By Dave Russell
A lone Herald reporter and Sylva town staff were the only attendees at the July 25 meeting of the Sylva town board. The Aug. 8 meeting was standing-room-only with a line out the door, additional seating, about 70 in attendance and 21 people signed up to speak during the public comment period.
What changed in those two weeks? In part, the creation of a “Say No To The Road” Facebook page and the citizens active on it.
The road in question is N.C. 107 and a portion of U.S. 23 Business, including the intersection of those key highways.
N.C. Department of Transportation plans to eliminate the center turn lane on N.C. 107 in favor of a 17.5-foot grass median, with sidewalks replaced and a 5-foot bike lane added.
As many as 55 businesses could be slated for relocation, according to NCDOT estimates. Upgrades are slated for the N.C. 107/U.S. 23 Business intersection, and from U.S. 23 Business to Dillardtown Road and Municipal Drive, near the Sylva Fire Department.
The speakers at last Thursday’s meeting were almost unanimous on the topic they wanted to address – that U.S. 23 Business/N.C. 107 construction project. And they were almost unanimous in opinion – firmly against it.
Signs, T-shirts and rubber bracelets proclaimed “Say No To The Road.”
The Facebook group had about 1,000 members before the meeting, and many of its members came out to speak. Others listened and applauded.
The first speaker, Julie Bartell of Sylva, said two things that speakers would repeat throughout the evening.
“I keep hearing the negative and I have yet to see a positive with this road,” she said. “What’s the benefit for the town?”
And, she said, “I agree that something needs to be done with the traffic situation down 107. I don’t feel a bike lane, losing jobs, losing businesses and more construction and confusion in the traffic flow is the answer.”
Luther Jones, one of six candidates vying for three seats on the Sylva town board, pointed to the high number of accidents on the 1.7-mile stretch of road – 254 over five years – as evidence change is needed.
“Do I know if the current plans are the best ones?” he said. “No, I don’t, but I do know that we need to move forward with getting something done.”
Jones also suggested audible signals at crosswalks to aid sight-impaired citizens. He cited a lack of the equipment in the downtown area and said he hoped it would be included in the construction plans.
David Schulman, who owns several properties in the project’s crosshairs, was the first of many speakers to get a round of applause.
“The Town Board of Sylva and the Jackson County Board of Commissioners should jointly be our conduit voice with the DOT road planners,” he said. “Besides the jobs lost and businesses eliminated, the town budget simply cannot afford the road with the serious percentage of tax dollars they will lose, and taxes in the county and city will have to dramatically rise with no specific data that the design will improve traffic flow or safety. Show us the facts.”
The youngest speaker, 12-year-old Sarah Dingman, said she and her friends opposed the road.
“A lot of the places I’ve gone in this town have memories in them that no one can replace and you’re going to destroy memories of people all over Sylva for a road,” she said.
Cathy Gibson, who brought the “Say No To The Road” bracelets, said she was slow to get involved because she felt certain elected officials would do the right thing. She also suggested change at the ballot box in November.
“If I don’t see any other results I am going to lead a campaign to put some people in here who will say ‘Let’s go back to the drawing board,’” she said. “We’re not against the road totally, we just think it’s an inappropriate, generic, textbook design.”
Gibson is an avid biker and would like to see more biking facilities in the county.
“I think we could market ourselves to the world as being the biking capital of the world, but we don’t need to destroy all these businesses to do it,” she said.
“The road as it is proposed will not solve our traffic problems,” Bill Thompson said. “We’ll still have two lanes going one way and two lanes going the other way. It’s terribly destructive. A tactical nuke probably would not do the destruction that this road will do to this community.”
Corey Coleman, owner of O’Malley’s Pub and Grill, said something needs to be done, but the slogan should be “Say No To This Road.”
“You should listen to us,” he told the board. “If you like your position, you should try to keep it, and if this road project goes through, I doubt you will.”
Matt Williams, general manager of Speedy’s Pizza, said the N.C. Department of Transportation’s job loss estimate – 189 – was “highly inaccurate.”
NCDOT’s figures stated Speedy’s employs eight.
“We have 21,” he said. “If every number on that list is off by that percentage, it’s probably closer to 500, if it is that far off on everyone.”
Williams asked Coleman how many employees O’Malley’s has. Coleman said the NCDOT estimate for O’Malley’s was eight and he has 27 employees.
Town board members did not speak during the public comment period. They are limited to what’s on the agenda, Mayor Lynda Sossamon said.
“It’s not easy for us, either, to make decisions,” she said later in the meeting. “We do not have the final maps. We do not have the final list of businesses that are affected. NCDOT still has that. We’re waiting on utilities. Let’s get to the final maps and see where they stand.”
Board member Mary Gelbaugh said she hopes the utilities along the roads would be underground.
Board member Barbara Hamilton said she was listening to the speakers that night.
“Maybe I have not been speaking out about things, but I have learned a lot tonight,” she said.
She agreed with Gelbaugh about the utilities.
“I know it’s more expensive,” she said. “But if we can do anything to retain businesses, then we need to do that.”