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North Carolina's mountaintop homes stir debate

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The trend of mounting homes onto ridge tops also results from lax zoning laws, a culture that values property rights, and the skill of savvy resort developers who can easily influence local communities hungry for tax revenue and job opportunities, experts say.

"Ridge-top development is in part a geographical quirk of the Appalachians and in part [the result of the fact] that people are wealthy enough to actually be able to afford the high cost of construction and engineering that make it possible," says Mr. Chung.

The largest ridge-top enclaves in these parts are Wolf Laurel near Mars Hill and Mountain Air in Burnsville, N.C., but there are dozens of smaller developments in the North Carolina towns of Boone, Highlands, and Cashiers.

Here at Wolf Laurel, developers, including Rick Bussey and Orville English, have already built more than 600 homes and have plans for a total of 1,000 homes in the next few years.

"They're building the biggest town in Madison County on top of 4,000-foot ridges," says Gracia O'Neill, an outreach coordinator for Clean Water for North Carolina, a volunteer advocacy group that works to ensure clean water for low-income residents. By contrast, the largest town in the county, Mars Hill, has about 530 homes.

Some officials in the county have a different view. "I can understand people's feelings about too much development too fast, but ... the people at Wolf Laurel are doing some good things, bringing money in, bringing jobs into a rural county that doesn't have a lot of jobs, that isn't going to get any huge factories," says Hall Moore, a Madison County commissioner, who voted to approve the newest phase of development at Wolf Laurel. The per capita income in Madison County is just over $16,000.

Yet all the construction has an effect downstream.

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