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County concedes it can't regulate mountain bike park

A mountain bike park that had stirred opposition from some neighboring landowners in Green River can go forward without a rezoning under Henderson County land-use code.

Henderson County Attorney Russ Burrell, the county’s zoning administrator and its director of business and community development all conceded the point after an attorney for the developer wrote a letter justifying the use as agritourism, which under state law is exempt from zoning.

Dave LaMond, a physician and mountain bike enthusiast who developed Ride Kanuga Bike Park, wants to open Ride Rock Creek on a 326-acre tract of forest land off of West Rock Creek Road

The Zoning Board of Adjustment postponed a hearing on LaMond’s request for special-use permits to allow the bike park and RV camping area on June 29 because neighboring landowners had just hired an attorney, Lucy Massagee, a few days before.

The next day, LaMond’s attorney, Brian Gulden, laid out in an email to county Zoning Administrator Matt Champion the reasons why the bike park was exempt from county zoning regulations. Gulden confirmed that a longstanding forestry management remained in place for the land along with so-called present-use value, a county tax office-authorized tax deferral for farmland.

The proposed use is a permitted “bona fide farm purpose” under state law, Gulden said. “Agritourism means any activity carried out on a farm or ranch” that allows the public “to enjoy rural activities, including natural attractions, regardless of whether or not the participant paid to participate.” Although state law doesn’t define “rural activities,” case law has interpreted them to mean “activities related to the countryside rather than the town,” Gulden said.

Once the attorney pointed out that the forestry plan and present-use value were in place, the county’s zoning administrator and the county attorney, Russ Burrell, agreed that the county had no zoning authority to regulate the bike park. Champion issued a zoning determination letter that concluded the mountain bike park “falls within ‘agritourism’ under the bona fide farm classification and therefore is exempt from zoning regulations by Henderson County.”

LaMond said he’s moving ahead with trail design and hoping to welcome riders in the fall.

“We're going to essentially operate under agritourism, which would mean that we're going to develop the land for and maintain  and create trails for mountain biking,” he said. “Right now, as far as a formal RV park, we're not planning on doing that. … The county is able to kind of gracefully exit from the conversation and we're able to accomplish our goals through agritourism.”

'We didn't have a fighting chance to stop it'

Melissa “Missy” Shealy, one of the neighboring homeowners who had opposed the development, was relieved that LaMond had dropped the RV park, which neighbors feared would lead to traffic and noise.

“It's just going to be a bike park,” she said. “We're being told that if he has any events, over 250 people, he has to get a special permit through the county in order to do that. What we don't know is if there's any kind of limit, if he can pull a permit to do an event every two weeks. We don't know what that's going to be like.”

“We don't like it but basically we've been told by the county there's nothing we can do,” she said.

Shealy and her neighbors have been questioning the county’s neutrality in its treatment of the development. The reason: the county Tourism Development Authority authorized a $71,000 grant for the bike park.

“We honestly feel this was pushed through by the county,” Shealy said. “We didn't really have a fighting chance to actually stop it.”

Todd said in an interview he wasn’t even aware of the tourism grant.

“There is nothing for me to believe that any sort of funds would have impacted the decision on the legality of the application of this project,” he said. “We treat every applicant under the letter of the law and with fairness across the board.”

TDA: Grant applications closely vetted

Michelle Owens, the TDA’s executive director, said the board had recently made the tourism grant review process more rigorous. The board awarded $500,000 in grants out of around $1.5 million requested, she said. LaMond requested $500,000 and received $71,000.

Each application was reviewed by a grants committee for its compliance with state law and local policy, she said.

“Our role is to understand what we can legally fund and to help guide them and make use of our dollars to help grow tourism in ways that are good for Henderson County,” she said. “That’s the goal for everything we do. What the committee decided and the board agreed with their vote that this project would make good use of this property and be good for tourism in Henderson County. They take it very seriously.”

Like all grant recipients, LaMond has to carry out the development as outlined in a contract between him and the TDA. Eliminating the RV park, Owens said, would not be a reason to second-guess the grant, although she said the TDA may review the revised site plan.

“As long as he is within compliance, the contract that we have with him makes sure this project is happening in the manner in which he said it was going to happen,” she said.

‘Not like it’s going to be a zoo’

LaMond said plans are under way to design trails, create a new entrance, make sure that trout streams are protected and update the forest management plan.

“So we'll kind of get to work on trail design and development and we'll probably break ground in the fall and then hopefully have some riding come fall,” he said.

As far as harvesting timber, “Our goal is really to not clear-cut,” he said.  “We've been working on less clear-cut less invasive methodology, what I would call selective harvest. We would do it in conjunction with trail building, so we're not clear cutting any land out there. That's the goal.”

He said the bike park won’t be disruptive to the sparsely populated community.

“There'll be a handful — not like every weekend — it'll be a handful of events throughout the year, maybe a half dozen, that’ll be appropriately coordinated with folks in the county, proper permits pulled and all that. So it's not like it's going to be a zoo down there every weekend. I want to try to reassure the community and the neighbors. I want them to feel good about it.”

Shealy is one of the neighbors LaMond hopes will accept the bikes racing through the woods.

“As long as he abides by what his plan is we welcome him to the neighborhood,” she said. “As long as that's truly what's going to happen we'll greet him in the same neighborly way we do everyone.”