So You Want a Land Use Bill? The Case of the N.C. Mountain Area Management Act

Black and white photo of eroding hillside

Jeff Jacobson

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 2 No. 2/3, "Our Promised Land." Find more from that issue here.

The proposed 1974 North Carolina Mountain Area Management Act represents more than just another legislative entanglement of interest only to professional planners and people with insomnia. The problems it addresses, as well as the broader, more complex issues it raises, have consequences for us all. For by our care or neglect, by our knowledge or ignorance, we are involved in shaping the relationship of people to land and defining the future of both. Our very presence as persons makes us part of age-old conflicts arising out of the clash of private rights with public needs. As land becomes increasingly scarce, such conflicts become crucial ones. Understanding them is not easy; dealing with them in a productive and conciliatory way is almost impossible.


Mountain Land and Mixed Values

The concept of public, shared ownership and management of land has existed from the time of the earliest tribal systems. In contrast, the concept of private property rights, in common law terms, has evolved only in the relatively recent centuries since feudalism, when sovereign monarchs granted land to individuals as gifts or rewards for service. Since that time, land has become an object, a personal possession, a symbol of wealth, prestige, and power. It has become a measure of autonomy which few people, once they acquire it, are willing to give up "for the public good."

Such an attitude toward the land is deeply entrenched in the Appalachian mountains, where land is often the only possession that remains to be handed down from generation to generation. Indeed, original land grants may still be found in the hands of mountain dwellers. For many, land remains the measure of what it means to be independent, to be "native," to be special; to have one's place in the present world and one's roots solidly in the past.

This point of view, while fostering strong emotional opposition to governmental intervention in matters of land use (and often paradoxically hastening exploitation), also provides fertile ground for the development of new attitudes toward the land. The North Carolina mountains are becoming a focal point in the process of change. For it is here that people are experiencing, for the first time, the threat of losing the very mountains themselves to earth-moving machines and the discontented urbanites who seem to follow in their path.

There are those who compare the phenomenon to the beginnings of the coal industry in other Appalachian states early in the century which brought promises of economic prosperity and luxuries available only in a progressively materialistic society. Such promises encouraged people to sign deeds giving up the controlling mineral rights to their property. It was an irretrievable step. And what began as a hope for progress quickly decayed in shattered dreams, lost pride and ravaged land.

Although the people of the North Carolina mountains escaped the blight of the coal industry and continued to live in a predominantly self-sufficient, agrarian society for many decades, they are now facing their own peculiar blight created by the recreation and second-home industry. Ravaged by irresponsible development, many communities are finding it increasingly difficult (and often impossible) to prevent the destruction of mountainsides and fertile valleys. Air and water are polluted by careless and wasteful construction practices. Erosion and destruction of wildlife continue unabated. Highways and precious bottom land are lined with tourist-centered businesses which not only cause congestion and blight, but also limit the capabilities for diversified economic growth.

More and more people are coming to "get away from it all" by skiing and getting high at exclusive resorts or by participating in Tweetsie and Land-of-Oz fantasy resorts. They are lured by the prospect of owning their own piece of the dream — a vacation hideaway. Resort executives admit that the ski slopes, the scenic attractions, the fancy clubhouses, the recreation areas are bait to hook people into buying second homes, condominiums, and most of all, land. Expensive land. But also fragile land, the last vestiges of wilderness land. It has been a good deal, for the urbanites could "return to nature” while retaining all the comforts and diversions of home. And the developers and investors have been making a lot of money in the process.

One result of the land rush is that traditionally laissez-faire local governments are being faced with problems as complex as those of metropolitan areas; yet they have no established philosophy or social machinery to rely upon as they seek equitable and acceptable solutions. Local controls are not enough to cope with the onslaught of corporate development, fly-by-night entrepeneurs, and state and regional tourism policies, all of which encourage large segments of the urban population to find idyllic escape in the North Carolina mountains.

