Lackluster at best and run-down at worst, it’s no question the has-been commercial district on Western Carolina University’s doorstep needs a life line.
Jackson County will begin building the first leg of a long-awaited greenway along the Tuckasegee River this summer.
The vision is grand: a snaking, multi-use recreational path along the shores of the Tuckaseegee River — approximately 20 miles stretching from East Laporte to Whittier — lined with trees, dotted with parks, fishing spots, river access, picnic tables and pedestrian bridges.
Thanks to work obligations that have put me in Franklin several days at a time these last few weeks, I've had the opportunity in recent days to run, walk and stagger along that town's greenway.
I know I've plucked on this harp, honked this horn and beat on this drum a few times before, but I'd like to replay an oh-so-familiar tune again: greenways are cool. Greenways are great. Greenways, in fact, are just about the best legacy I can imagine elected officials creating to mark their times served in office.
I write this in the fervent hope that Jackson County will continue in its pursuit of something similar to what Macon County has created. Because if any community could use a greenway, it would be this one: I live just outside Sylva, and I'm here to tell you that this is a hard place to walk and run safely about. Or at least, to do that anywhere enjoyable — running beside the four-lane highway in the bike lanes is not my idea, or many other people's idea, of particularly enjoyable.
Swain County, my home turf, is unusually blessed in that the community has easy access to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Go out to Deep Creek any morning and you'll find scores of local residents walking the 4.2-mile roundtrip loop. Those more intrepid souls easily can add harder terrain and distance — Indian Creek Falls, Noland Creek and more. When the lake is down, many residents opt to take their walks and runs along Fontana.
What Swain County lacks is an indoor recreation center. But that's a column for another day.
Haywood County has Lake Junaluska, a great gift to those in the community looking for somewhere safe and scenic to walk and run. Back when I worked everyday in Waynesville, I'd spend early morning hours working out at Lake Junaluska, adding distance and variety by trotting along the roads winding about within the Methodist community.
Sylva is much harder than these other communities for those seeking a place to exercise outside.
Occasionally I simply run and walk the roads in the community where I live. But one gets bored, or I get bored, with doing the same workout day in and day out.
There is a trail around Southwestern Community College. And though I appreciate its existence and on occasion avail myself of that trail, frankly SCC's path would challenge a mountain goat. Some days I'm just not up to that level of workout.
When there's time I drive to the end of Locust Creek Road, navigate through the trash pile at the bottom, and run those rough roads and paths for an hour or so. That's fairly enjoyable, but I do feel odd when I round turns and come face to face with pickup trucks and ATVs with local guys four-wheeling away the day. We just wave and go our respective ways, but I worry I'm in their way and that my presence adds a potential safety issue to their traditional mud-flinging fun.
Western Carolina University, I should certainly mention, is working on a five-mile long multi-use trail.
Keep in mind that volunteers are needed to help with trail construction there this spring and summer and with ongoing maintenance. To that end there's a trail-building workshop on campus Saturday, March 24. The workshop includes a required classroom session in The Cats Den in Brown Hall from 9 a.m. until noon led by a trail care crew from the International Mountain Bicycling Association, plus lunch and afternoon work on the trails. The training will prepare volunteers to build that five-mile trail at WCU for walkers, hikers, trail runners and mountain bikers this spring and summer.
I am concerned about mixing all users together. I used to run regularly at the region's most famous mountain bike destination, Tsali Recreation Area on the Swain-Graham county lines, which has four trails. The trails are open to hikers, bikers and riders on horseback, but on a strictly enforced rotating schedule. I would never have run on a trail with the mountain bikers on a heavy-use day — it would have been dangerous for them and me.
That said, I'm happy to see any trails being built in the area, and I'm sure WCU will work out any kinks in usage as problems, if any, play out.
But what I really hope is that Jackson County moves forward with acquiring the land needed to build a true greenway system. This community, of all of the communities in this region, could truly use one.
Waynesville leaders are looking for a way to keep guns out of town parks and recreation centers despite changes in the state’s conceal carry law that allow guns in more places than before.
