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Wednesday, 07 August 2013 00:00

Duke ready to officially turn Dillsboro Dam site over to local officials

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fr tuckrestorationA decade-long saga in deciding the fate of Duke Energy’s former dam near Dillsboro is drawing to a close as the company prepares to hand the site and surrounding land over to local officials.

 

In July, the federal agency that regulates hydroelectric dams on public waterways gave its stamp of approval for the company to relinquish the old Dillsboro dam site and surrounding property. The dam was dismantled in 2010, but Duke had to meet several legal and environmental obligations, spelled out by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, before the company could surrender its license to the project and the land.

A spokesperson for Duke Energy said the 13-acre tract will be offered up to the town of Dillsboro this fall and, if the town passes, Jackson County will have the opportunity at it.

“Since we are no longer operating a hydro facility, it would seem appropriate to give that land back to the community,” said spokesperson Lisa Hoffmann.

Already there are ideas being floated as to what the land, running along the scenic Tuckasegee River, will be used for once under control of the town or the county. A riverfront park, much like the county’s existing East Laporte River Access Park in Cullowhee, is one of the frontrunners.

But it will be up to Dillsboro town leaders to decide whether to let the county have it. While the property on the outskirts of Dillsboro will be handed over by Duke Energy at no cost, developing it into a river park would take an investment and resources.

Dillsboro’s town board has indicated it will pass the land along to the county, in one way or another, but the exact details of how that might happen are still to be worked out. Dillsboro Board Member David Gates said it was too soon for him to comment on how land ownership would play out and that there were still questions to be answered.

“At this time we haven’t made any decisions. We’ve been doing research,” Gates said.

Jackson County Commission Chairman Jack Debnam said it was no secret that the county wouldn’t mind having the land and developing it into some sort of recreation area. The acreage already contains the C.J. Harris River Access area that Duke Energy built, and a future river park would conceivably expand on what is already there.

“I’d want to see a park down there for sure,” said Debnam. “I’m all for anything we can get on the river to keep it public and open to the public.”

The county already has two sets of concept drawing for developing the site from before the dam’s demolition. One includes the more than 300-foot-long dam and the other shows the area without the dam. 

County leaders had fought for years against the demolition of the dam in a costly legal battle, claiming it had recreational benefits, historical meaning and green energy potential for the community. They wanted to include the dam in a riverfront park with walking paths and picnic areas.

However, County Recreation and Parks Director Jeff Carpenter said developing the site without the dam will still be a great benefit to the county. 

“It’s a pretty place,” Carpenter said. “I just think that’s a tremendous recreational opportunity for our community.”

Already the stretch of river is popular with fisherman and paddlers. Creating a park along the shore would even increase its popularity and accessibility. Carpenter said county residents are always looking for safe places to walk that are free from vehicle traffic.

The county has also expressed an interest in tying a future park in with its planned Tuckasegee River greenway. And another river park could also play into the county’s plan to market itself as a world class fly fishing destination. The original proposal to remove the nearly century-old dam came from Duke in the name of environmental mitigation.

There were concerns that the removal process would harm fish and other aquatic species at the site, including the endangered Appalachian elktoe mussel. But monitoring since the removal has shown that the restored habitat is flourishing — everything from bats to bugs to fish.

“You can’t even really tell there was a hydro project there now,” Hoffmann said. “And we’re pretty proud of that.”

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