On Little White Oak Mountain, A Would-Be Neighborhood is Now a Public Park

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The new development plan includes Polk County's first-ever multiuse trail system built with mountain bikers in mind.

A mountain once slated for development is now being turned into a public park. The town of Columbus, North Carolina, originally approved the construction of 687 homes on a 1,068-acre parcel on the south side of Little White Oak Mountain, 40 miles southeast of Asheville, near Lake Lure.

The development stalled after the economic slump in 2008, and Conserving Carolina, a land trust serving part of Western North Carolina and the Landrum area of South Carolina, purchased the property in 2016 for $2.375 million. This fall, Conserving Carolina transferred 600 acres of the mountain parcel to the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission to expand the Green River Game Lands, and 300 acres to Polk County for a local park, where a 10-mile multiuse trail system is being planned.

“This is the upside of that economic downturn,” said Kieran Roe, executive director for Conserving Carolina. “The neighborhood was going to traverse some very steep slopes with some dense development planned for the lower elevations. Now we’re helping to create an amenity for residents of the county and maybe even a draw for visitors.”

The 900 acres of new public land extend from the ridgeline of Little White Oak Mountain down to Polk County Middle School and the Polk County Recreation Complex near Highway 108. The new land designation will help protect 13 miles of streams in the Green River watershed, as well as the endangered wildflower, the white irisette.

The 2,343-foot summit of the mountain is now part of the 14,331-acre Green River Game Lands. Although no trail development is planned for the game lands portion of Little White Oak Mountain, the area will be open to hiking, hunting and fishing.

The new county park, which covers the lower portion of the mountain, is slated for 10 miles of multipurpose trails. In addition to welcoming hikers and hunters, the trails will be the first built in Polk County with mountain bikers in mind, and officials say hope they will offer cyclists an alternative to popular regional destinations like Dupont State Forest. The Green River Game Lands has a limited system of technical trails that attracts expert mountain bikers, but the system at Little White Oak Mountain will offer trails that cater to a wide variety of bikers.

“We’re visiting other bike parks, like Rocky Knob in Boone, and Fire Mountain in Cherokee, to see what’s possible for the land we have,” said Jerry Stensland, recreation director for Polk County Parks and Recreation. “If we build this trail system right, we think it will be a real asset to locals and a draw for bikers from other counties.”

Stensland is in the process of writing grants to fund the construction of the trail system now. He said that if all goes well, in a year they’ll be accepting bids from local trail builders. The system will begin at the existing parking lot for the recreation complex.

Little White Oak Mountain in the background with red and orange leaves on the trees

Little White Oak Mountain pictured in the background. (Photo Credit: Ford Smith)

Carolina Conservancy is also conveying 35 acres of the property near Highway 108 to the nonprofit Housing Assistance Corporation for a workforce housing project. The plan is to build affordable housing, which is in short supply throughout Western North Carolina. Roe said that Carolina Conservancy is actively trying to expand their approach to community conservation. He believes this partnership between the land trust and a nonprofit housing authority is the first of its kind in the region.

“We’ve been trying to expand our support of other organizations that address other community needs,” Roe said. “Conservation is broadly popular across this region, but there’s a valid argument that the more land we conserve, the higher the value of the remaining land.”

The Green River Game Lands portion of Little White Oak Mountain is open to the public now. Polk County Parks and Recreation is working with volunteers to build a one-mile trail on the lower portion of the property traversing the 300-acre county park expansion, so the public can begin enjoying Little White Oak Mountain this winter.

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