Mirror Lake in Highlands was lowered to a trickle in this photo taken in April.

Board reflects on Mirror Lake

Town looks into laws regarding lake lowering

The water level on Mirror Lake may be restored, but the Highlands Town Board of Commissioners is still trying to determine how to respond to the decision by the Mirror Lake Improvement Association to drain approximately seven feet of water from the lake.

The board attempted to address concerns centering on the lake during its May 26 meeting.

In April, the water level in the lake was lowered to inspect sediment deposits on the lakebed to assess the feasibility of a dredging project.

Commissioner Brian Stiehler told the board he took issue with the lack of communication between the board and the Mirror Lake Improvement Association, the group hoping to perform some repair work on the lakebed.

“There’s times you do have to drain a lake, for whatever reason, and you work together to do it and do it right,” he said. “That’s all I’m asking.” 

The town wasn’t notified before the lake was lowered, and Stiehler said that made it impossible to determine if there would be sedimentation issues as a result of the action. Mirror Lake is contained by a dam with a release valve that allows water to flow out of the lake and into town-owned Lake Sequoyah. When the valve is released and Mirror Lake is allowed to drain, sediment can be carried out of Mirror Lake and into Lake Sequoyah. 

During the April Town Board meeting, the board of commissioners asked Planning Director Randy Feierabend to look into whether or not the property owners’ group had violated any regulations or laws in decreasing the lake’s water level. Feierabend reported back during the May meeting, saying there didn’t appear to be any legal violations.

“It turns out that they didn’t do anything that violates any state or federal requirements,” he said. “They could lower it — that’s the key word, is lower.” 

Feierabend said that had the group drained the lake entirely, it could have faced punitive actions, but because some water continued to flow through the lakebed throughout the process, it would be difficult to pursue legal actions.

Commissioner Amy Patterson said Highlands has an ordinance requiring anyone draining water in an impoundment to get a permit to do so, in order to give the town enough lead time to do inspections and assess turbidity levels in the areas where drainage will occur. Patterson said she didn’t think the technical difference between draining a lake and simply lowering its water level was sufficient justification for not informing the town of the plans to bring the water level down.

“It says very clearly that it’s to prevent release of accumulated sediment into the impoundment below it,” she said. “You don’t make your decision to permit based on the semantics of ‘are we draining, or lowering?’ You make it based on the fact that it’s a potential environmental violation we want to prevent. They might say they lowered it, they didn’t drain it. But they drained the top half.”

Commissioner John “Buz” Dotson said that regardless of state or federal laws, Highlands’ ordinance should not be ignored. 

“Our ordinance clearly says if anyone lowers or drains a lake or impoundment they get a permit, period,” he said. “To heck with what the federal government says, to heck with what the state says. This is a local ordinance."

While the board didn’t seek to take any punitive measures against the property owners’ association, Dotson said he didn’t think it was appropriate for the town to do nothing to enforce the permitting requirements.

“When people do that, I don’t think we should be looking for excuses to let them off the hook and say, ‘Well, we didn’t have it tight enough’ or whatever,” he said. “Once that lake level is lowered, you have acres of raw silt. The water might only be down seven feet, that silt’s still going down the drain. To say there’s no silt going through there is just asinine.”

U.S. Cellular tower

The board also finalized the language of a contract between the town and U.S. Cellular to build an 80-foot cell tower on a piece of land near the Highlands Fire & Rescue building. Negotiations with the cellular company have been going on for months now, but the town’s Information Technology Director Matt Shuler said this iteration of the contract has all of the missing information still needing the board’s approval.

“We’ve been working with U.S. Cellular to install a cell tower, or approve a lease for the installation of a cell tower behind the fire department,” he told the board during the meeting. “A couple meetings back, you approved the language of the contract, but it was absent final numbers. We sent it to all the contractors and got final pricing. This lease has those numbers in it now.”

The cell company will install the tower at its own expense, in exchange for 15 years and six months of rent abatement for its space on the tower. After that period is up, the town will receive monthly payments of $2,000 for the first four years, increasing to $2,300 a month after that. After five years at that rate, U.S. Cellular can extend its contract in five-year increments with a 15 percent price increase for each extension.

Chuck Burton, a lawyer representing U.S. Cellular, answered questions raised by the board during the meeting, specifically dealing with the costs associated with disguising the tower as a pine tree.

“The big expenses are, it’s a pine tree and those aren’t cheap, and we’re putting in a generator facility for the fire department,” he said. “We’ll be sharing it but we won’t use it as much. That’s an expensive generator.” 

The board voted 4-1 to approve the contract, with Commissioner Donnie Calloway dissenting.

“I’ve expressed some concerns about an 80-foot tower in town,” he said. “I know you say it’s going to look great, and I hope I’m wrong, but I can’t vote for an 80-foot tower in town.”

In other business

• The town approved official park policies for Kelsey-Hutchinson Founders Park, and also moved to include other outdoor activity spaces owned by the town under the same regulations. The policies have been fine-tuned over the past several board meetings to provide general instruction for event planners to use those spaces. 

The guidelines encompass tent structures, locations and density, as well as signage, street closures, permitted types of events and organizing groups. The board also approved race guidelines for running events like the Twilight 5K and the Run for the Park. The new rules limit the town to four  races between May 1 and Oct. 31, and no more than one in any calendar month.

• The board presented the proposed budget for the coming year, after several workshops to hone the town’s priorities down to a manageable list. 

The proposed budget includes $14,520,640 in expenditures and $13,387,536 in revenues, for a total budget deficit of $1,113,104. In order to maintain a balanced budget, it is proposed that $1,133,104 be appropriated from the general fund, water utility reserve and electric reserve fund. 

• Four budget amendments were made during the meeting: $4,300 was transferred from the police department’s auto fuel fund to purchase a box bed for the traffic truck; $5,300 was transferred from the same auto fuel fund to assist with the purchase of items using the remainder of the Governor’s Crime Commission Grant; $7,000 was transferred from the recreation department’s fuel oil fund to purchase banners for Kelsey-Hutchinson Founders Park; $2,000 was transferred from the maintenance and repair budget for the Performing Arts Center building to purchase panic doors for the Highlands Playhouse.

• A request to rezone property on Second Street from a B-3 zoning designation to a B-2 designation was approved, as the owners of the Park on Main hotel move forward with their plans to develop a hotel on the property with underground parking. 

The project remains in the early stages, but the rezoning has now been approved by the Zoning Board and Planning Board. The next step will be getting approval of a special use permit.   

The Highlander

Phone: 1-828-526-4114 
Main Fax: 1-828-526-3658 

Address: PO Box 249, Highlands, NC 28741
Located: 134 N. Fifth Street, Highlands, NC 28741 
Hours: Monday-Friday 8:30am - 5pm