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2013: Southern Loop scrapped for good

For a road that has never existed, the infamous Southern Loop of Sylva sure has gotten a lot of ink over the past 20 years. 

“A Jackson County ‘southern loop’ around Sylva is not even on the drawing board yet, but is already under fire,” SMN Publisher Scott McLeod wrote in a Sept. 5, 2001, story for the paper. 

Following a November 2000 meeting, the road was slated to be the subject of an N.C. Department of Transportation feasibility study beginning in the spring of 2002. The DOT’s Transportation Improvement Plan envisioned it as a road that would extend from U.S. 441 south of Dillsboro to N.C. 107 between Walmart and Western Carolina University. From there, it would continue on to hit the U.S. 19/23/74 bypass. 

“This has been kicked around by DOT since 1985,” Conrad Burrell, a Sylva resident and the Western North Carolina representative on the state Board of Transportation, told SMN in 2001. “Nothing has ever been done about it, and the traffic on N.C. 107 is getting beyond unbearable.”

However, opposition was swift to organize. In September 2002, the Jackson County Smart Roads Alliance formed to oppose the road, calling for DOT to improve the area’s existing roads and use a network of side streets to alleviate congestion before blazing a destructive path through the mountains. The feasibility study, completed in May 2003, compiled information on two proposed routes — cost estimates hovered around $200 million, with the northern route expected to relocate 124 homes and 17 businesses while the southern route would relocate 94 homes and five businesses. 

“I am still a bit confused why we can’t look at congestion management on 107 before we spend hundreds of millions developing a bypass,” Susan Leveille, a Smart Roads member, told SMN for a story published May 6, 2009. “You need to look at the small things you can do. You don’t bulldoze down your house because you need another bathroom.”

Leveille and the others in her group eventually got their wish. 

“The N.C. Department of Transportation last week agreed to try that approach first, temporarily shelving plans for the long-proposed bypass in favor of a 107 fix,” SMN reported on July 3, 2013. 

That decision set the stage for the conundrum currently facing Sylva. In 2017, the DOT unveiled its plans for an N.C. 107 makeover. Like the existing road, the new 107 would have only four lanes, but the project would get rid of the middle “suicide lane” in favor of restricted turnaround points to keep traffic flowing more smoothly. Widened sidewalks and bike lanes would promote alternative transportation. 

But those improvements would come at a price, and many Jackson County residents consider it too costly to bear. 

While the March 2017 presentation put the cost of the road at $35.5 million total, $14.6 million of which would be for right-of-way acquisition, a cost estimate report released in February 2018 put the right-of-way cost alone at $47.6 million. That’s because preliminary plans would force 54 businesses, one nonprofit and five residences to relocate — roughly one-sixth of Sylva’s business community. 

Opposition to the road gathered swiftly, with the dormant Smart Roads Alliance springing back to action. 

“It’s a matter of how much of an internal organ you can remove from your body before your body dies, and that’s what is going to happen to some of these businesses,” Sylva attorney and Smart Roads leader Jay Coward told a group of about 50 people gathered at the Jackson County Public Library in June 2018. “They’ll be so hurt by it they won’t be able to survive.”

Hoping to find a solution that would alleviate the traffic issues on 107 without taking a wrecking ball to Sylva’s business community, the Asheville Design Center offered its services pro bono, and the town accepted. But after a full-bodied effort including a site inventory, a focus group meeting, two community meetings and a workshop with town, utility and DOT leaders, the organization came up short of the silver bullet needed. 

“We’re in a tricky situation where we’re like, ‘Hey, community, bring us all your ideas,’ and I feel like we’re coming to you having swatted down most of those ideas,” Kristy Carter, a member of the ADC team, said during a community meeting April 17 of this year. “The plan, as impactful as it is, really is probably the best option of all the options that are out there.”

It remains to be seen where the 107 saga will go from here. Updated plans, considered 65 percent complete, are expected this month. Currently, right-of-way acquisition is expected to start in 2020, with construction beginning in December 2022. 

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