Sylva soon to have a taxi man again

A new taxi service will be coming soon to Sylva.

The Sylva town board last week unanimously approved a taxicab business license for Brian Paquin, who plans to launch 24-hour, seven-day per week service under the name Freedom Taxi.

Haywood extends financial olive branch to towns for trash hauling

Haywood County will help ease the burden faced by towns as they start trucking their trash all the way to the county’s far-flung landfill.

County commissioners will allocate more than $100,000 to towns to help cover the added cost of the trash journey, from more trash workers to extra trash trucks. Starting this summer, the county will no longer allow towns and commercial trash services to bring their loads to a mid-point trash transfer station in Clyde and instead will make them go all the way to the White Oak landfill, an extra hour or more roundtrip.

During a public hearing on the county budget this week, commissioners made a point to highlight the county’s contribution to towns’ trash operations.

The county will save hundreds of thousands by closing the transfer station to town and commercial trash trucks but will share some of those savings back with the towns to offset the burden and ideally prevented town residents trash rates from going up.

The county will pay the towns of Waynesville, Canton and Clyde $15 for each household that they pick up garbage from.

“All of them were very supportive of that funding formula,” said County Manager Marty Stamey.

Clyde will receive $7,500; Canton will get $23,700; and Waynesville will be allocated $80,670.

The goal of the money is to prevent towns from having to pass the buck onto their residents. Canton and Clyde have committed to not raising their rates.

“The whole concept of this was to alleviate the burden on those citizens,” Stamey said.

However, Waynesville is still recommending a rate increase, though the amount is unknown.

“What the county is offering us doesn’t come anywhere close to what the additional costs will be,” said former Town Manager Lee Galloway, who is acting as a consultant for the town until July. The estimated cost of hauling its own trash to White Oak is $160,000.

Galloway added that the town appreciates the money that the county is able to provide.

The county hopes the contribution will be an annual allocation, according Stamey.

The county already subsidizes the trash journey to White Oak for county residents who don’t live inside the town limits. County residents without town trash pick-up drop their garbage at dumpster lots located in communities throughout the county. The county then pays to have it trucked to White Oak.

Maggie won’t see any assistance, because for it, the White Oak landfill isn’t any further than the transfer station in Clyde.

 

Fire tax districts

Residents served by the North Canton and Maggie Valley fire departments will see a 1-cent increase in their fire district taxes next year. The fire tax is tacked on to people’s property tax bills based on every $100 of property valuation.

At the budget public hearing this week, commissioners invited people involved with the North Canton and Maggie Valley fire departments to talk briefly about the tax increases each requested.

The North Canton Volunteer Fire Department has asked for a one-cent increase in its tax rate next year. The current rate is 5.5 cents.

The rate is “considerably lower than other fire departments” in the county and will increase for one year only, said Board Chairman Mark Swanger.

The extra cent will augment the fire department’s budget so it can replace aging gear. The department has already saved $25,000.

“But, we need some more to do that,” said Ben Williamson, chairman of board of North Canton Volunteer Fire Department.

The Maggie Valley Fire Department has also asked for an one-cent increase to help pay for more full-time employees to man the building 24-7. Eventually, the added revenue might be used for new gear as well.

“The big thing is personnel,” said Jan Pressley, who spoke on behalf of the department.

The new employees could mean a lower insurance rates for residents in the valley.

This epiphany is shiny, new and has all-wheel drive

My epiphany occurred on a bitter cold Sunday afternoon, the snow having momentarily given way to a stray and fleeting glimpse of the actual sun — lately as rare as a celebrity sighting at Ingles. I was outside doing my best to break up the thick ice underneath two or three inches of packed snow in order to make a couple of pitiful tracks to the highway from the church parking lot, where our Camry was trapped like a kitten in a wet bathtub, unable to climb out regardless of how furious the spinning, how desperate the need.

Perhaps I have been softened by years of creature comforts — jet tubs, fleece blankets, microwave popcorn — but let me tell you, I was one miserable sight out there in my mismatched gloves and old workboots, nose raw and running, eyes squinting, teeth chattering like dice in a Dixie cup. Again and again, I attacked the ice with my big silver shovel, and about every third or fourth strike, I’d get through to pavement, then wedge out a heavy piece of snow-crusted ice about the size of a pumpkin pie — or maybe half a pie — an excruciating, slow pace. I tried not to look toward the road, to see how far I had to go. It was a long way, and my back was already screaming at me.

