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GOP officials, donors eye Pilot Mountain State Park for ‘hill climb’

A twisting 2.5-mile road in Pilot Mountain State Park leads to the iconic quartzite knob that’s been a landmark for centuries and in public hands since 1968.

But buried in a bill now before North Carolina legislators are a few paragraphs that would let state officials essentially rent out the park for private use.

A group of vintage sports car buffs wants use of the park for a daylong “hill climb” on Sept. 11, a Thursday. State officials appear ready to grant the request, assuming the legislation passes, for a $10,000 fee.

The decision came after more than a year of hand-wringing among state park officials, including concerns by the park’s superintendent, state records show. They say it’s unprecedented to close a park to the public to such an extent.

Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration, meanwhile, signals that it will be receptive to limited private use of parks if it helps local economies.

“If we see the opportunity to do something for economic development in a rural part of the state, we’re going to listen to that,” said Brad Ives, an assistant environment secretary who oversees parks. “We’re going to expose some well-heeled people to a beautiful part of North Carolina.”

Key figures in the Pilot Mountain event were heavy donors to the campaign that got McCrory elected in 2012.

The state Sierra Club, which first raised questions about the event, called it “a precedent-setting permit that would grant exclusive private use of a state park.”

The club’s state director, Molly Diggins, said allowing the Pilot Mountain event would open the door to similar requests. A second sports car group also wanted to hold a hill climb at Pilot Mountain but canceled it.

“This really shuts the public out of their own park,” Diggins said. “And it would appear to shut them out of the process, with no public comment or opportunity for the public to weigh in.”

‘No political favors’

Sports car enthusiasts who will host the national convention of the Vintage Triumph Register for several days in September approached Pilot Mountain officials in early 2013, according to internal emails. The park is about 80 miles northeast of Charlotte.

One of the convention’s main sponsors in Surry County is nearby Shelton Vineyards, founded by brothers Ed and Charlie Shelton. The Sheltons, who owned construction and real estate development businesses, have for years been prominent political and charitable donors.

It’s not unusual for state parks to be partly closed for events such as the annual Assault on Mount Mitchell endurance bike ride at Mount Mitchell State Park. But speeding cars would eliminate the public’s use of the heavily-used road to the Pilot Mountain summit for the day.

There was also a second hitch, and that led event organizers to the legislature.

State parks post 25 mph speed limits. The old Triumphs are likely to charge uphill at 45 mph.

In June, a solution appeared in a bill on environmental laws that was held over from the legislature’s 2013 session. The provision lets the state environment secretary waive the speed limit in parks.

Rep. Sarah Stevens, a Surry County Republican, said Ed and Charlie Shelton asked her over lunch to introduce the measure. Stevens said she hopes the legislation will be approved before this summer’s session ends.

McCrory, who appointed environment secretary John Skvarla, got at least $32,000 in campaign donations from the Shelton brothers, family members or company executives in the year before his 2012 election, records show.

Ed Shelton said last week that he would “let the legislation speak for itself.” He said he didn’t use any political influence to make the hill climb happen.

“There were no political favors, I can tell you that,” he said. “This is more of a community event.”

Ives, who joined the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources when McCrory took office, said no political pressure was applied on the department.

Skvarla “is not even sure the governor knows this is taking place,” Ives said. “The governor’s office has had no part in the legislation.”

Risking a landmark?

Ives said the hill climb would be little different from past private uses of state land, such as the filming of 2012’s “The Hunger Games” in DuPont State Recreational Forest near Brevard.

A separate portion of the Pilot Mountain park, several miles south on the Yadkin River, would remain open to the public, he said.

“We’re trying to accommodate an event that we think will be good for that part of the state and will have minimal impact on visitors,” he said.

But emails reflect the parks division’s angst over granting the request.

Pilot Mountain park superintendent Matt Windsor warned that the hill climb would be unsafe, saying the curving road was not built for high speeds. He pointed out that the summit could lose its federal designation as a National Natural Landmark.

“This is a small amount for reserving a national natural landmark and keeping the public out. Any less and we start a troubling precedent for all parks,” Windsor wrote a supervisor last year as the division debated fees for the park’s use.

The greatest benefit, Windsor added last July, “would be to Shelton Vineyards.”

Last August, then-parks director Lewis Ledford proposed the $10,000 fee to allow the event. Charges for camping spaces, extra staff and other costs would bring the total cost to $13,729.

“We are not aware of other state park systems or national park sites that approve the exclusive use of whole park areas. (Both SC and VA parks have shared that they would not approve this request),” Ledford wrote Ives.

Records show little further discussion until July 10. Windsor reported that Shelton Vineyards official John Gillespie delivered an application for a permit “to close the park from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.” and a $1,000 check.

“I explained to (Gillespie) the current status of the state park road act and he said he had been told that ‘would be changed by the end of the week,’ ” Windsor wrote a superior. He put the check in the park safe.

Possible future events

Charlotte’s Steve Ward, president of the Triumph Club of the Carolinas and coordinator of the national convention, said the Pilot Mountain climb would be a one-time event. North Carolina hasn’t hosted the convention in 20 years and won’t likely do so again for decades, he said.

“Our argument to them was that we’re doing it on a weekday, not a weekend, and it’s not in the summertime so we didn’t think it would impact the public as much,” Ward said.

Even if the speed-limit legislation passes, Ward said, the nonprofit can’t afford the $10,000 use fee the parks division has quoted. The group has secured permission to use a rural road elsewhere in Surry County if the Pilot Mountain permit doesn’t go through.

Another group of enthusiasts, the Sports Car Club of America, also had wanted to use Pilot Mountain for hill climbs on multiple days this month.

After months of negotiation the club ran out of time to pull off the event, said Steve Eckerich of Asheville, the Sports Car Club’s executive for the central Carolina region. The nearly $30,000 the parks division wanted to charge helped kill the deal, he said.

The club held similar events at Chimney Rock, the formerly privately-held tourist attraction near Lake Lure that is now a state park, for 50 years. Those events ended in 1995.

In recent years, two annual climbs near Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in Robbinsville have added $800,000 to the local economy, Eckerich said. Spectators are encouraged at both, he said.

“It’s hurting the state of North Carolina” to deny the events, he said.

The Sports Car Club still wants to have future hill climbs at Pilot Mountain and at Chimney Rock State Park, he said, and is talking to legislators to make it happen.

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