The town initially looked to the state for a verdict. There isn’t, however, a state agency responsible for the interpretation or enforcement of the state ridge law.
“What we have got is a lot of arrows in the quiver so to speak. Exactly how to proceed is unclear,” Maggie Town Manager Nathan Clark said. “We are trying to make heads or tails of this. We are feverishly trying to work through it.”
The state ridge law dating to 1983 limits the height of man-made things on protected mountaintops, but it’s not an absolute number. It’s relative — and varies depending on the particular ridge and the particular spot where someone wants to build.
It would require some mapping and surveying expertise to figure out, which the town was hoping the state would help with. The town has now learned that won’t happen.
There are other questions in play as well. The town is trying to figure out if an exemption for religious symbols would apply. Or, if the cross doubles as a cell tower, could it be allowed under cell tower exemptions to the ridge law?
The town doesn’t have a formal permit application for the giant cross at this point, but was informally approached last month by Alaska Presley, the owner of Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park, where the cross would be located.
Presley has talked publicly about her idea for the cross since buying Ghost Town out of foreclosure three years ago. She met with town officials in January to inquire about various rules that might apply.
That prompted Town Planner Andrew Bowen to start looking into the ridge law.
Navigating the maze
Bowen’s first step, and arguably a logical one, was the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. He was soon routed to the N.C. Geological Survey, a sub-agency of DENR.
It sounded promising — the mountain ridgeline law would surely be right up the alley of an agency that deals in geology, surveying and natural resources, but he struck out.
“DENR does not have any enforcement authority over the ridge law,” according to Jamie Kritzer, the state spokesperson for DENR.
Kritzer instead pointed down the road to the N.C. Geodetic Survey — which sounds similar but is apparently different than the N.C. Geological Survey.
Thanks to a major restructuring of state agencies a couple of years ago to allegedly make the bureaucracy less bureaucratic, the Geodetic Survey was moved from DENR’s umbrella to the Department of Public Safety.
Kritzer alluded that the Geodetic Survey might be just the one to help, however.
“The Geodetic Survey is where local towns and counties go for assistance when there are issues interpreting the location of mountain ridges,” said Kritzer.
While the geodetic guys are indeed the official guardians of the state’s ridge maps, Bowen’s hopes of finding help there were soon dashed. They simply gave Bowen a web link to the ridge maps online, and emailed him a scanned copy of the maps.
That merely confirmed what Bowen already knew — that the proposed cross site is protected under the ridge law.
But it didn’t get Bowen any closer to the real question of how high the cross could be.
“We are the keeper of the maps. Our role is to provide access to those maps,” explained Gary Thompson, head of the N.C. Geodetic Survey. “We are not running any calculations.”
However, Thompson understands Maggie Valley’s conundrum.
“There are some stipulations in the law about what you measure from. In each case you have to look at the conditions of the ridge to determine what the height is,” Thompson said.
Nonetheless, as far as interpreting the ridge law, “we leave that up to the attorneys,” Thompson said.
Thompson said he doesn’t field many questions about the state ridge law. He thinks the last time it came up was five years ago, or even more.
“We don’t get a lot of questions about it,” Thompson said.
Maggie’s’ own attorney has been away on a two-week Pacific Island vacation, but Clark emailed him to let him know this issue would be waiting on his desk when he got back.
“Over the past month, the Town Planner Andrew Bowen has done an exceptional job of amassing and inventorying a collection of local, state and federal regulations as it pertains to Mrs. Presley’s desire to build a large cross atop Buck Mountain,” Clark said. “Our next step, while consulting with our town attorney, is to begin to decipher the many different layers of regulations of what is legally allowed to be erected.”
Flying under the radar
A defunct amusement park ride currently sits at the spot where Presley wants to put the cross, at an elevation of about 4,530 feet.
The ride, known as the drop tower, was put up in 2007, hauled in from a shut-down amusement park in Memphis that was auctioning off its used rides.
As it turns out, the 87-foot drop tower might actually violate the state ridge law.
“Quite possibly. But no one thought about checking on it,” Clark said.
But then again, it might not, depending on the ridge law verdict for that particular spot.
The state ridge law was passed in 1983 in response to the massive 10-story Sugar Top condominium built on a 5,000-foot ridgeline in Avery County.
Few counties or towns had their own ridge laws at the time, but the condominium was deemed so universally atrocious that state lawmakers decided intervention was needed to protect the mountain skyline with a blanket law.
Most towns and counties never felt the need to double up on the state law and pass a ridge law of their own.
Jackson County is one of the few that decided the state ridge law wasn’t strict enough and passed a ridge law of its own, but that’s rare.
Maggie’s case is far more common, where the town counted on the state ridge law to get the job done.
“This is something we thought that there was a lot of protection against,” Clark said.
In the meantime, a community conversation over how tall is too tall for the cross is on pause.
If the ridge law doesn’t adequately limit the height of the cross in some people’s eyes, a debate is bound to break out over whether the town should step in and pass a law of its own — one that’s stricter than the state’s ridge law.
“You have an octagon of general interests,” Clark said. “It is important for us to make sure there are no assumptions being made on whatever side of this octagon you are on.”
What the law says
The North Carolina ridge law limits the height that a structure can extend above the crest of a ridge. The rub lies with how you calculate the elevation of the crest.
Here’s how it works:
• Take the highest point on the ridge.
• Take the second highest point on the ridge.
• Draw an imaginary line between them.
• No structure can extend 35 feet above that imaginary line.
Why all the cross talk?
A 220-foot-tall cross is the crown jewel of a grand plan to build a Christian theme park on the same mountaintop as Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park in Maggie Valley.
The cross and the theme park are in the very early conceptual stages. They are the vision of Alaska Presley, an independently wealthy and elderly businesswoman who bought Ghost Town out of foreclosure three years ago. Once a tourism mainstay of Maggie, Ghost Town had fallen into disrepair and was essentially defunct when Presley bought it. She has spent considerable time and money trying to bring it back, and has recently begun talking more seriously about her ultimate vision for the Christian theme park.