“CHIROPRACTOR,” it yelled.

“GROCERIES,” I yelled back, and kept digging, remembering the stale graham cracker I just had for lunch.

The wind kicked up suddenly. It felt like opening a jar of bees, stinging everywhere at once without pity or remorse. I tucked my chin like a concert violinist, kept digging, trying to position my back to the wind, which seemed to be blowing from all directions at the same time. I was getting tired, and I paused for just a moment to catch my breath. My wife had joined me, offering to take turns with me battling the snow and ice.

And that’s when it happened. A silver Subaru came around the curve, plowing through the snow like a pack of teenage girls going through a mall. We stood there and watched it in sheer astonishment as it crested the hill and disappeared.

“We have to get one,” I said. “We have to get one now.”

 

Requiem for a Camry

I stood there and looked at my Camry, to which I have an attachment that is both sentimental and practical. I took my Dad with me to buy this car in 1998, two years before he passed. My father was to buying cars what Stephen King is to horror novels or Peyton Manning is to football. I vividly remember him reducing a cocky Toyota salesman to a small puddle of frustration years ago when I bought my first car. This time, he let me do the negotiating, said very little to nothing during the test drive, just nodded slightly when I got the price we discussed on the way. Afterward, we went for Chinese, and I remember sitting there over my egg drop soup, looking out the window at my shiny new Camry, thinking, I love that car. I’m going to drive it until the wheels fall off.

Until my epiphany, 13 years and 170,000 miles later, that was still the plan. The Camry actually does pretty well in moderate snow, but you may have noticed that our past couple of winters have been lacking in moderation. Last year, I had a couple of close calls in her, but I chalked it up to an historic winter, the likes of which we wouldn’t see again until our children had children, when we’d haul out the pictures and laugh at the memories of it on holidays.

A year later, it is apparent that this was a profoundly foolish notion. You know what we call a snowstorm packing a foot of snow these days? Wednesday. It’s not historic. It’s just the latest snow. Ho hum, another foot of snow, another week out of school, another few days before we can get the Camry out on the road again, another round of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner, another few hours of fantastic cardiovascular exercise shoveling snow.

I knew I would have to work a bit on Tammy, who is so frugal she is sort of an anti-Kardashian, unwilling to spend a nickel unless it is absolutely and utterly necessary. I reminded her that during last winter’s storm when a twig lashed open a two-inch gash just above our son’s left eyebrow, we had to get a neighbor to drive us to urgent care because — dramatic pause — we couldn’t get our car out of the driveway to take him ourselves. What if the neighbor had been unavailable?

A week later, we were test driving Subarus, and now there’s one in our driveway. From the kitchen window, I can see it out there all shiny and new, just daring the snow to fall, and I think to myself, I love that car. I’m going to drive it until the wheels come off. I’m pretty sure my dad would be cool with it. He loved buying cars.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Haywood County. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

New York City? No wonder they left us out

A spokeswoman with the state Department of Transportation said they didn’t intentionally leave out the state’s westernmost counties on an official logo created by consultants paid $434,590.46 by taxpayers.

That amount, in the interest of accuracy, was a lump sum for work done on the Complete Streets project, not just for creating a logo that — despite transportation officials’ assurances to the contrary — fails to include the state’s westernmost counties.

The transportation department adopted a “Complete Streets” policy in July 2009. The policy directs the department to consider and incorporate several modes of transportation when building new projects or making improvements to existing infrastructure.

The transportation department contracted with consultant P.B. Americas — interestingly, the company is headquartered in New York, so how could they be expected to know about counties west of Buncombe? — to lead and assist the Complete Streets project.

“While I can see what you mean about the Complete Streets logo appearing to lop off the far western counties, I can assure you that’s not the intent,” said Julia Merchant, a transportation department spokeswoman.

