By Jesse Wood
May 10, 2013. In late April, Hound Ears Club blocked access to pull-offs along Old Shulls Mill Road by placing boulders along the roadside.
The pull-offs acted as parking spots for those seeking recreational opportunities on the Watauga River. This comes several months after mass towing began in the private parking area above the dam on N.C. 105, where the caboose was formerly stationed.
In a prepared statement, Jason Reagon, director of communications and membership relations for Hound Ears Club, noted the move to block the pull-offs along Old Shulls Mill Road was an effort to prevent unauthorized access and promote community safety along the roadway and river.
“This move came in response to a large number of people parking their vehicles on Club property to gain access to the Watauga River. The presence of the vehicles resulted in an unsafe situation for other motorists as well as pedestrians,” the statement read. “Hound Ears Club is dedicated to promoting recreational opportunities across the High Country and we encourage anyone who seeks access to the Watauga River to do so at the many public access points across the county.”
Along with historically being a popular fishing hole stocked with trout, the area has long been a hotspot for college kids swimming, sunbathing and having a good – and sometimes rowdy – time.
Sara Stevens, a resident at Hound Ears Club, disagreed with the resort’s move to place huge boulders along the roadside.
“I don’t have a dog in the fight, but it just concerns me that I see that happening,” Stevens said. “Those kids have enjoyed that river for generations, a long time before Hound Ears was even heard of. You see people fishing along there and to me it’s a public river.”
Stevens also added that boulders present a “dangerous situation because trucks come barreling along that road and if you have to move over to get out of the way, there are rocks now that prevent you from doing that.”
In September, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission notified anglers that the public access to the river was closed even though they previously had permission from Hound Ears Club.
The area was classified as delayed harvest trout waters and was continually stocked. However, the NCWRC deemed it pointless to stock the area anymore and is now looking at another area to stock along the Watauga River in Sugar Grove.
Kevin Hining, a fisheries biologist in the mountain region with the NCWRC’s Division of Inland Fisheries, said that anglers weren’t the reason the river was closed to the public and that Hound Ears Club was “perfectly fine with people fishing.”
He said that the area was a “hang-out party area.” Multiple residents of Hound Ears Club mentioned that someone ran onto the Hound Ears Golf Course and stole a flag from the greens at a hole nearby the river area.
“We tried to work with [Hound Ears]. We put up those ‘Access for Fishing Only’ signs and folks weren’t paying attention along that road. That was a lot of why we ended up losing fishing opportunities. It was not due to anglers,” Hining said, adding that his organization discourages anglers from parking nearby because of towing and trespassing issues.
Throughout this whole ordeal, two questions remain: who owns the river and what about public right of ways along the roadsides.
As for the question pertaining to the river, Hining said, “It’s a tricky question.”
“What we generally tell folks – if someone is paying taxes on the river bottom and it is deeded as their property, then they can enforce trespassing even if you get in the river at a public area and walk down,” Hining said.
Watauga County Register of Deeds maps online show the Hound Ears Club owning both sides of the river. Those same maps also show no deeds listed for this portion of the Watauga River.
Now with the boulders placed so closely to the road along Old Shulls Mill Road, local citizens have asked public right-of-way questions as well.
According to Kevin Whittington, Watauga County maintenance engineer with the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT), “There just isn’t a designated right of way other than what we maintain.”
He said the NCDOT maintains a right of way six to eight feet from the white line to mow the shoulder and for drainage that must occur. The big rocks in place clearly lay within six to eight feet of the white line. However before the rocks appeared, vehicles could easily be parked outside that six- to eight-foot margin.
Whittington said his office hasn’t had an issue with the rocks in question and has received zero calls regarding the placement of the rocks from members of the public.
In the past, Whittington said his office has received calls about similar instances when rocks were placed on pull-offs on Winkler’s Creek Road, which was also a climbing area and swimming hole, near the Boone Mall. He added, though, that his office had no need to address that issue.
“I guess its not bothering our maintenance and we are leaving them alone,” Whittington said.