Mountain people are discovering that, almost overnight, the craggy slopes of mountains where for generations their families have survived by peeling bark and gathering medicinal herbs are of great monetary worth to the leisure industry. The music and crafts which have been the means of sheer psychological and physical survival in an isolated area are now the focus of hordes of culturally-starved urbanites. And the rocky mountain land which has often brought the mountain farmer little more than bloodied knuckles, broken hoes, and a cellar of potatoes is now eagerly sought out by former city dwellers enraptured with its pastoral qualities.

It is this same force of "development,” bringing with it a promise of prosperity and a call to trade off land for money, which also encourages (even forces) the renunciation of traditional values for those of urbanism. The first glow of progress, however, is beginning to fade as it becomes clearer to mountain people that the prosperity is likely to be short-lived and that the new values which disrupt family and community ties also destroy a vital sense of identity and belonging.

Long-time area residents speak increasingly of the need to protect the land which is their inheritance, which retains some permanent value in a time of conflicting biculturalism. Such biculturalism is reflected in the desire of people to retain their self-sufficiency and their conflicting desire to go to work for somebody else because it will bring in more money. It is also reflected in the desire for the lost sense of community and the concomitant desire to sell one's land and move away to a more "exciting" place. And it is reflected in the desire of many of the region's young people to assume the values of the affluent jet-set youth who flock to resorts like Sugar Mountain on the weekend to ski and get stoned and race down winding mountain roads in expensive sports cars. It is the inevitable cultural conflict which comes when people of a relatively isolated society are suddenly thrust into the larger world of mass communications, consumerism, urbanism, and leisure.

In the midst of such cultural conflicts, the land can symbolize permanence and deeper, more enduring values. And yet the land is the very thing which must be bargained away for the sake of progress. When it becomes easier or more profitable to work in the factory or at the gas station than to work the rocky land, the land's intrinsic value may begin to appear less important to those who have owned it. Only later (and often too late) is there a realization that the land has value as a stabilizing factor in a time of complex social change, as a symbol of one's attachment to and belonging to a community in a time of disintegrating kinship ties, as a measure of power and self-sufficiency in determining the future of one's home and family in a time of economic and political turbulence.


Toward a Plan

Professional planners unanimously characterize the land use planning of the North Carolina mountains as "planning by reaction." But it is a reaction to a metamorphosis so swift and so complex that few people have grasped its many implications. Some of those who began early to understand that planning-by-reaction was no longer adequate — members of the small, citizens' Mountain Land Use Action Group — met informally with State Secretary of Natural and Economic Resources, James E. Harrington, on a snowy winter’s day two years ago. 

It was late 1972. In the shadow of the Sugar Mountain ski slope they talked of the problems which even then called for immediate solutions. They impressed upon Secretary Harrington that no matter what the intentions of the developers, the vacationers, or the second-home buyers, both the future capabilities of the land and the future of the people who lived and depended on it were being relentlessly destroyed. The Mountain Land Use Action Group presented Harrington with a petition which concluded:

Due to the hesitancy of local governments in dealing with the problems of land use until the cancer of irresponsible development has already set in, we, as residents of the mountains and concerned citizens, request that our Governor take steps to preserve the character of our valuable mountains. We propose the creation of a Mountain Zone Management Commission. . . .

The Group's approach had many an honorable precedent; protective legislation seemed the obvious tactic.

The Mountain Area Management Act which was first introduced into the 1973 N.C. General Assembly was, in part, a product of that winter meeting with Secretary Harrington, who himself had close ties with the resort industry in the mountains. Harrington had gone to his cabinet-level state job earlier in 1972 from an executive position at the exclusive ski and tennis resort of Sugar Mountain in Banner Elk, N.C. Before that he held a similar position in the resort and golfing community of Pinehurst. Harrington considered himself both a responsible private developer and a responsible public administrator, seeing no conflict of interest in the two roles. In fact, he felt his background gave him a better understanding of the problems and possible solutions in the mountains.

