River District to usher historic changes into Mecklenburg’s quiet southwestern corner

Dixie Grill owner talks about proposed River District

Dixie Grill & Grocery owner Peggy Smith talks about the planned River District development.
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Dixie Grill & Grocery owner Peggy Smith talks about the planned River District development.

It’s possible, likely even, to drive for miles down Dixie River Road in southwestern Mecklenburg County, through piney woods dripping purple wisteria, and not pass another vehicle.

If you do, odds are it will be a dump truck.

Big changes have hovered for years over Mecklenburg’s quietest corner, tucked between the Charlotte airport and upper Lake Wylie, and they finally landed this week.

Crescent Communities and Lincoln Harris announced a development that will cover 1,300 acres with thousands of homes and offices, shops, hotels and parks. In the same way Ballantyne transformed the farmland south of Charlotte, it will change everything.

The River District will rise in a rural community that is called Dixie on one side of Freeman Creek and Berryhill on the other. Its heritage is farming, but woods have sprung up to cover old fields and stone foundations.

“This thing they’re going to do – well, we live out here for a reason,” said transplanted Bostonian Peggy Smith, who owns the Dixie Grill & Grocery, where customers can order the Big Ass Bologna sandwich or redworms for fishing. “It just changes the whole environment.”

Dixie-Berryhill is a mix of modest, widely spaced houses and sprawling new subdivisions, mobile homes and lakefront palaces at the end of long gravel driveways. It’s congenial both racially and economically, neighbors say – “a sweet little place,” Dixie waitress Donna Johnson said, “quiet, quaint, but very personal.

“It’s not going to be personal anymore.”

We knew it was going to change – we knew years ago – but we didn’t know when.

Leonard Mauney, 86, informally known as the mayor of Dixie

Apart from its open spaces, waterfront and relative proximity to uptown, developers know that part of Mecklenburg for its easily eroded soils, many streams and steep terrain plunging toward Wylie.

Just north of the River District property lies an example of what can go horribly wrong.

As construction began on homes, Interstate 485 and a Charlotte Douglas International Airport runway, sediment flowed into Beaverdam Creek and then the lake’s Brown’s Cove. In less than a decade after 2003, silt filled the cove, stranding boats at their docks and infuriating homeowners.

“Brown’s Cove was the worst I’ve seen in my 36 years” on the job, said Rusty Rozzelle, Mecklenburg County’s water quality chief. “Sort of the perfect storm is when you have a drainage where a large percentage of ground is being exposed and it drains to a cove that serves as a giant sediment basin. Then all of a sudden people who live there can’t use it.”

Because the River District has the potential for similar problems, Brown’s Cove stands as the benchmark by which it will be judged.

Lake Wylie is particularly sensitive to pollutants, compared to Lake Norman and Mountain Island Lake. That’s because it has been developed for more than a century, has more treated wastewater discharges and absorbs the once-polluted South Fork Catawba River. Yet water quality, other than in the coves, has remained stable, Rozzelle said.

Brown’s Cove finally was dredged in recent months in a $500,000 project paid for by a state grant and contributions from the city and developers. Huge fabric bags holding more than 22,000 cubic yards of sediment lie ashore like beached whales.

“I think they realized that what happened to us was just wrong all the way around,” said resident Kimiko LeNeave, who pressed for years to have the cove dredged.

‘Foundation of sustainability’

The executives in charge of the River District development said protecting the site’s streams and the lake will be a top priority.

The rezoning plan they submitted reserves 40 percent of the acreage, about 520 acres, as undeveloped open space. It will include a 110-acre “tree save” area, trails and greenways, and buffers of undisturbed land around streams that are wider than those required by regulations.

The developers said lessons learned from past developments, such as the 1,350-acre Sanctuary in southwestern Mecklenburg, will influence their course as they build the River District over the coming decades. They’ll put denser development farther from the river, toward the eastern portion of the site near the airport.

Crescent and Lincoln Harris have committed to financing a water quality-monitoring program, to be administered by the county’s Land Use and Environmental Services Agency, that will provide real-time information about the area’s streams and waterways during construction. It will be modeled off the monitoring program used during construction in 2013 of Charlotte Premium Outlets uphill of Brown’s Cove.

Some of the most sensitive land, such as steep slopes that are especially vulnerable to erosion, won’t be developed, Brian Leary, president of Crescent’s mixed-use division, said this week.

