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LIGHTNING EDITORIAL: How many roads must a town turn down?

A new majority on the Flat Rock Village Council confronts its campaign pledge to stop the Highland Lake Road improvement project when new leaders take the oath of office on Dec. 12.

The anti-widening candidates rode their Big Yellow Taxi to electoral victory on Nov. 5, tilting the balance of power from 5-1 in favor of the project to 4-3 against it. Anne Coletta, the former council member, morphed the Cultural Landscape Group: Flat Rock into a political action committee and a strong campaign messaging machine. Along with David Dethero and Tom Carpenter and new Mayor Nick Weedman, the BYT faction has the votes to ask the state to drop the project.
The proposition raises several questions. The voters have spoken, yes, and we’re strong believers that the voters in general are right, whether the losing side likes the verdict or not. The idea that road projects should be decided by plebiscite is tougher one to answer. After all, in 2015 and 2017, Flat Rock voters elected the five council members who voted in June 2018 to endorse the NCDOT project. Note that we said endorse, and not authorize, approve or permit the road work. Highland Lake Road is a state road in Flat Rock, not a local road owned and maintained by the village.
The example of the Board of Commissioners voting to scrap the Balfour Parkway, which we said at the time set a harmful precedent, is the chicken come home to roost. If the Board of Commissioners can do it, one might ask, why can’t the Village of Flat Rock? The state had spent a lot of money on design and engineering of the proposed parkway, which had been an agreed-upon priority countywide for a generation before a popular uprising killed it. But commissioners by themselves did not kill the parkway. Only the French Broad MPO and ultimately the state Board of Transportation have that power.
Although far smaller in magnitude, the Highland Lake Road project is much further along. Design is all but finished, a design, which, incidentally, includes more than a dozen concessions that the Village Council negotiated to make the finished product less disruptive. More than half the right-of-way has been acquired. Mayor Bob Staton estimates that the state has spent more than $1 million on design, engineering and land acquisition.
The county Transportation Advisory Committee and the French Broad MPO have endorsed the project multiple times, as has the Hendersonville City Council. (The Spartanburg Highway end of the road is in the city.) We don’t know what will happen if the Village Council votes formally to reverse the 2018 endorsement and the TAC and MPO and — we hope — the Hendersonville City Council and Henderson County commissioners reiterate their support for it. A big consideration hanging in the balance is our county’s reputation for being impossible to deal with when it comes to state road improvements. To the victors go the spoils, and in this case the spoils is we are trying to throw away a second significant road improvement, one that would result in a handsome new gateway to Flat Rock, a greenway and new park entrance.
Opponents rode the Big Yellow Taxi to victory. Perhaps proponents of reasonable and beneficial highway improvements could appropriate another Sixties protest anthem to describe the county’s future: “How many roads must a town turn down/Before they’re forever banned?”