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Wednesday, 21 November 2007 00:00

Huge development planned for Haywood County: Developers say things are a go, although local residents and officials wonder

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By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

If all goes as planned, Haywood County will one day be home to a 4,500-acre mega-resort that could drastically change the face of tourism in Western North Carolina — and what it means to call Haywood County home.

The development, dubbed Cataloochee Wilderness Resort, is to be located near the intersections of U.S. 276 and I-40 and will span both sides of the valley along the Jonathan Creek area, reaching from one ridgeline to the other.

Obstacles for pulling off such a large-scale development are monumental, however.

Planning for the resort is still in the very preliminary stages. So preliminary, in fact, that while developers are touting Greg Norman and Arnold Palmer golf courses as part of the plans, representatives for the golf companies have heard nothing of the project.

The biggest obstacle could prove to be acquiring the number of acres required for the project. Key landowners in the area have already said they won’t sell.

Minimal land, if any, has actually been bought or sold, and the developers have yet to secure the necessary permits from the county or the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

That hasn’t stopped the parent company, Cataloochee Companies LLC, from drawing up an ambitious proposal.

According to a Cataloochee Companies information packet, the project is divided into several residential, commercial and retail phases that will include more than 1 million square feet of leasable area in 30 buildings, a 450,000 square foot Home Store, a 14-screen cinema, restaurants, a 100-room hotel, a ski resort, two lakes, two golf courses and 2,250 single-family lots.

Frank Singleton, spokesman for the project, said Jonathan Creek was picked for the site of the development due to its location at the intersection of I-40 and U.S. 276 near the Tennessee line.

“It’s a high traffic area with destination type traffic and people driving through. There’s a robust local tourism economy that draws people to the valley,” Singleton explained.

“By and large, Western North Carolina is going through a lot of growth as a tourism destination. Given that that growth is going to occur, that transportation corridor really makes sense,” he said.

“It’s really going to be an outdoor experience and residential. The intention is to adhere to land stewardship, providing economic impact and jobs and really making sure the project has the feel of a development that Jonathan Valley wants,” Singleton added.

 

Will landowners cooperate?

The Jonathan Creek community wanting the Cataloochee Wilderness Resort is something the developers of the project are banking on. To make the project a reality, the company will need to obtain thousands of acres currently in the hands of hundreds of property owners.

It’s unclear whether any land has yet been formally acquired. “It’s certainly premature to purchase land, but there are sellers’ agreements in place with the principals from Cataloochee Company. The company has met with individuals who are interested in offering their property for the project,” Singleton said.

Alison Davidson, an environmental permit coordinator for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, was told by officials from URS Corporation, the engineering firm overseeing the project, that some land had been acquired, though they declined to say how much.

Some landowners in Jonathan Creek say they’ve been left in the dark when it comes to the proposed resort. P.J. Farmer, whose family owns 120 acres in the area, was surprised to learn that his property was included in the plans for the development.

“All I know about this company is I lie right in the middle of where they’re planning to develop,” Farmer said.

“These guys have some big plans and I know they’re talking to a lot of people, but as far as I know, no money has exchanged hands with anybody else. We’ve talked and we’re not really interested in doing anything with them,” he said.

Farmer said he received a brochure several years ago detailing the proposed development, and isn’t sure how serious the company is about getting the project off the ground.

“I really don’t know what to believe,” he said.

Farmer is skeptical of some of the company’s proposed plans. For example, one of the lakes the company plans to build would have only one tributary — a creek that is almost completely dry.

“Their plans to do some of this stuff are physically impossible,” he said.

James Lowe, a real estate agent who owns property in Jonathan Creek, said he’s heard rumors of a development going into the area for four years.

“If it all did come together, I think it would be an asset to Jonathan Valley and the complete community as well, but I’ve not heard of them buying land or anything, so I’m not getting too excited about it,” he said.

Jonathan Massie, who owns property on Cove Creek near the development site, has his mind made up if the developer approaches him about acquiring his property.

