It’s the kind of community where directions are given in relative terms — using full names to put ownership on property where one should turn left or right, or sending travelers on to locations before Ken’s, or past Jimmy’s, the two local gas stations located about a quarter mile apart, over the bridge, or beyond the fire department.
It’s easy to miss the community’s waist-high, handmade-looking wooden sign stuck in the middle of the traffic island at the intersection of N.C. 107 and N.C. 281. Locals say they wish it were easier to miss, at least the traffic island that is, as the large trucks passing through the intersection often overrun the curb and destroy the flowers community members plant.
Large trucks are the norm these days. Dump trucks and concrete trucks come and go from the various housing developments in the area. Bear Lake Reserve is the closest and the largest, located at the top of Shook Cove Road, which turns to dirt at the top of the mountain but soon will be paved all the way to the high-end gated development. And all kinds of trucks, their drivers most likely happy for a relatively straight, albeit narrow, stretch of road fly down Tuckasegee’s portion of N.C. 107.
“Where’s the cops?” asked local resident Kenny Pressley.
So far, the traffic hasn’t been too much of a problem for customers at Ken’s Grocery and Propane, perched on the crest of a small hill coming into Tuckasegee proper, according to owner Ken Chastain. But it doesn’t show any signs of decreasing.
“The traffic’s going to be here forever from now on,” Chastain said.
For a gas station, of course, traffic isn’t all bad. Chastain used to have two people working at the store every morning. Now he has three and sometimes has to come in himself to help.
“There’s 10 times the business here there was 10 years ago,” he said.
The clientele has changed, and perhaps so have people’s tastes.
“When I first went into business here, we made a comment, me and my wife did, about ‘reckon we’ll ever see bottled water sitting on the shelf?’ Right now it’s one of the biggest sellers in the cooler,” Chastain said.
In his 27 years in Tuckasegee, Chastain has seen a lot of other change, most of it having to do with land development and privatization.
“You can talk to a lot of these people and once they come in here and they see what kind of place this is and how quiet, the first thing they want to do is buy some property,” he said.
Closing off Bear Lake to camping and hunting has put a serious damper on lake recreation. Granted the lake is publicly owned and there’s a public boat dock located off N.C. 281, but what was once a forest adjacent to the put-in is now a real estate and information office for Bear Lake Reserve, a Centex development.
“It’s cut the boat traffic here from 100 percent to 30 percent in the last four or five years,” Chastain said. “We used to own a boat and we used to ride around and fish, but after Centex bought it and all, we kind of didn’t know what to think. I ain’t been back on the lake since then.”
A house for you, two houses for me
Chastain isn’t the only one. Mounting frustration at the loss of control over their community has driven residents to wage opposition against plans to open a rock quarry within site of the N.C 107/N.C. 281 intersection.
“People are tired of people coming in here and just buying up land and because we don’t have any land-use planning and we don’t have zoning, they just come up here and do whatever they take a notion to,” said Nola Brown, a resident and steering committee member of the grassroots group organizing the anti-quarry push, United Neighbors of Tuckasegee.
But it’s not just an issue of industrial land uses. The county has yet to pass a subdivision ordinance that could set minimum standards for housing developments, zoning controls that could reduce the number of houses and lots in each development, or a steep slope development ordinance that could restrict what kind of lots homes could be build on — both a safety and vista concern.
This largely unrestricted growth and the availability of acres upon acres of pristine, undeveloped mountaintop land has led to what Jackson County Soil and Erosion Control officer Robbie Shelton has called “hundreds of subdivision submittals, equaling thousands of lots” over the past few years. Development company Legacy recently announced the purchase of Singing Waters Campground, which as advertised will lead to an additional 2,000 lots on 400 acres. Comparatively speaking, Bear Lake Reserve has 628 lots.
In 1996, the number of new single-family homes permitted in Jackson County totaled 293, or about 24 homes a month. Last year, that number had nearly doubled with a total of 537 new single family-homes, or about 45 homes a month, according to Jackson County Building Inspections Department data. This year, the growth rate appears slightly lower with an average of 44 homes permitted per month from January through June. However, there are several good construction months left in the season.
