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Jackson uses eminent domain to take dam

Jackson County played the ultimate trump card in the drawn-out fight against Duke Energy over the Dillsboro dam this week.

County commissioners voted 4 to 1 Monday (June 8) to use the power of eminent domain to seize the dam and surrounding land along the Tuckasegee River from Duke Energy. The move will effectively stop Duke Energy from tearing down the dam as planned. It could also send Duke back to the drawing board on a mitigation package for the region.

Counties can use eminent domain to seize private property if there is a public purpose in mind. In this case, Jackson County wants the dam and surrounding land for a park.

Recreation is accepted as grounds for eminent domain in North Carolina state law. That doesn’t mean Duke won’t challenge the move, however.

“Duke is in for the duration to remove Dillsboro Dam,” Fred Alexander, Duke’s community relations manager in the region, said in a prepared statement.

There might be little Duke can do, however, other than argue over the amount Jackson is willing to pay for the dam and surrounding property. If Jackson County says the dam and surrounding property is needed for a public park and recreation, the courts won’t get into a judgment call on whether the idea for the park is a good one or bad one, according to Charles Szypszak, an expert in public law with the Institute of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“Generally speaking, as long as there is an apparent legitimacy to it, what the courts have said is they don’t look at the details of a taking,” Szypszak said.

Duke could argue that the concept of the park is a ruse, and that Jackson County has an ulterior motive for condemning the dam, however. County commissioners have alternately touted numerous reasons for wanting to keep the dam: as a piece of history, a tourist attraction, its aesthetic value, to provide green power for Dillsboro — even as a way to force Duke to pay up in an ongoing disagreement over what constitutes appropriate mitigation for its hydropower network.

But it is highly unlikely that Duke could prove Jackson’s recreation claims are illegitimate, Szypszak said.

“The court wouldn’t say ‘Well, you say you want it for this but we think you really want it for that,” Szypszak said.

The lack of merit may not stop Duke from trying, however, and potentially burying Jackson County under a mound of litigation. As Fortunate 500 company, Duke could simply outspend Jackson County until commissioners finally grow weary and give up.

Duke has no financial stake in the dam — it hasn’t been maintained and it currently isn’t producing power. When Duke had to cough up mitigation to offset the environmental impacts of its 10 other dams straddling rivers in the region, tearing down the Dillsboro dam and thereby restoring a stretch of free-flowing river was likely seen as an easy out, appeasing the paddling community and environmental agencies.

It has since become apparent just how much the dam means to Jackson County, however. Commissioner William Shelton questioned why Duke doesn’t walk away from its plans to tear it down now that the going has gotten so tough. But it may come down to a test of wills, said Jack Brown, chairman of the Green Island Power Authority in New York. Brown is one of the few that has used eminent domain to wrest ownership of a dam away from another entity and go on to operate it himself.

“Not knowing the mind set of Duke Energy, I don’t know how much they will resist,” Brown said. “They have been unchallenged and pretty much run the show. If they think this is going to be a chink in their armor, that Jackson County is going to come in and take this away from them, they may not want to set the precedent.”

How the vote went down

Duke had caught wind in recent weeks that a move was afoot to start condemnation proceedings. Commissioners were poised to take a vote on the matter last Monday, but Duke staved it off at the last minute with the promise of a counter offer.

Jackson commissioners suspected Duke would make a last-minute bargaining pitch. Just a week earlier, Duke and Jackson County had been brought together for court-ordered mediation in Washington, D.C.

“There was some interesting give and take among the participants and hopefully something positive will come from that,” Chairman Brian McMahan said last week.

Duke’s olive branch apparently fell short of commissioners’ expectations, however. When commissioners reconvened this Monday to consider Duke’s attempt at a settlement, they voted 4 to 1 to reject it.

“It wasn’t for a lack of effort that mediation didn’t work out,” Alexander said. “And I’m certainly sorry it didn’t.”

The terms of Duke’s counter-offer were not made public citing the confidential nature of court-ordered mediation.

