Needmore proposal back for debate; this time in Macon County

People for and against the state Department of Transportation’s plans to pave and widen a 3.3-mile section of Needmore Road have another opportunity to tell officials what they think this month.

At the request of the Macon County Board of Commissioners, the transportation department will hold a second public hearing Jan. 25 in Macon County. The state agency fulfilled public law by holding one last fall in Swain County — the road connects Macon and Swain — but Macon leaders wanted to ensure their residents had a say, too.

You do not have to live in Macon County to participate in the public hearing.

“Both counties are involved in this matter, and given geography, there is no convenient location for a meeting to serve both counties. In my opinion, Bryson City was chosen because DOT perceived a better chance of turning people out who would be favorable to their agenda,” Bill McLarney, an expert on the Little Tennessee River (which parallels Needmore Road) and biomonitoring director for the Little Tennessee Watershed Association, wrote in an email.

“… I think it is particularly important to reinforce the will of the Macon County Commission by reminding them that their predecessors (and their Swain County counterparts) voted unanimously to support the Needmore acquisition, and that this is something of which we should all be very proud,” McLarney wrote.  

Needmore Road cuts through the Needmore Game Lands, located in Macon and Swain counties. The 4,400-acre tract was protected after a coalition of environmentalists, hunters, local residents and others saved it from development after raising $19 million to buy the land from Duke Power.

What’s being decided is whether to pave and widen this gravel section of Needmore Road to a minimum of 18 feet, with construction work on the roadway’s shoulders.

Most of the major environmental groups in the region have given the nod to paving, citing protections to the Little Tennessee River, which is the beneficiary of dust and sedimentation. The groups have stopped short of endorsing the road widening as proposed, however. That would involve cutting into and removing acidic rock, which carries an inherent danger to the environment.


Want to go

When: Pre-hearing from 4:30-6:30 p.m.; open house starts at 7 p.m.

Where: Iotla Valley Elementary/Cowee School, 51 Cowee School Drive, Franklin.

Town bows to transportation department’s superior knowledge

Town of Sylva leaders have sent a letter to the state Department of Transportation endorsing what supporters would like called a connector — and detractors a bypass — around N.C. 107.

The letter was approved by unanimous vote last week.

“We envision (N.C. 107) to be more of a ‘city street’ rather than a major thoroughfare,” Stacy Knotts, a Sylva town commissioner, wrote in explanation of the vote (an ice storm prevented The Smoky Mountain News from attending this particular meeting). “We are hoping to improve safety and traffic congestion without widening the road — as this would impact many businesses.”

Supporters agree a connector would ease traffic on N.C. 107; detractors say a bypass would do nothing of the sort.

Potential redesigns of N.C. 107 were recently unveiled at a public information session in Sylva that drew a crowd of 200. The state highway is Sylva’s major traffic corridor, taking in the primary portion of the county experiencing business growth. The targeted stretch extends from U.S. 23 Business in Sylva to Western Carolina University.

The transportation department discussed six concepts. Three would include building what was once dubbed the Southern Loop, since renamed the “N.C. 107 connector” by the transportation department … or, in the parlance of Smart Roads, a community activist group in Jackson County opposing the plans, “The Bypass.”

By whatever name, the connector/bypass/Southern Loop would cut a major five-mile-long road through people’s homes, over farmland and streams and forests.

Susan Leveille, a member of Smart Roads, said when the county put together its comprehensive transportation plan, “the N.C. DOT says, ‘the problem on 107 is not traffic volume, the problem is land use.’ As in, how the land along the 107 corridor is allowed to be used by the town and county.”

The answer, Leveille said, is not a connector. Nor massive “improvements” to N.C. 107 to fix debatable traffic issues along the highway. The issue, in her book, is the need for town leaders to “make some hard choices instead of doing what is easy” and pass some development regulations.

Leveille suggested reducing curb cuts — a break in a curb allowing access from the roadway — and perhaps moving toward what Waynesville has done on Russ Avenue: forcing newly built businesses to front the roadway and put parking behind buildings.

“These are not the only two choices,” Leveille said of the either/or “improve N.C. 107” or build a connector/bypass/Southern Loop.

“Sylva should be fighting this tooth and nail,” longtime Jackson County business owner Leveille said. “This could bypass the entire economic center of Sylva.”

In other N.C. 107 matters, former N.C. Department of Transportation employee Jamie Wilson spoke to Jackson County commissioners this week about how the 14th Division does business in this region. He said department leaders have not been open about traffic counts on N.C. 107. Wilson claimed the number of vehicles using the road is actually showing decreases.

Wilson also questioned funding decisions and how road projects are prioritized in the 10-county 14th Division.


