First Trax

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If you’ve been following the issues up at Hawksnest over the last few years, you are certainly aware that there’s no real love-fest going on up there. A lot has gone on at that little mountain in the last five years or so and even though it has a very small population of less than 150 people, and some 700 seasonal residents it has garnered way more than its share of local news print.

First there were claims of police harassing the ski area and some in-the-news finger-pointing back and forth that kept the fires fueled. Later there was the decision to close the ski area for a full year. Then the owners decided to reopen as a Tubing Only Area and had pretty decent success and opted to reopen as a normal ski resort for the last couple of seasons. During all of these tumultuous years the resort continued to provide their unique and much loved golf course open during the late Spring, Summer and Autumn months.

Those of us a little closer to the area have paid notice of the fact that over the last couple of seasons Hawksnest began to show signs of a more pro-active or aggressive approach to take the resort to another level. I have had some conversations with Lenny Cottom over the last two years and within some of those he shared some of his hopes and plans for the resort. During those conversations Lenny would usually ask that I not mention or report on them on the website, because he was waiting for when the time was right to make some huge announcements.  It didn’t take much insight to understand that what was at issue in many of the owner’s long term plans was the potential road blocks that the Town of Seven Devils might throw in front of them.  We’ve read local editorials and SkiNC message board entries from many claiming how small minded that the town officials were being and you get the feeling that most of the road blocks stemmed in large part because the Cottoms decided to close the golf operations down last Fall – never to reopen.

I have to say that I hated to hear that I’d never again be able to play the scenic course. I made an effort to play on the last day of golf operations last year and I must admit that I had some real pangs in my gut remembering some fun times up there over the last 15 years.  However, as a participant in the free enterprise system that we love and pay tribute to here in America I HAVE to say that I played about twice a week up at Hawksnest last Spring, Summer and Fall …and I rarely saw a busy golf course. With real estate values skyrocketing all over the High Country I began to see the day fast approaching where it made more fiscal sense to develop the dirt instead of hacking wedges and seven irons into it.

Although I was disappointed to hear of their final decision to close for golf, I was excited to hear of the Cottoms ideas to expand the ski operations and make for a bigger, better Hawksnest.  While I am no attorney, nor did I sleep at the Holiday Inn last night – I was astounded to hear that the Town of Seven Devils was against the moves that Hawksnest was proposing. More surprising to me was the fact that the Town evidently actually had some GROUNDS to put a hold on any of these proposed moves. What the Cottoms were proposing would seemingly make for a better product up there and in my "un- info rmed" opinion was nothing any different than the mountain scraping development that has been allowed by the Town all over that mountain in the form of tons of new town home complexes, etc.

However, in late February and early March of this year, the Town of Seven Devils Board of Adjustments turned down a request from Lenny and Leonard Cottom for a special use permit that would allow them to expand their ski resort.  That hit the news and locals began to speculate that the decision was based more on "personal feelings" than on any legal grounds.  Some claimed that there were hurt feelings over the Cottoms’ plan to close for golf.

Subsequently, the Cottoms’ appealed the denial of the special use permit to Superior Court, and that case was heard on June 12. Bill Wilkinson, who is a member of the Seven Devils Town Council, was quoted as saying that the Superior Court had to determine if the Seven Devils Board of Adjustment followed legal procedure in reaching their decision to deny the permit.

On July 14, the District 24 Superior Court in Marshall, NC passed down a decision concerning the case. According to Judge James L. Baker, Jr. the Board of Adjustment’s decision should be affirmed and the request for relief on the part of the Cottom’s – denied. According to Judge Baker, the board fulfilled their obligation and the court indeed affirmed the permit denial.

In one of my conversations with Lenny Cottom he made the comment that while there were some 700 residents of the mountain, only 15 to 20 were members of the golf club. He added, "There’s just a lot more of a draw during the winter and we’re wanting to provide a competitive and improved product."