After voting to reject Duke’s offer, commissioners had one more order of business before moving on to their big vote of the night. The first step was to formally embrace their desire for a recreational park around the Dillsboro dam. The county recently hired a planning firm, Equinox Environmental, to create a master plan for a park along the shore of the Tuckasegee River in Dillsboro. The dam is a focal point of the design. In hindsight, it’s obvious the county’s intention in drawing up the master plan at a cost of nearly $20,000 was to set the stage for condemnation of the dam and river shore.

A motion to “adopt the major concepts of the Dillsboro Heritage Park” passed with a unanimous vote.

Commissioner Tom Massie, who disagrees with the continued fight against Duke, put aside his dissent to back the conceptual idea for a riverfront park in Dillsboro.

Commissioners then forged ahead with the long-anticipated motion that many in the audience were hoping for.

“I will move that Jackson County institute an eminent domain proceeding to acquire title to the following property for the public purpose of establishing a water front park and recreation facility along the Tuckasegee River and preserving the Dillsboro reservoir,” Chairman Brian McMahan said. McMahan proceeded to list several pieces of property Duke owns along the river shore around the Dillsboro dam, along with the dam itself.

Massie pointed out that the land along the riverbank owned by Duke is already slated to be turned over to the county following dam removal, as Duke would no longer have a use for it once the dam was gone.

The vote to condemn the dam was well orchestrated. Commissioner Joe Cowan made the motion to reject Duke’s counter-offer. Commissioner Mark Jones made the motion to adopt the concepts of the Dillsboro river park. And Commissioner Chairman Brian McMahan made the motion to seize the dam with eminent domain.

The commissioners cited what they call overwhelming support from the people of Jackson County to take this step. Jones cited an online poll by the Crossroad Chronicle newspaper in Cashiers with 78 percent of respondents supporting the county’s fight.

“I’ve heard those same statistics throughout the county as I have worked very hard to ask people their opinion,” Jones said.

Jackson County has proved a tough customer in the fight against Duke Energy. For Commissioner Cowan, standing up to corporate power runs in his blood. His father helped organize the workers at Mead Corporation to form a union decades ago and bring about a fair wage, he said.

Cowan compared his father’s fight to the one against Duke today.

The commissioners have met an untold number of hours in private sessions over the past three years to discuss the drawn-out legal wranglings against Duke. A new face has claimed a seat at the table recently, however. Gary Miller, a Bryson City attorney, has been present at the past three closed sessions. This week, commissioners announced Miller will be their legal counsel on the condemnation proceedings. Paul Nolan, the D.C.-based attorney who specializes in hydropower issues, will continue in a peripheral role as well.

Duke still has two pending legal challenges against Duke. One is an appeal of a state water quality permit that paves the way for dam demolition. Another is an appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals. Both of those cases will likely be put on hold as eminent domain plays out.

Whatever it takes?

Jackson County has spent around $250,000 in its opposition to Duke over the past five years. The majority has been on legal fees, but some has been for environmental consultation.

In his lone dissent to condemnation, Massie argued that it is time to stop the bleeding.

Massie advocated continuing down the road of mediation, citing a glimmer of hope in the offer Duke already made.

“While it is not what I would have hoped for, Duke has finally made some movement in our direction,” Massie said. “A bird in the hand is better than a bird in the bush.

We are a whole lot better off taking it now and cutting our losses.”

Massie told Duke it wasn’t too late to make the county a better counter-offer, that there was hope yet the commissioners would back down.

“I sincerely hope the action we have taken here today will encourage Duke to come back to us and negotiate some more so we can avoid going through with this proceeding,” Massie imparted to Duke following the vote Monday.

Commissioner William Shelton said he doesn’t understand why Duke won’t agree to a compromise. If Duke would turn over the dam to the county, it could walk away from the fight.

Shelton said the expense of a potentially protracted legal battle was the only thing that gave him pause in his decision.

