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North Carolina's mountaintop homes stir debate

New ridge-top developments in western North Carolina create jobs, but they can ruin trout streams, opponents say.

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Nearly 5,000 feet high, Charles and Deborah Ericksons' ridge-top cabin is perched like a falcon's nest on a cliff face.

It's one of a rapidly growing subset of vacation homes called "ridge-top development" – where homes are literally bolted to the mountaintop.

"It's almost heaven," says Ms. Erickson, a retiree who spends half the year in these mountains, the other half in Naples, Fla. She has been drawn to the Smoky Mountains since she visited in her childhood.

The price range for these mountaintop homes? $225,000 to $1.5 million.

But these scenic views come with other costs: Ridge-top building may cause downstream water pollution and wreck trout streams by causing too much silt to pour off denuded slopes. Others worry that as rooftops, decks, and greens poke out from the ridges, this pursuit of the perfect view may ruin the view for others – and compromise the region's most precious asset: its beauty.

"These mountain communities face a dilemma where they've got an eroding economic system and the only choice is to take in things that are going to damage the environment and change the culture," says Charlie Derber, a sociologist at Boston College.

The western North Carolina mountains have attracted wealthy outsiders since the late 1800s. More recently, many of them have come from Florida, says history professor Chuck Watkins at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C.

Today, the mountains are seeing a "perfect confluence" for mountaintop development, as hurricane insurance costs have tripled in Florida over the last year due to the hurricanes and Americans are looking for more security post-9/11, says James Chung of Reach Advisors, a consumer research firm in Boston.

As the overall real estate market slowly cools, high-end resort development is booming, experts say. For example, in 2000, just over 500,000 vacation homes were sold. That figure tipped 1 million homes for the first time last year, according to Reach Advisors.

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