“I won’t be selling. Our whole lives have been in this area for 50 years or more. It’s sentimental to me. I was raised here; my whole family was raised here. I’m not much for putting a development in Jonathan Creek to start with,” he said.

Massie said he’s far from alone in his sentiments.

“Nobody around here wants that. I talked to some of my neighbors about it and no one in the entire community is up for this. They’re all against it,” he said.

Singleton said his company isn’t deterred by those unwilling to sell. Because the resort is still in its preliminary stages, the company is flexible in its plans.

“Historically when you look at any large scale development of this sort, there is a long, fairly arduous process. Certainly in the process of going forward, there will be people who don’t want to participate. That may change the size of the development,” he said.

Singleton, though, is optimistic.

“You can assume there will be people that want to participate for their own financial and business reasons. Over the period of time when we introduced this project, we found pretty good acceptance,” he said.

Marc Pruett, erosion control supervisor for Haywood County, is less certain of the company’s ability to acquire the necessary land.

“Five-thousand acres have not been obtained by this company in that area. And there are hundreds of property owners down there scratching their heads, (wondering) how much are they paying, who’s offering? It’s kind of an oddball thing,” Pruett said.

 

The permitting process

If Cataloochee Companies is successful in obtaining 4,500 acres in Jonathan Creek, they’ll have to endure a strenuous permitting process on local, state and federal levels.

The company planned to discuss the necessary project permits with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources and other entities at a Nov. 20 meeting. Davidson, a permit coordinator for DENR, declined to speculate which permits the company will likely have to obtain.

Pruett, who will oversee permitting on a local level, became aware of the project through DENR. The company hadn’t notified him or asked about permits, which isn’t unusual, he said, but the scope of the project surprised him.

“Oftentimes people start making their plans early on before everything comes together. I don’t know that we were surprised by it as much as it was an eyebrow raiser to think about 5,000 acres being developed,” Pruett said.

Pruett ran down a list of permits he thinks the resort will likely need: approval for subdivision work through the county planning office; a land disturbing permit for all areas that will be worked on; permits from the Army Corps of Engineers to work near streams; Division of Water Quality approval for impact to surface water; permits from the state’s section of land quality for dams for the lakes; building permits from the building inspections office; permits for construction of retaining walls, residential structures and bridges.

Singleton, though, said Cataloochee Companies is prepared for the lengthy permitting process. The company is taking that into account in its projections for completion.

“It will probably take five to seven years for the first three phases of this project to be completed,” Singleton estimated.

 

It’s a go, company says

Despite the daunting task of acquiring thousands of acres of land and the prospect of a difficult permitting process, Singleton says the project is no longer a persistent rumor in the Jonathan Creek community — it’s official. Mark Clasby, the Economic Development director for Haywood County, confirmed that he and Cataloochee Companies reps have been in talks for roughly a year.

Singleton said the project has secured investors — he named Wells Fargo as one — and that several nationally known companies, like Del Webb and Pulte Homes, have climbed on board.

However, the project was news to other companies reported to be involved.

Sarah Stewart, a public relations representative for Greg Norman Golf Course Design, was surprised when the company’s name was mentioned as part of the project in a newspaper article. She asked the two men who head up the golf course design division if they knew of the project, but neither was aware of it.

An official at Palmer Golf Course Design who declined to give her name said the company was not under contract with Cataloochee Companies. Larry Whiteley with Bass Pro Shop called the plans “strictly rumor” and John Castillo with Cabela’s said he hadn’t heard of the idea. Castillo said it was plausible, though it would be only the second Cabela’s to locate in the South (the other one is near Baton Rouge, LA).

Most of the spokespeople for these companies said it was possible that their employer could be in talks with Cataloochee Companies without their knowledge.

“We’re just in discussion — there are no agreements in place,” Singleton said.

Singleton said more information would be forthcoming.

“Things are going well. We’re just getting to the point where people in the community know about this. We’re getting the word out — there will likely be a community briefing after the first of the year,” Singleton said.

That’s welcome news for Jonathan Creek residents like Farmer, who harbors doubts about the project’s validity.

“They could talk about it for a year and talk about it until they’re blue in the face,” he said.

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