Walnut Street charm could be casualty of Russ Avenue widening
Although many property owners and residents have lauded what they call a “much needed” widening project on Waynesville’s most heavily travelled artery, they’ve universally decried the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s plans for Russ Avenue as detrimental to one of the town’s most aesthetically significant corridors.
Walnut Street runs north from North Main Street to the foot of Russ Avenue before snaking eastward, where it rejoins North Main. Along the way, it plays host to historic homes, huge trees and brick walls that confer upon the area a unique character not found in other quarters of town.
“In as much as Waynesville has a historic neighborhood, Walnut Street is it,” said Charles McDarris, owner of two Walnut Street properties.
McDarris, along with two dozen other concerned citizens, attended a meeting of the Waynesville Board of Aldermen Dec. 13 to voice their concerns about the project, which has generated substantial discord. At issue is the potential for Walnut Street widening that would result in dramatic changes to the neighborhood.
Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown said that he and other aldermen had received numerous complaints about NCDOT’s plan, which prompted him to take the unusual step of altering the meeting’s agenda beforehand, allowing for about an hour’s worth of unofficial public comments intended to help the town board take a formal position on the project.
McDarris also appeared at the Dec. 7 meeting of the Town of Waynesville’s Historic Preservation Commission. His two properties — referred to as the Stringfield residences at 28 and 52 Walnut Street — have been refurbished and contain many of the original interior and exterior features that make them distinctive today.
He told the commission that he’d received a letter from NCDOT that informed him a “significant potion” of the front yard of his buildings would fall victim to a new lane of traffic, a bike lane, and new sidewalks taking with them a 120 year-old maple tree and a 100 year-old brick wall.
Many of the structures in the area date to the 1920s, with several significantly older. When commission member Alex McKay addressed the town aldermen, he said the list of names of original homeowners reads like a “who’s who” of town history.
“Seventeen houses are on this affected area of Walnut Street, and 16 of those are contributing factors to the historic district,” McKay said.
The project has been in the works since at least 2006. Waynesville’s four-year study of possible improvements for Russ Avenue was finished in 2010 and resulted in recommendations meant to alleviate traffic and make allowances for future growth on Russ from the railroad bridge near O’Reilly Auto Parts on up to the Great Smoky Mountains Expressway interchange.
However, when NCDOT officials presented its plan to Waynesville Development Services Director Elizabeth Teague, she found that a portion of Walnut Street had been included in the proposal, despite what Teague said was “specific” instruction against such inclusion.
“It’s been on our radar screen since 2008 or 2009,” Brown said. “The area we are discussing tonight [Walnut Street] is very new, and has not even been discussed by this board. It’ frustrates me like it does you that maybe DOT and their consultants just got ahead of themselves.”
Brown stressed that while the town wouldn’t be the deciding authority on what sort of work — if any — is done on Walnut Street, he said the town could be “influential” in the decisionmaking process, imploring homeowners to contact NCDOT with their opinions.
“What we’re going to do is, we do have a meeting on the 10th [of January] and comment has to be in by the 13th. I’m going to ask for the board’s consent that we fully look at this issue from the town’s perspective.”
He said the town would take a stance consistent with the town’s land design standards, pedestrian plan and the coments of the community at the Jan 10. meeting.
The Historic Preservation Commission also appears poised to take a stand on the issue; the commission’s meeting agenda for its Jan. 4 meeting lists one business item as “discussion of a resolution to NCDOT regarding concerns about the inclusion of a portion of the Spread out Historic District in the Russ Avenue Historic plan.”
Given that commission chair Sandra Owens told the town aldermen that the commission was “definitely not in favor” of the Walnut Street section of the project, it’s likely the commission will take the same position as the town.
There are a few ways citizens can still voice their opinions on the Russ Avenue widening project.
•The Town of Waynesville’s regularly scheduled board meeting is set for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 10, at 16 S. Main St.
•The Town of Waynesville’s Historic Preservation Commission will meet at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 4, also at 16 S. Main St.