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Sale of rail corridor for Ecusta Trail could close in May

A Hendersonville-based land conservancy is close to consummating the purchase of the Hendersonville-to-Brevard rail line for the Ecusta Trail, agreements are in the works for maintenance of the "linear park," and construction bid invitations could go out as early as the fall, the Henderson County Board of Commissioners was told Wednesday.

John Mitchell, the county's director of business and community development, said the pieces of the project are falling into place or imminent, including the transfer of ownership of the tracks from Blue Ridge Railroad Co. to Conserving Carolina.

"Our intention is to develop a longterm lease (by the county) with Conserving Carolina," he said. "We plan to have that ready at closing, likely in May. We also are working with both Laurel park and the city of Hendersonville to begin drafting an MOU (memorandum of understanding) for what we consider a linear park."

The staff is also drafting a request for proposals for construction of the trail. "We anticipate that RFP to be released in early fall in time for the upcoming federal year, which begins the 1st of October," said Mitchell, who is spearheading the project that involves Henderson County, other local government jurisdictions, the railroad company, Conserving Carolina, Friends of Ecusta Trail, federal and state transportation agencies and private donors.

Conserving Carolina and Henderson County have been awarded a total of $11.4 million in grants to support the purchase of the rail line and the first phase of construction, though neither grant has been transferred to recipients yet.

In August 2019, the N.C. Board of Transportation awarded a $6.4 million grant to Conserving Carolina toward the purchase of the rail corridor. The grant requires a $1.6 million match.

"That money will be matched by money from the sale of the ties that Conserving Carolina will work out at closing," Mitchell said. "The county staff is working with NCDOT, Conserving Carolina and Friends of Ecusta Trail to make sure that (closing) gets accomplished this year. We are also working with board members at the Board of Transportation to make sure that NCDOT money arrives in a timely fashion for that to be accomplished."

Last August the French Broad MPO awarded $5 million to the county to support construction of the first 6 miles of the greenway. The money from that allocation, from the Federal Highway Administration, is scheduled to be released at the beginning of the federal government's new fiscal year on Oct. 1. "We want to be ready to draw down that money as soon as it's possible given what we know about federal grants and federal money and its availability," Mitchell said.

The county staff is also working with the Friends of Ecusta Trail and Conserving Carolina to raise money to match grants. "We've been working with them and monitoring their progress," he said. The two non-profits have signed an agreement to administer the money "that has been received and will be received for a capital campaign to raise that money." In an upcoming meeting, "we'll have them discuss how they intend to raise that money."

Meanwhile, the process to set aside the rail line for public use through railbanking is progressing. Law firms that specialize in representing trackside property owners who may have a claim when a rail corridor is railbanked for a trail have contacted landowners along the Ecusta tracks, Mitchell said. Any claim for compensation would come before the Surface Transportation Board, the agency in the U.S. Department of Transportation that authorizes railbanking. "We do not anticipate that being an issue either for the construction of the trail or on the county's side of the ledger," Mitchell said, referring to potential litigation for compensation.

Commission Chair Bill Lapsley asked: "Is there any indication ... out of the federal government, since we have a change in administration, anything that would indicate that the grant funds that have previously been approved are in jeopardy or could be withdrawn?"

"That's something that's constantly on our mind," Mitchell responded. "That's one reason we want to be aggressive when the funds become available. I joked with folks at the beginning of this that there weren't many things that could cause this money to be rescinded. But I left off that list a global pandemic. I have heard nothing" to suggest the federal grant is in jeopardy of being yanked. He said he had been in contact with the county's delegation in Congress to make sure the funding was on track and also had heard from NCDOT officials that the money was still scheduled to be released. "As soon as it becomes available to NCDOT we intend to pull the trigger," he said.

Lapsley said that he had been in regular contact with U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn and with Chuck McGrady, the former state reprsentative who is now on the state Board of Transportation.

"He's certainly looking after our interest," he said of McGrady. "He's been a proponent of this project for a long long time."