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Jackson takes on Duke Energy

Jackson County’s decision to take the Dillsboro dam through eminent domain is a bold next step in the relicensing saga that has been playing out for years.

Commissioners voted 4-1 Monday night to use one of the strongest powers they possess to get what they believe to be a fair deal from Duke Energy. Taking the dam through eminent domain promises a messy legal fight. But it’s the end game that matters here, and a majority of their constituents are — in a word — insulted by the mitigation package Duke has offered.

As we’ve noted before, making the removal of a community icon the centerpiece of the giant utility’s environmental mitigation effort just didn’t make many people happy. Yes, the free-flowing river will be a boon to paddlers and restore a lengthy stretch of the waterway to its “pre-Duke” status, but other considerations came into play.

This dam, small in size and in plain view of thousands of citizens every day, has gained a value aside from its hydropower production. It has become a part of Dillsboro, one of those man-made objects that give residents a sense of place. As soon as Duke began pushing the idea of removing the dam, many started speaking up to voice their surprise and displeasure.

Here’s the rub for Duke: if the giant utility had come to the table with a better mitigation package, removing the dam likely could have happened. A look around the region proves that in other cases where utilities sought federal licenses to operate hydropower plants, more tangible mitigation packages were offered.

Two relicensing arrangements nearby — Alcoa to the west and Progress Energy’s Pigeon River deal to the east of Jackson — offered big-time, lasting packages. The Progress Energy solution — creating the Pigeon River Fund — has, almost 20 years later, helped every school child in Haywood County gain intimate knowledge of the watershed, in addition to providing money for dozens of environmental and riparian efforts to help landowners and nonprofit organizatios.

Representatives from this newspaper attended many of the stakeholder meetings that led to Duke’s decision to take down the Dillsboro dam. During the relicensing process for all of its hydropower plants in Western North Carolina, Duke invited citizens, representatives of various state environmental and licensing agencies, and others to a multi-year series of meetings. Many of those supported the dam removal, and so Duke thought it was going down the right path.

A glimmer of hope for compromise arose during mediation that took place over the last couple of months. But those privy to those negotiations obviously did not think Duke offered enough.

We somehow wish the energy company could become a partner in this effort to make Jackson County a green energy leader, not an opponent. Unfortunately, it appears it will be left to the courts to determine a fair outcome.

Rates jump prior to signing of library loan

Hints of an up tick in the economy are good news to say the least, but a resulting rise in interest rates came a little too soon for Jackson County taxpayers.

Interest rates jumped almost 0.75 percent on the eve of locking in a construction loan, costing the county $500,000 over the 15-year life of the loan. The county is taking out a $10.295 million loan. The first $7 million will pay for the new library and renovate the historic courthouse, and $3.2 million is slated for construction on the campus of Southwestern Community College.

The county was quoted an interest rate of 3.97 percent on a loan from BB&T. But the county had to wait to lock in the rate until it was within a 45-day window of signing. Just days before the county moved into that 45-day window, the rate went up to 4.63 percent.

The taxpayers are still coming out ahead on the project, however. Construction for the library and renovations to the historic courthouse were roughly $1.5 million less than expected, presumably because contractors hungry for work were offering their best price.

The annual payments on the loan will cost about $1.1 million a year initially, decreasing over time as the principle is paid down and interest decreases.

In addition to the $7 million being put up by the county for the library, Friends of the Library is raising $1.5 million to furnish the interior.

River park concept centers on dam, throws Duke for a loop

Jackson County commissioners got their first look last week at a master plan for a Dillsboro river park — a plan that prominently features the controversial dam — on the same night they spent nearly three hours in closed session discussing their legal fight with Duke Power over the fate of the dam.

Jackson County and Duke Energy have been locked in a lengthy battle over the dam. Duke wants to demolish it and county leaders want to save it.

