There seems to be a brewing controversy over a piece of state legislation introduced at the General Assembly by Mount Airy Rep. Sarah Stevens, which would allow state officials to rent out Pilot Mountain State Park to a group of car enthusiasts in September.
Shelton Vineyard, owned by brothers Ed and Charlie Shelton, will be hosting the Vintage Triumph Register National Convention from Sept. 9 through Sept. 14. As part of the event, the Sheltons have asked to be able to shut down most of Pilot Mountain State Park for what they are calling a “hill climb” by the sports car enthusiasts, essentially allowing them to drive their cars up the twisting, windy road at the park. They have said they expect to reach speeds of 45 mph while climbing the mountain, far exceeding the statewide speed limit of 25 mph for state parks.
Thus Stevens, at the request of the Sheltons, tacked on an exception to that speed limit for this event in a large, catch-all bill that is a mish-mash of proposals as the Assembly session winds down.
Since this story began to emerge this week, all sorts of media outlets have jumped on it, alluding to donations the Sheltons have made to the GOP and insinuating perhaps there are some political favors at work here, or perhaps this is a case of those who have money and influence shutting the public out from a state park for their own, private little play date.
Those allegations, however, have been woefully short on supporting facts.
We don’t for one second believe the Sheltons called in any political favors to get this legislation considered by the General Assembly or to get the park shut down for their use. They are businessmen who have been very successful at what they do, and they have shared that success with their community, helping to promote the area, drawing an increasingly large number of tourists to the region, and providing good, solid jobs for a number of folks.
We believe they have the good of the community at heart and we think they believe this event will be another step in building the reputation of Surry County as a tourist destination.
What they are asking for isn’t exactly unprecedented. It’s not all that uncommon for portions of state parks to be closed for certain events, such as marathons, triathlons and similar activities. Organizations of all kinds often get permits to close public streets for parades, festivals, and other events that primarily benefit private business interests. So the idea that public land can’t be used for a private gathering really doesn’t hold water.
However, we do have concerns about the proposed event.
Pilot Mountain is a tourist draw all by itself. What happens to the families that have driven half-way across the state that day for a visit to the park, only to be turned away at the gate? What damage might be done to the roadway and park by the cars racing up the mountain? (Yes, there will be an insurance policy in place to cover any damage, but what if parts of the roadway are inaccessible for a time for repairs?).
And yes, this does set a bad precedent regarding the state renting out state parks to the relative few who have money or access to secure such requests, while leaving out the average state resident — the very people the parks are there for.
Although he was out of town and not available to speak with The Mount Airy News, Pilot Mountain Park Superintendent Matt Windsor made his objections known in emails to a supervisor, several media outlets are reporting.
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. And he questioned whether this would be setting a poor precedent.
Lewis Ledford, who was state parks director when the request first came up, is reported to have told his supervisors that he is not aware of other state park systems or federal parks that would allow for such a request.
While we have no doubt the Sheltons wanted to do this to attract more people to the event — which helps Shelton Vineyards as well as the area in general — we also believe we should listen to the experts — park officials — rather than politicians or private business people.
Those experts clearly say the event would be bad for Pilot Mountain State Park and set a bad precedent for all state lands, and we agree.
We hope Shelton Vineyards will withdraw the request and the Senate will amend the bill to exclude the legislative exemption to the speed limits.