“The only reservation is the David and Goliath factor. Can we beat Duke and can we afford to beat Duke? But I choose not to have a defeatist attitude,” Shelton said.

McMahan said the cost of giving up the fight is greater than the cost of continuing. He cited the loss of tourism in Dillsboro, the loss of an historic icon, the loss of a popular fishing hole, the loss of an aquatic ecosystem, the loss of green power. The cost of the fight to save the dam pales in comparison, he said.

“It is a small cost to pay to preserve something that is so precious to us,” said McMahan, who grew up fishing around the dam.

Duke’s new permits could last for 30 years or more before the region has another crack at exacting mitigation from the company. McMahan said the county’s chance is now or never.

John Boaze, owner of Fish and Wildlife Associates, shared the latest generation figures off Duke’s 10 hydropower dams in the region. Boaze estimated Duke brought in $33.7 million in revenue off its hydro operations in WNC, for a profit of $6.8 million.

Last week, commissioners learned that Duke Energy was donating $1 million to study the effect of rising sea levels on the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. The donation sent a message to Jackson leaders that Duke, a Fortune 500 company, has money at its disposal to offer Jackson County a better deal than it has.

River park a public good?

Dillsboro merchants and residents have become regulars at Jackson County commissioners meetings over the protracted fight against Duke, appearing to both prod and applaud the commissioners in their effort, often appearing with the most recent stack of signed petitions voicing support for the fight.

Shelton said he had to look at the long haul for Dillsboro. The mountain hamlet of galleries, craft shops and gift stores lost a major source of foot traffic when the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad stopped running trains to the town.

“I see a town that is struggling mightily right now,” Shelton said. “If you look at the long-term investment on this concept, it could be an economic development tool for Dillsboro looking into the future.”

Susan Leveille, an artist and owner of Oaks Gallery in Dillsboro, said the town has taken a hit from the loss of the train coupled with the economy. The river park in Dillsboro and preservation of the dam will provide a much-needed focal point and amenity for the town, she said.

“I think it will serve all of us in the county very well,” Leveille said.

Teresa Dowd, the owner of West Carolina Internet Café in Dillsboro, said a public park anchored by the dam is needed desperately.

“When you go to other towns with waterfront that is being utilized, the park generates so much interest among tourists and the locals. It is economically beneficial,” Dowd said.

Commissioner Joe Cowan said the river park around the dam will set Dillsboro up to prosper.

“If you back off and look at it over the long run, the benefits to Jackson County and Dillsboro specifically call for this action,” Cowan said.

McMahan questioned what the river would look like if the dam was gone. If the dam is torn out, the water level in the slow moving backwater stretching for eight-tenths of a mile behind the dam will drop.

“If they jerk that dam out and leave a big mud flat and Dillsboro looks like a bomb hit it, what’s the cost to our tourism economy?” McMahan said.

Commissioners' viewpoints

Chairman Brian McMahan

“I believe that river belongs to the people of the United States of America. That’s our river. Yes we have benefited from the production of power, but it still belongs to the people. I don’t argue the fact that Duke should be allowed to make a profit, that’s part of capitalism. At the same time, if they are going to use our river to generate power, shouldn’t they compensate the people here a little bit more? If you look at what they have offered, it is pennies compared to what they are making off our river. The people have pretty much been ignored.”

 

Commissioner Joe Cowan

“We are all elected by the people of Jackson County. The vast majority of my constituents have said to me ‘Help save the Dillsboro dam.’ I think it is time to stand up to Duke I don’t care if it does cost a million dollars, I think we will beat Duke and will prevail in this lawsuit because we have facts on our side. Never have I seen a large energy corporation come in and take so much from a people of a county and want to take more and more over the next 40 years and give back so little.”

 

Commissioner William Shelton

“This has been a very very tough decision for me. I have gone back and forth. Unfortunately it comes down to whether you vote your heart and morals or do you vote with your head? After lots and lots of tossing and turning I’ve done the very best I could to put my finger on the pulse of my district and I am finding overwhelming support to save the Dillsboro dam. After a long difficult decision, I am going to have to vote with my heart on this.”

