Carolina, which has joined local residents in fighting the proposed expansion. Sediment, she says, is “our state’s single greatest pollutant … causing physical and nutrient impairment of waters, diminished value for recreation, increased costs of treatment for drinking water, property damage [and] contributing to algal blooms and destroying fisheries.”

The expansion plans, says Taylor-Guevara, are a recipe for disaster. “This is the most extreme case we’ve ever seen: a mountainside golf course with a poor compliance record, cantilevered greens and piped trout streams. Even with the tougher standards that the Division of Water Quality has put on [the expansion] permit, it will not protect the streams under the Clean Water Act,” she asserts.

“This is not a good site for a golf course,” concludes Mountain Region Coordinator Owen Anderson of the Wildlife Resources Commission, “and that’s probably true for most mountain areas.”

Ironically, the Mountain Air Corporation’s Web site boasts that their mountaintop facility is environmentally friendly, providing “an eco-country club environment.”

Asked to comment, co-developer Randy Banks denied any responsibility on the part of Mountain Air for surface-water contamination. “Banks Creek has had a lot of degradation going on long before Mountain Air,” he said. “Over the years, through farming and agriculture and timber and using land as people have done for centuries, you have a certain amount of stream impact. I’d say all that plays a large role.”

Last August, after nearly a year of deliberations — and against the advice of state and federal officials — DENR granted Mountain Air a permit to expand; still pending are a ruling on the developers’ request to be exempted from the mandatory 25-foot buffers on trout streams, and a separate permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. Meanwhile, both sides are appealing the permit decision, though for opposite reasons: Mountain Air says it’s too strict, and the citizens’ groups maintain that it isn’t strict enough. Failure to obtain either permit could send the project back to the drawing board.

A hearing to decide the project’s fate is expected to be held soon. A judge will set the date this week. (see “Sounding off”).

Muddying the waters

The proposed expansion involves filling in 0.25 acres of wetlands and piping 1,965 feet of trout stream underground over a 396-acre tract. To mitigate those impacts, the developers have proposed restoring 1,965 feet of adjacent stream and four acres of wetlands; at press time, they had yet to submit the required mitigation plan.

When Burnsville residents first learned about the expansion plans in 2001, they banded together to form Banks Creek Citizens for Clean Water, seeking to put an end to what they call “extremely irresponsible building practices.” The informal group has about a dozen active members; more than 200 concerned citizens signed a petition opposing the Mountain Air expansion.

It’s been a protracted fight. On Oct. 18, 2001, the state Division of Water Quality held a hearing in Burnsville on whether to grant Mountain Air a permit to expand. BCCCW members filed collectively as co-plaintiffs against the resort.

“The residents were a small minority” at the hearing, Hensley recalls. Mountain Air, she says, brought in a huge contingent of lawyers and employees.

In his report on the meeting, Hearing Officer Roger Thorpe agreed with the residents, saying he “doubts the possibility of controlling sediment, especially during construction using normal erosion control technology.”

That seemed to be the prevailing opinion at the hearing. Dr. Richard Maas, chair of the environmental studies deparment at UNCA, said, “Even if [the best management practices available for sediment control] are completely implemented, extreme violations of water-quality standards for turbidity should be expected, as well as associated downstream habitat destruction.” And in a letter to the Division of Water Quality a month after the hearing, Owen Anderson of the Wildlife Resources Commission wrote: “We believe that this project has a high probability of adversely impacting water quality within and downstream of the project area. The impacts will be direct, indirect and cumulative.” Those cumulative effects, notes Taylor-Guevara, include the inevitable contamination of surface waters by fertilizers and pesticides used to treat the greens once the golf course is completed.

Nonetheless, in August 2002 — despite warnings against further development by the Division of Water Quality, the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Wetlands Section, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and various independent water-quality experts — the state granted the expansion permit (albeit with restrictions intended to reduce the environmental impacts, such as sediment traps, skimming devices, phased construction, turbidity-control measures, a tree-removal plan, etc.).

Mountain Air, however, is appealing the permit decision, arguing that the restrictions are too stringent. The developers are also waiting on the Division of Land Resources to rule on the trout-buffer exemption.

When asked about the appeal, Randy Banks explained: “We had some questions, more in the arena of clarification than any other regard. It was more an issue for us that the language was not clear on the meaning of [the permit]. We just want to make sure we’re all on the same page with DENR.”

Who benefits?

The resort’s neighbors are also unhappy that such disruptive impacts are being inflicted on their community for the benefit of a relative handful of people. “As of last year,” said BCCCW member Diane Kent, “as I understood it, there were only about 10 full-time residents” at Mountain Air.

According to Banks, there are now 30-40 full-time residents, plus about 400 property owners who come up for holidays.

“For most of our residents, these are second and third homes,” explains Community Consultant Jim Briggs of Mountain Air. “They live here in the summer for weeks at a time.”

Still, the underlying question remains. RiverLink staffer Phillip Gibson, who serves on the N.C. Sedimentation Control Commission, said: “This development begs the question: When do we say that our mountains and headwaters are more important than a project benefiting just one group of people? The massive amount of nutrients being washed out of our headstreams not only affects fish health and drinking-water health, but every day [these nutrients] find their way to the Gulf of Mexico, where there has developed a 20-mile ‘dead zone’ where the nutrients collect and the resulting water plants choke out any fish life.” In his role as French Broad riverkeeper, Gibson serves as liaison between state agencies and property owners in the adjacent French Broad River basin. “These violations,” he says, “are devastating our water resources.”

