Residents value rural heritage and environment in highway debate
An overwhelming majority of citizens who showed up at a public hearing in Robbinsville spoke out against the Corridor K road project last Thursday (Oct. 29).
The proposed four-lane highway would supplant the winding, two-lane roads that are currently the only means of access to Graham County. In the process, it would bore a half-mile long tunnel — the longest in the state — through a mountain. It would also tower over the rural Stecoah Valley area.
Corridor K, a 127-mile route through the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, has been in the works for more than three decades. The DOT wants to start construction by 2014 on a 10-mile section of the 17-mile missing link in Graham County.
The road’s three goals are to bring economic development, end a geographic isolation N.C. DOT sees as dangerous, and improve steep and curvy roads that currently feature inadequate shoulders.
The highway would take the thousands of tractor-trailers out of the Nantahala Gorge, which is currently the main artery to reach Murphy but is clogged with buses loaded with rafters and kayakers.
David Monteith, a Swain County commissioner, said the new highway would increase tourism in Swain County, bringing more people in to raft the Nantahala and ride the train.
“It would bring in more people to Western North Carolina, period,” said Monteith.
But only two of the 22 speakers at the N.C. Department of Transportation hearing piped up in favor of the road. The rest enumerated every conceivable reason for why the road has no place in Graham County.
Bob Grove said the proposed roadway would not help Graham County’s economy. It would more likely provide easy access to a big-box chain stores like Wal-Mart than to downtown stores. For Grove, the highway provides an open invitation to local residents to head out of town to do their shopping.
Grove and many others suggested that it would be far less expensive and less destructive to improve the existing roads, rather than build a highway that would destroy the town’s main draw for tourists: scenic, winding two-lane roads.
Tom Hoffman of Virginia said he might stop coming to Graham County if the highway is built and that he would not return to “ooh and aah at a freeway interchange.”
Many voiced concerns about Robbinsville losing its rural character and transforming into yet another American “Clonesville,” with strip malls, billboards and fast-food chains lining the streets.
Others who objected said second home owners, who would surely come with the highway, would jack up tax values and drive out today’s local residents.
“It’s a euphemistic thing to be calling it economic development,” said Brian Rau of Stecoah. “To me, it’s just plain development.”
The issue hit close to home for Guy Roberts, who would lose the property that’s been in his family for five generations and more than a hundred years.
“We would like to preserve what is there for future generations,” said Roberts’ son-in-law Jeff Phillips. “I want to be able to fish with my grandchildren and have horses and cows they can play with. I want to be there for the rest of my life.”
A telling example of Graham County’s position came at two points in the night. Nearly everybody raised their hands when asked if they were against the road. When Melbe Millsaps asked who actually worked in Graham County, only a handful went up.
Millsaps said even though Corridor K would cut through her property, it would also provide more jobs and better access to education and healthcare for Graham County. Millsaps said she knows how dangerous the roads there can be after being forced to commute two hours each way to get to her nursing school.
“I think it’s time for Graham County to move into the 21st century and build the road,” Millsaps said.
Denny Mobbs, who lives in Ocoee, Tenn., agreed and said it’s time to bring some development into Graham County.
“We don’t want a pristine impoverishment,” said Mobbs.
Others worried about the road’s environmental impact, including air, noise and water pollution. The tunnel, which would be a major expense of the project, avoids the Appalachian Trail by going under it.
Melanie Mayes, a Knoxville geologist, said the N.C. DOT had not released any information about the possibility of landslides and acid leaching out of rocks.
Mayes pointed out that there was not even a single geologic map on the environmental impact study that was released. When Lewis said the N.C. DOT would give her all that information, Mayes retorted that it should have been released long ago.
Graham County Commissioner Steve Odom reminded citizens that even though Corridor K is controversial, they should realize that the county’s roads do need to be fixed in some way.
“It’s dangerous, I tell you,” said Odom. “You folks have a lot to debate, but we have some immediate needs, too.”
Weigh in on Corridor K
Let the N.C. DOT know what you think about the Corridor K Project by Dec. 4.