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Russ fuss prompts resolution

Russ fuss prompts resolution

After holding two public hearings that drew large crowds of opposition, Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown and the board of aldermen took an official stance on the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s unpopular proposal for Russ Avenue improvements.

By unanimous vote, the board passed a resolution titled “Outlining Observations and Changes to NCDOT Project U5839 Russ Avenue/Walnut Street” during its Jan. 10 meeting asking NCDOT to limit the project’s impact on Walnut Street. 

Brown and the board took the action after residents realized that the NCDOT plans to expand and improve Russ Avenue — Waynesville’s most heavily-travelled artery — would inexplicably include a portion of Walnut Street. 

Those plans would widen a portion of Walnut from Russ Avenue to North Main Street, while obliterating more than a dozen century-old trees, brick retaining walls, driveways, stairways and the unique historical character of the area. 

The town’s resolution admits that the Russ Avenue corridor has been a “high priority” for the town for more than a decade and has also been the subject of several feasibility studies by the town, but indicates the town’s desire for that corridor to be “sensitive to both the safety of the motoring public and the preservation of the town’s Spread Out Historic District.”

It goes on to ask that NCDOT “take as little private property as possible” across the scope of the project, and specifically asks that it perform “road, storm drainage, gutter and sidewalk improvements to N.C. 276 east of the railroad bridge on Walnut Street within the existing rights of way and that no taking of property be undertaken on improved parcels.”

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Charles McDarris, owner of two of those improved parcels and perhaps the most vocal opposition to the Walnut Street portion of the $18 million Russ Avenue plan, said that overall, he’s left with positive feelings. 

“I’ve said all along that this really needs to be a two-pronged approach — one being getting the board of aldermen to support the preservation of the historic district by not widening the street, and the other being to get a large number of public comments to NCDOT to let them know the residents are very concerned about the proposed project,” McDarris said. “I feel we have met both of those goals.”

While detractors of the project like McDarris don’t yet know the quantity or quality of comments provided to NCDOT, he did say he was pleased with the board’s receptiveness to the complaints it received. Throughout the public hearing process before the board, not one citizen expressed support for the widening of Walnut Street.

“Having a 5 to 0 vote was very important,” he said. “I think that they’ve recognized that there was a large public groundswell to protect the historic district, because they recognize the value of the area. That’s something everyone from resident to tourist recognizes.”

Other project concerns

The oft-professorial Brown stressed throughout the series of public comment sessions that this wasn’t just a lone instance of a town documenting its dissent with the NCDOT, but rather an exercise in civic activism meant to familiarize citizens with how, exactly, it should be done in the future. 

Brown’s lesson may come in handy for Waynesville’s residents sooner, rather than later. 

Overlooked amidst all the fuss over the Walnut Street portion of the project is a right-turn lane proposed for northbound Russ Avenue leading in to the Ingle’s on Barber Boulevard. 

This turning lane would greatly impact the drive-thru at Arby’s fast food restaurant at 909 Russ Avenue, and parking at the Waffle House restaurant next door, argued the property owner.

Brown also asked for vigilance regarding a long-awaited South Main Street project that may contain more unpleasant surprises from NCDOT. 

McDarris complimented Brown on thereby fulfilling the town’s motto, “progress with vision.”

“I think that he has foreseen that this issue is going to rise again, on the other end of Main Street,” he said.

“I’m a child of the ‘60s,” Brown said. “I’ve been an activist from a very young age. Grassroots involvement is very important, and I’d always rather see something happen from the bottom up, not the top down.”

The resolution ends by stating that it is in the “best interests” of both the town and NCDOT that revisions should be made and presented to citizens as soon as possible; another NCDOT public comment session is scheduled for mid-2017, with construction slated for 2022.

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