Alaska Presley, a wealthy Maggie businesswoman who has spent the past three years trying to rekindle the bankrupt amusement park, has a vision of building a new Christian-theme park with a 220-foot cross on the mountaintop — which would be visible for miles.
“The mountains are all about the natural beauty. I think anything that takes away from that is questionable. So I think it certainly needs to be considered,” Maggie Mayor Ron DeSimone said when asked whether the town would allow a cross that high.
The town currently has no regulations on its books that would limit how high it could be. The state ridge law will come into play, but how high it could be under the state ridgeline rules is still being determined (see related article.)
For now, town aldermen are hoping the state ridge law will keep the height of the cross in check, and it won’t be necessary for them to weigh in.
But if it doesn’t, aldermen could face a tough choice: whether to quickly write a new regulation of their own that would limit its height.
Alderwoman Janet Banks said that wouldn’t be a pleasant position for the town to be in.
“In a strongly Christian community, you would have the public perception that the Maggie board of aldermen are anti-Christian,” Banks said.
It might be an easier discussion if it didn’t center around a cross — but a towering banana, or giant rainbow. But it is a cross, and that is bound to bring religion into the mix.
DeSimone said whether you are for or against a giant cross on the ridge top isn’t a testament to your religious faith.
“I do not think having an excessively tall cross on top of the mountains speaks positively about either religion or the mountains. I think to some it maybe defaces a little of both,” DeSimone said.
Alderman Mike Eveland said if the aldermen do end up tackling the issue, no one should be accused of being anti-Christian for not wanting a tall cross.
“It has nothing to do with whether I am a Christian or not. We have to decide whether it is the right thing for the town,” Eveland said.
What if it was something sinister, like a Devil’s pitchfork, or sign of hate, like a Swastika? No one would want to see those hanging over Maggie Valley.
And that’s what Eveland keeps coming back to in his head.
“Are we opening up a Pandora’s Box?” Eveland said.
“What if it isn’t a cross next time but something that is hideous? Can we write an ordinance that allows only crosses?”
From a personal standpoint, Eveland said he’s neutral.
“I don’t really have an itch one way or the other. I would be fine if it went up or if it didn’t,” Eveland said.
But as a town leader, he has to take everyone’s thoughts and opinions into consideration.
“I don’t think it is a scourge on the town. But you have to consider the fact the guy on the other side of the mountain might have different views,” Eveland said.
Banks said the issue is an age-old one that has played out across the mountains in various forms and fashions.
“You will always have the people who moved here or grew up here who want to see the beauty of the mountains and don’t want to see windmills and cell towers all over,” Banks said. “How do you reconcile moving forward with economic development, which we all need, but keeping the seed that brought everybody here?”
A dream on the rocks
Banks also appreciates that the giant cross is a passion for Presley.
“She considers it part of her legacy, and this is a very important for her to do. It was part of her original vision when she bought the property out of bankruptcy,” Banks said.
Ghost Town was a wildly popular theme park in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, but began a long, slow decline in the ‘90s — both in upkeep and visitation. It was finally shuttered in 2002, and sat empty for five years. New owners tried to revive it, but failed and fell into bankruptcy with a massive trail of unpaid debt. Presley then bought it out of foreclosure in 2012 and has had limited success in reviving it herself.
Her primary dream is to build a new Christian-theme park dubbed Resurrection Mountain, but she is over 90 years old, and her time is running out to pull it off.
Eveland said he doesn’t know if Presley would build the cross at all if it couldn’t be the height she wanted. Her goal is to compete with the highest crosses in the world.
“She wants it to be the biggest and the highest and the largest,” Eveland said. “From what I heard she was pretty specific about how high she wanted it to be and wasn’t willing to compromise.”
Eveland would hate to be the one to ruin her dream.
But DeSimone said everyone has a stake in the mountain scenery and deserves to be part of the discussion.
“I think something that would affect all of Maggie Valley and in fact all of Haywood County, I think that is something that should be more than just Alaska’s vision. I think everyone should be allowed to weigh in on something that drastic on the mountaintop,” DeSimone said.
“I would hope Alaska would meet with residents and say ‘This is what I am planning to do because you will be able to see it from your house,’” Banks said.
Alderman Phillip Wight, a self-described “property rights person,” doesn’t think the town should intervene. Presley’s idea of a giant cross didn’t suddenly come up out of the blue.
“We have heard of the cross for years now. I think we have had plenty of opportunity to think about it. Rushing in to change the ridge rules now would be a knee-jerk reaction, he said.
“We are going to restrict somebody’s rights because we don’t like it? I think she ought to be able to do what she is legally entitled to do with her own money,” Wight said.
DeSimone said he doesn’t see it as writing new regulations to rein in the cross. Rather it would be closing up loopholes that had just never dawned on the town before.
The town has a height rule for buildings and for cell towers, but the cross doesn’t meet the technical definition of either. So it would be exempt.
“I think what applies to structures should apply to anything manmade on top of the mountain,” DeSimone said.
Wight said the biggest problem is that the town doesn’t have any concrete information about what Presley is actually proposing.
