Narrative 3: “We’re the people who live here. We do have a choice”

My family has been here for 200 years now. The Cherokee part of my family, it’s been longer. My mother’s family is from Cobin and I grew up there. And my dad’s side is from across the mountain where I live now. I’m 40 now, and at some point the mountain was mostly owned by family. When I was a kid what my great grandmother owned was about 70 acres. We walked on it when we were kids – hunted and all that kind of stuff. And until my great grandmother died we didn’t divide it up; she’d just tell people to find a place they liked and if it worked out they’d build there. But when she died, you know how it happens: It got split and split some more. As the family tree grows the parcel size diminishes. I’ve bought back- I think I’m up to 12 acres now. It was always a dream of mine to buy some of it back. In fact, I promised my grandfather I would try to do what I could.

I knew that land really well as a kid. I could walk across the mountain between our house and my great grandma’s, my great grandfather’s, my aunts’ and uncles’, cousins’… It was cool. I could leave my house, walk up across the gap and there was an old logging road down into Cobin. I had trails all through the woods. Sometimes I’d leave on a Friday evening after school with some friends and we’d stay in the woods, drop in to whoever’s house to eat, then come back on Sunday night. It was crazy. It was the best place in the world to grow up.

Eventually the mountain ended up in a developer’s hands and I saw things changing in a way I didn’t like. It’s a shame because it happened really quickly. People started building on the side of the mountain, and they wanted really big houses too. Around here people used to build in a place that was practical. People just didn’t build on mountainsides because you’d have to dig a deep well, have roads and all this infrastructure, and you can’t farm on the side of a mountain.

Now there’s also a totally different attitude about property. Back when I was a kid, anybody could walk on the mountainsides, nobody cared as long as you didn’t burn it down. You didn’t have to be family; people just didn’t care. I think that was part of what made my family mad – especially the older people in my family: They could remember when it was family land.

So I saw this stuff going on and I didn’t like it, but I come from a family where you don’t really talk about those kinds of things. You keep your mouth shut. You keep your head down and work because rich people and people in power make all the decisions. But I got tired of it one day. I call it my get-off-the-porch story. We were sitting on the porch looking at this mountain above the farm that was getting eaten up with houses – a really beautiful mountain – and everybody was sitting there complaining. “I’ve had it,” I said. “I’m going to do something. I don’t know what it is, but I’m going to do something.”

Well, I was working for the community college at the time teaching Spanish classes and e-commerce, and my boss helped me get on the Greenway Board; they needed somebody young and I was the only person on that board under 60, which is typical here. Anyway, I learned how things work, met people who, you know, made decisions, and I got active in the community. Then I formed this group called County Tomorrow built around smart land-use planning. It surprised me how many people came out of the woodwork with the same kind of concerns. At one point we had over 900 contributors! But it was a really controversial time. The argument against us was these people are coming in from the outside trying to take our property rights, but my family had been here for 200 years! Well, we activated the grass roots but never got buy-in from the leadership– people who could actually make decisions. So we made mistakes, but we had a lot of success. We got lots of publicity and really caused a lot of trouble.

I fooled around with that and people got to associate me with that kind of thing. Then one day I was having coffee behind the community college and the county manager came over and said, “The county planner is going to resign next week; would you like to have that job?”  I thought it was a joke. I said, “You know where I stand on those things. It’s just going to be controversy.” He said, “No. We need somebody like you.” So within two weeks I was the county planner. I had no experience. What I knew about planning I learned through self-study when we were trying to organize.

I was a planner at the height of the market and it was very tough. And within the first few months in the job we had hurricane Ivan and the Peeks Creek landslide disaster, so steep slope subdivision development went to the top of the things people cared about. It was a really tense time between people’s fears about overdevelopment, people’s fears about natural disasters, and people’s desires to make a lot of money from a housing market that was going crazy. We had our share of scams and stuff like that here. It was just a tumultuous time and there was a lot of tension.

Take Wildflower. It was the largest development in the County and it was my poster child for steep slope regulations when I was a planner. The development company was out of Atlanta but was headquartered in Amsterdam, and every week there was something going on there with water or land. They’d go in and just push dirt over, flatten it out and call it a lot – not even pack it down. Then they’d run water over the culverts above the road on those lots. I have this great picture of a ‘for sale’ sign that’s three feet lower than the driveway because the land just cracked and sank. I would put that in slide shows and say, “This is what we’re doing in Mandon County. Are you okay with this?” There were 16 landslides on this piece of property – all of them caused by construction. One of them was the size of three football fields and was so big you could see it from town for two years.

