A clash of cultures on Lake Norman
The following is an excerpt from Chuck McShane’s new book, A History of Lake Norman: Fish Camps to Ferraris, published by the History Press.
Twenty miles south of the Cowan’s Ford Dam, Charlotte was booming in the 1980s. After deregulation of the interstate banking industry, locally headquartered North Carolina National Bank and First Union battled to expand their reach. CEOs Hugh McColl and Ed Crutchfield competed to build the biggest skyscrapers Charlotte had ever seen. With every merger and acquisition, moving trucks clogged the Charlotte roads. Bankers, analysts and insurance salespeople from throughout the country moved to work in those skyscrapers downtown. Most headed for the south side of town, where an affluent wedge of large homes on quarter- and half-acre lots sprawled out from the city’s older tree- and mansion-lined neighborhoods. Subdivision after subdivision sprouted off N.C. 51 and Providence Road, farther and farther away from the city center. “At the projected rate, one-third of the county’s population will be living in southern Mecklenburg,” wrote county planners in a long-range planning document in 1985.
The Generalized Land Use Plan 2005 was about as exciting as its title suggests. It seemed destined to be one of those government reports that committees spend months honing and elected officials spend seconds filing on bookshelves, never to be opened again. Something about this report was different. Its guiding principal, “balanced growth,” seemed to resonate with those paying attention.
Development in Mecklenburg had been anything but balanced in recent decades. Southern and eastern Charlotte held most of the county’s population, and most jobs were downtown or in southern Charlotte. If the pace of suburban sprawl continued to the south, it would hop the South Carolina state line, meaning lost tax revenue for Charlotte and Mecklenburg. The land use plan hoped to redirect some of that growth to the still largely rural northern section of the county. Its plans included a new Interstate 77 interchange between Cornelius and Huntersville, on Sam Furr Road, for a projected “employment center.” That plan didn’t materialize as expected, but another part of the plan would have far-reaching implications.
A new sewer treatment plant had been built off McDowell Creek in 1979. The plan recommended $6 million to expand the plant’s capacity and extend lines out to the neighborhoods on the Lake Norman shoreline.
While the lakefront boom had reshaped former farmland, the small Mecklenburg towns a few miles east seemed immune to the growth. When construction on the new sewer lines began in 1986, fewer than 1,000 people lived in Cornelius’s town limits. Those towns saw the sewer line extension as an opportunity to grow. North Carolina’s annexation laws, until 2012, were good for towns like Cornelius. The laws allowed towns to automatically annex any adjacent area that had urbanized to a significant extent. In that way, it limited the incorporation of new suburban towns and allowed older cities to reap some benefit from suburban sprawl. So when Cornelius pledged to help pay for Mecklenburg County’s sewer line extension, the town also announced its intention to annex the commercial strip and new subdivisions west of I-77, in addition to a small rural area to the east of town, off Washam-Potts Road. If the lopsided nature of growth around the lake had not been apparent before, statistics revealed during public hearings on the proposal made that clear—the annexation would more than triple Cornelius’ population from 951 to 3,378.
Neither the handful of rural residents on the eastside nor the thousands in condos and houses on the Lake Norman peninsula were happy about the proposal. Though the annexation would extend water, sewer, police and fire protection, rural residents didn’t seem interested. Opposition ran deeper than that. Perhaps it was the thought of paying town taxes, or a sentimental connection to being “country folks.”
Clyde Goodson summed up the Washam-Potts residents’ opposition at one town hall meeting:
"We live in the country. We were born in the country and we want to continue being country on Washam-Potts Road. You are going to force us to change our way of life. You talk about improving our lives; we don’t believe that one iota."
The residents of the Torrence Chapel Road Peninsula off Lake Norman were more pointed in their criticism. Many of these residents were business owners or high-level executives at the new national corporate headquarters in Charlotte, some retired, some still working. These people were used to being listened to. Many were from other states with more stringent annexation laws and were upset by the very concept of involuntary annexation. At one town hall meeting in summer 1987, resident Winfred Ervin made less-than-veiled threats of a town board coup:
"This involuntary annexation may very well destroy the Cornelius you know. In short order, the Cornelius town board will be made up of lake dwellers. The first order of business of the lake-controlled board should be to change the name of the town to Lake Norman. It could be quite possible, Mr. Mayor, that this building would be sold as surplus property because the seat of power would be transferred to Lake Norman. We may decide to divest ourselves of all territory east of U.S. 21. We may opt to take everything north of Catawba Street and cede it to Davidson, and everything south of Catawba Street and give it to Huntersville. If you go through with your actions let me be the first to welcome you to Lake Norman, N.C."
The laws on annexation were clear, though, and so Cornelius, Davidson and Huntersville would absorb much of the lakeside growth in the coming years. The annexation battles revealed simmering tension between “town” people with roots in the area and “those lake people” who had arrived only recently. Some commented that the clash might be about regional culture. Many of the lake newcomers were from the northeast. Indeed, the first bagel shops and Italian markets to open in the 1980s seemed exotic to longtime locals. Drivers, they said, had become more aggressive. You could tell who wasn’t from around here because they didn’t wave when they passed you on country roads or neighborhood streets. The division was based on something much more—money. While some former farmers had become real estate moguls, the type of corporate wealth and lifestyle some lake dwellers brought with them seemed off-putting.
Huntersville Mayor Sarah McAuley summed up the feelings of the town people during a tense annexation fight in 1991. “I think they feel superior to the people living in Huntersville. I think it’s just a social status thing.”
A History of Lake Norman: Fish Camps to Ferraris is available at bookstores in the Charlotte area and online. For more excerpts, a book talk schedule and discussions about Lake Norman history, visit the book’s Facebook page.