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Wednesday, 02 May 2007 00:00

Nantahala developer, paddlers at odds – again

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A conflict between river outfittters and a developer in the Nantahala Gorge has resurfaced, this time over a footbridge the developer hopes to build over part of the river to a private island.

 

The controversial development by Mystic Lands Development will have 47 homes on a 35-acre tract spanning more than 1.5 miles of the Nantahala River. River outfitters and paddlers have been at odds with the development, however, claiming it will alter the character of the close-knit outdoor community and destroy the natural setting that defines the Nantahala Gorge.

Mystic Lands Development has plans to build a new foot bridge from their development along the shore to an island in the middle of the Nantahala River where they are building an open-air pavilion for the development. The new bridge would replace an old one that has been in existence for years. It’s been there so long, in fact, Laurie Ashbourne, marketing director for Mystic Lands Development, described it as “dilapidated.”

The old bridge broke during a storm in February, slipping to within a few inches of the river’s surface. They hoisted the bridge back up as much as they could, but it still only had about a foot of clearance underneath.

“It was in complete disrepair and unsafe. Nobody could go under it,” Ashbourne said.

Some rafters had to find that out the hard way. Approaching the island, paddlers and rafters have to choose which side to go around. A group that had rented a raft from the Nantahala Outdoor Center a few weeks ago picked the wrong side and got surprised by the low bridge.

“They wedged the raft under the bridge and it had to be deflated to get it out,” said Cathy Kennedy, Nantahala River guided trips manager with NOC.

Ken Kastorff, owner of Endless River Adventures, said it was negligent of Mystic Lands to leave a bridge up that rafters clearly can’t fit under. He sent an email out to all the outfitters in the Gorge Association to let them know of the condition. Similar warning messages have been posted on boatertalk.com under a post titled “Strainer on the Nantahala.” A paddler on the forum described his surprise at rounding a bend to find a low-slung bridge just 50 feet ahead.

“Both of us were able to catch small eddies and not wash into it, but it could have been bad if we hadn’t. I have a concern for other boaters’ safety, especially since this river sees a higher percentage of less experienced paddlers,” the boater wrote.

Ashbourne said they initially put yellow caution tape across the river to warn rafters of the low bridge and not to take that channel, but someone came along and took it down. Following complaints, Mystic Lands put a more official looking warning sign on a cable across the river.

Given the collapsed bridge, Mystic Lands accelerated plans for the new bridge to get the old one off the river, Ashbourne said.

“We wanted to have the new one done before the rafting season started,” Ashbourne said.

 

Not so fast

When Swain County building inspector Ervin Winchester heard about a new bridge being constructed over the river, he made Mystic Lands stop. Mystic Lands had not gotten any permits to build a new bridge over the river. Mystic Lands had already poured the footers for the new bridge when they were made to stop.

“This to me is a classic example of them doing whatever they want to,” said Kastorff. “If I were building a bridge I would probably contact someone and see what I needed to do.”

Ashbourne said the contractor building the bridge was supposed to be responsible for finding out what kinds of permits were needed. No one ever contacted the county, however. The contractor told Winchester he thought the developer had taken care of it.

Although the county doesn’t specifically regulate bridges, Winchester figured there must be somebody that did. He told Mystic River they needed to contact several different government agencies — from the Army Corps of Engineers to the Division of Water Quality — and find out what kinds of permits they needed.

That permit, it turns out, must come from the Tennessee Valley Authority. TVA manages Fontana Lake, and its jurisdiction includes major waterways flowing into the lake. TVA permits everything that goes on in the flood plain in its jurisdiction — from boat docks to culverts to bridges to excavation.

TVA received a footbridge application from Mystic Lands on Monday, April 30. Ashbourne hopes the permit will be approved soon — this week in fact.

“It is just a technicality,” Ashbourne said.

It will be little more involved than that, however.

Gil Francis, TVA spokesperson, said the permit won’t be approved this week. For starters, Mystic Lands has to submit drawings of the proposed bridge as an addendum to its application. TVA will also make a site visit.

“Someone will go out to the site. They will look at what is being done. They will review the plans. They will look to see if there are any environmental issues. Are there threatened or endangered species on the water or on the land? Are there archaeological issues?” Francis said of the process.

Ashbourne said once the permit is approved, it will only be a matter of days before the new bridge is up and the old one comes down. But NOC’s Kennedy said the old bridge that is obstructing the river is a hazard and should come down in the meantime.

The new bridge will have five feet of clearance above the high water mark, Ashbourne said. That’s compared to only two to three feet of clearance with the old bridge, before it broke and slipped that is.

“You won’t have to duck to go under it,” Ashbourne said.

The new bridge will also be more attractive. It will have an arch to it compared to the old bridge, which had a completely flat span.

The development is offering potential buyers a coveted location along the Nantahala River where most land is owned by the national forest. During an aggressive marketing campaign in summer 2005, 32 lots sold in a matter of weeks. The lots — averaging just one-third of an acre — sold for between $225,00 and $375,000, according to Swain County property transactions. The remaining 15 lots will be offered for sale later this year.

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