The whole community was alarmed. And on a personal level this was a big deal to me because I could see this stuff from the ridge on my family’s farm. We had public meetings about it. We had one– it was sort of like a tent revival because it was the end of July, hot, and in a school gym. We expected maybe 60 people and almost 200 people to showed up, packed in that gym. Well, the developer showed up and brought a body guard with a gun. I had to kick him out. This guy got up and I said, “Mr. A- who is this gentleman with a gun?” He said, “This is my body guard.” And I said, “Do you really think you’ll need a body guard tonight?” And he said, “Well, you never know at these rural places.” And I said, “Have your man sit in the truck. I’m not going to have guns in here. If these guys in here see somebody with a gun, they’re going to go home and get their own.”

Everybody was pissed at this guy. People got up, spoke and went on and on against him. And he had an attitude so he didn’t help himself. There were people living nearby and these trucks were going by their homes on dirt roads, and the developer got up and said, “I tried to get you to sign over your right-of-way so I could pave it, and as long as you won’t pave it you can eat my dust.” Oh, the place was on fire! People were screaming and yelling. Finally, towards the end I grabbed the microphone and I said, “Look, I know you’re mad about the development, but at the end of the day this is our fault. We never did anything to protect ourselves from this kind of development.” That land had been on the market at a really cheap price for years, and as a community we never did anything. That was my ‘alter call’ to people: “If you don’t want this stuff to happen you’ve got to do something.” We’re wide open. The developer even said that. He said, “Look, if you had rules I would abide by them. But you don’t have rules. Therefore, I’m going to do what I want.”

He eventually got in trouble because he was selling lots to his employees and family. He’d have a $200,000 lot he’d sell it for three, then resell it for four. Eventually we had lots in there that were worth $550,000 on paper for an acre lot. He got caught, they went through bankruptcy, and a big portion of it went back to the bank. Then it was up for grabs. We tried to put together a case for potential funders to buy and preserve part of it through The Land Trust but we just weren’t quick enough. It was bought by a single, lower-scale developer, which is interesting.

My point is with Wildflower the developer could have made a lot of money and done the right thing. If he’d only used the downslope area, it’s stable down there. Then he could have put all the landslide hazardous area into a conservation easement. Then they‘re selling if you buy a lot you’re always going to have this beautiful mountain to look at, walking trails, whatever. That’s the smart way to do it. The way they did it was just pure greed, “How many times can we split it up?” One day we were up there and I asked the project manager, “Why’d you build layers of lots on top of each other on this steep land? You’ve poked in so many driveways everywhere, you’re running water down over these lots and you’re surprised they’re unstable? Of course you’re having problems!” And he said, “We relied on someone with local knowledge.” And I said, “Who?” And he said, “Our grading contractor.” Your grading contractor? You’re paying him by the foot. Of course, he’s going to put roads in everywhere. He’s going to make more money! One of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard.

That’s a big misunderstanding about Mountain culture. Back in the day, life was so hard here the most important things was to maintain good relationships because you needed people’s help. When people say, “Mountain people are so nice,” that’s one of the reasons: relationships are the most important thing. So when you’re a public official and you’re related to people who make their living doing development it’s really hard to look in the face and say, “We’re going to have to regulate. I know you do this for a living, but we’re going to make your job harder and more expensive.” That was even true for me. I had family members who called me when I was Planning Director and said, “I can’t believe what you’re trying to do to me. We’re family. How could you do this?” What it looks like on the outside it a total lack of balls. But the reality is when you live in a small town you have to go to the grocery store, you have to go to family reunions. If you get into politics here, people like you on the front end, but don’t make any decisions that are going to mess with family and the social order.