Even apart from the water-quality concerns, however, plunking down a gated country club and airstrip in the middle of a poor, rural community inevitably has economic impacts as well. And in the case of Mountain Air, the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” appears to be taking its toll.

BCCCW members maintain that the resort doesn’t provide enough jobs to offset its impact on property taxes — and that many of the higher-paying jobs have gone to outsiders, not locals. According to N.C. Employment Security Commission figures, the Mountain Air Country Club is the sixth-biggest employer in Yancey County, with 50-99 employees, all in the “services” sector. Residential units at Mountain Air range in price from $250,000 to $1.3 million; home sites go for $250,000, according to the Mountain Air Web site.

“People raising tobacco and making pennies can’t stay on this land that’s been in their families for generations. And their children can’t afford to buy property either,” laments Kent.

Such financial concerns aren’t limited to the Burnsville area. In communities across the state, longtime residents with deep family roots are seeing new arrivals drive up local real-estate costs while wages remain relatively low. At the same time, development pressures make it harder for farmers to keep working their land. According to the American Farmland Trust, North Carolina ranks second in the nation for the amount of prime farmland converted to urban use. Between 1992 and 1997 alone, the state lost more than 168,000 acres; and in the previous decade (1982-92), almost one-third of North Carolina’s prime farmland was developed, the group reports.

Meanwhile, residents who live along the construction route for Mountain Air are also concerned about having logging and construction trucks trundling up and down their roads all day, as they say happened when the resort was being built.

Not everyone is up in arms about the country club. “I think [Mountain Air Country Club] is great, they add a lot to the tax base and they’re supportive of the chamber. The Banks’ are involved on the downtown revitalization committee, on the medical center board, and supportive of activities in Burnsville,” said Executive Director Shannon Harding-Raines,of the Burnsville Chamber of Commerce.

Kent, however, maintains that many locals who oppose the resort keep quiet about it because of the owners’ wealth and influence. “Lots of people in this town are related to the Banks [family]. You should see our petition — Well over 200 names, and everyone is against it, but no one would show up if we had a protest.”

Randy Banks, however, said he wasn’t even aware of BCCCW’s existence — despite the fact that the citizens’ group has filed as co-plaintiff against his company. “We love our neighbors,” he said, “and we have a good relationship with them and we want to be good neighbors. I haven’t seen anything that matches what you would call a real group. There were some citizens at the hearing that are concerned for water quality and growth.”

The final showdown

Those citizens are now gearing up for the final hearing (at press time, the hearing date had not yet been set).

Meanwhile, all parties are now providing DENR and counsel with information they feel is pertinent to the case.

Adding to the David-and-Goliath character of the struggle is the fact that Mountain Air now has two law firms in its hire, with Smith and Moore joined by Helms, Mullis and Wicker. (Mountain Air critics note that former Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker, a principal in the latter firm, is involved in a similar construction project at Heavenly Mountain Resort, near Boone.)

The opposition, meanwhile — Banks Creek Citizens for Clean Water and Clean Water for North Carolina — is filing its pre-hearing statements “pro se” (i.e., without legal counsel). It’s a big fight, but BCCCW members have emphasized repeatedly that they aren’t doing it just for themselves. “If we can get these restrictions put in place on this mountain, to restrict the building not only of mountain golf courses but other kinds of building, it will have a big impact on the way builders build in the rest of [Western North Carolina]. Builders are developing the state as if it’s all piedmont area,” said Kent.

The reverse, however, is also true, say project opponents. “For the Division of Water Quality to allow this expansion to go forward would set a very dangerous statewide precedent,” warns Gibson of RiverLink. “Mountain Air has requested variances in state law to pipe, fill and disturb water [that are] way in excess of the law.”

Banks, meanwhile, stresses the developers’ concern for their neighbors, saying: “This development is a change to their world. I understand how that can cause people to be anxious. … We want to be sensitive to that, want folks to know that we’re not doing it with an absence of concern for them.”

Nonetheless, as the administrative hearing draws closer, emotions are clearly running high. Even Nancy Hensley, who has fought Mountain Air for more than 10 years, is feeling renewed energy. Standing by Banks Creek, she points to a 6-foot-deep gouge in the mountainside carved out by flooding — a legacy, she says, of Mountain Air construction gone bad.

“The water pollution doesn’t just affect Burnsville residents,” she says. “This is where the trout spawn; these tributaries go into Banks Creek, Cane River, and so on down to the Gulf. This will affect everybody. Everybody.”

Sounding off

Want to weigh in on the Mountain Air controversy? Here’s how:

• If you want to be notified about the upcoming hearing challenging the Mountain Air expansion permit, contact Clean Water for North Carolina at (828) 251-1291. The hearing, slated to take place in Asheville in the near future, will determine the fate of the Mountain Air golf-course expansion.

Mell Nevils of the state Division of Land Resources has the power to decide whether or not to release the Mountain Air developers from complying with the trout-buffer law. He can be reached at: (919) 733-3833, or mell.nevils@ncmail.net.

David Baker of the Army Corps of Engineers’ Asheville office (271-7980 ext. 6) will decide whether to grant a permit to fill and disturb the headwaters of Banks Creek.

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