The historic significance of the Cowee Valley corridor received a national boost this month following the designation of N.C. 28 as part of the Indian Lakes Scenic Byway.
“We had to make our case for the project, document the project and show its scenic and cultural importance,” said Ryan Sherby, who works for the Southwestern Commission, a group charged by the state with spearheading regional planning and administration.
The N.C. Board of Transportation voted this month to extend the byway designation by 20 miles. Jeff Lackey, state coordinator for the Scenic Byways program, dubbed N.C. 28 “a natural fit” because of the environmental and geographical qualities of the area it runs through.
The corridor passes by historic West’s Mill Village and through the ancient village of Cowee, once the principal commercial and diplomatic center of the Cherokee Indians. West’s Mill was the site of a gristmill built by a family of that name. Stores, schools, churches and barns were built in the 19th and early 20th century near the mill. Many of those buildings remain today.
The new segment of this scenic byway will get official state signs and be included in the Scenic Byways Guide, which provides information on all 55 such byways in the state. The promotion as a scenic highway could help fuel additional tourism in the area.
Indian Lakes Scenic Byway starts at the far tip of Fontana Lake. It snakes around the lake, through Stecoah and ends at the Nantahala Gorge. It now continues along N.C. 28, paralleling the Little Tennessee River and ending in downtown Franklin.
Sharon Taylor, deputy director of the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, a Franklin-based conservation group that focuses on the Upper Little Tennessee and Hiwassee River valleys, said the designation is more than just a nice appellation — it helps underscore the importance of the area, and the work being undertaken to preserve its heritage.
“There is real significance,” Taylor said. “There is just so much going on.”
Most recently, community members attended a public workshop to discuss the future of Cowee School. The school will close in two years and be replaced by Iotla Valley Elementary School. County leaders and the Cowee Community Development Organization will review a report on suggestions gathered at the workshop. The Cowee organization is a particularly active community group, and has been instrumental in such initiatives as helping to gain the Scenic Byway designation.
In practical terms, being dubbed a scenic byway doesn’t limit any development except for new outdoor advertising, such as billboards, which can’t be placed within 660 feet of the nearest edge of the highway’s right of way, said Julia Merchant, a spokeswoman for the transportation department.
State law specifically states there is no required modification in local land-use regulations or restrictions, or in commercial or agricultural activities, future highway work, development, or road maintenance or improvements.
For more information, access the state’s Website at www.ncdot.gov/travel/scenic.