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Plan hatched to untangle town street from school parking lot

fr brownavedOfficer Dave Clancey has a dicey job, perhaps the most dangerous of any cop in Haywood County. But instead of dodging bullets, Clancey dodges cars.

Every morning and afternoon, Clancey reports for duty along the double yellow line in front of Waynesville Middle School to usher hundreds of students back and forth across the busy street that bisects the school’s parking lot.

“It can get hairy sometimes,” said Clancey, the school resource officer who doubles twice daily as a crossing guard. He essentially serves as a human shield, slowing drivers down by standing in the road with nothing but a florescent yellow vest between him the passing cars, their rearview mirrors breezing by with mere inches to spare.

The configuration of Waynesville Middle’s parking lot is both hazardous and inconvenient.

Brown Avenue — a fairly busy town street — runs between the school and its overflow parking lot where students are dropped off and picked up every day. 

“Students who are car riders have to cross a main thoroughfare in town to get to our car pickup,” Waynesville Middle Principal Trevor Putnam said.

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The unfortunate design wasn’t intentional. The street was there first, and the school’s parking lot grew up around it.

For years, there’s been talk of fixing it. In theory, it would be simple enough for the road and parking lot to switch places.

The street could be rerouted to the far side of the parking lot — scooting along the perimeter instead of through the middle — and in turn, the parking lot could be shifted closer to the school to close up the space where the street used to be.

“It seems like a no-brainer,” said David Foster, the Waynesville Public Services director.

The simple solution of the street and parking lot trading places so hordes of students aren’t crossing the street each day is a costly one, however — $550,000 according to an engineering study commissioned by the town and school system eight years ago.

“The town and school said, ‘Gee that’s a lot of money,’” Foster said.

The town lobbied the N.C. Department of Transportation to take on the project, but it has been parked on a waiting list indefinitely for several years.

Last year, Foster took up the cause to get the project off the waiting list and on the official DOT docket.

To move up in the pecking order, the project needed an endorsement by a multi-county transportation planning committee. The committee ranks projects by importance, and those recommendations are in turn factored into the DOT’s to-do list. Foster, along with school representatives, convinced the committee to score the project high on the priority list that gets sent up the chain to the DOT.

“When we told our story everybody said ‘Oh my gosh,’” Foster said.

It worked, and the project was recently awarded funding. The DOT agreed to pay for 80 percent of the work, with the remaining 20 percent to come from the town and school system.

“The town and the school board are both going to have a little skin in the game,” Foster said. “We are going to have to swap properties and we are both going to have to kick in money.”

The town and school system are still working out how exactly they will divvy up the local share, and will have to negotiate a property swap in order for the street and parking lot to switch places.

In the meantime, to get the ball rolling with the DOT, both the town board and school board have signed off on the project in principle.

The town board gave the project a vote of confidence last week, and the school board two weeks ago.

“It will be safer for the kids because they won’t have to be going over Brown Avenue,” said Walt Leatherwood, school board member. Leatherwood told the rest of the school board that the school system’s cost would be $55,000.

That’s assuming the eight-year-old estimate of $550,000 is still accurate, however, and that the local match of $110,000 would be split equally between the town and school.

“It is going to be a bit pricey, but when you are talking about kids crossing streets, it seems sensible,” said Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown.

Putnam said it is a welcome project.

“I think it greatly enhances the safety of our campus and students,” he said. 

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