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Sylva residents speak out against road plans

Rick Bryson, owner of Bryson’s Car Wash, tells commissioners and audience members why he opposes the road plan. Holly Kays photo Rick Bryson, owner of Bryson’s Car Wash, tells commissioners and audience members why he opposes the road plan. Holly Kays photo

A Sylva town meeting this month drew a crowd of people to speak against the N.C. 107 road plan, but before the public comment period began Nov. 8 Mayor Lynda Sossamon reminded attendees of a few ground rules. 

Speakers would need to remain quiet except during their turn in the public comment period and must make sure that any signs they bring don’t block others’ views. As always, public comment would be limited to five minutes for each person. 

That list of stipulations came out of a closed-session discussion the town board held on Thursday, Oct. 25, the minutes of which were released following a unanimous vote from the board at its Nov. 8 meeting. According to a story in The Sylva Herald, the minutes were released as the result of a request from that newspaper. 


Closed session discussion 

The closed session was held in order for the town board to consult with its attorney, Eric Ridenour. 

Ridenour was asked several questions during the session. Commissioner Mary Gelbaugh asked how N.C. Department of Transportation compensation for property owners differs from that for property tenants affected by the road project, to which Ridenour explained that tenants receive money to relocate but not for loss of revenue, while property owners “are supposed to be made whole.”

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Gelbaugh also asked how board members should respond to people who ask her legal questions about the project that she doesn’t know how to answer. Ridenour told her to direct them to the town website, which will be populated with information on the road project as it comes in. 

Meeting procedures were discussed as the result of a letter sent to Assistant Police Chief Rick Bryson, who was asked to stay for the meeting. The letter asked whether people could protest the N.C. 107 project at town meetings. 

Ridenour responded that protestors could not disrupt town meetings — people attending them must stay quiet except during the public comment period. 

“If signs are brought to (a) town meeting to disrupt or obstruct other people’s views, then the Town might need to consider designating a place for signs at the back of the room like the County does or otherwise banning signs from town meetings like the City of Asheville,” Ridenour said, according to the minutes. 

Commissioner David Nestler then commented that he would be opposed to making existing regulations regarding demonstrations more restrictive then they currently are. 

State law allows public bodies like town boards to go into closed session for any of 10 spelled-out reasons. The Oct. 25 closed session was called under the third reason listed, to consult with the board’s attorney privately so as to preserve attorney-client privilege. 

According to the statute, “general policy matters” can’t be discussed in such sessions, and “nothing herein shall be construed to permit a public body to close a meeting that otherwise would be open merely because an attorney employed or retained by the public body is a participant.” During such closed sessions, public bodies may “consider and give instructions to an attorney concerning the handling or settlement of a claim, judicial action, mediation, arbitration or administrative procedure.”

Town Manager Paige Dowling and Ridenour both said that the meeting complied with closed session laws because the board needed to consult with its attorney. 

“Anytime you’re getting directions on the law from an attorney, I think that’s permissible,” said Ridenour. 

“I don’t think we’ve broken any laws,” he added. 

According to Amanda Martin, attorney for the N.C. Press Association, the line might be a bit more gray, however. 

“There is an argument that the attorney wasn’t really giving legal advice but just providing information,” she said. “Technically that should be done in an open session. I think much of what happened should have been in an open session.”


Public opposition 

The public comment period Nov. 8, however, was very much in open session, and the six people who spoke were unequivocal in their opinion on the road project. 

“I think it will ruin the town,” said Jeannie Kelley of Kel-Save Drugs. Kelley, along with most of the others in the audience, sported a blue shirt with the words “Say No To The Road” emblazoned across the front. Since September, Kelley has been working to rally locals around the cause. 

The N.C. 107 corridor through Sylva has been a problem for years, but solving the issue is a difficult task. A previous proposal to reduce traffic by building a bypass to U.S. 74 was abandoned due to opposition from those who felt it would be too expensive, too environmentally damaging and too destructive to Sylva businesses that would lose customers if traffic were diverted. The current proposal, with plans just 25 percent complete, aims to remake the existing road to move cars more swiftly and safely. 

However, preliminary plans show that the project could be a costly one for Sylva’s business community, with the 25 percent plans indicating that 54 businesses, one nonprofit and five residences would need to relocate as a result — that’s about one-sixth of Sylva’s entire business community. DOT documents also state that it’s likely displaced businesses would have a hard time finding new digs in Sylva, since suitable property is scarce — many of those businesses would likely leave town or fold altogether. 

Significant change is possible before the final plans are created, as DOT is still waiting on plans from utility companies to incorporate into the road plan, and the town is working with the nonprofit Asheville Design Center, which will attempt to develop alternative, less disruptive road plans. 

But the speakers Nov. 8 were clear in their view that the plans as they stand now would destroy the town. 

“Wiping out my store puts people out of work and it reduces the tax money coming to Sylva and this county area as well,” said Joe Lenders, owner of University Vape Shop, who said he employs four college students and pays the town $3,500 to $4,000 in taxes each month.

“Can you really do without 50-some businesses? Because when they’re gone they’ll be gone and they won’t come back,” said retired state trooper Denny Wood. “I don’t want to see Sylva destroyed. I love Sylva.”

Charlie Schmidt, of Speedy’s Pizza, reiterated his opposition to the project and particularly to the West Main Street section where his restaurant is located. Preliminary plans show Speedy’s on the list for relocation. Schmidt believes that the road by Speedy’s doesn’t have a traffic problem and that the DOT would do better to look at building a bypass to Sylva than to displace so many businesses along N.C. 107. A petition he’s been keeping to that effect currently has 1,600 signatures. 

Schmidt reminded commissioners that in the November 2015 election — in which he tied with Commissioner Greg McPherson, bringing the ultimate outcome down to the flip of a coin — only about 200 people voted for him and McPherson combined. 

“I have eight times the amount of people signing this that do not want Speedy’s destroyed than cared which of us sat in which seat up there,” he said. 

The DOT expects to have its next set of plans, 65 percent complete, in early March 2019, with final plans in late 2019, right-of-way acquisition beginning in January 2020 and construction starting in December 2021. 



Public meetings planned 

The Asheville Design Center is moving forward in its efforts to create alternative — and hopefully less disruptive — plans to remake N.C. 107. 

A community meeting to gather public input on the project will be held 4 to 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 10, in the Community Room of the Jackson County Public Library. A second community meeting to report on the proposed plan and gather public feedback on it will be held 4 to 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 28, also at the library. Finally, a workshop for Sylva and DOT officials will be held 5 to 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 17, at the library as well. The meeting will be open to the public but will not include a public comment opportunity.

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