Of the four options, three cross the Little Tennessee River. Those three provide little variation, however.
“There is very little difference in any of those alternatives except they are geographically located a few hundred yards from each other,” said Brent Martin, a Franklin resident and environmentalist.
At first, the three nearly identical routes that cross the river were the only ones on the DOT’s official list. A fourth option was added later at the behest of state and federal environmental agencies who don’t like the idea of a river crossing. The fourth option still includes significant new road construction, and goes close to the river on both sides, but doesn’t actually cross it.
The DOT held a public hearing in Franklin last month to get comments on the routes. But several participants at the hearing questioned whether their input mattered.
“I didn’t feel like there was much opportunity to influence this decision at all,” said Jenny Sanders, executive director of the Little Tennessee Watershed Association.
For starters, “no-build” was not an option. Nor was upgrading the existing road.
“They did not offer a wide enough range of alternatives in this process,” Martin said. It seemed rather predetermined, he said.
Bob Scott, a Franklin alderman, went so far as to call the public hearing a dog and pony show.
“What has amazed me is that they aren’t considering a no-build alternative,” Scott said. “They have come in and said ‘you will take one of these options that we have designed.’ I think their mind is already made up.”
A “no-build” alternative is usually included in the line-up of options presented by the DOT for public comment, and at the least included in an environmental review of road options. In this case, the “no-build” option was nixed early on.
“The no-build alternative was eliminated,” said James Bridges, a DOT planner in Raleigh over the project. “We looked at no-build and it did not meet the purpose and need.”
Conrad Burrell, the region’s representative on the state DOT board, wants a road that crosses the river. He made his position clear at a invitation-only meeting between the DOT and local officials in Macon County in June 2006. At that point, the DOT only had three options on the books — all of which crossed the river. But the DOT was being pressured by environmental agencies to add a fourth option.
According to minutes of the meeting, Burrell said he didn’t understand the problem with crossing the river.
“Mr. Burrell commented that much of the surrounding property will be developed. He said a dead-end spur did not seem logical ... a dead-end spur will not work,” according to minutes of the meeting. Specifically, Burrell cited the need to serve the community college campus.
Burrell has the final say over what road gets built. He sits on the state’s 14-member DOT board that approves road projects. When it comes to a road in a particular region, board members from elsewhere in the state defer to the member from that region. If Burrell wants a road that crosses the river, the rest of the DOT board would likely go along with it.
Other local officials at the meeting agreed with Burrell. They didn’t simply want upgrades to Siler Road, but wanted a new road that crossed the river and tied into U.S. 441 on both sides. Connie Haire, a representative of Southwestern Community College, asked the DOT what would happen if a fourth option wasn’t added to the list.
“The (environmental) agencies would view it as a lack of effort to address their concerns,” replied Joel Setzer, the head of the DOT for the 10 western counties, according to the minutes.
Adding a fourth option
Environmental agencies had been questioning why the DOT couldn’t simply upgrade existing Siler Road. It would still provide better access to the community college without crossing the river. Representatives of the N.C. Division of Water Quality, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service all voiced such concerns during various planning meetings on the road.
According to minutes from one such meeting in December 2005, Marla Chambers with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission said “she did not see the need for the proposed road. She said the new road would encourage development next to the river, where development should instead be discouraged.”
Brian Wrenn with the N.C. Division of Water Quality suggested improving the existing Siler Road instead.
In March 2006, the DOT held another meeting with the environmental agencies. A fourth option had yet to be added to the list, and Chambers and Wrenn, along with Cris Militscher of the EPA, wanted to know why.
DOT planner James Bridges said DOT had looked into it but was unable to come up with a good alternative.
“He said that a meeting was conducted on the subject and that no conclusion was reached on an option to improve the existing (road) that would meet the purpose and need of the project,” according to the minutes.
Serving private development seems to be the leading factor behind option A, which traverses private commercial property but misses the community college. That, along with its proximity to the existing highway, caused representatives of the environmental agencies to question Option A at a meeting in March 2006.
The DOT consultant handling the road project explained that option A “would provide access to sites slated for development,” according to the minutes. A report handed out at the same meeting stated: “As these sites develop, they will provide new jobs that could enhance the area’s economy.”
To cross or not to cross
DOT ultimately came up with a fourth option. It doesn’t cross the river, appeasing the environmental agencies, but it doesn’t rely solely on upgrades to existing roads either. The fourth option recreates Siler Road as a loop with two intersections onto U.S. 441 (Georgia Road.). A spur road off the loop would lead to the library, college campus, and ultimately down to the river, but stops short of crossing it.
Dr. Cecil Groves, president of Southwestern Community College, prefers one of the options that cross the river, however.
“Otherwise you are going to have a dead-end,” Groves said.
Making Siler Road into a loop still means all the traffic still has to funnel in off the same stretch of U.S. 441 rather than from two different directions.
“You are just making a circular in and out,” Groves said.
The college campus could be home to 2,000 students one day. But that is just part of the need for the area, Groves said. There is also the new library, plans for a county recreation center and commercial development.
“When you put all those pieces together that are going to come in there, if you are going to handle traffic flow in that area you are going to have to pull it across to the other side,” Groves said of the new road.
James Vanderwoude, a private developer with 96 acres in the vicinity of the new road, agreed.
“You could have Siler Road six lanes but you would still have congestion at the intersection of Siler Road with U.S. 441. I don’t think that works long term,” Vanderwoude said. Vanderwoude plans to build hotels, restaurants and shops patterned after the fictional town of Mayberry from The Andy Griffith Show. Vanderwoude prefers option A — which provides his planned development with the most road frontage. Groves prefers option C — which gives the community college campus the most road frontage.
At a meeting between the DOT and local officials in Macon County in June 2006, Joel Setzer, head of the DOT for the 10 western counties, said the community college and library should take priority over private commercial development when selecting the final route. Setzer said the option “that best serves public institutions should be of high importance” and asked which “would be most compatible with the community college and the library,” according to the minutes.
But residents on the other side of the river don’t like the idea of any option that crosses the river as it would funnel traffic through their community as an alternate to U.S. 441.
“It is going to cause a whole lot more traffic through our community,” said John Baldwin, a resident of Clarks Chapel community. “They want to use our community as a cut through.”
Baldwin thinks Vanderwoude’s Mayberry development is driving the project in general.
“That will be his only access to his little village,” Baldwin said.
The Little Tennessee Watershed Association has taken a formal stand against a new road over the river as well.
“The organization is opposed to any alternative that crosses the river,” said Jenny Sanders, director of the watershed group.
The DOT has already conducted an environmental assessment for the project, much to the surprise of Sanders. The group is the leading organization concerned with water quality in the river and they had not been informed of the environmental assessment.
The DOT did not formally announce that it was conducting an environmental assessment for the project prior to embarking on it. Nor did it formally announce a public comment period on the environmental assessment once it was completed.
Instead, what was billed as a public hearing on the road project in general doubled as a public hearing on the environmental assessment. That was not clear in the public notice of the meeting, nor made clear by those running the meeting, Sanders said.
— By Becky Johnson