Harrington's analysis of the situation, in concept, was a widely-held one: economic development is needed, but it must be balanced by ecological considerations. From his perspective, the recreation and resort industry was the most obvious answer to the mountains' economic plight. In the spring of 1973, just before the Mountain Act was introduced into the General Assembly, Harrington explained his position:

The rural areas of our State and particularly the mountainous and eastern sections need an economic boost. They don't need and we don't need irresponsible fast-buck land developers, but we should be in a position to work with and encourage the quality developments that can improve the economic circumstances of some of our rural areas.

When a mountain resident wrote Harrington to express concern about the long-range effects of a tourism-resort economy, Harrington replied:

Speaking from a background of over twenty years in the resort industry, I do not share your concerns about the instability of a tourist-oriented economy. But I certainly do share your concerns about the serious adverse effects that could be experienced from irresponsible and unguided over-development of an ecologically sensitive area such as the mountains.

Harrington's philosophy of economic development was to become the basic Holshouser Administration position. And the Mountain Act (and its companion coastal act) was shaped and guided through the legislative process on the strength of such a stand. Harrington spent the next two years lecturing on it, defending it, and doing his job of “taking the heat off the Governor" (presumably laid on by irate developers) in the process. 

In the early spring of 1973, however, Harrington's task was a tactical one: he had to find some viable way of responding to the citizens' petition and the Administration's concerns. An act to manage the coastal area had been on the drawing board for some time and was slated for introduction into the 1973 General Assembly, as was the planning-oriented State Land Policy Act. Would it be politically feasible to introduce a third land use bill into a traditionally conservative legislature? Harrington was at first skeptical but he met with Governor Holshouser and key advisors to discuss the possibility. Shortly thereafter he reported that the Governor had asked that the three bills be joined together in one legislative package.

The 1973 General Assembly was then in the midst of its session. If any bill on the mountain area was going to be introduced, it would have to be drawn quickly. So, one weekend, several administrators from the Department of Natural and Economic Resources (DNER) headed for the beach with a copy of the Coastal Bill for a guide, notepads, and a directive to grind out a companion mountain bill. Thus it was that the Mountain Area Management Act was born among the sand dunes of the coast, hundreds of miles from the mountains and from the people who would be most affected by the bill if enacted. Even today, after two sessions of the General Assembly and a complete rewriting of the bill, traces of that frantic weekend remain in references to shellfish, Crustacea, and scallops management and mosquito control districts. 

After that weekend, the bill existed, whatever its shortcomings. It was introduced during the final days of the 1973 legislative session. No one expected debate or passage; but with its referral to the Senate Natural and Economic Resources Committee and the House Water and Air Resources Committee, a strategy could be developed for working on the bill in future sessions. An agreement was reached between these committees (headed by Senator William Staton and Representative Willis Whichard, respectively, both of Piedmont counties) and DNER which would allow for closer examination of the bill: Committee and DNER representatives planned to spend the summer travelling to other states with similar land use legislation and holding joint public hearings in the regions affected to assess citizens' reactions to their proposals.


Public Hearings and Government Response

The four mountain-region hearings were held in stuffy courtrooms during weekday work hours. Citizens' groups such as the Sierra Club and the League of Women Voters were represented, as were local governments and professionals testifying for timbering concerns and resort and real estate interests. Scattered here and there were individual citizens with personal testimonies. A few groups of school children watched government in action (“an exercise in democracy at its best,” as Chairman Whichard called it) in this first attempt by a committee of the North Carolina legislature to hold on-the-road hearings.

The people who were conspicuously absent were the majority of the area's permanent residents, who often did not know of the bill or the hearings (though they were announced in local papers), who could not leave their jobs and their farms to come, and who felt that they “didn't know how to talk” to the imposing legislative committee members who presided with feet propped up on the long courtroom tables.

Of the local citizens who did come, many were concerned only about how the bill would affect their immediate lives. The farmers at the Franklin hearing opposed any bill that might regulate their out  houses. Residents along the Blue Ridge Parkway feared that they might be denied entrance and exit to their property. But, in general, local residents simply wanted to know what the bill was all about.

Both small and large development interests, however, were far from confused or timid. They all testified as to their personal passion for "ecology” and asked for "reasonable" restraints. The most influential resort developers obviously sought to convince the panel and the audience that they were part of an "honorable profession." For example, George McRay, Vice President of Sugar Mountain, declared in his position statement: "The developers are in the minority. Developers sound bad; but they're not all that bad in trying to give people pleasure.”

A travel promotion man was more direct: "Our land is now ready to be sold off nationally under a high-pitch sales approach." The president of a retirees' hiking association had a special point of view: "This area is eminently suitable for retirees from other places. And the people here are eminently suitable to serve these people . . . .We've got to think the way they do in Cleveland or Maine.. . .We should consider western North Carolina a retirement area!" One of the most categorical declarations came from the timber interests' lobbyist, Dr. Peter Mount, who testified that "We don't like to see additional restrictions placed on the timber industry.”

There was a consensus at the hearings that the North Carolina mountains should be "saved." The disagreements came because each group or individual wanted them saved for its own, often conflicting purposes. And virtually no one could agree on exactly how it all could be done. The basic concept of a unified management system was widely endorsed. Arguments in support of the bill were that uncontrolled development destroys its own economic value; that time is running out for the state in its ability to protect lands of great aesthetic, ecological, or recreational value; and that individual property rights should be subordinate to public rights in protecting valuable resources and the general quality of life.

Major opposition to the bill came from those who felt that local controls were preferable to state ones; that the end result of the bill would be a proliferation of bureaucracy; that past governmental action in the region warranted distrust of this attempt; that condemnation powers would destroy an already weak local tax base; and that there was an obvious lack of grassroots input which would result in the concentration of power in the hands of a small group of individuals. Another concern was that the bill made no provision for injunctive relief through class action suits. There were many questions about specific sections of the bill by proponents and opponents alike. After four tiresome days of listening, the legislators went home.

Before the legislature reconvened, Dr. Milton Heath, Assistant Director of the University of North Carolina's Institute of Government, worked with the legislators and DNER men in drafting new bills for both the mountains and coast. The original 29 page bills were expanded to 50 pages of more elaborate definitions, expanded coverage, and procedural refinements. Subtle modifications in language refined the bills' intent. The result was that the original objections to the bills' vagueness were replaced by fears that they were now so legally precise that most people would never be able to understand fully their many implications.


What the Land Use Bill Does

In its final draft, the North Carolina Management Act of 1974 provides for a comprehensive state local planning and implementation process for drawing up county-by-county land use plans, designating areas of environmental concern (whose definitions follow closely those of the pending Jackson land use bill, S. 628), and enforcing orderly development and management procedures through a permit system. Primary responsibility for directing this process will fall to a 1 5-member Mountain Commission (the majority of whom should be residents of the area), the Department of Natural and Economic Resources, and the Department of Administration.

The expressed goals of the Act include protection and preservation of natural resources (including scenic vistas); management of transitional or “intensely developed” areas; establishment of policies for the economic development of the region, including “construction, location, and design" of industrial, commercial, housing, and other development; establishment of guidelines for recreation areas, transportation routes and related facilities; preservation and enhancement of historic, cultural, and scientific aspects of the area; and "any other purposes and considerations deemed necessary or appropriate to effectuate the policy of this Article.”

The Commission members have broad discretionary powers: they can veto county land use plans; they are mandated to give particular attention to the nature of development which shall be appropriate in areas of environmental concern; and they are allowed, in consultation with governmental agencies, to set objectives, standards, and policies to be followed in the public and private use of land and water within the region.

The Secretary of DNER and his staff are responsible for coordinating all these efforts. Penalties for persons violating the provisions of the Act are not less than $100 nor more than $1,000fine and/or 60 days in jail (with each day of a continuing violation a separate offense) and a possible civil suit on behalf of the affected local government.

