What a Year!
2009 in Review—Part 1 of 4: January through March
Here we are—another year older, another calendar in the books.
On the weather front, increased precipitation lifted the High Country out of a drought, but heavy rains were rather burdensome for area farmers. Boone and ASU adopted campus and land use plans with a new focus on smart growth, while Banner Elk also began work on a new land use plan.
And the beginning of construction on the Highway 421/King Street widening project meant increased delays and traffic on that side of town, coupled with increased road closures of Highway 321 south of Blowing Rock as crews worked to finish that project.
With our annual Year in Review issue, High Country Press proudly demonstrates the breadth and depth of our regular news coverage and the hard work and diligence of our news team. From a feature on a local mail man honored for 30 years of service with no accidents to a breakdown of the Watauga County proposed budget, High Country Press not only dissects the big issues affecting us all but also highlights the small-town characters, personalities and heroes who make up our community. You won’t find this in-depth attention to local people and local issues anywhere else.
• CLEAN UP: A federal district judge ruled in favor of the state of North Carolina in its case against the Tennessee Valley Authority, requiring the TVA to clean up the coal-fired power plants that pollute North Carolina’s air. TVA claimed North Carolina’s air pollutants came from its own electric utilities and vehicle emissions, but the judge found that pollution from four TVA plants harms the health, economy and natural resources in North Carolina.
• PRICES HOLD: Late 2008 real estate figures showed that home prices were slightly above 2007 prices, but fewer houses and lots were selling, they stayed on the market almost 30 percent longer and inventory was up from 2007.
• RESILIENCE: In response to a crashing economy that sent ripples throughout the High Country, local nonprofit Mountainkeepers hosted a community dialogue on the question “How can we create a more resilient community?”
• STREETS: The Blowing Rock Town Council approved an overall concept for the Main Street Streetscape Plan for improvements to sidewalks, crosswalks, signage, utilities, landscaping and other features. The improvements will be constructed and paid for in several phases.
• HISTORY: A number of people from the High Country joined more than a million women, men and children from across the country at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to witness the inauguration of Barack Obama—the nation’s first African American president—on January 20.
• COSTS: Thus far, reported costs of construction of the new Watauga High School remained in line with projections. The $74 million project was on schedule for a fall 2010 completion date.
• ABUSE: The Watauga County Board of Commissioners submitted a grant application to the Governor’s Crime Commission for funding for a second dedicated domestic violence officer in the Watauga Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff’s Office Captain Dee Dee Rominger told the board that domestic violence calls are going up every year.
• KUDOS: The North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame announced that ASU head football coach Jerry Moore was among its 2009 inductees. Moore is the winningest football coach in ASU and Southern Conference history.
• POLLUTION: Following a late-December 2008 coal ash spill from a TVA holding pond into the Emory River, ASU scientists and Watauga RiverKeeper Donna Lisenby joined Tennessee Aquarium biologists to assess the effects on aquatic life in the Emory, Clinch and Tennessee rivers. More than 1 billion gallons of ash and sludge covered several hundred acres of land when the 40-acre holding pond failed. Fish collected in the area had ash in their stomachs and intestines.
• ANIMALS: The Watauga Humane Society announced plans to break ground on its new Animal Adoption Center in June 2009. The center will be located on a 13.8-acre tract three miles east of Boone off of Old Highway 421.
• DELAYS: The N.C. Department of Transportation announced that decreasing state transportation revenues would result in the delay of several transportation projects in Watauga County, including the Highway 421/King Street widening in Boone and the Highway 321 widening to Blowing Rock. The DOT estimated a $300 million budget shortfall in 2009.
• YUCK: Three cases of E. coli were confirmed in Watauga County as of January 23.
• BIRTHDAY: First Presbyterian Church of Boone celebrated its 70th anniversary on January 25.
• BOONE BYPASS: N.C. Department of Transportation officials told Boone and Watauga County staff and elected officials that the local municipalities need to select a preferred route for the planned Daniel Boone Parkway—a new highway that will bypass the congested intersections of Highways 321, 421 and 105—in the coming months.
• WATER: Several agencies made comments and recommendations regarding Boone’s proposed raw water intake project on the South Fork of the New River. The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources wanted a justification for the town’s request for a 7 million gallon per day (gpd) withdrawal capacity when the anticipated 2030 average daily demand was 2.75 million gpd. The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission cited significant wastewater and water quality concerns.
• UNEMPLOYMENT: For December 2008, the Employment Security Commission reported an unemployment rate of 8.7 percent for the state of North Carolina—the highest unemployment rate in a generation.
• REBIRTH: Hawksnest Resort in Seven Devils reported increased attendance in its first season since ending its skiing operations and opening a snow tubing park.
• CELEBRATE: The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, Blue Ridge Parkway Association and Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway announce plans for a yearlong celebration of the Parkway’s 75th anniversary in 2010.
• BANKRUPT: Charter Communications, a company that serves the High Country area with cable television, internet and phone services, prepared a bankruptcy filing.
• WISH LIST: Watauga County Commissioners submitted a list of local projects to the N.C. Association of County Commissioners for eligibility for federal economic stimulus funding, including the new Watauga High School, recreation center construction and improvements to Highway 421 and Old Highway 421.
• CLASH: Residents of a Queen Street neighborhood request that the town establish a neighborhood conservation district, requiring renters to file a residential parking form and display parking stickers on their vehicles. But others argued the proposal would be excessive regulation discriminating against renters who cannot afford to buy property.
• TAXES: After preliminary results on February 3 indicated Avery County had become the first county in the state to pass a land transfer tax, the official results revealed the measure had narrowly been defeated by a difference of 35 votes. The special election had a 25 percent voter turnout.