Sylva to transportation department:

In response to the N.C. 107 Improvements Feasibility Study presented at the Nov. 9th Citizen’s Information Workshop, the Sylva Board of Commissioners submit the following comments.

The terrain in Jackson County is mountains, ridges, narrow valleys and streams. This terrain is extremely important in the development of Sylva and Jackson County. N.C. 107 in Sylva runs through a narrow valley between two ridges. Between Sylva and Cullowhee the highway is either sandwiched between ridges, or between a ridge and the river. With this in mind, we would like for N.C. 107 to remain a four (4) lane city street with little or no increase in width.  Increasing N.C. 107 to six (6) or seven (7) lanes would have a negative impact to business and the growth of Sylva. We have faith in N.C. DOT’s ability to forecast traffic and determine future needs or highway requirements. Therefore, if the current or improved four-lane highway will not carry the forecasted traffic, we would endorse the connector concept, in conjunction with the improvements to N.C. 107.

We would also recommend that N.C. DOT consider increasing the width of the bridge across Scotts Creek at Jackson Paper to four lanes.

Your consideration for our concerns and for the growth of Sylva is greatly appreciated.

Tribe gets future say in state prioritizations of road projects

Recognizing that Cherokee has roads, too, a transportation-planning group for the state’s six westernmost counties opted to give the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians a voice in decisions being made about highways and byways.

The decision to include the tribe wasn’t unanimous. Robbinsville Alderman Jacky Ayers voted “no,” without elaborating why.

The tribe has lands in Swain, Jackson, Graham and Cherokee counties. The group — the Transportation Advisory Committee, made up of elected officials from those counties, plus Macon and Clay — met this week.

Ryan Sherby, who heads the group on behalf of the Southwestern Development Commission, a behind-the-scenes but vitally important state planning organization, initiated the addition of Cherokee.

Joel Setzer, a division engineer overseeing the state’s 10 westernmost counties for the state Department of Transportation, endorsed the proposal. He pointed out the tribe would, subsequently, be treated like municipalities. It will have a voice and a vote, but specific road-project recommendations must be tendered to the particular counties where the roads are located before being included for DOT review.

Ayers, while inarticulate on why he wanted to exclude the tribe, found his voice in a sudden burst of praise following the vote, characterizing Conrad Burrell as the “best board member in the state.” Burrell represents this region on the state board of transportation.

Burrell responded, after other meeting-goers had burbled their agreement, that he wanted the elected officials to note during his decade-long tenure: “we didn’t keep all the money in a single county. We try to equal it out, not just give it to one or two counties.”

Public absent in meetings where road projects decided

The way road projects get selected and prioritized in the state’s six westernmost counties might shift slightly following meetings this week and last by local government officials and transportation experts.

The method of weighing the projects will be tweaked to heighten safety issues. Crash data compiled by the state Highway Patrol will be factored into the equation. Elected officials serving on the Transportation Advisory Committee said, however, they want to see what that actually does to the alignment of projects before endorsing the approach.

How exactly the state Department of Transportation moves forward on road building and road improving has raised pointed questions recently about political and personal gain versus public good and needs. Controversy in the past couple months erupted over two projects in particular: Needmore Road in Swain and Macon counties and N.C. 107 in Jackson County.

The transportation department has proposed paving and widening a 3.3-mile section of Needmore, a gravel one-lane road beside the Little Tennessee River. Needmore cuts through the protected Needmore Game Lands, and opponents say the environmental risks posed are simply too great (see accompanying article on page 9).

In Sylva, the transportation department this month held a public information session on how traffic on N.C. 107 between Sylva and Cullowhee could be reduced. Concepts included widening and building a whole new connector road. At least 200 people turned out for the session, and Smart Roads, a local activist group, promised to monitor and publicize the process going forward.

For all the outcries, no one from the public was present at either of two meetings where a bit of the rubber meets the road when it comes to transportation projects in the far west: Jackson, Macon, Swain, Cherokee, Clay and Graham counties. One meeting was for county and town planners and other government officials, a second was held Monday night for county commissioners and town council members.

Southwestern Development Commission, a regional planning group headquartered in Sylva, organized the get-togethers.


Who does the planning?

In the state’s six westernmost counties, road planning is headed up by the Southwestern Development Commission, headquartered in Sylva, which serves as the lead-planning agency for the rural transportation planning organization (RPO).

Southwestern Commission provides staff and GIS (geographic information system) support. The RPO consists of a technical coordinating committee (government officials) and a transportation advisory committee (elected officials). The government officials, as in real life, exist simply to make staff-level recommendations to the elected officials, who make the policies.


