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Work begins on alternative N.C. 107 plan

Community members share their thoughts on N.C. 107 with Chris Joyell of the Asheville Design Center. Holly Kays photo Community members share their thoughts on N.C. 107 with Chris Joyell of the Asheville Design Center. Holly Kays photo

More than 100 people filled the Jackson County Public Library’s Community Room Jan. 14 to help kick off the Asheville Design Center’s quest to develop an alternative, less disruptive vision for N.C. 107 in Sylva. Attendees included business owners, community members, elected leaders and N.C. Department of Transportation representatives. 

“There’s a lot of information to digest, but I think that we’ve got some really good firsthand experience of how people have gotten to know this road — what works, what doesn’t work,” said Chris Joyell, director of the design center. “We’re going to take that back and work it into our plans. These things that were revealed tonight you’ll never see on a map.”

The centerpiece of the three-hour meeting was a zigzag of tables at the front of the room, holding taped-together printouts of N.C. 107 from Innovation Brewing to Love Dale Road, as well as pads of sticky notes and a smattering of Sharpies. Attendees were invited to affix their comments to the map, letting the ADC folks know where they believe the DOT’s proposed plan falls short and where they feel the road could serve them better. 

There should be an additional left turn lane at the light by the school complex, one writer said, and additional pedestrian infrastructure at that light to accommodate the many high school students who cross the road there. Somebody else suggested that a roundabout replace the light where N.C. 107 intersects with Walter Ashe and Cope Creek roads, with another commenter coming along later to write “NO!” on the same sticky note. In the morning, another attendee told Joyell, traffic going to Dunkin’ Donuts spills out onto N.C. 107.

Joyell’s task — and that of the other five members of the volunteer team — is to take that input and turn it into ideas that could deliver a safer and better-flowing N.C. 107 without requiring more than 50 businesses to relocate, as would be the case with DOT’s current plan. 

“I know that we’ve looked at this for seven, eight years. I would be shocked if we came up with something that no one had ever considered before, but we’re going to try,” said Joyell. “If we can find something that lessens the impact on these businesses and makes the road safer and more enjoyable, we’re going to try it.”

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The N.C. 107 plan has drawn criticism ever since the preliminary version was released last year, but traffic along the corridor has been debated for decades before that. The discussion began in the 1990s, when DOT was considering a bypass connecting Cullowhee to U.S. 74. In 2002, the Jackson County Smart Roads Alliance formed in response to that plan, decrying the astronomical expense, environmental damage and harm to Sylva’s downtown economy that it said would result. 

The DOT eventually axed its bypass plans and began looking to improve existing roads instead — namely, N.C. 107. In addition to traffic congestion, the road’s problems include a high crash rate, with 254 crashes occurring there between August 2011 and July 2016. 

Everybody agrees that something has to change on N.C. 107, but the cluster of businesses and their driveways surrounding the roadway means that impact is unavoidable. The release of DOT’s preliminary plans has an increasing number of people asking the agency to reconsider the bypass concept. 

“The regional bypass was not popular. DOT’s plan for 107 is less popular, and the question boils down to who takes the big hit on whatever they come up with,” said Blanton Branch resident David Liberman, who attended Monday’s meeting. “Is it the property owners whose property they take that has been in the family for six generations, or is it somebody’s parking lot who owns a business?”

It’s not just the business owners who would be affected by the closures likely to result from the proposed project, said plumber Sharkey Gordon, 65. The area’s only industrial supply house for repairmen is on the relocation list. 

If the store closes, he said, “my customers are going to have to wait, because the parts in China aren’t threaded properly, so there goes that. If you buy it on Amazon it might not work, but if I buy it from somewhere it’s going to work. I have to guarantee it.”

The proposed 107 plan would deliver a road with the same number of lanes as what currently exists, minus the middle “suicide” turn lane. It would seek to improve traffic flow by decreasing the number of driveways and installing turn lanes. However, the roadway would get wider due to the addition of bike lanes and wider sidewalks on each side. 

The bike lanes are to be added as result of North Carolina’s Complete Streets Program, which requires that the DOT consider alternative modes of transportation when building roads. But the proposed bike lanes have garnered substantial criticism in Sylva from those who say that very few people use the bike facilities already in existence. Does it make any sense, they ask, to put so many people out of business to build bike lanes that only a handful of people will use? 

That’s a calculation the community will have to make, said Kristy Carter of the planning firm Friction Shift Projects and a member of the ADC team, but she reminded the crowd that the new road has to serve future, as well as current, needs. 

“This is a huge investment that the community is making, and it needs to serve those of us who use this road now and today,” she said. “It’s going to be here for 50 years or 100 years, and we have to try as best as we can with the information we have — what’s changing and how does the roadway fit that?”

The ADC left the meeting with many small suggestions and several larger ones to consider. Sylva resident Carl Queen suggested that 107 become a one-way road from Family Dollar to Webster Road and that a second road, running the opposite direction, be built parallel to it. Another suggestion was to pull the bike lanes off the road and instead build a dedicated greenway, which would run behind the businesses bordering 107, or else to place bike lanes and utilities on the median, thereby reducing the need for increased right-of-way. 

“There’s a lot of continuity from what we’ve been hearing in the previous weeks and previous months,” said David Uchiyama, regional communications officer for DOT. “Getting them gathered and collected in a new way and filtered through the Asheville Design Center (could lead to) a new idea. It’s just another tool that will help in the design and execution of this project.”

Joyell and his team will spend the next two weeks sifting through the information and suggestions to develop some recommendations, which will be vetted in an upcoming meeting with DOT and town officials, slated for 4 to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 29, also in the library’s Community Room. 


Be heard

If you didn’t make it out to the community meeting Jan. 14, it’s not too late to give the Asheville Design Center your thoughts on needs and solutions for N.C. 107. Photos of the road plans are posted on Facebook at Community members are invited to leave their comments on the relevant photos

The ADC will host a second meeting 4 to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 29, in the Community Room of the Jackson County Library to run its recommendations by town and N.C. Department of Transportation officials. The public is welcome to attend, but there will be no opportunity for comment.

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