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Flat Rock takes 'big first step' to kill road job

Carrying out what they called the will of the voters in the Nov. 5 election, four members of the Flat Rock Village Council pushed through a resolution on Thursday requesting that the NCDOT kill the Highland Lake Road project.


The vote became the first order of business after Nick Weedman was sworn in as mayor and Anne Coletta, Tom Carpenter and David Dethero were seated as new council members. The three new council members ran as a slate opposing the Highland Lake widening, a project the Village Council endorsed in a 5-1 vote in 2018, with Weedman voting no.

"I think it's a big first step," Coletta, who founded a political action committee that supported the winning slate, said after the meeting.

The next step would take place next month at the French Broad Metropolitan Planning Organization, which approves NCDOT projects for the region that includes Henderson County. If the French Broad MPO agrees to kill the widening, the final nail in the coffin would be hammered by the N.C. Board of Transportation.

Coletta said that Brian Burch, the chief NCDOT engineer for the Division 14, had asked her to send the resolution to the MPO so the matter could be included on the board's Jan. 23 agenda.

Board members who opposed the resolution to kill the project said the road is hazardous, as shown by the number of crashes.

"There were 91 reported vehicle crashes along North Highland Lake Road from 2011 to 2016," Council member Sheryl Jamerson said. "There were three accidents in the last quarter of 2017 and a hit and run in February of 2018 that involved a bicyclist who suffered a broken leg. Left turn movement accounted for 37% of the accidents."

But Coletta countered that a crash-by-crash analysis of the DOT statistics showed that "the vast majority took place east of the railroad tracks" and showed that there were no left turn accidents in the village of Flat Rock. "In terms of safety, it is a very safe road," she said.

Carpenter said that since September 2017 he had participated in more than 80 meetings and conference calls about the project, including 14 with NCDOT engineers. "Every time we had contact with DOT, we asked the same question: How do they rate this road?" On safety and on traffic volume, it rated 0 for safety on a scale of 0-5, with 5 being the least safe; and 0 out of 5 on traffic volume, because it's only at 30% of capacity.

"The taking of property by emiment domain for a road project that is not needed in my opinion is immoral and an abuse of government power," Carpenter said. Many supporters of the project want it because it includes a paved greenway from Greenville Highway and through the park. But the idea of extending the greenway from the park to the Carl Sandburg site appears to be impractical and undoable, he said. Removing 200 trees for the road project and greenway is not worth it, he added, and Pinecrest Presbyterian Church would be especially harmed if its line of evergreens were to be chainsawed.

"They planted those trees as a gift to the people of Flat Rock and now they’re a memorial to people that are no longer with us," he said.

David Dethero said the majority vote reflects the will of the voters.

"The main reason they voted for us is to kill this project," he said. "I am going to vote to kill the Highland Lake Road project."

Jamerson said the NCDOT's process of ranking projects pushed the Highland Lake Road high on the funding list.

"The claim that  NCDOT considers this project to be unnecessary is not true," she said. "I have discussed the State’s evaluation of the project with Steve Williams, Planning Engineer, Division 14, NCDOT. In Henderson County, at the Division Needs funding tier, the congestion score placed the Highland Lake Road project 8th out of 19 projects. The safety score placed the project fourth out of 19 projects."

Across the 10-county Division 14, the project ranked 15th out of 88 projects, she said.

"As an accountant and the council member charged with financial oversight, I find it very disturbing that the Council would vote to walk away from the North Carolina’s one million dollar investment in the road project to date," she said. "That would be both short-sighted from a planning standpoint, and deeply wasteful of taxpayer money. I cannot, and will not, be part of any decision that is such a clear and unnecessary waste of taxpayer money."

The characterization of the election result as a mandate to kill the project is an exaggeration that fails to account for considerable support for the safety improvement, Council member Paige Posey said.

"Far from being a mandate, I think the election results show that Flat Rock is evenly divided between those that support and those that oppose the road," she said. "The election results were very close with just 128 votes (in a Village of 3,400 residents) separating the pro-road and anti-road candidates.

"I would also remind everyone that the Village Council has already voted in favor of the road project once on a 5-1 vote. It is not accurate nor fair to characterize the Village of Flat Rock as being in uniform opposition to the road. The even split in public opinion was further confirmed by NC DOT’s request for public comment on the project.  In the fall of 2017 after two public information sessions, NCDOT asked for resident input. The results indicated an almost even split in opinion," with 89 in favor of improvement in some form and 97 opposed to some pieces of it but only 68 saying "no no no to everything."

"It is always difficult to garner broad public support any road construction project, so a relatively even split in the recent vote and in the public comments indicates to me that there is a significant contingent of folks in Flat Rock who see the benefits of sensible improvements to our road infrastructure," she said.