Milton Heath, the current bill's prime drafter, explained its basic aim as that of “consistency": 

Under the Act development must be consistent with plans; plans and permits must be consistent with the Guidelines; plans, permits and Guidelines must be consistent with the goals and policies of the Act; policies concerning use of state-owned lands and land classification systems developed under the State Land Policy Act must be consistent with the Guidelines; and local ordinances affecting lands within areas of environmental concern must be consistent with the plans.*

*Milton Heath, “The Legislative History of the North Carolina Coastal Area Management Act of 1974,” draft copy, to be published in the North Carolina Law Review. This article is recommended as an examination of the concepts and legal implications of North Carolina land use legislation.

The Legislative Process

When the legislators came back to Raleigh in January, 1974, they were still tired from the previous session, weary of endless political hassling, preoccupied with adoption of state budget items, and concerned about their own campaigns for re-election. Since the legislators' re-election concerns centered on campaign financing and the desire not to alienate wealthy, influential individuals who were prospective contributors, general consumer interests were pushed into the background. Nevertheless, the natural resources committees of the House and Senate did meet together to approve tentatively the rewritten coastal and mountain bills. Their strategy was to get the coastal bill through, letting the mountain bill slip in behind it if the atmosphere was favorable.

They could hardly have conceived of the battle that was to follow when their intentions to get regional bills enacted were taken seriously by their colleagues. Milton Heath recalls that although there had been little outright opposition to the concept in earlier sessions, it came to the surface early in 1974 and continued until the day of adjournment. The obstacle course that the Coastal Bill traversed in its passage is indicative of the struggle such land use legislation must face. The time and energy devoted to the Coastal Bill's passage prevented the Mountain Bill from being seriously considered, though it was never far from the minds of most legislators.

Milton Heath outlines the Coastal Bill's impressive skirmishes (and major battles) which included:

• another public hearing in Raleigh in February, 1974 (a delaying tactic demanded by development interests);

• the natural resource committee's devotion of their time for the entire session to the Coastal Bill and its amendments;

• a tentative bill passage in the Senate after numerous delays and the attachment of 12 floor amendments;

• a filibustering by amendments in the House which lasted twelve hours and which concluded when 22 out of 51 floor amendments were passed, all by roll-call vote; (Heath and DNER considered most of the ratified amendments tactical rather than substantive in nature);

• a rejection by the Senate of the House amendments by a 24 to 20 vote;

• a last minute re-vote on the same amendments by the Senate on the very next day with an outcome of a 32-9 turnaround vote (due largely to the pressures exerted by powerful political figures in behind-the-scenes maneuverings);

• a final approval of the Coastal Bill two days before the end of the session and its ratification on the next to the last day.

It was a long and fierce political process. All those involved were acutely aware that a Mountain Act was sure to follow; that their actions might open the flood gates for similar liberal proposals; and that entrenched interest groups, with their power and freedom threatened, were sure to react to any restrictive land use legislation.

Indeed, powerful groups representing interests such as banking, utilities, and land development never relaxed their efforts to get the bills shaped to their particular needs. They were preoccupied with the coastal bill since it was first on the agenda and since the public was growing more and more vocal in favoring protection of what was left of that fragile area. Behind-the-scenes maneuvering included the introduction of a series of "smoke screen" amendments (dealing with the necessity for more local participation and more refined wording) which were, in effect, only a means of building up a broader base of discontent. Such interests were aided by a coalition of Eastern and Mountain delegates including Speaker of the House Jim Ramsey, which provided formidable opposition to the bill.

Another key issue was the composition of the Coastal Commission. Democrats wanted to insure a party majority on the Commission; and county and city governments wanted to be assured of a strong voice. A compromise allowed county governments to submit to the Governor lists of candidates for 12 of the 15 commission slots. The Governor was to choose three additional members from his own list who would represent land development, an at large member, and financial interests in area land development. When the Commission for the coast was appointed, the Governor chose an area land developer, the vice president of a bank, and a wealthy oil man with residences in North Carolina and Texas.) An informed source explained that Secretary Harrington was instrumental in the arrangement of Administration appointees because he felt that representatives of the development and financial interests would be the most influential and prestigious members of the Commission. By removing such appointments from the caprice of local governments, he believed, more sensible and responsible representatives could be chosen who would also be more responsive to the Administration's position on land use.

