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Ecusta Trail advocates launch drive for support

A simple billboard featuring an image, two words and a web address marks a major new push by Ecusta Trail supporters to raise awareness about the greenway and potentially sway voters in a crucial Transylvania County election.


The billboard, which went up last week, says, "Imagine it," and features an image of railroad tracks becoming a trail that disappears over blue mountains. Below the artwork is the website of the Friends of the Ecusta Trail.
"We wanted to put it in front of folks so especially in Transylvania County people could start getting a lot of facts about rail banking and the Ecusta Trail especially before the primary election in May," said Chris Burns, a member of the Ecusta Trail board and marketing company owner in Hendersonville.
Two seats on the Transylvania County Board of Commissioners are up for election, and one is an open seat.
Larry Chapman is running for re-election. Daryle Hogshed, whose term also expires, is not running for re-election. Six Republicans and two Democrats have filed for the two seats, which are all elected at large. The Ecusta Trail organization sees the Republican primary as an opportunity to gain support and potentially flip the Board of Commissioners from opposing to supporting the greenway.
The big sign on U.S. 64 in Brevard has worked so far, Burns said.
"From our website since we put that billboard up, traffic on the Ecusta Trail website has gone up over 400 percent," he said. "Our Facebook traffic has increased and there's been something to the tune of 4,000 reposts" of the billboard photo.

$20 million project

A 2012 report that the Hendersonville City Council commissioned on the proposed 20-mile greenway estimated the project would cost $20 million to build and return $9.4 million a year in tax revenue, tourism spending, property value increases and health benefits. Burns said newer estimates out construction costs between $9.4 million and $13.4 million with land acquisition costing $3.7 million.
Under the National Trail Systems Act enacted by Congress in 1983, railroad companies voluntarily give up unused tracks for use as greenways. Railbanking allows the railroad to reclaim the track bed if it becomes necessary. About 21,000 miles of track across the U.S. have been converted into greenways, including the Swamp Rabbit Trail from Travelers Rest to Greenville and the Virginia Creeper Trail in Abingdon, Va., both popular destinations for bicycle riders from this area.
Burns said it's recently come to light that most of the Hendersonville-to-Brevard track is owned by Norfolk Southern, a point that Ecusta Trail advocates count in their favor.
"Norfolk Southern estimates that at least 90 percent is owned fee simple by Norfolk Southern," he said. "Both the consultant and Norfolk Southern have corroborated that number."
The Brevard billboard is just the most visible indication of the trail organization's efforts.
"Especially in Transylvania County the aim is to bring the idea of the trail to the forefront and to understand their elected officials' position on the trail," Burns said. Trail supporters in Transylvania are "having to make the rounds now to find out where (the candidates) stand. We are going to get the Ecusta Trail question out in front of all the County Commission candidates in both Henderson and Transylvania counties, and as soon we get that we'll get that out on our website, Facebook and email blasts."

Greenways in the works

Ken Shelton, a radiologist, told an overflow crowd at a bicycle symposium two weeks ago that bicycling survey categorized him as "exceptional." He commutes to work on his bike.
Obesity, diabetes, a separation from nature and separation from one another in solitary car driving plague modern America, he said.
"As a physician, if there is one prescription I could write that cures these ills, it would read, 'Exercise, Repeat,'" he said.
"It's just something we need in the community for economic growth and we need in the community for health and exercise," he said in an interview Tuesday. "Those are the main reasons. The whole idea is that greenways allow us to connect parks and trails and other amenities that are otherwise unconnected and create infrastructure that allows us to spontaneously and with planning get out and enjoy the outdoors."
Bikeways and greenways are in the works or in the talking stages throughout the county. Hendersonville is extending the Oklawaha Greenway from Jackson Park to Berkeley Park along Mud Creek. In Mills River, a consultant is studying a bikeway along N.C. 280. The Blue Ridge Bicycle Club recently announced that it was moving the start-finish for the Fletcher Flyer 100-miler to Oskar Blues in Brevard. Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. is owned by a family of bicycle enthusiasts, raising speculation that it might incorporate bikeways in its large brewery campus.
"It's the whole greenway connectivity," Shelton said. "We'll be the arterial line to that with the Ecusta Trail."
Hendersonville, Laurel Park and Flat Rock all have endorsed trail and the organization's leaders think they have support on the Henderson County Board of Commissioners as well as the legislative delegation, with the exception of state Rep. Chris Whitmire, R-Brevard.
"I think in Transylvania as well as Henderson County that this election will make a difference," Shelton said. "There's no question Transylvania County is the one that holds the key right now. If they become supportive I think there's a good chance that Norfolk Southern will abandon the line."

Towns support trail

In Henderson County, three commissioners are up for re-election.

Although the Ecusta Trail has not been an issue in recent campaigns, Michael Edney would be glad to make it one.
"I've always been in favor of it and I've supported it as much as I could and I continue to," he said. "For several reasons. It's the right thing to do for economic development, healthwise, the whole nine yards.
"As far as my understanding the railroad owns 80-plus percentage of the tracks so property rights are not as much an issue as I thought," he added. "It's the property rights of the railroad. A lot of folks over the years have said all (Norfolk Southern) had was the right-of-way, they didn't own the land.... You're not tromping on other people's rights."
Transylvania County Commissioner Larry Chapman said the issue is economic development, not recreation-based development. As long as the railroad line creates the potential to attract a new job-creating industrial plant, Chapman is in favor of keeping it.
"Our board has already taken a majority vote in support of keeping that rail line open," he said. "We're in favor of keeping that rail line as long as that property still has the opportunity to be developed. You might want to talk to the railroad. They've not made any indication they're ready to abandon that rail line."
Shelton said there are plenty of good reasons that Norfolk Southern should want to railbank the tracks.
"If everybody is in agreement that industry (using rail) will never return to Transylvania County, there is no need for Norfolk Southern to hold that line," he said. "There's a whole host of reasons the NS should get rid of that line, including the fact that it would take $4 to 7 million to renovate it to get it up to make it serviceable. They're paying for liability insurance; they could get rid of that. It's a huge tax burden to them. It's a dead line going nowhere and here's no industry that will be developed on the far end of it."

Economic impact

The Friends of Ecusta Trail plans to continue its push, on economic development grounds that show benefits in tourism spending, land value appreciation and better health.
"We're continuing to be visible at events," said Friends president Hunter Marks. "We're going to be sponsoring Rhythm & Brews again this year. We're going to be involved in the Tour d'Apple in September and the Fletcher Flyer on June 1. Anywhere we can, we're trying to remain visible."
The city of Hendersonville, which commissioned the trail study in 2012, is supportive.
"Absolutely, strongly in favor," Mayor Pro Tem Ron Stephens said of the council's position. "I would be most surprised if it was not a 5-0 vote on anything positive about that trail. I've been told that it's Transylvania County that's holding it up, aside form railroad. I understand that our county backs it, and the city backs it and Brevard of course backs it. The (Norfolk Southern) railroad has done it (railbanking) in eight or nine places in the country so it's not like they always refuse to do it."
If the Ecusta Trail leaders are counting votes, Stephens said they can safely mark Hendersonville in the yes column.
"Every comment I've ever heard strongly supports it," he said. "I would bet the farm it would be a 5-0 vote."