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Lake Norman at 50, public and private

Soon after Duke Power’s hydroelectric turbines rumbled to life at Cowans Ford Dam on Sept. 30, 1963, the public laid claim to the new Lake Norman.

Swimmers eagerly paddled through muddy water that dyed their trunks red. Rural stores began stocking fishing gear as for-sale signs sprang up in waterfront developments named Moonlight Bay and Malibu Beach.

So began the tension over North Carolina’s largest manmade lake – parts public and private – that lingers 50 years later.

Designed to make electricity, Norman became the region’s 32,339-acre playground. Duke, through its land subsidiary, profited from development of its shoreline.

Local governments, meanwhile, let slip away early chances to demand more parks and conservation. And while state policy guarantees public access to its water, a lakefront that is largely in private hands limits those opportunities.

The lake’s future was laid a decade ago, when members of dozens of local governments, outdoor groups and environmental advocates began meeting to chart the next 50 years.

The occasion was the renewal of Duke’s federal hydroelectric license for the Catawba River, which feeds the lake. It was the public’s first real chance to sway what is now Duke Energy’s management of the Catawba, and so of Lake Norman.

Dozens of groups hammered out license terms with Duke over three years. The result – still awaiting federal approval – will be millions of dollars in new recreational amenities and conserved lands. And a new appreciation, by Duke, for partnerships.

“The problem was I think the local governments didn’t recognize (earlier) what a potential asset they had,” said Vicki Taylor, a lawyer and consultant for the coalition that negotiated with Duke.

“They didn’t step up and ask for land for recreation and preservation in the beginning, when Duke was narrowly focused on power generation. They didn’t recognize that the asset would appreciate or they thought, naively, that Duke just owned everything,” she said.

Duke does own most of the land under the lake. Under the federal license, it also controls the flow of water and oversees piers and marinas that jut into the lake.

By 2006, private homes and marinas occupied 60 percent of the lake’s 603-mile shoreline. Public recreation areas and marinas had just 1.6 percent. Duke’s shoreline classifications, while not rigid, reserve twice as much space for future homes and private marinas as for public spaces.

“If you don’t own a boat, it’s difficult to fish or swim on Lake Norman,” said Rick Gaskins, executive director of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, a watchdog group.

Lake Norman State Park, on the northern end, has the lake’s sole public swimming beach. Mecklenburg County expects to open a beach at Ramsey Creek Park, in Cornelius, by 2016.

Duke says the dense development around Norman wasn’t by its design. Shoreline classifications, it says, are intended only to guide intensive development to places best suited to it while protecting sensitive areas.

“We’re not trying to drive the lake to any particular configuration,” said Catawba relicensing manager Mark Oakley. “The reach of our authority stops at the high-water line,” 760 feet above sea level.

Beyond that line, four counties with zoning and other powers, and a half-dozen towns, border the lake. The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission enforces boating and fishing laws, while the state’s environment department monitors water quality.

Finally, the Lake Norman Marine Commission focuses on boat navigation and safety but also tackles problems ranging from aquatic weeds to toilet discharges from boats.

To property owners and visitors alike, the system can be as hard to untangle as a fisherman’s snarl. It can take a dozen permission letters and months of asking for a homeowner to dredge the bottom for a pier.

“They don’t know who’s who and what’s what, there’s so many players and so many issues to be considered,” said Ron Shoultz, the marine commission’s executive director. “The list is long and there’s lots of moving parts.”

The lake transforms a region

Gov. Luther Hodges, in triggering a dynamite blast to officially start construction in 1959, predicted Lake Norman would boost industries with a new energy source.

“People who lived around the lake didn’t think it would be much of an enterprise,” said Davidson College archivist Jan Blodgett, who’s part of a team collecting photos and stories of what lies under the lake. “For the most part, it was just sort of there.”

But something happened soon after the lake filled – a process that took more than a year – that would shape its future. Real estate values began to soar.

In 1963, when Duke owned about half the lake’s shoreline, the company leased lakefront lots for $120 a year. By 1969, newspaper accounts say, rights to the leases were selling privately for $2,500. Companies that sold lots for as little as $795 in 1963 were asking for up to $5,900 two years later.

