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Support for greenway expansion gains momentum in cities, county

In September 2016, Henderson County commissioners got their first look at a proposal to extend the Oklawaha Greenway through Jackson Park.

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Planners had come up with a route that would cut through a shady picnic area off the park’s main road. The presentation didn’t go well. Upset that the proposed route eliminated a handful of parking spaces, two commissioners emphatically rejected the option and ordered planners back to the drawing board.
What should have been a routine pass at a simple problem — running a bicycle path six-tenths of a mile through a county park — had gone off the rail. Anyone watching could not help thinking: Here it comes again. Henderson County can’t manage a greenway anywhere, even through property it already owns.
Yet the odd thing about that moment is that it marked something of a turning point for the elected commissioners and the future of greenways throughout the county. Commissioners were not only talking about a greenway. They were starting to clear the way for greenway expansion. The Jackson Park link is potentially the beginning of a major commitment to a greenway network. First comes one leg, then the next, then the next after that. Greenway supporters envision a long-range plan that would connect parks all over the county, eventually creating a 45-mile paved path for bicycling, walking, skating and running.
A month before the September 2016 county commission meeting, Hendersonville city officials had officially cut the ribbon the third phase of the Oklawaha Greenway, a 3½-mile multi-use path from Jackson Park to Berkeley Mills Park. Hendersonville, Laurel Park and Flat Rock all had bicycle-pedestrian path studies under way. Mills River had already commissioned a study of a bike path on N.C. 280. Talk of greenways — whether they’re called trails, multi-use paths, bikeways or something else — was all around.
And now the county Board of Commissioners — the one body that represents everyone — was buying in.
“The county commissioners are now recognizing that we need to move in a direction that recognizes more of the possibilities,” said Joe Sanders, who has been the leading advocate for
expanded greenways in the county over the past 10 years. “Team sports are fine. We’ll always have team sports
but team sports represent such a small percentage of the population. Who plays team sports? High school and
below? Maybe a few people above
the age of 20.
“But who doesn’t want to walk? In that regard I salute the county commissioners for stepping up and recognizing this and supporting these grants and a greenway master plan and extending the Oklawaha Greenway.”
The push for greenways in recreation-rich Henderson County has a patchy record.
Organized efforts to create long linear parks, as some advocates call them, have been around in one form or another since the mid-1990s. The efforts have been balkanized and often unfocused. Jitters over private property rights have snuffed out good ideas in the cradle. The one effort to forge a united front — the Apple Country Greenways Commission — fizzled out from lack of support from county commissioners.

