What’s new on the plateau


Patrick Taylor Highlands Mayor

At the beginning of the new year, it is always good to look ahead. What does the new year portend for Highlands? Let me take a shot at predicting what needs to be done, if not this year, in years to come.

Mirror Lake.  I optimistically predict that the Mirror Lake Improvement Association will garner the support from the community and state to begin Phase 1 of the restoration of Mirror Lake. Beginning this initial phase involves the critical dredging of areas near the bridge. With external support the town could partner with the folks living around Mirror Lake to help restore this community asset.

STRs. After passing an ordinance last Sept. 15 limiting the proliferation of STRs, [short term rentals] some folks believed this issue was over. It is not. First, enforcement issues will come into play very soon. Second, on behalf of the majority of the board, I stated at the time of adopting the Sept. 15 ordinance that the board would review the issue of amortization, or the sunsetting STRs, at a later date. I expect these issues to be back on an agenda soon in the new year.

Full Time Fire Department Staffing. I predict the town will move forward in staffing the new fire department with firemen on a 24/7 schedule by mid-year without a fire tax increase for the next several years. Full time staffing will ensure response times of 1 to 2 minutes rather than the current 6 or 8 minutes. Another benefit is insurance rates should be held down because of faster response times.

Big Bear Pen Road. I anticipate NCDOT will begin work to pave Big Bear Pen Road from Upper Lake Road down to Chestnut. Rights-of-way have been secured and the design is nearing completion. The road will be widened to permit cars coming from both directions to pass without one vehicle having to pull over into the ditch. Several of the blind curves will also be improved. Some folks may be upset when they see trees, which are now in the roadway, being removed, but this project will improve safety and curtail the current heavy runoff of sediment into waterways.

Macon County Tourist Development Authority (TDA). This past year the town board has engaged with the chamber of commerce about TDA spending for tourist-related initiatives. I predict changes in the local TDA legislation that will be endorsed by a coalition of the county, chamber and town that permits a more flexible spending model to address tourist related infrastructure projects.

After School Program at the Recreation Department. With the demolition of the Houston House, our recreation department doesn’t have a  facility for after school and summer camp programs. I hope the board will begin plans to build a facility that addresses that growing need or partner with other organizations in meeting this need.

A Highlands Recycle and Convenience Center. There is a growing need to provide options for recycling and disposing household garbage here on the plateau. I hope Highlands can work with the county in addressing this long-term need.

Lessons of the Big Freeze – January 3, 2023

With “the big freeze,” just before Christmas, it’s wise to review and reflect. Highlands hasn’t had extreme below-0 temperatures in over a decade.

Visitors are now in Highlands year-round. Seasonal residents used to winterize their houses before leaving in late fall while not returning until spring. Second homeowners now tend to come and go year-round, therefore the house-winterizing ritual has declined. Many new homeowners had never experienced a subzero cycle.  The full water lines in unoccupied houses where thermostats were set very low to save energy was a widespread practice. On the other hand, occupied houses had thermostats turned up high to counter the subzero temperatures that pushed demand.

Highlands struggled to keep the power grid operative. Electric crews did a magnificent job of managing loads in extreme temperatures and high winds to keep the power connected, all amid the Duke Energy rolling blackouts. This cold event underscored the need to improve our electric grid to carry much higher loads.

As electric vehicles increase, there will be an increased need for electricity and an upgraded grid. Duke and other energy suppliers will have to significantly expand generation capacity. With concerns for climate change, I believe nuclear power generation has to be reconsidered as one piece of the emerging energy puzzle. Research suggests that small, safe nuclear package plants might be a game changer in meeting our insatiable demand for electric power.

The second outcome of “the big chill” is that the Town of Highlands and its residents will have to continue to maintain the water system. Maintenance will have to be done at the provider and user ends.

On Tuesday morning after the freeze, water plant operators could not fill town water tanks. It wasn’t because operators were unable to produce water, the problem was the unoccupied homes that had frozen waterlines were gushing water. The computer system that monitors tank levels began reporting alarming water loss data. Fortunately, folks called in to town hall to report homes where there was evidence of major leaks. Crews worked long hours turning off water service at the meters of affected homes.  Many residences and businesses will now need to make sure their water systems are upgraded to handle these super-cold events. The town will be working on a system to better locate leaks.

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