Commissioners approve Dillsboro river project

This story was written by Tanner Hall, originally published in The Sylva Herald.

County leaders say their agreement with a local businessman to build an adventure water park in Dillsboro is virtually foolproof.

Commissioners on Monday finalized a partnership with WNC Outdoor Development, owned by Kelly Custer of Sylva. The vote was unanimous.

Plans call for an outdoor park on the Tuckaseigee River that will include rafting, paddling, camping, adventure courses, zip lining, and food and retail operations.

Officials say the project promises to pump millions into the local economy over the next decade. Tax revenues will spike with an additional 25,000 to 40,000 people visiting Jackson County each year, according to Western Carolina University-provided estimates.

All that stands in the way? Approval on a trio of grant applications: one to the Appalachian Regional Commission for $300,000, another, for $50,000, through the Golden LEAF Foundation, and $50,000 through the N.C. Rural Infrastructure Program.

The county wants to pair those grants with $447,000 of taxpayer money to extend water/sewer services to the site.

Officials expect to hear back on the applications within the next couple of months. All three must be awarded for the project to move forward, officials say.

“Both the Golden LEAF and Rural Infrastructure grants were recommended for award by the N.C. Economic Development Partnership, which reviews all projects that are considered for any assistance from the state,” said Jackson County Economic Development Director Rich Price. “This does not guarantee an award, but it certainly bodes well for favorable consideration.”

The deal attracted some criticism. During a public hearing on March 20, local residents packed the Justice Center boardroom to voice support and concerns.

On Monday, officials responded.

Equal opportunity

Commissioners’ Chairman Brian McMahan said he supports the project because of the potential economic impact – WNC Outdoor Development must hire 10 full-time employees as part of the deal – and, he said, the opportunity to provide greater access to recreational activities.

Commissioner Boyce Deitz agreed, saying that in many cases officials haven’t taken proper advantage of Jackson County’s natural resources.

McMahan said he’s faced questions about crafting what seems to be a sweetheart deal for one private business.

Other companies had the option – and still do – to propose projects that are related to economic development, McMahan said.

He mentioned how Nantahala Outdoor Center in February 2016 had intended to develop this same Dillsboro tract for a similar purpose.


The Tuckaseigee River bisects the Dillsboro property. Visitors will access the site using Mockingbird Lane to the south and North River Road to the north.

Traffic on those rural roads is a problem, local resident T.J. Walker told commissioners March 20 and again on April 3. Once the river park opens, it’s only going to get worse, he said.

The issue now has more to do with large construction vehicles than it does with density, Walker said Monday. Traffic picks up each summer, with loud trucks driving down community roads, using jake brakes, to get to other parts of the county, he said.

Commissioners didn’t immediately offer any solutions. The traffic worries will be ongoing, they said, and shouldn’t prevent the project from moving forward.

The N.C. Department of Transportation is reactive instead of proactive, McMahan said. Engineers aren’t going to address traffic problems until they actually arise, he said.

Commissioner Ron Mau said that both Mockingbird Lane and North River Road are on the county’s Comprehensive Transportation Plan, a list of non-highway roads that county leaders would like to see DOT officials make safer.

County staff is working with Dillsboro town board members on a separate transportation plan specific for the town.

Downtown Dillsboro

Residents on March 20 said they would like to see the water park connected to downtown Dillsboro with walking paths and trails.

Although possibilities are vague this early in the process, Price said the county will be able to make adjustments once Custer develops a more formal site plan.

Commissioner Charles Elders said he’s hopeful this project will bring in visitors and “help get Dillsboro back to being Dillsboro.”

The town serves as the gateway to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, Bryson City and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Elders said.


Roger Clapp, director of the Watershed Association of the Tuckaseigee River, said during the public hearing and on Monday that he’s concerned about sediment. Regulations for healthy water need to be met, he said.

Custer indicated that he would be willing to work with environmental groups going forward, Clapp said.

Others at the public hearing asked about last summer’s drought and fluctuating water levels throughout the year.

Price said the project has enough components – such as kayaking and retail – to remain profitable during times of low water levels.

Rafters will use the Barkers Creek access point, located downstream from the property and away from a popular fishing site, Price said.

Price spoke with N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission representatives about endangered species that might be impacted by the development.

The project won’t harm blue herons, which are thriving locally, or other wildlife in the area, he said.

Future use

The agreement with WNC Outdoor Development is for 10 years. Officials said they aren’t worried about what happens after that.

Custer would be allowed to change the use of the property; however, his options would be extremely limited, Planning Director Mike Poston said, because of the county’s industrial ordinance.

Price said he’s confident that the riverside property is protected. The county’s greenway easements are permanent, so public access won’t be restricted, he said.