The tiny town of Webster has suddenly emerged as a player in whether a controversial $12 million entrance road is built into neighboring Southwestern Community College.
That’s because the state Department of Transportation wants the town to sign off on a municipal agreement for the new route from N.C. 107 to N.C. 116. In other words, the town is still large enough to encompass some of the road’s boundaries, and that means big DOT seems to need little Webster’s OK.
But if a meeting of the town board last week is any indication of which way the wind might be blowing, it looks like this town of fewer than 500 souls could put the kibosh on SCC’s road, a pet project of SCC Board of Trustees President Conrad Burrell. He is also this region’s board of transportation member. The board, until Gov. Beverly Perdue somewhat changed the process recently, has had virtually total say-so on what roads get built when, and where, in North Carolina.
Burrell voted three times to give the SCC road project money, with $680,000 since 2007 already tagged for the new SCC entrance. Despite also sitting on the community college board, his voting does not violate the state ethics law. Burrell has emphasized that he does not view his advocacy for the road as improper since he does not stand to gain personally. A new building going up on campus has been named in honor of Burrell, partly in acknowledgement of his strenuous efforts to see the road built.
The college currently has only one road in and out, and if something happened to block that road, students could be stranded on the hillside campus, Burrell has said.
But others aren’t so sure this is a good use of such a large chunk of taxpayer dollars.
“I personally have some concerns about this,” said Webster Mayor Larry Phillips. “Not so much about the road itself, but the cost of the project.”
That concern, Phillips indicated, is directly attributable to Jackson County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jack Debnam, who has embarked on a one-man crusade against the DOT project.
Debnam has publicly questioned whether a new entrance road for SCC is that important when compared to other state road needs. Debnam met with DOT officials, reporting to The Smoky Mountain News, “I told them this whole thing stinks so bad I can’t hardly stand to stay in the room. I told them I was going to do everything in my power to stop them.”
Debnam is scheduled to meet with each of Jackson County’s three town boards to layout those concerns, including Webster. Debnam also used his position as commission chairman to stump against the project during a county meeting. Commissioner Joe Cowan countered Debnam’s criticism of the road. Cowan last week repeated his call that it would be only fair invite the DOT to a meeting to give its side on the project.
Cowan, like Burrell, is a Democrat, while Debnam is a conservative-leaning Independent.
County Manager Chuck Wooten said a date in July or August for such a discussion has been tentatively set, per Cowan’s request.