Highland County is defined by its natural resources.  Although there is evidence of human activity throughout the county, the natural landscape dominates.  Our low population density and lack of industry have maintained Highland County as a place where nature still has the upper hand; from the unbroken, tree-lined ridges to the free-flowing streams and rivers. 


A long-term goal of Highland County citizens is the preservation and protection of Highland County’s unique natural resources.  While the county is obliged by a variety of State and Federal regulations to protect attributes such as air and water quality and unique habitats, the ultimate responsibility of achieving a healthy economic/environmental balance lies with the citizens of Highland County and its elected officials.



Situated in the Allegheny Mountains, Highland County is characterized by alternating ridges and valleys that trend from northeast to southwest.  Elevations range from 1,625’ above sea level (along the Cowpasture River at the Bath County Line) to 4,545’ above sea level on Allegheny Mountain (where Little Ridge meets Ramshorn Ridge).  The Elevation Map (Map #1) clearly shows the major ridges and valleys. From the east, these include Shenandoah Mountain, Cowpasture River Valley, Bullpasture Mountain, Bullpasture River Valley (McDowell), Jack Mountain, Jackson River Valley (Monterey), Back Creek/Monterey Mountain, the Blue Grass Valley and finally the Allegheny Mountain that forms the western boundary of the Commonwealth of Virginia.


Topography has presented a significant challenge to development within the county. 



Slopes  (Map #18)

0 – 8% - Flat to moderately sloping land. Although these areas are the most easily developed, some of these areas are subject to flooding and poor drainage.


9 – 16% - Rolling land.  Few limitations for residential, agricultural, commercial  and industrial activities not requiring large amounts of level ground.


17 – 25% - Hilly land.  This land is suitable for residential or agricultural development; however, construction of water and sewer facilities can be costly.


Over 25% - Steep slopes.  Steep slopes are usually considered unsuitable for development or cultivation.  Slopes above 25% may increase the cost of construction.  Slopes may be used for outdoor recreation, wildlife management, watershed protection and forestry among other uses.


The Highland County Erosion and Sediment Control Ordinance contributes to the uses of county land.



A general knowledge of local geology is central to understanding an area’s potential for mineral resources, as well as the availability of groundwater, and the suitability of land for development.


Highland County is situated within the Valley and Ridge physiographic province, which is underlain by sedimentary rocks that are intruded by some igneous dikes.  The mountains are generally capped by hard, resistant sandstone, while the valleys are underlain by soft shale and soluble limestone.  Mountains in the western portion of the county are primarily sandstone, while the remainder of the county is a combination of sandstone, shale and limestone.  (Map #19)




Mineral Resources

In the past, a number of limestone and dolomite quarries have produced crushed stone and gravel.  Sandstones on Monterey Mountain and Back Creek Mountain are possible sources of silica sand and construction stone.  Samples of shale, found throughout the county, have been tested and are potentially suitable for the manufacture of common and decorative brick, tile and lightweight aggregate.  Manganese and iron mineralization occurs at numerous points throughout Highland, but the presence of commercial deposits has not been established.  Natural gas deposits have been identified on the western slopes of the county.



Highland County is rich in wind.  Commercial wind farms and utilities require a Class 3 or higher wind speed to make it economically feasible to convert wind energy into electrical energy.  Highland County is one of the few jurisdictions in the Commonwealth of Virginia with Class 5 wind speeds.


The Commonwealth has a growing need for reliable and affordable energy that is environmentally friendly and produces the resources necessary for economic development.  Unfortunately, the Commonwealth has been slow to develop a regulatory scheme to provide for efficient commercial wind projects.


The Highland New Wind project in Highland County was the first commercial wind turbine facility to be approved by the Virginia State Corporation Commission.  The project developers and the County suffered the consequences of the lack of a statewide regulatory scheme.  Multiple lawsuits resulted from the developer’s initial application and the Highland County Board of Supervisors’ approval through a Conditional Use Permit pursuant to the Highland County Zoning Ordinance, making the project costly to the County and the developer.  The project has been one of the most divisive issues the County has faced in recent years. 


The Virginia State Corporation Commission has now developed a process for the approval of commercial wind turbine facilities.  In addition, small-scale individual wind turbines, as well as commercial wind turbine facilities, must meet the requirements of the Highland County Zoning Ordinance, and anything over thirty-five feet (35’) in height is permitted by Conditional Use Permit Only.


Although wind energy is a “green” energy source, there are potential issues that must be addressed prior to the development of a wind turbine.  Reasonable people can disagree about the visual impact of a wind turbine and its blades.  Increasing the height of a wind turbine maximizes the amount of energy that can be produced at the cheapest cost.  A commercial wind turbine requires a major transmission line to connect to the power grid already established, which often requires a 150 to 200 food right-of-way along the line.  The lighting that may be necessary on a tower is an issue.


Wind turbines may have a negative impact on migratory birds and bats.  There are endangered species of both birds and bats that pass through Highland County or reside in Highland County year-round.  Concern for the welfare of these species will always be an issue in the siting and development of any wind turbine.


The Highland County Board of Supervisors has chosen not to adopt a regulatory ordinance regarding wind turbines at this time.


Karst Topography

Much of Highland County is underlain by limestone and dolomite.  These carbonate rocks are essentially water soluble.  Over millions of years, slightly acidic rainwater seeping through the earth’s subsurface dissolves the rock, creating holes and fractures, or enlarging cavities previously created by bedrock features.  These cavities result in the many caves, sinkholes and sinking creeks found throughout the county.  Topography in which such features are found is known as karst, karst lands, or karst terrain.

Karst terrain is typically identified by the presence of sinkholes and cave openings on the ground surface.  Map #8 illustrates the general locations of such features in Highland County.  As shown, karst lands tend to form two bands that stretch across the length of the county.  Particular areas of concentration include the Butler-Sinking Creek drainage basin and the area around Blue Grass.  Karst terrain is relatively weak and unstable and may present problems for development.  The many caverns and caves attract spelunkers to this area.



Groundwater Availability

The three most common types of water-bearing rock in Highland County are sandstone, shale and limestone.  However, almost all sandstone present in the county is affected by siltation, cementation and/or poor sorting, meaning that the pore spaces between the rocks are reduced, therefore limiting groundwater yields.  Shale is considered a reliable source of small groundwater supplies, although water from shale areas may be highly mineralized.  Limestone is considered the best source for groundwater; however, it may be erratic.  Because limestone is soluble in rainwater, joints and fractures often become enlarged and form channels.  Channels may shift over time (just like a surface stream), causing a well to suddenly go dry, or to fill with mud.  Another concern for limestone formations is the potential for contaminants to enter the aquifer through sinkholes.



The identification and location of various soil types is an essential element for planning the land use of a particular area.  Soil types influence building foundation strength, erosion, drainage, plant cover and crop yields, and the effectiveness of septic systems.  Soils are classified according to particle size (from sand and gravel to silt and clay) and parent bedrock material.


While Map #19 and Table 1 show general soil associations and their development limitations, this information is not suitable for site or small scale planning.  The soils in any one association will vary in slope, stoniness, drainage and other characteristics which will affect their development and use.



Based on drainage patterns, Highland County can be divided in seven major watersheds.  As shown on Map #20, the northern portion of the county containing the Laurel Fork, Straight Fork and Strait Creek watersheds flow into the Potomac River.  The majority of the county drains into the James River watershed, including Back Creek, Jackson River, and the Bullpasture and Cowpasture Rivers. 



Floodplains are natural drainage basins for the discharge of heavy precipitation.  Due to the mountainous terrain, many of the rivers and streams exhibit steep gradients, narrow floodplains and wide variations in flow.  Flow rates are dependent upon the season and rain events.  Generally, the flows are highest in late fall and early spring.


The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) determines the 100-year floodplain boundaries, which encompass areas that have a one percent chance of flooding each year. The federal government expects localities to take a proactive approach to flood damage prevention.


Water Quality

Water resources and water pollution in Virginia are regulated by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the State Water Control Board, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  The Clean Water Act (CWA), Section 402, established the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System to limit pollutant discharges into streams, rivers and bays.  DEQ administers the system in the state of Virginia and calls it the Virginia Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (VPDES).  VPDES permits are required for all point source discharges to surface waters.


DEQ also regularly monitors samples of the watersheds for designated uses which include: aquatic life support, fish consumption, swimming and drinking water.



According to the Koppen-Geiger climate classification system, Highland County has a Modified Continental climate characterized by moderately cold winters and relatively cool summers, modified by elevation.  Monthly temperatures vary widely, from an average low of 17.5 o F in January to an average high of 80.6 o F in July.  Highland receives an average of 43.8 inches of precipitation per year.  Precipitation is fairly well distributed throughout the year.


While the climate is relatively mild, hurricanes that track inland have caused localized wind damage and flooding.


Atmospheric Quality

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Nation Ambient Air Quality Standards Program monitors six pollutants: Carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen oxides, ozone, particulate and sulfur oxides.  Because of its physical association with the Washington-Jefferson National Forest, Highland is in a Class I monitoring region, a category reserved for National Parks and wilderness areas.


Dark skies

Most of Highland County currently rates a 7.1+ on the International Dark Sky Association’s Dark Sky Finder scale (  This is the highest rating possible and means that “the Milky Way's tremendous structure is visible all the way to the horizon. Its light is enough to walk about safely without artificial light. The Zodiacal light encircles the entire ecliptic. Many meteors are visible”. Dark skies attract many visitors to the county.



Forests cover 70 % of the County’s total area and produce multiple environmental, economic and cultural benefits.  The majority (64%) of forested land is privately owned, the remaining 36% is classified as public land.  Forest resources support a strong local wood-products industry and are important in protecting watersheds, creating wildlife habitat and supporting outdoor recreation in the forms of hunting, fishing, hiking and camping.



See Appendix C for suggested scenic drives.



Highland County is widely known for the scenic beauty of its physical environment.  Both the natural land and agricultural landscapes contribute to this scenic beauty.

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