Paving Paradise: Airport Officials Propose Industrial Park Beside Secret Natural Haven
Believe it or not, Charlotte still has some secrets.
In a city increasingly defined by higher density inside a growing urban core, it may be hard for one to imagine truly getting back to nature within city limits. So what happens when a neighborhood manages to pull it off — only to be threatened with a zoning proposal for an industrial park next door?
If one were to drive down Shopton Road slowly enough with eyes peeled — do not blink — one might catch a glimpse of a place where nature comes first and people second, where tranquility is a way of life for residents, even inside the bustling city.
Many Charlotteans have never heard of Eagle Lake, but its residents say that is part of what makes it so great. The private community in southwest Charlotte began as a fishing spot in the 1940s. It consists of 180 acres with hiking trails alongside a natural spring, wildlife areas and 28 homes — spanning price points — built around a 26-acre pond.
The center of the lake is considered a main gathering spot: neighbors commute to socials via stand-up paddle boards, canoes, floaties or battery-powered pontoons. Mimosa bars on a floating pier and floating bruschetta and caviar are favorites with this crowd.
A Zoning Conundrum
Charlotte-Douglas International Airport owns 168 acres along Shopton Road, next to the neighborhood, and airport officials Monday evening asked City Council to consider a rezoning that would change the airport’s property to light industrial with an airport noise overlay.
The airport-owned property is mostly zoned residential but the Federal Aviation Administration will not allow residential development there. A City Council-adopted vision plan recommends against commercial development unless the airport or another developer purchases Eagle Lake from its residents. The FAA will not cover the purchase of Eagle Lake, as the neighborhood is no longer subject to significant aircraft noise exposure. The neighbors say they are not interested in selling, anyway. But they are willing to negotiate beyond the vision plan.
Airport officials propose a future development could include a commercial/industrial/warehouse park up to 2M SF, including up to 20 buildings.
Eagle Lake residents gathered at the council meeting to propose a compromise. The airport has offered a 100-foot natural buffer for trees and wildlife at the property along the edge of the neighborhood, and residents are asking for a 300-foot buffer.
“A community like this does not need concrete and rebar looking straight at it,” neighborhood association rezoning committee member Lynda Boozer said. “We are also looking to avoid noise; we are already a noise-burdened community, and we know that the beep, beep, beep, the incessant beep of truck traffic in that zone is yet another burden to our noise overload.”
The airport has offered an additional building setback, but Airport Economic and Community Affairs Manager Stuart Hair said they do not agree to an additional buffer.
“Any buffer limits the ability of the site to be developed, and so that is something that we’ve tried to balance with this site plan; and widely increasing the building setback was to allow for the grading to occur on the site but provide a barrier between any of the buildings and the residential neighborhood on the other side of the ridge line,” Hair said.
Neighbors said their plea for a larger buffer is not just to keep them from having to stare at the back of industrial buildings. They are also considering the active wildlife population of the area, including Canada geese, deer, osprey and a resident blue heron.
“As a chair of the Environment Committee, I am quite concerned about the wildlife there and the trees preserving our tree canopy,” council member Dimple Ajmera said.
Residents and airport officials have already compromised a bit: The airport agreed to change zoning from I-2 to I-1, and the notion that neighbors are even considering allowing the airport’s property to be developed without selling their land came as a surprise to some of the council members.
“That all feels to me like these neighbors are in the driver’s seat here,” council member Tariq Bokhari said.
“Our stated policy says this shouldn't be developed at all in any way unless they’re bought out, so if they’re willing to negotiate at this point and say ‘We’re willing to do it with three times the buffer that they’re proposing today,’ I would feel that that’s something that they’re in the driver’s seat, given the fact that we would be making a decision inconsistent with existing policy if we did it,” Bokhari said.
‘Never Move Again’
Neighbors said they are absolutely not interested in selling the place they call their paradise in the middle of the city. Heather Harjes bought her first Eagle Lake home in 2001 and her second in 2010.
“When my husband passed away suddenly in 2014, I needed a change. I looked at property on Lake Wylie, Mountain Island Lake and all along the Catawba,” she said. “Although I found some beautiful houses, nothing compared to the community at Eagle Lake.”
She made the decision to renovate her existing home instead. She moved back in a few weeks ago after finishing the 11-month project. Her home has undergone a complete transformation, including the addition of a second story.
“I love Eagle Lake and plan to never move again,” she said.
Harjes’ neighbor across the lake, Judy Owen, has also owned two homes at Eagle Lake. The vice president of the neighborhood association and her husband purchased their first home there in 1983, then later moved to a larger home to raise three children.
“It was mostly summer homes when we first moved out here. It’s an amazing community. We’ve worked hard to keep it pristine to keep from changing any of the landscape and preserve wildlife,” Owen said. “It’s like being at the beach and the mountains. It’s like being on vacation all the time.”
Everyone in the community has made lifelong decisions about what they want to do with their property, Owen said.
“It really was a shock to us,” she said about the airport’s rezoning proposal. “Development above the power lines is going to be a nightmare.”
Rezoning committee member Boozer is an integrative wellness practitioner who has been a lake resident for almost 25 years. She said she relishes the opportunity for lake living so close to a city core that supports her work, which she said is too niche to support her outside of a metropolitan area.
“There’s nowhere else in Mecklenburg County that I want to live. It’s extraordinary both in terms of quality and beauty of the water and in the feel of living in the country while still being part of a community,” she said. “We have this group of people out here; it’s a diverse group of people. What we hold in common is love of the land and the lake and that in that process, it brings us together in a way.”
Boozer told City Council the neighborhood is best experienced firsthand, by visiting.
Several council members volunteered to take Boozer up on that offer. “How’s the fishing? Is it crappie or bass?” Mayor Vi Lyles said.
“Crappie and bass,” Boozer said.
Audible “oohs” and a “wow, it’s gorgeous,” could be heard from City Council as members reviewed photos of the neighborhood that many had never heard of before Monday. “Like most of my colleagues, I didn't know this existed — so cool for making this a secret neighborhood for you guys,” council member Justin Harlow said.
As City Council plans to study the proposal over the next month, Boozer said the neighborhood still has a lot of talking and planning to do.
“As I left the meeting last night, I realized this is a whole other month that we are in very strong action. It’s very much in process,” she said on Tuesday.