High-powered land development corporations, like Venture Management, Inc., of Winston-Salem and Atlanta, while not arguing for specific amendments or wording in the bills, were concerned about the general implications of both. Such groups and individuals, while remaining in the background, did make their presence and their attitudes known in Raleigh.

Mountain developers were also concerned about the proposed legislation. The prestigious G.F. Company, real estate sales and land development corporation, headed by Hugh Morton, offered its advice in shaping the mountain bill: 

We pledge our assistance to those who are interested in practical, enforceable legislation to assure good land development procedures in all parts of North Carolina, but reaffirm our belief that the bill presented for discussion today is not feasible to administer. We will be pleased to offer our advice to the appropriate parties designated by the General Assembly to formulate a new and more workable bill, if such is your decision. We strongly recommend that this be your decision.

In addition to this attempt to have direct input in drafting the bill, G.F. Company was also instrumental in hiring a Raleigh attorney, John Gunter III, to lobby for eight mountain resort interests. Those interests included Secretary Harrington's home company, Sugar Mountain; G.F. Company, Invershiel, Inc., and Highland Stable Club, all prime holdings of Hugh Morton, the wealthy and influential Democrat who had previously been a gubernatorial hopeful; and Adams Apple Racquet Club Development, begun by Bob Bingham, former chairman of the North Carolina Young Democrats and a director of Skipper Bowles' election campaign in the 1972 Governor's race.

While groups like the Farm Bureau spent a great deal of time lobbying on particular issues, conservation groups led the support for the bills as a whole. Conservationists felt that despite the potential danger of manipulation by development interests, the coastal and mountain bills assured some measure of protection, especially through their provision for designating areas of environmental concern.

Since, on the surface, the major provisions of the bills seemed beneficial, political subtleties underlying the implementation features were largely ignored even by those reasonably well versed on the issues. For instance, the Board of Directors of the North Carolina Land Use Congress (a group representing various citizen, corporate, and government interests) was ready to vote to allow its president and executive secretary to testify in favor of the 1974 Coastal and Mountain Acts. When members were questioned about whether they were familiar with the new bills (different in many ways from the 1973 versions), no one had read the extensively revised versions, and a majority had never seen a copy of them. Yet a requested delay on the vote was met with anger by the executive secretary who felt such a move was an assault by anti-protectionists.

Conservationists like the N.C. Land Use Congress, League of Women Voters, and Conservation Council of N.C., were clearly most concerned with the protection of scenic and natural values. Concentrated in the Piedmont, especially in the urban Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill complex, they themselves often sought escape in the more placid coastal and mountain areas and sympathized with the belief that such areas, as vital state recreational assets, should be protected for the benefit of all the state's residents.

In the end, compromises defused the potentially devastating debate on the coastal bill by taking into account the personal passions and commitments, the petty pride and minor irritations, of key legislators and lobbyists. Only then, in an eleventh hour action by the 1974 General Assembly, did that bill pass. The session finally adjourned, leaving the mountains only a token $20,000 project grant — a grant which today is still unused — to do something somewhere in the mountain region relating to the Mountain Act as it may someday be considered by some future session of the General Assembly.

The legislators went home, the burden lifted from their shoulders, with an exhausted sigh of relief.


The Future of the Mountain Bill

What happened with the Coastal Act vitally affects the future of any mountain management bill. The struggles the former went through in the General Assembly have left lasting scars and positions have hardened. Unfavorable public reaction to land use legislation could be used as a potent political weapon by conservative Democrats in future political campaigns as they attempt to discredit the Republican administration.

In the final months of 1974, however, while the coastal plan is still in its infancy, politicians running for office would rather forget about land use legislation altogether. The mountain bill's proponents are tired and scattered, and yet the longer they wait to rebuild a coalition of support, the more difficult the task will become. As one legislator put it, "In terms of building on the glow of the Coastal Management Act, one would get better political mileage to start the mountain bill going now before the implementation period starts on the coast . . . and before the people down there start moaning!" An equally pragmatic mountain senator felt that, "It would be best to wait and profit from the mistakes of the coastal bill." And Milton Heath believes that it would be a sheer miracle if the mountain bill got serious consideration in the General Assembly any time soon.

