By Tim Gardner
One of the most noted places in the Appalachian Mountains is the small, picturesque town of Seven Devils, located in both Avery and Watauga counties. Around1965 its founders wanted a unique name to attract visitors. Seven Devils was decided upon based on a combination of seven rocky peaks and local history of seven brothers, who at the 19th century were so cantankerous and willing to fight that they were jokingly referred to as the seven devils.
Developed in the 1970s as a vacation home community, Seven Devils is home mainly to seasonal residents. Some of the town’s year-round residents earn their living at the resort, while others are retirees. The town’s population was 192 at the last census (2010). Seven Devils may be best known as the site of the popular Hawksnest wintertime tubing resort, which claims it has the largest tubing facility on the East Coast. But the town has various other prominent features.
High Country Press reporter Tim Gardner interviewed the Town of Seven Devils Mayor Larry Fontaine about this famous mountain village, mostly concerning governmental issues. Questions and answers from that conversation follow.
HC Press: What do you tell others– especially who have never visited Seven Devils– about the town’s top attractions, resources and attributes?
Fontaine: Seven Devils is a wonderful place to live. My wife and I moved here ten years ago and have enjoyed the climate, the beautiful views, the small-town atmosphere and the great neighbors and friends we have made. Our town is unique because of its one way in and out access, 24-7 police and fire protection and the town’s location is central to all the area’s attractions including our own Hawksnest Zipline and Snow Tubing Park and the Otter Falls Trail and Park facility. The town has tennis and pickle ball courts and a playground for the kids and grandkids to enjoy. The Seven Devils Resort Club offers its members a beautiful lakefront setting with many summer social activities. For such a small community, we have a lot to offer to our residents and visitors.
HC Press: For those who want to learn more about you, what is your personal and professional background?
Fontaine: After graduating from the University of Massachusetts, I married Anne, my wife of 36 years. We have two children and two grandchildren, all of whom now live in this area. I owned my own oilfield service business for 25 years in South Louisiana and retired in 2002. My hobbies are woodworking, golfing, sailing and spending time with my family and friends.
HC Press: What does your practical experiences in elected office and public service both entail?
Fontaine: In my practical experiences in business I learned to work with people having differing skill levels and experiences, to encourage their strengths and improve their weaknesses and to build a team that is accustomed to achieving success. Our Seven Devils Town Council comes together as a team with people from varying backgrounds and experiences. Hopefully my past experience with people helps me as a leader of this group to bring out the best ideas and lead the group to find the best solutions to problems and situations facing our town.
HC Press: What would you list as the components and mandates for being a productive small-town mayor?
Fontaine: A mayor should listen to both sides of issues, be open to consider opinions that differ from his or her own and who will make the best decision for the most people. A mayor needs to place value in the opinions of fellow town council members and help them make responsible decisions. A good working relationship with the town manager really helps in a small town and Seven Devils is really lucky in that regard. We have an excellent town manager, Debbie Powers, who is very thorough at researching issues and presenting solutions to problems. She makes my job as mayor a lot easier with her efficiency and skill.
HC Press: What do you consider the most rewarding aspects of being Mayor of Seven Devils?
Fontaine: The best part of being mayor is interacting with our citizens. Whether it is during a formal meeting or in a recreational setting, the people are the essence of our town. The best way for me as mayor to make correct decisions is to interact and communicate with our residents. I encourage more people to get involved with the town by attending town meetings and following our progress through our website. I’m always open to hearing ideas and comments from anyone who wants to share.
HC Press: What do you consider the Town of Seven Devils top accomplishments while you’ve served as Mayor?
Fontaine: During my six years as mayor, there have been no tax increases. Through several grants and many generous donations from our residents, the town has acquired and developed the Otter Falls Trail and Park facility. The town council is responsible for the creation of the Unified Development Ordinance. Many infrastructure improvements including roads and water system have been made during my tenure as mayor.
HC Press: The Town of Seven Devils is in two counties—Avery and Watauga. Are there advantages and disadvantages for a town or city to be located in more than one county?
Fontaine: Seven Devils is one of four towns comprising the HCMA (High Country Municipal Association). Twice a year we meet with the town officials of Banner Elk, Sugar Mountain, and Beech Mountain to discuss agenda items furnished by the towns. We often find that we share similar problems and are in need of solution input. Sugar Mountain and Banner Elk are in Avery County and Beech Mountain and Seven Devils are in both Avery and Watauga counties. And in spite of county lines, these towns share common issues and highly regard each other with input. Our meetings also set aside a time for each town to give an update on recent activities regarding projects and activities.
One issue that being in two counties produces is a double cost for elections. Rather than allowing all our citizens to vote in one place the state requires that each citizen vote in their prospective county. Our Avery County residents drive right by the Watauga voting location (our Town Hall) to travel to Banner Elk to vote. Seven Devils is billed by both counties resulting in additional expense.
