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Bike lanes becoming first casualty of war on widening

The Mills River Town Council may decide the fate of an N.C. 280 greenway early next year. The Mills River Town Council may decide the fate of an N.C. 280 greenway early next year.

Richmond Meadows, who won a seat on the Mills River Town Council in the Nov. 7 election, said voters on the campaign trail were decidedly cool to the idea of a greenway along N.C. 280 from the French Broad River to Brevard.

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“People aren’t ready for that,” said Meadows, a native of Mills River. “The people are saying they’re not wanting that that live up and down the road. They just feel it’s infringing on their land, possibly taking their land. I do not want the town to spend any money on a bike path.”
Road improvements, new greenways and greenway extensions are all on the table in Henderson County and before the first pavement is laid, paths for walkers and bike riders are facing stiff headwinds. Adding greenways, sidewalks and bike lanes as an integral part of highway design arises from an NCDOT standard called complete streets. But those additions are meeting fierce resistance from homeowners across the county who see such projects as an unnecessary encroachment on their land for something that’s more of a want than a need.
Earlier this month, in a meeting with the top DOT engineer for the region, Henderson County Commissioner Bill Lapsley, Hendersonville City Council member Steve Caraker and Flat Rock Village Council member John Dockendorf negotiated scaled back widening plans that could kill bike lanes on Kanuga Road and eliminate a separate greenway through the Park at Flat Rock that the NCDOT has offered to thrown in as part of the Highland Lake widening project.
Meanwhile, residents in Laurel Park oppose bike lanes that would in their view unnecessarily expand a U.S. 64 widening from Blythe Street to Daniel Drive. And the jury’s out on the N.C. 280 greenway, which Mills River and Transylvania County continue to study.
Brian Caskey, who defeated Mills River Mayor Larry Freeman on Nov. 7, said he had spoken with Town Manager Jeff Wells and town planner Jesse James about the project.
“They both told me that the feedback on the bike path was between 90 and 95 percent positive,” Caskey said. “We have seen bike paths in other places increase home values, sometimes by more than double. We’ve seen it increase retail sales and in fact support new businesses. The mayor of Travelers Rest, which has a similar trail (the Swamp Rabbit), has said that it saved the town economically speaking. You can’t underestimate the power of something like that. I think the way to approach it would be to implement a phased development.”
Wells said people who have come to drop-in hearings or responded to survey have been mostly positive.
“The first one at town hall, we had 50 on Aug. 9,” he said. “That one was pretty positive. I would say anywhere from two-third to three-quarters positive, in support of it. The meeting at the fire station, we had 20 people attend and that was more 50-50. I think after that time we started seeing some of the hard copy survey come in a little bit more negative than what we’d seen before but overall it’s still more positive than negative, for sure.”

Divide is clear

The divide is clear and, as always, traceable to whose ox is gored.
“I think that the assessment is that people in the southern area of town — that’s where they live, it’s where their houses are, it’s where their driveways are — it’s understandable for there to be a little more concerned, as opposed to the north area of town,” Wells said. “North of 191, there’s only one residential driveway all the way up to the county line. It’s commercial driveways and street intersections.”
Joe Sanders, a retired engineer and avid bicyclist who advocates for greenways and bike lanes, acknowledges that a greenway will always draw some opposition.
“You’re always going to have somebody who it’s going to be affected negatively,” he said. “The person who now has to stop at the end of their driveway because there’s a walker or bicyclist. But that’s a very tiny, very small minority. If we look at our entire system of transportation from a very high level, there’s not a single road or single sidewalk in this country that was built on property that wasn’t at some time taken from a landowner because it was for the greater good of society.”
Councilman Roger Snyder said he wants to see more detail and what he described as a “weighted” result from his constituents.
“What I’m interested in is what the Mills River residents said on the survey,” he said. “What I perceive is the first meeting in January he’s going to give the council the results of those surveys. I’d like to see what the Mills River residents say, because basically it’s their property and then see what kind of comments everybody else said.”
That tabulation is being done now, Wells said, and will be complete by the time he guides the council through its 2018 “visioning” session to set priorities and draft a budget.
State and federal funders of greenways require a 20 percent local match, versus none for roadwork. Both Snyder and Meadows said they might rather spend town tax dollars on park improvements.
“Let’s look not only at next year budget. Let’s look at three or four years down the road at the park,” Snyder said. “We’ve got plenty of room to expand so let’s make the best decision we can with the information that we’ve got.”
If the Town Council agrees to move forward on the N.C. 280 greenway, the next question is where to start. There is some support for starting at Westfeldt Park and working south. But that would require a new bridge over the French Broad River to a new county park that’s in the works on donated land. The bridge figures to a complicated, expensive and time-consuming proposition.
“To me, it’s looking at the low-hanging fruit, to start at (N.C.) 191” near the old Food Lion store, Wells said. “Plus that can immediately tie into 191 when that widening project starts and they have bike lanes. Working from the south down I think is open, too, if that’s what the consensus agrees on.”
A preliminary estimate for engineering work from N.C. 191 to North Mills River Road was $75,000, Wells said. The town’s 20 percent match would be $15,000.


Separate multiuse path


Sanders did not dispute that bike lanes on Kanuga Road bike lanes were a low priority.
“No, I’m not in favor of 3-foot bike lanes that are going to be alongside cars that are doing 45 mph,” he said. (According to NCDOT plans they’re 4 feet.) “What I am in favor of is a separated multi-use path. Who are we trying to attract? Are we trying to attract people that maybe can’t afford a car, people that live close enough that a bike would be a very valuable form of transportation or those people that would like to get out there?
“On Kanuga, they were going to widen the road, (add a) 3-foot bike lane, a curb-gutter, a buffer and then sidewalks,” he said. “For that much space, let’s just put a multiuse path on one side of the road and that would have solved everything.”

(Elected leaders also support the idea, suggesting a Mud Creek greenway as a compromise.)

Sanders sees the current moment as pivotal for those who are trying to advocate for transportation projects that add more than motor vehicle travel lanes.
“If we’re not going to raise the public consciousness of the need for these additional facilities, what’s going to happen when we try to negotiate for the Ecusta Trail or the Oklawaha Greenway?” he said. “Are we going to let public outcry kill things that in every respect make sense? And when I say every respect, you can reference the North Carolina Department of Transportation bicycle and pedestrian plan. It’s based upon health, safety, mobility, economy and the environment. And they have hard data that says biking and walking facilities address every one of these in ultra-positive manner.”