A Torn Quilt

(Appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer 2/11/2002)
The Balsam Mountain Preserve, a 4,400-acre private residential community in the rural mountains of Jackson County, N.C, is now taking orders for homes. On paper, the Preserve sounds like an environmentalist’s dream, but I won’t be looking for my own little piece of the Smokies there.

For 10 years I’ve owned a cabin in Jackson County-a ramshackle affair, lying deep in an isolated hollow a few creases down from the Blue Ridge Parkway. It sits on four acres surrounded by large timbered parcels owned by a holding company in Florida.

The road into my place is rutted, and my taxes are still low. I’m 10 miles as the crow flies from the Balsam Mountain Preserve, but I’m centuries from the upscale rustic luxury of this “environmentally sound” development.

The Balsam Mountain Preserve is offering just 350 building sites, “single family homesteads . . . sensitively placed,” with 2,500 acres protected in perpetuity by a conservation easement gifted to The North American Land Trust.

There is even a nonprofit organization created by the Balsam Mountain Company, called The Balsam Mountain Trust, funded by fees on home sales and individual donations.

The Trust urges “deep understanding of the Preserve’s ecosystem” by all members. Trust naturalists will visit homesteads to “assess the lot’s natural features” and offer advice on “how to landscape with nature.” There will be a library, “nature lab” and “outreach programs” to help non-members understand Balsam Mountain.

How much does all this cost? The Preserve is one of those places where, if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.

The parent company, Chaffin/Light Associates of Spring Island, S.C., hopes that Balsam Mountain will remind clients of their first childhood visit to a national park. “We knew we were entering a very different world,” the Web site ad copy announces on its home page. “We passed heavy timbered gates and traveled over leafy roadways, into what, as children, we experienced as adventure.”

Chaffin/Light has quite a pedigree for resort development. They’ve created “adventure” for high-end communities all over the country. They cut their teeth on Charles Fraser’s Sea Pines Plantation on Hilton Head Island, S.C., in the 1970s. Sister projects include Snowmass Resort, Colo. and Spring Island, a 3,000-acre/500-home residential community near Beaufort, S.C.

There may be no reason to worry that Balsam Mountain Preserve will suffer the same fate as Hilton Head, where Sea Pines Plantation is now besieged by square miles of pavement, condos, and retail development.

The people at Balsam Mountain say they’ve learned a great deal since Sea Pines and the early years of large-scale resort development. At Balsam Mountain they’ve done their homework. The conservation easement held by The North American Land Trust is as good as it gets. “Documentation has to be tight enough so as not to be changed,” one representative said. “Developers are only here for a nanosecond.”

So is this environmentalist worried? Well, yes. Success breeds success, as Hilton Head showed. I fear that the Preserve is just the leading edge of a high-end housing trend that will drive up land prices in Jackson County. My taxes have already doubled in the last two years, and I fear more tax hikes may follow.

I fear that every large, isolated local tract, like the one behind my cabin, is now subject to growing market pressures. All deals are on. And I worry that my county will suffer the same fate as Jackson Hole, Wyo., where the rich live and people like me drive in just to visit.

Today’s Jackson County, like much of the rural South, is still a complex socioeconomic quilt. Mobile homes share the same hollow as modest vacation homes. I like it that way. I’m saddened when I think of one possible future: gated communities impersonating national parks filling out the South’s rural vastness.

The hollers of Jackson County have often sheltered those who hate “Big Government.” The FBI searched several isolated properties near mine in hope of stumbling onto fugitive Eric Rudolph. They didn’t locate Rudolph, but up one long, rutted two-track they did find a couple living in a mud-and-wattle hut like Cherokees.

It’s Big Business I fear, corporations that can afford to hire advertising consultants who stick their finger into the wind to see if U.S. consumers are trending toward the “adventure” of pricey vacation housing and SUVs.

It might be too late for Jackson County. There are rumors that the Disney Corporation is working a deal to purchase 4,000 acres across the ridge from my place. Property transfers show two more land deals for over 1,000 acres in the last year.

Doesn’t prosperity lift all boats? Won’t my roads improve? Won’t my neighbors-like the working class people who formerly lived in Jackson Hole-find jobs cleaning those houses on the mountain, working in those wildflower gardens? Maybe.

Will it be worth it? Not for me. I came looking for a tiny scrap of what Horace Kephart had found in the Smokies in the 1900s, a “back-of-beyond.” I bought my four acres in isolated Jackson County to get out from in front of the snowplow of commerce, and now it’s at my door.

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