Well, I ended up the longest serving planner in the County, for, I think, five years, because it’s a horrible job. We managed to do some things: we passed five land-use ordinances and got some things active that had fallen by the wayside. I tried to introduce New Urbanism to this rural county and I worked on a best practices tool box. We did that project it was when building here was going crazy, sort of “Oh shit, what are we going to do?” sort of thing. And I distributed things like a Mountain Home Guide out of Western Carolina University that talked about, “Before you build here, here are the things you should think of.” I did it without permission, of course, but I always tried to help out. And even though we weren’t supposed to talk about slope hazards I talked about them every opportunity I had. People would say, “What’s your opinion on the upcoming football season?” and I’d respond, “That’s a great question, but I’d like to talk about steep slopes.”

There’s just a lack of long-term vision here, which has been a big deal to me. This is stuff my grandkids and great-grandkids are going to have to deal with. This is not about me. What kind of place are we going to leave them if it’s just a free-for-all? You don’t hear a lot of talk about that. I always try to make the conversation go that direction. Instead of thinking about the next log you’re going to sell, the next house you’re going to build – which is important – think about how you’re going to sell it, how you’re going to build it so that our grandkids won’t have to clean up our mess.

So when the planning job got to be too much for me I decided to go out and start a community and heritage development consulting business. One project is a contract with the county where we took the Cobin elementary school, which closed in 2012, and converted it into an arts and heritage center. We started that with a public charrette to gather input. Then we formed a non-profit. The classes and things in there operate every day. There’s high-speed internet, it’s comfortable, it’s air conditioned– The Community Foundation of Western North Carolina rent a room at the school on behalf of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee where the tribe can tell its history. You might even get to learn to throw a pot, play an instrument, or something.

I feel really fortunate to be able to have been on the School Project. It’s my family’s birthplace, so it’s been personal. I’m currently doing a Mound Site project across the river from Cobin Mound, where I do all kinds of work with Cherokee in terms of increasing awareness. We take groups of kids and adults out there with elders from the tribe so they can have an experience. In fact, for another project we chose Cobin as a focus site to “dream big” about the possibilities of pedestrian connections to all the historic sites. We did some site planning, pedestrian planning, and it’s in a 300-acre historic district book-ended by the Cobin Mound and the Cobin School.

There was a huge African American community in Cobin – the largest African American population west of Waynesville. People don’t understand that about Cobin: You’ve got all of this Cherokee history, all of this settler history, all of this African American history in this one community. And it’s interesting the way that the Cherokee and the African Americans and the poor white people interacted in a totally different way than in other parts of the state simply because everybody was having a hard life out here except for some of these rich, slave-holding families. Now there’s only one family left. The Black families were farmers, and most of them shared our family names. They moved out between the mid-60s and the mid-70s when a lot of white families were also leaving for jobs in the auto factories in Michigan and South Carolina. Some also moved into town. I don’t know the driving factor behind that except maybe the decline in agriculture.

My work is all over the place. I’ve got an office on the corner, but I work at the school sometimes. I have some contracts lined up with the Land Trust and every now and then some project with the DOT. I’m doing a project with bicycle and pedestrian planning in town. We used to have a Little Tennessee Watershed Association here. I was the chair for a few years, and they made up part of the watershed council and we did a lot of education work. We used to do a State of the Streams publication every year. And then I’ve done other work with The Land Trust conservation trust and Eastern Band Heritage Development in Cobin.

I think my overriding theme, my goals have been to take all of the science and all the talk the environmentalists use and turn it into something people can understand… into something that means something to somebody. The Mountain Home Guide is a really good example of that: Here are practical things you can do when you’re building a home and here’s why you want to do it, not only because it’s good for the environment but because it’s good investment in your home. There are some people who are still active leftover from when I was a planner who still hold a grudge against me, and actively oppose the Cobin School and stuff like that, but it’s nothing like– I mean, people aren’t screaming and yelling at me, threatening me, calling me on the phone. Most people think what we’re doing now, heritage development, is a good thing. I think the lack of development pressure since the market just died is a big part of it.

I don’t know how to describe the sort of niche I have. I guess there aren’t a lot of people in the region with planning expertise. I have a mentor who works with a planning firm in Nashville who has helped me land a few jobs outside the region that have paid really well. I got a taste of that and I wanted to make a little money to support the other things I do like farming and the contracts I have that don’t pay very well. The Cobin School, I love that project, but if I had to live off it I couldn’t. It’s trying to make the work I’ve been doing in the region pay the bills, but I don’t want to give up doing things here. I’ve got one contract right now where an environmentalist group from Asheville is paying me to take them around the region and introduce them to politicians and decision makers. People generally call because of my local knowledge and it seems I get a lot of that somehow.

