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Road project issue dominates Sylva commission race

Clockwise, from top left: Danny Allen, Benjamin Guiney, Luther Jones, David Nestler, Greg McPherson and Carrie McBane. Clockwise, from top left: Danny Allen, Benjamin Guiney, Luther Jones, David Nestler, Greg McPherson and Carrie McBane.

The race for a seat on Sylva’s town board is competitive this year, with six people running for election to one of the three open seats. Two of them are incumbents, one is a former town commissioner and three are seeking elected office for the first time. Serving four-year terms extending through December 2023, the winners will govern during a pivotal time in Sylva’s history.

Right-of-way acquisition on the controversial N.C. 107 project is set to begin in January, about a month after new commissioners are sworn in, with construction expected to last three and a half years beginning in early 2023. 

Many community members have spoken out against the current plans due to their expected impact on the business community, but halting the project now would require votes from the Southwestern Commission’s Transportation Advisory Commission and the N.C. Department of Transportation Board of Transportation. That would kill the project and remove its funding, meaning it would take at least 10 more years to address traffic issues on N.C. 107. 

While important, the road project is not the only issue facing the next town board. The Smoky Mountain News sat down with each candidate to talk about the years ahead. 

 

Danny Allen

Allen, 63, served on the town board from 2001 to 2007 and from 2009 to 2015, 12 years total. A lifelong Sylva resident, he’s retired from a career that included 15 years as manager at Quin Theaters and seven as a security guard at the N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching. 

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On Oct. 7, Allen told The Smoky Mountain News that he planned to drop out of the race due to health issues, but after reconsidering that decision he now intends to continue his campaign. Allen said that, while his health is up and down, “if I’m going to leave this earth or world, let me do it doing something for the town that I love, for the people.” 

Reason to run: “There’s voices that’s not being heard by some of the board members, and I just want to be a spokesperson for the people that live in Sylva.”

Top three priorities: Ensuring that the people’s voices are heard; working to increase town revenue by bringing in outside businesses; preventing future property tax increases. 

What do you think of town leadership’s current direction? 

While Allen has not been following town politics since leaving the board in 2015, his overall impression is that the town is going in a negative direction and that current board members are focusing on their own interests rather than acting in the best interest of the people. 

What are your ideas for increasing Sylva’s housing inventory? 

The town currently owns a significant amount of property that could be better used for housing than for municipal purposes, said Allen. He would like to see Sylva partner with an outside contractor to invest in low-income housing.

What is your position on the proposed N.C. 107 plans? 

Allen understands the need for road upgrades, and because he’s been keeping a distance from town politics recently he does not have any specific ideas for improving the existing plans. However, he is against any plan that would impact the number of businesses that the proposed plan is expected to. 

“My own opinion is I would be for the road if it didn’t affect all those businesses, because the town cannot afford to lose those,” he said. 

What policies would you support to mitigate impacts from the 107 project?

Allen doesn’t have any specific policy ideas to mitigate the impact. 

Do you foresee a property tax increase resulting from road project impacts? 

While Allen does expect that some town board members will push for a tax increase due to road-related shortfalls, he will oppose any such efforts, instead fixing his efforts on bringing new businesses into town. Allen expects the road’s negative financial impact will be short-lived, however. 

“I think it’s going to hurt for a while and then I think the people’s gonna see the road as an asset to bring in new businesses,” he said, “so I think in the long run it will help, but short run I think the citizens of Sylva will feel effect.”

 

Benjamin Guiney

Guiney, 51, is an emergency room doctor at Harris Regional Hospital who has been a member of the town planning board for the past three years. Originally from Detroit, he’s lived in Sylva for the past six years.

Reason to run: “There’s going to be a lot of changes around here, a lot of things that are going to need to be sorted out as they come up. It’s an exciting time to be in local politics here in Sylva.”

Top three priorities: Sylva’s natural assets, including cleaning up Scotts Creek and developing Pinnacle Park; expanding the tax base by increasing housing inventory; increasing pedestrian safety. 

What do you think of town leadership’s current direction? 

Overall, Guiney believes the board’s been doing a good job, especially regarding cleanup efforts at Scotts Creek and progress on murals and public art. However, he believes the board could do better at educating and reassuring residents about the N.C. 107 project. 

What are your ideas for increasing Sylva’s housing inventory? 

The town should encourage mixed residential and business development, as well as housing of a higher density than the traditional single family home. 

“I’m not sure that’s what everyone is looking for nowadays,” said Guiney. “They just want to have someplace that’s easy to take care of and more focused on the town rather than on their house. It used to be everyone wanted to build a cabin on the side of the mountain, but now everybody wants to live downtown.”

What is your position on the proposed N.C. 107 plans? 

Something has to be done, and nobody — including the community-oriented Asheville Design Center — seems to be able to come up with a way to fix the safety issues on 107 that’s better than the DOT plan, Guiney said. However, the town board must help educate people about the process and advocate for fair treatment of affected businesses. 