One problem is that no momentum exists to unite the varied interests which might be expected to support a mountain area management act. But, more crucially, the House has been denuded of leadership in the environmental field and will, by most guesses, be headed by conservative Eastern forces who have been consistently opposed to any land use legislation. Nevertheless, on request from DNER, Heath is redrafting a mountain bill to mirror the ratified Coastal Act. Secretary Harrington has already said that he will have such a bill introduced into the legislature even though his department has lost much of its original enthusiasm as it tries to cope with the burden of implementing the coastal plan.

As for the people in the mountains themselves, most still do not know of the Act's existence or understand its implications. The mountain activists who once saw some promise in such protective legislation now fear that the bill will create more problems than it will solve. And the citizens who spoke out at the four public hearings held in 1973 will probably discover that their efforts were in vain since the composition of the committees that will consider any new bill will undoubtedly be different. No full transcripts were taken at the hearings, although the citizens' written testimony and tapes of the proceedings are stored away somewhere in Raleigh — if any legislator has the time and ambition to find them and listen to the more than 30 hours of testimony.

The immediate prospects for any sort of bill that is responsive to the needs of the people who live in the mountain area are grim. In fact, that possibility was almost doomed from the outset. The mountain bill never really had a chance to evolve and stand on its own merits. There should have been a preliminary assessment of the economic and environmental and cultural situations unique to the mountains and the people who live there. But that never happened. The rationale was that since the coast was an environmentally unique and fragile recreation area, like the mountains, what was good for one was good for the other. But, in fact, the economics of the two areas, the natural environments, the politics, and the cultural histories are not at all similar; nor will the complex problems faced by the two areas be met by the same solutions. A simplistic view of the two situations led to the creation of a mountain bill by default.

The bill is also doomed by its own legal complexities. Only those people with specialized training and a great deal of free time will ever be able to read through and comprehend the entire bill. Corporations and affluent individuals will be able to hire lawyers to interpret the bill and the loopholes which will allow them to manipulate it. But the average small business person, farmer, factory worker, and homemaker will never know what the bill is about and who is controlling its implementation until they are directly affected. And then it will be too late.

When so few citizens know of such legislation, one can expect little grassroots input into the bill's revision. And there can be no organized voice of mountain people concerned about the implications of such legislation on the future of the region where they live. Such organization is crucial. Financial interests have it. Utilities interests have it. Development interests have it. Conservation interests have it. But there is no such organization among less influential, yet equally concerned, citizens who live in the affected areas.

The crucial regional problems that originally spawned the Mountain Act continue to plague the mountains. The scalping of mountain tops, the bulldozing of hills, the devastation of wildlife, and the pollution of headwaters continue. The mountains are becoming increasingly a collection of corporate-owned second-home developments and tourism complexes. And the tremendous conflict between goals and values continues.


Issues and People

Rhetoric associated with the debate over land use legislation during the past two years has often been impassioned, sometimes even noble, in its insistence on an enlightened and humane approach to the problem. And yet on sober reflection, one has to wonder whether, while we are desperately seeking sane answers, we have ever discovered the complexities of the questions. 

Testimony by Mrs. Louise McComb of Franklin came close to articulating the central intent of the drafters of the Mountain Act who sought to protect the land and resources for everyone, both now and in the future. She staunchly defended the bill by saying, "What a man does to his land may deplete it, exhaust it, remove it forever from the pool of available resources. What a man does to his land may also restrict the reasonable use and safety of other land users in the area. We must realize that the individual cannot consider only his own interests — the public interest is at stake."

And yet Mrs. McComb, for all the incisive clarity of her statement, suggested some classic ambiguities. Mountain residents who involved themselves in the debate were made increasingly aware that while they felt they should be able to do as they wished with their own land, that same land was being threatened by uncontrolled development on adjoining properties. Moreover, the developers were justifying their actions by using an argument dear to the hearts of mountain people: "It is my land. I will do with it as I please." The dilemma was not resolvable by any easy compromise. To retain freedom was also to give it up. And yet, how much freedom would have to be given up in order to save the streams, the homes, the lands? It was at once both an ideological and a highly personal debate.