But at the same time, I’ve wanted to bring some more expertise to the table. I’m actually doing my master’s in public administration through Chapel Hill right now. I finished my degree in English literature at Western Carolina University and I could have done it a lot cheaper there but I wanted something that really challenged me. The program is really good and a lot of the classes dovetail with what I’m doing in my consulting firm. For example, we have a grant writing class right now, so I’m using it as an opportunity to write another grant for Cobin School. It works out really well. It’s all online. I only have to go out there one weekend out of the year. I just hope it works well with my business in the end because I’m going to be paying student loans for a while.

I actually left the area for a little while. My son was born in Colorado because after high school I moved with his mother to Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico was a sort of a whim because we both spoke Spanish and we just wanted to go before I started college. I love Puerto Rico; I could stay. We absolutely loved it but we ran out of money. Then Colorado, we moved there because her mother lived there. She never really lived around her mother so we decided to stay there for a while. I absolutely hated Colorado Springs because I missed the trees. I even missed the humidity in the summer. I just missed the way it feels – and family – so we came home. I still have this bug to get out so I travel a lot; I try to get out at least once or twice a year. My wife, we have a house in the Philippines. We’ve traveled all over Latin America and the Middle East, just for the hell of it.

A few of my family members moved off to Atlanta for jobs but they’ve all been working their way back. Everybody’s sort of coming home now.

Growing up, we did a lot of walking. It was fun running around the woods but we also did a lot of walking when we were hunting, when we were gathering things. For commerce, you had to come downtown to pay bills and my grandfather, my dad’s dad, didn’t have a license. When I was a kid there were cabs that would hang out here downtown. Somebody in the family would usually bring us in on the morning times, we would start at one end, do all the errands, walk to the other end, and there was a grocery store just across the street so we’d end the day by getting groceries. Then we’d take a taxi home. He also had some family in town that we’d walk to visit. In the summers when I was out of school, in the winters, and on Saturdays we always came to town.

That’s when I learned about walkability – you know, in an urban sense. There were no big box stores and there were a lot of people back then who walked to town. It’s really different now. I fought really hard against moving the county services out of town, moving the post office out of town, moving the library, the community college… You’d have thought I was Satan incarnate for fighting against those things because everybody’s priority was parking: “Where are people going to park?” Now people are whining because there’s not much activity in town, but they took away the reasons for coming to town. You’ve got to have a place to go. People always say, twenty-five, thirty years ago there was so much more foot traffic downtown, so much more commerce. That’s because you had to come to town. People need destinations. Walkability isn’t just about exercise and walking from tourist shop to tourist shop. If you want people to walk, they’re going to need to live, work, and shop in these places.

I still dig ramps every year. I’ll go out a lot. Hunting ramps is a tradition in my family and it’s fun now because everybody knows about it. Nobody knew about ramps before except us, and ever since people have gotten into them people want me to take them and show them how it’s done. Depending on the weather, they’re usually in season between early April and mid-May – a small window of time. By the time you get to mid-May the ground cover is so thick it’s hard to find them and the leaves actually wilt off them. I’ve got a group of friends I’ll take out, people from work, friends who might hang out or meet at a party or something. It’s kind of a mix. You get to know them and they love the area but they don’t know what’s here. Even people who have been here for a while, a lot of them have no idea what’s around. It’s kind of fun to take people out and show them all these places.

For a while I was even selling them. There’s a restaurant up here that’d buy them. Somebody made me feel bad about it so I don’t do that anymore. It was a friend of mine who thought I was kind of betraying the tradition by selling them. So I give them away. But you could make a business out of it. I saw a sign in Charleston – a friend of mine took a picture – where they were selling ramps for $29 a pound.

I’m careful now. I don’t show too many people where a particular patch is. I’ve seen patches that have just disappeared because people go in with shovels, dig everything up, and the cycle for them to come back is so long. It takes a good six or seven years to get a good clump of ramps so it’s not something you can go in and harvest. I try to be careful about that, so it’s usually just people I know or I get to be good stewards. Growing up we would dig ginseng too. I don’t touch ginseng anymore because it’s been– I used to find a cove and there’d be ginseng all over the place, and now you’re shocked if you run into two or three plants because it has just been decimated.

