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Conservancy reaches deal to buy rail line for Ecusta Trail

A Hendersonville-based land conservancy has reached an agreement to buy the railroad line from Hendersonville to Brevard, marking a major leap forward in plans for the 19-mile Ecusta Trail.

In a move that was crucial, the Henderson County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday voted unanimously to authorize a $7 million bridge loan that will make the sale possible. Conserving Carolina had been negotiating the purchase for months with Kansas-based Watco, the railroad owner that operates shortline freight lines in Western North Carolina as Blue Ridge Southern Railroad.

"This project has been a longterm vision of this board for many years," John Mitchell, the county's director of business and community development said. Two years ago, the Board of Commissioners authorized a Greenway Master Plan.

"This corridor is owned for the most part fee simple," making it easier to convey, Mitchell said. Watco signaled "a couple of years ago" that it was willing to sell the line. County officials and the Friends of the Ecusta Trail turned to Conserving Carolina as the buyer.

News of the pending acquisition of the rail line came 15 months after the state Board of Transportation kicked off a string of promising developments for the Ecusta Trail. In August 2019 the North Carolina Board of Transportation awarded a $6.4 million grant toward the purchase of the rail corridor. A year later, in August of this year, the French Broad MPO awarded $5 million to fund construction of the first 5¾ miles of the greenway. The Henderson County Tourism Development Authority has earmarked $500,000 from the county lodging tax to support the trail and the Transylvania County Tourism Board of Directors voted in March to pitch in $100,000 for the project.

Conserving Carolina has completed an appraisal, preliminary environmental engineering and a survey, Mitchell said. "They have reached an agreement with Watco to purchase the line," he said. "We have a willing buyer, in Conserving Carolina, a willing seller, in Watco, and the kicker, they have secured the 20 percent local match" to draw down the $6.4 million. But Conserving Carolina needs the $7 million bridge loan to make the purchase possible.

Two commissioners questioned whether the loan was wise before the board voted to make the loan, potentially clearing the way for the sale, perhaps as early as this winter.

Chairman Grady Hawkins asked whether Hendersonville, Laurel Park, Transylvania County and Brevard were contributing to the project. "I would have a lot of concerns with this bridge," he said, suggesting the money may not be repaid as quickly as the conservancy projects.

Commissioners Michael Edney, Bill Lapsley and Rebecca McCall expressed support for the loan. McCall said the county would discard a $5 million construction grant if it did not make the short-term investment. "If we don't acquire the property, that grant, that money will also go away," she said.

Commissioner Bill Lapsley said people think of the greenway as a recreational amenity.

"I don't take that viewpoint," he said. "I view this as an economic development project."

Thirty years ago, he said, when community leaders identified major legs of economic development, manufacturing, agriculture, tourism and quality of life as drivers of growth.

"The development of the Ecusta Trail from my perspective is an economic development component," he said. "What a perfect example of tourism development. It also has a health component. We have an opportunity here. ... We won't see this (grant money) if we're lucky for 20, 25 years, long after we're gone. It's a risk, no question about it. I think it's a minimum risk."

In 1974, the Board of Commissioners made the decision to create Jackson Park and that decision has benefited the region for almost 50 years, said McCall, the granddaughter of Clyde Jackson, for whom the park is named.

"When I ran in 2010 I campaigned on supporting this," Edney said. Quality of life attracted the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. and many other job creators, he said. "This linear park goes directly to that aspect of the community."

County Attorney Russ Burrell said all parties are working to complete documents quickly to expedite the closing and to get approval for federal railbanking. It could take as long as 180 days to certify the line for federal railbanking through the Surface Transportation Board, although that could be quicker, Mitchell said.

Former state Rep. Chuck McGrady, now a member of the N.C. Board of Transportation, told commissioners he expects the NCDOT to release the $6.4 million grant next spring despite the state transportation agency's financial troubles. "The goal here obviously is, you don't have any financial risk, but you do need to get it all in line so it runs smoothly," he said.

Chris Burns, of the Friends of Ecusta Trail, thanked commissioners for adopting the countywide Greenway master plan 18 months ago, an action he described as critical to grant funding. The greenway can be looked as part of the county's appeal to younger generations, he said.

The federal highway grant the MPO approved in August would help fund the first three segments:

• Trailhead on Kanuga Road at Busy Bend to Laurel Park, $1.14 million.

• Laurel Park to roughly halfway to Horse Shoe, in the Brightwater area, $1.5 million.
• Brightwater to Horse Shoe, $2.4 million.

Not recommended for funding but on the bubble were the Horse Shoe to Etowah leg ($5.8 million) and the Etowah to the county line phase ($3.8 million). It's possibe that if the sponsors of other projects can't allocate their 20 percent match, those could be funded in the future. At almost six miles, the Hendersonville-to-Horse Shoe rail-to-trail greenway would be the longest contiguous greenway in the region.

Railbanking is a voluntary agreement spelled out under federal law between a railroad company and a trail agency to use an out-of-service rail corridor as a trail until a railroad might need the corridor again for rail service, the Friends of Ecusta Trail said in a news release. Because a railbanked corridor is not considered abandoned, it can be sold, leased or donated to a trail manager. Adopted by Congress in 1983, railbanking provisions of the National Trails System Act have preserved more than 4,400 miles of rail corridors in 33 states. 

Founded in 2009 as a volunteer organization to study, educate and advocate for the acquisition and development of the proposed Ecusta Trail, the Friends of the Ecusta Trail has won trail endorsements from the cities of Brevard and Hendersonville, the town of Laurel Park and the Henderson County Board of Commissioners in addition to nearly 50 other non-profits and organizations throughout Western North Carolina.


“My expectation is that Henderson and Transylvania county residents will quickly come to realize that the trail is more than an amenity," McGrady in a statement. "As in other communities that have trails like the Virginia Creeper Trail or the Swamp Rabbit Trail, they will recognize its contribution to our economy." McGrady and state Sen. Chuck Edwards have been strong supporters of the Ecusta Trail in the Legislature.

“The culmination of this contract," Friends of Ecusta Trail president Hunter Marks said, "represents over a decade of work and thousands of hours spent researching, educating, and advocating for the benefits that the Ecusta Trail will bring to our region. The Friends of the Ecusta Trail board is truly grateful for the partnership and guidance from many regional organizations, but especially for the hard work of Conserving Carolina and the Henderson County Planning Department.”

Kieran Roe, the executive director of Conserving Carolina, said: “We’re proud to be a leader in bringing greenways to our communities, so that more people can benefit from outdoor recreation. The Ecusta Trail will provide important health benefits as a place to exercise and release stress, and it gives people more opportunities to get outside and connect with nature.”

“We are excited to go down this path with the local community on this important rails to trails project,” said Laura McNichol of the Blue Ridge Southern Railroad. “We look forward to the day this trail is up and running for each of the communities along the line to enjoy it in the years to come.”