Here are the stated goals of the RPO:

• To provide a forum for public participation in the rural transportation planning process and serve as a local link for residents of the region to communicate with the transportation department.

• To develop, prioritize and promote proposed transportation projects that the RPO believes should be included in the State Transportation Improvement Program.

• To assist the transportation department in publicizing its programs and service and providing additional transportation-related information to local governments and other interested organizations and persons.

• To conduct transportation-related studies and surveys for local governments and other interested entities and organizations.

• To promote transportation as a regional issue requiring regional solutions.

Second public hearing set in Macon County for Needmore Road

Another public hearing on what, if anything, to do with Needmore Road has been scheduled for February, this time in Macon County.

An exact date and location hasn’t been announced.

The 3.3 miles of gravel, single-lane road traverses Macon and Swain counties, cutting through the protected Needmore Game Lands. The 4,400-acre tract was protected from development after a coalition of environmentalists, hunters, local residents and others saved it by raising $19 million to buy the land from Duke Power.

State Department of Transportation in September held a public hearing in Swain County. That meeting fulfilled state-mandated legal requirements regarding public involvement. About 100 people attended, including many from Macon County. They turned out mainly to protest the transportation department’s proposal to widen and pave Needmore Road to a minimum of 18 feet, with additional construction work on the roadway’s shoulders.

The work would cost $13.1 million.

This is the only stretch of Needmore Road not previously paved. The road parallels the Little Tennessee River and can provide motorists a more direct route between counties than the motion sickness inducing N.C. 28, a curvy two-lane highway across the river.

Environmentalists as a whole do support some kind of paving or capping, because they believe sediment from the gravel road is causing harm to the river’s fragile and rare ecosystem. But what has been proposed, they say, is too extensive. Additionally, the work would require the transportation department to blaze through acid-producing rock, posing a significant danger to the Little Tennessee River if something went wrong.

“It will be very important for people to attend this meeting,” said Jenny Sanders, executive director of the Little Tennessee Watershed Association, a Macon County-based group dedicated to protecting just what the name indicates. “Many residents and all of the (outside) agencies involved in this project do not support the ideas of the full-blown widening and paving project.”

There are, however, residents in the Needmore community who just as vigorously do support the transportation department’s proposal, in all its grandiosity. They have cited safety concerns and difficulty traveling to and from their homes as reasons why the road needs work.

Macon County commissioners requested a public hearing be held in their county, saying they wanted to ensure residents there had ample opportunities to weigh-in on the issue.

Ronnie Beale, chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners, said this week the decision by transportation department officials indicated the state agency is sensitive and responsive to residents’ desires.

Around and around they might go — Macon County eyed for roundabouts

It’s a dizzying prospect, but a group looking at future traffic patterns and demands in Macon County is considering including as many as four roundabouts in a recommendation to county and town leaders.

Additionally, Macon County’s second roundabout is being built as part of the Siler Road project, now under way. There is a min-roundabout (perhaps a practice one?) already built near the county library. This means Macon County residents and visitors could have as many as six circular routes to navigate when all is said and done.

The $6.8 million Siler Road project will provide additional access to the Macon County campus of Southwestern Community College and to the county library.

The Macon County Transportation Steering Committee has suggested using roundabouts at U.S. 441 Business and Maple Street, and at three intersections: Wayah and Porter streets, Wells Grove and Clarks Chapel roads and Depot and Wayah streets.

The roundabouts are simply possibilities and are open to debate and discussion, said Ryan Sherby, the rural planning organization coordinator for Southwestern Development Commission, a regional council for the state’s seven westernmost counties.

The transportation steering committee is trying to decide what best to do about traffic in “areas of concern” in Macon County that were identified by the state Department of Transportation. Members will make a final recommendation to county commissioners and elected leaders in Franklin and Highlands.

Sherby said the roundabouts and other preliminary recommendations will be reviewed — and he hopes something approved — during a meeting toward the end of the month. A workshop for the public will be held in January, he said.

“There are times when a roundabout might be an appropriate intersection treatment as opposed to a signalized intersection, when considering capacity and safety,” Sherby said. “Although, on a cost comparison, lots of factors come into play such as utility relocations and potential additional right-of-way costs.”

Macon County Manager Jack Horton previously worked in Haywood County as county manager. There are now two roundabouts in Haywood, but when Horton was serving as manager the very prospect of what one resident dubbed “dummy circles” being built sparked a minor brouhaha.

Today, as Horton recently noted, very few complaints about the roundabouts are heard in Haywood County. And, they seem to perform exactly as proponents promised, safely and efficiently moving traffic through two busy intersections.

Macon County Transit Director Kim Angel raised concerns to her fellow steering committee members about the elderly population in Macon County — and this county is, in terms of median age, one of the “oldest” in North Carolina — being able to successfully round-the-roundabouts.

