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Train offers land in exchange for street closure

Bryson City resident Joe Hayes speaks in opposition to the town relinquishing its right of way on Fry Street. Jessi Stone photo Bryson City resident Joe Hayes speaks in opposition to the town relinquishing its right of way on Fry Street. Jessi Stone photo

The debate over whether the town of Bryson City should relinquish its right of way on Fry Street has resurfaced, but this time the railroad is offering the town something in exchange for the closure. 

The town board of aldermen held a public hearing regarding the potential closure last week and some residents were troubled about the idea of the town accepting what they called a bribe from a private business that wants a public street to be shut down. Resident Joe Hayes said such a move would be unethical. 

“One thing I disagree with is the purchase of some property that had a shed on it to be used later on for maintenance and storage,” Hayes said. “I don’t think that was a good decision and now we’re trading that shed or part of it and 2.6 acres for a yes vote on closing Fry Street. My understanding of the law is that government entities can’t trade property to a private corporation or company.”

The property Hayes was referring to was a 7-acre tract at 601 Bryson City Walk right along the Tuckasegee River the town purchased for $200,000 last October. The town had been trying to purchase the property since January 2017 but was having a hard time negotiating with the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad for an easement to cross their tracks to access the property. 

The purchase seemed like it was going to fall through after the town board denied the GSMR’s request in April 2017 to temporarily close Fry Street for the winter Polar Express excursions. A few weeks later the town board took another vote on the temporary closure and approved it for November through January. The board also announced that it would be securing an easement from the railroad and purchasing the Bryson Yard property.

As for the additional 2.6 acres now in question, Mayor Tom Sutton tried to provide some background when reached for comment after the public hearing. He said the town originally thought it would be purchasing the entire 11 acres last year during negotiations with the family who has owned the property for many years. However, a survey completed during negotiations revealed that the family in fact didn’t own a 2.6-acre strip of the property even though a large structure straddles both parcels. 

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“When we had the survey done it was only 7 acres an turns out the railroad owned the strip along the tracks,” Sutton said. “This all goes way back to when the lake came up and they had to move the tracks. The TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) gave them the land instead of a right of way.”

Sutton said the town did ask the railroad if they would deed over the 2.6 acres to the town if the town board would relinquish the right of way on Fry Street, but he said former Town Manager Chad Simons made sure the move was legal before making a deal. 

In a response from the UNC School of Government, Dr. Norma Houston, said the town could exchange the right of way for the 2.6 acres as long as the city received “full and fair consideration” under the law governing the exchange of property. 

“The phrase ‘full and fair consideration’ does not mean that the fair market value of the properties must be equal. So long as the city is treated fairly in the bargain, the exchange will meet constitutional muster,” she wrote to the town last November. 

Sutton said the 2.6 acres isn’t an immediate need for the town, but it could be a smart move for future growth. 

“Looking ahead in terms of expanding wastewater treatment capacity, it is possible to build a plant there because it has to be close to the river for effluent to be released after it’s been treated,” he said. “The land is across from our current plant so I think it would work well.”

While town aldermen have been split over the issue of closing Fry Street for several years, Sutton said he’s always been in favor of it because of safety concerns. 

“It’s a good opportunity for us to acquire the property we need going forward and also address some of the safety concerns,” he added. 

The railroad once again brought up the permanent closure of Fry Street last month when it sent a letter to the town expressing concern about pedestrian safety in the area right in front of the train depot. The letter prompted the town board to hold another public hearing on the matter to gauge the community’s opinions. 

The controversial issue has been debated for several years and has had strong opinions from residents and businesses on both sides. The crowds at past public hearings have packed out the town hall space and the board ended up denying the request for a permanent closure. 

The town held last week’s hearing at the Swain County Courthouse to accommodate more people but the turn out wasn’t as high as expected and only six people signed up to speak. Of those, three said they didn’t think the street should be closed permanently and the other three thought it should be closed for safety reasons. 

When the issue was discussed in 2015, the railroad and the Swain County Tourism Development Authority had presented plans to turn Fry Street into a pedestrian plaza or park. Several people at the hearing said they’d love to see the area turned into a park, but no such plan has been presented this time around. 

Sutton said the town would not be getting involved in whether the railroad and TDA partner to go after grant funding to implement the park plan. The train already owns the property on Fry Street, so if the town relinquishes the right of way, the railroad has the freedom to do what it wants with its own property. 

“The train may want to do that in the future, but we’re not going to be involved with that,” he said. 

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