Watauga Airspace - Maintaining A No-Fly Zone

Lately, a High Country resident can't throw a stick without hitting a "concerned citizens" group. But such groups are certainly nothing new. In fact, the original Concerned Citizens of Watauga County was formed in the Eighties to combat that most creeping of menaces to a free society: an airport.

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A group interested in promoting more commerce to the region had proposed a county airport for the Deep Gap area in the early 1980's. At one point, backers were calling for a public referendum on the matter, but the state ruled that such a vote wasn't legal.

Watauga Airspace - Maintaining A No-Fly ZoneThat controversy was minor compared to a proposed airport for the Buck Ridge area near the Blue Ridge Parkway. The county paid for a feasibility study for the site on the hills above the Triplett Valley. In 1987, an environmental assessment was turned in to the county commissioners.

Supporters of the airport cited benefits for tourism and industry. Opponents chiefly opposed the leveling of another ridge in order to make a runway, as well as foggy and potentially dangerous weather conditions. Two hundred acres of hardwood forest would have been cleared, with valleys backfilled with soil.

The environmental assessment stirred up more controversy in the already-divisive plan. Sixteen homes were within 1,100 feet of the proposed site. A gravel extension road would have been paved. The report said, "It is unlikely that the proposed project will cause significant long term impact on water resources, water quality, or ground water supply near the airport."

What was likely the death blow to the airport proposal came when the Blue Ridge Parkway weighed in against it. Parkway Superintendent James R. Brotherton presented a 12-point letter, any of which "is sufficient to warrant our opposition to the project. Cumulatively, they represent a severe threat to the scenic beauty of the Parkway and to the visitor experience we are mandated to provide."

Brotherton wrote "The leveling of the mountain ridge and the filling of the natural gap (is of concern). The aesthetically pleasing views will be replaced with a pile of landfill resembling a landslide.' Based on an estimate of 240 flights per day, that would have meant "no Parkway visitor would be able to drive the three-mile stretch without viewing or hearing a take-off or landing." He concluded, "I feel that the tourism industry that is being encouraged will be repulsed by the environmentally insensitive actions proposed."

That opinion eventually belonged an insurmountable majority. Watauga still has no commercial airport, only an airstrip in the Bamboo area. The closest airports are in Hickory and Avery Counties.

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