The county contracted with Equinox Environmental of Asheville to develop a conceptual design for a park along the river in Dillsboro. The inclusion of the dam and powerhouse as a focal point for the river park surprised some, however, including Commissioner Tom Massie. Massie, who has unsuccessfully prodded the others commissioner to give up in their fight against Duke, seemed perplexed over why the dam appears as a focal point when its demolition is all but imminent

“I’d like to say that Equinox Environmental does wonderful work, and that this is a good plan,” said Massie after a presentation by landscape architect Dena Shelley of Equinox. “But I guess, Mr. Chairman, I’m missing something here. Does this mean that Duke has given in to Jackson County and said the dam could stay?”

Commissioner Chairman Brian McMahan said the park could be built with or without the dam, and Equinox’s Shelley concurred with McMahan.

“We had in mind that the plan could work with or without the dam,” Shelley said.

The park, if built, would radically change the riverfront on both sides of the Tuckasegee in and around Dillsboro. The conceptual design includes river put-ins for boaters, river viewing and fishing areas, parks on both sides of the river connected by a river walk, plus an extended greenway. It was designed to entice anglers, boaters and pedestrians, and would be tied into downtown Dillsboro with footpaths and signage.

“The idea was to create a destination for recreation and tourism in Dillsboro,” said Shelley.

Commissioner Joe Cowan said he hadn’t had time to study the plans, but on first glance he was impressed.

The plan even incorporated turning the old powerhouse it into a craft center or some other retail business and had dam viewing areas.

Following the presentation, commissioners went into closed session to discuss their legal battle with Duke over the Dillsboro dam. Tearing down the dam would serve as the centerpiece of Duke’s environmental mitigation, required to offset the impacts of its other hydropower operations in the region.

Jackson County, however, wants to keep the dam and force Duke to perform other mitigation instead, such as an environmental trust fund. While Jackson has lost several appeals against Duke, the county’s attorney on the issue claimed Jackson held the ultimate trump card: condemning the dam with the power of imminent domain and taking it over to operate as a source of green power. That idea appeared to die last summer, however.

The closed session last week (May 18) lasted until after 11 p.m. but no action was taken afterward. Among those attending the closed session was Gary Miller, a lawyer who aided Dillsboro Inn owner TJ Walker in his opposition to Duke.

Long-held dream becomes reality

It’s a project that’s been years in the making, and on Saturday the scores of Jackson County residents who gathered to watch the groundbreaking for the county’s new library couldn’t stop beaming.

The excitement and pride was palpable as — one after another — speakers at the ceremony had their remarks met with whoops and cheers.

“A few said this community would never be able to raise the funds,” said County Commissioner Chairman Brian McMahan. McMahan said he had just one thing to say to those who doubted the project: “Yes we can!”

Librarian Dottie Brunette dedicated her words “to all those in the community who have made sure all their wishes were heard and heeded.”

Indeed, it was largely the community that made the push to turn the historic Jackson County Courthouse, built in 1912, into the library’s new home. Plenty of roadblocks were thrown up along the way during the process as naysayers deemed the site unworkable. The board of commissioners was long split on the library location, and even went as far as to purchase another piece of land for the library.

But the community persevered and promised to raise funds for furnishings and equipment once the county chose the old historic courthouse site.

The Friends of the Library, the group that spearheaded the fundraising campaign, committed to raise at least $1.6 million to purchase furnishings and equipment for the new library facility, said June Smith, the group’s president.

“As of today, I’m proud to announce $1,023,153 has been raised,” Smith told the audience, a declaration that was met with cheers and applause.

Speakers commended not just the library, but the role the facility will play in preserving the county’s best-known landmark.

Howard Allman, chair of the Jackson County Library Board, called it, “a beautiful fusion of our past and our future.”

“(We’re) not just building a library, but saving and revitalizing a treasure of our past,” Allman said.

Boyce Deitz, a representative of Rep. Heath Shuler’s office, said Jackson County leaders of yesteryear would be proud of the effort.

“It’s a shame all the people who walked these halls couldn’t be here,” Deitz said. “I know they would be proud to know this was being preserved.”

After the speakers finished, the crowd migrated over to the site of the groundbreaking behind the old courthouse. County commissioners Brian McMahan, Mark Jones, William Shelton and Joe Cowan donned hard hats and grabbed shovels for the groundbreaking. Dr. John Bunn gave a moving speech just beforehand.

“It’s infrequent that we have the opportunity where the past, present and future come into focus at the same time,” Bunn said.

Bunn dedicated the library “to the minds, hearts, and people of this community .... that their lives may be enriched.”

Jackson public asked to envision a greenway

For nearly a decade, a group of Jackson County residents have envisioned a greenway that would meander for miles from one end of the county to the other. Now, the Greenway Committee is finally ready to turn this lofty goal into a reality — and they want the public to help.

The Greenway Committee’s Master Plan envisions a path that from Cashiers to Whittier, passing through the county’s communities and towns along the way and using the Tuckasegee River corridor as an anchor.

But what section should be completed first? Should the trail be made of dirt, gravel, stone or wood? Where should trail entrances and overlooks be? What spaces could the greenway help preserve?

“This is so important,” said Linda Dickert, a Greenway Committee member. “The other counties have one, and there’s no reason Jackson can’t, too. This gives people a safe area that they can take their kids, bike, hike, and see the absolute beauty of this county.”

A series of public workshops next week will give the public a chance to voice their opinion, said Emily Elders, recreation project manager for the county.

The workshops will allow residents of Jackson County to collaborate on a dream that has been several years in the making, and wasn’t always easy to pursue.

The Greenway Commission was formed in 2000, but lacked paid staff or a dedicated source of funding.

“I think one of the problems we had when we started was we didn’t have the authority or the guidance and we didn’t know what we were supposed to do,” said Dickert.

The group had plenty of ideas, but not much direction.

“They got a lot of plans done, but it was hard to get anything on the ground,” Elders said.

A major obstacle was the lack of funding.

“It was overwhelming,” Dickert said. “We looked at this plan, and I’m thinking, how in the world are we going to do this? We were trying to do it for little or no money.”

The commission eventually decided it needed a full-time person dedicated to pursuing the dream of a greenway. Elders was hired in September of last year and got the ball rolling.

The first leg of the greenway will break ground next month in the form of a sidewalk between Sylva and Dillsboro and a trail through Mark Watson Park.

Charting a path

Much of the challenge, as with any greenway project, will be convincing landowners to let the trail pass through their property.

“We have looked at different ways to do it,” Elders said. “Of course, we would rather have a voluntary agreement to cross a property. If we needed to acquire property, that’s obviously going to be a challenge because we have such limited funding. Land is not cheap to buy.”

Elders hopes people will see the merits of a greenway in that it helps preserve natural areas.

“Not only do you have recreational benefits, but you have environmental benefits,” Elders said. “In the long run, if you’re doing it correctly, it’s preserving public access to natural resources.”

Some of the route will inevitably run along sidewalks, but the goal is to keep it along waterways as much as possible. The public will help define the exact path the greenway will take.

Sewer lines owned by Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority follow the river and creek cooridors in the area, potentially providing the right of way for some segments.

The public workshops will also double as a chance to create an alternative transportation plan for the county.

“We’re doing a bike and pedestrian component of the plan for anyone interested in riding their bike or walking to work, or biking and walking for recreation,” said Elders.

Connecting individual communities so people can get around safely is a major goal of the greenway, Elders said.

Elders hopes the series of public workshops will keep the greenway momentum going.

“I don’t want it to fall by the wayside like it has before,” Elders said. “I want to make sure that we keep doing things. As limited as the funding is, you can do a lot more than you think. Eventually, a cohesive system will be there.”

Jackson reluctant to turn over Duke dredging permits

An attorney for Duke Energy gave Jackson County commissioners a “friendly reminder” this week to stop dragging their feet on turning over permits that will pave the way for the demolition of the Dillsboro Dam.

