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ROAD RAGE: Residents rise up against transportation improvements

Residents listen to NCDOT District Engineer Steve Cannon explain Highland Lake Road improvements during a public input meeting on Oct. 17.. Residents listen to NCDOT District Engineer Steve Cannon explain Highland Lake Road improvements during a public input meeting on Oct. 17..

One moment in a lively public comment period last week crystallized the gulf between the group that vociferously opposes the Kanuga Road widening and the group that rallying for U.S. 64 improvements.

“If it were up to me to vote yes or no I’d say take the money for the Kanuga project and give it to these nice people on 64,” said Tom Leenhouts.
The audience burst into applause.
It was an idea all sides agreed on as the Kanuga crowd argued for stopping a project that’s well on the way to construction and the U.S. 64 contingent begged for the start of one that’s not even on the drawing board.
In between, residents of U.S. 64 in Laurel Park, where a smaller transportation improvement is in the works, also pleaded with the Transportation Advisory Committee to block or alter that project.
Leenhouts, a 66-year-old retiree who lives at the corner of Thornhill Drive and Kanuga Road, was one of 15 speakers who showed up last week at the Transportation Advisory Committee, a board that seldom sees a roomful of citizens eager to speak.
Although it felt like summer outside, Henderson County clearly is in its winter of discontent when it comes to road projects.
Every one of the projects that the North Carolina Department of Transportation wants to build over the next few years has sparked opposition. If there’s support, it’s mostly the silent kind. City and county leaders continue to block large residential developments on the grounds that roads are inadequate.
Overwhelming — and successful — uprisings against new development have become such a pattern that county commissioners is considering a moratorium on large residential developments. They want a timeout so they can considers changes to the county zoning code. But if better roads are the answer, growth may have to wait. Residents who live along those roads are telling their elected leaders they don’t want wider roads that could carry traffic more efficiently.
Here’s a look at the road projects that are drawing strong opposition from residents who live near them:

Kanuga Road

The $20 million project from Church Street in downtown Hendersonville to Little River Road would add a four-foot shoulder that would also be marked as a bike lane. In sharper curves, the road would be straightened, requiring the NCDOT to buy more right-of-way. Right-of-way acquisition is scheduled for 2018. Construction: 2019.
Residents say project will require the removal of hundreds of trees plus stone walls that line parts of the road and some subdivision gates.
“This isn’t simply, ‘We’re going to make the road wider,’” Leenhouts said. “I think a lot of the people in the gallery think that’s what we’re doing. But a lot of it’s going to be rerouted” and in his case the new route is “over what is now my front lawn.”
“People in our area feel that we were not made aware of this project in a very respectful manner,” said Cindy Ward, one of the leaders of a growing movement to block the project. “We now know it won’t be an improvement, it will be a total devastation to our community.”
Brian Burch, division engineer is the highest ranking NCDOT official for Henderson County and others in southwestern North Carolina, responded to questions about a bike lane along Kanuga.
“I’ve heard some mention you’re putting in a 4-foot bike path.
“If you look at our standards, the engineering standards, the volume of traffic on these roads would warrant a 4-foot paved shoulder, regardless of bike path,” he said. “The benefit of that in this case is the 4-foot shoulder will also operate as a bike path. We’re essentially saying, ‘bikes, move over to your dedicated lane.’ So it’s an added benefit.”

