Late summer has slid into early autumn. The end of summer officially arrived with the autumnal equinox of Sept. 23, when the sun crosses the celestial equator.
One senses this transition in the cool mist-shrouded mornings we’ve been experiencing of late … as well as by the brown-splotched and red-tinged leaves of the buckeye trees. Communal groups of swallows will gather on wires and branches prior to their annual southerly migration. Monarch and cloudless sulphur butterflies will pass with ease over high ridges and through low gaps headed for ancestral wintering grounds.
Adam Bigelow bears down on the gas pedal of his biodiesel-fueled Jetta, urging it up the steep contours of the Blue Ridge Parkway in search of higher ground. It’s a gardener’s car, through-and-through, the dash covered with dried plant parts, the floorboards papered with garden-related fliers and catalogues.
The only thing that’s missing is a live plant, and even that’s not too far-flung a reality. It wasn’t that long ago, Bigelow recalls, that he looked down from his seat to see a little pea plant growing up, apparently having received just the right amount of water from some mysterious source to take root in the car.
The 62nd Annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park will be April 25 – 28. I was curious if this unseasonably warm, early spring was going to have any impact on the pilgrimage so I talked with an old friend about it. Patricia Cox is a botanical specialist with the Tennessee Valley Authority. She was a botany professor at the University of Tennessee, and she is one of the organizers of the Wildflower Pilgrimage. Cox has led hikes at the pilgrimage since 1992.
Cox said that some of the regular pilgrimage crowd pleasers might be gone or nearly gone this year. She said that fringed phacelia was already in bloom in the park in late March and that “…more than likely those large displays around the Chimney’s picnic area will be gone.” But there could be a new pilgrimage poster child crowned.
“I’ve seen lots of photos of Lady’s slippers this week on Facebook, so they will be out for sure next week,” she said. “We haven’t seen yellow Lady’s slippers in flower for the past several years because we were too early. So, while we may not see some of the usual things, I’m excited about seeing the unusual.”
In keeping with tradition, this year’s pilgrimage offers numerous new programs. They include “Traditional Cherokee Plants” with wildcrafter Ila Hatter. Learn how the forests of the Smokies provided for the Cherokee. There will be a reception for Cindy Carlson, “Featured Wildflower Artist.” And if you want to find out what’s going on in the Smokies, Bob Miller, the park’s public affairs officer, will present the “State of the Park” report on Thursday night. You can also learn about “Wildflowers and Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains” with botanist and author Tim Spira.
And of course, the pilgrimage is all about getting outside and there will be new hikes also. Check out the “Birds and Blooms on Alum Cave Trail” with park forestry technician Troy Evans or join the Queen of Ferns, herself as Cox leads an all-day fern hike along Deep Creek Trail – expect to see more than 20 species of ferns.
There are more than 130 programs scheduled for this year’s pilgrimage, many directed towards children. The variety, as usual, is endless – bats, bugs, bears and bugs; ferns, forests, fungi and photography; ecology, elk and environmental education – there is surely something for everyone.
And, as always the main feature – wildflowers. There are more than 1,600 flowering plants in the park. So while some of the old pilgrimage blooms may be MIA, there will be no shortage of colorful wildflowers, and this year’s kick start to the bloom schedule will likely mean new and/or different species will be in flower.
Cox is not worried, she said, “As long as Mother Nature doesn’t hit us with tornados, hail or heavy rain, we’ll be good. There’s always something in flower in the Smokies. It will be a remarkable week, as usual.”
To learn more about this year’s pilgrimage visit their website at http://www.springwildflowerpilgrimage.org/ or you can call the W.L. Mills Conference Center at 800.568.4748.
The disembodied voice crackled through the walkie-talkie: “I’ve got someone who wants to buy two lots, cash deal.”
“Sell ‘em,” L.C. Jones urged, seemingly to himself, but his response included Michelle Masta, a passenger in the backseat of his big, eggshell-colored Ford King Ranch 4X4. The radio was tuned to the NASCAR station; the volume turned off. No one in the truck was interested in listening to races on this day, not with land to sell and money to make. Masta, dressed in French jeans and heels, serves as Jones’ right-hand woman on the development, The Ridges. The development is better known as Wildflower, the Macon County subdivision’s original name. The Ridges is made up of about 500 acres of Wildflower’s original 2,200; just fewer than 100 lots were being offered through this one-day extravaganza last Saturday (Oct. 1).
