The parking crunch at Jackson County’s new library in Sylva has largely eased, thanks to a new sidewalk that allows employees and exercise-minded readers to park farther away and walk safely.
The library opened earlier this summer. It is housed in a large addition to the newly renovated historic courthouse that dominates Sylva from its strategic position on a hill above town. The new library has been the toast of the town, generally lauded except for a spate of complaints about a shortage of parking spaces within the cramped footprint where it was built.
Also helping the parking cause are library and county workers, who are now officially doing what many were opting to do previously out of courtesy alone — parking away from the library to free-up as many parking spaces for patrons as possible.
“No one has complained directly to me lately about how there is ‘no parking’ at the library,” head Librarian Dottie Brunette said late last week.
The library employees are stashing their cars at Bicentennial Park below the building, and hoofing it up Keener Street via a new sidewalk the town helped build. The county also has worked to improve the access from the nearby 10-acre Mark Watson Park, located on west Main Street, where library parking is available to those willing to walk up a set of stairs.
“I didn’t have any trouble finding a parking space,” said Laura Wright, a visitor from Virginia who drove to the library as a scenic destination at the behest of local tourism officials. “And, the courthouse is lovely.”
Comments by Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe about a rape victim published in the weekly Cashiers newspaper two weeks ago have sparked protests from local and state groups that combat sexual violence, as well as individuals from the Cashiers community.
The news article, printed under the banner headline “Alleged sexual assault reported,” appeared in the Aug. 24 edition of the Cashiers Crossroads Chronicle. It included a blow-by-blow account, attributed to the sheriff, of the rape victim’s long evening of barhopping and heavy drinking in the hours leading up to two men following her home and breaking into her house. The 34-year-old woman told deputies one man raped her while the other waited for him to complete the act.
Critics have reacted angrily to the tone of Ashe’s comments. They said the sheriff seemed to cast doubt on the truthfulness of the woman’s rape claim. The news article also emphasized that several hours passed before the woman reported being attacked and discussed, at length, her level of alcohol intake that night.
“It painted the picture of someone who is lying, or who was to blame for anything that happened,” said Monika Hostler, executive director of the N.C. Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “Now in Jackson County, if I’m a woman and I’ve been drinking or gone to the bar and been sexually assaulted, I know what’s going to happen if I report it.”
Ashe said he’d provided the Chronicle’s reporter a factual recounting as the victim relayed the situation to law enforcement. After the sheriff indicated that he had not read the article — “I know what I said, I don’t know what they printed” — a reporter for The Smoky Mountain News read the article from the Cashier’s paper, in its entirety, aloud to him during the course of a cell-phone interview late last week.
Ashe was asked whether he wanted to correct any inaccuracies or misquotes in the newspaper’s report. The sheriff neither disputed the accuracy of the article nor asserted that he’d been misquoted. Kelly Donaldson, editor of the Cashiers Crossroads Chronicle, declined to comment, which is the policy of the newspaper’s parent company, Community Newspapers Inc. of Athens, Ga.
Ashe emphasized that he did not intend to indicate that the woman’s barhopping brought on the sexual assault. A suspect, Efrai Ubera Morales, 30, of an Amethyst Drive, Cashiers, address, was arrested 16 days after the attack on a charge of first-degree rape.
“I’m not saying (the victim) went out and asked to get raped, but we can’t change the facts from what she told us,” Ashe said. “That’s the truthful statement from the victim.”
Hostler and other critics, however, said Jackson County’s top law enforcement leader and the way the newspaper article was framed crossed serious moral and ethical boundaries. In the end, according to Hostler’s assessment, an innocent victim appeared on the front page of her local, hometown newspaper (circulation 3,200) in substance, at least, judged responsible for a sexual assault.
The woman was not identified by name in the Cashiers Crossroads Chronicle’s report, which is standard practice by most news organizations when reporting on sexual assaults. But in that small community in southern Jackson County, who she is and where she lives rapidly became public knowledge.
The article and the sheriff’s comments outraged Mary-Allyson Henson of Cashiers. She blames both Ashe and the newspaper equally for heaping further abuse on a woman who’d suffered through a sexual assault.
“There are no circumstances that would justify a woman being violated, period,” said Henson.
In fact, however, Henson said the victim was a friend who rarely goes out, and who had simply wanted to enjoy the evening celebrating another friend’s birthday.
Almost from the beginning of the news article, the Cashiers Crossroads Chronicle focused on the woman’s actions that night.