In a follow-up conversation this week, she reiterated those concerns, saying she was most troubled by the possibility of a roundabout near the county’s senior center, where Franklin High School is also located.

As the transportation committee works on figuring traffic needs through 2035, one potential hotspot is being worked into plans: Traffic changes from the new Wal-Mart Super Center planned for the intersection of Wells Grove and Dowdle Mountain roads.

Luckily, “(the project) surfaced during the process,” Sherby said, adding that transportation department officials have shared their traffic plans concerning the new Wal-Mart with the committee.

Information session on ‘fixing’ N.C. 107 set for next week

Are you ready to rumble? Because here we go again: The great debate in Jackson County on whether traffic congestion along N.C. 107 in Sylva should be fixed, and if so — how — is back.

Since the summer of 2008, the state Department of Transportation has conducted separate traffic studies, each intended to explore different fixes to the same problem.

The preliminary results of one of those studies is about to go public: potential redesigns of N.C. 107, Sylva’s major traffic corridor, which takes in the primary portion of the county that is experiencing business growth. The targeted stretch extends from U.S. 23 Business in Sylva to Western Carolina University.

On Tuesday, Nov. 9, state DOT officials will hold what’s being dubbed an “informal meeting” in Sylva. They intend to publicly layout what they claim must be done if N.C. 107 is truly going to be fixed.

There are six concepts on the table. Three of those concepts would include building an additional road, the controversial Southern Loop, since renamed the friendlier-sounding (and the transportation department claims, more accurate) “N.C. 107 connector.”


‘Here it is’

The connector, as originally conceived, would blaze a new road through the mountains. Five miles of construction destroying homes, farmland, and taking in streams and forests — a proposal, that on the face of it, is simply too destructive for serious contemplation by many in the county, including those who stand to lose their homes.

Opponents won a small battle when the transportation department broadened its language describing the N.C. 107 connector as a “multi-lane” freeway to include the possibility of a smaller, two-lane road, at least for the purpose of study.

Jackson County Smart Roads Alliance, the group that acted as the brake on the transportation department’s original plans for a multi-lane bypass, has started revving its engines.

The citizen-action group has pretty much lain dormant for the past few years. But this week it held an organizational meeting at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva. Members are promising to once again bring accountability to the process, and to insist on the inclusion of a wide array of community voices before any decisions are made.

“DOT has forgotten we’re paying attention,” said Jason Kimenker between serving up cups of lightly curried butternut squash soup to his lunch customers at the Soul Infusion Tea House & Bistro, smack dab beside the section of N.C. 107 that is being eyed for improvements. “We have simply been waiting to find out what they were going to do. And, here it is.”

But whether Smart Roads can inspire hundreds of Jackson County residents to participate in what’s often a tedious and mystifyingly complex process — as it once did — remains to be proven. The first test comes next week, at the transportation department’s information session.


Meeting is a response to public pressure

Joel Setzer doesn’t actually have horns and a tail, though to hear some critics of the transportation department, that might come as something of a surprise.

In reality, Setzer is a polite, well-spoken Jackson County native who made good and became the very top dog for the 14th Division of the state Department of Transportation. That means he’s division engineer for a 10-county region that includes Jackson County and encompasses the westernmost tip of North Carolina. Today, Setzer lives on the land he was raised on, commuting a few miles each day from Cullowhee via N.C. 107 to his tidy office — replete with pictures of family members and trout — located in the division’s headquarters near Webster.

“This, in essence, is to help answer the question — ‘Can you fix 107?’” he said of the upcoming meeting.

What happened, Setzer said, is the transportation department really listened. No, really, he said, truly they did.

They heard residents (lots of them, hundreds of them at a time at some points), keep asking whether another road (N.C. 107 connector) was necessary. There were questions about traffic counts, about politics versus need, about desires to build roads positioned against a more environmentally friendlier concept of working in the existing footprint.

That led to the information session (not a public hearing) to share what is known at this point. This, Setzer said, is not required of the transportation department — but the project is controversial, and there have been a lot of questions raised.

The central, nagging question? Whether the transportation department is really doing what the community wants in considering a connector, or by making significant improvements to N.C. 107. Or, are these men and women primed to build roads when a few cars back up on the highway, simply shoving their pet projects down the throats of a reluctant citizenry, all the while egged on by a shadowy yet powerful coalition of would-be developers?

Connecting a network of side roads and linking rural routes to relieve pressure on N.C. 107 is the solution the Smart Roads group advocated when it was active. That option was not included in this study.



What’s on the table?

