Bryson City is one of the only towns in Western North Carolina without any zoning ordinances. Some residents say the lack of regulations puts the town in a precarious and risky position where anything goes — a 30-foot high flashing neon sign or a giant plastic hotdog mounted on the roof would be perfectly legal for example — and protecting the town’s character is solely voluntary.
To some residents, a tan metal building with small, high windows under construction on a vacant lot abutting Main Street undermines the town’s look.
“It’s an eye sore,” said Johnnie Roberts of Bryson City. “Look at all this beautiful brick work and this metal thing.”
Roberts said the design is a consequence of a town with no zoning.
Bill Smith, a resident of Whittier who does most of his shopping in Bryson City, said it was the ugliest building he has ever seen.
“It’s a warehouse stuck on Main Street,” Smith said. Smith questioned why the town approved the design until he learned the town lacked ordinances.
“Well, that’s how they got away with it then,” Smith said.
Don Johnson and Brian Riggs, two Appalachian Trail thru-hikers passing through town, noticed the building as out of place right away. They said the building would not be allowed in their hometown of LaGrange, Ga.
“They passed a city ordinance that you can’t put up pre-fab metal buildings like that,” Johnson said. The ordinance was spurred by business owners making renovations who wanted to protect their investments in the town.
“You have all these other people putting their hard work into the town,” Johnson said.
“And then someone ruins it,” Riggs said.
Others in town see nothing wrong with the building, however. It is being marketed for office or retail space, which could be good for the economy.
“If it brings more jobs to town, it’s alright,” said Don Warren of Bryson City. “It doesn’t bother me any. Everybody will get used to it.”
Warren Hayes, the manager at Bryson City Jewelry and Pawn, agreed.
“Tourists are attracted to the fact that the town still has a historic look to it, but anything that helps the economy is a good thing,” Hayes said.
The building owner, Tom Hurley, said the building will look nice when it is finished. The horseshoe-shaped building will have a stone courtyard and stone work covering the bottom part of the façade.
“They make judgments about it before it is completed,” Hurley said of his critics. “Hopefully when we get the rock on the walls and the courtyard completed it will look halfway decent. Some of the buildings downtown are in rough shape. Mine will be new at least.”
Hurley has owned the vacant lot for more than 10 years. A resurgence of activity downtown spurred him to do something with it.
“When I first came here in 1992 about half the stores in downtown were empty,” Hurley said. “Now there is really not a lot of space.”
Hurley said he couldn’t afford to build a brick building.
“If you built a building like a lot of people would like to see it built, you would go bankrupt. You couldn’t get a return,” Hurley said. “You can only rent for so much in this area. That was one of my primary considerations.”
For now at least, the building remains a topic of conversation on the streets of downtown. Similar unrest over the large yellow sign erected by Dollar General on Everett Street sparked interest in a sign ordinance four years ago. The town planning board drafted a sign ordinance, but the town board of aldermen never adopted it.
The downtown community has plans to apply for designation as a National Historic District, which seems to be a growing trend among WNC’s small and quaint downtowns.
Brad Walker, a downtown building owner and president of the Swain County Chamber of Commerce, wouldn’t object to an ordinance that protects the town’s historic character.
“Bryson City is really trying hard to thrive and reinvent itself,” Walker said, citing the installation of brick in-lay on the sidewalks, street trees and lamp posts on Everett Street. “It might be helpful if they looked at different ordinances that could help protect the character.”
Mel-O-Dee Wegner, the new owner of Mountain Perks coffee shop, said she would not mind regulations intended to protect the town’s character.
“If you put up something new, it should have some of the older look to it,” Wegner said. “It keeps the town rustic looking, historic looking.”
Wegner used to live near a town that looked like the set of an Old Western.
“They had a stipulation where if you built a building it had to have an Old West character,” Wegner said of Davie, Fla.
While some see Hurley’s metal building as out of place, it remains to be seen whether the building will be a catalyst for town leaders to follow the lead of towns in neighboring counties and address land-use planning.
“It doesn’t fit. It sticks out,” said Paul Wright, a local resident. “But it’s his land.”