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July 24, 2014

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Originally published: 2012-09-17 12:05:24
Last modified: 2012-09-17 12:05:24

Blowing Rock land swap nearing an end

Blowing Rock is inching closer to completion of a land exchange that will give the town full ownership of its water reservoir.

When the deal is final, the National Park Service will give the town about 20 acres of Blue Ridge Parkway land behind Shoppes on the Parkway - the location of the reservoir. 

In exchange, the town will give the Park Service an undeveloped 198-acre gorge tract between the town and U.S. 221 South, sometimes referred to as Thunderhole/China Creek.

In making the trade, the town will be permitted to own, manage and possibly expand its water reservoir, and the National Park Service will gain a large forested buffer tract for protection and preservation.

Now, more than a decade into the project, the National Park Service is accepting public comment on the exchange and looking forward to the completion.

“It’s really nice that it’s coming to an end,” said Donald King, realty officer for the National Park Service. “Hopefully, we can get it done by the end of the year or so.”

The land exchange would solve a longstanding issue that has its roots in the 1908 death of prominent textile magnate Moses Cone.

When Cone died, the land that now contains the Blowing Rock reservoir was bequeathed to the federal government and held in trust until its actual donation in 1949.

During that time, the town was allowed to remove water from a stream on the property and pipe it to the town’s water system, even before the National Park Service was present there.

In 1955, the National Park Service issued the town a special use permit to construct a dam, creating the reservoir.

The informal agreement continued for decades before, in the late 1990s, the National Park Service proposed issuing a special use permit for the site to be reviewed annually, according to Blowing Rock Town Manager Scott Hildebran.

The National Park Service also advised that federal policy would require a water rights fee for the value of water taken off the land, he said.

“This situation was deemed unacceptable since the town would, in effect, be renting its water source one year at a time and paying for water the town had previously been granted access,” Hildebran said in congressional committee testimony.

The town and the National Park Service began working around 1999 to resolve the issue.

The only way to acquire property from the federal government is through exchange, as the government does not sell property.

So in 2003, the town of Blowing Rock purchased the large tract for approximately $440,000, with about $201,000 coming from grant money. The tract was specifically chosen for the exchange, Hildebran said Friday.

“They identified that tract of land as something they wanted in their purview,” Hildebran said.A bill authorizing the trade passed Congress and was signed by President Barack Obama in 2010.

Since receiving approval, the National Park Service has undergone its environmental compliance process and put final touches on an updated land appraisal, King said.

Staff also mailed information to adjacent landowners and is now in the midst of a 45-day public comment period.

While it might seem futile to accept public input so far into the lengthy process, King said that the comment period is intended to bring up any lingering issues the stakeholders may not know about.It also takes time to ensure that the exchange is going to be a viable option before comment can be accepted, he said.

“We don’t always know that it’s something we want to move forward with, because something could come up and change our minds,” he said.

Earlier in the process, the town of Blowing Rock expressed interest in having the ability to flood an adjacent area to expand the size of its reservoir, which would boost the available water supply and allow for economic development.

“We’re probably not going to do it right now, but it gives us that latitude,” Hildebran said. “We get to control our destiny.”
For more information and stories, see The Blowing Rocket.

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