We grew up doing what you’d call truck farming. We did stuff for the family, stuff you could can and cook. Then as a kid I always did extra beans and potatoes because I could sell them; we went to fruit stands and grocery stores would buy them, and that’d give me cash in the summertime. Not a lot. It’s ironic that my mother’s dad was a southern Baptist preacher because he’d rent land to grow tobacco for a cash crop. Back then you could actually make money off tobacco. There was somebody who went around and collected it to take it to the market in Asheville. I don’t know where it went after that. He was a middle man. Some people took it out themselves, but we sold it to a guy who had a truck; after it was dry he’d come by and pick it up.

Later, that side of the family got involved in cattle. They had chickens too. The cattle trade they did locally. I helped take care of them but I never got to understand the business side of it – how they decided it was time to sell, trade, and how they made money off it. I kind of regret that.

I have chickens now and sometimes we make jokes about the great ball of mountain wisdom. People assume because your family’s been here for a long time you have some secret about how to grow big potatoes or something. But family, we do share information, techniques. It’s been a while since I raised chickens and they’ve been laying all season and on their bottom feathers have worn off. I thought maybe they had some sort of disease or mites, so I asked my uncle if it was normal. He was like, “Yeah, if their asses ain’t red they ain’t worth a shit.” That was his answer to my question.

I usually do a pretty big garden. It’s for canning and stuff – just personal use. I give a lot of eggs away. I get nine eggs every morning so… I use that as favor capital, is what I call it. I pretty much know what I’m doing with vegetables because I’ve been doing it for so long – unless it’s something I haven’t grown before. At some point I’d like to try to grow things like asparagus. I love asparagus but that’s not something we grew around here. In fact, it’s not something I ate until I was out of high school, so I’d probably have to ask somebody who’s not from around here.

But this has been a different year. I haven’t done anything in the garden. I’ve started to think I might have been a little ambitious: having a business, getting a master’s— and I’m finally fulfilling a long-term dream: I started my pilot’s license again this year. When I was 14 I went on a trip to Montana with my granddaddy. He started a church out there and we flew on an airliner. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. So as a kid I wanted to be a pilot. We didn’t have any money for that kind of thing, but I made my dad take me to the airport to see if they’d make me a deal and they gave me a job in exchange for flight time. That was the only way I could do it. So I built up some hours and by the time I was 17 I was flying. Then life intervened, so I took a couple decades off. But I decided to start doing that again this year. I have the hours. I just have a couple of flights left and then the exam.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been hunting. My dad didn’t hunt much. He wasn’t a big gun man after he was in the army. But in my mother’s family everybody hunted; it’s a big deal. Mostly bear, coon, and rabbit. For bear hunting we usually went west of town in the Forest Service lands. We’d run them in and out of the bear sanctuaries out towards Albert Mountain. We could have done some where I lived, but I don’t think we ever killed a bear there for some reason.

We didn’t do a lot of deer hunting around here. We usually went to Georgia because at the time the deer population wasn’t so big. Land used to be really cheap and a lot of people bought land down there. There are clubs where people would get together, pool money and buy land down there – have a little cabin. My uncle, he never bought land; he’d just get to know people and ask them if we could go, so we’d take a weekend to camp and go deer hunting. We also did some coon hunting down in Georgia and we’d just stay in the truck and sleep for a while because you hunt coons at nighttime. Deer, now they’re everywhere. It’s crazy. I remember as a kid seeing a couple of bears down around where people lived, but never deer. These days, I have deer through my yard and farm every day.

Hunting rabbits, you’ve got to have fields and brush. There used to be a lot of agricultural land that people didn’t care if you hunted on, and we did a lot of that south of town. And there was a lot of other private property that you didn’t really have to ask to hunt on. When I was a kid, you didn’t have to worry about people calling the cops because your dogs were loud or you were shooting. It was just something people expected. Now you’d be challenged to be able to rabbit hunt. We used to rabbit hunt a lot in the winter time; it’s good when there’s snow on the ground. You can see and track them. Now winter is kind of down time. If it snows I like to get out and walk in snow. I love snow. The only thing is I hate cold weather and it has to be cold to snow.

