Don’t compromise the DuPont State Forest

Will 2,200 acres of land surrounded by DuPont State Forest be preserved and integrated into a nationally known recreational attraction, or will Jim Anthony, developer of the gated Cliffs Communities, build luxury homes in the heart of this wild and scenic area?

Many residents of the rapidly growing Henderson and Transylvania counties were heartbroken when the state lost out in the bidding process for the 2,200-acre Little River tract last summer. The property contains three stunning waterfalls — High Falls, Triple Falls and Bridal Veil Falls (all featured in the movie Last of the Mohicans) — and is literally and figuratively the missing heart of the DuPont State Forest.

The previous owner, Sterling Diagnostic Imaging, sold the property to Anthony in an unusual sealed bidding process, which left much of the public believing that Anthony had an unfair advantage over the state. Sterling placed curious restrictions on the land (listings of which are on file at the Transylvania County Courthouse) that strongly suggested the property would be protected from the type of development currently underway. The Conservation Fund, bidding on behalf of the state, was operating on the assumption that these restrictions were valid. Despite Gov. Hunt’s request that the state be allowed to counterbid, Anthony was awarded the property with his bid of $6.35 million (about $800,000 higher than the Fund’s offer). In several stages, Anthony has gradually backpedaled from his original promise of “no plans for development” to his current plan of 150 large luxury homes and a private resort.

The land restrictions were apparently crafted more as a ruse than anything else; while they appear to forbid the types of homes Anthony is planning, they can be enforced only by the Agfa Corporation, the purchaser of the adjacent manufacturing plant. And Agfa apparently has no plans to slow Anthony’s development train down. The public appeared powerless to stop destruction of the precious Little River tract, the recreational and ecological centerpiece of what was traditionally known as Buck Forest.

In the spring of this year, Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Mike Easley surprised everyone with his bold suggestion that the state should intervene and force the sale of the waterfalls to the state. On April 4, Easley and U.S. congressional candidate Sam Neill presented a “compromise” plan to the Council of State, suggesting that the Council invoke their powers of eminent domain, if necessary, to acquire 400 critical acres along the Little River (leaving about 1,800 acres to Anthony). However, Gov. Hunt and many other Council members upped the ante by stating their intention to acquire the entire 2,200-acre tract surrounded by the DuPont State Forest.

The state immediately began negotiating with Anthony to acquire the property, a process which is required before eminent domain can be invoked. Anthony and the state have managed to agree on temporary moratoriums halting certain construction activities during negotiations. Meanwhile, Friends of the Falls — a grassroots group of WNC residents that supports state acquisition of the property in its entirety — has spent the summer campaigning in the region, building considerable support both locally and statewide. A tidal wave of calls and letters to Raleigh just before the Aug. 1 Council of State meeting was described by state leaders as unprecedented, prompting Hunt to label the property a “national treasure.”

Anthony finally showed his hand on Aug. 28, when he unveiled his “compromise” proposal to the Transylvania County Board of Commissioners. The proposal would place 638 acres under conservation easement, and would transfer a portion of the land around the waterfalls into a third-party trust partially controlled by his company. Public access to the waterfalls, however, would apparently be limited to a specific trail from the DuPont State Forest to an observation platform at each waterfall, for the general public to view between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. each day.

Opponents of the development were definitely not appeased. “Having the public watch from a fenced-in observation corral as Anthony’s well-heeled guests picnic and fish from the rocks below won’t cut it,” says Bill Thomas, of Friends of the Falls. “Restricted access inside a gated community is a far cry from the type of public access that North Carolina citizens and Gov. Hunt demand.” Informal polls taken by the Hendersonville Times-News and WHKP radio indicate that a majority of the local public still supports the total acquisition of the property over Anthony’s proposal.

Despite the apparent strong public support, however, the majority of Transylvania County commissioners stand solidly behind Anthony. At their Aug. 28 meeting, the commissioners did not wait for public comments before they voted, 4-1, to support the developer’s new proposal. (Anthony managed to get a last-minute, unannounced addition to the agenda.) It is interesting to note that the Transylvania commissioners have complained that the state did not seek their input before pursuing the purchase of the property, while they voted on the issue before receiving comments from their local constituency.

As expected, most of the opposition to the state plan has centered around the concept of “property rights” (although the North Carolina Constitution and certain state statutes clearly lay out Hunt’s authority on the issue). Dorothy Howk recently told the Hendersonville Times-News, “I’m 73, and if somebody tried to take my land away, I would get a gun and sit on my property until they killed me.” Apparently, it doesn’t matter that, unlike the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and other condemnation proceedings, no family homes must be removed here.

And don’t forget all the money to be made by creating another upper-crust real estate development. Whether it be strip mining in Nevada, big oil in Texas, or land speculation in the Blue Ridge mountains, local politicians tend to defend dominant local industries — even when it runs counter to the public good or the public will.

But not all Republicans oppose the state plan. “It’s really too bad that my party reacted so quickly to this, apparently without considering the long-term advantages this will have to the region,” says Brevard Republican and Friends of the Falls activist Dick Thompson. “They are increasingly out of step with their constituents on this. These same leaders support eminent domain for roads and other infrastructure, but cannot explain why they oppose it for conservation and recreation. They claim a loss of tax base, but stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the greater benefits to area tourism. They say the state can’t afford it, but support more expensive, and less popular, road projects.”

Gov. Hunt is expected to make a difficult decision before the next Council of State meeting on Sept. 19: Pay nothing, accept Anthony’s offer of restricted public access, and live with the consequences of a gated community inside the state forest. Or create a lasting legacy by acquiring the entire tract outright through eminent domain, thereby creating a 10,000-acre recreational attraction. Of course, coming up with the estimated $10 to $20 million it would take to purchase the property won’t be easy (at least part of the money is expected to come from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund). Supporters of acquisition point out that the sting of coming up with the cash will be short-lived, while a development in the middle of a state forest will be a permanent scar.

Recent comments — as quoted in the Hendersonville Times-News on Aug. 29 — by the state’s chief negotiator and property-office director, Joe Henderson, reveal a surprising bias toward accepting Anthony’s easy way out. Hearing him say that the area “already boasts abundant public lands,” you might wonder which side Henderson is negotiating for. And while (as the Aug. 29 article sets out) the state’s tally is 4,574 calls, letters and postcards for acquiring the property versus only 359 contacts opposing, Henderson suggests state-plan supporters might be “only a very vocal minority.”

So the only hope for a whole DuPont Forest rests in the resolve of our elected leaders, especially Gov. Hunt, and a very vocal majority continuing to insist the state take the long-term view. Friends of the Falls is asking everyone to contact the governor as soon as possible to let him know that Anthony’s restricted-access proposal is not acceptable. Says Friends of the Falls activist Doug Coggins, “We are about healing the bleeding hole in the DuPont State Forest, fixing the dead-end trails, and giving hikers, bikers, horse riders, fishermen and hunters a world-class forest to enjoy.”

For more information, including many color photos of the waterfalls, visit www.dupontforest.com on the Web.

[Woody Keen lives in Cedar Mountain, and is a leader of Friends of the Falls. He also serves on the volunteer recreational-advisory group for the DuPont State Forest.]

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