“Though the assault occurred at the home, Sheriff Jimmy Ashe said that the night consisted of trips to multiple bars, which may or may not have been where the perpetrators encountered the victim,” the Chronicle’s article stated in the first paragraph.
The newspaper and sheriff also elected to tag the woman’s report an “alleged” sexual assault.
“It actually started at an individual’s house consuming alcohol,” Ashe was quoted as saying. “From there, the victim went to the Sapphire Mountain Brewing Company, and from the brewing company it went to the Gamekeeper where a birthday party was going on for one of her friends. There was continued consumption of alcohol during that course.”
When the article was published, detectives were hoping to locate surveillance video that would reveal the suspect’s identity, which is perhaps why Ashe elaborated on the victim’s schedule that night. He did not say that, however. Ashe did defend the use of the word “alleged.”
“It is ‘alleged’ until we can prove that it happened,” Ashe told The Smoky Mountain News. He does not apparently agree that the use of the word “alleged,” when attached in this manner to a victim’s report of sexual assault, might cast doubts on whether law enforcement believed the woman involved.
Generally, newspapers use the word “alleged” when referring to someone charged with a crime. A suspect can allegedly commit murder, but the murder itself is not alleged. The murder happened. The only uncertainty is who did it. If arson was committed, or a theft occurred, those crimes are not alleged. They occurred and are treated as facts. A suspect later charged with the crime allegedly committed it until a court of law proves them guilty.
Ashe, via the Cashiers newspaper, then described the actual rape.
“She said that two Hispanic males entered her home,” Ashe told the Chronicle. “She was not sure how they got into the home; there was no forced entry. One of the Hispanic males forced her to the floor and had sexual intercourse with her in the bathroom area. … She was able to send a message from her cell phone to the friend, whose residence she was at previously, and said something to the effect that she was being assaulted.”
The newspaper reporter then wrote: “According to Ashe, it was not until the following morning when one of the victim’s friends convinced her to go to the hospital for a rape kit, around 6 a.m., that the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office was contacted in regards to the assault.
The article then quoted Ashe directly as saying: “’During his whole time, no one had contacted law enforcement: not when she was being followed, not when the assault occurred, not after she had a conversation with her friend on the phone who she spoke to. During none of this time had any law enforcement been contacted. It wasn’t until she had a female friend who she was talking to convince her that next morning around 6 a.m. that she (needed) to go to the hospital and be checked.’”
Later in the newspaper article, Ashe is quoted as saying the victim provided “very vague descriptions,” and that she knew one of the Hispanic males involved went by the alias or nickname of “Drug Boy.”
Brent Kinser, president of REACH of Jackson County’s board of directors, said in an email interview with the The Smoky Mountain News that he wasn’t “sure in whom I am more disappointed: the sheriff, Mr. Ashe, who made the statements, or the writer … who presented them in such a clearly accusatory way.”
REACH is a nonprofit that works to help victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
“Surely neither of these good men intended to imply that this victim had it coming to her, and yet the article reads in such a way that lends itself to precisely that interpretation. The only question here is the guilt or innocence of the perpetrators of this crime,” Kinser wrote. “The victim is only that, a victim, whether she decided to enjoy herself with friends at one location, or several, alcohol present or not. It is indeed painful to see yet another case of sexual violence in which a victim, in addition to all else, will now have to find some way to forgive herself, since according to this article, she behaved in such a way to invite the assault.”
Kim Roberts-Fer, executive director of REACH, said that “victim blaming is definitely the issue here.”
“It was reported that there were trips to multiple bars, with extensive information on alcohol consumption,” Roberts-Fer said. “It leads one to believe that if you consume alcohol you deserve or can expect to be raped. Not only is this information irrelevant, it actually is giving false information to the public, by implying that if you don’t consume alcohol you can somehow avoid being raped. This is not true — anyone can be raped, under any circumstance, and the one responsible for the rape is, very simply, the rapist.”
Terrifying, exciting and kind-of liberating. That’s how Tom Scheve describes the inaugural experience of telling jokes on stage. And usually, he says, you either get it out of your system then and there, or the performance bug gets you.
“We’re trying to develop and encourage people who do it for the first time and try and see who’s going to catch the bug,” says Scheve, which is part of why he’s teamed up with a local comedian who styles himself Shucky Blue and No Name Sports Pub in Sylva to start an open mic comedy night.
Now, for the budding humorist who doesn’t want to trek to Asheville, there’s a local evening where they can test out their best cracks.
