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Neighbors reject Spirit Harbor plans

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By Ben Bomberger, Reporter

INDEPENDENCE — Developers are hoping to bring a 252-site Christian-based senior recreational park to Mouth of Wilson, but neighbors aren’t being very welcoming.

The land in Grayson County is zoned Rural Farm, and a mobile home park is permitted under a special use permit.

Spirit Harbor LLC approached the Grayson Planning Commission asking for a special use permit to be granted for the proposed park on 148 acres off Fox Wood Lane.

Citizens packed the house Tuesday night to speak in opposition of the development.

Independence Mayor Butch Reeves is one of three partners in the proposed development — along with Richard London and Joe Weddington — and is expected to be the person running the day-to-day operations.

Reeves began by telling commission members and those in attendance that the developers were at the meeting hoping to put several rumors to rest, as well as show the public what they have planned.

Reeves turned it over to Weddington, who said the project was something the trio had been working on since April 2008. The developers bought the land for $1.15 million.

First and foremost, Weddington said, the site would be a members-only site with annual leases for the camping sites for Christian seniors age 50 or older.

“[Spirit Harbor] offers a place to get away from cities and suburbs and get back to nature, relax and renew their spirit,” he said of the name. “Rumors have been going around that we are a cult. The name refers to allowing people an opportunity to refresh their spirit.”

Weddington said the plans include about 850 feet of frontage on the New River — which is minor considering the entire site has a roughly three-mile radius.

The site would be closely monitored and restricted and would be kept as natural as possible. The outside would look like a densely wooded section of the Blue Ridge Parkway with trees, rhododendrons and laurel, while the inside would look like a private version of a national park with campsites and recreational common areas.

According to a preliminary site plan, a four-acre bass pond would be constructed, along with a one-acre trout pond and a two-thirds-acre catfish pond.

Other areas would include a New River commons area, three wildlife habitats, a spirit center commons, Fox Knob commons and a winter activities area.

Weddington said the development wanted to locate in Grayson because of its natural beauty and remote rural setting.

“To clarify, this is a seasonal place to stay,” he said. “We do not intend for people to live there permanently. This is a campground.”

The 148-acre site would only be developed about halfway, according to Weddington, and the rest would be left natural.

He added that the development would also provide upgrades to the roads accessing the park, and that local people and businesses would be used as much as possible for construction.

“We will actually clean up this site,” he told those in attendance. Prior to the trio purchasing the property, he said it was a run-down farm. “It will be a community of Christians. They don’t want to mess things up.”

When it comes to the housing, Weddington said recreational park model cabins would be allowed. The company partnered with a manufacturer in neighboring Damascus, N.C., to develop the cabins, which are still considered mobile homes.

“They will come in on wheels,” Weddington said. “They are considered manufactured homes, but will be less than 400 square feet.”

As for the building regulations, everything will be handled as if they are mobile homes. Each unit will also be licensed as a camping trailer and will have its own title.

“The average age for owners of these is 58,” he said. “These are people who love to camp, but can’t get around in a camper anymore.”

All sites and amenities on site will be Americans with Disabilities Act-approved and the trio believes it would bring several benefits to the community:

• the community would strengthen the local economy by adding jobs, paying taxes and buying locally;

• residents will visit local churches, join civic activities and support local charities;

• some will like the area enough to move here permanently and buy land and homes;

• they will support the entire region by attending tourist attractions.

Letters Raise Concerns

After sharing his presentation, the floor was opened up for citizen comments.

Grayson Administrator Bill Ring noted that the county had received six letters — all of which were in opposition.

In the six letters, most had the same worries:

• added traffic on an already congested road;

• non-conformity with local land use;

• New River drainage;

• right-of-ways;

• public water and sewer

• people wanting to remain secluded.

Among the letter-writers were people from Alabama and South Carolina.

James and Darla Burke of Seminole, Ala., said they were “totally opposed to the project…” and “purchased our property to be in a very secluded area.”

LaMont Powell of Chester, S.C., is a landowner on Fox Knob Road and said he felt the proposed development is not consistent with the Grayson County Comprehensive Plan, re-adopted in 2003.

His letter also addressed possible light pollution: “Increased night security lighting at the proposed development will generate light pollution that will be detrimental to another asset enjoyed by many: the night sky.”

Commission's Questions

After the letters were read, planning commission members had an opportunity ask questions.

Chairwoman Marla Phillips first asked about water and sewer service for the site.

Weddington said the proposal showed a water system that would include six wells and a storage tank, as well as fire hydrants in the event of an emergency.

As for sewage, he said a state-of-the-art distributed sewer system would be used. Each one, he said, would be able to handle 60 bathrooms and is certified by the Environmental Protection Agency. The output would be monitored constantly and the water being put out would actually be cleaner than the water taken in, according to Weddington.

He added that the sewage system is one of the most “green” options available.

Ring summarized a letter from the Virginia Department of Transportation regarding the road upgrades that would be required. The letter said the 30-foot right-of-way currently in place would not be adequate to expand the road as needed, and that there was some concern from the department on the traffic and condition of the road.

