Listening to the land

On Lake James, the closest neighbor to Crescent Resources' newest communities is the state's largest waterfront park.

And that set the tone for how the Charlotte-based development arm of Duke Energy Corp. designed homes and residents' amenities there.

Houses are mountain retreats featuring natural colors to blend with the surroundings, on lots ranging from 1 to 22 acres.

And instead of a traditional clubhouse with a formal dining room, bar and banquet facilities, Crescent Communities created Camp Lake James.

Forget the china, silverware and bow-tied waiters.

Camp Lake James was designed around a rustic summer camp theme with an open-air social hall, outdoor amphitheater and expedition center where residents can borrow equipment to explore the 6,500-acre lake.

Project manager Troy Lucas describes it as “a center of gravity” aimed at fostering a sense of community and spreading the message of environmental stewardship.

“For inspiration,” he said, “we looked to the great, old holiday camps of the early 20th century in the mountains of North Carolina and the gathering places and destinations established during the formation of the national parks system.”

Camp Lake James, about 90 miles northwest of Charlotte, serves Crescent's two newest communities on the lake. Old Wildlife Club has 100 lots on 525 acres. And the community of 1780 features 180 lots on 1,300 acres.

Owners in those and any future Crescent communities on the lake are automatically camp members.

The camp is an offshoot of a new development philosophy that conservationists believe could become a Next Big Thing and a national model for sensitivity to scenic views, natural settings and water quality.

Lake James straddles Burke and McDowell counties in the Blue Ridge Mountains near the headwaters of the Catawba River, which flows 220 miles, supplying drinking water along the way to towns and cities including Charlotte.

Set against the Linville Gorge Wilderness and the Pisgah National Forest, the lake is prized for natural beauty as well as water purity.

Crescent's shift toward a less intensive, more environmentally sensitive development on Lake James occurred after preservationists got the attention of Burke county officials earlier this decade.

Susie Hamrick Jones of the Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina, a Morganton-based regional land trust, said officials realized the lake would be in jeopardy if they allowed subdivision-style development – cramming as many brick houses as possible on waterfront lots and cul de sacs.

“There was not a lot of control in that old style of building, nothing to protect (the views) of the lake and nothing to protect water quality from the chemicals and fertilizers people put on lawns,” she said.

To settle the issues, Crescent entered negotiations with Burke officials, the conservation trust and other stakeholders over land use.

The county enacted stricter controls, from building heights to tree clearing, Jones said, but Crescent “really wanted to change the direction of their development of Lake James.”

To help protect the lake, Crescent also agreed in 2004 to sell nearly 3,000 acres to expand Lake James State Park to 3,521 acres and create a master plan in concert with the state's park development plan.

“It was a compromise,” Jones said. “A lot of people would have liked to have seen that whole north side of the lake totally protected, but I think we came out with a solution people are still proud of.”

Crescent owned about 8,500 developable acres on Lake James, of which 54 percent – including the park expansion land – has been sold for long-term conservation.

It has developed three communities – Dry Creek, Southpointe and Black Forest. When Old Wildlife Club and 1780 are completed, it will have developed 2,975 acres. It still owns 850 acres for which it says there are no plans.

“There is almost no land left that is not developed or under Crescent's control, and we know how it will be developed,” Jones said. “The lake will remain a clean body of water. There will be no high-rise condominiums.”

Both she and project manager Lucas say the driving force behind the conservation approach is Jim Mozley, president of the company's residential division.

“Look at what the land tells you to do – that's the way Mozley approaches it,” Jones said. “Don't just go in and mathematically cut it up into pieces. Look at the slope, where the water is, the aesthetic qualities. Build in trails and ways people can enjoy it.”

Camp Lake James is one of those ways Crescent believes people still can get a taste of the wilderness.

More than 350 people attended the opening July 4, and company officials say 100 to 150 people are visiting on weekend days.

The camp's expedition center has a full-time activities staff to help members plan adventures or learn more about places to hike or fish in the Lake James area.

And there's no need to own outdoors equipment. Members can borrow fishing rods, hiking packs, kayaks and canoes there.

Hikers can connect to the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail, which eventually is expected to extend to the N.C. coast, through the 1780 community.

The name of the community commemorates the year the Overmountain Men made their trek to victory at the Battle of Kings Mountain.

Lucas said he doesn't know whether another Crescent community will adopt the camp theme, but he believes others will apply Mozley's philosophy of listening to the land in designing a community.

And Jones said other developers are getting the message.

“People are watching and they are trying to model after it,” she said. “But more education needs to occur. In a lot of cases they are doing the developments better, but they haven't gone to the lengths Crescent has.”