Before Duke can tear down the dam, it must dredge sediment backlogged behind it. Jackson County, which has been at loggerheads with Duke for several years over dam removal, has resisted issuing the permits.

Duke Energy went to court over the issue and won a ruling by Judge Laura Bridges that forces the county to provide the permits, despite appeals over dam removal that are still in play at the federal and state level. Jackson County feared that releasing the permits would hurt its chances in the pending appeals.

Despite the court order, Jackson County has continued to put up resistance. The county agreed to issue a permit, but only with a disclaimer that the county wouldn’t be liable if anything went wrong during dam removal, be it environmental or human safety. Other conditions involved safety parameters.

Duke refused to accept the permit with the disclaimers and conditions and has accused the county of violating the court order. Duke Attorney Molly McIntosh gave the county a last chance to comply this week before going back to the courts.

“I have tried, I think today is the third time I tried, to get the permits without conditions,” McIntosh told the commissioners at their meeting Monday night (May 4). “Mrs. Cable told me she was told to hold the permits until after tonight’s meeting. The order doesn’t say anything about conditions on the permits. If we don’t get the permits we are going to have to move for contempt in violation of the order.”

Commissioners discussed the permit issue in closed session Monday night. The following morning, the county issued the permits without any conditions, but emphasized it was for sediment dredging only.

The commissioners have been split in recent months over their continued opposition to Duke. Commissioner Tom Massie and William Shelton advocate throwing in the towel on the fight, but remain in the minority.

New bypass alone can’t fix N.C. 107 traffic

A fix for impending traffic congestion on N.C. 107 in Sylva doesn’t lie solely with a new bypass but will require a redesign of the commercial artery itself, according to the latest traffic projections by the Department of Transportation.

Two sides have emerged in the long-standing debate over whether to build a new highway around Sylva. One camp wants to build a bypass allowing commuters to skirt the commercial mire of N.C. 107. The other wants to redesign N.C. 107 so traffic flows better.

The answer could be both, according to recent DOT traffic projections. The Jackson County Transportation Task Force held a public meeting last week to gather input on both ideas, although participation was very low.

A new bypass would not divert enough cars from the commercial hotbed on N.C. 107 to solve future traffic woes, according to the traffic projections. Back-ups on the stretch largely stem from people coming and going from places along the congested stretch itself, according to Pam Cook, a DOT transportation planner working on a master transportation plan for Jackson County.

Opponents of a new bypass, known as the Southern Loop, have long insisted that it wouldn’t solve congestion. Joel Setzer, head of the DOT for the 10 western counties, said he, too, always knew that a bypass wouldn’t solve all the problems. It’s one reason Setzer called for a separate congestion management study now underway by DOT experts in Raleigh.

Whether the result will be a full-fledged redesign of N.C. 107 or simply tinkering with the timing of stoplights won’t be known for at least a year, likely much longer. The congestion management study is still in its early stages — so early in fact there are no numbers on how much a redesign will help.

Theoretically, a host of congestion management techniques could be implemented, each one ratcheting up the traffic flow and reducing back-ups. Although the DOT engineers haven’t run the specific traffic models to see how much each technique would help, they’ve looked at it enough to say that whatever it is, it won’t be enough.

“Will it be enough to handle all the traffic to make it function well?” asked Cook. “Probably not. That is something we have to determine.”

Why not wait before making a decision in that case, asked Susan Leveille, a member of the Jackson County Smart Roads Alliance.

“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,” said Leveille. “You need to look at the small things you can do. You don’t bulldoze down your house because you need another bathroom.”

 

Decision pending

The Jackson County Transportation Task Force will be asked to endorse a countywide transportation master plan in the coming months. It not only will address N.C. 107, but span the entire county — from congestion in Cashiers to Main Street in Sylva to the campus of WCU.

The task force is being pushed to put its stamp of approval on a long-range plan — which at the moment calls for the construction of the bypass — before the traffic models for 107 fixes are finished.

