Private rental of public parks? No

If common sense wins, N.C. lawmakers will reject an idea that would allow private groups or individuals to exclusively rent out public parks. Our neighbors in South Carolina and Virginia have said they would not approve such requests. In this, we should follow their lead.

But legislators are considering a change in state law to allow this move. The idea was prompted by a request from a group of vintage sports car enthusiasts who want use of Pilot Mountain State Park for a daylong “hill climb” on Sept. 11. The hill climb would involve cars traveling through a twisting 2.5 mile road in the park at 45 miles per hour.

That’s 20 miles over the speed limit for the park, and requires a waiver to be allowed. Two prominent Republican political donors, Ed and Charlie Shelton who own Shelton Vineyards, asked that a measure be introduced in the legislature to allow it. It’s passed the House and now is in the Senate clerk’s office.

The measure, sandwiched between new wetlands regulations and changes to protect plants, contains conditions that should be warning flags. One would require those receiving waivers to obtain liability insurance up to $3 million “covering personal injury and property damage that may result from driving in excess of 25 miles per hour in the State parks road system...”

That undergirds the warning from Pilot Mountain park superintendent Matt Windsor that the hill climb would be unsafe. The curving road was not built for such high speeds, he said.

Closing the park to the public could also jeopardize the mountain’s summit’s designation as a National Natural Landmark. It is one of 13 such landmarks in the state, and only 596 nationwide.

The legislature got involved to remove the speeding obstacle. State officials would have to approve the request for exclusive use of the park, and they reportedly are ready to grant the request if the legislation passes, with a $10,000 fee attached.

State parks already can and do close partly for some special events. But Molly Diggins, director of the state Sierra Club, rightly notes that this would open the door to exclusive private use of the park. Another group of car buffs have already expressed desire to use the park.

Said Diggins: “It is a precedent-setting permit... This really shuts the public out of their own park. It would appear to shut them out of the process with no public comment or opportunity for the public to weigh in.”

She’s right.

Advocates say the park hill climb would bring thousands of dollars to the local economy. But the car group has already secured use of a rural road elsewhere in Surry County if the Pilot Mountain permit falls through. So few tourist dollars are likely to be lost.

No other state park systems or national park sites apparently have approved the exclusive use of whole park areas by private groups. There’s no compelling reason for North Carolina to be an outlier - and very compelling reasons why it should not. This move should be rejected.