Masta, who lives most of the time in Atlanta, dreams one day of permanently moving to this region with her daughter and, perhaps, gardening organically and caretaking hives of honeybees. Masta won’t buy land in this high-elevation development for that future homestead, however. She’s got a piece of nice bottomland in mind, down in one of the valleys far below.
Jones was casually attired in Levi jeans and tennis shoes. The Cullowhee native doesn’t happily sport a suit and tie, not even at an event such as this. Jones doesn’t look or talk much like a land developer. In fact, the paving company owner comes across as a man who would be perfectly comfortable operating a backhoe.
On this project, however, Jones isn’t the backhoe operator — he’s the boss, along with a couple of investors out of Atlanta. The Ridges marks Jones’ second housing development in a year in Macon County. Other developers in Western North Carolina and across the nation have seen business grind to a halt because of the crippled housing market. Jones, owner of Black Bear Paving in Franklin, has instead discovered seemingly endless financial opportunities.
The walkie-talkie crackled. Sam Pinner of Southland Marketing & Development, based in Knoxville, Tenn., was on the other end. Jones hired the former University of Tennessee football player turned time-share seller turned real-estate developer turned real-estate marketer to oversee the sales event.
Pinner has 60 to 65 sales reps spread across the 500 or so acres of The Ridges.
Jones and his investors recently purchased the development for a cool $1 million, an amount they anticipate recouping easily. BB&T was eager to get the property off its books after foreclosing on the former developer of Wildflower after that company failed to make payments. BB&T was owed $1.9 million on the property when the bank foreclosed.
“Just say, ‘Yes, that’s a deal,’” Pinner instructed the sales rep via the walkie-talkie. Like Jones, Pinner needed to hear nothing more than the word “cash” to welcome the buyer to a seat at the table.
Jones’ plan is to generate “life” into the subdivision by selling lots that were previously priced at highs of $100,000 to $300,000 for $14,000 to $30,000. Higher-priced lots were available, too, but even they weren’t priced anywhere near those heyday numbers of the real-estate boom, when scenes like the one that took place in The Ridges last weekend were commonplace.
Jones slashed the prices in The Ridges with one purpose in mind: to sell as many lots as possible, as quickly as possible. He and his investors anticipate developing more lots in the subdivision. They’ll sell those at higher prices, but the asking price on these is what the depressed market will bear, Jones said.
Jones believes he can command higher prices later if he can convince people that The Ridges is a viable, happening development with an on-site, caring developer. This is the first step in his many-stepped plan for The Ridges, and for other abandoned developments in WNC that he might take on. Jones is currently checking out another development in the Asheville area. He is a man who envisions dollar signs where others see vast money pits.
Jones and his investors can take their pick: the region’s landscape is littered with these tombstones of the once prosperous, or preposterous, WNC real-estate scene.
The selling in The Ridges started just after 9 a.m. The first lot sold in two minutes. Eight lots had sold in 10 minutes, nine lots in 12 minutes, 12 lots in 20 minutes, 21 lots in an hour. Thirty-one lots were sold by 11 a.m. A prior advertising blitz targeting Florida, Georgia, Alabama and other states paid off. Jones was having a very good day; indeed, by day’s end he’d unloaded 43 lots — 18 of them cash payments.
Wildflower was conceived and launched during the height of the housing boom. Riding the crest of the towering Cowee mountain range on the Macon-Jackson county lines, the development boasts truly spectacular views from its vantage point of more than 3,600 feet.
Turkeys and whitetail deer are everyday sightings, red-tailed hawks soar over the ridges to survey the valleys below. There are walking trails, a fancy clubhouse with a pool and small fitness center, water and sewer already in place at the house sites. There are even some lots with foundations on them, abandoned unfinished as previous owners’ dreams crumbled in the face of financial realities.
The previous developer, Ultima Carolina in Atlanta, sold more than 160 lots in Wildflower before the company went belly up. The largely out-of-state buyers were primarily looking to “flip” the properties they bought, selling for higher prices than they paid.
Wildflower’s promising beginning foundered on an out-of-control, plummeting market and a hastily designed, poorly executed development — at least in parts of Wildflower. How much, exactly, of the development is ill-built sparks heated debate in Macon County.
The very name Wildflower, for those weary of WNC’s historic abusive cycles of land speculation at the expense of public safety and environmental stewardship, has served in recent years as the region’s worst-case, best-known example. What’s unarguable is that a few years ago there was a landslide in Wildflower. It was about one-half acre in size. Today that landslide serves as an illustrative example of what happens when roads are cut in defiance of a mountain’s grain.
The culprit road was built during dry weather. Then wetter weather came, those snows and cold rains that distinguish winters in these southern mountains. Freezing and thawing, freezing and thawing, with temperatures climbing from single-digit numbers into the 60s and 70s, only to drop back to single digits, over and over again.
So-called “wet” springs soon bubbled where the road overlaid. The springs most likely triggered that massive flow of mud and debris. The landslide raised fears — some say the inevitability — that a developer who could build one road like that might well have cut all of Wildflower’s many roads with a similar lack of respect for the mountains. If that’s true, anybody building here, and those living below, are at risk.
Macon County knows those dangers better than most mountain communities. In September 2004, a naturally occurring landslide originating in the Fishhawk mountains buried a small residential community below. Five people died in Peeks Creek, a tragedy of such proportions that state legislators, in response, funded a project to map these mountains, once and for all, for landslide potential.
Republican legislators, taking control of the state Senate and House last November for the first time in more than a century, have eliminated funding for more maps, with only Macon, Henderson, Buncombe and Watauga completed. North Carolina leaders were responding to real estate agents, builders, surveyors and laborers who called foul, plus a state that was facing huge economic shortfalls. Working men and women said the landslide hazard maps, coupled with the recession, hindered their abilities to make livings, unnecessarily scaring people out of buying real estate here.
Wildflower, however, was mapped for its landslide risk before the state halted the project. Red, the universal signal for stop/danger, colors the steep mountain ranges where Wildflower was built and The Ridges has since emerged.
Map opponents say state geologists greatly exaggerated the dangers of building in areas such as this.
Only time, as it’s said, will tell.
Add over-inflated land prices, under-funded buyers and loosely regulated loaning institutions to the development’s problems. These semi-natural and manmade elements combined into a toxic brew, and Wildflower, literally and metaphorically, wilted and died.
More than half those who bought the original lots in Wildflower went into foreclosure. Some because of an inability to make payments on their lots; others who found themselves upside down on a mortgage, owing more than the lot was worth and opting to let banks take over.
A local financial institution, Macon Bank, filed two civil suits claiming that it had been duped into making questionable loans in excess of $3.5 million to people buying some of those lots.
Macon Bank sued Beverly-Hanks Mortgage Services of Asheville and two of its brokers for, among other allegations, financial wrongdoing, defying bank instructions and setting up an interest cash-back scheme for borrowers. Additionally, the bank sued the lawyer handling property closings at Wildflower, the lawyer’s title guaranty company and five property owners. The lawsuits are wending through Macon County’s court system.
Allan Burkett and Sandra Wilkinson of Newnan, Ga., aren’t aware of The Ridges’ past history; it’s not clear they’d care if they were. They had just agreed to buy lot 142 for $19,900. Wilkinson sported a medallion on her neck that indicated they’d made the purchase.
The pair’s sales rep, Dusten Tipton of Knoxville, Tenn., had whisked them back into the clubhouse where the deals were being finalized. Burkett and Wilkinson seemed weary, a bit overwhelmed by the engineered giddy atmosphere of the sales event. Burkett was wearing a poorly fitted winter coat he’d bought locally the night before, shocked into the purchase by a sudden drop in temperatures from the 80s to the 40s as the first cold-front of autumn moved through the region.
After plunking the requisite 20 percent down that closed the lot deal, Burkett and Wilkinson were fed barbecue sandwiches and handed endless cups of sweet iced tea. They were told they could take a helicopter ride to view their new property. Wilkinson got to keep the medallion, a prize to take home as a reminder of the couple’s mountain dream.
“This is just like going to the county fair for the first time,” Wilkinson said.
“It’s exhilarating,” Burkett added.
An informal survey of the people buying the lots — most, if not all, were from Southeast states other than North Carolina — seemed to prove a point that Jones and Masta were eager to make. The days of “flipping” properties seem gone. The buyers are predominantly people who want to build houses in Macon County and live in the area either on a seasonal basis or after retirement.
At Diamond Falls Estates, the other development in Macon County under Jones and Masta’s management, 64 lots closed out of 80 being marketed on a one-day sales event last year.
“We already have 12 new houses being built now,” Masta said of Diamond Falls. “And that’s creating jobs in the area for local builders and contractors. Those weren’t speculator people who wanted to flip it in two months. Those were real people wanting to build real houses.”
It also shows that there is still a demand for mountain real estate when the price is right — a price that is far lower than days gone by.
Wilkinson and Burkett hope to build in a year or two. They bought for the view, to get a site ready-made with an existing foundation, and because they felt they’d gotten a great deal — a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a not-to-be-missed chance to own a little piece of WNC.
The one-day land rush on cheap lots in The Ridges might be a sign of the times: not a real estate turn around per se, but an eagerness by banks to off-load foreclosed property, even if it means taking a loss.
“I think this is the beginning of a new trend,” said Bob Holt, real estate instructor for Southwestern Community College in Franklin and Sylva. “I think the banks are deciding, ‘I would rather take less and be done with it than hang on another year or two or three or four. To get rid of these they are going to get rid of them at rock bottom prices.’”
People buying the failed developments can in turn sell lots so cheaply that prospective lot buyers — who have otherwise proved elusive in the mountains lately — come knocking once more, witnessed by the droves of buyers lured by the fire sale at The Ridges in Macon County last weekend.
“I think we probably will see more of the fire sales,” Holt said. “I think we have waited and waited and waited and waited, and some people are saying it has got to have bottomed out now so it is going to turn around.”
Holt doesn’t think it has, however.
Some banks are attempting to sell the lots themselves, making a foray into the real estate business rather than off-load the property to a middle man. In Cashiers this spring, the bank that had foreclosed on one development orchestrated a one-day fire sale of lots. At Balsam Mountain Preserve, the lender who foreclosed on the property has stepped in as the property manager attempting to see the development through.
Peggy Patterson, who has sold real estate in Macon County for four decades, doesn’t see a return of the market at this juncture.
“I don’t think it is rebounding at all,” Patterson said. “If anything, it seems a little worse.”
Some of the lots in a 2,200-acre gated subdivision saddling the Cowee Mountain range in Macon County are being advertised across the Southeast for what’s being touted as bargain prices. The lots are slated for a big one-day, onsite sell Saturday, Oct. 1.
Prices have been knocked down from former highs of $100,000 to $300,000, to as low as $14,000, and up to the mid $30,000 range. There are 98 finished lots and more than 500 acres under new ownership.
The development, now called The Ridges but known better by its former name, Wildflower, has a troubled history. Landsides and road issues plagued the development, a project of Ultima Carolina of Atlanta, and the project fell victim to a weak economy and paralyzed housing market.
More than half of about 151 property owners in Wildflower defaulted on their mortgage payments by July 2010, walking away from dreams of “flipping” the property during the dizzying financial possibilities of the housing boom.
After Ultima failed to sell enough lots to make the bank loan, the development was foreclosed on by BB&T. The bank managed to offload the development recently to the new entity, Leed Enterprises. BB&T obviously wanted Wildflower off its books, selling it at a rather substantial loss for just $1 million.
The new developers, which include local Macon County businessman L.C. Jones, say any problems associated with Wildflower was then, and this is now at newly named The Ridges:
“There were some issues, but those are resolved,” said Michelle Masta, a spokeswoman for the project. “We have a well-funded group, we have a stake in this community, and we have eliminated any problems.”
Leed Enterprises, in a news release, noted it has retained a national engineering company and a Franklin-based engineering firm and solved the earth-moving issues in the development. Masta said a landslide area has been abandoned and a conservation easement entered into. She said the original developer had built a road “on three springheads,” setting the stage for multiple problems that are now resolved.
Still, the new developers have an uphill climb if they want to convince skeptical onlookers in Macon County, who view Wildflower as the pinnacle of out-of-control, speculator-driven mountain land development.