The Cottoms’ proposal called for the expansion of the ski resort down into what used to be part of the golf course. Surprisingly, property zoning is NOT the issue because the proposal to expand was for expansion of the recreational use of the property already zoned "recreational".  As the proposal was presented, their plans would have made it such that Hawksnest would have had one of the longest trails in the entire Southeast and Mid Atlantic. Expansion plans called for the addition of a 2000′ quad chairlift, construction of a 7,200 square foot lodge building and the addition of two large parking lots for 1,150 cars.  Included within the plans was the development of an even longer and safer snow tubing area. The proposed expansion would stay within the Cottoms’ land and would end up costing a bit more than $2.5 million.

In a rather petty move in March, the Town of Seven Devils Board of Adjustment voted 6 to 1 that the application for the Special Use Permit was "incomplete". They added that the proposed use "would be located, designed and/or operated in a way that would ENDANGER the public health, safety or general welfare of the town."

Huh?  I repeat, HUH!?!  They cited increased traffic and police duties that the expanded ski slope would create as the source of the endangerment. They voted that the proposed use would "seriously interfere with the existing uses on adjacent properties".

They threw in some other votes against it…but the kicker was a 7 to 0 vote that the proposed use would "not be in general conformity with the town’s Vision Statement, citing that expanding the ski area would negatively impact the beauty of the setting and thereby change the character of the area".

In my humble opinion, some of the "character of the area" NEEDS to change. What is crazy about the entire issue is that I have had conversations with MANY people (including residents of Seven Devils) who ALL have stated that the Cottoms needed to spend some money up there and make improvements because their "product" was becoming pretty poor in comparison to the improvements and continue tweaks being made at other area resorts, including Sugar, Beech, App, Cataloochee and Wolf Laurel. Has any else been seeing what’s going on over at Wolf Laurel!?!?

Some have argued that they wouldn’t want to see a "Snowshoe Resort on Seven Devils" I really don’t see a problem with that.  However it should be pointed out that $2.5 million won’t get you anything more than some much needed improvements.  What I find surprising about the Town’s continue resistance is that they instituted an Occupancy Tax in Seven Devils and formed a Tourism Development Authority (TDA) to decide how to best use the funds to "HELP DEVELOP TOURISM" in Seven Devils.

Let’s see…they want to develop tourism by keeping the ONLY TOURISM DRAW UP THERE from being able to compete on an even level with other area resorts.  How the heck does that make sense?

We personally work with many of the property owners on Seven Devils that have purchased vacation homes and they are all concerned about what happens when and if there’s no golf OR ski resort up there.  One such home owner (who asked me not to reveal her name) said, "I know of several people who are considering selling because there now less four-season draw on Seven Devils, and if Hawksnest isn’t allowed to do business on an equal basis with other area resorts, they may close up shop.  How is that going to help generate more ‘Occupancy Tax Funds’ for the town?"

She added, "How does a TDA claim to be working to increase tourism when they are seemingly against anything that Hawksnest wishes to do in terms of attempting to improve their product?"

I can’t argue with that kind of logic.  It should be said that I love the area up at Seven Devils even though it has changed a good bit with numerous additional condos, town homes and small cabins dotting the entire mountain.  I used to enjoy biking up to the top and hiking out on a few rock outcroppings to enjoy the views.  That was stopped by private home building, etc.  Now there’s no more golf up there and that is disappointing. If this trend keeps up who knows how much longer there will be skiing up there?  If you are not allowed to make improvements on your product – it’s kind of hard to find the motivation to "keep on keeping on". This observation is not one that comes from anyone connected with the resort.  As far as we know, they’ll operate status quo for the upcoming season.  We are making some tweaks to their website now and I’m sure that Lenny will work to make Hawksnest as attractive as possible.

However with the mentality that seems to be prevalent with the Town’s leaders…who knows how long there will be a Hawksnest Ski Resort? That loss would be a REAL SHAME.

Until Next time…

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