BOONE – Nearly a dozen Howard Knob area residents and concerned citizens implored the Watauga County Tourism Development Authority to put the brakes on a potential redevelopment of the county’s Howard Knob Park.
The comments came during the public hearing for the fiscal year 2019-20 Watauga County TDA budget ordinance. Following the comments, the $2,158,032 TDA budget was approved unanimously without discussion.
The budget included $167,000 in infrastructure grants for the further development of Howard Knob. Watauga TDA Executive Director Wright Tilley said the TDA’s budget ordinance is subject to the county’s final approval, as will be the implementation of potential Howard Knob redevelopment plans.
A master plan for the five-acre Howard Knob Park, owned by Watauga County, has been in development by Destination by Design, a firm hired by the TDA for $52,000 in November 2017. The master plan was first unveiled in August 2018.
Phase one of the master plan calls for the development of the viewshed and active recreation areas. Features would include a new overlook deck and area, updates to an existing overlook, updates to the existing shelter and picnic areas, a natural playground, council ring, trail system, new kiosk, upgraded signage, bouldering sites, restroom facilities and a fence around the perimeter.
Local attorney Tom Speed, who lives on Howards Knob Road, said he found it insulting and surprising nobody had mentioned any proposals to him.
“We need to talk before competing with Sugar Top,” Speed said, referencing the mountaintop development in Sugar Mountain. “Leave things as they are or let people know.”
George Bartholomew, a Howards Knob Road resident who previously spoke to the board in February, said he was concerned and baffled that the board didn’t work with residents before developing the master plan.
“I have hope the board will do the right thing and pause this project due to the numerous concerns,” Bartholomew said. “I’m opposed to any budget with any expenditures for Howard Knob on it.”
Monte Green, who owns most of the property surrounding the park and around 70 acres in total in the nearby areas, wrote in a letter to the board that he was bewildered that he wasn’t asked to talk about the project, saying the project could affect his property value. Green tried to sell a 70-acre tract on Howard Knob in 2014, asking $3.7 million.
According to the Howard Knob Master Plan released by Destination by Design, a community survey done in June 2018 received 263 responses, mostly positive. A steering committee met twice in 2018 and a Destination by Design team made a public presentation to “more than 50 business owners” in August 2018, with the notes saying that the group “generally supported” the master plan.
Theresa Waldspurger, an Appalachian State University professor, reminded the board of the consequences of decisions they could make.
“While it would be profitable to cut down trees and add parking spaces, is it the right thing,” Waldspurger asked.
Carrie Furr said lives would be at risk with increased traffic along Junaluska Road and Howards Knob Road, saying that nobody besides residents adhere to the 25 mph speed limit and criticizing a perceived lack of traffic enforcement, a point John Councill also mentioned.
Trespassers were a point of concern for the residents. Furr said for instance, someone could trespass on her property late at night to look at the moon.
“I always see people beyond the fence (in the park), over the fence,” Furr said. “Somebody is bound to go over that edge.”
Turtle Island Preserve’s Eustace Conway spoke about his concerns on the environmental impact and changes to the viewshed.
“The impact of cutting down trees changes the integrity of the soil,” Conway said. “Try to spend money on improving what we already have, dealing with the runoff and the danger for people going up and down (the mountain.)”
The master plan has a line item budgeted in phase one for cutting down trees in the areas to create overlooks, add parking and expand picnic opportunities.
Jason Finch, who said he visits the park frequently with his daughters, asked the TDA to look into improving the restrooms in the park, saying the port-o-potties up there don’t cut it.
Erin Martin, a year-round Navajo Trail resident, wrote in a letter that the proposed bouldering area would lead to the destruction of ferns and ecosystems and shouldn’t be allowed in any capacity.
Tilley noted at the end of the meeting that Destination by Design has been revising the Howard Knob Master Plan based on conversations with the local residents, saying that a facility management strategy will be developed prior to implementation.
Another potential change coming soon would be year-round opening of the park. Currently, the park is closed from mid-October through April. Bartholomew said it would be a disservice to only have the park open half of the year. Many of the speakers said trespassers in the park are frequent during the off season.
Further, Tilley added that the county will seek to partner with the N.C. Department of Transportation to improve Howards Knob Road to alleviate residential and pedestrian concerns.
The TDA board voted to grant Green Valley Park’s board of directors $21,000 to fund the completion of the Eagle Scout Trail and widen the river access road from Big Hill Road to the canoe ramp into the New River to two two lanes and eliminate safety hazards.
Janice Carroll gave a presentation of the history of the park, saying that the park has become increasingly popular in recent years due to its canoe access and picnic areas.
Plans are progressing to build a new playground at Rocky Knob Mountain Bike Park, Tilley said, including meeting with the group that will do the manufacturing. The cost will be half of the originally estimated $75,000, Tilley added.