River island project raises concerns
The possibility that a 40-acre island in the Little Tennessee River might be developed has sparked outrage among conservationists and calls for preservation from those living nearby.
Dean Island in Macon County is nestled among land tracts previously protected from future development. The island is near the 4,500-acre Needmore Tract, purchased by the state in 2004 after extensive regional conservation efforts, and across from the Queen Branch parcel, given that same year for preservation by Duke Power to The Land Trust for the Little Tennessee.
“We offered it to them first,” James VanderWoude, the Franklin-based developer who owns the island, said of the LTLT. “I did not market it for two years. I think we waited a reasonable amount of time before we finally put it under contract.”
Paul Carlson, executive director of the land trust, acknowledged there have been previous negotiations between VanderWoude and the Macon County-based conservation group. He said the two parties couldn’t agree on a fair purchase price.
What’s in question
Kidney-shaped Dean Island is tucked inside Macon County about five miles from the Swain County line. Charles Pendergrass, working this day on a craft project on his porch, had a birds-eye view of the island’s lush vegetation.
Dean Island, awash in the serviceberry-whites and maple-reds of an early mountain spring, provides critical habitat for animals, the avid hunter said. And the stretch of river between his property and the island is serene and calm, a prime place to catch catfish, trout and other fish.
“I’ve had a lot of peaceful years here,” said Pendergrass, who moved 15 years ago to the property that belonged to his mother. “I’d like to see it stay just like it is. I don’t want to see the trees come down.”
Pendergrass isn’t alone. Rober Shutt moved to his house overlooking the Little Tennessee River to escape growth in Atlanta. Shutt said he grew alarmed about what might take place on the island when a crew started preparations for a single-lane bridge.
Shutt, who denied a possible contradiction in his efforts to prevent development on Dean Island and his own move to the area, drew a distinction between responsible development and environmental destruction.
“You should be able to develop something as long as it’s not going to be detrimental to other people and the environment,” Shutt said. “What really hurts me is that once you destroy it, it’s gone forever.”
Shutt said he believes vegetation is holding the island in place, and that without it, the river will consume the land and trigger sedimentation problems downstream.
VanderWoude said the contract holder, whose identity he declined to reveal, is pursuing building the bridge.
Whether a bridge — much less homes or other development — will be allowed is debatable. Furor over the initial site work prompted various agencies with a stake in the process to meet, including county inspectors and federal agencies such as the Tennessee Valley Authority. TVA has oversight responsibilities for the Tennessee River System.
The Dean Island stretch of the Little Tennessee River is home to three federally listed species, two mussels and a fish, a potential legal roadblock for development. Also, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Biologist Mark Cantrell said, Virginia spiraea has been found above the island and below the island. He said a review is needed to discover if the threatened rose-related plant is located there as well.
“My biggest concern is that I can envision a lot of things, but I have not seen an actual proposal from the land owner,” Cantrell said.
Gil Francis, TVA spokesman, said a permit for work on the island would trigger a detailed analysis by the agency of potential impact.
In anticipation of such a review, the Southern Environmental Law Center last week notified the TVA it intends to monitor the process. The legal group, which operates in six southern states including North Carolina, filed the Freedom of Information Act on behalf of the Little Tennessee Watershed Association, another Macon County-based conservation group.
“Since the development of Dean Island would not occur but for construction of the bridge, the assessment of environmental impacts must include the impacts of both the bridge and the resulting development,” the Law Center wrote.