“Now is the time to really prepare to ease the pain, if you will, because it’s going to be a hard thing. There’s no two ways about it,” said Guiney. “But it will be better afterward. It will be safer and it will be a much better place to actually do business.”

What policies would you support to mitigate impacts from the N.C. 107 project?

The town board should communicate closely with both DOT and the community, waive requirements such as sign fees for relocating businesses and advocate for reducing the road’s speed limit. 

Do you foresee a property tax increase resulting from road project impacts? 

Guiney believes the project’s negative economic impacts will be short term rather than long term and does not foresee a need to raise property taxes. 

 

Luther Jones

Jones, 70, is retired after a career that culminated with 13 years as technical director of theater and film programs at Western Carolina University. He works part-time as a miller at Mingus Mill in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and has a history of civic engagement, including as a member of the Jackson County Historical Commission and a former member and chair of the Sylva Planning Board. 

Reason to run: “If you live in a community, you should be giving back to the community. A lot of people are too busy for it because they’re struggling to make a living. I’m retired. I have the time. I can take that time to make the community better.”

Top three priorities: Safety on Main Street, including audible pedestrian signals for hearing-impaired people; increased law enforcement on N.C. 107 to reduce traffic accidents; assessing expected tax revenue shortfalls related to the road project.

What do you think of town leadership’s current direction? 

Jones believes the town board is doing a good job but feels members tend to focus too heavily on Main Street rather than considering what’s happening on the outskirts of town. 

What are your ideas for increasing Sylva’s housing inventory? 

In dealing with new housing projects, the town board should be flexible and use variances to allow for projects that will be good for the town as a whole. However, Jones believes that most new housing will appear outside town limits, where there is more space to live and town taxes don’t apply. 

What is your position on the proposed N.C. 107 plans? 

The plans could see some tweaking on a small-scale level as the process proceeds, but overall Jones does not believe the project will be as destructive in the long run as what many people are saying. The road isn’t safe, and passing on the project will mean waiting at least 10 more years for road improvements, by which point the situation will be even worse. 

“It’s highly inconvenient, especially for the persons involved, but I don’t think it’s a death knell for the town of Sylva by any means,” Jones said. “Now that road’s dangerous. Something has to be done.”

What policies would you support to mitigate impacts from the N.C. 107 project?

While he’s open to the idea of seeing the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority waive system development fees for relocating businesses, Jones believes many of those types of decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis. However, the town board should do everything it can to help relocated businesses get fair prices for their property and compensation for relocation costs.

“The individuals should not be paying the cost of that good to the public,” said Jones. “It should be borne by the public, not by the individuals.”

Do you foresee a property tax increase resulting from road project impacts? 

Property taxes are high enough as they are, and any hit to tax collections will be short term, not long term. Jones does not foresee a property tax increase resulting from the road project. 

 

Carrie McBane

McBane, 46, grew up in South Florida and has lived in North Carolina for the past 14 years, working as a hostess and server in the restaurant industry for most of that time. She now works part time as western chapter organizer for the political action group Down Home N.C. She sits on the Meridian Health Board, but this is her first time as a candidate for elected office. 

Reason to run: “My work with Down Home N.C. has helped me see that it’s very important to have local officials that are invested in their community, meaning that they are out in their community listening to what residents need and want. I had noticed recently with a couple different issues that does not appear to be happening on the local level.”

Top three priorities: Revising the plans for N.C. 107; addressing the lack of affordable housing, especially as it relates to Western Carolina University students; pushing for greater sensitivity to diverse residents from law enforcement. 

What do you think of town leadership’s current direction? 

McBane believes town leadership should be doing a better job of communicating with and listening to Sylva’s residents, especially regarding the N.C. 107 project. Overall, she describes Sylva’s current atmosphere as “stagnant.”

What are your ideas for increasing Sylva’s housing inventory? 

McBane is concerned by high rent rates and lack of housing for homeless people, and she would like to see the town do more to help people with substance use issues. To help people afford their rent, she wants to ensure that residents are making a living wage and would advocate for education on the Living Wage Certification Program.

What is your position on the proposed N.C. 107 plans? 

McBane is opposed to the current plans and believes the town board should make DOT come back with a more palatable proposal. 

“Basically I feel like the plans they have now aren’t feasible, and they need to take into consideration residents and what they want and what they think is feasible,” she said. “And that’s not being done right now.”

What policies would you support to mitigate impacts from the N.C. 107 project?

McBane doesn’t believe it’s time to start talking about specific policies, as commissioners should first push DOT to go back to the drawing board. The town should schedule more town meetings to better gather resident input — McBane can’t think of any policies that would make the plans, as presented, any better. 

“The ones that aren’t OK with being displaced, there isn’t much that I personally can do or say to make this better for them,” she said. “What I can offer is the idea and suggestion of bringing DOT back into the picture.”

Do you foresee a property tax increase resulting from road project impacts? 

