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Zipline attraction planned for Whitetop

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By Larry Chambers, Staff

WHITETOP — The Grayson County Planning Commission approved a special use permit following a public hearing on March 18 for the operation of a zip line ride in the Whitetop area.
Developer Lenny Cottom attended the meeting to answer questions about the proposed project that will be on property owned by John Doyle Hensley, near the Virginia Creeper Trail.

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He hopes to capitalize on the estimated 250,000 people who visit the Creeper Trail annually.
Zip lines are a popular form of recreation, in which people wear a harness and hook onto a long cable to slide down an incline between elevated platforms.
Cottom said he had operated Hawksnest Snow Tubing and Zip Line at Seven Devils, N.C., near Boone, for the past five years and it continued to grow as a sport each year. He said his operation is the longest zip line course on the east coast.
The Whitetop zip line ride, if approved by the board of supervisors, will be operated May through October.
He said Old Park Road would be used to enter the property, which is now used to grow Christmas trees.
Cottom told the commission, “I think the operation will be a nice asset to the community. It will provide between 12-15 jobs.”
The Whitetop zip line would be about .75 mile long, with the ride lasting 20-25 minutes. Cottom explained that the platforms for each of the zip line’s four legs would be staffed with employees who fasten the harnesses and instruct riders.
Cottom said the zip line will have a minimal impact on the site’s environment. “We’ll maybe take down a few trees,” but trees are part of the attraction. “The views up there are great.”
The cost for the ride will be $30-$35, he said. The zip line will be open to customers age 5 years and older.
Cottom told the commission the zip line won’t be something that operates for one season and then closes. He has a 10-year contract with Hensley and has invested “in the high five figures.”
Three people signed up to speak during the public hearing, but they declined when given the chance to comment.
Commission member Brian Walls said he was concerned about the medical care that would be available to anyone who might get injured.
Cottom said he had operated Hawksnest for five years, with about 80,000 customers per year. His customers have had only minor injuries, and injuries requiring an ambulance occur once or twice a year.
He said most injuries are to customers who don’t follow instructions. “It’s a lot safer than people riding on bicycles.”
Cottom did agree to encourage his partner and staff members to complete a first-aid and CPR course in case someone was injured. He added that Mount Rogers Volunteer Rescue Squad and Fire Department is about a mile from the attraction, but he didn’t know how long it would take them to respond in case of an accident since all members are volunteers.
Grayson Zoning Administrator Elaine Holeton said Cottom would have an office and portable toilets and wash stations, but would have to build permanent restrooms after the first year due to health department regulations. She said the business meets the requirements of Grayson’s Comprehensive Plan, which calls for tourism promotion.
After discussion, planning commission member Larry Brannock made the motion to approve the project as presented and recommend it to the Board of Supervisors for final approval. The vote was unanimous.
Also during the meeting, the commission worked on revisions to the county zoning ordinance, after being directed to make it “more user friendly” by the Board of Supervisors in February.
One of those proposed revisions, if already in the zoning ordinance, would have affected the zip line.  If the proposed revisions pass, recreation businesses and special events will be permitted uses in Rural Farm Districts, meaning Cottom would not have to seek a conditional use permit for the business.
The commission also held a special called meeting March 25 to discuss revisions to the ordinance.

More information on Cottom’s zip line attraction in North Carolina can be found at HawksnestZipline.com.