Merchant, it should in fairness be made clear, is perfectly familiar with the western part of the great state she now serves. Before taking the job in Raleigh, Merchant worked for this newspaper as a reporter and is a graduate of Appalachian State University.                                                                                      

“The logo is simply a sketch/rough outline of the state, and not a to-scale map,” she said. “So while the sketch may seem to exclude the far western counties, I can tell you they were very much included (as was the rest of the state) when it came to developing the Complete Streets guidelines.”                                  

Don Kostelec, senior transportation planner who works for an Asheville consulting firm, wasn’t amused when he saw the pricey logo adorning the new initiative.

“Yeah, it’s probably a little petty,” Kostelec said. “(But the logo) has chopped off the westernmost counties of the state while the coast and Outer Banks still maintain all of their detail. As a native of Macon County, this infuriates me. And they wonder why there is a healthy distrust of Raleigh in the mountains?”

Kostelec suggested the newspaper use the following headline if it pursued a news story: “Complete Streets … Incomplete State.”

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.

Shortchanged again, WNC demands highway dollars back

Western North Carolina has steadily lost out on tens of millions in federal highway dollars over the past decade, despite the money being specifically earmarked for the region.

Mountain leaders sent a message to both Raleigh and Washington this week to restore a special pot of money for highway projects in the mountains. The money was being siphoned off by Raleigh and doled out across the entire state rather than going to WNC as intended by federal legislation dating back to 1965.

“This money was set aside to help the far western counties, but over time it got put into the general pool,” said Ronnie Beale, Macon County commissioner chairman.

The special pot of highway money was supposed to improve the lot of Appalachian people. The region historically suffered from higher poverty and unemployment rates. Its isolation and lack of high-speed highways was considered a major culprit.

The interstate system connecting the rest of the country largely bypassed Appalachia, skirting the rugged region when possible due to high costs of road construction in the mountains. To counter the topographic challenges and rectify the isolation brought about by lack of highways, federal lawmakers earmarked a special pot of money each year to fund the Appalachian Development Highway System.

But a minor accounting change that occurred in the mid-1990s kept the money from reaching its intended destination. Instead of arriving as a special appropriation, the money was bundled along with the rest of the federal transportation budget when being sent to the state.

The state claimed it could not unbundle the money. Once bundled in with the rest, the state claimed it was obligated to divvy it up among the entire state as it did the rest of the federal transportation money.

“It wasn’t considered extra money, and North Carolina law says if it is not extra money, it gets caught up in the state’s distribution formula,” said Joel Setzer, head of the N.C. Department of Transportation Division 14, a 10-county mountain region.

“It is my belief that violates the spirit of the Appalachian program. It is a belief shared by many,” Setzer said.

A committee of leaders from six counties that comprise the Southwestern Regional Transportation Planning Organization adopted a resolution this week condemning the practice. The committee includes commissioners from six counties and mayors of several towns.

The resolution calls on the special highway funding to be restored to the region. In particular, it asks the federal government to separate the money from the rest of the state’s transportation budget so the state wouldn’t face the challenge of unbundling it.

The special federal pot designated for WNC is supposed to be $30 million a year. One road project that stands to benefit from the Appalachian highway construction dollars is a missing link of Corridor K (see related article.) The road would blaze a four-lane highway around Robbinsville, relieving a narrow two-lane bottleneck for people traveling to Murphy. It has been in the planning stages for decades, but carries a price tag of nearly $800 million to finish a 17-mile missing link through Graham County.

Setzer suggested that the message would carry even more weight if a similar resolution was adopted by counties and towns across the region. Macon and Graham counties have already done so.

“We have to keep hollering louder and louder and louder,” Beale said.

The state has stockpiled some of the money, with around $150 million accumulated but unspent, Setzer said. Setzer hopes the mountains can draw from the funds once the accounting classification is changed.

Task force declared finished as draft plan advances for public review

Some members of the Jackson County Transportation Task Force feel like the list of road projects bearing their name has not properly been vetted, despite the work of the task force being declared finished.

“I think the task force has satisfied their charge in creating a comprehensive transportation plan,” said Ryan Sherby, community transportation coordinator with the Southwestern Regional Commission.

After a stint before the public for comment later this month, Sherby anticipates shipping the plan along to the county commissioners for approval and then sending it up the chain to guide road building priorities by the N.C. Department of Transportation. At this point, Sherby doesn’t intend the task force will ever formally vote on the plan — even though the plan will bear their name and they will be credited with creating it.