The construction of single-family homes has outpaced every other type of permitted use. Permits issued for mobile homes came in a distant second at about 14 a month, followed by permits for new additions, permits for renovations, and permits for new commercial development. Permits issued for new multi-family dwellings, such as apartments, came in at about one permit issued a month.
Just looking at the number of permits issued doesn’t indicate whether these new homes are primary or secondary residences. However, rising land prices indicate that working-class families aren’t the ones driving the market. Looking out the gas station window about a quarter mile down N.C. 107, Chastain can see two acres of land that just sold for $80,000 per acre. While that’s expensive, it’s half the price many mountain lots are going for.
Land values are pricing many younger generations out of buying land where they grew up. Locals like Chastain, who inherited land, already have divvied up what they own amongst their children. Others like Frank Hooper and Kenny Pressley plan to pass theirs on when they pass away.
“It’s not for sale,” said Hooper, whose land has been home to five generations or more.
Hooper and Pressley are fairly confident their kids will keep the land in the family, at least until the taxes get too high for them to pay. But once it’s sold, the lifestyle is gone.
“If you don’t keep it, you won’t have it,” Chastain said.
Where to borrow a cup of sugar
Hooper and Pressley spent a part of the afternoon standing around the bed of an old pick up truck talking with Larry Stephens on the side of Shook Cove Road.
Having spent most of their lives in the Tuckasegee area, they remember when people raised cabbage and tobacco in their fields. Nobody really farms that much anymore. There are the Christmas tree farms, which tend to bring in a lot of migrant workers, contributing to the increase of mobile homes in the area, Pressley said.
Chastain’s son owns the two trailer parks off N.C. 107 near Ken’s Grocery and Propane. The Hispanic renters are known to be quiet and polite, always paying their rent on time and in cash.
“You couldn’t ask for no better people than that,” Chastain said.
However, the only reason Chastain said he knows any of the people who live there is because it’s part of the family business. It’s not so much the egress of old residents as it is the influx of new residents that’s changing the social landscape. Hooper agreed.
“Ten years ago I knew everybody that lived here,” he said. “Now I know about a third.”
One new resident is post office employee Barbara Day. A member of the Tuckasegee community for two years, Day moved up from Florida. Originally from Wisconsin, she and her husband — who’s from Massachusetts — bought property here in 1991 with plans to build their own house. When they started building, their house in Florida sold faster than expected, and the couple moved to Tuckasegee with work on the house still left to do.
The number of residents relocating from Florida has become a bit of a sore spot for manyu in western North Carolina. It’s not the individuals, but the trend that many blame for rising housing costs, as evidenced by a drive through Bear Lake Reserve where the little blue and ivory placards denoting the last name and place of residence of each lot owner indicates a pronounced Floridian bias.
Despite the region’s growing resentment of Florida’s influence, Day said that she has yet to hear negative comments about her moving up from there.
“I haven’t, but I’m sure there are other people,” she said.
The difference is in how they integrate themselves into the local culture.
“I want to be a part of this community,” Day said.
Being a part of the community is something she seems to be doing well. From behind the post office counter, she greets customers by name and knows what they’re looking for. Of course, the post office is small, having just recently added boxes to total about 400.
“We knew with Bear Lake Reserve coming in we were definitely going to need more boxes,” Day said.
That need will only increase as the housing market continues to boom, which should provide a challenge for the little post office. The new boxes added in are in one free-standing unit about the size of a large filing cabinet that noticeably takes up floor space.
But while Tuckasegee officially has been “discovered,” the community retains its mountain values.
Residents are good about taking care of each other, and crime is still low. Chastain said the few folks he has caught stealing from the store get a good old-fashioned “ass chewing, pardon the language,” but are not prosecuted.
“I think we’ve done more good that way,” Chastain said.
However, he has installed a new high-tech security system — a sign of the changing times.
“You can’t stop progress,” Pressley said.