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Outgoing Village Council majority remains in favor of road project

FLAT ROCK — Ginger Brown's swan song as a member of the Flat Rock Village Council, delivered in absentia, was a last stand defense of the Highland Lake Road project, a declaration that the project that drove a rancorous months-long election campaign would result in a visually pleasing and safer entry into the village.

Brown had been called unexpectedly out of town, Mayor Bob Staton said during the first meeting of the Village Council since the election shifted the balance of power from 6-1 in favor of the road work to 4-3 against. (Reached later, Brown was driving to Cincinnati for a family emergency.)

Before she left, Brown asked Village Administrator Pat Christie to read into the record two letters — a consultant's summary of landscape improvements the village would complete at the Park at Flat Rock as part of the NCDOT project and a request from Flat Rock Park Foundation President Dennis Flanagan to add a memorial grove of trees to the landscape plans. Whether the plans are now perishable is unknown.

Brown lost her re-election bid last week to Anne Coletta, a former council member who led a three-candidate slate that rode an anti-road widening campaign to victory. Along with Mayor-elect Nick Weedman, who cast the lone vote against the road project last year, the new council members have the power to urge the NCDOT to drop the project.

Park improvements in the roadside area that will be disturbed by construction aim to "improve the park experience for users, as well as for passing motorists and pedestrians," landscape architect Hunter Marks wrote. "The village has worked hard to mitigate the NCDOT improvement plan" by preserving the alignment of the road, limiting the widening to a two-foot shoulder and "working with contractors to preserve as many desirable features in the construction easement as possible."

The removal of trees, a hot button topic that drove the opposition to the road project, will be mitigated by replanting trees, many of them more suitable for the park than the ones that will be lost, Marks said. "While a large oak and several mature white pines will be removed," he said, "the majority of the affected trees are not specimen trees or particularly desirable species." Those removed would be replaced by more appropriate species selected for "historical context, views to the park, pedestrian considerations for both park and multi-use trail users," enhancing a "visual entry corridor to the village ... A thoughtul landscape design with selected trees and landscaping will improve the overall park appearance."

A new park entrance, now in jeopardy with the new council majority, would create a safer entry to the park and would include new signs, lighting, plants, specialty paving and entrance walls "keeping with those found elsewhere in Flat Rock," Marks said.

The memorial grove could be incorporated into the park landscape plan, said Flanagan, the park foundation president. "The vision for the memorial grove will be a large group of specimen hardwood trees surrounded by and interplanted with rhododendron and azaleas," he said. A memorial stone wall would include seating and a small stone patio, he added.

Coletta said last week that since she, Tom Carpenter and David Dethero ran against the road project, they expect to bring it up when they're sworn in. Weedman is on record opposing the new entrance and a new parking lot, which the rest of the council favored.

But the council members who pushed the NCDOT to make the roadwork less disruptive before ultimately endorsing the project hope to salvage it. John Dockendorf, the council's transportation liaison, said he had asked the county Transportation Advisory Committee to stand by its support of the road project and hopes the Henderson County Board of Commissioners and Hendersonville City Council will, too.

Mayor Staton said the NCDOT has spent nearly $1 million on planning and design and acquired 65 percent of the right of way. "If the village comes along and turns it down and it's supported by the county and the MPO, what's going to happen the next time fund allocations come up for Henderson County?" he said. "Until they're told otherwise, they'll continue to work."

Brown and the council asked Marks to write a description of the landscape improvements "to calm people down about what's going to happen out there," she said. "I really think this is going to be so much more beautiful than it is right now. I think Henderson County wants this road and so does Hendersonville. You have to remember, this road does not belong to Flat Rock. It's a state road."

"It's a good idea. It's needed," Brown said. "I believe it will go forward. I think a lot of people that live in Flat Rock, including people that voted for me, want this road. It's a needed improvement. I can't imagine why  conj it wouldn't go through. It's up to the MPO and it would be a real shame if they just walked away from a million dollars for nothing."

Weedman, who will take the gavel in the Dec. 12 Village Council meeting, said he doesn't know if a vote of the Village Council would end the project.

"The three that won the election ran on a platform of killing that road project," Weedman said. "Whether that can be done or not remains to be seen. The French Broad MPO would have to agree and if they agree it would go to the NCDOT (division) and then NCDOT would take it to NCDOT in Raleigh. But one of the things I want to do is to bring this whole thing to a closure. Let's either kill it or say it's going to happen and get on with other things."

Asked how he'd vote on a motion to kill the project, he said: "I was opposed to the road project in the beginning. If it's a very clear up or down vote, I would vote to kill the proejct. If it's more complicated than that I'd have to understand what the implications are and so forth."

Weedman said he favors one part of the project — the widening of the turning radius on the southwest corner of Greenville Highway and Highland Lake Road.

"We want NCDOT to proceed with that and I would like them to proceed with that independently if they can. The construction (on the bigger project) wouldn't start until some time next year and then I think there's a two-year construction time so why would we wait 2-3 years to see that corner fixed. I will push for that personally regardless of what we do on North Lake Highland Road."