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The North Carolina Board of Transportation on Thursday awarded a $6.4 million grant toward the purchase of the 19-mile rail corridor for the long-planned Ecusta Trail, a major step in making the greenway a reality.

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The state board authorized the allocation of federal money, which must be matched by $1.6 million locally. The local match could come from a variety of sources, said state Rep. Chuck McGrady, who was among a handful of people working feverishly over the past few weeks to make sure that the Ecusta Trail submitted a grant application.

The Friends of the Ecusta Trail and Conserving Carolina worked to complete the application while McGrady notified local elected officials that the state could approve the funding.

"Those dollars (to match the state grant) are likely available through the TDA (Tourism Development Authority) and other sources," McGrady said. "The Friends of Ecusta Trail and the Henderson County TDA have shown a willingness given the economic impact to be engaged."

Conserving Carolina applied for the grant, with help from the Friends of the Ecusta Trail, because "having to go through four or five local governments to try to put something together quickly" would have been unwieldy, McGrady said. "It'll take a while," to move forward. "It'll be months." The rail corridor, which runs from Hendersonville to Brevard and runs through Laurel Park, Horse Shoe, Etowah and Brevard, has to be surveyed. Under state law, the state and local government can't pay more than fair market value for the land.

The proposed greenway will run from Kanuga Road in Hendersonville to the old Ecusta plant property in Brevard, between Ecusta Road and Old Hendersonville Highway. The rail line has been inactive since the Ecusta cigarette paper plant closed its doors in 2002. The greenway would not include one mile of the rail line from a point near the Hendersonville City Operations Center to Kanuga Road. Earlier this year, Blue Ridge Southern Railroad successfully applied to have that section of the line reactivated for service. The company intends to use this section to “switch” rail cars that are stored along its rail line that runs along Spartanburg Highway through East Flat Rock.

McGrady said he had made known the community's interest in state help in acquiring the rail corridor. Then, recently, the NCDOT notified him that, "Guess what, we have found millions of dollars in federal money that could be used for the acquisition of the Ecusta Trail line."

McGrady said county commissioners and city council members have been supportive of the plan.

"It's about getting local government working together and that doesn't always happen," he said. County Commission Chair Grady Hawkins told him "we can't afford not to apply for this grant. With that much money, you could do the whole acquisition."

The state board on Thursday also approved $4.1 million for an 11.2-mile rail trail in Shelby and $4.4 million for a 3.4-mile greenway extension in Greensboro.

Chris Burns, a founding member of the Friends of Ecusta Trail, said he was floored to hear about the possibility because "for 10 years now I've been told, including by DOT, that there is no money to purchase land." Burns and Conserving Carolina had to move quickly to complete the application; the state had to notify the Federal Highway Administration that it was seeking the money by the end of the federal fiscal year, Sept. 30.

"We hope if it moves to the point of taking it further we'll be partnering with Conserving Carolina" as the lead, Burns said. The land conservancy was the right partner for the application because of its experience and record in buying and conserving land for passive recreation. "It just all came together," he said.

The parties are working now on hiring an appraiser for the complex job of setting a market value for a 19-mile railroad track that crosses cities, residential areas, farmland and industrial land. The Friends hopes to have the appraisal completed by the end of the year. "And then we'll move forward and sit back down with Watco (the railroad owner) and go from there," he said. "Watco has always been open and honest with us and we have been open and honest with them."

Asked whether this was the biggest step ever for greenways in Henderson County, Burns said it could turn out that way, if things fall in place. But he cautioned that the land appraisal, local match, complex federal railbanking process and negotiations with the Watco remain on the to do list.

"I wish I could go jump from the rooftop and say 'wow!' but we've still got some work to do," he said.

Railbanking is a voluntary agreement spelled out under federal law between a railroad company and a trail agency to use an out-of-service rail corridor as a trail until a railroad might need the corridor again for rail service, the Friends of Ecusta Trail said in a news release. Because a railbanked corridor is not considered abandoned, it can be sold, leased or donated to a trail manager. The railbanking provisions of the National Trails System Act as adopted by Congress in 1983 have preserved more than 4,400 miles of rail corridors in 33 states that would otherwise have been abandoned and possibly lost forever as a means of future rail service and economic development. 

Founded in 2009 as a volunteer organization to study, educate and advocate for the acquisition and development of the proposed Ecusta Trail, the Friends of the Ecusta Trail has won trail endorsements from the cities of Brevard and Hendersonville, the town of Laurel Park and the Henderson County Board of Commissioners in addition to nearly 50 other non-profits and organizations throughout Western North Carolina.

A local land trust dedicated to protecting land and water, promoting good stewardship and creating opportunities for people to enjoy nature, Conserving Carolina has a 30-year history of protecting land and water resources in Henderson, Transylvania, Polk and neighboring counties.