I don’t know where I would hunt anymore other than to ask the Land Trust for permission to hunt their properties. Most of the coon hunting we did was on private property and people just didn’t care. I can remember walking all over. The end of Main Street, if you’re looking out towards the east there’s Otelle Mountain, and we hunted all over there in town. I have no idea who owned it, but nobody ever bothered us. You couldn’t do that now. People live in there and there’s a totally different attitude about property.

Cane was fairly plentiful when I was a kid; then it declined really rapidly. That’s one of the projects the Land Trust has with the Eastern Band of Cherokee: to bring cane back. And white oak. They gathered white oak slats from the woods – the small, more tender, easier to work pieces for woodworking and basket frames. My great grandfather was a basket weaver and he collected white oak – splits is what they’re called – and he’d go out and collect materials to make his own dyes for his baskets. He did the whole process without any synthetic stuff. He used walnut, blood root, and yellow root for basket dyes. I used to do that with him but I didn’t do it enough. He wanted me to but I was a kid. It was kind of boring to me. Now I wish I had. I saw people offer him all kinds of money for a basket and he’d never take it. He’d just give them to you. If you made a big deal out of it he’d say, “Well, if you want it that bad you can have it.”

I was really lucky about my grandparents, my great-grandparents; they always told me the names of trees, plants and what their qualities were – like what was good firewood and good medicine. And they were great story tellers. I’d hate not to pass it down to somebody. I have a 21-year-old son, which is unbelievable. When my son was a kid he was always interested in helping out farming. Of course, my grandfather and great uncle were still around then; they sort of managed the farm and he helped out all the time. Then he got to be a teenager and lost interest, but his daughter is three and she’s already crazy about planting seeds, watering. She’s brilliant. That’s probably where I’ll try to pass down information. That’s something I don’t want to lose.

As a kid, my dad and I would sometimes drive up to the Appalachian Trail and hike just to see what it was about. But most of the time we called it walking and there was some reason or another to be in the woods. Now I get out and walk to relax. Then I get out and work around the farm cutting things. And I have a kayak so I get on the river. I don’t do a lot of strenuous kayaking but I like to float.

Then it doesn’t seem to snow much anymore. It’s anecdotal; I don’t have any data to back it up, but when I was a kid we had a lot of snow. In winter you still have these cold snaps but– I think one of the reasons we used to get more snow, the temperatures used to drop in the middle of the night. That’s just the way it seems. I can’t remember the summer nights being so warm either. It’s been really hot here the last few weeks and I don’t remember a lot of days like that back when I was a kid. That’s what attracts people to this place. When it gets hot in the summer time normally it’s cooler than other places, and not as humid. Summers were wetter too—a lot more water, springs and things like that. We’re in a drought right now, but consistently they’ve been drier. And there was a lot more ground cover in the summer time than there is now in the woods in my memory.

Spring is a lot warmer than it used to be. Some years the ground warms up early and the ramps pop out early. By “pop out” I mean you’ll start seeing the little tops of the leaves. There have been a few times in the last few years that in late March we’ve been able to do our first dig, which is not normal. Usually the peak time to dig is around the 20th of April. That’s when they’re nice, green, and you can find them because there’s not a lot of ground cover. But a few times they’ve been out in March.

But seasonal changes haven’t affected my farming. Planting is like clockwork – you always bet you’re going to have a late frost before May 15th and be careful what you put in the ground before then. My dad’s side of the family, we’d always see who could get potatoes in first. We were famous for growing good potatoes, and we’d do this game every year where we’d plant a few in late March as soon as it got a little warm, then plant a regular crop later in April, just to see. It always worked out they’d come in at the same time because the March ones would inevitably get burnt by a freeze. I was thinking about that this year while I was watching the frosts. It’s basically the same, though I still feel like spring is a lot warmer than it used to be even though we still get that late frost.

I feel guilty because warmer springs mean I get out more. And like the drought we’ve had this year, I get a little selfish sometimes: “Wow. All these sunny days. I can get out and do stuff.” I should be hoping for rain. It’s been good weather for getting my pilot’s license too.