Weddington said VDOT was going solely on the idea that it would be 252 permanent houses. “As a campground, [the road] is adequate,” he said. “We in no way intend to build 252 permanent houses.”

One of the letters also addressed the idea of not having adequate coverage from the rescue and fire departments in the secluded area.

Weddington said a licensed nurse would be either on-site or on-call at all times, and an emergency station would be set up near the office.

He added that the roads would be wide enough for fire trucks to travel down and that a four-wheel drive vehicle would also be on-site to assist with any emergency calls.

When asked how the development would ensure that nobody was living there on a permanent basis, Weddington said it would be in their contract.

“The contract will state that they cannot live there,” he said. “If they do, it’ll be in violation of the law… a recreational trailer is never able to be lived in [full-time].”

If someone is found to be in violation, they can be evicted since they are leasing the land.

Weddington didn’t provide the commission with a specific number of days and/or months a person would have to stay there to be considered a permanent resident, but said lawyers were still working up regulations to ensure that people couldn’t reside there most of the time, leave for a couple of days and then return.

In addition, the only units that would be allowed in the park would be those purchased through the company

“They can only buy from us,” he said. “We then put it on the site… we set it up.”

Those staying in the park would not be eligible for county incentives such as voting and could not have a mailing address at the site. In addition, customers would be required to get electric and phone services from Spirit Harbor.

“We’ve got complete control,” Weddington said. “If they violate something, we will pull the plug.”

Vocal Opposition

After the commission members finished asking their questions, the floor was opened for citizens to comment.

Helen White spoke first noting that she had experience with these type of parks and owns a spot in a similar park in the state of Washington. Although the cabins are said to be non-permanent living quarters, she has seen many turn lots in her park into permanent residences.

She added that it may not always be the older couple who owns the trailer, but the relatives who use the site on weekends, that could be problems.

Mike Griffin said about one-quarter of the proposed development borders his property and that he shared all the concerns mentioned in the letters.

“What I can say is, ‘ditto,’” said Griffin, whose family has owned the land for nearly 22 years. “We are concerned with the traffic, the road is punctuated by curves and dips… there is a safety issue.”

Thomas Smith presented the commission with a six-page letter of opposition and highlighted a few of his concerns during his three minutes.

Smith said he believed the site was entirely too steep to develop anything safely and questioned how the roads could be placed in the development without being straight up and down.

“I wonder how the water and sewer lines can be put in?” he continued. “It seems impossible.”

He also worried about the wildlife that lived in the area and whether they would be able to move throughout the 148-acre lot.

Smith also questioned how the land value would drop with trailers on it, saying they would do nothing but depreciate in value, therefore dropping the value of land for all those around.

“And since they are not residents, they won’t pay taxes,” he continued. “I don’t see any economic benefit to the county.”

After the meeting, Ring told The Gazette that the owners would in fact pay taxes on the property if they were parked there as of Jan. 1 each year. Not to mention the tax value the land owners would pay for the 148-acre tract.

Eldon Horton, president of the National Committee for the New River, said the organization was opposed to this sort of development. “We are opposed to any sort of development along the river. To protect and preserve this river should be the top priority of any county that it flows through.”

Patricia Devine owns 130 acres adjacent to the proposed development and concurred with all the remarks made in the letters and addressed by residents.

“What is seasonal?” she questioned. “There is a winter activities area… I’m concerned about the noise… I hate to see the treasure of Grayson County being consumed by 250 trailers.”

Richard Winkler spoke at the meeting and sent in a letter to Ring’s office. He noted that if the development was approved, he may consider developing his own land.

“If the development takes place, I could rent lots out, too,” he told members. “I could sell lots… much cheaper… after they develop roads, I could take advantage of it.”

In all seriousness, Winkler said if the permit was allowed, it would be a bad move on the county’s part. “Sure, they look nice… when they are set up, but a couple years later, it’s different.”

Teresa Paige was last to speak and asked if the land owners had been polled.

“I don’t want it there,” she said. “How can it be an asset if local land owners don’t want it? We are the ones paying taxes.”

Time to Consider

After completing the public comment section of the public hearing, the commission spent little time debating the issue before member Dr. Palmer Fant motioned to postpone a decision until more time could be spent thinking it over.

Commission member C.D. Hines seconded the motion, and it passed unanimously.

Unless a special called meeting is held, the commission will consider Spirit Harbor at its next regular meeting, Feb. 17.

Developers hoped to begin work in the coming months on interior areas, with the outside work beginning near the middle of spring.

The interior development will be done over a four- to five-year period, and all development will be done in an environmentally friendly way. “Green” construction techniques will be used for all areas and all utility and infrastructure systems will be “state of the art,” developers said.

“The basis for our park is nature as God created it,” Weddington said. “The responsible stewardship of this property is our primary focus. We want to build as naturally sustainable an environment as possible. Our design allows for enhancement of the wildlife habitat and will be done in conjunction with the Virginia state wildlife biologist.”