Current fight in McLemore Cove reminiscent of 30 years ago

The development man cheered for the new project in the valley.

"It's going to increase our county tax base substantially," Fred Henry said in March 1987, according to newspaper archives. He was the LaFayette, Georgia, Development Authority's chairman and the Walker County Development Authority's secretary-treasurer.

He continued: "We exert great excitement when we land an industry that's going to employ 100 people.

"We feel for the people in Cedar Grove. But you've got to bear in mind, they contend 100 families will be displaced. Oglethorpe Power says 32. But suppose it was 100 families — or 500 families. The county population is 56,000."

In about two weeks, Henry knew at the time, Oglethorpe Power was scheduled to announce the site of its new pump storage plant, designed to support electricity during peak hours. McLemore Cove was one of three finalists.

About 100 residents of McLemore Cove, located in the valley where Lookout and Pigeon mountains meet, were angry.

Sound familiar?

Last week, the McLemore Cove Preservation Society filed a lawsuit in Walker County Superior Court, trying to block the opening of a chicken plant in their community.

They argue such a development is a nuisance. It brings light pollution. It brings heavy traffic. It brings foul smells.

The business deal is not official. In fact, it might not even be in the works. Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield and Economic and Community Development Director Robert Wardlaw have not confirmed or denied whether they are in negotiations with a chicken company. A spokesman for Pilgrim's Pride, the company cited in the lawsuit, has declined to comment.

In the meantime, Whitfield is angry. He posted a video on the county's Facebook page Thursday, making some of the same arguments Henry did 30 years ago. The county needs more tax revenue. Residents need more job opportunities.

"If you know any of these individuals that are members of this once proud preservation society," he said, "please encourage them to join all of us in creating long-term sustainable solutions to the common needs."

There is a key difference between then and now: Oglethorpe Power's plan would have displaced members of the community. A chicken plant will not.

Still, some members of the nonprofit preservation society believe a looming business deal would harm the cove. Of that group, some were around for the fight 30 years ago. They think they can win again.

'NO PUMP STORAGE'

Oglethorpe Power, one of the country's largest electrical power co-ops, wanted to build a pumped storage plant similar to TVA's facility at Raccoon Mountain. It planned to invest about $900 million, according to Times Free Press archives. The site would require about 2,100 acres.

Company officials considered the cove, along with sites near Rising Fawn and Pickens County. They planned to build two reservoirs: One in the valley and one on the mountain. They would pump water back and forth. During peak electricity hours, they would dump water from the mountain reservoir through generators.

As news of the plan spread, residents John Webb and Vera Coulter organized the Concerned Citizens of Cedar Grove in the spring of 1986. They met every Saturday, discussing strategies for how to resist the development.

Rick Owens, a newspaper photographer at the time who was building a house on South Cedar Lane, said representatives from Oglethorpe Power warned him that his construction might be in vain. The area around his property would be the company's reservoir. And his own land? An office. They expected to remove at least 30 families. (If they did build in the cove, a spokesman said, property owners would be adequately compensated.)

Owens didn't take the warning seriously. He had hitchhiked through the country, slept under bushes, joined a commune in Oregon. When he visited the property in the cove, he heard thunder bouncing between the two mountains. It sounded like a good sign. He told his brother he'd buy the land if he saw deer — and a pack of about 10 pranced by a couple of yards in front of him. If Oglethorpe Power wanted to take this land, a higher power would stop them.

Then Webb showed up. He told Owens the deal seemed legitimate. Owens took that warning a lot more seriously and joined the Concerned Citizens.

They started with about 15 people, Owens said, drinking Coca-Colas by the fire at Webb's home every Saturday. They put up signs in their yards: "No Pump Storage," with a slash across a lightning bolt. Webb, a retired chemist, had some key connections, Owens said.

Some geologists evaluated the potential plant site. The pumps would have gone inside the mountain, but they said there were too many caves.

"Some of them were just bottomless," Owens said "You didn't know where they went. The water would just run."

The group also recruited a historian, who discussed the value of the area. The Cherokee lived there until their forced removal in 1838. A Civil War battle occurred there, too. One of the homes was from the war. An old hotel from the 1880s still stood.

The group spoke out against the plant during a committee hearing in the Georgia General Assembly. And, in a moment you won't find in the Society of Professional Journalists' guidebook, Owens even leveraged his position to create public pressure. The newspaper published multiple articles on the fight, with photos taken by Owens. He also used his connections at the TV stations to get some coverage on air, as well.

"That, I'm sure, helped, too," he said. "We got a lot of publicity out of it."

With time, the group grew. In the fall of 1986, it presented a protest petition to Oglethorpe Power, with 300 signatures. About 100 people regularly attended the meetings. Then, in March 1987, a TVA attorney wrote Oglethorpe Power a letter, telling the group it could not build the plant without the TVA's permission because the company would have drawn from water from the Chickamauga Creek, a tributary of the Tennessee River.

About two weeks later, Oglethorpe Power's board approved the site for its pump station: Pickens County.

"We didn't make any statements we couldn't back up," Coulter said, "because we didn't want to be ashamed and disgraced. I guess that's why they won."

While members of the community said they defeated Oglethorpe Power — that the big powerful company was dead set on taking their homes until the residents turned up the public pressure — the company itself has never confirmed that. But at the time it made its decision, spokesman Gregg Jones said they had to factor in the protests.

"As part of the environmental impact," he said, "we have to look closely at sociological reasons."

ONE OBSTACLE DOWN

After the victory, Webb said at the time, the community was rejuvenated. It needed to find its next step. In 1994, it successfully applied to join the National Register of Historic Places.

Since then, though, groups have tried to create a plan for the cove's future. They have not succeeded.

In 1998, developer Edmond Cash and insurance executive Delos Yancey announced Mountain Cove Farms, a planned retirement and resort community on property they bought from the estate of O. Wayne Rollins, the pest control billionaire. The plan never took off.

In 2005, a group of residents met with Commissioner Bebe Heiskell and County Attorney Don Oliver about rezoning the area with a historic development overlay. Blackwell Smith, a McLemore Cove resident who supported the plan, said the county would have limited how many homes could go into the area.

For example, the plan might have limited developers to building five or 10 homes for every 100 acres. On the rest of the property, the developers would have to build "public use" spaces, such as parks or horse riding facilities or dove fields. The plan was inspired by Serenbe, the wooded planned community southwest of Atlanta, where three-bedroom homes are currently going for $500,000-$900,000.

In an article at the time, Heiskell said the community could include restaurants and shops.

"McLemore Cove is absolutely the jewel of Walker County," Smith said. "It's amazing. Anybody who ever goes there, they're flabbergasted."

But the plan never got off the ground. After meeting with Heiskell and Oliver, members of the preservation society voted down the idea. Sid Hetzler, whose family's claim to the cove dates back to the Civil War, said the proposals sounded like the formation of a neighborhood association. People didn't want to seek approval to change the paint on their house. (Smith said the restrictions were never going to be that overreaching.)

"It was like a gated community, in effect, for the whole huge valley," Hetzler said.

Since then, Blackwell said the McLemore Cove Preservation Society has been quiet. But in April, as neighbors discussed a chicken plant they heard was coming, they held a meeting. He believes they are energized again.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett