After several months of discussion and two public hearings on the issue, the Macon County Board of Commissioners has asked the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) to consider a compromise on its planned improvements of Needmore Road. Last week the board unanimously passed a resolution indicating its support of a compromise alternative to the controversial $13 million option the NCDOT has put forward as its “preferred” option.
The improvements to Needmore Road – a picturesque, gravel road that runs from Macon to Swain County along the Little Tennessee River through a 4,500 acre tract of preserved game land – have been the source of much controversy since NCDOT began its public input process on the project last summer. The department has outlined five basic alternatives for the road, from alternative A (do nothing) to its preferred alternative E: widening and paving the road to upgrade it to secondary road standards at an estimated cost of more than $13 million.
Public opinion on the project has been divided, with some speaking out in favor of alternative E while others have pleaded to just leave the scenic throughway alone. Numerous conservation groups have pointed out that the department’s preferred alternative is the most invasive and potentially damaging to the corridor, an ecologically delicate area home to several endangered and threatened species.
The proposal put forward by the board most closely resembles what is known as alternative C, NCDOT’s pave-in-place alternative that would leave the road’s footprint through the valley largely as it is, with minimum lane widths both ways, an 18-foot maximum width. The estimated cost of $5 million for this alternative includes full hot asphalt surfacing, however the resolution passed by the board recommends using a Bituminous Surface Treatment (BST) at a cost significantly less than the hot asphalt surfacing that the department had planned for alternative C. The resolution also calls for other modifications to alternative C, including river access and guard rails at specific locations.
Commissioner Kevin Corbin said on Tuesday that the board’s recommendation represents the compromise that best addresses the concerns of everyone. “I think it’s a winwin,” said Corbin. He noted that while minimizing the aesthetic and environmental impact to the area, the board’s recommendation creates a road that can be easily maintained, meets minimum safety standards, provides improved traction and cuts down on erosion and dust that currently impacts the river.
A resolution similar to Macon County’s has subsequently been passed by the Swain County Board of Commissioners. According to Commissioner Ronnie Beale, members of the board and the county manager met with Swain County officials to draft the resolution. Two-thirds of the stretch of Needmore Road to be improved lies in Swain County.
“We want a safe road, and we want a road that cuts down on erosion,” said Beale, “but we don’t want to destroy that area. We feel we could really do less and have just as good of a road and save a lot of money.”
Corbin agreed that a major consideration for him was the cost-savings of the recommendation, but he also noted that he and other commissioners consulted with local conservation groups in developing the resolution, such as the Franklin-based Little Tennessee Watershed Association which has expressed its support for the resolution.
“It’s a recommendation on our part,” Corbin said. “We felt like it was our place to weigh in on this issue, even though we don’t have any direct authority.”
NCDOT Division 14 engineer, Joel Setzer, noted that the department has been collecting public input for several months on the project, but said that the input from elected officials was welcomed. “The department recognizes that the county commissioners are elected to represent the citizens,” he said. “We appreciate the commissioners getting involved and taking a position on this polarized issue. It helps us to better gauge what the citizens want.”
Setzer said that in making its final decision, the department will review all alternatives, consider public input and avoidance of negative environmental impacts. A final decision on the project is not anticipated until June or July.
Comprehensive plan to be presented at continuation meeting
The April 12 commissioners meeting was recessed until April 26, at 6 p.m., for the purpose of hearing a presentation of the county’s comprehensive plan. The county planning board will soon complete a final draft of the 25-year land use and future growth plan which has been in development for more than a year. The plan is intended to offer county officials guidelines for future policies on land use and development. The final draft will be reviewed by the planning board at its next meeting, scheduled for Thursday, April 21, at 5 p.m. at the Macon County Health Department.
Hearing set for historic McCoy Bridge
After putting the project on the back burner for more than a year, the NCDOT is again considering a plan to replace a historic onelane, truss bridge on Rose Creek Road that crosses the Little Tennessee River in Macon County’s Oak Grove community.
A public hearing regarding alternatives for replacing the bridge is scheduled for Monday, April 25, from 6 to 8 p.m. in the gymnasium of Cowee Elementary School. The public hearing will be conducted as a question and answer session with a moderator and panel of NCDOT and Federal Highway Administration representatives. Maps displaying the bridge replacement alternatives will be available prior to the public hearing from 5 to 6 p.m.
The bridge, built in 1960 and one of the few remaining truss structures in the state, is considered by many a piece of Macon County history. At a public hearing in 2009, many residents expressed a desire to see the old bridge restored, an alternative that was not being considered at the time. At the time, the DOT was recommending replacement with a 28-foot wide, two lane concrete slab bridge.
NCDOT is now proposing replacement of the existing bridge with a new bridge located downstream from the current location. The proposed improvements will require additional right of way. This public hearing will be the final opportunity for the public to ask questions and state comments before an alternative for replacing the bridge is chosen.