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Lake Warriors

Strong opposition forced changes in plans for a huge development near Lake Wylie -- but is it enough to protect the water?

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Clean water or great golfing? A lot of Lake Wylie residents, as well as citizens concerned about the environment and some members of the county commission, feel that's the choice the county is facing in southwest Mecklenburg. Duke Energy subsidiary Crescent Resources' proposal for a massive golf course community dubbed The Palisades has ignited a vigorous, well-organized campaign in opposition to the plan (including a protest march last weekend). Those opponents were able to squeeze a few concessions from Crescent, but not enough to make them change their minds. After last week's County Commission meeting, it's apparent that the whole project will probably be voted up or down by the Commission on December 11. Adding to the already contentious mix is the fact that if the County Commission doesn't make a decision by January, the issue will be turned over to the city. A NC statute allows the City of Charlotte to extend its zoning control to the Catawba River beginning January 1, 2002. Even if the County Commission approves the rezoning needed to go ahead with the controversial project near Lake Wylie, a fight over The Palisades' specifics could be a lengthy one.

Developers say The Palisades will be a picturesque resort community with a private golf course, nature trails, equestrian facilities, as well as retail and office space. Critics, on the other hand, say it's an ill-conceived development and, more than that, it's the latest example of Crescent's environmentally unsound practices and projects.

Current plans call for The Palisades to be located on about 1,500 acres near the eastern shores of Lake Wylie just south of NC 49 near the SC line. This is a largely rural and heavily wooded area that drains into Lake Wylie and is considered part of the lake's critical watershed. Crescent owns most of this property, which extends from Buster Boyd Bridge south to Snug Harbor Cove, and extends inland about a mile. The site would accommodate around 4,100 homes, townhouses, and apartments, a 200-acre golf course, and potentially up to 210,000 square feet of retail and 100,000 square feet of office space. It's the largest project ever considered for Mecklenburg County, and is comparable to other jumbo developments like Highland Creek in the University area and Ballantyne, south of Interstate 485.

"It's too big, it's too dense and it's too close to the water," said John Byrd, speaking of the Palisades development. "Resources that took millions of years for nature to create will be wiped out." Byrd, who has been spending time at Lake Wylie since the 1960s and moved there permanently in 1993, is a member of The Lower Lake Wylie Association, which is currently going toe-to-toe with The Palisades' developers.

"This isn't just another neighborhood organization fighting a shopping center," Byrd said. "We're trying to generate a movement that will allow the people who live along the lake to have a say in how the area grows instead of just a couple of developers and powerbrokers."

"I want my son to be able to enjoy this lake the same way I did growing up," said Todd Little, president of the Association. Little said his stepdaughter contracted two bacterial infections from the already polluted lake water this past summer. "This is very critical land," he added. "Developments like The Palisades are short-sighted and will do incredible damage."

Walter Fields, of the Walter Fields Group, a consultant on the Palisades project, has another view. "What's interesting to me," he says, "is that the core of the opposition (The Lower Lake Wylie Association) has lived on the lake or owned property on the lake for 30 to 50 years. But I don't remember hearing a giant outcry about water quality from these longtime residents until about six weeks ago. This project has been going on for a long time. We've had public meetings going back 18 months. In fact, the Steele Creek Residents Association has endorsed it. This didn't sneak up on anyone."

Crescent, which has partnered with the real estate development company Robert C. Rhein Interests, says development is inevitable in this area as the city extends water and sewer lines down NC Hwy. 49 as part of the ongoing highway-widening construction. Crescent says a master-planned development like The Palisades is preferable to allowing the area to take shape in a piecemeal fashion, subdivision by subdivision. Under current zoning, developers could build up to five houses per acre, which could potentially result in approximately 7,500 homes. A master-planned community, developers argue, would result in fewer homes, more environmentally supportive features, and also give the county greater control.

Nonetheless, residents, environmentalists and some county commissioners still have reservations about continued development on Lake Wylie, as well as the entire Catawba River (which was recently ranked the 13th most endangered river in the country).

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