Here’s what’s being dubbed the six “concepts.” They make only limited sense without accompanying illustrations and maps and explanations from engineers. Those will be forthcoming, Setzer promised, at the information meeting:

• Concept 1 — Traditional widening and intersection upgrades with no N.C. 107 connector, approximately 6.2-miles long.

• Concept 2 — Traditional widening and intersection upgrades with the N.C. 107 connector in place, approximately 6.2 miles long.

• Concept 3 — Superstreet concept (think Cope Creek, along U.S. 23/74, where turnout lanes are now) with access management/non-traditional intersections and no N.C. 107 connector in place, approximately 7.5-miles long.

• Concept 4 — Superstreet concept with access management/non-traditional intersections and with the N.C. 107 connector in place, approximately 7.5-miles long.

• Concept 5 — Non-traditional improvements and other access management strategies in selected locations with no N.C. 107 connector.

• Concept 6 — Non-traditional improvements and other access management strategies in selected locations with the N.C. 107 connector in place.

Right off the bat, it is critical to understand that each of these six concepts were drafted using a “D” level of service: “A” would represent the best operating conditions; “F” the worst. “D” is generally considered acceptable in urban areas, the transportation department noted in a document outlining the concepts for N.C. 107.

Setzer acknowledged that even the level of service used as the baseline in drafting these concepts is arguable. And, surely, will be argued.

One additional, very important point: Setzer said he must know what “the county’s vision” is today. Build, don’t build; improve, don’t improve — “people are going to have to say, ‘What is an acceptable level of service?’” Setzer said.

“There needs to be a community discussion on what it would take to fix 107 … and I don’t think you can proceed without knowing where the duly elected officials stand. We need to know what the vision is. Without that, we’ll simply be spinning our wheels.”


What Smart Roads advocates want

If you want to get involved, it pays to know what you are getting involved in. Jackson County Smart Roads Alliance promotes these alternatives:

• Expand and connect existing roads to accommodate present and future traffic.

• Implement access management concepts and other “traffic calming” solutions for N.C. 107.

• Encourage walkable communities, making it easy for people to get where they need to go without driving.

• Build and expand bike lanes and support the Jackson County Greenway plan.

• Develop public transportation and utilize pre-existing railroad lines.

• Advocate for DOT to use earmarked funds for transportation alternatives.

• Preserve the Tuckasegee River corridor for public use.

Interested? Then learn more at


Understanding N.C. 107

N.C. 107 is the only major north-south transportation route in Jackson County, and serves as a “collector” for numerous secondary roads, many of which are dead-end roads that have no “connectivity.” It joins Sylva in the north with Cashiers in the south, traveling through Webster, Cullowhee and Tuckasegee in between.

There is dense commercial development along U.S. 23 Business and N.C. 107 between U.S. 23-74 and N.C. 116. About 95 driveways intersect this 3.3-mile roadway segment. Smoky Mountain High School, Fairview Elementary School, Southwestern Community College and Western Carolina University are located along, or near, N.C. 107.

N.C. 107 is a five-lane, curb-and-gutter roadway with narrow 10-foot wide travel lanes from U.S. 23 Business to approximately 1,000 feet south of Fairview Road. From there, N.C. 107 transitions to a four-lane, median-divided facility. Under 2008 conditions, the five-lane section is at, or over, its traffic-carrying capacity during peak traveling hours. By 2035, the entire five-lane section will be operating over capacity.

SOURCE: N.C. Department of Transportation


Get Involved

WHAT: Informational meeting on fixing traffic problems on N.C. 107 in Sylva.

WHERE: Balsam Center (Myers Auditorium lobby), Jackson County campus of Southwestern Community College, 447 College Road in Sylva.

WHEN: Tuesday, Nov. 9, from 5-7 p.m.

WHY: To share six “concepts” that could fix perceived traffic-flow issues.

WHO: Sponsored by the state Department of Transportation.

Public debates paving, widening Needmore Road

More than 100 people attended last week’s public hearing on a state Department of Transportation proposal to pave and widen a 3.3-mile section of road that cuts through the Needmore Game Lands and parallels the Little Tennessee River.

The crowd included environmentalists, hunters and fishermen, residents of the Needmore community and several reporters. There were about 15 representatives of the transportation department, plus regulatory officials from other agencies.

The comments were as varied as the people attending: endorsements of the transportation department’s proposal to widen the gravel one-lane road to two lanes at a cost of $13.1 million, and questions about the overall need for such a large-scale project in an environmentally sensitive setting. About 25 people spoke publicly.

Swain County resident John Herrin spoke in support, citing economic benefits to the two counties involved, Macon and Swain.

“You are looking at an improvement that will bring a substantial value to the counties,” he said. “Both of them.”