A new state law stipulating where concealed weapons can and can’t be carried seem to leave a gray area when it comes to town parks. The town of Waynesville has always banned concealed weapons at town parks and would like to keep doing so but likewise doesn’t want to go against the new state law.
The law passed last year prevents concealed guns from being carried in recreational and athletic facilities and schools. And, under the law, weapons are legally allowed in some formerly prohibited places such as bars and state parks. While the state tried to be specific where guns are banned, however, the verbiage is ambiguous in some respects.
“There are a lot of questions in our mind, ‘what is an athletic facility? Is a dog park an athletic facility?’” said Town Manager Lee Galloway during a meeting with town leaders earlier this month.
The town’s recreation center on Vance Street and the nearby baseball and soccer fields could be classified as athletic facilities and still ban weapons. The dog park, which is completely surrounded by athletic facilities, would also remain gun free.
Prior to the state law change, Waynesville already had an ordinance in place that prevented people from carrying concealed weapons in town parks.
Several North Carolina communities, including Blowing Rock and Hickory, have begun to question the legislature’s decision, he said. Some town boards have decided not to loosen their ordinances to fall in line with the state.
“It has pretty well been concluded that this will end up in court at some point,” Galloway said.
Mayor Gavin Brown asked the town attorney to draft an ordinance even though a likely court battle over the legislation would leave a final outcome up in the air. And, if the town passes the new ordinance before the matter is resolved, the board can simply adjust it as needed.
“We can change the ordinance” if necessary, Brown said.
Despite any arguments over gun rights, the fact remains that neither Waynesville nor any town in North Carolina has had a problem with permitted gun-toting individuals. Those with permits generally obey the law with respects to their weapons and only use it for protection.
Police Chief Bill Hollingsed said he could not find incidents involving a permitted carrier using a gun at a sporting event or in a park.
“I can’t say that we have a big problem with this; we can’t find any city in the state that has a problem with this,” Hollingsed said.
The people that the town and police need to be concerned about are those who do not have permits but carry a weapon anyway, the town board agreed. The law will not prevent that individual from committing a crime.
“You worry about the people who are going to carry a concealed weapon no matter what the law is,” Hollingsed said.
One of the nicest things about Franklin is the town’s greenway along the Little Tennessee River.
The greenway has become a uniting feature in Macon County. Work started on the project in the late 1990s, and seeing it through to completion required the partnership and labor of many. As a result of all this hard work, today there are five miles or so of trail, bridges over the river, shelters, playgrounds and more. The greenway is something folks from many different walks of life enjoy, and on any given day, you’ll find old people, young people, runners, walkers and picnickers.
I have jogged on Franklin’s greenway. I’ve gone bird watching along it. I’ve paddled a kayak up and down the river by way of the beautiful and convenient put-in that’s been built. I’ve sat many a time by the Little Tennessee and eaten lunch under one of the greenway shelters. These shelters are my preferred dining halls whenever I’m working on a Macon County-based news article.
I do regret the greenway wasn’t available when I lived and worked full-time in Macon County. Before it was built, accessing the river in Franklin was a mucky, muddy affair. The only people who usually bothered were a few stalwart fishermen and the town’s winos. They (the winos, though maybe the fishermen, too) nipped and napped under the bridges.
Having designated greenways in such a nature-abundant region as Western North Carolina seems nonsensical, perhaps. A waste of taxpayer dollars and a waste of land that might be better put to use in more practical ways — for jobs, or for homes, or for other similar utilitarian-type uses that aren’t so, well, airy-fairy and urban-sounding.
I admit to feeling a bit that way at one time.
These days, however, thanks to the Little Tennessee River Greenway in Franklin, I embrace the whole concept of greenways. The more the merrier, including one I hope in Jackson County, where I’m living now.
During a recent work session held by commissioners, the greenway folks in Jackson County warned that it could take years to pull the project here together. Right-of-way issues seem to present the biggest, time-delaying obstacle.
