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LIGHTNING EDITORIAL: They won't take yes for an answer

Brian Burch, the NCDOT’s top official for the 10-county Division 14, opened a presentation on the scaled back plans for Highland Lake Road with a cautionary note.

“This is the minimal impact we can do and still have a viable project,” he said.

To say that DOT and consulting engineers have made concessions is a significant understatement.

Consider the demands that have been made and how the NCDOT has responded so far:

  • Reduce the footprint of the road widening. Check. The NCDOT has reduced the width of the new roadway from 14 feet to 11 feet, which is what it is now. Essentially the project has transitioned from a road widening to a transportation and safety improvement project, including a sidewalk, a greenway through the park, slightly wider shoulders, curb and guttering, left turn lanes and an intersection improvement.
  • Save the covered dropoff, handicapped parking, regular parking and septic field of Pinecrest Presbyterian Church. Check. The NCDOT has pulled as far as south as it could in order to fix the Highland Lake-Greenville Highway intersection, one of the main safety improvements identified in the first place.
  • Save the Flat Rock Historic District. Check. We know Historic Flat Rock will dispute this but the encroachment on the corner of the Maybank property hardly amounts to the destruction of the history of Flat Rock. The project has to round off that corner to make room for a right-turn lane and give tractor-trailers and charter buses an achievable turning radius.
  • Save the majestic oak trees at the entrance of the Highland Golf Villas and the Park at Flat Rock. Check. The latest plan closes that entrance entirely and moves it about 100 yards west, where sight lines are better.
  • Toss in a new entrance to the park, saving village taxpayers roughly $1 million. Check. This has always been a significant benefit of the project though not, as critics argue, the only reason for it.

The Flat Rock Village Council — thanks to tireless behind-the-scenes diplomacy by Councilman John Dockendorf — has worked with Burch and the engineers to win these major concessions. One might think that the opponents would take a moment to actually consider the benefits of a workable compromise. That might be possible if we were not stuck in the era of transportation planning by mob rule. The nimby party is ascendant. Whether it’s Kanuga Road — where we’ve already lost sidewalks and bike lanes — White Street, U.S. 64 through Laurel Park or the Balfour Parkway — where we’re trying hard to throw away a $160 million solution to future gridlock — our community is turning away one needed and thoughtfully designed project after another. Highland Lake is just the latest example of a vocal minority drowning out a silent majority of motorists and taxpayers who would gladly accept a safer and more efficient roadway.

Historic Flat Rock and another organization, Cultural Landscape Group, could have given the compromise a chance. They could have done what Dockendorf and Mayor Bob Staton are doing — thanking the DOT for the work so far and working steadfastly for one or two more concessions that might appease the opponents and make this an attractive traffic and safety improvement.

Instead, both call unequivocally for the Village Council to drive a stake through its heart. A “cold concrete atrocity” will destroy “the gentle and picturesque ambience” of the village, Historic Flat Rock says. Conventional engineering structures like retaining walls and box culverts become “monstrosities” that will annihilate life as we know it. Please.

All the hyperbole and drama, on Highland Lake and elsewhere, is working only too well to fill rooms, provoke hoots and jeers and intimidate elected officials. Something’s being destroyed all right: The opportunity to benefit from millions of dollars of state investment in needed highway work. Pity our elected officials 10 to 20 years from now, who will sit in those same rooms and see them filled again, this time with people crying, “Why don’t you do something about traffic?”