Interstate 77 to Charlotte opened in 1975, slashing travel time from the city and transforming the lake from a weekend retreat of trailers and cabins into a year-round neighborhood. Development took off in earnest in the 1990s.

Tensions between lakefront owners and lake visitors soon erupted.

Six years after the lake filled, the Observer recounted, a homeowner outraged over fishermen anchored beside his pier shot their boat’s anchor line in half.

Over decades, the lake evolved from energy generator to real estate bonanza, recreation hotspot, public water supply and the hub of its own distinct region. Studies predict demand for Catawba water alone will more than double over the next 50 years.

“How could somebody imagine what it would be?” Oakley said.

But because of such pressures, the advocacy group American Rivers has three times named the Catawba among the nation’s most endangered rivers.

In 1969 Duke created Crescent Resources, its real estate subsidiary, and transferred 300,000 acres of surplus land to it. Crescent became Lake Norman’s major developer of waterfront communities, although Duke maintains it operated independently of the utility.

Critics have insisted it wasn’t right for Duke to profit from development of land bought cheaply and with the legal right of condemnation. The company, in turn, has touted its environmentally sensitive developments and thousands of acres of conserved lands.

Despite surviving a bankruptcy in which Duke gave up its interest, the renamed Crescent Communities remains a prominent development company.

“By spinning most of that property off to Crescent Resources, they managed to transfer some valuable property out of the entity that had some public-interest obligation into an entity that didn’t,” said Gaskins, the Riverkeeper Foundation’s director. “One impact was that it made it very difficult to get any of that land back.”

Duke and its public

Increased public access and recreation became a hot-button issue when Duke began negotiating terms of its new hydro license in 2003.

Like the public, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission expected more from Duke than when the original Catawba River license was issued in 1958.

“Our decisions have a lot of influence. But what we found in relicensing is that things go better with local partnerships,” Oakley said. “Our role and approach to managing these reservoirs has evolved with growing public interest and public needs.”

He points to Duke’s response to the searing droughts of recent years. Duke worked with municipalities that rely on the Catawba to create a water-conservation system and put it into effect years before the license was to be renewed.

On Lake Norman, Duke has built the 10 public access areas it promised a half-century ago and donated 1,300 acres for Lake Norman State Park. The company committed in license negotiations to improve an additional eight recreation areas over the next 20 years.

Catawba County credits Duke with greatly increasing public access on the lake’s lightly developed western side. Duke agreed to a $1,900-an-acre discount on the sale of 589 acres for what will become Mountain Creek Park.

“They didn’t really have to donate the money and they didn’t have to do it before they got licensed,” said Mary George, the county’s assistant planning director. “It could’ve got gone before they ever got the license – we could have lost that property.”

George just wishes the land had been preserved decades earlier.

Who owns the lake?

Vicki Taylor, executive coordinator of the Catawba-Wateree Relicensing Coalition, said the relicensing settlement tilted the Catawba in the public’s favor – although not as far as it might have. One of its key achievements, she said, was to bring together the lakes’ many interest groups for the first time.

The Lake Norman Marine Commission credits Duke for its expertise and willingness to do more than required for the lake.

“We consider Duke to be a great partner and work with them on a number of issues, but we also watch out for the public and make sure Duke is doing right by the public,” said Shoultz, the commission’s executive director.

Gaskins, of the Riverkeeper Foundation, grades Duke’s management a “C.” The company meets its license obligations, he said, but could do more as a true steward of the lake.

“I don’t think they’re horrible,” he said. “I think they try to kind of be a benevolent dictator, and so a lot of people feel like Duke doesn’t listen to them. They do try to accommodate neighbors.”

But sometimes, Gaskins said, no one seems to be in charge on the lake. He recalls a partially sunken boat, leaking fuel, that drifted down the lake for weeks last summer. “Things like that come up all the time,” he said.

So who owns Lake Norman?

“It really and truly does belong to everybody, and everybody has some responsibility for it,” said Rich Permenter, recently retired chairman of the marine commission. “The sense I get is that everybody thinks the lake belongs to them, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.”

Henderson: 704-358-5051; Twitter: @bhender
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