That’s a hard question to answer without an economic impact study in hand, and McBane supports completion of such a study. However, as of now she does foresee the road project causing a tax increase, though she would take care to approach the issue with plenty of opportunity for resident input. 

 

Greg McPherson

McPherson, 49, has worked at the WCU Fine Art Museum for the past 15 years, the last three as exhibition designer. A downtown building owner, he won his first term on the town board in 2015 and is seeking re-election.

Reason to run: “I think I’ve been pretty effective as a board member, and I think there’s a lot left to do. I also care a lot about the town, and I care about its growing and the way that it grows.”

Top three priorities: Pedestrian safety downtown; future improvements at Bridge Park, possibly including plantings to reduce stormwater runoff, trail connectivity and a permanent structure for the farmers market; responsibly shepherding the N.C. 107 project.

What do you think of town leadership’s current direction? 

The last four years have seen a cohesive board that has made significant progress on economic and aesthetic issues for the town, McPherson said. The town’s got forward momentum, and he wants to keep it going. 

What are your ideas for increasing Sylva’s housing inventory? 

The town should reduce minimum lot sizes so more houses could be built on the existing land base, and overall the board needs to be ready to say yes to people who want to invest in Sylva or build workforce housing, but no to steep slope development. McPherson would also look for possible partnership between the town and downtown building owners who have empty upstairs spaces that could become apartments but are cost-prohibitive to renovate. 

What is your position on the proposed N.C. 107 plans? 

McPherson believes the board has done its due diligence on N.C. 107, choosing the least invasive option still capable of improving traffic flow and reducing collisions. 

“It has already been painful, and it hasn’t even started yet. But what do you do with a road that was built without a plan?” said McPherson. “Nobody planned for this growth. Nobody planned for safe entrances and egresses to businesses. Nobody planned for this much traffic.”

What policies would you support to mitigate impacts from the N.C. 107 project?

Sylva is already on a tight budget, a town of 2,600 facilitating the movement of 40,000 cars through town. The county’s Office of Economic Development has put together a group to assist impacted parties, and that may be the best resource for people to use. 

Do you foresee a property tax increase resulting from road project impacts? 

That’s a question that will require more study, but as a taxpayer himself McPherson does not want to raise taxes. 

“It guess we’ll have to tighten our belts collectively about some of the services that we’re offering,” he said. “I don’t think it’s fair for us to raise taxes. But that’s always an option.”

 

David Nestler

Nestler, 34, is seeking re-election after winning his first term on the town board in 2015. Previous to his election, he served on the Main Street Sylva Association for five years as a board member and two as president. He also joined the TWSA board in the year preceding his election and remained on it afterward. Nestler works as an electrical engineer at Duotech in Franklin. 

Reason to run: “Volunteering for your community is always an ongoing effort. You start things that don’t just get finished all the time, like cleaning up the creek. That’s an effort you don’t ever stop once you start. You always have to stay on top of something like that. I want to continue my involvement with the town.”

Top three priorities: Developing a plan to spend the Fisher Creek Fund money designated for water quality improvements; funding a part-time Main Street director; advocating for businesses affected by the N.C. 107 project. 

What do you think of town leadership’s current direction? 

The town board has had “great direction” with its “heart set in all the right areas,” said Nestler, but it should do better at matching its funding decisions to its priorities, such as building a strong downtown business community.

What are your ideas for increasing Sylva’s housing inventory? 

The town should reduce minimum lot sizes so that more homes can be built on the existing land base, but careful study is necessary to ensure that the new minimum number will make a difference to residents making land use decisions. The town should encourage people to renovate downtown units so that spaces now sitting empty can become dwellings. 

What is your position on the proposed N.C. 107 plans? 

Nestler believes some minor changes to the existing plans could have important effects for individual properties, and he also predicts that some businesses on the relocation list will be able to relocate within the same parcel, or that the parcel will be usable for a different business in the future. Despite its impacts, DOT’s overall plan is the best Sylva’s going to get. 

“I think the end result is going to be positive,” he said. “I think a lot of the narrative right now is focused on these 55 lost businesses, and they’re not lost. If things are done properly, every single one of these businesses should not close. They should not be lost to our community.” 

What policies would you support to mitigate impacts from the N.C. 107 project?

First of all, TWSA should abstain from charging system development fees to any businesses forced to relocate — regardless of whether DOT may ultimately pay the fee, which Nestler is not convinced would actually happen. The town is also looking at waiving some fees, but that’s “nickels and dimes” in comparison. 

Do you foresee a property tax increase resulting from road project impacts? 

The town must ensure that it heads into construction with a healthy fund balance so that it can handle any dip in tax revenues after the project begins. Long term, Nestler believes that tax receipts will recover. 

“My hope would be no, we don’t have to raise property taxes for the 107 fix, but we also need to remain viable as a town, and cutting services for people is unhealthy for your community,” he said. “It just depends on how well we plan.”

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