River-lust spurs building rebound on Nantahala: Tiny riverside lots pose sewage conundrum

fr mysticriverTom Anderson barely batted an eyelash when he plunked down $300,000 in cash for a tiny lot along the Nantahala eight years ago in the Mystic River development.


Sure it was pricey, but on par with any other prominent second-home market, he reasoned.

“It is about as expensive as buying a lot on the ocean at Myrtle Beach,” said Anderson, 47, a dentist in Winston-Salem.

Anderson — who prefers whitewater over saltwater, however — relished the idea of his own private slice of the Nantahala Gorge, a famous outpost for river recreation.

“I could grab my fly fishing rod and kayak and just go,” Anderson said.

But his dreams took a hiatus when the recession hit. Like so many would-be second-home owners in the mountains, Anderson has been sitting on his lot wondering year after year whether the climate was finally right to build his weekend getaway.

It was an about-face compared to how quickly Anderson and the other property owners in Mystic River snatched up lots when they first went up for sale. All 40 lots were claimed in a matter of two days during a well-orchestrated sales blitz, going for $280,000 to $350,000 for third-of-an-acre lots.

But the hype came to a halt with the recession. Mystic River was beset by an “unexpected glacial pace of construction of homes,” said Robert Burgin, a consulting engineer for Mystic River.

Despite the brisk lot sales, only one home was built in eight years.

“Building plans by property owners were indefinitely shelved,” Burgin said.

Several factors kept lot owners from building, said Larry Harwood, another lot owner who had been quick to jump on the choice riverfront lots. One was trouble getting construction loans. Banks were skittish about lending money to build in a development with no other homes in the ground yet, said Harwood, a computer hardware dealer from Chattanooga.

At last, however, development in Mystic River has been kick-started — offering a harbinger of hope for the second-home construction industry. 

Nearly a dozen lot owners have pulled the trigger and started building and designing homes in Mystic River during the past year, Anderson and Harwood among them. 

Thanks to the building slump, they got a great deal from their builders.

“People needed the construction work so the prices had come down on labor and materials,” Harwood said.

While Mystic River could be a sign of a construction rebound in the mountains, it could just be defying the odds. There simply aren’t any other spots to build a house along the whitewater Mecca of the Nantahala.

“It is a unique development and a unique location,” said Greg Diehl, the director of the Mystic Lands Property Owners Association. “These are the only lots on a whitewater rafting river in the Southeast. Not only did we avoid the crash we maintained our value here.”

The river is surrounded by national forest, making Mystic River a rare island of privately owned land in the gorge.

Mystic River is not only seeing an uptick in construction ahead of the rest of the region, but has also shrugged off other trends as well. The development saw only two foreclosures in the wake of the real estate crash — far below average compared to other second-home developments, where buyers simply walked away as the realization set in that their lot was only worth a fraction of what they’d bought it for.

But Mystic River was spared the plight of slumping real estate values. Two additional lots put up for sale in the development during the past year went for $320,000 and $415,000. 

Prices in that range are rarely seen these days. Diehl fielded several calls from puzzled appraisers wondering whether the posted property transactions were legitimate.

“They haven’t lost value because nobody else has any lots on the river,” Anderson said. “In the mountains, there is tons of property available, but not on the river.”

It proves the point real estate watchers have been driving home: while run-of-the-mill mountain subdivisions may still be flush with inventory, those that standout from the crowd stand to fare better as the economy comes back.

Mystic River had its share of detractors when it launched eight years ago. River rats feared the development would change of the nature of the Nantahala by lining a stretch of the bank with houses.

“There were even some hecklers at one of the sales,” Anderson recalled.

Before it was sold to a developer, Mystic River was a campground. Harwood made yearly sojourns to the campground with buddies from Chattanooga. One year, he called to make a reservation for an upcoming trip only to learn it was no longer a campground.

“I hated to see them sell the land,” Harwood said. But if it was going to be developed, he wanted in.

“We hike and mountain bike and paddle,” Harwood said. “It is a great place to go do it all from one central location.”

Lot owners have faced challenges building on lots so close to the river’s edge, however. Being in the floodway, homes must be elevated eight to nine feet in the air on concrete piers.

“We had to put a fortune in concrete,” Harwood said.

On the plus side, it gives them plenty of basement level storage for all the boats and bikes they’ll have in tow when escaping to the Nantahala.


Riverside locale poses sewage challenges

One issue lot owners in Mystic River are still grappling with is how to handle their sewage. Given the small lot sizes ranging from one-quarter to one-third of an acre, there’s not room for traditional septic systems. They need a large footprint for a drain field, allowing wastewater to filter through the soil.

Trying to shoehorn both a house and a septic system on the lots — plus keep construction a mandatory distance from the river’s edge — proved challenging.

“Conventional systems were out the window,” said Charles Reagan, who handles septic permits for Swain County. “It would leave these people tiny footprints to build on what were billed as pretty upscale lots. That density would be fine if you had city sewer, but of course, they didn’t have that.”

There were other complications, too, like being in the flood plain. 

The development has twice devised plans for handling future homeowners sewage, only to later scrap them in favor of a new plan. The development recently applied for a third round of permits for yet another type of system.

“I actually call them plan A, plan B, and plan C,” Harwood said.

The latest plan under consideration is a “Bioreactor Membrane system.” 

Wastewater cycles through three tanks before emerging clean on the other side and simply dripping out onto the ground. The heavy lifting is done by a membrane with super fine pores. Water is pushed through the membrane, but the pores are so fine that organisms and contaminants can’t pass through. As a safeguard, the already cleaned water is treated with ultraviolet light in another tank.

“One of the beauties of this system is that you can clean and polish the effluent to drinking water quality,” said Randall Nelson, owner of Reuse Innovation based in Franklin. Nelson is one of a handful of distributors nationally that sells small-scale versions of the membrane systems.

“It is not here to replace the conventional septic if you have good deep soil. If you don’t have that, or when you have environmental concerns, this as an alternative,” Nelson said.

The water coming out of the tanks is so clean it simply spills into a shallow pit lined with sandy soil and soaks into the ground. 

The permit is still pending with the N.C. Division of Water Quality but seems to stand a good chance of approval.

 “It is a pretty advanced system,” said Cory Larson, an environmental engineer with the N.C. Division of Water Quality in Raleigh. “The membrane is a very fine filter that produces a high-quality effluent. Overall, it’s quite a bit of technology.”

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