The Ecusta Trail
Over the past 10 years, the best known greenway effort has centered on one project: the Ecusta Trail. Soon after the Ecusta paper mill closed in Pisgah Forest, in 2002, the last Norfolk Southern Railway locomotive rumbled off the Hendersonville-to-Brevard line. And it wasn’t long before bicycle riders and other recreation advocates thought of rail-to-trail. Through the National Trail Systems Act, passed by Congress in 1983, railroads have
railbanked more than 21,000 miles of former rail lines, creating greenways that
criss-cross America. Local examples include the Swamp Rabbit Trail, a popular 20-mile bike path connecting Travelers Rest and Greenville, S.C.
Advocates formed Friends of the Ecusta Trail in 2010 and two years after
that consultants presented a report
depicting the idea as a positive asset
for the region’s economy, recreation, even health.
When Watco, a Kansas-based shortline operator, bought the line from Norfolk Southern three years ago, optimism soared. Watco was a company that Ecusta Trail advocates could speak with personally, unlike the stone wall Norfolk Southern put up. An open line of communication, though, has been more like a long hold time. Watco still wants to exhaust every option for reopening the line as a profitable freight carrier. No decision is expected for at least two years.
Over time, and as they looked at the Oklawaha Greenway, the N.C. 280 corridor and other options for multi-use paths, greenway advocates have begun to shape a new strategy. Do everything else first — or at least a lot of greenway miles first — and worry about the Ecusta Trail when Watco is ready to talk.
“My feelings are let’s take it out
of the equation,” Sanders said. “Let’s
put it in a box, put it up on a shelf,
because we can’t do anything until
the railroad says, ‘OK, we’re done. We’ll railbank it.’ We’re hoping that when you see this it will lead to a natural conclusion that this 280 is a good thing and the Ecusta Trail would
complement it perfectly.”
Dr. Ken Shelton, another member of the Friends of Ecusta Trail, describes Watco executives as “approachable” and “accommodating” but cautious.
“They do not want to get out ahead of Transylvania County and Transylvania County still wants (rail dependent) industry to return,” he says. “The chances of that happening are zero, nil, in my opinion. But they’re going to exhaust all possibilities. … If Watco eventually, at five years, says, 'We’re going to get rid of this thing, there’s no potential for industry and return of rail,' I think they’ll talk to us about turning it into the Ecusta Trail that we envision.”
A native of Henderson County, Jaime Laughter was Mills River town manager before she was hired away as Transylvania County manager. She pushes back when people suggest that Transylvania County commissioners are blocking the trail.
“The primary reason they have chosen not to take up the Ecusta Trail is because it’s a privately held asset, by Watco,” she said. “We entertained Watco in town about two years ago and talked to their vice president and their stated interest as a company was to market the line. They did share in that meeting that they had a line out west that did not run any traffic for I think five or 10 years and now it’s one of their highest producers.
“My impression —not speaking for Watco — is they’re not going to be a company that very quickly makes a decision. They’re going to think about the long term and hold on to that asset. As long as they’re interested in holding on to that asset, that prevents my board from taking it up. We did get a clear message from Watco that they look at it as a business asset, so having county commissioners or myself come out and say yay or nay on the Ecusta Trail really is not going to influence whether they keep it.”
Laughter defends the record of her elected bosses on greenways.
“When folks say Transylvania is the barrier to the Ecusta Trail project it’s really not true,” she said. “The barrier is the owner.”

‘Exercise, comma, repeat’
Shelton, a radiologist, has been an athlete all his life. Once a wide receiver for the University of Virginia Cavaliers, Shelton has been advocating for bike riding in the fresh air since he ran the Tobacco Free for Life program 25 years ago. Now he commutes to work from his home in Laurel Park to Pardee and Park Ridge hospitals, taking routes through neighborhoods to stay off the busier roads.
When he talks about greenways, he does so with the knowledge that North Carolina ranks fifth worst in the U.S. in childhood obesity and that 65 percent of its residents are overweight or obese.
“If you could have a magic prescription to deal with all kinds of ills and health consequences, it would be ‘exercise, comma, repeat,’” he says. “You deal with depression, you deal with obesity, diabetes, hypertension. Right now 2 percent of our gross national product treats one disease and that’s doubled in the last 15 years.”
Creating greenways that encourage overweight folks to pedal would help.
“In the first year that they ride they average 13 pounds of weight loss,” he says.
Other health benefits include reducing high blood pressure and arthritis pain, preventing osteoporosis, increasing strength and flexibility, improving posture and coordination and lowering the risk of heart disease. Bicycling burns about 600 calories an hour.
Sanders says he’s seen the benefits personally and in everyone he recruits to ride regularly.
“When you exercise your body has
a natural reaction and it produces endorphins,” he says, “and those
endorphins are natural cancer fighters, they’re natural healing hormones that the body produces,” he says. “If you ask anybody would you rather be indoors or outdoors I can’t think of a single person who’d say they’d rather be indoors.”

Willing buyer, willing seller
Katie Breckheimer recalls what happened the first time the Friends of the Oklawaha Greenway presented a proposal to extend the trail from Jackson Park to Blue Ridge Community College.
“(Commissioner) Bill Lapsley said we have to be careful because we don’t want property owners along that sewer easement that connects Jackson Park to Blue Ridge Community Park to see in the newspaper that you’re going to bring a greenway through their property,” she says. “That’s why we’ve been flying under the radar because the property rights people are nervous.”
Local, state and federal agencies plus businesses and nonprofit groups would have to come together over many years to make a greenway network happen. Everyone involved in Henderson County efforts knows that two words can kill it before it starts: eminent domain.
John Mitchell, the community and business development for Henderson County, is coordinating the development of a greenway master plan. The French Broad MPO, a planning agency that coordinates transportation projects in Henderson, Buncombe, Madison and Haywood counties, notified Henderson County in May that it had won a $56,000 grant to fund a feasibility study of a trail from Berkeley Park to Westfeldt Park, and $40,000 more to study an Oklawaha south segment from Jackson Park to BRCC and possibly to Flat Rock Park. The county plans to a hire a consultant to develop a timeline, identify “preferred routes and the number of property owners impacted, stakeholders and funding sources and a maintenance plan and long-term costs” of a greenway, Mitchell says.
“I’m going to ask the consultant to find what they think is the most cost-effective route,” he says. “I would suspect that that route would follow either existing highway or existing easement or water, sewer or possibly Mud Creek going north. That’s the kind of in-the-weeds thing that’s best for the consultant.”
The consultant may contact property owners “to see what kind of barriers there were to certain routes, what kind of positives there were to others,” he says. “There are questions of private property. Those folks are going to need to be approached in a fair and early manner.”
Sanders understands the need to proceed cautiously when it comes to drawing lines on a map. Some enthusiastic trail advocates want to start identifying routes on the ground themselves. He discourages that.
“I don’t want somebody walking across somebody’s property in determining where they think the greenway should go and then (have a landowner say), ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘I’m helping figure out where the greenway needs to go.’”
Condemning property for the greenway is off the table, he adds.
“In fact, if that’s where the conversation goes I’d have to respectfully bow out,” he says. “Because I would not want that to happen to me. Therefore, how can I think it’s OK to do to somebody else?”

French Broad to Pisgah Forest
After they turned from Ecusta Trail as the top priority, greenway proponents looked around at another proposal that had already been studied and featured several built-in advantages.
Mills River and Transylvania County jointly commissioned a study in 2014 of a 15-mile multi-use path along N.C. 280 from Westfeldt Park on the French Broad River to Pisgah Forest. A consultant, Alta Planning & Design, estimated that the project would cost $500,000 a mile, plus intersection and streetscape improvements, at $150,000. A big head start: the NCDOT owns enough right-of-way along most of the route to build the 10-foot-wide paved path two feet off the highway travel lanes.
Another thing Hendersonville-based spokesfolk like about the N.C. 280 project is that it has the buy-in of Transylvania County.
“We don’t need a survey in Transylvania County,” Shelton says. “We know what people want. They want trails. (The N.C. 290 path) is a unique option that doesn’t get everybody’s hackles up. They’re the ones sort of pushing for this.”
Laughter, the Transylvania County manager, confirms that.
“What I’m encouraged by is whenever we went to adopt the resolution to continue to look at the 280 multi-use path we got a unanimous vote from our Board of Commissioners,” she says. “Whenever folks say all Transylvania County commissioners are anti-greenway I’m quick to say that’s not necessarily true. They’re looking this project very seriously. They helped to build the extension on Cherry Street. They’re not anti-bikes, they’re not anti-multimodal travel in the county.”
The Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy has thrown its support behind the project by funding a part-time staffer, Linda Giltz, who is coordinating the N.C. 280 study. The CMLC’s interest is based on the nonprofit organization’s goals “to connect people to nature through creating opportunities for outdoor recreation,” says Giltz, a community planner and grant writer. CMLC has also been involved in the Cane Creek Greenway in Fletcher and the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge Trail Loop.
Thirty-two people attended an N.C. 280 corridor stakeholders meeting last week at the North Transylvania Fire Department and so far about 300 surveys have been completed. The greenway steering committee is asking residents to suggest names for the trail. So far the most popular are Pisgah Path and Pisgah View Trail.
Mills River has drop-in meetings planned for Aug. 9 and Aug. 17 and will have a presentation set up on July 22 at the Touch a Truck event for children at the town park. So far about 70 people have answered a survey in Mills River, all but one in favor of the project, says Town Manager Jeff Wells. Another key segment could go through the town, too. The NCDOT has produced a preliminary design of an N.C. 191 widening that would include a 4-foot bike lane from Hendersonville to the N.C. 280 intersection.
“Whenever we do surveys about our park and the town in general about recreational opportunities always on the top of the list is walking trails,” Wells says. “It’s no surprise to me that there’s momentum.”