Others, including Mike Clampitt of Toot Hollow Road in Bryson City, pointed to rescue workers’ possible need for an alternative route to N.C. 28 during emergencies as the reason they supported the transportation department’s proposal. N.C. 28 parallels Needmore Road, but on the opposite side of the Little Tennessee River. N.C. 28 is a paved, two-lane highway.

Swain County Commissioner David Monteith also talked about possible emergency-response needs, plus described an overall faith in the state’s Department of Transportation ability to make the best decision for all involved.

“I’ll support anything DOT thinks they need. They are the experts,” Monteith said.

Others, however, weren’t persuaded, or as trusting.

“This is a resource that is not replaceable,” Macon County resident Richard Kennedy said in opposition to the project.

Kennedy, a motorcycle rider himself, warned that an improved Needmore Road would attract scads of motorcyclists, and that “people will get hurt on it.”

Western North Carolina in recent years has become something of a Mecca for motorcyclists, particularly a stretch of highway along U.S. 129 known as the Tail of the Dragon in neighboring Graham County.

Cheryl Taylor, who lives along a paved section of Needmore Road, warned her fellow fourth, fifth and so on generations of Swain County-rooted residents (several cited their antecedents prior to speaking; Taylor, as it happens, is fifth generation) that “we can’t get this back” if the area is damaged.

She characterized the transportation department’s plan as “drastic” and “invasive.”

“I don’t want to see it changed,” said Taylor, who was part of a massive campaign to save the 4,400-acre Needmore tract from development about eight or so years ago. The effort, involving a coalition of groups and individuals who are often at odds, saw $19 million raised in the form of private donations and grants. Duke Power, which owned the land, had intended to sell it off for development.

Along with many of the speakers, Taylor did endorse some improvement measures. She spoke in favor of paving and widening.

Ron Allen, who lives on Wagon Wheel Drive in Swain County, like Taylor spoke in favor of a middle way — do some improvements, but compromise and not go to the lengths proposed by the transportation department.

“Significant improvements can be had for less,” Allen said.

Bill Crawford, who lives in Macon County and is a member of WNC Alliance, said the environmental group is opposed to the plan proposed by the transportation department. Other environmental groups also have come out against the plan.

There is still no word on whether the transportation department will honor a request by the Macon County Board of Commissioners. Those county leaders want a public hearing held in Macon. The one last week was held in Swain County. The crowd seemed representative of both counties when a hold-up-your-hand count was requested.

Documents reveal DOT tug of war over Needmore Road

State and federal environmental agencies for more than a decade have questioned the need to make substantial improvements to Needmore Road. They’ve also repeatedly raised concerns about the possibility of serious environmental damage and worries about public reaction, documents on file at the state Department of Transportation show.

“As I had mentioned earlier, I am concerned with the controversy surrounding this project,” Tim W. Savidge, who worked in the transportation department’s environmental unit, warned District Engineer Joel Setzer in a letter dated Sept. 2, 1997. Setzer now serves this region as the transportation department’s top leader and decision maker.

In a required transportation department checklist, the district engineer — who surfaces in the documents then and today as a driving force behind the project — indicated at about this same time that he did not believe construction work to the road would be controversial.

Savidge’s warning, however, proved prescient.

In the past few weeks, environmental advocates and more mainstream voices — longtime residents living near the community, among others — have spoken out against the transportation department proposal to pave and widen Needmore Road to two lanes. The state wants to take the road to more than 30 feet across to accommodate lanes plus shoulders.

If done at the level currently endorsed, construction would require cutting out and removing Anakeesta-type rock, often dubbed “hot rock” because of the possibility it can leach acid when exposed by construction.

The documents reveal that even transportation department officials who favored extensive work to Needmore Road have questioned what is now being proposed. One internal memorandum baldly stated that it wasn’t feasible: from an economic standpoint or an environmental one.

The proposal to “improve” this 3.3-mile stretch of gravel road in Macon and Swain counties sparked concerns because it runs through the protected 4,400-acre Needmore Game Lands. Also, the project comes with a steep price tag during a time of economic constraints: $13.1 million.


Considered ‘most significant’ biologically in WNC

The state Wildlife Resources Commission started managing the Needmore tract about eight years ago after a coalition of hunters, environmentalists and residents rescued the land from development. This required the loosely bound group to raise $19 million to pay Duke Power for the property, which was done through a combination of funding sources, such as private donations and grants. The transportation department also chipped in money toward the rescue.

On April 16, 1998, the Wildlife Resources Commission noted in a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers the overall importance of the area:

“This reach of the Little Tennessee River, from a biological diversity perspective, is perhaps the most significant habitat in Western North Carolina,” Mark S. Davis, mountain region coordinator, wrote. “The (wildlife commission) is concerned about potential project impacts to three federally listed aquatic species … as well as other state listed aquatic species.