The concerns I have are more cultural and land-use related than climatological. For example, we never had fire ants up until a few years ago. Now there are fire ants. Those things happen. But it seems like those changes are slower. If we’re smart enough we can figure out a way to adapt to those changes. But if there’s some crisis on the coastline like a sea level rise or an increase in storm activity and this place becomes a refuge, I’m not sure we’re prepared to handle that kind of thing. It’s cooler here, we’re at a higher elevation, and we’re not threatened by many natural disasters – it’s the natural place to go. If you’re in Miami, it seems like you head to the mountains, and that worries me. That worries me more than the actual changes in the environment. I don’t think you can have those kinds of numbers here because we’ve tried to talk about ordinances, have an official conversation about the sites we’re building on – steep slope, flood plain, you know? We tried to talk a little bit about climate change and the unknown impacts in terms of rainfall, increasing human activity, and it was like setting a building on fire.

I’m a little hopeful on the natural resources side because those are actually cleaner than they used to be. There are pictures from around the turn of last century when they were logging this area and it’s unreal. Some of the pictures it looks like it could be Arizona. They just cleared everything. Without the Forest Service and the National Park, that would have been us.

And people care more about that stuff now. Growing up, I remember we would dump oil on our driveway to keep the dust down. When they banned it, we were just outraged. Then there was an education campaign about why dumping oil near your well was a bad thing to do, and then it made sense. I even grew up thinking the best thing to do to a stream was to cut all the crap around it so you could see it and get in it; now I know better. You learn, and people here are more conscious– even hard-core property rights people, they care about this place. So that’s part of it.

I’ve also seen a shift in the market in that everybody moving here wanted to live at the end of these long roads at the top of a mountain. Now it seems like everybody wants to live in a cool downtown. Preferences have changed and that’s a good thing. I’m all about building where it’s appropriate, where there’s infrastructure. From a conservative standpoint, when I was county planner it made me so mad to use taxpayer dollars to extend infrastructure to help people build in places the public didn’t want to see them build. It didn’t seem fair to me. I’d get in arguments with these people who call themselves conservatives. I’d be like, “How is taxpayer subsidized development conservative?”

But we still have an image problem. People undervalue this place. Over beers the other day somebody was talking about all the Dollar General stores, and I said, “What the hell are we doing? We’re in an area that survives because of its natural beauty and small-town character, and that’s what we’re going to do? That’s the future we’re going to have?” We’re a tourist destination with proximity to Atlanta, to Florida; that’s the reason we survived the economic downturn. The Chamber of Commerce and real estate folks– that should be a big deal to them. The Georgia Road where the majority of people come into town, when you cross the state line and you’ve got these wide-open views of all three mountain ranges it could be incredible. Instead, on your way in it looks like a dump – Dollar Generals, roadside development. Why haven’t we done a better job of making sure that stayed scenic?

When I was Planning Director we tried to introduce just the idea of some special use district down there, the real estate people went crazy. I was amazed by that. At the Planning Board, we’d have people say something like, “Planning and zoning kills the economy.” Well, just up the road we’ve got Highwood, the most highly regulated place in the state. Then people would say, “Yeah, but we’re not like them; we’re not as good as them.” That’s the problem: people don’t value it.

I’m glad to see a resurgence of people wanting to connect with Mountain Culture. Like at the Cobin school– there’s local clog dancing, and there’s a resurgence of the Cherokee language now. Those things are good. And I’m hopeful for small-town development. It seems like people finally understand that’s what they want: something built on a human scale where you can walk. I’ve just seen so much homogenization of culture – even the way that we speak. And family used to be big, used to help each other and depend on each other… I’d hate to see this place become ‘Anywhere USA’. Where we’re just like a pair of shoes that somebody who wants to retire and buy a piece of property looks for a good value and when they’re done they’ll sell it to somebody else. That’s not the way this place was. We didn’t view land like that. Our families were different, and I worry about losing a sense of place.

For me it’s not only about what kind of place you want to live – small town, rural character, clean water. There’s an economic argument. How long can you continue to live off that small-town, tourist kind of economy until somebody somewhere else convenient gets it right? I always say if this place were in North Dakota it wouldn’t be shit. The only thing we have here is the natural beauty and our small-town way of life. People say private property, private enterprise and all that. But we’re the people who live here. We do have a choice.

We’ve tried. We worked on the politics for a long time. What’s really changed is when the development pressure went away people just weren’t as interested. You know how it is. Now people are starting to sense there’s going to be an uptick in the market again, so folks are buying properties. To do something people have to feel like the building is on fire.