So, if you own land along the Tuckasegee where Jackson County wants to build its greenway (there’s apparently 10 or 12 of you, most of whom have shown a willingness to participate), please hurry up and sign the papers: for me, and for you.
For you because my understanding is a greenway will enhance the value of your property. I’m certainly envious — not so much about any increase in land values you’ll enjoy, but because of the enjoyment you’ll get from access to county-maintained trails built near your homes. There they will be whenever you feel the urge to run, to walk, or to easily and safely get down to the river for fishing and boating and picnicking — what could be better, for me and for you?
If, as a property owner or general resident of Jackson County, you still harbor doubts, take a short drive over Cowee Mountain and stroll along the greenway in Franklin. I believe, like me, you’ll become an instant convert.
Franklin High students became active volunteers in a service-learning program this fall to improve the ecosystem along the Franklin Greenway.
More than 40 students, along with local community members, conducted a three-day site inventory and extraction of exotic invasive plants along two miles of the greenway in October.
Exotic invasive plants have seriously degraded the natural areas along the greenway. Exotic plants spread aggressively and monopolize light, nutrients and space to the detriment of native species. As a result, animals that rely on native plants for food and shelter also suffer losses.
“The worst exotic invasive plants change the character of entire ecosystems,” said Mary Bennett, Southwestern Community College’s GEAR UP College Readiness Coach.
Controlling exotic invasive plants is labor intensive, in this case requiring pulling, digging and chopping.
“It’s just plain hard work!” observed sophomore Clinton Anderson, who eagerly uprooted 10-foot-tall shrubs from the woods.
In addition to the manual labor, the program was coupled with classroom instruction, guest speakers and fieldwork exercises.
“Participating in a practical and hands-on activity while communicating with professionals enables the students to improve technical skills and job readiness while increasing their career awareness,” said Bennett.
Other groups participating in the project included Western North Carolina Alliance, Friend of the Greenway, Coweeta Hydrological Lab, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and Land Trust for the Little Tennessee.
“The students really took to the responsibility of protecting the natural habitat and wanted to leave it in better shape,” said Franklin Agriculture Teacher Devon Deal.
Despite their conceptual support for a greenway along the Tuckasegee River, Jackson County commissioners expressed hesitation about purchasing land to establish it.
At a meeting Monday, the commissioners unanimously approved spending about $39,580 on a 1.4-acre plot but also unanimously tabled the $178,000 purchase of a 14.2-acre parcel.
Had both purchases been approved, the first mile of the proposed 4.5-mile greenway between Sylva and Cullowhee would have been established remarkably quickly.
Commissioner Tom Massie most strongly opposed the purchase, not on the property’s merits but because of the possibility of setting a precedent that could eventually cost the county dearly.
Massie said the county should try to buy conservation easements instead, where the property remains in private ownership but allows the greenway to pass through it. It’s less expensive than buying parcels outright.
“We do not have enough money to,” said Massie. “We need to be very careful about which tracts we’re going to buy and which tracts we’re going to buy a conservation easement on.”
Massie expressed disbelief that the landlocked 14-acre plot with no road access could carry a $178,000 price tag.
“I can’t believe that price,” said Massie. “I don’t think that’s a fair value.”
Massie suggested the county negotiate further with the property owners.
Commissioner William Shelton expressed the same worry of setting an undesirable precedent by approving purchases rather than pursuing easements.
While County Manager Ken Westmoreland agreed that outright purchases could set a precedent, future deals also depend on the “motivation and interest” of the parties involved.
“We do have one property owner adjacent to these two pieces that will make a complete donation to the county,” said Westmoreland.
According to Westmoreland, the 14-acre plot, owned by Carolyn Cabe, was identified in the greenway master plan as not only a location for the greenway itself but possibly other amenities like a resting area, a picnic area or a shelter.
“It’s relatively flat,” said Westmoreland. “It is a very usable piece.”
The 1.4-acre parcel, purchased from Anita Samuel, fronts the Tuckasegee River and includes a 16-foot existing right of way belonging to the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority.
