NIMBY part 2: Maggie Valley woes

Straddling a winding North Carolina road, halfway between Asheville and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the town of Maggie Valley is the kind of vacation spot that appeals to people looking for hiking trails, Appalachian vistas, wildflowers and black bears. No surprise, then, that despite a relative lack of flat ground it has at least nine campgrounds and RV parks along a two-mile stretch of the main drag, which seems like a fair number for a town of only 1,700 or so–but for some, there’s never enough.

Riding the same wave of pandemic-juiced development that is afflicting other naturally beautiful areas, Maggie Valley also has been contending with the grandiose plans of a Myrtle Beach-based developer, Frankie Wood, who for the past two years has been spinning tales of how he intends to revive a now-defunct tourist attraction, Ghost Town in the Sky. Ghost Town has been sitting in mothballs since 2002, and Wood–as reported by The Mountaineer–apparently hasn’t invested a penny of his own money in the mountain-top amusement park. But he does have a “trail of bad debts and court cases over the past 30 years,” including having his own home foreclosed on in 2019.

In best “Music Man” style, however, Wood has besotted much of the Maggie Valley business establishment with his grand designs, acquiring partners for other projects he insists must precede The Big One. Chief among these is a need for more housing for all the employees he’ll eventually need, which translates into planned unit developments, trailer courts and more RV parks, which–given Maggie Valley’s vertical geography–has meant a flurry of rezoning requests to allow increased building density. And, for a while, Wood was getting all that and more, receiving dozens of land-use designations consistent with high-density development.

But while much of the business community warmed up to Wood, a clear majority of Maggie Valley residents felt otherwise. Too much was going on, and what was going on was too helter-skelter, without a clear vision of how everything would fit together or how it would reshape the town. Last fall, with two of the town’s aldermen positions up for election, two of the four candidates campaigned on a “smart growth” platform–and were overwhelmingly propelled into office by the biggest voter turnout anyone in Maggie Valley can recall. “I want to see smart growth, smart investment,” top vote-getter John Hinton summarized for the Smoky Mountain News. “Campgrounds are not smart growth. We want to see homes built. I’d love to see Ghost Town redeveloped . . . but I’ve yet to see a comprehensive plan of how that would work, a comprehensive plan that would not include a burden on the taxpayers of Maggie Valley.”

Lacking such a plan, the town is now drafting its own and expects to have it finished by July. Until then, the Maggie Valley board of aldermen hit the “pause” button, approving on a 3-2 vote a moratorium on any new developments. Sounds smart, doesn’t it? A triumph for local control over zoning and planning decisions? A recognition that there has to be a balanced approach to land use, so that someone doesn’t plop a landfill next to a hospital, or a steel mill in the middle of a housing development?

Not to North Carolina Rep. Mark Pless, who recently told a Mountaineer reporter that a six-month moratorium “sends the wrong message about Haywood County, that we are closed for business.” Dismissing the new aldermen as “wet behind the ears,” Pless–who has just finished serving the first year of his freshman term in office–said he is thinking about introducing legislation to reverse the town’s decision. Such a local override bill doesn’t require the governor’s signature in North Carolina, only needing the approval of the state’s House and Senate–and as the Mountaineer pointed out, legislators from outside the area affected by a local bill typically bow to the wishes of their colleagues.

Home rule? Only a quaint idea when there’s money to be made, even in an area as politically conservative as western North Carolina. Pretty soon the Mountaineer may have to contemplate a name change to something a little less rugged and independent. Maybe the Profiteer. Or better yet, the River City Review.

Because yep, you’ve got trouble right there in River City.

Author: Andy Zipser

A former newspaper reporter who worked at a variety of newspapers, from small community weeklies to The Wall Street Journal, I finished my "normal" work life as the editor of The Guild Reporter, official publication of the union representing newspaper workers. On retiring, I and my wife bought a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and--with the help of our two daughters and their husbands--operated it for eight years, first as a KOA franchisee and then as an independent family-owned RV park. We sold the campground in May, 2021, and live in Staunton, Virginia, a short walk from our grandsons' home.

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