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Corridor purchase puts trail on track

A small group hatched the idea quietly 13 years ago of transforming the idle Hendersonville-to-Brevard rail line into a paved greenway that would be called the Ecusta Trail.

The organization that soon formed from that core group of bicyclists and greenway advocates would be called the Friends of Ecusta Trail. It had its victories, landing numerous public and private supporters of the concept, between long intervals of waiting.
A turning point came in the spring of 2019 when “we got word that Watco,” the Kansas-based short-line operator that owns the rail line, “was interested in selling,” Kieran Roe, executive director of Conserving Carolina, recalled Monday afternoon. “And that was a milestone moment. For years we had been talking about, ‘Wouldn’t this be a great idea,’ but until that conversation occurred — that the railroad was willing to sell —we couldn’t do anything. From that point forward a whole lot has happened.”

Roe was among the 10 speakers who gathered near the railroad tracks to celebrate the land trust’s purchase of the rail line and the beginning of the campaign in earnest to raise money for construction, which could be under way by late next year. Remarks before the ceremonial snipping of a red ribbon on the tracks off South Church Street amounted to a festival of thank yous for the numerous partners that have pushed the project to the construction starting line.
Roe thanked Watco, quipping that “I’m surprised to hear myself say that.”
“Buying property from a railroad is not an easy thing to do, especially a railroad whose deeds date back to the 1890s,” he said. “They didn’t do things the way we do now.”
Roe thanked attorney Sharon Alexander, who guided the complicated legal work; Conserving Carolina’s Rebekah Robinson; and Conserving Carolina’s board, along with Henderson County's elected leaders and staff, the cities of Brevard and Hendersonville, the friends of the trail and others.
County Commission Chair Bill Lapsley, in opening remarks, had expressed thanks for all those, too, and declared the county poised to start work.

“The county expects to have a final lease agreement soon with Conserving Carolina so the county can control the property, build the trail and manage the trail,” he said.
The N.C. Board of Transportation authorized a $6.4 million grant to support the purchase of the rail corridor two years ago and the French Broad MPO awarded the county $5 million for construction of the Hendersonville-to-Horse Shoe leg. Construction could be under way by late 2022 or early 2023.
“The Board of Commissioners is very respectful of local property rights along this trail and expects that those who use the trail will honor and respect the neighbors that the trail passes by,” Lapsley said.

Commissioner Rebecca McCall praised the Friends of Trail for “sticking to it” over the past 13 years. She recalled placing pennies on the tracks off Third Avenue West as a child when Norfolk Southern Railway still running trains to and from Pisgah Forest.
“They’re not lined up on the roads to get out of Western North Carolina,” Commissioner Daniel Andreotta said. “The roads are full of people coming to see us. Here’s another reason for them to come to Henderson County and Western North Carolina.”
In a visit about 11 years ago, Friends of Ecusta Trail founders Mike Oliphant, Hunter Marks and Chris Burns “sold me on this project,” Commissioner Michael Edney recalled. “I’ve said to many folks I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to ride a bike by the time this thing got done. It’s just an amazing wonderful God-given day. I look forward to the next ribbon cutting when we start using it.”
Hendersonville Mayor Barbara Volk, a self-styled pack rat, pulled out a City Council memo from April 7, 2011, directing city staffers to seek a consultant to conduct a rail-to-trail study, and then read minutes of the council’s vote on July 7, 2011, of that year to award the planning contract.
McGrady announced that he and former Transylvania County Commissioner Page Lemel had formed a group to spearhead a campaign to raise money for trail construction. He described the 13-year-history of the rail-to-trail campaign and the coming months and years as a four-phase endeavor: advocacy, acquisition, construction and management.
“This is a linear park and it’s got a bunch of jurisdictions that are going to have to continue to get together and stay together and work on this,” he said.

In a statement, the railroad thanked Henderson County officials, Conserving Carolina and the Friends of Ecusta Trail.

"On behalf of everyone here at the Blue Ridge Southern Railroad and Watco, we think this is such a great outcome for this unused asset," Laura McNichol, Watco's senior vice president, said. "We know and understand how important and beneficial these trails can be to communities with the added benefit of preserving the corridor for future rail use should that ever be needed."

Burns, of the trail friends group, wore a smile throughout the ceremony.
“We’re ecstatic. It’s been 13 years — long time coming,” he said. “Thursday and Friday were very happy days and today’s a good day to celebrate.”