PILOT MOUNTAIN — A local businessman’s bid to shut down Pilot Mountain State Park for a day in September has raised concerns among park officials and drawn the ire of one state environmental group, who says it sets a precedent for making public parks private rental spaces for those who can afford it.
The issue began about a year ago when Shelton Vineyards owners Ed and Charlie Shelton approached park officials for permission to close down the winding 2.5 mile entrance to Pilot Knob to allow members of the Vintage Triumph Register car club to hold a “hill climb.”
The vineyard will host the Vintage Triumph Register National Convention from Sept. 9 through Sept. 14.
“The whole thing came about in January 2013, when (club members) wanted to see if it was possible to get use of the park,” Shelton said. “I told them I didn’t know, but (park officials) told us we could get a special activity permit and they would close down the road.”
State law, however, sets a maximum 25 mile per hour speed limit in all North Carolina parks, which threw a wrinkle into the plan, Shelton said. Car club members believe they will be traveling up the road at speeds as high as 45 miles per hour.
“When the issue of the speed limit came up, that required us to get legislation that would allow us to hold the event,” Shelton said.
Shelton then approached Rep. Sarah Stevens, who agreed to include a couple of paragraphs in a 50-plus page bill known as the “technical corrections” bill. The language has been included in Senate Bill 38, which is known as the “amend environmental laws” bill.
It was a move that has rankled leaders of the North Carolina Sierra Club, who say it sets a dangerous precedent in the state.
“If this legislation passes, it would be a precedent-setting permit that would open the door in all of North Carolina’s state parks and forests for exclusive use of the main attraction by private interests,” said State Director Molly Diggins.
She pointed to the language in the legislation, which reads:
“Notwithstanding any other provision of this section, a person may petition the Department of Environment and Natural Resources for a waiver authorizing the person to operate a vehicle in the State forests road system at a speed in excess of 25 miles per hour in connection with a special event.
“The Commissioner may impose any conditions on a waiver that the Commissioner determines to be necessary to protect public health, safety, welfare, and the natural resources of the State forest. These conditions shall include a requirement that the person receiving the waiver execute an indemnification agreement with the Department and obtain general liability insurance in an amount not to exceed $3,000,000 covering personal injury and property damage that may result from driving in excess of 25 miles per hour in the State forests road system subject to the conditions determined by the Commissioner.”
A separate section with identical language also notes that the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services may also be petitioned for a waiver of the speed limit.
While numerous media reports have said Shelton will pay a $10,000 permit fee, Shelton said that is not true.
Stevens said the permits will be used only occasionally.
“I presented this legislation and we put it into an existing bill,” she said. “We wanted to give them the authority to (hold the hill climb).
“I don’t see this as a precedent. It happens in other states and there will be limited use,” Stevens added.
She said bringing the group to Pilot Mountain State Park can have economic advantages for the region.
“We feel this is more about community development than letting them use the park as their playground,” she said.
Diggins disagrees, to say the least.
“If you look at the actual provisions, there are no limitations,” she said. “There’s nothing in the legislation that in any way say it will be used sparingly.
“This is a fundamental change in how state parks are managed,” she added. “Shouldn’t the public have some say before it’s put into play?
“This was done behind closed doors. Why isn’t the public being given the chance to voice their opinion?”
Diggins noted the public will be excluded from the event entirely.
Shelton said he simply wants to offer the car club the chance to see more of the area.
“This is not something for Shelton Vineyards,” he said. “This is for Surry County. (Car club members) will spend money when they come here. We just wanted to give them something special they could remember when they go home.”
Charlie Peek, a spokesman for the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation, which oversees state parks, said he understands some of the concerns voiced by Diggins, albeit for slightly different reasons.
“In our mind, this is a precedent to some degree,” he conceded. “And to a large extent, it’s just that, a matter of degree. We close down sections of state parks sometimes these days for things like marathons and bike races, but it may just be for a few hours.
“The public and the legislature have to make a decision,” Peek added. “This goes beyond an event for sports car enthusiasts and the need for this event. We have to have a clear idea how much we want to accommodate for an economic benefit. Those are the issues at stake. But in the end, the state park system will do what is decided.”
The legislation recently passed the House of Representatives and is under consideration by the state Senate.
If permitted the event will be set for Sept. 11 from 9 a.m., until 4 p.m.
Keith Strange can be reached at 336-415-4698 or via Twitter @strangereporter.