Jeanette Evans, a member of Smart Roads and opponent of the by-pass, questioned the wisdom of endorsing a bypass until the task force has a better handle on how much fixes along N.C. 107 will help.

“I would like to be able to play with 107 in some respects to see how it works if we do this or that,” Evans said at a public meeting last week.

Ryan Sherby, a transportation coordinator who serves as a liaison between mountain communities and the DOT, questioned whether that was the task force’s job.

“The task force is a vision body, not an engineer body,” Sherby said.

“If you don’t know what the options are or the consequences of this or that action, how can you vision?” countered Leveille. “It seems to me like we are being asked to make a decision without all the information.”

Cook reiterated that congestion management, while needed, would fall short.

“My opinion at this point is that I don’t think there will be enough with congestion management,” Cook said.

Leveille and Evans said they did not understand why they are being rushed into approving a plan by July. The task force spent 18 months corralling and sifting through population and growth data. It only began the nitty-gritty work of analyzing the different road options two months ago. July is too soon to sign off on a master plan, they said, especially since it addresses everything from widening Main Street on the outskirts of Sylva to widening U.S. 64 in the middle of Cashiers.

“I don’t see how we can come up with a comprehensive plan in a matter of three or four months,” Leveille said.

Initially, the July deadline would allow the DOT to incorporate the task force recommendations into its annual planning process, Sherby said. It could be pushed back a couple months, however, Sherby said.

All the options are predicated on traffic models for 2035, when congestion on some roads will surpass what the DOT considers acceptable. But that model has been called into question.

“Are we planning for 2035 as we have lived in the past?” questioned Myrtle Schrader, who attended the meeting last week. “I don’t hear anything about the future of transportation. We need to look at what our lifestyle can and should be here in the mountains.”

Dr. Cecil Groves, president of Southwestern Community College, said that it is fair and accurate to assume there will be more cars on the road by 2035.

“What we know is if we don’t do anything it only gets significantly worse and more difficult to correct. The population here is going to grow. So we have to make an educated guess the best we can,” Groves said.

Groves advocated for more thought-out land-use planning that would influence commercial growth, rather than figure out how to accommodate it once it has cropped up.

Another question involved the DOT’s definition of congestion. Is the congestion a brief spike during commuter hours, or is it sustained and chronic? Setzer said the congestion was more than a momentary spike, but wasn’t all-day congestion either.

 

Compromise afoot?

News that the DOT is considering a redesign of N.C. 107 coupled with a bypass — rather than either-or — could signal the beginning of a compromise.

The bypass, formerly known as the Southern Loop, was initially billed as a major freeway through southern Jackson County, looping from U.S. 23-74 north of Sylva to U.S. 441 south of Dillsboro. Somewhere in between it would cross N.C. 107 with a major interchange.

In response to public opposition, the DOT dropped half of the Southern Loop — the part extending to U.S. 441 south of Dillsboro.

The DOT is still seriously contemplating the other half, but the language describing the road has been toned down. Instead of the once-touted four-lane freeway, the DOT shifted gears in the past year to consider a two-lane road instead.

That two-lane road would claim enough right of way to accommodate four lanes one day, said Joel Setzer, head of the DOT for the 10 western counties. It would still be designed for a speed of 55 miles per hour. It would still operate like a freeway in the sense of limited access from driveways or intersecting roads. And where it joined N.C. 107, it would likely have an interchange rather than an intersection with a stoplight, Setzer said. But the two-lane concept is scaled down nonetheless.

Spot land-use plan to mark first forray into zoning

Jackson County leaders have finished the first draft of a planning ordinance they hope will transform the U.S. 441 corridor in Whittier from a mish mash of billboards and unregulated growth into a model of tidy landscaping and mountain-themed architecture.

The U.S. 441 Development Ordinance made its public debut at an April 30 presentation at the Qualla Community Center. It now must go to the planning board for a review, then before county commissioners who will the decide whether to pass it into law. If it passes, Jackson will be the first county west of Buncombe to make a foray into land-use planning or zoning in a mostly rural unincorporated area.

