By Dave Russell
Opponents of the N.C. 107/U.S. 23 Business road construction project say it’s not too late to stop it, and they aren’t giving up the fight.
Aaron Littlefield, an administrator of the Say No to the Road Facebook page opposing the U.S. Business 23/N.C. 107 road construction project, is leading the effort. Say No to the Road is also a registered political action committee.
Last week, N.C. Department of Transportation Engineer Brian Burch told the Herald that the project was virtually inevitable.
“The project can be stopped,” Littlefield said, citing the the Highway 105 Superstreet Project in Boone.
After a series of public meetings, the Boone town board voted not to approve the project. Sylva town leaders have moved forward with the project in spite of public opposition, primarily from citizens worried about the impact to businesses along the route.
“I’m appealing to the higher powers in Raleigh,” he said. “We tried to influence the local governments. I’m trying to work with the state treasury department to see if they can pump the brakes on signing off on billions of dollars and Build NC bonds next year.”
State bonds sold in May 2020 will bring $20 million to the project, according to Burch.
R-5600 is N.C. Department of Transportation’s proposal for Sylva’s commercial corridor, N.C. 107, including the elimination of the center turn lane 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. DOT’s preliminary estimate listed 55 businesses facing potential relocation, though that number is fluid.
For Littlefield, questions about the road extend beyond the economic impact.
“I want the road to be able to handle the traffic during peak hours, and I don’t think this design plan is the way to do that,” he said. “My concerns are for the flow of traffic overall and how that is going to have a greater impact on all businesses in Sylva, not just those directly affected.”
A Monday meeting called by the N.C. Department of Transportation has caught the attention of some Say No to the Road members, and some plan to attend, according to posts on the Facebook page.
“It’s not going to be like a civil disobedience thing,” Littlefield said. “I think people need to go to this meeting and see what the impacts will be to businesses along the road, but if they really want to make an impact, I urge them to call the State Treasurer’s Office.”
In a post to the Say No to the Road Facebook page, Littlefield urged Jackson County residents opposed to the construction to contact the North Carolina Council of State. The 10 members, including the governor and heads of various state departments, must sign off on Build NC bonds.
The Smart Roads Alliance, a local transportation advocacy group formed in 2002 to combat a proposed road from U.S. 441 to U.S. 74 Sylva, re-formed to fight R-5600 but has not had a meeting since Sept. 13.
The group’s leader, Sylva lawyer Jay Coward, at that meeting proposed asking for an economic impact study.
He reached out to Western Carolina University faculty and staff members about the possibility of conducting the study and went before the county commission and Sylva town board and asked for funds to make it happen.
“I have had no response, so my conclusion is that the town and the county don’t care what the economic impact is to the community and are just going to allow the DOT to run over the business community,” Coward said. “I just wish that someone on the town board or the county commission would just say ‘Stop.’ I think it’s just bad government.”
Coward will drop in to the Dec. 9 meeting.
“My idea is to wait and see what happens at the meeting and see what they have to say and take my leave from there,” he said. “I hate to say the road is inevitable, but I’m not a fool, either. I will say that I think if this road happens as it’s planned, it is going to be so much more expensive than the DOT is putting out there.”
Jeannie Kelley, owner of Kris-Mart and Kel-Save, both of which would be impacted by the project, has also been active in the Say No to the Road group. She also registered the group as a political action committee, she said.
“We’re not going to give up,” she said. “I think Mr. Burch is just trying to convince everybody it is a done deal. I always say ‘Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.’ We’re still going to be fighting. He’s a smooth talker, a nice man, and he wants to put the word out that it’s a done deal. That has been his job all along.”
Kelley can’t see herself ever giving up.
“We will keep fighting to the end, until the bulldozer comes,” she said. “And then I might be on it.”