When the 4400 acres of Double Top Mountain was first put on the market by Champion Paper Company in 1998, it was offered to the state of North Carolina to become a park. At the time, the state did not have the funds. In an attempt to purchase, a group of developers from North Georgia presented the county with a plan showing two golf courses and 900 residential homesites. This was obviously put together with little or no research, much less any regard for the beauty of the land. That sale fell apart.
Jim Chaffin and Jim Light purchased the tract as a partnership, Balsam Mountain Preserve, LLC. Having worked together before, I rejoined the team. I think we all, at one time or another, felt like the dog chasing a car– now that we’d caught it, what were we going to do with it? In order to fully understand the land, we undertook a two-day charette with land planners, architects, engineers, golf course designers, environmentalists, forestry experts and others.
The plan was involved–the question was how to achieve it. Instead of two golf courses, we engaged Arnold Palmer Course Design to lay out one 18- hole course. Instead of 900 homesites, we planned 350. At this point, we involved five different university graduate programs and paid professional consultants to aid and be watchdogs over the actual development.
The engineers were able to overlay the road and stream locations that had been established on the ground by using GPS with aerial photography topo mapping. The end result was enough information for a land planner to begin work.
The challenge was to identify the best 350 homesites that could be accessed using the existing logging roads. In flat land like Kent County, Maryland, that would be easy and lots would be right next to each other–not so in the mountains. The lots were to average two acres in size and sited as much as possible where construction would not be too costly, but would take advantage of the long-range mountain views.
After the lots, the golf course site and other club amenities were located, and then marked on the ground, the remaining land was put in a conservation easement. The Balsam Mountain Trust, a not-for-profit, was established and charged with the care and management of the forest. The land could be enjoyed for hiking, horseback riding (there were 34 miles of trails), camping, fishing and other outdoor activities, but it could never be developed.
The Trust also established a Nature Center run by a Naturalist, his staff and volunteers. This was funded by the exchange of real estate. Every time we as the developers sold a lot, a set percentage of the sale price was contributed to the Trust. Anytime from then on and for evermore, when a lot or home is sold, the seller must contribute a set percentage to the Trust.
Strict Governances were established. The commonly used rules and regulations were adapted, plus a few that were unusual and forward thinking:
There was no minimum home size, rather a maximum size of 4,000 sq. ft. in a single structure was established. An owner could build small as long as the home met architectural guidelines, such as height–our attempt to keep over-building and the competition that goes with it to a minimum.
Cutting of trees was carefully monitored. After a home and actual building site was approved, the building footprint and room to work around it, could be cleared. When the home reached the construction stage where windows and porches were in place, a second clearing could be undertaken to open up views–our attempt to keep the forest as natural as possible.
Landscaped plans were required for approval. There was a list of allowed and not allowed plants. This was important in our attempt to keep invasive species out.
Dogs were allowed as long as they were under control. No strict leash rule. This rule was mainly for the protection of the pet. There were critters in the forest that considered a little fluffy dog a delicacy.
The lots were so spread out over eighty miles of roads that a central water and sewer system would have been far too costly. Each home had its own well and septic system. In addition, we required every homeowner to install a 2,000 gallon underground cistern that collected rain water from the home gutter system and had a fire-hydrant type hook up–our attempt to aid firefighters.
Balsam Mountain Preserve has had its troubles over the years, and it is by no means inexpensive. But I always like to say that: “In years to come, it may be looked on as an oasis when the suburbs of Atlanta come crawling up the mountains. It will be a community within a park, not a park within a community.”
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Bill Minus is a storyteller who lives in Chestertown and writes about memories and observations.