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Trail gains momentum — and users — and will soon get design team

County engineer Marcus Jones describes the process the county staff used to score engineering firms’ proposals to design the first six miles of the Ecusta Trail. County engineer Marcus Jones describes the process the county staff used to score engineering firms’ proposals to design the first six miles of the Ecusta Trail.

If there was any doubt about the enthusiasm for a new 19-mile walking trail from Hendersonville to Brevard, the doubt is already falling away.

As soon as the railroad company pulled up the rails and ties, people flocked to the more walkable dirt and gravel path.
At its first meeting this week, the newly formed Henderson County Rail-Trail Advisory Committee heard about the trail users from a couple whose home abuts the Ecusta Trail on West Allen Street in Hendersonville. Although they’re supporters of the trail, Edward and Jeanne Wilson say they’d like a barrier to keep walkers from intruding.
“Our concern is people that are on the trail with their dogs — they’re not leashed,” Wilson said. “And on a regular basis, dogs are in our yards. People that own the dogs come on our property and we’ve got posted signs, no trespassing, and they still intrude. I talked to a couple, and they think they can control their animals but when that dog gets a smell they come on our property and we don’t know who they are and what they’re going to do and we have concerns about that.
“The trail is being used heavily compared to when it was just a railroad, and we’ve seen multiple things come down the road. We’re concerned about safety and the lack of law enforcement on the trail. Our neighbor next door two weeks ago heard a lady screaming on the trail and police were called,” he said, adding that he never heard from the neighbor what the incident was about.
Wilson added that he and his wife “celebrate the trail” but just want trail users to respect their private property.
“We embrace the trail,” he said. “We want to use it. but we need some kind of barrier keeping people off our property. We want this to move forward.”
The Wilsons’ grievance introduced a new although not totally unexpected challenge for the collaborative effort to build the 19-mile trail on the former rail corridor from Hendersonville to Brevard. An overgrown railroad track abandoned for 20 years will in the coming years be transformed into a paved path attracting walkers, bicyclists, skaters and moms and dads pushing baby strollers.
“My guess is most of your concerns will ultimately be taken care of as this thing gets planned out,” Chuck McGrady, the former county commissioner and five-term state House member who was appointed chair of the advisory committee, told the Wilsons. “We just need a little bit of patience as we start the project. Everything I’ve heard from the county staff, the manager and commissioners is they intend to have a safe operation and to be very mindful of private property interests at all points on the trail.”
Advisory committee member Ken Shelton, a physician and avid bicyclist, noted that Henderson County has a leash ordinance. Trespassing, too, is against the law, he said, and if trail walkers venture into the Wilsons’ yard “they’re trespassers.”


Walk at your own risk


County Commission Chair Bill Lapsley said in an interview that he is aware that people are already using the trail.
“We’ve heard that there’s a lot of people walking and bicycling on the trail,” he said. “There’s a lot of pressure to keep moving and try to get some construction going as soon as we can.”
He did not think banning people from using the path is under consideration, although the county is moving to bar walkers and bicycle riders from crossing bridges.
“None of my colleagues have indicated any concern about” walkers. “It’s there, we have it, it’s just not in an improved condition,” Lapsley said. “The county has a lease agreement and we have the insurance on it. If somebody was riding a bike and got hurt or fell or whatever, the county has insurance. My concern was should we prohibit it for insurance reasons. … Our insurance risk management people tell us that we’re covered.”
But Lapsley said county officials would prefer that people wait until the trail is paved, with signs and warnings up and safety measures in place.
“I guess I would say to the public, Can you walk on it? Yeah, you can but you do it at your own risk. It’s not in improved condition. We can’t say there isn’t a hole in the route that you could fall in. We would encourage people not to use it at the moment because it’s not being secured or improved. Please, we’d rather you not use the trail until we get construction done.”