“In addition, the Little Tennessee River from the Georgia/North Carolina state line downstream to Fontana Reservoir is classified as critical habitat for the spotfin chub. This area also supports an excellent smallmouth bass population as well as other game and non-game fish species and provides habitat for several wildlife species such as river otter, wood ducks and herons.”

Davis said paving Needmore Road could help reduce sedimentation into the river. Area environmentalists also have endorsed this view, though they oppose the scale of construction proposed by transportation department officials.


‘Hot rock’ issue

Early on, the transportation department vigorously argued against exposing “hot rock.” A memorandum dated July 26, 1999, in which engineers advocated for widening the road toward the river rather than cutting into the bank on the uphill side, spelled out exactly why they considered the current proposal a bad idea.

“According to the geotechnical unit, the rock formations along Needmore Road are of the type known to produce acidic runoff when exposed to weathering,” District Engineer C.R. Styles wrote.

“The cost associated with treating and disposing of 26,000 cubic yards of this ‘hot rock’ would be over $1 million. Also of great concern, are the adverse effects the exposed rock cut could pose to the environment. In order to minimize the potential effects, the rock cut and adjacent ditch line would have to be treated to neutralize the acid. The costs associated with these treatments would be approximately $10,000 initially, and $5,000 per year for the next five to 10 years.

“The total estimated cost to construct this 1,000-foot section of Needmore Road by widening away from the river is well in excess of a million dollars (app. $1.3 million). By comparison, the average cost to construct secondary roads in this area is $200,000 per mile. Therefore, from an economic standpoint, this design isn’t feasible. Also, from an environmental standpoint, this design could have a detrimental effect on the Little Tennessee River ecosystem for many years to come,” Styles wrote.

However, after other regulatory agencies ruled out the possibility of encroaching toward the Little Tennessee River, the transportation department embraced the idea they’d once so vigorously opposed.

The change in position is particularly evident in this Oct. 14, 2008, transportation-department memorandum, written following a meeting where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service raised concerns about ‘hot rock.’

“NCDOT responded that the acidic levels of the rock on this project were very low. With the levels present, runoff from them would not be considered a ‘hot runoff.’ Leaching from freshly exposed surfaces are not likely to pose a long-term problem because the surfaces oxidize very quickly. Any runoff from the surfaces could easily be neutralized by lining ditches with limestone or spraying a limestone slurry on the exposed rock faces.”

For years, regulatory officials working in other agencies have expressed doubts about the need to widen Needmore Road.

A July 22, 2000, memorandum sums up the concerns:

“The general consensus from the agencies is that the need for the project is weak. The environmental impacts outweigh any benefit from improving the road other than paving in place. The very low traffic volumes do not suggest that this road needs to be improved at all. NCDOT will have to produce a stronger need for the project and alternatives that fit that need in order for the agencies to reach concurrence.”


Making the proposal palatable

Despite these concerns, the project proposal survived. And, in the last few years, the transportation department deliberately tweaked the language it used when discussing Needmore Road. Setzer led the charge.

“Per your request, I have reviewed the Dec. 7, 2001, document and have the following comments and suggestions,” Setzer wrote in a Feb. 4, 2002, email to Karen Capps, who works in the project development branch of the department.

“I agree that one of the needs of the project is to help reduce sedimentation, but it is really a secondary benefit of the project and should be included further down. I suggest beginning this segment with purpose (not need). The purpose of this project is to enhance the quality of travel for the current users of the road. The need is to provide a safe and well-maintained road that protects/and or improves the natural resources.”

And, in another email, Setzer wrote: “The more I think about it, the more concerned I am about the primary purpose and need being stated as to reduce sedimentation. I am very concerned that if concurrence is reached under that stated purpose, the agencies will use it against DOT to argue for paving as it is.”

Capps responded, “Joel, you have a very good point. Let me see if I can rearrange that statement some. I’m sure there are other issues that will try to surface, but my plan is to stick to purpose and need and get past this point …”  

Setzer also attempted to fine-tune the number of people who could potentially benefit.

“I also recommend changing the designation of the road from ‘local rural route between Franklin, N.C. to Bryson City, N.C.’ to ‘local rural route between Macon County and western Swain County and Graham County,” Setzer wrote to Capps.


Defending the project

Questions about why Needmore Road needed such extensive work also seemed to have been raised internally within the transportation department.

