Highlands mayor takes on contentious planning issues
By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer
In his first month as the newly elected mayor of Highlands, Don Mullen has already earned a reputation as a service-oriented, civic-minded, friend of the environment.
After retiring from his medical practice as a cardiac surgeon in Milwaukee at age 53, Mullen attended Princeton Theological Seminary. He and his wife became Presbyterian missionaries traveling to Africa and the Middle and Far East, spending up to a year at different missionary sites.
Six years ago, upon moving to Highlands to live full time, Mullen became a parish associate with Highlands’ First Presbyterian Church. He works at the church about 25 hours a week and preaches once a month.
He also was the founding president of the Highlands Community Child Development Center and a founding member of the Community Care Clinic, a separate 501c3 from the Highlands-Cashiers Hospital where he is vice chairman of the board. Mullen also is chairman of the Philadelphia International Foundation, which is working to build a hospital in Athens, Greece.
“I’d go crazy if I had to sit around and play golf once a day,” Mullen said. “I just enjoy being involved in the activities of the community. And with all my activities my golf game has gone to pot.”
Such connections to the local community most likely were a contributing factor to Mullen’s success in beating out incumbent Mayor Buck Trott this November. The election’s three mayoral candidates — Mullen, Trott and Creighton Sossomon — shared similar platforms, each supporting the creation of an extra-territorial jurisdiction where land outside town limits would fall under land-use restrictions without being subject to taxation.
However, Mullen said he connected with voters due to his interest in reigning in construction within the town, particularly in the case of the Old Edwards Inn.
“That may be one reason I was elected mayor,” Mullen said.
The inn, located on Main Street, underwent a major renovation and construction of a new European-style spa. Company plans also call for expansion at off-site locations, including a high-end housing development near Nick’s restaurant about a half mile from Main Street. Local residents have said the inn’s plans cater only to the very wealthy.
“The Old Edwards Inn has been working with the town,” Mullen said, referring to the inn’s repeated appearances before the town board. “It’s been at times a contentious relationship and the commissioners were really reacting to the feelings of the community.”
Mullen said that outside perceptions might mischaracterize Highlands. While it is a summer haven for second homeowners, many Highlands residents — full and part time — have the same interest in preserving the local character as the citizens in any other town. Mullen’s own desire to control growth is similarly rooted.
“So that we don’t become another Aspen, a playground for the rich,” Mullen said.
In December, the Highlands town board passed a motion creating an extra-territorial jurisdiction — an area outside town limits that falls subject to town land-use ordinances but not to town taxes — in an effort to control building. Several local landowners spoke out against creating an ETJ, saying that it infringes on personal property rights; however, Mullen said that the goal is to protect the interests of the community.
“We have to protect the community, too. The community as a whole is very important,” he said.
While board members and residents against the ETJ attempt to iron out differences and reach a compromise regarding the land-use regulations for the area, the town board has passed a moratorium on constructing new businesses and putting up new commercial signs within the ETJ (see related article).
The issue is the first — and only — major issue Mullen has encountered in his firm term as mayor.
“Not a lot has happened since I took over on the seventh of December,” he said.
Issues expected to come up include what to do regarding town hall — renovate or build a new one — continued public works projects including the replacement of utility poles, and the completion of a new sewer plant. Mullen said that the town also will consider increasing the size of the Highlands Police Department, which is under the direction of new Police Chief Bill Harrell.
“He’s doing an outstanding job,” Mullen said.
Expanding recreation opportunities through preservation of green space and construction of new parks also is a priority, as the benefit is multi-fold, Mullen said.
“There’s concern regarding the children and recreation areas,” he said. “Those need to be upgraded. We need to do something to keep the kids on the mountain.”