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HCC student spearheads effort to restore East Street Park

When Katie Messer first presented her plan to improve water quality and generally spruce up a little-used park in Waynesville, she was just trying to pass a class. The report was intended as her capstone project for the low-impact development program at Haywood Community College, a degree that prepares students to reimagine spaces and construction projects so as to have the least environmental impact possible. 

Now, the East Street Park project is up for a $20,000 grant from the Pigeon River Fund that, if awarded, could translate Messer’s report into real-life change. 

 

“It’s all just been thrown together, and I’m just really shocked that it’s going this far,” said Messer, 27. “And excited. I’m excited also.”

Ralphene Rathbone, a friend of Messer’s, was the one who really “kicked me in the butt” to try bringing the project to fruition, Messer said, because she saw the potential in the concept and in its initial reception. 

“I was able to go [to Messer’s presentation], and I was very impressed with the whole plan for the project, and also I was impressed with the support that she had in the room,” said Rathbone, a former chemistry lab instructor at Brevard College and Haywood County native. 

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The crux of the project is a plan to improve water quality in the little tributary to Shelton Branch that runs through the 5.8-acre park. Shelton Branch runs into Richland Creek, which Haywood Waterways Association has for years been trying to get off the state’s list of impaired waterways. 

Erosion around the stream in East Street Park had gotten so bad that it was undercutting the road, and chunks of asphalt were falling into the water. The town had to do some emergency work to keep it from impacting the road any more.

The small park has a good bit of hard surface on it, as well, which creates water quality issues when stormwater runs off into the stream. 

“For such a small area, there’s actually quite a bit of impervious surface,” said Eric Romaniszyn, director of Haywood Waterways, the lead applicant on the grant. 

The water quality part of the project, which is what the grant would fund, would focus on stabilizing the streambank so soil doesn’t erode away and possibly working on the channel itself. Right now, the channel is curved like a “c,” a formation that makes it easier for soil to erode. By reshaping it to a “v,” erosion could be reduced. 

The project would also include removing invasive species from the streambank and replacing them with native plants. Natives tend to have roots that are better at holding soil down, plus they’re better food for wildlife. Romaniszyn would like to see the native plantings include species that provide good shade, as well, because more shade equals cooler water, and cooler water is better for aquatic life. 

“There are probably not trout in there, but there’s probably trout downstream,” he said. “Anything we do to keep water cold goes a long way.”

A rain garden, which would use plants to catch storm runoff, and a better gutter system along the road, would also be components. 

While also going after the grant, Messer and Rathbone are busy drumming up support from the community, and they’ve been making good headway. With monetary and in-kind donations combined, they’ve got enough for a one-to-one match with the $20,000 grant. Supporters include the Boy Scouts, the Kiwanis Club and Trout Unlimited. The Town of Waynesville is in on the effort as well, offering to use staff time and equipment to make the project happen, with town horticulturalist Jonathan Yates pretty intimately involved in the project. 

“That will save a lot of money, just having that,” Romanizyn said. “The cash we can use for Katie and Ralphene’s time, as well as for materials.”

But Messer’s full vision for the park includes aesthetics and community benefits, as well as environmental ones. She’d like to see some new playground equipment go in — Haywood County’s 2007 master plan had recommended that happen in the 2009-10 fiscal year — as well as some bathrooms, because currently the only restrooms on site are in the Boy Scout cabin located there. Her plan also includes an interpretive nature trail, a butterfly garden and a handicapped-accessible path. 

“The Pigeon River Fund only focuses on improving water quality, so that’s where our partners would come in to help us enhance the park in other ways,” Rathbone said. 

Neither Messer nor Rathbone want to stop with East Street Park, though. There are plenty of other spaces with potential to become something greater, both for the environment and for people.

“There are a lot of parks, not even just in Waynesville, and not even just parks,” Messer said. “I think there are places that could be spruced up a little bit but done in a way to help the environment, so I would like to just keep doing things like that.” 

As the mother of a 4-year-old, an ice cream dipper at Jack the Dipper and, until graduation next December, an HCC student, Messer has plenty to keep her busy. But the sprucing up of parks and other outdoors places is something she’s found to give her joy. 

“This is just something I’m really passionate about, and especially water quality,” she said. “I think it’s really important that we need to start teaching our future generations to be environmental stewards.”

The low-impact development program is on its last legs now, being phased out due to lack of enrollment, and Messer is sad to see it go. But she’s grateful for the way that the program and its instructors have inspired her to make her community a better place to be. 

In the crosshairs for a next project is Sulphur Springs Park, an approximately 1.5-acre piece of land that houses a sulphur spring once thought to have medicinal qualities and a small gazebo. 

“Although it’s very small, I would love to talk to the homeowners surrounding the Sulphur Springs Park, just to ask them, ‘What would you like to see at this park?’” Rathbone said. 

For now, though, the East Street Park project is challenge enough. But Messer, Rathbone and Romanizyn are all crossing their fingers for the outcome of the grant awards and looking forward to the road ahead. 

“I just get really excited about it,” Messer said. “I want to help the environment and make it a more beautiful place for us all to enjoy.”

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