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MPO rejects Flat Rock's appeal to kill road project

Anne Coletta listens to a board member at the French Broad River MPO meeting on Thursday, Jan. 23. Anne Coletta listens to a board member at the French Broad River MPO meeting on Thursday, Jan. 23.

ASHEVILLE — Pinecrest Presbyterian Church shipped a busload of commenters and dozens more filled the meeting room as the French Broad River MPO took up the Highland Lake Road project on Thursday in the most crucial vote to date on the project.


After more than 90 minutes of public comment and discussion by the board voted against a motion to kill the project, turning back the effort by the newly elected Village Council to derail the road job.

The vote was the most signficant one yet on the future of the $2.9 million project. The French Broad MPO has the authority to kill projects by removing them from the state transportation improvement plan (STIP), an action it took in 2018 when it voted to remove the Balfour Parkway from the STIP.  But in that case, the Henderson County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 to kill the project. At Thursday's meeting, representatives of Hendersonville and Henderson County explained that their boards had voted unanimously to support the project after evaluating it from a wider perspective.
The MPO vote came after passionate appeals from both sides, with opponents outnumbering supporters, and a 50-minute discussion by board members. Village Council member Anne Coletta, newly appointed to represent Flat Rock on the MPO, urged the MPO to endorse Flat Rock’s resolution to kill the project, volleying answers to questions from her fellow MPO members based on her knowledge of traffic counts, accident statistics, tree removal and other factors.

Two Village Council votes in December came before the Henderson County Transportation Advisory Council voted 8-1 to continue the project and before the Hendersonville City Council and Henderson County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to support the project instead of kill it.

Coletta argued that the majority of Flat Rock residents had opposed the road project since it became public, had organized and signed petitions to oppose it and sent a clear message in a record-turnout village election that was essentially a referendum on the project.

“For the first time in Flat Rock history we had an election with all council seats contested and we had an informed, educated and motivated electorate,” she said. “This is the voice of our community. This is the voice you need to hear.”

According to research Coletta had done on past resolutions, the French Broad MPO had never failed to endorse a town's request to cancel a project until Thursday, Village Council member Tom Carpenter said after the vote.

"The whole council has to talk it over," he said when asked what the next step might be in the fight to stop the project. "We don't want to do anything behind the scenes. I don't know if there's an appeal process."

Coletta reviewed with MPO members the list of reasons the majority of voters in Flat Rock and the new council they elected oppose the project: It is not a priority for the NCDOT, it is at 30 percent of capacity, the improvements are likely to increase speed "by removing natural speed governors," the project would take private property and village property for a "nonessential purpose" and the widening, sidewalk and greenway would remove dozens of mature trees, including a buffer of more than 80 evergreens at Pinecrest Presbyterian Church.

Several residents spoke in favor of the improvement.

“This road is a main drag from Greenville Highway to I-26,” C.C. Blackburn said. “There’s a lot of traffic that goes there and every day there’s more and more. I drive that road every day and every time I drive it I think, this is not going to be good if we get more and more people. It’s not safe. I say it’s not going to be safe but then again maybe it is and I don’t think you want to take that chance.”

Division 14 Engineer Brian Burch, of the NCDOT, explained that the project's purpose was to improve the width of the travel lanes and shoulders and provide pedestrian and bicycle connectivity. Although the original design called for a widening of the travel lanes from 11 to 14 feet, engineers later compromised and kept the width at 11 feet, with two-foot shoulders on the south side. The project also includes left turn lanes at Highland Park Road and Highland Lake Drive and at a new entrance to the Park at Flat Rock. The NCDOT's projections showed that congestion "will exceed generally accepted levels" if the project was not done.

Several board members said that the votes of other boards in Henderson County were a persuasive factor.

Black Mountain Alderman Larry Harris and Asheville City Council member Julie Mayfield said votes by the county's Transportation Advisory Board and the Board of Commissioners were signficant because those boards represent a countywide perspective. "The city and the county voted highly in favor of the project," Harris said. "Those are still the numbers and that's what we’re dealing with today."

"When I ran for office I knew there was going to be tough decisions and this is one of those tough decisions," County Commissioner Rebecca McCall said. "I have to represent all the people of Henderson County, not just a small group. Yes, most of the road goes through the village of Flat Rock but it’s right along the edige of the village of Flat Rock and like it or not that road is a connector Greenville Highway to Spartanburg Highway and directly across to I-26. Flat Rock offers the Flat Rock Playhouse, the Carl Sandburg home, multiple B&Bs and multiple restaurants. I feel like it's our responsbility to provide safe transportation into the village of Flat Rock to participate in those venues."

When Coletta offered a motion to support the village resolution, no one offered a second until, after a few minutes of discussion, Brownie Newman seconded the motion so board members could take a vote. When Chair Bill Lapsley called for a vote, only Coletta voted yes.