“I think we have an opportunity to have a foundation of sustainability around the water concept,” Leary told the Observer. “We want to make sure that not only is the commitment to sustainability in the press release, it’s in the place that we build.”

That’s crucial, because 1 inch of rain falling on an acre of pavement sends 27,000 gallons of stormwater – laden with silt, bacteria and lawn chemicals – surging toward the nearest waterway.

Everybody’s resistant to change, but as you look around Mecklenburg County, this is the last place left for growth.

Patrick Tynan, who lives on a bluff high above Lake Wylie

“We have learned enough from a number of the messes on Lake Wylie, like Palisades, that we ought to know how to do it right,” Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins said. “One of the most positive signs about (River District) is that they’re keenly aware of what can happen.”

The 1,500-acre Palisades was among the big subdivisions in southwestern Mecklenburg that have washed muddy water into the lake despite what then were state-of-the-art stormwater and post-construction controls, said Jay Wilson, Charlotte’s erosion control administrator.

Erosion control practices and policies, as well as public expectations, have evolved dramatically in the past two decades, Wilson said. “We’ve certainly learned some hard lessons from Brown’s Cove,” he added.

Perkins said the River District will test, in particular, a 2007 county ordinance that requires builders to control stormwater after construction is complete.

Johno Harris, president of Lincoln Harris, said the River District will have the advantage of “a unique opportunity to see the good and the bad of what other people have done.”

New development within a half-mile of the lake, called the critical watershed zone, now has to meet strict standards such as shorter deadlines to plant earth-stabilizing grass and measurements of water clarity flowing from stormwater basins.

Such measures work, Wilson said, adding that stormwater exiting the Charlotte Premium Outlets mall site is cleaner than water entering it. “I imagine we’ll get some of the same commitments from the River District,” he said.

One major shift from previous developments, Crescent’s Leary said, is in viewing waterways and protection requirements as opportunities rather than stumbling blocks.

“We see it as an amenity, an asset,” Leary said of the site’s many waterways. “When it falls as a raindrop on the property and works its way quickly to that river, what happens in between, with the slopes, and the topography and the creeks, really gives us an opportunity to celebrate that, protect it, make it an asset – as much as previously over the last 40 to 50 years it might have been an obstacle.”

Potential trouble, Rozzelle said, lies in a repeat of the Brown’s Cove problem – streams crossing the property that drain to small coves on Lake Wylie. The county plans to measure sediment levels before construction to gauge impacts.

But it’s easier to get ahead of such problems from a single large development than a number of smaller ones, Rozzelle said. “They seem very interested in doing the right things.”

Changes coming to Dixie

Neighbors call Leonard Mauney the mayor of Dixie. He has called Mount Olive Church Road, off Dixie River Road, home since 1935. His brick ranch house is across the road from 45 acres his grandfather started farming at the turn of the 20th century.

Mauney, 86, is a retired maintenance superintendent for the U.S. Postal Service, but his early memories of the community are of muddy, red-dirt roads, a neighborly vibe and a farmer’s sweat.

“I said ‘If you ever see me here again, it’ll be with the two people dragging me back,’ ” he said from his front porch. “But after two years away, I was back.”

For decades Mauney leased farmland from Crescent, which owns about 1,000 acres of the River District property. Crescent has owned the tracts since it was created as a subsidiary of what was then Duke Power to manage the energy company’s vast riverside holdings.

The other 300 acres are owned by a smattering of individual owners, family trusts and limited liability corporations. The land is under contract or controlled by the companies.

Mauney doesn’t fret over how the River District will reshape his community.

“We knew it was going to change – we knew years ago – but we didn’t know when,” he said. “But I said, only worry about things that you can do something about.

“I think they say you can’t stand in the way of progress.”

The charm of a remote, waterfront setting off Dixie River Road outweighs the burden of a 7-mile trip to the grocery store that “can kind of be a booger,” said Patrick Tynan. His family built their home on a bluff high above Lake Wylie in 2000.

The retired Charlotte police sergeant first read about the River District on Tuesday.

“We knew it was going to happen, but I think it just kind of popped up on us,” he said. “Everybody’s resistant to change, but as you look around Mecklenburg County, this is the last place left for growth. It’s inevitable, and there’s good and bad with that.”

The good is that the value of Tynan’s home is likely to go up. The bad? Well, that remains to be seen.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo