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Neighbors fight parking lot at Sandburg site

Gary Letchworth walks in a site cleared for an overflow parking lot for Carl Sandburg Home. Gary Letchworth walks in a site cleared for an overflow parking lot for Carl Sandburg Home.

FLAT ROCK — Neighbors of the Carl Sandburg historic site say they hope to stop the National Park Service from building a parking lot across Little River Road from their homes, citing traffic concerns and the cutting of large trees.

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“It’s an ecological disaster,” said the Rev. Gary Letchworth, a retired Presbyterian minister whose home is directly across from what would be the new overflow parking lot. “I worked with the ranger and he’s new like a bull in a china shop making decisions arbitrarily and without involving the community. I got him to stop it because they were cutting the trees down on Palm Sunday. It started at 8 in the morning and went on all day long.”
Letchworth counted 36 stumps after the chainsaws quit, including five larger than 3 feet in diameter. He has called U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows is organizing a petition drive. He and a next door neighbor, Anne Hunter, would be the most directly affected homeowners on Little River Road.
“It shook our houses when those trees fell,” Hunter said.
The petition calls on the park service to stop cutting trees and to abandon the site for another location for parking.
“Carl Sandburg National Historic Home Site management is not upholding the mission entrusted to them with the cutting of beautiful large trees that took decades to grow to their present size and natural beauty to make way for the addition of the proposed parking lot,” Letchworth’s petition says. “The natural beauty has already been greatly destroyed by the trees already cut in two days.”
The park service, the petition goes on, tried “to act quickly even with starting the massive tree cutting on a Sunday morning (Palm Sunday no less) so that the community could not make any effort to stop the process.”
It may be too late to prevent the project, which has been in the park service plans for years. A contractor cut down the trees on Sunday, April 9, because the park service faces an April 15 deadline to fell trees because of migratory birds and nesting animals, said Steve Kidd, acting superintendent of the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site.
“This lot that we’re building is less than an acre gravel lot adjacent to our administrative building and it’s ultimately intended to be used by our day hikers, folks that are coming in from our local area to recreate on the trails,” he said. “They’ve been to the park many times. In fact, some of them come every day. They don’t have any real alternative now except to park in our main visitor parking lot. By creating this, we would have an alternative place for them to park that would not require them parking on the road shoulder and crossing Little River Road unsafely.”

With greater use, visitors often fill the existing parking lot, spill over to the Flat Rock Playhouse or on Little River Road, which Kidd said endangers those visitors. The Playhouse has posted signs prohibiting Sandburg Home visitors from parking in its lot.
“They’ve recently increased their play schedule and that really limited us in the number of days or times that we may be able to utilize their lot for additional parking,” Kidd said.
Although Letchworth and Hunter object to the location, Kidd said the site beside the gravel road leading to the park’s administrative office was the only option that the park service would approve.
“We’ve looked at areas to provide additional parking since the park was established,” he said. “In the ‘70s, when they were first building the park, they looked at putting additional parking in the pasture and found that that would be an unsuitable impact to the cultural landscape. That was reviewed again in 1977 and 2003.There weren’t very many places where we could provide safe access to our visitors.” The 25-space parking lot won’t be paved or lighted and will have minimal signage.
“It’s not going to be used for buses,” Kidd added. “We take the safety of our visitors in very high regard and we want to do this in a manner that allows them to enjoy the park safely.”
After reviewing National Park Service policy on “civic engagement” and “public involvement” in the governance of national parks, Hunter concluded that the work violates those requirements.
Kidd said his office has followed policies that govern a park improvement.
“It is the construction of a small improved parking lot and it had been zoned for that,” he said. “We followed our procedures for consulting with Fish and Wildlife, the village of Flat Rock, Henderson County, the NCDOT. If we were going to make any movement on this, we had a deadline of April 15 to begin removal of the trees.”
Judy Boleman, Flat Rock’s village administrator, said nothing in the village’s land development code required approval by the Village Council.
“Mr. Letchworth talked to the mayor I believe on the phone and the lady, Mrs. Hunter, came in yesterday morning,” she said. “She is very unhappy about it.”
Kidd “had called me and asked me what he needed to do in terms of permitting and I had told him that based on the land development ordinance they didn’t have to do anything with that,” Boleman said.
Wayne King, Meadows’s deputy chief of staff, confirmed that neighbors had made the congressman aware of their concerns.
“We’re in conversation with the Carl Sandburg house now,” King said. “There’s nothing further. Usually takes couple of weeks to get answers from them. It’s not the local guys that can get the answers. It’s an ongoing project that’s been going on for several years.”
Kidd said the park service wants to address neighbors’ concerns.
“Right now we are working with our neighbors across the street to let some vegetative barrier that will be used for screening,” he said, adding that workers will probably plant something green year-round like rhododendron and mountain laurel. “That was always part of the plan. We’re very sensitive to the views from our landscape and understand that we don’t want to create something that is upsetting to them. We intend to screen this to reduce its visibility.”