 

Commissioner Mark Jones

“I think we should continue the fight. The money we have spent already is the vast majority of the money we are going to have to spend. The economic problems the town of Dillsboro has gone through in recent years, this would be a tremendous benefit.”

 

The lone dissenter: Commissioner Tom Massie

Jackson County commissioners are fool-hardy if they think they can win a fight of this magnitude against Duke Energy, Commissioner Tom Massie expressed to fellow board members for the umpteenth time this week.

Massie nearly begged his fellow commissioners not to go through with the vote for condemnation.

“Condemnation is very, very risky. We are breaking new ground. There is no if’s and’s or but’s. This has never been done in the state of North Carolina, this kind of condemnation,” Massie said. “I am not a gambler. I wouldn’t spend a penny in a poker game. I refuse to gamble the taxpayers’ money of Jackson County with this kind of risky venture. I wouldn’t do it with my money, and I wouldn’t do it with theirs.”

During the county commissioners lengthy closed-door discussion leading up to the vote this week and last week, audience members relegated to the hallway outside the meeting room would occasionally walk over to the door and peer through a small window to see what was going on inside. And more often than not, Massie was the one doing the talking, growing animated at times as his fellow commissioners patiently listened but were ultimately unmoved.

Massie agrees with the rest of the board on one count: Jackson got a raw deal from Duke, he says.

“I didn’t think it was fair then I don’t think it is fair now,” Massie said. “My heart says we should continue this argument and fight but my head says this is not good business. This is a time we need to put emotion aside and we need to make prudent cold calculating business decisions about what is best for the Jackson County taxpayers and residents of this county.”

Massie said the writing is on the wall, and has been for a long time now.

“All the federal and state agencies involved in this thing have sided against Jackson County and are for dam removal. We have lost every single appeal we have had in this fight for the past five years,” Massie said.

Massie said he hopes he is proven wrong and the county prevails this time.

Frequently asked questions

Why does Duke want to tear down the dam?

Dam removal is tied to the larger issue of mitigation for Duke’s hydropower operations in the region. Duke operates 10 other dams on five rivers in the region. The permits for those dams are up, and to get new ones, Duke must offer environmental and recreational mitigation, compensating the public for the use of the rivers to produce profitable hydropower.

Tearing down the Dillsboro Dam is the cornerstone of Duke’s mitigation plan. Paddlers and environmental agencies are excited to see the dam go as it will restore a stretch of free flowing river. Others think Duke is unloading an aging dam it didn’t want anyway under the guise of mitigation.

 

Is there hope for a compromise yet?

Yes. Duke could at any time make Jackson County a counter-offer to back off condemnation proceedings, or vice-versa.

 

What exactly does Jackson plan to take from Duke?

Jackson County voted to initiate condemnation proceedings against the Dillsboro dam, the powerhouse adjacent to the dam and shoreline property Duke owns around the dam on both sides of the river.

 

Can Jackson County legally take the dam from Duke?

Jackson County wants the dam and surrounding property to make a park. Counties are granted the power of eminent domain to seize property for several public uses. One of those is recreation, which the county cited as its reason for the condemnation. Recreation was used to as grounds for eminent domain in the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

 

What would Jackson do with the dam?

Jackson County leaders previously said they wanted to operate the dam themselves as a source of green power rather than see it torn down by Duke. Making electricity isn’t just cause for a county to flex eminent domain power, however. But once Jackson has control of the dam under the guise of recreation, it could theoretically try to put the dam in operation for hydropower.

 

What happens now?

Jackson County’s next step is to have a survey and appraisal of the property it plans to condemn. Following the vote Monday night, the county must wait at least 30 days before it can formally file condemnation proceedings through the courts. As for Duke, representatives at the commissioners meeting said their next step is to wait and see if Jackson follows through with formal proceedings.

