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fr sherbyAfter being at the helm of Region A’s Southwestern Commission, Executive Director Ryan Sherby tendered his resignation on March 1 to the board of directors.

fr swcLess money and stiffer competition for grants means that Western North Carolina needs to have a solid plan in place to show the need in the region and stay competitive.

fr swcommissionOne day they were operating out of the community center building in Sylva and the next they were moving into a singlewide trailer in Bryson City. Some years federal grant money rolled in hand over fist, and other years they fought tooth and nail for highly competitive grants for their communities. They’ve seen years of unchecked growth and years of economic stagnation.

A one-of-a-kind database that encompasses virtually every aspect of life in Western North Carolina, from ecology to economics, is now available to decision makers, business leaders and the public. 

The Mountain Resources Commission, a group formed in 2009 to study environmental and economic issues facing WNC, recently unveiled the vitality index. 

The way road projects get selected and prioritized in the state’s six westernmost counties might shift slightly following meetings this week and last by local government officials and transportation experts.

The method of weighing the projects will be tweaked to heighten safety issues. Crash data compiled by the state Highway Patrol will be factored into the equation. Elected officials serving on the Transportation Advisory Committee said, however, they want to see what that actually does to the alignment of projects before endorsing the approach.

How exactly the state Department of Transportation moves forward on road building and road improving has raised pointed questions recently about political and personal gain versus public good and needs. Controversy in the past couple months erupted over two projects in particular: Needmore Road in Swain and Macon counties and N.C. 107 in Jackson County.

The transportation department has proposed paving and widening a 3.3-mile section of Needmore, a gravel one-lane road beside the Little Tennessee River. Needmore cuts through the protected Needmore Game Lands, and opponents say the environmental risks posed are simply too great (see accompanying article on page 9).

In Sylva, the transportation department this month held a public information session on how traffic on N.C. 107 between Sylva and Cullowhee could be reduced. Concepts included widening and building a whole new connector road. At least 200 people turned out for the session, and Smart Roads, a local activist group, promised to monitor and publicize the process going forward.

For all the outcries, no one from the public was present at either of two meetings where a bit of the rubber meets the road when it comes to transportation projects in the far west: Jackson, Macon, Swain, Cherokee, Clay and Graham counties. One meeting was for county and town planners and other government officials, a second was held Monday night for county commissioners and town council members.

Southwestern Development Commission, a regional planning group headquartered in Sylva, organized the get-togethers.

 

Who does the planning?

In the state’s six westernmost counties, road planning is headed up by the Southwestern Development Commission, headquartered in Sylva, which serves as the lead-planning agency for the rural transportation planning organization (RPO).

Southwestern Commission provides staff and GIS (geographic information system) support. The RPO consists of a technical coordinating committee (government officials) and a transportation advisory committee (elected officials). The government officials, as in real life, exist simply to make staff-level recommendations to the elected officials, who make the policies.

 

Here are the stated goals of the RPO:

• To provide a forum for public participation in the rural transportation planning process and serve as a local link for residents of the region to communicate with the transportation department.

• To develop, prioritize and promote proposed transportation projects that the RPO believes should be included in the State Transportation Improvement Program.

• To assist the transportation department in publicizing its programs and service and providing additional transportation-related information to local governments and other interested organizations and persons.

• To conduct transportation-related studies and surveys for local governments and other interested entities and organizations.

• To promote transportation as a regional issue requiring regional solutions.

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.

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