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Billboard ban could stymie scenic byway in Jackson

A group of Western Carolina University students are leading a charge to get N.C. 107 from Cullowhee to Cashiers designated as a scenic byway, but they first must appeal to skeptical county commissioners for their backing.

Students at WCU took on a class project to push for the scenic road recognition from the N.C. Department of Transportation. There are more than 50 officially designated scenic byways in the state. Others in the area include the Nantahala Byway through the Nantahala Gorge, the Forest Heritage Byway looping the Shining Rock Wilderness in Haywood County and the Waterfall Byway that travels from Franklin to Highlands.

The students made their pitch to county commissioners at a meeting last week, citing the road’s historic, cultural and natural beauty. They were seeking an endorsement by commissioners to validate the application.

“We think it would be a good idea to make it a scenic byway,” said WCU student Trevor McKernie, who researched the application with about a handful of colleagues.

Some of the notable destinations the road passes by are: the Judaculla Rock, a county historic site with ancient native drawings; Cashiers, with its wide array of recreational opportunities; and a corridor of Appalachian scenery, boasting an assortment of tree species, lakes, streams and idyllic hillsides.

Furthermore, the designation could boost tourism in the area and bring in money. Tourists seek out scenic byways as alternative routes and leisure driving destinations. Also, the routes are bolded on many maps to catch the eyes of navigators on road trips.

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“One of the real advantages is it does provide a special highlight and color on road maps,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said. “Their point was this was an opportunity to draw more people to the area and highlight that destination.”

Wooten and commissioners stopped short of endorsing to the scenic byway designation. Some were tentative about the restrictions an official scenic byway carries — namely on certain types of signage.

No billboards can be placed along a scenic byway, except on-site advertising. Signs that already exist at the time of the designation can remain up, however.

County Attorney Jay Coward said the prospect of new sign restrictions could prompt a frenzied move to quickly put up billboards before it is too late.

“Think about the gold rush that is going to stampede up (N.C. 107) by the billboard owners attempting to buy every spot they can before the legislation gets passed,” Coward said.

If the commissioners decide to back the scenic byway application, Coward suggested that they impose a moratorium on new signs along the corridor to stop a potential flood of billboards.

Ultimately, commissioners said they would like the measure vetted by the planning board first, and would perhaps invite representatives of the N.C. Department of Transportation to provide more information about achieving the designation.

“There are a lot of questions that need to be answered before commissioners make a decision,” said Wooten. “They need to understand and know what they’re getting themselves into.”

If commissioners pass a resolution supporting the scenic byway designation, final approval would still have to come from the state level, and a submitted application can take an entire year before given the green light by DOT officials.

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