 

How much will Jackson have to pay for the property?

Jackson will hire an appraiser to determine fair market value for the property. The dollar value will be filed as part of the formal condemnation proceedings in court. When Duke formally initiates the proceedings, it has to put up the money right then. Whatever dollar value Jackson County puts on the dam and surrounding property must be deposited in full in an escrow account held by the court.

If Duke disagrees with Jackson’s offer, it can sue for more money. The ultimate decision would rest with the courts, possibly a jury trial.

 

Can Duke challenge the value Jackson puts on the property?

Yes. The most common protest in a condemnation proceeding is over the monetary value being offered for the property. Duke can go to court claiming the market value of its property is more than what Jackson says it is. Duke’s legal argument would center around what’s a fair price rather than the ideological premise of condemnation.

 

Can Duke challenge Jackson’s use of eminent domain?

Yes. Duke could challenge whether Jackson County has just cause for the condemnation and argue that the dam is not an integral to the recreation plans, although this type of legal challenge to eminent domain is rarely attempted.

The state spells out grounds for eminent domain, one of which is recreation. Whether the particular recreation project is a good idea is not legal grounds for contesting it.

“To say, ‘Well we don’t think it is a very good project’ isn’t going to do very much,” said Charles Szypszak, an expert in public law with the Institute of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill.

 

Can Duke hurry up and tear down the dam?

Duke still owns the dam for the moment. However, hurrying up and tearing down the dam while Jackson gets its ducks in a row for condemnation is logistically impossible.

Before Duke tears down the dam, it is mandated to dredge 70,000 cubic yards of back-logged sediment from behind the dam to prevent it from washing downstream when the dam comes out. The dredging would take approximately five months, according to Fred Alexander, Duke spokesperson.

The target date for dam removal to begin was January 2010. That would get Duke outside the window for spawning season of the endangered Appalachian elktoe mussel, which lives downstream of the dam.

 

If tearing down the Dillsboro dam was Duke’s version of environmental mitigation, what will serve as mitigation if the dam stays?

This is unclear and a matter of great debate. Duke says if the dam stays, it will be required to forgo some of its power generation at the much larger dam upstream at Lake Glenville.

To make hydropower at Lake Glenville, Duke diverts water out of the Tuckasegee River and sends it for miles over land through giant pipes to a power plant before finally being returned to the river. The more water Duke diverts from the river, the more power it can make. The same goes for hydro operations at its other bigger dams, like Nantahala Lake and Bear Lake.

In the meantime, however, several miles of the river downstream of those dams are left with little water, harming the aquatic ecosystem.

Removing the Dillsboro dam was supposed to mitigate for robbing other stretches of the river of water. If the dam doesn’t come out, environmental agencies could insist on Duke restoring more water to those stretches currently being by-passed.

The less water Duke is allowed to divert, the less power it can make at its large Lake Glenville power plant. Because of this, Fred Alexander, a spokesperson for Duke, argues that keeping the Dillsboro dam would actually mean a net loss in hydropower. The amount of power produced off the small Dillsboro dam could not make up for the power production lost at Lake Glenville, Alexander said.

Alexander said it is an either-or proposition. If the Dillsboro dam doesn’t come out, Duke will have to restore more water to the dewatered sections, and thereby lose some of its hydropower capacity.

The mitigation package on file with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission says only that failured to tear down the dam “may nessicitate” a re-examination of how much water is being diverted from the river below Duke’s larger dams.

John Boaze, an environmental consultant with Fish and Wildlife Associates, said it is not necessarily and either-or proposition, but that other mitigation may be an option contingent on approval by state and federal environmental agencies.

“What becomes of that your guess is as good as mine,” said Boaze.

Jackson County has long held that tearing down the dam was a poor excuse for mitigation that benefited a small segment of the population, namely paddlers. Jackson would rather see greenways along the river, or an environmental trust fund based on a percentage of Duke’s profits off the dams.

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.

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