“We haven’t seen any hard plans. It is hard to base an opinion on what is really hearsay,” Wight said. “This could be something amazing. It could be something odd. It could just be a steel pipe.”
Wight would like a general outline of the plan — not just for the cross but for the original Ghost Town theme park and the proposed Christian theme park. Presley’s plans have a huge bearing on Maggie Valley, but there’s little concrete information coming off the mountain.
Some supporters believe the giant cross and Christian theme park would be a tourist boon. But others aren’t so sure, especially about the cross. It could turn off more people than it pulls in to the valley.
“I think it would detract somewhat,” DeSimone said.
Race against the clock
The town board hasn’t been officially briefed by town staff on the issue yet.
“Before I could really give an opinion, I need to see what the ordinances really say,” Banks said.
When interviewed for this article, each alderman had a slightly different understanding of the issue. Eveland thought it was largely out of the town’s hands.
“Somebody asked me ‘Are we allowing this to happen?’ and I said ‘That is not up to us,’” Eveland said. “I am not sure the aldermen would ultimately have power over this.”
Banks also said she would want to see a plan from Presley first.
But if the town leaders wait until then, it could be too late.
Once Presley submits plans, the town can’t retroactively decide it doesn’t want a cross that tall. Once a permit application is in the pipeline, the town can’t suddenly make up new rules.
Legally, the cross would have to be approved as long as it meets the criteria on the books at the time of any permit application. The process is meant to keep local governments from writing regulations on the fly to block a particular project just because they don’t like it — rather than measuring it against a set of objective standards.
Failure to proactively decide how tall is too tall for a structure on the mountaintop — before any permit application lands on the town’s desk — would essentially be a de facto decision to allow it once it does.
There is one tool of last resort at the town’s disposal: a moratorium. A moratorium is like hitting the pause button. If local leaders get wind that a particular project is headed their way, they can quickly impose a moratorium, buying time to come up with regulations. Then they lift the moratorium, with the new rules in place before any formal permit application comes across their desk.
Moratoriums can be tailored to anything, but usually target ugly, loud or smelly things — like wind turbines, rock quarries, dirt-bike race tracks, toxic waste dumps or 20-story condos. They can also be left field kinds of things that town planners didn’t foresee being an issue before, but for whatever reason are poised to become issues.
Eveland said the first step is finding out how high the cross can be under the state ridge law — which is a waiting game right now.
“It all depends where the state lands,” Eveland said.
Then a more informed discussion could ensue, he said.
“This is the kind of board that would consider this very carefully and thoughtfully,” Eveland said. “We would have to decide, ‘Is it in the best interest of the town forever more to allow this type of structure to be built that high?’”
Sizing up the state ridge law with mountaintop cross
The town of Maggie Valley has asked the state to weigh in on whether a 220-foot cross on the ridgeline above town would be legal under the state’s ridgeline law.
The state has a ridgeline law dating to 1983 that limits how high structures can extend above the crest of a ridge. But it is not cut and dry, and takes some fancy footwork in the computer mapping realm to figure out exactly how it would apply in a particular spot.
Maggie Valley Town Planner Andrew Bowen contacted the state two weeks ago after getting a visit from Alaska Presley, who owns 250 mountaintop acres above Maggie Valley. It’s currently home to Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park, but Presley wants to build a new Christian theme park with a giant cross that would be visible for miles.
Presley made a casual inquiry with the town last month about its building regulations but didn’t share any written plans or drawings.
As for the town, it doesn’t have any regulations on the books — at least at the moment — that would apply.
“Large crosses on tops of mountains aren’t specifically addressed in our ordinance,” Bowen said.
Here’s a couple of related rules on the town books, however:
• Building height: a building can’t be taller than 45 feet. But the cross doesn’t meet the definition of a building, so it would be exempt from this rule, Bowen said.
• Cell tower height: telecommunications towers can’t be taller than 125 feet. But this doesn’t apply either, unless the cross doubled as a cell tower, in which case the 125-foot cap would kick in.
Bowen suspected the state ridge law would come into play, however, and set the wheels in motion to get a verdict from the state. At first, it was a challenge to simply figure out who at the state level was the point person for the ridge law. The state wasn’t even sure itself.
“It is not one of those things they handle all the time,” Bowen said.
That hurdle has been cleared, and Bowen has now found a state mapping specialist to run a model.
Here’s how the ridge law works:
• Take the highest point on the ridge.
• Take the second highest point on the ride.
• Draw an imaginary straight line between the tops of both ridges.
• No structure can extend 35 feet above that imaginary line.
So how high the cross can be is relative. It depends on where Presley wants to put it and where that imaginary line is drawn. And that’s what the town is waiting to hear definitively.
There’s another catch. Cell towers are exempt from the ridge law. Presley told the town she was toying with the idea of making the cross double as a cell tower. If so, would she be exempt from the state ridge law? And in that case, would the town’s own 125-foot cell tower rule come into play?
But that’s a question for another day, and for the town’s lawyers, Bowen said.