The document, created by a county-appointed steering committee, is the culmination of a year-long process. At nearly 100 pages, it calls for mandatory landscaping and architectural standards, limits the size of signs and requires dumpsters to be screened.

Commercial development along the corridor is sparse now. But water and sewer are being installed along the highway, priming the pump for more intensive development to follow. The ordinance sets out a vision to guide anticipated growth from the outset along the stretch, which serves as an entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Cherokee.

“I know what is pretty and what is ugly is a matter of perspective, but on the other hand, there is signage and a type of building construction that I don’t believe is good for the community or the southern entrance of the (Park),” said Bill Gibson, a steering committee member, at the first public presentation of the ordinance.

Jackson County Planning Director Linda Cable said the appearance of the corridor is critical, since it’s a major gateway to the nation’s most-visited national park.

“This being a tremendous tourist attraction, it’s important that the corridor remains pleasing to visitors,” Cable said.

Gibson expressed high hopes that the ordinance, “will make the corridor both a safer travel route and a landscape over time that will become more pleasing not only to folks that live here, but travel here.”

 

Model process

The process of creating a planning document for the corridor began when citizens approached commissioners with concern over growth poised to follow the extension of water and sewer lines. Commissioners took heed and hired consulting firm Kimley-Horn and Associates in November 2007 to oversee the process. What followed was a series of stakeholder interviews, workshops, and a four-day series of interactive meetings with a team of planners, engineers and architects where public input was sought to create a vision for the area.

The public had plenty to say.

“There was overwhelming participation in this event,” said Matt Noonkester, a Kimley-Horn consultant for the project. “I think that’s what made the vision so important and so valid.”

Billboards were a big issue for people during the planning process, Nooncaster said. Participants were asked to guess how many billboards lined the corridor. Estimates ranged into the 300s — far below the actual number of 68, but a testament to the perception of clutter they created.

Community members wanted design guidelines to address building appearance and advocated for the creation of a development district to guide future growth. They overwhelmingly supported the development of a community brand, which would include a color palette, appropriate building materials and signs of a certain shape and size.

“There was strong support to look at regulating building architecture,” Noonkester said.

They liked the idea of a pedestrian-friendly, four-lane road with a landscaped center median.

Public input was compiled into the Small Area Plan, adopted by county commissioners in April of 2008. The document would serve as the foundation for a more comprehensive ordinance.

The bottom-up approach to planning was lauded by many who watched the process unfold. The Small Area Plan actually received an award from the American Planning Association.

“It was a really good model, not only for the ordinance that came out of it, but also the process,” said Ben Brown, communications coordinator for the Mountain Landscapes Initiative, the region’s largest-ever planning effort. “They chose to use a charette to talk directly to the community and help shape the principals and goals of the ordinance, which makes a lot more sense. That was the first really good example in the region of how to go about planning.”

 

Finding balance

Public opinion was kept at the forefront as the steering committee worked to draft the development ordinance.

Committee members, many longtime residents of the area themselves, had to strike a delicate balance between economic development and retaining Whittier’s beauty and character.

Debby Cowan, a steering committee member, spoke of the her experience trying to reconcile the two. Cowan said she wanted to preserve the area’s natural beauty, “but also recognized that Food Lion was one of the greatest things that happened in our community.”

Gibson also talked of trying to strike a balance.

“I have a great respect for individual property rights,” he said, but at the same time, “some of the changes we’re seeing right now are not in the community’s best interest.”

Though a strong private property rights sentiment might make some mountain folk wary of growth rules and regulations, it’s also important to develop in a wise manner, said Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Vice Chief Larry Blythe. The tribe was heavily involved in the process.

“It’s hard to put restrictions on people’s land, but when you’re talking about smart growth and the long term, we the tribe support this effort,” Blythe said.

During the process, committee members worked to shed their personal beliefs for the sake of what was best for the community as a whole.

