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County commissioners vote to keep Highland Lake Road project alive

The Henderson County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday voted unanimously to support continuation of the Highland Lake Road improvement, upholding the recommendation of its transportation advisory board and dealing a setback to the Flat Rock Village Council, which is fighting to kill the project.

The action by the elected county commissioners came two days after the Transportation Advisory Committee voted 8-1 to continue its support for the project, which has been on a priority list for at least eight years. The Village Council has taken action three times since a new majority was seated on Dec. 12 to block the project — voting twice to request that the NCDOT drop the project and once to resist any effort to sell right of way for the work, which encroaches on the edge of the Park at Flat Rock.

County Commission Chair Grady Hawkins said county records showed there were just under 4,000 registered vehicles in Flat Rock.
“But there’s another 113,000 vehicles that have to use the road in addition to tourists or visitors to Carl Sandburg or the Flat Rock Playhouse. Point is, a lot of traffic on that road that is not necessarily associated with the number of vehicles that’s in Flat Rock.”
Hawkins noted that many commenters had brought up the Balfour Parkway, which the state Board of Transportation killed at the request of the Board of Commissioners in 2018.
“I would say they’re apples and oranges between the Balfour Parkway and this project and the difference between making a new road and widening a road and the number of residents affected is significantly different," he said.

Commissioner Michael Edney said: “We do respect the village and their right to self-government but we represent the whole county including them and we have to take a bigger view. This has nothing to do with usurping their authority or anything like that.”

Commissioner Bill Lapsley, who represents the county on the TAC and the French Broad MPO, summarized the history of the project over several years and the TAC's discussion and vote this week.

“The project was brought to the transportation advisory board and then from that group to this board for consideration and ultimately to the French Broad MPO," he said. "All transportation projects funded by DOT go through that organization. It’s one of several that has been funded after many years of discussion and review at the MPO and in Raleigh and it has been on the table for quite some time.”
The NCDOT initially unveiled plans for the road in 2017, generating “a considerable amount of interest in Flat Rock in particular and there was number of issues the public brought forth to the TAC and to the Village Council in Flat Rock," he said. "And through negotiations between the Flat Rock council member (on the transportation advisory board) with DOT, a number of changes were made with the plan and the project continued to move forward.”
Even so, the project “continued to generate considerable interest and concern and some outright objections to the project as a whole over the last year or so,” he said. The opposition culminated in the November election, when opponents of the road won a 4-3 majority on the Village Council and moved immediately to ask the NCDOT to cancel the project.
Lapsley and Commissioner Rebecca McCall, who also serve on the French Broad MPO, sought the position of the remaining three commissioners. Lapsley explained the objections Flat Rock has raised and said efforts by NCDOT engineers to respond to the concerns have been futile.

“The point was raised that the more awkward change of grade (at the railroad tracks) provides a slowdown to traffic and the point was made if you smooth it out, that will encourage the public to travel at a faster speed crossing the railroad track,” Lapsley said. The Village Council also opposes the proposed left turn lanes, a 10-foot paved greenway through the park, a new park entrance and the removal of trees in the park and alongside Pinecrest Presbyterian Church. In response to the church’s concern, NCDOT engineers added a retaining wall to provide a visual buffer and safety barrier “and as I understand it, (church leaders said) that’s fine but the removal of the trees is what concerns them the most and they object to that,” Lapsley said.