Park Service, Residents Disagree on Development

The National Park Service opposes a new development just outside New River Gorge National River, a West Virginia landmark. The Park Service fears the nearby houses will be an eyesore. But some residents support the economic development that new residents would bring to the area. Anna Sale of West Virginia Public Radio reports.

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On to another story about environmental concerns, though on a somewhat smaller scale. The New River Gorge is one of West Virginia's most recognizable features. It's on the state's quarter, a steel arch bridge spanning a lush valley. The National Park Service manages New River Gorge and it's concerned about a proposed development. A gated community with hundreds of homes is being planned nearby.

Anna Sale of West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports.

ANNA SALE reporting:

The National Park Service estimates that around a million visitors come to the New River Gorge every year to sightsee, whitewater raft, rock climb and mountain bike. But Tom Wagner thinks some of those tourists would rather not leave.

Mr. TOM WAGNER (Land Resource Companies): Everybody wants to be able to have that park feeling close to them. I mean, that's ours.

SALE: That's why his company, Georgia-based Land Resource Companies, wants to build more than 1,500 new home sites near the New River Gorge. The developer hopes to lure retirees, investors and city dwellers looking for refuge in West Virginia's rustic outdoors.

Tom Wagner overlooks a wooded vista from a natural clearing created by rock outcroppings. His company plans to build a campsite here, which he says fits its approach.

Mr. WAGNER: One of the things that Land Resource Companies specializes in is taking unique areas and then what we do is preserve the integrity of the natural environment that's there. And we accentuate that in our housing developments.

SALE: They'll do that by making sure homes blend into the nearby woods. They can only be 35 feet high and in colors that will fit with the surrounding landscape and the park beside it. There's also a rule against cutting trees within 100 feet of the park boundary.

But the National Park Service is still worried. Standing near a popular trailhead, Park Superintendent Cal Hite points across the park at a ridge where he says up to 15 homes could be visible.

Mr. CAL HITE (Park Superintendent, New River Gorge): I think we're only fooling ourselves when we say we're going to protect the gorge by putting houses in it. If you're sincere about preserving the New River Gorge, you don't build houses in the gorge.

SALE: The Parks Service has analyzed the park's view shed, that's the natural scenery and vistas one can see from within the park. Hite says as many as 80 new homes may intrude on those views, and that's just based on the company's first phase of development.

Mr. HEIGHT: Our recommendation is simple, keep those lots that are proposed inside the gorge and adjacent to the gorge where they can be viewed, outside. Relocate them or eliminate them. It's far more important in our view, and I think a lot of people share this view locally and statewide and certainly nationwide, that this gorge was set aside by the American people for protection.

SALE: So although the development would all be outside the park's boundary on private land, Superintendent Hite said it's part of his job to protect that land, too, because it impacts the vistas visitors see from within the park.

Mr. HEIGHT: People who go to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park or the Grand Canyon and Mount Rainier, I don't think they go there with a vision in their head that let's go to that park so we can see some housing developments.

SALE: But some locals say the federal government should stay out of it.

Mr. DAVE ARNOLD (West Virginia Resident): I'm a believer in private land rights.

SALE: Dave Arnold owns a whitewater rafting company. His restaurant's deck overlooks the gorge and it comes closer to the park boundary than any of the developers' proposed lots. But as he looks down on the New River below, Arnold says the restaurant blends in, making it an asset not an eyesore.

Mr. ARNOLD: We'll take our half-millionth guest down the river this year. I have never had anyone come through the gorge and say, oh, that's awful up there. The rafting customer, I really don't think, will say I'm not coming here. I saw a nice house on the rim.

SALE: And no matter how his customers respond, Arnold says tourism alone can't sustain the local economy, where unemployment is higher than the state's average.

Mr. ARNOLD: It has to be a diversified economy. And if there's a billion dollar infusion here that creates work for people and tax base, then when I think about billion dollar projects, I think homes are something I would like to see.

SALE: But seeing those homes in the gorge concerns others. Four conservation groups, including the National Parks Conservation Association, have filed a lawsuit to challenge the development. As Dave Arnold sees it, the community must decide on its relationship to the New River Gorge.

Mr. ARNOLD: Is it an incubator, but it's also preserved? Or is it a wilderness area that nothing should ever be touched?

SALE: And this just the first time the community will face that question. Two more developments are being planned along the New River Gorge.

For NPR News, I'm Anna Sale.

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