North Carolina mountain tract fuels controversy

State wants to preserve open space

developer wants to build houses

`Last of Mohicans' setting

January 26, 2001|By Lyn Riddle | Lyn Riddle,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BREVARD, N.C. - A 2,200-acre tract in the Appalachian Mountains in western North Carolina that was the location for the movie "The Last of the Mohicans" is now the site of another kind of battle, this one between a developer of high-priced residential communities and the state of North Carolina.

Reaching across rounded-top mountains and accented with three celebrated waterfalls, the land has been condemned by the state, which took possession in October.

A South Carolina developer, James B. Anthony, the chief executive of the Cliffs Communities, had bought the property a year earlier, outbidding the Conservation Fund, a nonprofit group that was acting on behalf of the state.

In the last decade, Anthony has built three residential developments, some with lots selling for as much as $1 million, in the mountains of South Carolina. One of them is the Cliffs at Glassy, a golf course community at the top of the 3,000-foot Glassy Mountain in the northwestern part of the state.

In August 1999, he paid $6.35 million for the North Carolina tract, which had long been held by E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. as a hunting and fishing preserve for entertaining clients. The chemical company sold the land in 1996 to the Brevard Land Co., a subsidiary of Sterling Diagnostics, a Houston company that makes X-ray film, and Brevard, in turn, accepted bids from prospective buyers.

The Conservation Fund bid $5.5 million. When it condemned the property, the state agreed to pay Anthony $12.5 million.

State officials say the land should be preserved because it includes Bridal Veil, High, and Triple waterfalls (all featured in "The Last of the Mohicans," starring Daniel Day-Lewis). It is bordered by the 8,000-acre DuPont State Forest, which was sold by the company to the state at a discount in a number of transactions in the 1990s.

State takeover

The state took over the land from Anthony after receiving thousands of letters reflecting both sides of the dispute, which also included an Internet campaign by a number of environmental groups.

The state is forming an advisory group to decide what to do with the property, which includes a number of buildings, including an unfinished lodge. For now, the site, which is about halfway between the cities of Brevard and Hendersonville, south of Asheville, is open to the public for hiking.

Joseph H. Henderson, director of the North Carolina State Property Office, said the state had condemned the land when it became obvious it would not be able to reach agreement with Anthony on a range of issues, including a purchase price.

Anthony said he had spent nearly $20 million to buy the property and make improvements to roads and buildings. He has repaired and built 10 miles of roads, started renovating a lodge, and constructed an equestrian center. Several small vacant homes were restored as well. He intended to sell 100 homesites around 130-acre Lake Julia and 10 in another part of the property.

He said he had proposed putting about 1,300 acres into a trust that would be run by three private colleges nearby. In addition, the land around the waterfalls would be protected and open to the public, he said.

Within months of his signing the contract to buy the land in May 1999, about 150 people had placed refundable deposits of $1,000 each indicating interest in purchasing lots, he said.

The sales prices for one- to three-acre homesites were expected to average $350,000. "The state had the opportunity to buy the property and didn't," said Anthony, who left a 20-year career as a lineman with a phone company in 1982 to become a developer. "It is totally unfair. This is politics at its dirtiest."

Anthony said he intends to fight the condemnation, not only because he considers the offer too low, but also because he believes losing the site will harm his business. "I want the land back," he said.

One of the promises made to people who buy a lot in a Cliffs community is the opportunity to use the facilities at any of them, he said. He has sold 200 lots in other communities with the promise the owners could visit the North Carolina site.

The North Carolina property and a new concept of allowing property owners to use affiliated resorts in various places around the world were to be his company's focus for the next few years, he said.

Sporting club in Chile

The first of these sporting clubs is to be in Chile. The company has purchased 6,000 acres with six miles of beachfront there, Anthony said, adding that his company does not intend to develop the resort sites beyond building places to stay.

Anthony said sites in Belize and British Columbia would be included in the next two years. The idea is to give owners a choice of winter and summer resorts year-round.

Anthony said that the state's assertion that the property is pristine was disingenuous. "What they got was a development," he said, citing the construction his company had done.

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