“We feel like this is something that was prepared from the viewpoint of all the different people and all the different backgrounds of people in the community,” said Cowan. “While we don’t have it perfect probably, we do think the framework is something we worked very hard to make support everybody in the community.”

The committee’s efforts to include all viewpoints didn’t go unnoticed, said Michael Egan, the county’s consulting attorney on land development matters.

“I was very impressed with the dedication the committee had, always trying to think of the rest of the folks. There’s wasn’t a meeting that went by that somebody would say, let’s step back and take a look at that; let’s consider what affect that’s going to have on our neighbors and the folks who live here,” Egan said.

 

Billboards: Tourist draw or clutter?

The draft development ordinance for U.S. 441 encourages development that helps maintain the area’s natural beauty and character — a style dubbed “mountain authentic.” According to the ordinance, the ubiquitous large, colorful billboards that line the corridor aren’t in keeping with the area’s character, and are prohibited. The ones already in existence will be grandfathered in, however. Under the ordinance, signs are limited to 32 square feet. Preferred sign materials include brick, stone, and exposed timber.

Miami Lively, a representative of Santa’s Land Advertising, which owns a number of billboards, raised protest to the strict requirements at the public presentation of the document.

“You cannot put most people’s logos and directions on a (32-square-foot) sign,” Lively said. “The bigger the sign, the easier to read. We agree we don’t need a whole bunch of clutter, but the business owners are paying taxes for their businesses. If they don’t make money, the tax money isn’t going to come in.”

Lively added that “billboards bring tourism to the area.”

Ron Servoss, a community resident, disagreed that billboards enhance an area.

“I drove the corridor into Washington, D.C., last week, where there are no billboards allowed, and it was just wonderful to see the countryside,” Servoss said.

Noonkester pointed to the commercial corridor outside Sylva off N.C. 107, where billboards have been allowed to spring up without regulation. The road, and the unchecked growth along it, is often used as an example of what to avoid becoming.

“How many people like driving N.C. 107?” Noonkester asked, citing its sprawling strip mall and fast-food appearance. “The people of Cherokee would benefit more if this place keeps an identity they can associate with.”

The steering committee hopes it has nailed down that identity in the development ordinance.

“As we grow, I hope that future generations can look back on this group and say, they did a really good thing for this community,” said County Commissioner William Shelton.

 

 

What’s in store?

Here’s a sample of the aesthetic standards called for in the U.S. 441 Development Ordinance. For the complete ordinance, go to www.smokymountainnews.com.

• Accepted building materials include stone, exposed timber, fiber cement siding, wood siding, and shingle siding. No aluminum buildings.

• Dark and earth-tone building colors are strongly encouraged. Intense, bright, black or fluorescent colors shall only be used as accents.

• Dumpsters must be screened and blend with the building.

• Trees must be planted around parking lots and shrubs must be planted around building foundations. Landscape plans must be prepared by a landscape architect or designer. Trees must be planted in parking lots that are more than 8,000 square feet.

• Billboards are prohibited. Other signs cannot exceed 32 square feet.

Library bids come in well under budget

The bad economy has finally reaped some dividends for Jackson County taxpayers.

Construction of the new Jackson County library and renovations to the historic courthouse will cost the county roughly $1.5 million less than expected. Bids from construction companies came in well below what architects estimated, likely because contractors are hungry for work.

The county got bids from 15 construction companies. The low bid came from Brantley Construction based in Canton for $6.067 million. The total cost of the project will be around $7.5 million, factoring in architect fees, site work and the dreaded-but-expected cost overruns.

“We did a thorough background check on their history of service and we found it to be almost impeccable,” said County Manager Ken Westmoreland. “So without reservation we recommend Brantley.”

Brantley’s recent projects in Western North Carolina include a multi-million expansion of the Asheville Airport, the $4 million Child Development Center on the campus of Haywood Community College, two new fire stations in Asheville at about $2 million a piece, and renovations to buildings at Western Carolina University.

