Few endorse NCDOT’s $13 million ‘preferred alternative’
A wide range of opinions was still on display Tuesday at the NCDOT's public hearing on improvements to Needmore Road, but few spoke out in support of the preferred alternative which the Department of Transportation has been pushing since the first public hearing held in September in Swain County.
Lucy Smarr of Meadows Road in the Oak Grove community of Franklin spoke of the history of Needmore and its delicate ecology and said she would prefer the road be left alone, the DOT “nobuild” alternative called “Alternative A.”
On the other hand, Ron Kirkland, a native of the Needmore area, said he supported widening and paving the road as outlined in DOT's “Alternative E,” adding that he did not believe widening the road would harm the river and that the picturesque tree canopy that would be lost to the project would eventually grow back.
Most who spoke on Tuesday, however, fell somewhere between those two extremes. As Paul Carlson, noted most speakers supported some alternative that addressed necessary improvements to Needmore Road, perhaps paving the existing road or treating it with special bonding agents to reduce erosion and sedimentation.
“The reason Alternative E really does not seem legitimate is there was no local input,” said Carlson, who is the Executive Director of the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee (LTLT). Carlson encouraged the DOT to listen to the residents of Macon and Swain county who live along or near Needmore Road. “I think that the alternative that needs to come forward needs to have folks that live in the Needmore ... really close to the table,” he said.
The road improvement alternatives being discussed at the hearing concern a section of Needmore Road that lies within a 4,500 acre tract of protected game land straddling the border of Macon and Swain counties. Thirteen federally-listed species have been recorded within the Needmore tract, which is also an important wildlife corridor into the Nantahala Forest.
In 2004, the state purchased the Needmore tract from Duke Power to be preserved as game land after an intensive lobbying effort from citizens, local government and various conservation groups had put the tract at the top of the state's conservation priority list. The $19 million used to purchase the tract included a mix of private and public funds, including $7.5 million from the NCDOT itself, through the state's Ecosystem Enhancement Program.
The alternative currently being recommended by the agency entails a $13.1 million improvement project that will widen and pave the entire 3.3 mile section of the road from the intersection at Tellico Road in Macon County to where the pavement begins in Swain County. According to NCDOT Division Engineer Joel Setzer, Alternative E meets only the minimum standards recommended by the state’s engineering guidelines.
Many residents and conservationists, who had three minutes to speak, feel this alternative is the most invasive and potentially damaging to the natural environment and beauty of the road. One particular concern is the fact that the preferred alternative proposes to cut through several areas of acidic rock which could damage the delicate ecosystem of the river and streams in the area. In addition, many believe that a paved road will inevitably increase traffic and driving speeds on the road, causing increased safety risks and noise pollution without benefitting those who use the river for recreation.
On the other hand, almost everyone agrees that some improvements are long over due. There are numerous places along the road too narrow for two cars to pass. The wind blows dust off the road and into the river, coating the rocks and plant life on its banks. When the river rises, the road is often washed out, leaving deep ruts and sometimes even becoming impassable. Rain washes tons of silt into the river every year.
But even the people who would like to see some type of improvement to the road do not necessarily support Alternative E. In September, the DOT received a petition signed by 772 individuals in support of some type of paving on Needmore Road. However, the petitioners did not endorse any of the specific alternatives that are currently under consideration by the DOT.
Similarly, many speakers at Tuesday's hearing, like Jason Love of Otto, thought paving the road in place without widening it (known as Alternative C) would be a reasonable compromise. Love, who said he often goes fishing and canoeing in the Little Tennessee River there, noted that roads can both link and fragment communities, and he encouraged the DOT to consider the input from those in the community who use the river for recreation and enjoyment.
Many at the hearing also questioned the price tag. Olga Pader of Franklin, who noted that Alternative E would cost approximately $4 million per mile of road, asked if that is was really a wise use of taxpayers’ money.
Mike Breedlove, one of the many Breedloves who spoke, told those in attendance that he was the fifth generation in his family who could trace their roots to Needmore. “I don’t have to tell you what I think about it,” he said. “We love it.” Breedlove said that he believed the less invasive paving alternatives would both address the legitimate needs of commuters and residents in the area while preserving its natural environment and beauty.
Aside from residents and conservationists, several representatives from local government, including four members of the Macon County Board of Commissioners, attended the hearing. Originally the DOT was only going to hold one hearing in Swain County but scheduled the second one in Cowee after the board of commissioners passed a resolution in September requesting that they hold one in Macon County too.
Jamille Robbins, of the DOT's Public Involvement and Community Studies Department, who moderated the hearing, told those at the hearing that public participation would be critical to the success of the project. He noted that written comments on the project will be accepted until Feb. 9.
NCDOT Human Environment Unit
1598 Mail Service Center
Raleigh, N.C. 27699-15988
Photos by Christopher Carpenter