Negotiating Local Land and Power within the Tourist Economy

Local college Student Martha Eberle provides an excellent analysis of the transitional nature of the Swannanoa community and issues related to the influx of wealthy individuals into what was once a quiet community of mill workers and farmers.

Negotiating Local Land and Power within the Tourist Economy:
Swannanoa, North Carolina
Martha Eberle
Warren Wilson College
Full Research and Analysis at


"Western North Carolina is fast becoming one of the most sought-after locations for second homes and vacation homes. People typically from Florida and the northeast are drawn to the area for its natural beauty and rural appeal. The real estate boom which is occurring here now has been compared to that of southern Florida in the 80s and 90s. In response to this growth, property values, taxes, and cost of living have been skyrocketing in the past few years. New developments are going up everywhere, but most often in what are called “steep slope developments.” These are developments that are built into the sides of mountains far above the elevation of the already established housing. In early October, plans to develop around 2500 acres overlooking Swannanoa with over 700 houses were approved by the county. This development is to be called The Cliffs at High Carolina. The announcement of these plans and the clear cutting of the mountainside have served as a catalyst for local people to come together and decide how they should react.

The economic situation in Swannanoa has been deteriorating ever since the textile plants began to close and the town went through a period of massive job loss. Local residents are now being forced to work jobs in the service sector, which do not pay well and often do not provide insurance. At the same time, the cost of living has been rising rapidly. With the new population boom in the area, many residents that have grown up in Swannanoa are having difficulty making ends meet. Despite major changes over the last few years, this development process is only beginning, and there are many local people still living in the small, rural towns surrounding the bigger cities in Western North Carolina. Some of these people have grown up in Swannanoa on land that has been in their families for generations, and some grew up there because they or members of their family worked at the Beacon textile plant (the largest in the region). ...."

The Newcomers

"...... Locals refer to them most often as “transplants” because they usually move to this area from the northeast or Florida. One person referred to them as “richers,” reflecting the vast disparity in wealth between newcomers and long-time residents. Some residents refer to them as “half-backs”: people that move to Florida from the Northeast and soon miss the cooler weather, so they relocate again to Western North Carolina. All of the previous names show a certain amount of disdain for this group, either by highlighting their differences from the Swannanoa community or criticizing their reckless use of money. As Jane said, “It’s not Yankees versus locals in Swannanoa. It’s haves and have-nots.” This is a perfect example of the separation between the locals and the newcomers. It is not simply about them being from another state, it is their money that truly separates them from the local people."

"....During another SPCC meeting, an older woman asked if we could use the nature trails that they are building at the Cliffs. Carol told the woman that she had already inquired about the trails, and they told her that outsiders could not use the trails because the development was gated. Essentially, letting local people in to use the trails would completely defeat the purpose of the gate, which is to keep the local people out. An older woman then stood and said, “There is a tradition in these mountains of letting others walk on your land and pick flowers- we can’t do that anymore..."

".....Although judging from the stereotype that mountain people are uneducated and backwards one might think that they had no chance at challenging the power of large developers, the people of Swannanoa have proved to be quite active in this negotiation of control. By creating a system where status is highest for those who have been connected to the land in Swannanoa the longest, the local residents are placing the newcomers at the low end of the spectrum from the very beginning. Through negotiating the use of space in the Swannanoa community, local residents can also gain some dominance over the “richers” moving into the new multi-million dollar houses. Some natives pit the newcomers in an impossible battle with nature in which mudslides will bring the houses back down into the valley. Others in the community have created their own autonomous neighborhoods through land trusts or affordable new construction in order to prevent their lands and homes from being bought by developers. Also, there are many residents who cite the benefits of high end developments such as the Cliffs for the town. Some argue that there will be more jobs, some say that the town will be cleaner, and some argue that Swannanoa, if incorporated, will be able to take the taxes from the rich and use them to improve schools, roads, or the environment. However, it is undeniable that these new developments will effect the current population of Swannanoa in very negative ways as well. Property taxes have already started to climb, and affordable housing is disappearing. These will be the biggest challenges for the locals to overcome. ..."

".....To the untrained eye, it may be difficult to see all the ways in which the people of Swannanoa are fighting to keep some control over their community. However, they are fighting every day through their language, conversation, and their actions to hold on to the things they value, including their land as well as their rights to work and own a home. It is essential for these struggles to be recognized so that they can be encouraged and so that local people, although they may not be rich, are able to get what they need on their own terms in order to continue living on the land that they are so closely connected to. "

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