Susan Ervin, a longtime member of the Macon County Planning Board, noted: “We worked hard to get sensible slope development regulation — but it didn’t happen. Now, the lots are back on the sale block. What are the ‘fire sale’ prices going to do to the real estate comps, and the hopes of other landowners and realtors to sell a piece of land at a fair price? What assurance do we have that the development will be done well this time? What control do we have? Do the people looking at lots up there have any idea about the North Carolina Geological Survey Slope Movement Hazard Maps? Do they know there are unstable soils up there? Down here in the valley, we know it.”
In 2005, two investment partners from Atlanta broke ground on a massive project on the slopes of Cowee Mountain in north Macon County with hopes of creating a new paradigm for mountainside development in Western North Carolina.
However, four years later, the road system is plagued by landslides, many of the lots are in foreclosure and only two homes have actually been built on the 2,500-acre development.
When a mid-November rain storm dumped three inches in Macon County, Thompson Road, a key road through the development, gave way, triggering a landslide, burying a home site below under a half-acre of debris. More significantly, the slide raises questions about the stability of the remaining 30 miles of roads in the development. After the slide, Macon County Emergency Services Director Warren Cabe contacted the North Carolina Geological Survey to ascertain if the road collapse posed a threat to property owners down slope from the Wildflower development.
“After we noticed there was a slide there, we notified property owners in the valley just so they could know what was going on above them,” Cabe said. “We wanted them to hear it from us instead of reading it in the newspaper.”
The study conducted by North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources Senior Geologist Rick Wooten concluded that the area affected by the slide was still unstable.
“The lowermost portion of the deposit spilled over a steep road cut for a driveway above Thompson Road. Large trees, many with root balls still attached, were pushed over, snapped off, and partially buried by debris flow material in the toe area,” the report read. “Unstable embankment material remains below the eastward and westward extensions of the main scarp. This unstable material will probably continue to move.”
The report and a subsequent mapping effort undertaken by state geologists and Macon County’s GIS mapping team also showed that the road system in Wildflower was compromised to some degree in more than 20 separate locations.
Wooten’s team recommended that landowners below Wildflower be notified of the risk of future slides and suggested that other roads in Wildflower would likely continue to move.
“The other failure areas along the Wildflower development road network have the potential for continued movement, especially associated with heavy rainfall events,” the report said.
After four years in business, the 250-lot development boasts only two finished homes and with a number of its home sites already in foreclosure, the last thing it needs is a major issue with its road system.
Brian Garner, general manager of Wildflower, said the failure of Thompson Road was an isolated incident that resulted from the emergence of a wet spring.
Garner said Wildflower would hire a geo-technical engineer to evaluate the situation as well as take additional measures to prevent erosion in the future. He said the road failure occurred on a portion of the property that had yet to be developed, so it didn’t pose a risk to the investments of property owners in Wildflower.
When asked whether he thought the roads in the rest of the development were sound, Garner pointed to the fact that the county’s erosion control department had signed off on them.
“I asked the county that and the county said they were originally put in according to the guidelines,” Garner said.
When Atlanta-based developer Robert Ullmann unveiled his vision for Wildflower through his company Ultima Carolina LLC four years ago, he promised a full-service, upscale residential community.
“There’s a reason people are drawn to these mountains,” said Ullman in Wildflower’s press materials. “The wrong kind of development can destroy that; the right kind can help to preserve it. This is not just about higher elevations. It’s also about higher standards.”
Right from the start, though, the development faced opposition from local residents who felt it would strain the county’s resources and ruin Cowee Mountain. Ullman appeared alongside Stacy Guffey, the county’s planning director at the time, in a public meeting to make his case.
“You are not going to avoid development, and you are not going to completely prohibit development,” Ullman told the crowd. “If you think Macon County won’t change, I can assure you it will.”
Ullman said the best people could hope for was to pass some land-use regulations to prevent irresponsible developers from ruining the mountains.
“He did make the point at that meeting that the county was wide open,” Guffey said. “And that if we had had rules, he would have abided by them.”
While that conversation seems prescient now, the fact remains that when Wildflower went through its initial permitting process the county didn’t have subdivision or steep slope ordinances. Cowee Mountain is a steep area covered with colluvial soil that is essentially low-density rock and soil debris, and prone to instability.
In order to build a road system, Wildflower had to comply with the county’s erosion control ordinance, and the county signed off on a series of erosion control plans for various parts of the road system. The erosion ordinance was narrowly tailored to keep muddy runoff out of creeks but didn’t deal with underlying road construction methods.
Guffey claims stability problems with the road system were already evident at the time, but the county lacked regulations to do anything about it.
“The truth is that when I worked for the county, a lot of us knew there would be problems with those roads,” Guffey said. “It’s really one of the reasons we felt such urgency to create a subdivision ordinance.”
Macon County now has a subdivision ordinance that includes road standards and a surety bond to guarantee that developers meet those standards, allowing the county to bill a developer if it has to go in and repair shoddy work. A committee is also currently in the process of drafting a steep slope ordinance that would create standards for soil compaction, cut and fill slopes, and road grades.
Guffey, who works as a consultant now, addressed the slope development committee on the implications Wildflower’s road failure has on the county at a meeting last week. His message was clear.
“It’s a private property but when you see it overlaid on a potential landslide map... if the potential is there it’s there,” Guffey said. “There’s not just one slide, there’s a number of them. What will they do to the streams that run down through there onto other peoples’ properties?”
Macon County’s environmental services supervisor Matt Mason has the responsibility of enforcing the county’s erosion control ordinance. Mason succeeded Josh Ward, who had the position when Wildflower first applied for building permits.
Mason said the county signed off on Wildflower’s land disturbance permits in phases, each of which required erosion control plans for roads and home sites in the development.
According to Mason the county still has access to close to $80,000 that Ultima set aside in a surety bond to guarantee Wildflower’s erosion control measures. The county has informed Ullman that he’s responsible for correcting the damage caused when a road collapse triggered a landslide.
“I’ve actually talked to the owner and we’re requiring him to hire an engineer to submit a report on how to stabilize the road and he’s willing to do that,” Mason said. “If not then it could be a problem.”
Mason said the county still has the authority to enforce the erosion control ordinance because the project is still open, but he said Wildflower is not currently in violation of the ordinance.
“They’re not in violation. We’ve not fined them. We sent out a letter informing them it needs to be corrected,” Mason said.
Mason said he has spent the last year trying to re-draft the county’s soil and erosion ordinance to include soil compacting standards, but the revised ordinance is still in the review process. For now, he said, the county’s position with Wildflower is limited to enforcing the ordinance that was in place when the development filed its paperwork.
“If we had had a subdivision ordinance or a steep slope ordinance in place, we could have done it differently,” Mason said. “We want to have safe and smart development, and the bottom line is that costs a bit of money.”
Perhaps the most disturbing part of Wildlower’s road issues is that some of the compromised roadways are actually driveways serving home sites that have already been sold. The owners are now responsible for the maintenance of those driveways, without which the home sites are worth next to nothing.
At a county meeting in November, county commissioners asked planning director Jack Morgan whether Wildflower had filed for bankruptcy, raising concerns about the project’s financial viability going forward.
Brian Garner, the project’s general manager, said he could not elaborate on Wildflower’s financial situation.
“As far as I know we’re still doing what we need to do,” Garner said. “We’re still on the ground running.”
Robert Ullman, the developer, did not respond to requests for comment.
Guffey said the county has cause to worry if Wildflower goes under.
“One of the fears is if it’s in foreclosure, who pays for that damage?” Guffey said.
The status of a given plant as either a “noxious weed” or a “lovely wildflower” is pretty much a matter determined in the mind’s eye of the beholder. Several weeks ago, in a column headed “Persecution of the Dandelion,” I defended that plant against the plethora of TV lawn care commercials calling for its eradication. I was startled by the number of emails I received that supported my sentiments.
By Ed Kelley
The burning sensation on the back of my heels made me wish I had packed some moleskin. Blisters are adversary number one for the hiker. Luckily, I haven’t had them in years, but friction, moisture, heat, and four miles of constant uphill hiking on the Newton Bald Trail conspired to separate epidermis from dermis. Blisters are preventable and I was irritated (pun intended) that in planning for this hike, I hadn’t given them a second thought. Now pain was forcing them into my consciousness.