By Dave Russell
Charlie Schmidt came to Monday’s drop-in meeting with the N.C. Department of Transportation to “survey the damage,” he said.
The owner and operator of Speedy’s Pizza did not like what he saw on the maps of the N.C. 107/U.S. Business 23 construction plan scattered around the gym at First United Methodist Church in Sylva.
“They seem to have gone out of their way to bulldoze us down,” he said.
The maps, at 65 percent complete, show a bulb-out for U-turns sending vehicles through what is now his restaurant’s dining room.
Schmidt is seeking a new location for his primarily pizza restaurant.
Speedy’s has been a Jackson County go-to for pizza since the business opened in Cullowhee in 1974. The Schmidt family has owned it for almost 14 years, and Charlie Schmidt has worked there for 12 years.
“Obviously, we have to do something,” he said. “I don’t really want to relocate. It’s a massive headache and a massive expense. I doubt the DOT will cover all of the cost.”
The DOT’s plan for Sylva’s commercial corridor, N.C. 107, includes the elimination of the center turn lane with sidewalks replaced and a 5-foot bike lane. Upgrades are slated for the N.C. 107/U.S. 23 Business intersection, and on U.S. 23 Business to Dillardtown Road and Municipal Drive, near the Sylva Fire Department, across from where Speedy’s is located. DOT’s preliminary estimate lists 55 businesses facing potential relocation or impact, though that number is fluid.
The DOT sent 2,300 invitations to the 3-7 p.m. Monday meeting, geared toward the public.
A meeting from 1-2 p.m. was called for representatives of county and municipal governments.
The format was the same, though attendees at the early meeting picked up a 33-page packet while the later session offered two pages.
This is the 10th meeting DOT has had about the project.
DOT officials announced there would not be a presentation Monday other than maps showing the 65 percent plans.
At the meeting for local officials, Division 14 Senior Project Engineer Jeanette White stood at mid-court in the gym and addressed the 30 attendees.
“As we all know, the project will impact many businesses,” White said. “We don’t know what the number is. Of course, we’ve all heard the number 55 businesses, however, at this point, we still have to be able to quantify the number. Until we have a chance to finalize the permanent utility easements, or PUEs, we don’t know what the overall impact is to the project.”
The maps DOT placed around the room showed PUEs, but they may not represent the final plans, she said.
“We do have temporary construction easements on the plans,” White said. “With those, unfortunately we do know that those structures are impacted by the project.”
The project has community support, she said.
“I’ve only been on the project about five months,” she said. “And I will tell you, most of the contacts I’ve had, that have contacted me and we’ve sat down on a one-to-one basis, have been overwhelming in support for the project. And that’s very honest. That may be kind of difficult to believe, but honestly, those opponents are the most vocal against the project.”
A “Say No to the Road” Facebook page has galvanized opponents, most of whom are concerned about the project’s effect on businesses along the corridor.
Still, others have “whispered their support,” thanking the DOT for the project privately but not publicly, White said.
“It is impacting many businesses, but in all honesty, we’re seeing it as a positive change for those businesses,” White said. “It gives them a chance to possibly relocate for the better. They see it as being a fortunate event for them. Thus far we only have two really big opponents who are very vocal.”
White hopes to sit down with the road’s opponents and discuss the plan, she said.
Division 14 Engineer Brian Burch said he had also heard support for the road. Five or six people had come to his office to discuss the project and been positive, he said.
“We do get a lot of emails from at least one individual who is not,” he said. “But we have had a lot of support from the people who are directly impacted.”
Most of the opponents are not property owners affected by the construction, he said.
PUEs will not take buildings
Lynn Mann, a senior project manager with Vaughn and Melton, the engineering firm responsible for utility coordination and design, said designers were trying to make the PUEs as unintrusive as possible.
“Utility coordination involves all the dry utilities – power, telephone, cable TV, fiber optics,” she said. “It will also involve the gas line. We’re also doing water and sewer design, but work has not begun yet.”
The firm is designing their portion of the project to fit in the road’s footprint, she said.
“We do not take additional buildings with utility relocations,” Mann said. “We will only take a building if the road project is already impacting that structure. We are trying to be very diligent to have as little impact on the project as we can.”
Citizens came to see impacts
“I came to see the new plans,” Sylva resident Carl Queen said. “People have talked about it and we’ve read about it in the paper but I just wanted to see what it looked like at this point.”
Queen is skeptical about the project.
“I just don’t see how replacing four lanes with four lanes is going to make traffic move any better,” he said. “I can’t understand that.”
Queen proposed in January an alternative to the project, a new road/street parallel to the existing five-lane N.C. 107 that would run behind existing businesses on the right side going east/south.
It would have had less impact and improved traffic flow, he said. His idea was deemed impractical by planners.
Clif Ingram, who lives on Crestview Heights in Sylva, came to the meeting to see how the project would affect his family.
“We’ll be impacted in that we won’t be able to go out left on N.C. 107 anymore,” he said. “It’s kind of dangerous going out left. It’ll be a little bit more time to go right, then U-turn at Walmart. Hopefully it will be safer for everyone, with safety being the number one priority for everyone, right?”
Ingram, a Realtor, said the project would not negatively affect property values.
“They seem to be going up,” he said.