Public protests N.C. 107 plans at town meeting
Nearly a year to the day since a standing-room-only crowd filled Sylva Town Hall for a forum on the proposed N.C. 107 project, a town meeting Thursday, Aug. 8, drew a full house of folks determined to speak out against the road during the meeting’s public comment section.
Sixty-five people signed in as having attended the meeting, and 19 speakers delivered comments, none in favor of the plan as proposed, which is expected to require the relocation of at least 55 businesses and five residences. The relocation list will likely grow once utility easements are added, the N.C. Department of Transportation has said.
“We need to move forward, and in order to make an omelet you have to break some eggs. This plan will destroy the henhouse,” said Greens Creek resident Bill Thompson.
Right-of-way acquisition is set to begin in January, with construction starting in early 2023 and lasting approximately 3.5 years. When completed, the road will have the same number of travel lanes but feature a grassy median instead of the middle “suicide lane,” and controlled access and turn points designed to decrease the number of accidents. It will also have bike lanes and sidewalks on either side.
Opponents say a plan that requires relocating roughly one-sixth of Sylva’s business community should be deemed unworkable off-hand. They asked the town board to address exactly what benefits the new road is expected to have — for traffic safety, road capacity, the economy — and to weigh those against the negative impacts its construction will likely carry.
“What are the benefits?” asked Asheville resident David Shulman, who owns various properties in Sylva. “It certainly will not cut traffic, and we don’t want to cut traffic because we want all the traffic we can for business, but we want it to be safe. How much safer is it going to be?”
“This plan as presented by the DOT is not necessarily what the community wants. Public participation is the cornerstone of democracy,” added Jackson County resident Jason Kimenker, eliciting an “amen” from the audience. “This controversial so-called ‘super street’ plan may in fact turn out to be more destructive to our town than it is beneficial.”
However, said resident and commission candidate Luther Jones, something has to be done.
“People get hurt and they get hurt constantly out there,” he said. “Something needs to be done with it. Do I know if the current plans are the best ones? No, I don’t, but we do need to move forward with getting something done.”
Sara Dingman, 12, addresses the town board. Holly Kays photo
Kelly Robinson, who lives on a street adjoining N.C. 107 in Sylva, said that speeding is the real culprit behind traffic safety issues on the road and that the town would do better to ramp up patrols than to dislocate a large number of businesses, some of which would likely end up unable to find a new location in Sylva.
“People driving to and from Western Carolina University aren’t going to bear the cost like we are, and by we and I mean people in Sylva,” said Dr. Douglas McDonald, who owns McDonald Family Dentistry, which is on the relocation list. “We’re going to have to move our business. We’re going to have to even go out of business because we can’t find somewhere to relocate.”
And on a logistical level, added McDonald, has the DOT even thought about gas stations? Four gas stations are on the current relocation list, half of the eight gas stations currently registered with the town of Sylva.
“I think it boils down to the DOT could come up with a better plan if you told them to come up with a better plan,” said Jay Coward, an attorney in Sylva and leader of the Jackson County Smart Roads Alliance.
Three students were among those who addressed the board, expressing concern that construction would cause the school bus to run even later than normal and lamenting the buildings that would have to be torn down to make way for the new road.
“You’re going to destroy memories of people all over Sylva for a road, and I don’t think that’s very necessary, because I know what it feels like to lose memories,” said Sara Dingman, age 12.
In November, three of the town board’s six members will be up for election, a fact that was not lost on community members in attendance.
“Don’t accept pressure from DOT. Don’t accept their pressuring you into something that’s not appropriate for our community,” said Cathy Stillwell Gibson, a lifelong resident of Jackson County. “If I don’t see any other result, I’m going to lead a campaign to put some people in here that will say, ‘Let’s go back to the drawing board.’”
Gibson’s comment was met with loud applause from the audience.
Mayor Lynda Sossamon thanked the crowd for their input but said the project has been going on for 10 years and concerns not only Sylva but the entire region. Some of the commenters were not using accurate information, she said.
“Those of you who talked about things, many of the things you said maybe were not real facts,” she said. “So what I would suggest is study the facts, study the maps and ask people the real things that are going to happen.”
Several people walked out of the room following Sossamon’s comment.
“Maybe if you give people the facts, they would be able to make an educated decision,” one man said.
In a separate comment, Sossamon suggested that community members reserve their criticism of the plan until the final version is released. DOT has completed its 65 percent plans, but those plans do not yet include utility easements. However, the agency has said that adding utilities is only expected to increase the anticipated impacts.
“On behalf of the board I will thank everybody, and it’s not easy for us either to make decisions,” said Sossamon. “But again I will say we do not have the final maps. We do not have the final list of businesses that are affected. DOT still has that. We’re waiting on utilities. Let’s get to the final maps and see where things stand.”
Following the public comment session, Commissioners Mary Gelbaugh and Barbara Hamilton said that they hope to see the DOT pursue underground power lines, as that method would reduce the right-of-way easement required. Buried lines are more expensive — prohibitively so, DOT District Engineer Brian Burch said at a July 23 meeting of county leaders — but the commissioners said they believe the extra cost would be worth it.
“I know it’s more expensive, but if we can do anything to help retain businesses, we need to do that,” said Hamilton.
“I don’t support it,” Gelbaugh said of the current road plan, “but should there be underground power and should it affect less businesses, I do support this change.”
Neither Sossamon, Gelbaugh nor Hamilton is up for election this year. None of the commissioners who are running for re-election expressed an opinion on the road as proposed during the Aug. 8 meeting.