In a memorandum to Carl Young, project engineer for the planning and environmental branch, Setzer wrote:

“At our meeting, you asked for justification for widening Needmore Road prior to paving instead of paving the existing cross section …

“The motivations and thoughts behind these policies and minimum standards are safety issues, maintenance issues, and liability issues. The department of transportation is obligated to improving roads to a safe and serviceable level. Paving Needmore Road to lesser than minimum standards will create hazards to the traveling public as well as the natural environment. It will also increase future maintenance costs.”

As late as April of this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Office expressed doubts.

“In summary, EPA continues to have substantial environmental concerns regarding the recommended alternative as well as the other paving options. There is insufficient traffic volume on this rural roadway to substantiate the potential long-term adverse environmental impacts to the Little Tennessee River, the Tellico Valley Historic District and the Needmore tract.”

Needmore Road debate heats up

Dorothy and Steve Poole are among the few who live along a 3.3-mile stretch of Needmore Road the state Department of Transportation wants to widen and pave.

“I agree with the people who want to keep it beautiful,” Dorothy Poole said. “But the road has safety issues.”

Her husband, speaking at an information session held in Franklin last week, told the 30 or so people there that he, his wife and their neighbors simply want the same consideration other parts of the Macon-Swain gravel road received.

Care. Pavement. Safe shoulders. Pullouts, if needed.

Others at the session, sponsored by Western North Carolina Alliance, a regional environmental group headquartered in Asheville, argued the state’s plan is too extensive. The transportation department engineers targeted the most expensive option, they said, because these are men who like building roads. So they failed to adequately study other options.

If built as proposed, the gravel section of Needmore Road would be widened to a minimum of 18 feet, with up to another 14 feet for shoulders.


What’s at stake

Needmore Road runs through the protected 4,400-acre Needmore Game Lands. A coalition of environmentalists, hunters, local residents and others saved the tract from development some eight years ago after raising $19 million to buy the land from Duke Power.

The transportation department held a public hearing in Swain County on the paving proposal this week. Macon County commissioners have requested a second public hearing be held in their county.

The state has said the project would cost $6.5 million; the Little Tennessee Watershed Association says it understands the cost would be much higher, and is citing $17.5 million as the actual potential cost. Still others have said it would run to $13.1 million.

“I think they are playing a little fast and loose with the language,” Bill McLarney, the biomonitoring director of the Little Tennessee Watershed Association, said of the transportation department’s proposal to go with the most extensive option.

“(It) would be disastrous,” McLarney said.

McLarney and other speakers said they want more study on the possible use of a soil binder, an alternative surfacing method that might reduce erosion without the high impacts of paving.

McLarney added, however, that there hasn’t been enough information provided for anyone to focus on a definitive answer at this juncture.

The Land Trust for the Little Tennessee River, a Franklin based organization that works with property owners and others to protect upper Little Tennessee and Hiwasee River valleys, has joined the Little Tennessee Watershed Association’s opposition to extensive work on Needmore Road. The land trust played an instrumental role in helping to protect the Needmore tract.


What should be done?

The transportation department is proposing to pave and widen Needmore Road to two lanes. “Preferred Alternative E” would mean the road would be a minimum of 18-feet wide, and additional work would take place on the road’s shoulders. Completing this would require cutting through acidic rock. Here are other alternatives listed in the transportation department’s environmental assessment of the project:

• Alternative A, do nothing.

• Alternative B, upgrade drainage, replace drainage pipes, do grading improvements. Consider a soil binder/alternative surfacing method, to reduce erosion and dust by methods other than paving.

• Alternative C, pave existing road. Although the existing road generally varies from 14 to 19 feet wide, the maximum pavement width would be no wider than 18 feet.

• Alternative D, upgrade the road to a two-lane paved facility with 9-foot lanes for a minimum roadway width of 18 feet, plus 4- to 7-foot shoulders. When encountering acidic rock, shoulders would be sacrificed to reduce footprint of road.

• Alternative E, upgrade the road to a two-lane paved facility with 9-foot lanes for a minimum roadway width of 18 feet, plus shoulders. This would encroach into acidic rock.


Count it up

The transportation department has pointed to traffic counts and safety issues as the primary reasons for paving Needmore Road. These numbers represent average daily traffic volume over the course of the year with typical traffic conditions.

Needmore Road, just north of Tellico Road intersection

2003: 260

2005: 250

2007: 220

2009: 320

For comparison, traffic counts on Old River Road in Swain County, also a two-lane gravel road used heavily by local residents.

Old River Road, SR 1336

2002: 270

2004: 340

2006: 320

2008: 340

Another two-lane gravel road in the region, the road leading to Cataloochee Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, sees slightly lower daily traffic counts, shown here as a daily average in summer months.

2006: 262

2008: 249

2010: 249

Source: Southwestern Development Commission and National Park Service.

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