Advisory committee recommends trail designer

Getting construction started as quickly as possible was the main order of business for the new trail advisory committee this week. After reviewing the qualifications of five engineering firms that responded to the county’s invitation to apply for the consulting job, Henderson County planners reported that Vaughan & Melton had scored highest. The committee voted to recommend that the Board of Commissioners hired the firm when it meets on Monday night.
A large firm based in Sylva, V&M assembled a team for the Ecusta Trail project made up of Equinox Environmental, Traffic Planning & Design of Asheville, Hendersonville-based Watermark Landscape Architect, minority-owned A1 Consulting Group of Morrisville, ACME Preservation Services, an Asheville-based historic properties specialist; TRC Environmental Corp., an Asheville-based firm heavily focused on archeological surveys and investigations; and ESC Southeast geotechnical engineers.
“The V&M Team has extensive and intimate knowledge of this project and what it can mean for the public,” the consultants said. “Hunter Marks is a founding member and current President of Friends of Ecusta Trail and has championed the project. Reece Schuler, our Regional VP, lives on property adjacent to the future trail.” The firm went on to say it had vetted team members’ “past involvement” for “any conflict of interest or perceived conflict of interest” and determined that there is no conflict. Even so, any “perceived conflict of interest will be managed during the life of the services should we be selected,” V&M said.
A landscape architect and land planner, Marks has designed numerous trail, greenway and park projects including the streetscape improvement that will soon be under way on Seventh Avenue. He previously worked in the rail industry as a trainmaster for the Norfolk & Western Railway, V&M noted.
V&M’s project manager for the Ecusta Trail design would be Joel Setzer, a former top engineer for the NCDOT’s 10-county Division 14, which is based in Sylva and includes Henderson and Transylvania counties.
Among the greenways V&M has planned and designed are three rails-to-trails projects in Kentucky, a walking trail and trailhead development at Lake James State Park, greenways in Hickory and in Berea College, Kentucky, and the Enka Heritage Trail in Buncombe County. Equinox developed the Virginia Creeper Trail master plan and economic impact assessment and has done feasibility studies for the Swannanoa Greenway, Oklawaha Greenway extension, Cane Creek Greenway in Fletcher and numerous others. V&M’s timeline showed that the planning, engineering, design, permitting and construction bid work would take 53 weeks.
Engineers estimate that construction of the Hendersonville-to-Horse Shoe leg will take 12-18 months. The Friends of Ecusta Trail and Conserving Carolina have already formed a campaign steering committee to raise money through individuals and corporate donors and the county can continue to seek grants to fund construction of the remaining segments to the Henderson County line. The city of Brevard has agreed to manage construction for the part of the trail in Transylvania County.
A significant piece of news from this week’s advisory committee is that Watco had agreed to sell one more segment of the rail line to Conserving Carolina, from Kanuga Road to Fourth Avenue East. A trailhead on Fourth Avenue would enable the Ecusta Trail to link to the Oklawaha Trail and ultimately the Oklawaha’s Clear Creek extension. That’s important because connecting separate trails to create a larger network of trail between communities wins points when it comes to grant applications.

Trail funding gains momentum

The advisory committee’s kickoff meeting came as the Ecusta Trail gains momentum in funding. The state budget signed into law by the governor last month appropriated $600,000 for trail construction and the new infrastructure bill passed by Congress and signed by President Biden channeled more greenway money to states.
“I anticipate there will be a lot of activity (in multi-use path funding) of various nature over the next two years,” McGrady said at a meeting of the county’s Transportation Advisory Committee on Nov. 17. “Between the (state) budget and the infrastructure bill, there’s a lot of money moving into trails specifically and transportation more broadly … You’re going to see a lot of things occurring and the theme is connectivity. It’s going to make the job to raise money an easier task. It’s just been an amazing week or two for trails and I think the Ecusta Trail will be assisted by it.”
The Henderson County Board of Commissioners appointed McGrady as chair of the trail advisory committee on Nov. 17 and formed the nine-member board. The county’s five appointees and other appointees and appointing authorities are:
• City of Hendersonville: Brent Detwiler, the city engineer who designed the most recently completed segment of the Oklawaha Trail.
• Conserving Carolina: Mike Egan, a land-use and environmental policy attorney and member of the conservancy’s board.
• Laurel Park: Nancy McKinley, a real estate agent who is retiring from the Laurel Park Town Council Dec. 14.
• Friends of Ecusta Trail: Chris Burns, a founder and longtime leader of the organization who chaired the county’s Greenway Master Plan Committee.
• Board of Commissioners: McGrady; Selena Einwechter, the owner of a Mills River B&B and member of the Tourism Development Authority; David Adams, a Friends of Ecusta Trail member; Doug Moon, a fifth-generation Henderson County native, former local recreation director and former executive director of the Opportunity House; and Dr. Ken Shelton, a Friends of Ecusta Trail co-founder who also served on the Greenway Master Plan Committee.