Highland Lake Road

A large crowd packed the City Operations Center last week to make comments on the proposed Highland Lake Road widening from Spartanburg Highway to Greenville Highway. Right-of-way acquisition is scheduled for FY2019. Construction: FY2019.
When the Village Council voted in favor of the project, council members Nick Weedman and Anne Coletta voted no.
“Nick Weedman and I are not happy with it and we’re just trying to educate the residents so they have a real understanding of what it involves and what changes are going to be made and what we think the consequences are,” Coletta said. “We’re concerned about the trees coming down, we’re concerned about the road widening and dampening the curves, means people will come down at a faster speed. Right now it exemplifies our rural character.”
Coletta said the project will require the state to take 140 trees in the Park at Flat Rock. Two trees could be saved. Weedman said NCDOT engineers were receptive to the idea of moving the entrance to the park and the Highland Golf Villas in order to save two towering oak trees.
“They’re going to give us a proposal to leave that alone,” Weedman said. The driveway would move west.
Burch confirmed that the agency will look explore the idea.
“We would be willing to look at that to improve the sight distance,” he said.
NCDOT spokesman David Uchiyama said that the impetus for the Highland Lake project, like all local projects, originated in the community, not in Raleigh.
“They started with input from the local planning organization,” he said. “They said, ‘Hey, we think this is a good idea. Here’s why we think it’s a good idea.’ One of the things Flat Rock did to help was say, ‘Hey, put (the widening) on our side. So that makes it a little easier to work with.’”
That’s why the road widening — and a proposed 10-foot greenway separated from the roadway— would run through the Flat Rock park. That’s also why the minister and leader of Pinecrest Presbyterian Church showed up at the public input meeting last week. The widening would take church property and a line of evergreens that serves as a buffer.
“It would have a large impact on us,” said Bill Stanley, chair of the church’s governing body. “Our septic tank is on that side. That’s where our disabled parking is, and of course the noise. If they cut the trees the trucks and motorcycles will come right through the sanctuary.”

U.S. 64 widening

A widening project between Blythe Street to Daniel Drive runs through Hendersonville, Laurel Park and unincorporated Henderson County. The project would add a 17-foot grass median and roundabouts at Glasgow Lane, Pisgah Drive and White Pine Drive.
The project through Laurel Park has become associated with traffic problems west of Laurel Park, where residents of Hunters Crossing and Hawthorn Hills have organized opposition to a 209-unit rental cottage development across the highway from their subdivisions. Residents wearing green “Fix U.S. 64” buttons have implored county commissioners to focus on the highway west of Laurel Park, where they say rush-hour backups make it almost impossible to make turns out of their neighborhoods.
The Laurel Park Town Board has delayed a decision on the proposed project, called Arcadia View, until it receives a traffic impact analysis from the NCDOT.
The Town Board endorsed the U.S. 64 widening with a median and roundabouts after the NCDOT revised an earlier design. That’s what public input meetings are designed to achieve, said Burch.
“We tweaked and changed it,” he said. “We moved roundabouts, we put signals back in. … and how we’re going to receive more comments and we’ll go back through that process.”

‘Doing nothing is an alternative’

At the Transportation Advisory Committee, Burch explained the long process that moves a project from an idea to inclusion in the state road plan. Roads are scored for factors including safety, congestion relief and cost-benefit. Local boards like Henderson County’s TAC send projects to the French Broad MPO, a regional planning agency that prioritizes the recommended projects from three counties. The projects that people are now reacting to have been in the works for many years. Burch tried to assure the crowd that the NCDOT takes the comments seriously.
The agency will summarize the comments, “look at each concern and see how we can address it, if we can address it,” he said. “Someone talked about impacting rock walls and trees. All those things will be looked at to see if we can avoid those impacts, if we could minimize those impacts. Unfortunately, they’ll be a time when we say, ‘If we want to do this project we can’t avoid that element, we have to take that tree, we have to get that wall, we have to get that gate, we have to impact that property.”
When they can, he said, engineers will tweak a project to resolve a concern, like the Highland Lake oak trees.
“Eventually, though, we have to get to a point where we say this is the most we can tweak or we say we no longer have a project and we move on to something else,” he said. “Doing nothing is always an alternative.”
That would suit residents on Kanuga and those who want no encroachment on the Park at Flat Rock.
Commissioner Bill Lapsley, the county’s appointee to the TAC, told the residents that they were doing the right thing by showing up.
“This is how the system works. This is what you need to do,” he said.
Doug Judkins, a leader of the “Fix 64” faction, asked Lapsley how a new project gets on the list.
“You’re on it, as far as a new project is concerned,” Lapsley responded. “And as far as these other projects that are already on the list to get funding, I’m now going to be watching DOT to see how they address the concerns and there’ll be a point where DOT’s going to come to this group and say, ‘We can do 1, 2 and 4, we don’t think we can do 3. This is our final recommendation.’
“If this (TAC) board says, ‘No, not good enough,’ then DOT I think is going to say, ‘We’re going to can the project.’ I don’t think DOT is going to say, to heck with what you people recommend.”