Growing Pains Marked (And Marred) The 1980's

Many believe the "activist" attitude grew from groups formed in Ashe County to oppose a Virginia dam

From toxic dumps to high-rises to shopping centers, the 1980's was the decade when growth pressures came to a head in Watauga County.

Many believe the "activist" attitude grew from groups formed in Ashe County to oppose a Virginia dam. The dam would have backed up the headwaters of the New River, destroying the area which was recently designated one of America's Heritage Rivers. Another regional issue which raged through the decade was a proposed toxic waste dump.

North Carolina joined a seven-state Southeastern Compact, which was designed to serve as a cooperative body to find a site for a low-level nuclear waste dump to replace an aging facility in Barnwell, South Carolina. State residents were all for the proposal until some of the mountain counties became potential targets for the dump.

In 1986, after three years of research, Ashe, Alexander, Alleghany, and others were among those counties considered for the dump. Opposition mounted, citing the danger of not only storage, but the transportation of the waste. The Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League was formed in 1984, primarily to combat the dump, but later spread its influence into other environmental arenas. North Carolina eventually pulled out of the Compact, with litigation and controversy still raging to this day.

One of the 1980's most bitter fights came about a little after the fact. Sugar Top condominiums were designed as "futuristic" condos designed to bring upscale clients to the area. The original 218 units sold rapidly, and an early artist's conception showed five floors. Sales representative Skipper Clark of Resort Investments, the group behind the condominiums, was quoted as saying, "We're going to raise the standard to upper middle class. Now the mountain is dominated by young people who don't have the money to support the services." He also said that the builders were "making every effort we can to preserve the environment."

Sugar Top continued upward, drawing the rage of those who said the ridge-top project destroyed scenic mountain views. The condo directly led to the passage of the North Carolina Ridge Law, which limits construction at the tops of elevated areas. Other construction drew different levels of criticism. The Boone Industrial Park was criticized due to the expense of placing water and sewer lines to the site, which at that time wasn't in the city limits. Now the lines have been extended up toward Carroll Leather Goods along the route which will soon be the "old" Highway 421.

The Boone Mall was constructed in the 1980's, becoming the High Country's first indoor shopping center. The grand opening for original tenants Food Lion and Rite Aid was in February of 1983. The other forty stores inside the mall were officially opened in March. The mall and its stores employed 500 employees at the time.

New Market Center's construction also began in 1986 at the intersections of Highway 194 and 421. The shopping center encompassed 120,000 square feet of floor space. Highway 321 between Boone and Blowing Rock was also four-laned early in the decade. At the time, some feared a "Blowing Boone," apparently envisioning the two towns growing into one.

Watauga Airspace Maintaining A No-Fly Zone

Lately, a High Country resident can't throw a stick without hitting a "concerned citizens" group. But such groups are certainly nothing new. In fact, the original Concerned Citizens of Watauga County was formed in the Eighties to combat that most creeping of menaces to a free society: an airport.

A group interested in promoting more commerce to the region had proposed a county airport for the Deep Gap area in the early 1980's. At one point, backers were calling for a public referendum on the matter, but the state ruled that such a vote wasn't legal.Watauga County's only airport

That controversy was minor compared to a proposed airport for the Buck Ridge area near the Blue Ridge Parkway. The county paid for a feasibility study for the site on the hills above the Triplett Valley. In 1987, an environmental assessment was turned in to the county commissioners.

Supporters of the airport cited benefits for tourism and industry. Opponents chiefly opposed the leveling of another ridge in order to make a runway, as well as foggy and potentially dangerous weather conditions. Two hundred acres of hardwood forest would have been cleared, with valleys backfilled with soil.

The environmental assessment stirred up more controversy in the already-divisive plan. Sixteen homes were within 1,100 feet of the proposed site. A gravel extension road would have been paved. The report said, "It is unlikely that the proposed project will cause significant long term impact on water resources, water quality, or ground water supply near the airport."

What was likely the death blow to the airport proposal came when the Blue Ridge Parkway weighed in against it. Parkway Superintendent James R. Brotherton presented a 12-point letter, any of which "is sufficient to warrant our opposition to the project. Cumulatively, they represent a severe threat to the scenic beauty of the Parkway and to the visitor experience we are mandated to provide."

Brotherton wrote "The leveling of the mountain ridge and the filling of the natural gap (is of concern). The aesthetically pleasing views will be replaced with a pile of landfill resembling a landslide.' Based on an estimate of 240 flights per day, that would have meant "no Parkway visitor would be able to drive the three-mile stretch without viewing or hearing a take-off or landing." He concluded, "I feel that the tourism industry that is being encouraged will be repulsed by the environmentally insensitive actions proposed."

That opinion eventually belonged an insurmountable majority. Watauga still has no commercial airport, only an airstrip in the Bamboo area. The closest airports are in Hickory and Avery Counties.

The Birth Of Beech Mountain In 1981

The highest town east of the Mississippi was incorporated in 1981: Beech Mountain.

The small but opinionated community came to life at the same time that its major attraction was folding. The Land of Oz was a famous attraction based on the book by Frank Baum, featuring Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion. After a strong run in the 1970's, the resort failed to open for the 1982 season, citing financial reasons. One of the backers was Grover Robbins, a major player in the establishment of the Tweetsie Railroad attraction. Artifacts and exhibits from Oz are currently on display in the Appalachian Cultural Museum in Boone.

Oz's loss was the ski industry's gain. Ski slopes became the main attraction, and in fact, the mountain probably has a legitimate claim to some of the first organized skiing in the High Country. In the 1930's, groups of Lees-McRae students began taking to the rough slopes of the mountain on skis. The students in the Industrial Education department even began making skis to help meet the demand. A club called Skiing Zero was formed during the craze.

There were reports of gold and silver found on the mountain in the 1940's, but the successful prospectors, if any, took their operations elsewhere. At the turn of the century, the raw area was a place where locals gathered herbs or hunted, but some of the hardwoods fell victim to logging, as happened in many other areas.

Beech's population hovered at a couple of hundred in the 1980's. Though the population was small, its voice was large. When a tax redistribution plan was approved by Watauga County, a battle that has since flared again, Beech residents said that the tax money wasn't being spread fairly. The money was distributed on the basis of population, not expenditures.

In fact, Beech made an unsuccessful bid to secede from Watauga County in 1987. At 5,500 feet in elevation, it lays claim to being eastern North America's highest town.


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