Greenway could be green
The triangle from Hendersonville to Mills River to Brevard to Hendersonville would connect parks and river and lead to other greenways, including Brevard’s bikeway. Off of the triangle could be any number of spurs, either as new greenways or along roads with bicycle safety improvements such as shared lane markings. An idea in Laurel Park, for instance, would create separate climbing lanes along Laurel Park Highway for the popular Jump Off Rock ride.
In drop-in sessions in Flat Rock, residents have said the highest priority is a connection from the village and Carl Sandburg home — a big walking destination already — to the Park at Flat Rock. The NCDOT has told the village that it will build a greenway through the park when it widens Highland Lake Road, a project scheduled for 2022.
Last month the Flat Rock Village Council asked the DOT to calculate the town’s share of the sidewalk or greenway cost through the park and how much the state would pay the village for right of way it needs for the Highland Lake widening.
“It’s possible we’ll come out in the black,” Mayor Bob Staton says. “It’s also possible we’ll come out in the red, and that’s the difference between a 10-foot path, which has to be concrete, and a 4-foot sidewalk.”
The Park at Flat Rock has walking trails made of crushed gravel.
“We’d like to have what we have out there but that’s not in the cards,” he says. “It’s going to be paved and concrete is the choice right now. But they can color it. They can make it any color we want. So that’s something that we would certainly look at.”

Can cooperative
spirit be renewed?
Over the past three years, Henderson County commissioners have been in the news a lot for fights with Mills River over police coverage, Hendersonville over water, the Bearcat
nation over a new Hendersonville High School, and every town over animal control. Yet it was just three years ago that the city and county joined forces with three other partners to build the $30 million Health Sciences Center at Pardee Hospital. Many people think that kind of cooperation
is a model for countywide greenway development.
“Together they put together an incredible facility,” Shelton said. “They thought out of the box and the community benefited tremendously from that.”
Hendersonville Councilman Jeff Miller, who has been working Hendersonville’s piece of the overall plan, believes that cooperative spirit can be revived for a greenway network.
“I think they’re very open-minded to it,” he says of county commissioners. “Every discussion I’ve ever had about the greenway has been pretty well received. It wouldn’t be real popular to be opposed to it. Do we need to get in some big debt to do this? No, I’m not crazy about that but I think there is room for some structured debt in a bigger plan because I think the long-term payback on that would do exceptionally well.
“In all the boring stuff we do day to day — water and sewer, road paving — to do something like this it makes you feel really good and it feels really good to get out on it,” Miller adds. “It’s hard to argue with it.”
It helps to have advocates like
Miller, Sanders, Shelton and others pushing for a project that will take millions of dollars and many years to complete.
“One of the things that we been very excited to have as part of the process is local advocates that are really pushing the process,” says Allison Fluitt, an engineer with consultant Kimley Horn, which developed the bike-ped plans for Hendersonville, Laurel Park and Flat Rock. “The level of vocal advocacy and passion is above and beyond what we see in the vast majority of places we do this for. And I think the importance of that really can’t be overstated.”
Hunter Marks, president of the Friends of Ecusta Trail, says any progress on greenways is a good thing, even if the rail-to-trail is on hold.
“We support these other links
and we believe they’ll do nothing but help the Ecusta Trail come about,” he says.
In general, he sees the momentum growing all the time for more greenways.
“I think it’s pretty hot,” he says. “You’ve got so many trails around us: the Virginia Creeper, the Swamp Rabbit, the Tweetsie trail. People are going to visit these things and they’re coming back and saying, ‘Hendersonville has very little of this. Why don’t we have more?’
“We have a fairly progressive and affluent community. We should have more of these things. People demand these things, and if you want people to move here and our area to grow these do nothing but help.”
Marks’s advice to those who want to see elected leaders move ahead on greenways? Get off the sideline and get in the game.
“If folks want these things — not just the Ecusta Trail, but the 280,
the Oklawaha — we need their help. The community has got to get behind these things and be public about it,” he says. “The more the community will stand up and say these are things we want and value, the quicker we’ll get ’em.”