The right of way would allow the county to secure Clean Water Management Trust Funds and other funds down the road, Westmoreland said.
The greenway master plan, adopted by the commissioners this year, recommends that the greenway between Sylva and Cullowhee, utilizing an existing sewer line easement as the primary trail corridor, as well as some additional footage for buffering and stream bank protection.
Emily Elders, recreation project manager for Jackson County, said the entire corridor is fairly undeveloped with homes.
For nearly a decade, a group of Jackson County residents have envisioned a greenway that would meander for miles from one end of the county to the other. Now, the Greenway Committee is finally ready to turn this lofty goal into a reality — and they want the public to help.
The Greenway Committee’s Master Plan envisions a path that from Cashiers to Whittier, passing through the county’s communities and towns along the way and using the Tuckasegee River corridor as an anchor.
But what section should be completed first? Should the trail be made of dirt, gravel, stone or wood? Where should trail entrances and overlooks be? What spaces could the greenway help preserve?
“This is so important,” said Linda Dickert, a Greenway Committee member. “The other counties have one, and there’s no reason Jackson can’t, too. This gives people a safe area that they can take their kids, bike, hike, and see the absolute beauty of this county.”
A series of public workshops next week will give the public a chance to voice their opinion, said Emily Elders, recreation project manager for the county.
The workshops will allow residents of Jackson County to collaborate on a dream that has been several years in the making, and wasn’t always easy to pursue.
The Greenway Commission was formed in 2000, but lacked paid staff or a dedicated source of funding.
“I think one of the problems we had when we started was we didn’t have the authority or the guidance and we didn’t know what we were supposed to do,” said Dickert.
The group had plenty of ideas, but not much direction.
“They got a lot of plans done, but it was hard to get anything on the ground,” Elders said.
A major obstacle was the lack of funding.
“It was overwhelming,” Dickert said. “We looked at this plan, and I’m thinking, how in the world are we going to do this? We were trying to do it for little or no money.”
The commission eventually decided it needed a full-time person dedicated to pursuing the dream of a greenway. Elders was hired in September of last year and got the ball rolling.
The first leg of the greenway will break ground next month in the form of a sidewalk between Sylva and Dillsboro and a trail through Mark Watson Park.
Charting a path
Much of the challenge, as with any greenway project, will be convincing landowners to let the trail pass through their property.
“We have looked at different ways to do it,” Elders said. “Of course, we would rather have a voluntary agreement to cross a property. If we needed to acquire property, that’s obviously going to be a challenge because we have such limited funding. Land is not cheap to buy.”
Elders hopes people will see the merits of a greenway in that it helps preserve natural areas.
“Not only do you have recreational benefits, but you have environmental benefits,” Elders said. “In the long run, if you’re doing it correctly, it’s preserving public access to natural resources.”
Some of the route will inevitably run along sidewalks, but the goal is to keep it along waterways as much as possible. The public will help define the exact path the greenway will take.
Sewer lines owned by Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority follow the river and creek cooridors in the area, potentially providing the right of way for some segments.
The public workshops will also double as a chance to create an alternative transportation plan for the county.
“We’re doing a bike and pedestrian component of the plan for anyone interested in riding their bike or walking to work, or biking and walking for recreation,” said Elders.
Connecting individual communities so people can get around safely is a major goal of the greenway, Elders said.
Elders hopes the series of public workshops will keep the greenway momentum going.
“I don’t want it to fall by the wayside like it has before,” Elders said. “I want to make sure that we keep doing things. As limited as the funding is, you can do a lot more than you think. Eventually, a cohesive system will be there.”
Environmental groups in Macon County are joining forces to tackle the scourge of exotic plants along the Little Tennessee Greenway in Franklin.
Exotic plants undermine the natural ecosystem, pushing out native plants and the wildlife that depend on them. The Greenway Invasives Partnership includes Friends of the Greenway, the Western North Carolina Alliance and the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee.
A growing network of volunteers has already launched an on-the-ground offensive to stem the tide of exotics, showing the potential for a comprehensive project to manage exotics on the greenway.