The show is scheduled every Monday night, and beginners to seasoned pros are welcome on the stage, says Scheve. The regular performers, in fact, were one of the biggest factors in the night’s genesis.
“Performers that have been doing it for a while, they want to get on stage every night,” says Scheve, and he’s one of those guys. “I try to perform as much as I can and also build as much stage time as possible for regional performers. And there wasn’t anything close to me on Monday night. The closest one is in Greenville.”
With this new night, he’s hoping to cultivate something of a little comedy scene in Western North Carolina, like the one that gave him his start in Asheville.
That town, he says, now has a pretty vibrant comedy scene, even hosting an annual comedy festival with the appropriately tongue-in-cheek moniker, Laugh Your Asheville Off.
But it started, he says, with a night called Tomato Tuesday, where guests were given tomatoes to throw at a gong when they wanted you of stage.
Yes, it sounds pretty brutal. But Scheve says it was exactly what he was looking for.
Sylva’s evening of laughter may not be quite as caustic, but do expect it to be unexpected.
“This is an open mic, which means no promises, no expectations and it’ll be basically whoever decides to show up that night,” says Scheve. But he kind-of likes it that way, and the impromptu nature of an open mic offers benefits to performers and patrons alike, he says.
For the novices, it can be a try-before-you-buy experience. Not sure if you can hack comedy with a live audience? Then try it on stage for one minute, two minutes. It’s an open mic, so no one will commit you to a longer, more daunting time slot.
For the comedy consumer, variety is the selling point of nights like this.
“It’s just really fun because you really don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Scheve. “If you really hate it, if you wait a few minutes, somebody else is going to be on stage.”
In addition to being a performer, Scheve also writes the Asheville Disclaimer, a satirical column in the weekly Mountain Xpress. Plus, he has experience running shows. He’s at the helm of a similar comedy evening on Wednesdays in Asheville.
And part of making them a success, he knows, is having a good venue on board.
No Name was perfect in that sense. It was actually looking for some help with a comedy evening, and with some assistance from the sometimes-reliable Craigslist, got matched up with Scheve.
Though it’s only been on its feet for a mere two weeks, Scheve hopes that just the night’s existence will entice closet comedians onto the stage, giving them a community where they can hone and cultivate their skills.
“I want it to be a vehicle that kind-of nurtures and develops a little comedy scene west of Asheville,” says Scheve. “The people that want to perform comedy are out there, and they’ve been thinking about it and looking for a chance. I‘m hoping that they’ll come out and give it a try.”
What: No Name Comedy Night
Where: No Name Pub, 1070 Skyland Drive, Sylva
When: 8 p.m. every Monday
What else: Call 828.216.2331 for more information
Western Carolina University, eager to broadcast Catamount sports and other school-based programming to a larger audience than it can currently reach, is fighting The Canary Coalition for rights to a new FM radio station.
The station could reach up to three states once on the air, depending on which Jackson County mountaintop the transmitter is located, according to regional radio experts.
WCU’s current radio station, WWCU 90.5 FM, on a good day is heard roughly from Sylva to parts of Buncombe County. The signal is spotty at best, however.
WWCU 90.5 FM currently reaches about 43,627 people. Meanwhile, 73,800 people potentially could hear the new FM radio station, according to Federal Communications Commission filings.
Asheville-based public radio station WCQS, the Cherokee Boys & Girls Club and a nonprofit Christian foundation based in Georgia also applied for the new frequency.
While the FCC tentatively awarded air rights for the new full-powered FM radio frequency to The Canary Coalition, a small grassroots environmental organization headquartered in Sylva, WCU is not going down without a fight.
WCU has hired the private Raleigh law firm Brooks, Pierce, McLendon, Humphrey and Leonard, whose specialties include telecommunications and media law, to persuade the FCC to give it the license instead of The Canary Coalition.
The Canary Coalition has a staff of one, Executive Director Avram Friedman, and is using the legal services of an attorney in California to fend off WCU’s bid for the radio station. The attorney is helping the nonprofit for a reduced rate, Friedman said.
Larry Nestler, chairman of The Canary Coalition’s board, questioned why WCU would choose to pick this fight during such tough budgetary times. The state cut the university’s budget this year by 13.5 percent.
“And here is Western hiring a big-time law firm out of Raleigh using taxpayer money,” Nestler said. “It seems a little much.”
WCU has paid the Raleigh lawyers $21,752.34 so far in legal fees, according to the university.
