How DuPont State Recreational Forest Became a Reality
The DuPont State Recreational Forest was established by a generous bargain sale in 1995 and 1996 from theDuPont Corporation to the State of North Carolina, by way of the Conservation Fund as intermediary. The NC Natural Heritage Trust Fund, a State trust fund dedicated to enhancing gamelands, provided the $2.2 million. . Local area resident slowly began exploring the recreation potential of their horseshoe shaped Forest. (Hooker Falls was the only waterfall on the Little River included with the original State Forest)
Local Environmental leaders get the ball rolling
How did this “win-win” transaction become a reality? Once DuPont announced its intention to separately sell the plant and the property, employee Jeff Jennings, who was president of theEnvironmental & Conservation Organization, began making phone calls to company officials about the idea of selling the forested property to a conservation buyer. Jennings met with the board of the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, and received critical assistance from its president, Chuck McGrady. McGrady contacted Rex Boner at the national Conservation Fund, and arranged for Boner and Jennings to work together.
Fortunately, the Conservation Fund had an extensive relationship with DuPont’s External Affairs, and its newly formed “Land Legacy” program. The bargain sale of these 7600 acres fit well with the goals ofDuPont’s Land Legacy Program, and received critical support from DuPont’s Justin Carisio (External Affairs) and Diane Boc (Corporate Real Estate).
The Conservation Fund served as the intermediate owner of the property, transferring the property to the State in 1996 as funding became available.
Big Fight for the Waterfalls
Triple Falls, High Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls, which were not part of the original State Forest, were protected from residential development only after a controversial, two year struggle.
Sterling Diagnostic Imaging put the 2200 acre waterfall tract up for sale during the winter of 1999. The Conservation Fund again represented the State of North Carolina in an effort to bid for the property through a private sale process. Sterling rebuffed all public pleas to work out an agreement with the State, and insisted on a private, secretive bidding process. By July, Sterling announced that the property was awarded to developer Jim Anthony of the Cliffs Communities for $6.35 million. The Conservation Fund announced it had bid $5.5 million.
Despite numerous appeals from the public, Governor’s Jim Hunt and George Bush, Sterling leaders did not allow the State to match the winning bid. Numerous questions and allegations were raised in the local press and in the local community suggesting collusion between the developer and the shell company created by Sterling’s Houston-based investors months before the property was put on the market. These allegations are still unproven – indeed, the private land sale produced no public records whatsoever to substantiate the unusual bidding process.
Just after the sale, the developer initially stated in the Hendersonville Times News that he had no plans to develop the property, but planned to keep it as a private retreat. In fact, Sterling’s land deed filed at the Transylvania Courthouse flatly stated that the property could not be used for residential purposes. Over the ensuing months, however, it became apparent that Anthony was planning a massive upscale gated residential development in the center of the State Forest, using the waterfalls as the central attraction. Only later did the public learn that the complex legal agreement between Sterling and Anthony was unenforceable, leaving Anthony free to backtrack on his promises.
In retrospect, it appears that the vague land use restrictions served to suppress the appraised value, and consequently the Conservation Fund’s bid for the property (on behalf of the State).
During the fall of 1999, then Sierra Club president Chuck McGrady and local attorney Sam Neill met with Cliffs Communities officials to see if there was any way to secure protection and public access for High Falls and Triple Falls. Though more assurances were received from the developer, the coming weeks proved these assurances false. The developer filed plans with Transylvania County to build a massive real estate development on the property, and quickly began construction of the High Falls bridge and a large road system.
Neill and McGrady began an effort to raise awareness in Raleigh of the impending real estate development and its impact on the waterfalls and the Forest. The realistic objective of this was to pressure the developer into making real concessions concerning protection of the natural resources and public access to the waterfalls. What sprung from this effort, the condemnation of the entire waterfalls tract, was almost more than either man had hoped for.
In the winter of 2000, Attorney General Mike Easley, public suggested that the waterfalls in the center of the Forest be protected from development with guaranteed public access. He threatened that, if necessary, the State should use its power of eminent domain to acquire the waterfalls. On April 4th, Governor Hunt and the Council of State surprised many by declaring that the entire 2200 acre tract should be condemned if suitable protections and public access could not be negotiated with Anthony.
Friends of the Falls, a grassroot group of Forest users and waterfall lovers, formed several days later and rallied a large wave of public support to protect the property from development. Many thousands of letters, faxes, phone calls, and emails were sent to Governor Hunt and the Council of State urging bold action to protect the crucial “Heart of the Forest”, easily outnumbering opposing contacts.
Property Rights advocates, including virtually all local Republican leaders, objected loudly to the Governor’s proposals. After six months of negotiations, the State’s attorneys were still unable to obtain enforceable public access to the waterfalls. At the governor’s request, the board of directors of the Clean Water Management Trust Fundauthorized funding for State acquisition of the property.
In late October, Anthony breached the negotiations by ending a voluntary building moratorium and subdividing the property – thereby daring the governor to act or back down just before the election. To the surprise of many, on October 23, 2000 Governor Hunt and the Council of State unanimously voted to invoke eminent domain on the tract. Approximately $12.5 million was paid to the developer for the initial payment (another $12 million was paid in 2003 when both parties settled before trial).
After three weeks of intense volunteer trail work, the waterfall tract opened to the public on December 17, 2000. Triple Falls thundered violently on the clear icy day as hundreds of joyful waterfall lovers made the brief journey up from Staton Road – many for the first time. The entire 2200 acres has since been integrated into the Forest, and has become one of the region’s major tourist and recreational attractions.