“This isn’t a real rigid process,” Sherby said.

Some task force members were surprised to learn, however, that their work is done. At their most recent meeting, they were never told it would be their last. They also weren’t told that the plan — essentially a list of future road projects — was in its final form and being sent on to county commissioners for a stamp of approval without the task force formally endorsing it.

“From my standpoint, there was no integrity or forthrightness about what was happening at that last meeting,” said Susan Leveille, a member of the task force and of the Smart Roads coalition. “We were being rushed.”

After more than year of poring over growth and traffic projections, the task force spent the past five months coming up with a list of new road projects that would make travel safer and faster.

Rather than vetting the list through discussion, however, task force members were asked to rank each project on a scale of 1 to 5. Task force members were asked to go around the table and verbally call out their score for each project, a process repeated 17 times for each road project on the list. The numbers for each project were tallied to decide which stayed on the list. Only one came off.

Sherby called it a “consensus building exercise.” The format for the meeting came as a surprise, however.

“We knew that we were going to be making some choices,” Leveille said. “But we had no idea what the procedure was going to be. We had no idea there would be a facilitator that was railroading us through this. I expected some thoughtful discussion.”

For some on the task force, the recent episode is indicative of the entire process.

“The task force was not in the driver’s seat,” said Jeanette Evans, another member of the Smart Roads coalition. “It felt steamrolled.”

Another source of confusion is exactly what the rankings were supposed to reflect.

“That’s a good question,” said Don Selzer, a task force member appointed by the county commissioners. “My understanding was that it was a vote to put certain options before the public — not necessarily ones we recommended but these are the options available.”

However, the rankings are apparently being viewed as an endorsement of the road projects on the list by the task force, since there is no plan to bring the list back to the task force for a vote. That is upsetting to Leveille, since she gave a high ranking to the Southern Loop, a controversial bypass around the commercial district of N.C. 107. Leveille is against the project and would have scored it much lower if she understood it was somehow a final vote. But she gave it a high ranking simply because she thought it merited additional discussion.

Sherby said the plan rests with county commissioners now, along with elected town leaders, and it will be their call whether the list goes back to the task force to formally sign off on the plan.

“If the county commissioners want the task force to do that then we will,” Sherby said.

That may be something the commissioners ask for, said County Commissioner William Shelton.

“There is always the possibility the commissioners would have some more questions of the task force before it goes to final approval,” said Shelton, who is on the task force.

Shelton is among those who were surprised that the plan is supposedly complete and the task force wouldn’t be meeting again. Shelton thinks the laundry list of road projects should be assigned a more thoughtful ranking than its current form.

Selzer is also uncomfortable with the lack of finality the last meeting had. He doesn’t think the plan as is can be touted as something the task force has endorsed.

“I would like to see a final list and say ‘yes or no, this is what we want,’” Selzer said. Selzer said he is “not terribly satisfied” with the process the task force used to create a plan.

You, too, can bike to work

Whether it’s for fitness, for fun or to save the planet, there’s plenty of reasons to bike to work. There’s also plenty of excuses not to.

This week, The Smoky Mountain News sought out two people who make biking to work part of their lifestyle and asked them how they do it. Turns out, they have a perfectly good solution to excuses laid on by the rest of us — and some extra benefits we hadn’t thought of.

 

Long-distance commute

Odell Thompson is one of the few bike commuters with long-distance fans.

While sitting in his architect’s office in downtown Sylva last Friday, an email popped up from his parents in Texas who caught a glimpse of Thompson riding into work that morning on a web cam trained on Main Street.

“We saw your yellow bike go by on the web cam,” they wrote.

When Thompson started biking to work almost five years ago, it changed his life in ways he didn’t expect. Initially his impetus was exercise. Thompson’s bike ride from Cullowhee to Sylva takes about 30 minutes, compared to a 10-minute drive. But the extra time on this bike three days a week is what he should be spending on exercise anyway. Thompson likes to think of it as killing two birds with one stone.

“I am getting to work and getting home, and by the way I am getting an hour of exercise a day,” said Thompson, 49.

But what surprised Thompson was how much it added to his outlook on life.