HC Press: What are the greatest challenges for the Town of Seven Devils during the next couple of years heading into the new 2020 decade?
Fontaine: As a town, we always strive to keep taxes low while continuing to provide improved public services and infrastructure, and to maintain observance of our Comprehensive Land Use Plan (CLUP) while still encouraging sensible development. Through grant opportunities, we are continually seeking ways to offer more recreational opportunities for our residents and visitors. The town is always seeking to further improve our image throughout the local community.
HC Press: How would you rate the current financial solvency and over-all status of Seven Devils?
Fontaine: We have a higher than normal reserve for a town of our size and again have not had to raise taxes in more than six years. Our town is in a strong financial position. I praise our town council members, town manager and financial officer for their foresight in planning and budgeting.
HC Press: What are the mandates needed for the Town of Seven Devils to be prosperous financially–specifically in services available to its residents, businesses and visitors?
Fontaine: Our citizens live in Seven Devils because of its natural beauty and breathtaking views. Our climate works to attract many seasonal homeowners. We must maintain 24-7 police and fire protection for the busy season, and always comply with our CLUP. We must continue to provide a clean sustainable fresh water supply with very little loss. Lastly, we need to provide honest and open municipal boards and committees that look to our citizens for input and fresh ideas and keep open lines of communication between our town council, town administration and citizens.
HC Press: You work at the leisure of the four-person town council and of course, foremost, your fellow-Seven Devils citizens. The town’s administration and over-all organization also consists of a administrative clerk as well as employees of the police, public works and water departments and volunteers who serve on several boards such as those for planning, adjustment, tourism development, recreation and others. How do you feel about the various people who work individually, yet collectively, as a team for the betterment of Seven Devils?
Fontaine: Again, our town manager does a wonderful job with her staff. They are a cohesive group from the Police Chief to the Public Works Manager to the Fire Chief and all those who work in their departments. The town employees work very hard and do a fantastic job making Seven Devils a safe place to live and visit. As for the volunteer boards, with such a small town there are people who wear many hats.
I would like nothing better than for every committee, board or organization to be fully staffed with different people. Fresh faces produce new ideas and we (the town council) always look for ways to include new folks on the various Boards and positions in our town. The Board of Adjustment does an excellent job when called upon and fairly decides issues brought before them. The Planning Board is integral in reviewing and making recommendations to the Council for updating the CLUP and approving other ordinances. The Public Works Committee constantly analyses and brings infrastructure needs and improvements to the attention of the town council.
Our TDA and Recreation Commission work together to provide many activities during the summer season including hiking, outdoor concerts, workshops, an Activity Challenge, and “The Hawk”—our 7K @ 7D race that had its inaugural run in 2017. We are looking forward to our 2nd annual running of “The Hawk” on September 15 of 2018. Each July 4th weekend, the Town hosts SafetyFest, a fundraiser to benefit Public Safety, Public Works, and the Fire Department. More than 40 volunteers come together on this day to put on a great event with BBQ lunches, silent auction, door prizes, bake sale, craft booths, kid’s activities, live music, and much more. Not only do we raise a lot of funds, we have a lot of fun and we get to spend the day with our friends and neighbors in a very unique atmosphere. I urge others to join us this year on Saturday, June 30, from 10:00 a.m. -3:00 p.m. for this great event!
HC Press: Employees and volunteers of the Seven Devils police, public works and water departments as well as those who serve in other town capacities interchange in various departments. Would you provide further comments about the roles they have in those various functions?
Fontaine: All our police officers are “Public Safety Officers”, meaning that they are police officers, fire fighters and first responders. Our Fire Chief, Bobby Powell, was recently named Fire Chief of the Year and is invaluable in writing and obtaining grants to help equip both the fire and police departments. He serves in both departments. We have a very active volunteer base for our Fire Department with more than 24 people receiving training and responding to emergency calls. Chief Powell conducts our training and involves experts as needed from outside sources. As in many jurisdictions, our fire department responds to more medical calls than actual fires. Also, all our police, volunteer firemen, and public works employees are first responders and are current in their training.
HC Press: What additional comments would you like to make to all who read this article, particularly those who reside in the Town of Seven Devils?
Fontaine: If you live in Seven Devils, I welcome your input and your volunteer efforts. New ideas are encouraged, and new committee members are needed. If your desire is to improve your community then come to meetings, get involved. If you haven’t been to Seven Devils and are looking for a place to visit or live, I would say—Come and see us! I think you will find we are a very welcoming community with a lot to offer to our residents and visitors. To find out more about Seven Devils, visit our website: sevendevils.net