By Dave Russell

For a little while last week, county and municipal leaders believed the number of business relocations connected with the U.S. Business 23/N.C 107 construction project was 39 instead of 55.

An inaccurate internal document led Division 14 Engineer Brian Burch, of the N.C. Department of Transportation, to provide an inaccurate number of possible business relocations, he said.

Burch told a joint meeting of Webster, Forest Hills, Sylva, Dillsboro and county leaders last Tuesday that 39 businesses would be forced to relocate. NCDOT’s original estimate, as reported in the Herald in May 2018, was 55 relocations. That number remains the accurate, estimated tally as of today.

In a Friday email to Angie Winchester, clerk to the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, Burch requested assistance getting the word out about the mistake.

“In my slide discussing estimated (right of way) impacts, it listed 39 businesses being taken,” the email states. “This number was based on an estimate that we had received in Division 14 from our Appraisal Unit. This is actually the number of parcels containing businesses that may be relocated. The actual number of businesses on those 39 parcels is 55.  ... I assure you that I was not trying to be misleading Tuesday evening. I apologize for the confusion.”

Burch forwarded the document he said caused the confusion to the Herald last Thursday. Sean Ward, a right-of-way appraiser who has since retired, compiled the information.

Ward made the error when he looked at the original list of 55 businesses scheduled to relocate, Burch said. Ward looked at the left-hand column, numbered one through 39, and assumed it meant 39 businesses when in fact it meant 39 parcels. He failed to notice a column on the right side of the spreadsheet listing the businesses on each parcel, Burch said.

There are no updates to the list of affected businesses available at this time, Burch said. 

Some of the properties on the original list of 55 might be spared. Burch said the state tag office at 454 E. Main is one structure that could remain intact. 

“It’s quite a bit off the highway,” he said. “So it’s possible that portion of the building could be saved. Something like that, we would work with the property owner to see if they wanted to save that portion of a building. Sometimes, they say, ‘Well, it’s not worth it to keep that small portion, just take the whole thing.’”

Other properties not previously on the list could be endangered when NCDOT works the utility overlay into the plans, Burch said. 

“Five residential relocations, 39 parcels containing 55 businesses, and 186 total parcels is the most current information,” Burch said. “We will be preparing a new estimate based on the current 65-percent plans once the utility easements are added.”

Further complicating matters, there are two alternative plans listed on the documents Burch sent over. Each takes differing amounts of property for right of way and easements.

The total cost of the rights-of-way acquisition, scheduled to begin in January, is projected to be $49.7 million. Appraisers contracted by NCDOT will evaluate properties over $25,000. Offers will be based on those appraisals, Burch said. 

“If the property owner is not willing to settle for that amount, then we can condemn the property and go through the condemnation process,” he said. “About 2 percent of all parcels ultimately end up in court.”

Outside appraisals are not required for small properties NCDOT believes valued at less than $25,000. Right of way agents can make an offer, though if the property owner requests an appraisal, NCDOT is required by law to provide one. 

“Our plans will go to our right of way office here in Sylva, and they’re going to assign parcels to the agents who work in that office and those agents are responsible for the property acquisition,” he said.

Property owners and tenants would work with two agents, one for right of way acquisition and one for relocation.

“What I expect to happen is that we will do the acquisition and we will contract out the relocation,” Burch said. 

NCDOT will assist businesses not forced to move by working at night.

The cost of the construction is estimated at $40 million, but Burch said it likely would go up 10-15 percent. The contract would be let in December 2022, with construction to begin in February 2023, he said.

There would be three years of road construction along N.C. 107 and a portion of U.S. 23 Business, including the intersection of Sylva’s two key highways.

DOT plans to eliminate the center turn lane on N.C. 107 in favor of a 17.5-foot grass median. This would separate the two lanes of southbound traffic from two lanes of northbound traffic, with sidewalks replaced and a 5-foot bike lane added.

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.