“Riding to work gives me a good way to clear my mind before the day starts. At the end of the day when I need to decompress, riding home gives me the period of time and physical exertion to leave work at work and take care of myself mentally,” Thompson said.

Thompson doesn’t mind riding in the rain or in the cold of winter. It’s all about the right clothing, be it rain gear or warm layers. He carries his work clothes in a satchel on his bike and changes at the office. On hot days, he freshens up by taking a washcloth to his face and neck.

A common excuse among non-bikers is that they need their car during the course of the workday. While it is indeed a deal killer for some, Thompson knows ahead of time what days he has appointments out of the office and what days will be spent at his own desk, and therefore schedules his rides accordingly.

While it’s impossible not to worry about cars when riding a bike, Thompson takes several precautions to reduce the risks.

“My bicycle is very visible. I have yellow bags and yellow fenders and flashing lights all over it. I feel like I am visible enough and the cars will see me, but you are always aware,” Thompson said.

As an added perk, Thompson likes the fact he’s not using fossil fuels, especially last summer when a gas shortage led to long lines and high prices.

“I would pedal by and just look at everyone in line at the gas station and smile,” Thompson said.

Thompson believes he is doing his part for a more sustainable society.

“We need to adjust our thinking about everybody being able to drive everywhere in their own little hermetically sealed capsule, in particular here in the mountains because there is not a lot of flat land to build new roads,” he said.

Thompson said while saving the planet is a worthy cause, exercise remains his top motive.

Thompson’s final piece of advice: commit yourself for at least a month before throwing in the towel.

“The first time your butt will be sore and you will say, ‘I don’t want to do that anymore. That sucks.’ But if you do it religiously two times a week for a month, after that you are hooked,” Thompson said.

 

“Mast Transit” style

When the Mast General Store launched its “Mast Transit” program last year, offering a bonus of $4 a day to employees who biked to work, the timing couldn’t have been better for Jay Schoon.

Schoon, who works in the outfitters department of the Mast Store in Waynesville, was already contemplating a “bike to work” New Year’s Resolution.

He had a dilemma, however. He lived about 20 miles away from work in the rural Fines Creek countryside. The distance wasn’t an issue, nor a killer climb along the way. Schoon’s problem was the narrow country road with no shoulder during the first part of his ride.

Until a solution dawned on him. Why not drive half way, park his car at a roadside truck stop and bike the rest?

“I was being stubborn about living too far away,” Schoon said. “It just dawned on me I could drive part way.”

Mast compromised and gives Schoon $3 a day instead of $4 since he is still using his car some.

He actually applies the $3 to a life insurance policy that he probably would cut from his monthly budget otherwise.

“It pays for my life insurance in case I do get run over.” said Schoon, who’s 39.

As an added precaution, Schoon has a rearview mirror on his sunglasses to keep an eye on cars behind him.

He also stumbled upon a lovely shortcut that departs from the road and follows a newly created greenway from Lake Junaluska into downtown, making the majority of his ride very pleasant and car free.

“I love my bike ride,” Schoon said.

Schoon would recommend the drive-part-way, bike-part-way solution to anyone facing a similar stumbling block.

“Find a killer route, even if it is not on your way,” he said.

Schoon doesn’t wear special bike attire. Working at an outfitters store, a fleece sweatshirt and hiking pants are accepted work apparel, and ideal for pedaling in to work as well. Schoon is a self-described “lifestyle biker.” He’d always ridden his bike as a preferred mode of transportation — including on his first date with the woman who’s now his wife — and didn’t like giving it up just because he moved to the rural countryside far from town.

The time on his bike in the morning and afternoon has made a world of difference in his life.

“I was missing something. Part of my lifestyle was not quite right,” said Schoon.

Charlotte voters make tough, smart choice

These days Americans aren’t known for making tough choices. To the contrary, our national reputation is one of being soft. We eat too many bad foods and complain about our health, sit around way too much instead of exercising, and continue to drive gas-guzzling, huge cars when we know they damage the environment and play into the hands of foreign dictators who control the oil.

Cherokee asks for input into corridor planning

By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer

As Jackson County officials work to develop a plan to regulate commercial growth along U.S. 441, officials from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians say a partnership needs to be formed to ensure that the area’s economic development fits both parties’ needs.

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