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Wednesday, 27 May 2009 17:29

River park concept centers on dam, throws Duke for a loop

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Jackson County commissioners got their first look last week at a master plan for a Dillsboro river park — a plan that prominently features the controversial dam — on the same night they spent nearly three hours in closed session discussing their legal fight with Duke Power over the fate of the dam.

Jackson County and Duke Energy have been locked in a lengthy battle over the dam. Duke wants to demolish it and county leaders want to save it.

The county contracted with Equinox Environmental of Asheville to develop a conceptual design for a park along the river in Dillsboro. The inclusion of the dam and powerhouse as a focal point for the river park surprised some, however, including Commissioner Tom Massie. Massie, who has unsuccessfully prodded the others commissioner to give up in their fight against Duke, seemed perplexed over why the dam appears as a focal point when its demolition is all but imminent

“I’d like to say that Equinox Environmental does wonderful work, and that this is a good plan,” said Massie after a presentation by landscape architect Dena Shelley of Equinox. “But I guess, Mr. Chairman, I’m missing something here. Does this mean that Duke has given in to Jackson County and said the dam could stay?”

Commissioner Chairman Brian McMahan said the park could be built with or without the dam, and Equinox’s Shelley concurred with McMahan.

“We had in mind that the plan could work with or without the dam,” Shelley said.

The park, if built, would radically change the riverfront on both sides of the Tuckasegee in and around Dillsboro. The conceptual design includes river put-ins for boaters, river viewing and fishing areas, parks on both sides of the river connected by a river walk, plus an extended greenway. It was designed to entice anglers, boaters and pedestrians, and would be tied into downtown Dillsboro with footpaths and signage.

“The idea was to create a destination for recreation and tourism in Dillsboro,” said Shelley.

Commissioner Joe Cowan said he hadn’t had time to study the plans, but on first glance he was impressed.

The plan even incorporated turning the old powerhouse it into a craft center or some other retail business and had dam viewing areas.

Following the presentation, commissioners went into closed session to discuss their legal battle with Duke over the Dillsboro dam. Tearing down the dam would serve as the centerpiece of Duke’s environmental mitigation, required to offset the impacts of its other hydropower operations in the region.

Jackson County, however, wants to keep the dam and force Duke to perform other mitigation instead, such as an environmental trust fund. While Jackson has lost several appeals against Duke, the county’s attorney on the issue claimed Jackson held the ultimate trump card: condemning the dam with the power of imminent domain and taking it over to operate as a source of green power. That idea appeared to die last summer, however.

The closed session last week (May 18) lasted until after 11 p.m. but no action was taken afterward. Among those attending the closed session was Gary Miller, a lawyer who aided Dillsboro Inn owner TJ Walker in his opposition to Duke.

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