By Dave Russell
Residents opposed to a Sylva road construction project aren’t bringing out pitchforks and torches, but say they are getting a little more in-your-face about a future course of action.
About 30 people concerned about R-5600, locally known as the “107 project,” came to a meeting of the Smart Roads Alliance last Thursday in spite of only a two-day heads up.
Sylva lawyer and Smart Roads leader Jay Coward called the meeting in the Community Room of the Jackson County Library. The group originally formed almost 20 years ago to combat plans to build a highway connecting U.S. 23/74 with N.C. 107 and U.S. 23/441. That roadway plan never came to fruition.
Now, the N.C. Department of Transportation proposes for N.C. 107 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.
“One of the things they’ve demonstrated to me is that they are not listening,” Coward said. “How do we make them listen? How do we get them to sit down and redesign this?
“If you will continue to push the subject in front of the town board, and we need to start going in front of the county commissioners, because the county has a big say in this as well,” Coward said. “It’s not as evident that the county has as big a say, but I’m telling you, they’re paying attention.”
He pointed to a recent Sylva town board meeting, which was standing room only with a line out the door.
“Several (county) commissioners were there,” he said. “They’re paying attention.”
Coward said road opposition had lost a year’s worth of progress by trying to work with the Asheville Design Center, the NCDOT and town.
“Trying to work with somebody is not going to work, because they are not going to work with us,” he said. “All we have asked the town to do is ask the DOT to go back and clean up some of the engineering – I call it bad engineering – so it won’t be so hurtful and harmful to 107 and the business owners out there.
Coward told the group he had never said he wanted to stop this project, but if local leaders won’t listen and they won’t adapt, then maybe it’s time to shift gears.
“The ‘Say No to the Road’ group has been there from the beginning and it may be that Smart Roads needs to join up with the ‘Say No to the Road’ group and start protesting,” he said.
“My understanding of Smart Roads is that we would be gathering of all the different ideas, and that we’re here to create smart solutions,” Smart Roads member Jason Kimenker said. “If we’re trying to stop doing any improvements to 107, that’s defeating the purpose of Smart Roads in the first place.”
Kimenker said he is not sure the road project as proposed is the best solution.
“But maybe we need to continue to advocate for ourselves for the improvements that we want on this road, but to throw out all safety improvements defeats why we created Smart Roads in the first place,” he said.
Charlie Schmidt, owner of Speedy’s Pizza, which is in the project’s crosshairs, pointed out the discrepancy in employment numbers NCDOT estimated versus how many businesses employed.
NCDOT’s figures stated Speedy’s employs eight, but the actual number is about 21.
A chorus of other attendees brought up the tax base loss.
“We need an economic impact study done,” Coward said. “The town needs to engage somebody, maybe Western Carolina, maybe a private company, to tell us what kind of impact it’s going to have on our tax base, on our property values and what is the likelihood we’re going to have to raise taxes in order to keep the level of services where it is?”
Coward said he would be willing to go to the town board and make the request.
The other course of action the group decided on was to implement a public survey.
“We need to send out a county-wide survey and ask the questions that would be germane to this plan and see what the people say,” Coward said. “We need to get some brainy people together to come up with just a few real good questions. One of the questions would be ‘Is the loss of 55 businesses and 300 jobs worth the sacrifice for a new road?’”
He asked Kimenker to take the survey on and Kimenker agreed to do so.
All residents of Jackson County would be invited to participate, as the project impacts everyone, Coward said.