In the blueprints for the new library and courthouse renovations, the county had identified several small items as extras that could be cut to save money if needed. Since the bid came in lower than expected, county commissioners chose to include all the extras. These include a rear terrace, second floor balcony and soft lighting on the steps leading from the courthouse to Main Street. (The steps are slated for renovation as part of the project.)

One extra gave rise to discussion among commissioners, however. Commissioner Tom Massie questioned the wisdom of a stained-glass skylight, which isn’t a true skylight but instead will be illuminated by electric lights behind the stained glass. The price tag was $96,000.

“The reality is that’s a fake skylight,” Massie said. “I just wonder if we really need that.”

Commissioner William Shelton said that if the stained-glass faux skylight was eliminated, some other type of lighting would be needed in its place. The county wouldn’t realize the full savings of $96,000 by cutting the decorative feature, but only the difference between the two, Shelton said. Commissioner Brian McMahan said the county should spring for the aesthetic touch, especially in light of the fundraising campaign.

“I think a lot of people who have made donations in this charity drive are trying to build something that will be a showcase for Jackson County and something we can be proud of,” McMahan said.

Mary Selzer, chairman of the Friends of the Library fundraising committee, advocated for the stained-glass perk.

“That has been a feature of great interest to the community as we have talked about the building,” Selzer said.

The commissioners voted unanimously to approve the bid with all the extras, for a base construction cost of $6.067 million, not counting contingencies.

New library complex will honor courthouse heritage

In Massachusetts, a vacant textile mill is now an art museum. An old city hall became a restaurant. In California, a sprawl of empty factories were transformed into a shopping district. Across the country, vacant industrial sites as well as landmark buildings are taking on different roles and a brand new life in projects that architects describe as “adaptive reuse.”

In 2010 Jackson County will complete its own example of modern Main Street redevelopment with the reopening of the restored historic courthouse and its new addition as the Jackson County Public Library Complex. Construction is scheduled to begin in May on the twin projects, which reflect more than a decade of discussion and planning by the community.

“In architectural designs nowadays, the emphasis is on being green and on recycling what we have,” said Donnie Love, historic preservation specialist at South Carolina-based McMillan Smith and Partners, architect for the project. “There’s just nothing more green than the reuse of an existing building like the Jackson County Courthouse, which was so important in the history of the county.”

The renovation of the 95-year-old structure and its expansion to provide modern, multimillion-dollar library facilities has won widespread community support. The project has raised local awareness about historic preservation and the benefits of bringing a new life and role to a landmark structure while retaining much of its original look and feel.

“The courthouse played such a large role in the past and now it will have an important role for a long time in the future. This is a terrific accomplishment for the people of Jackson County,” said Sylva native Ronnie Smith, one of the founders of McMillan Smith and Partners.

When the restoration is complete in 2010, the courthouse will house Jackson County’s Historical Association, Genealogical Society and Arts Council, and an auditorium. The 20,000-square-foot library to be built onto the back of the courthouse will have many of the same architectural details as the older building. A two-story atrium will connect the two buildings.

“This location is an ideal spot for the library,” said Smith. “People are going to be drawn to that location, and the buildings will see a lot of use.”

The project is expected to cost around $7.5 million, being paid for by the county. A campaign by the Friends of the Jackson County Main Library to raise an additional $1.6 million to be used for furnishings, fixtures and equipment has already raised nearly half of its goal.

“In some modern development, there has been a shift away from the adaptive reuse of historic buildings like this because of the fear that it would be too expensive to renovate them,” said Love. “The Jackson County project is a good example of how that’s not always true. The courthouse did fine in studies of what it would need to be brought back to a functioning facility, and because of the proximity to downtown, it was a great location for a new library.”

The Neoclassicism architecture of the courthouse was from the design of Richard Sharp Smith, one of the architects for the Biltmore House. Smith came to the mountain region in 1890 at the request of George Vanderbilt. He was a resident architect employed to help with the design and construction of the grand estate in Asheville.

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