A developing controversy

At stake is nothing less than the heart and soul of Madison County for at least the next century.

The nine-mile stretch of Interstate 26 that runs through Madison County to the Tennessee border ranks among the most scenic drives in the nation. Enjoy the spectacular vistas while you can, however, because Madison County is even now engaged in a mountainous dispute over how to develop those enchanting, pristine river valleys and rugged peaks.

On the surface, it all seems like a classic case of the summer people vs. the natives, of poor locals being exploited by rich developers from outside the region. Yet in reality, it’s just another example of feuding and fighting, of cussing and name-calling, and of clannishness and consanguinity in the mountains of Western North Carolina, fueled by change and something called modernity. At stake is nothing less than the heart and soul of Madison County for at least the next century.

Outwardly, the feud appears to have begun with the opening of the new stretch of road in August of 2003. In fact, it’s just the latest installment of a struggle that’s been going on throughout the many decades that a separate “Kingdom of Madison” has existed here in the mountains. Today’s arguments over development, the environment, health care, recreational and community centers, jobs and affordable housing aren’t really about those issues at all. Instead, what’s at stake is the changing of the guard — politically, economically and socially — in Madison County.

On one side, you have two distinct waves of newcomers who’ve moved into the county since the 1970s, joined by many older families alienated by decades of maltreatment. In this case, the interests of these disparate groups just happen to coincide. Opposing them are local elites such as large landowners, businessmen and politicians who see their traditional roles threatened by the Pandora’s box of change. In the end, it’s all about power, mountain-style; about who gets the keys to the new “kingdom” emerging in Madison County.

Many of the current fights over development and the environment look similar to those in other rural regions across the South that are undergoing rapid change. But in Polk, Henderson, Buncombe, Transylvania and Haywood counties, for example, the process is unfolding in a fundamentally different social and political context. There, a matrix of institutions, clubs, civic organizations and women’s groups contributes substantially to the debate — ensuring that they at least have a voice in the process, if not genuine representation.

Not so in Madison County. There, the two deepest-rooted institutions — family and religion, their importance exaggerated and heightened by the relative isolation and lack of competition — have instead become rigidly orthodox, vitiated and overly sensitive to criticism. That attitude has created a pervasive fear of offending anyone, reflected in the often-heard remark that you should “be careful what you say about such and such, because they’re related to so-and-so,” or “I’m scared to say anything, because my uncle drives a gravel truck for so-and-so, and he could lose his job.” The resulting caution and fatalism have seeped into almost every aspect of Madison County society. Even Mars Hill College has not been immune.

In the past several years, however, a number of grassroots organizations and community-based groups have sprung up that presage a new way of thinking and acting, which threatens the older, more traditional ruling-class elites.

Laurel Valley Watch, for example, ostensibly came into existence to protest proposed rezoning in the upper Laurel Valley that would allow both the construction of an upscale development and the establishment of commercial properties — all at the expense of those already living there and their immediate environment. But when these folks showed up at a county Planning Board meeting in January, board members greeted their protestations and objections with yawning indifference and dismissal: The verdict had already been decided. Still, the board’s apathy and lack of concern only helped propel Laurel Valley Watch members into an escalating political activism that will eventually embrace more than just land-use issues.

Indeed, despite the group’s political naivete, Laurel Valley Watch represents a new democratization, an empowerment of those traditionally marginalized or left out of courthouse rings, backroom meetings and good-old-boy agreements between representatives of the handful of ruling-class families that have controlled Madison County for decades. These activists understand that many opportunistic local developers — who are the real driving force behind much of the current buildup, rather than outsiders — would like to replace the older cafes, convenience stores and small retail outlets with more “scenic” ones; cut down local vegetation and habitat even as they label everything “Laurel” and “Wolf”; build not affordable homes for locals but “lodges” for affluent vacationers; displace smaller landowners; and create artificial lakes and ponds even as they silt and impede local streams through careless clearing and construction.

But those efforts will first be “watched” and monitored by grassroots groups like Laurel Valley and, in the end, opposed both politically and economically. The ensuing worthwhile feuds might actually open up Madison County to new ways of thinking and acting. It won’t be easy, but sometimes the trauma of fusses and fights brings people and communities together instead of dividing them.

As Albert Einstein famously observed, problems cannot generally be solved using the same mindset that created them. Thus, Madison County’s current struggles with development, affordable housing, jobs and health care — as well as with how to treat those perceived as “different” or “outsiders” — aren’t likely to be resolved by the county’s current ruling-class families.

[Milton Ready lives in Mars Hill. A UNCA professor emeritus of history, he is the author of The Tar Heel State: A History of North Carolina (University of South Carolina Press, 2005)]

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