Another kind of debate was central to legislators' concerns about such land use legislation. It centered around the problem of a bill's acceptability. In late 1973, at a North Carolina Land Use Congress meeting, State Senator Hamilton Horton declared. "Land use legislation is a shield against the smash and grab materialism which we in the South have so long despised!" Months later, after countless hours of legislative debate and compromising trade-offs on the Coastal Act, Horton was forced to cry out, "We now find that this bill which all of us have labored on is on the block to be slaughtered!" Many of the bill's proponents scorned Horton’s passionate rhetoric. But his protest makes vividly clear the distortion that occurs when good intentions are caught up in the powerful machinery and legalistic jargon of the legislative process, and when vastly unequal economic interests clash.

It was a dilemma the Mountain Act's sponsors could not altogether escape; for if there was to be a bill, it would have to be voted on favorably by General Assembly members, a majority of whom were bankers, lawyers, and, in a variety of ways, developers themselves. Their most influential friends and colleagues back home could be expected to have similar backgrounds. This coalition of entrenched, conservative interests (which, as one insider put it, "doesn't want anybody messin' with their money") was a very different one from that of the citizens and planners who had first envisioned protective legislation.

Dr. Art Cooper, a planner and Assistant Secretary of DNER, was one who had believed that the bill might solve a perennial problem of economic development. He philosophized that:

In the past the land has either been exploited by free, unfettered business interests, or by private interests seeking profit, or by chaotic public works programs which were often nothing more than a proposition to make someone a fast buck. Instead of catering to large business interests, government has got to realize that it can use legislation along with public investments to bend and shape growth.

Cooper saw the companion coastal and mountain bills as tools to guide sound economic development by, for example, designating industrial sites and transportation routes which would bring jobs closer to the people in rural areas (a concept central to Governor Holshouser's dispersal-development philosophy). The question Dr. Cooper did not answer was whether a legislative action which places decision-making powers in the hands of a small, politically-appointed Commission could in fact insure economic development that would not be influenced unduly by entrenched corporate interests. A year later, however, he admitted a disillusionment with the governmental process:

I am willing to see our resources developed and utilized. But what really concerns me is whether or not the economic gain ever really gets back to the people who need it. It just seems to me that the poor stay poor, that there has not been much the government has been able to figure out to help (alleviate) their misery. The money from these resources doesn't go to the people of North Carolina. It goes to the people in New York or someplace else.

A final irony in all these issues is that, as access to mountain lands acquires more and more value for the larger population, mountain people are being called upon to be good "caretakers" for the greater public good. As Jane Sharp (President of the Land Use Congress, Environmental Chairman for the N.C. League of Women Voters, and Board Member of the N.C. Conservation Council) questioned a mountain spokesman: "Don't you think you people in the mountains have a responsibility to provide recreational opportunities for all of us in the state?"

The opening pages of the Mountain Act reveal a point of view similar to Ms. Sharp's: "The mountain area of North Carolina has an extremely high recreational and aesthetic value which should be preserved and enhanced." The bill goes on to describe its purpose as "to insure the orderly and balanced use and preservation of our mountain resources ... on behalf of the people of North Carolina and the Nation."

For the region's people, concerns about the greater public good have little meaning when they appear as veiled requests to save the mountains because of their recreational and scenic value for other people from other places. It is only when the debate about protecting and preserving land becomes personal, when it speaks to basic human needs of those to whom it "belongs,” that the land's inhabitants will feel compelled to act. The ultimate question, then, is whether impersonal, intellectually conceived, and technically drafted legislation, governed by a bureaucracy headquartered hundreds of miles away from the affected lands, can give protection from both sophisticated and ignorant developers bent on combining their brand of capitalism with the resources of land to cash in on the great "American dream.”