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Flat Rock road fight gets change of venue

Hendersonville City Hall became the latest arena for the contentious fight over the Highland Lake Road project on Thursday night, with the usual roster of road warriors from Flat Rock arguing the pros and cons of the job.

The scene looked more like a Flat Rock Village Council meeting, with a handful of road supporters outgunned by opponents who again dismissed the project as unnecessary and harmful and urged the Hendersonville leaders to stay on the sidelines. Among those attending were Mayor Nick Weedman, former mayor Bob Staton, past council member Ginger Brown and current council members Anne Coletta, David Dethero and Tom Carpenter. Several members of the Pinecrest Presbyterian Church also urged the Hendersonville council to join the new Flat Rock council in opposing the widening, which would result in the removal of the church's pine tree buffer along Highland Lake Road.

The City Council agreed to convey their support for the project while urging the NCDOT to work with Flat Rock officials to minimize the impact. New council member Jennifer Hensley, who now represents the city on both the county Transportation Advisory Committee and the French Broad MPO, had sought a council consensus on the project. While they stopped short of adopting a formal resolution council members said they supported the parts of the project that fixed congestion problems and the so-called suicide lane in the westbound lanes at the CVS. (The resolution called on the French Broad MPO and the state Board of Transportation "to move forward with the approved and funded improvements" because Highland Lake Road provides an east-west connection for Hendersonville residents, provides a direct route for tourists and residents visiting the Flat Rock Playhouse and Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site and is used by charter buses, ambulances and fire trucks going to and from Flat Rock.)

A supporter of the project, Bruce Holliday, said that the NCDOT experts had studied and analyzed the road for many years before concluding that the improvements were needed for safety and traffic reasons.

But many more opponents than supporters spoke, including the three newly elected Village Council members who oppose the road project.

"This issue comes down to the fact that the village had an election and the North Highland Lake Road was a prime issue of that election," Coletta said. The city's action "seeks to cancel our election results and I think this sets a dangerous precedent." She urged the council not to adopt a resolution that ignores the election result. "I'm afraid it will create a contentious atmosphere among municipalities and I don't think that's what anyone wants."

"Whatever happened to majority rule?" asked Georgia Bonesteel. Through letters, petitions, campaign donations and finally the Nov. 5 election Flat Rock residents expressed their strong opinion against the road, she said. Many others echoed her view, saying the city should respect the will of the Flat Rock voters.

The election  was "clearly a referendum on this project," said Seth Cohen, a dermatologist whose office is just off Highland Lake Road. "The election was won fair and square by opponents of this project. I was disappointed that this issue has been revived and now by a government not elected by the citzens of Flat Rock."

Opponents said repeatedly that the widening is unnecessary because standard traffic engineering measurements rate the two-lane roadway as safe and under capacity.

“That is misleading information,” Brown said. “NCDOT has consistently said that Highland Lake Road is a substandard road that needs to be upgraded for future use.”

Hendersonville City Council member Jerry Smith told the overflow crowd that the council was only trying to convey the city's view on the road project, which past city councils had endorsed. 

"The implication that we are trying to take away people's franchise or to override Flat Rock is simply not true," he said.