• RISKS: New landslide hazard maps prepared by the Southern Environmental Law Center identified 990 houses in major subdivisions and 321 vacant lots in Watauga County that are located on property where landslides have started in the past.
• DIGITAL: Congress extended the deadline for the nationwide transition to digital-only TV broadcasting from February 17 to June 12.
• CONSERVATION: High Country Conservancy celebrated 2008 as its most successful year for land conservation. The nonprofit preserved 703 acres of land in Watauga, Avery and Ashe counties through 15 separate projects.
• KUDOS: High Country Press received a North Carolina Press Association award for appearance and design.
• HEALTH: At a February media luncheon, Appalachian Regional Healthcare System CEO Richard Sparks reported a $6 million (33 percent) increase in charity care from 2007 to 2008 and $15 million in bad debt in 2008, an increase of 36 percent.
• EDUCATION: ASU announced a new online degree program for a bachelor of science in health promotion would begin in summer 2009.
• RIGHTS: Dozens of men and women gathered on the steps of the Watauga County Courthouse on February 12 to participate in National Freedom to Marry Day. Same-sex couples ceremonially exchanged vows before entering the courthouse to request marriage licenses from the clerk of court.
• GREEN: The ASU Center for Entrepreneurship hosted a workshop titled “Realizing Green Business Opportunities” on February 24.
• CONSERVATION: The Blue Ridge Rural Land Trust also reported its most successful year ever in 2008, in which the trust protected 2,780 acres of agricultural and forested land.
• GOODBYE: Blowing Rock’s historic and iconic Sonny’s Grill closed its doors after 54 years in business.
• CONTROVERSY: Despite opposition from the Watauga County Board of Education, the Watauga County Board of Commissioners and Boone Town Council approved the construction of a trail connecting the new Watauga High School to the Greenway. The school board said the proposed trail was too close to the high school and created safety concerns for students.
• COAL: North Carolina legislators introduced a bill in the House that would phase out state electric utility purchases of coal from mountaintop removal mines in other states. The bill would later die in committee.
• SNOW: The biggest snow of the 2008-09 winter fell on March 1, blanketing parts of the High Country with about a foot of snow.
• GREEN: The ASU Renewable Energy Initiative hosted an information forum about the planned installation of a 100-kilowatt wind turbine at the Broyhill Inn & Conference Center.
• WATER: The Town of Boone received a $600,000 Community Development Block Grant from the N.C. Department of Commerce to restore and remove sediment from the Winkler’s Creek intake dam.
• FOOD: The Maverick Farms CSA changes its name to the High Country Community Supported Agriculture and expands to include 13 farms and offer 50 shares for purchase.
• OPENING: Mélange Mountain Bistro opened at the Tynecastle Shoppes in Banner Elk.
• MOURNING: Former Boone Mayor Wade E. Brown passed away March 9 at the age of 101. Brown served as mayor of Boone from 1961 to 1967.
• CANCER: The Watauga County chapter of Relay for Life held a celebration and kickoff for its 2009 campaign on March 9.
• RESUMPTION: After a brief halt, the N.C. Department of Transportation resumed right-of-way acquisition for the Highway 421/King Street widening project after the project received $14.4 million in funding from the federal economic stimulus package.
• HOOPS: The Holmes Convocation Center in Boone announced it will present national basketball star Tyler Hansbrough and other top ACC players in play against a team of top athletes from Western North Carolina in April as part of the Carolina Barnstorming Tour.
• BOOZE: The citizens of Spruce Pine voted March 10 to approve the sale of beer, wine, liquor and mixed drinks in a special election. More than half of the registered voters in Spruce Pine cast ballots in the vote.
• UPWARD TREND: The state education department reported that the rate of school crime and violence in North Carolina increased slightly in 2007-08, but the annual dropout rate declined.
• ANIMALS: Grandfather Mountain reported a high number of Northern flying squirrels, a North Carolina endangered species, in February.
• SKATERS: Watauga County Parks and Recreation Director Stephen Poulos recommended axing a supervisor’s position at the Appalachian Skatepark and redirecting the funds to other programs.
• GOODBYE: Lees-McRae College President David Bushman announced he will resign in May after almost five years as president.
• HISTORY: The Crossnore School received notification that the United States Department of the Interior entered the Crossnore School Historic District in the National Register of Historic Places.
• TEMPLE: The Boone Jewish Community announced the purchase of 2.5 acres on West King Street by the Poplar Grove Connector on which to build a new synagogue.
• CUTS: ASU announces the university will offer 200 fewer classes in the 2009-10 academic year because of state-mandated budget cuts.
• HOUSING: The ASU Board of Trustees approved a plan to demolish the Mountaineer Apartments on Bodenheimer Drive—housing for graduate and nontraditional students—to make way for a 400- to 500-bed undergrad dorm.
• FIRE: The Library Pub and Restaurant closed its doors after a fire damaged the building on March 12. A Boone firefighter broke his leg while working to extinguish the fire.
• GREEN: Watauga County Commissioners agreed to lease one-third of an acre at the county landfill site to High Country Biofuels Cooperative, Inc. for a new biodiesel processing facility.
• WINE: The newly formed High Country Winegrowers Association held its first official meeting March 21.
• GREEN: The Appalachian Institute for Renewable Energy announced plans to launch a community-owned solar energy project in Boone.
• KUDOS: Watauga High School senior Will Barbour received the prestigious Morehead-Cain Scholarship from UNC-Chapel Hill.
• EQUALITY: The Boone Town Council added protections for gender identity, sexual orientation and creed to the language of the town’s Equal Employment Opportunity Policy.