The university issued a terse statement when queried about its bid for the radio station, saying through spokesman Bill Studenc that: “Because the application is still pending with the FCC, the university is unable to comment on the status of the application, or any specifics about the application, until that process has moved forward to completion.”
The Smoky Mountain News then filed several requests for information from WCU under the state’s public records law. WCU complied with most of the requests, but has yet to produce emails, as also requested under the state law, to-and-from various university leaders regarding the radio station.
WCU’s legal battle against The Canary Coalition originated under former Chancellor John Bardo, who retired this summer from the university’s top post. It isn’t clear whether new Chancellor David Belcher will embrace his predecessor’s fight.
Records reveal that WCU is fighting The Canary Coalition on every front that it can, challenging a variety of claims in the environmental group’s FCC application, and even arguing about whether The Canary Coalition is locally based as claimed.
The FCC used a point system to award licenses, with applicants given a set number of points if they met certain criteria. The Canary Coalition received five points (three for being local and two for diversity), WCU just three (localism only).
In its petition to overturn the FCC’s ruling that tentatively favors The Canary Coalition, WCU countered that the nonprofit is not a local entity — rather, that people think of it as an Asheville-based group, though it indeed leases office space in Sylva.
Perhaps most significantly, WCU has called into question the financial solvency of The Canary Coalition. The group, WCU’s high-powered legal team says, doesn’t have the money to back the dream of a radio station with regional reach.
The Canary Coalition indeed might have trouble proving it has the financial ability to get a radio station up and running. Friedman estimates it will cost about $50,000 to get on the air, for equipment, staff and so on. The FCC wants those awarded a frequency to have enough money in the bank to construct and operate a radio station for three months.
In a filing with the FCC, The Canary Coalition pointed to a bank balance on Feb. 5 of $43,945.97 as evidence that it can build and operate a radio station.
That just doesn’t cut it, WCU responded in a follow-up filing. A more complete financial picture of The Canary Coalition, not a one-day snapshot, doesn’t bode well for the group’s ability to pay for a radio station, WCU claimed. The Canary Coalition is attempting “to elevate the significance of that one-day balance determinatively above the significance of three years’ worth of public IRS filings … that show Canary’s downward-trending revenues and dire financial health,” WCU wrote to the FCC.
When Friedman put out a fundraising call to help get the radio station up and running in an email newsletter to Canary Coalition members and supporters last week, WCU jumped on it as more evidence the environmental organization doesn’t have start-up costs required by the FCC. WCU filed a supplemental petition late last week, citing the newsletter, that indicates Friedman is soliciting money now from group members for the project.
“This admission by Canary conclusively demonstrates not only that Canary lacks the funds to construct and operate the proposed station for three months without revenue but also that Canary recognizes that it lacks the funds. This admission is fatal to Canary’s financial certification and qualification,” the university’s lawyers maintained.
WCU’s lawyers also pointed out that The Canary Coalition originally estimated costs for the radio station at just more than $39,000, but now is seeking $50,000. Regardless of which amount is correct, WCU’s Raleigh law firm stated, a radio station “is clearly beyond (The Canary Coalition’s) financial ability to build and operate.”
If WCU is able to overturn The Canary Coalition’s rights to the new FM station, plans call for the university to continue serving the area with its current “unique, locally originated programming,” plus to turn the station into “the flagship station in the WCU Catamount Sports Network, airing live college athletics of substantial importance to the local community.”
“Through the airing of its non-commercial educational program service, (WCU) brings thousands of hours of unique radio broadcast programming — including educational and curriculum-related programming — to its service area every year, and … seeks to further its educational mission by expanding its ability to provide such programming to the residents of Western North Carolina.”
How old is the radio station at WCU?
In 1948, WCCA 550 AM signed on as a radio station from the lower floor of the Joyner building. In 1949, the call letters were changed to WWOO. In 1972, WWOO changed its call letters to WCAT. In 1977, WCAT 550 AM went off the air and WWCU 90.5 FM went on the air.
What’s the coverage area?
Roughly, from west of Sylva to the west side of Asheville, though the terrain of the mountains makes the coverage sporadic in places. The station transmitter is located on Cutoff Mountain near Balsam Gap.
How is it subsidized, to the tune of what each year?
The radio station receives two funding allocations each year for operational expenses. The station receives $15,000 from the provost’s office and $27,500 in education and technology funds.
Does the radio station make any money?
The radio station is licensed as a noncommercial educational station and as such does not sell commercial advertising.
Is it student run?
WWCU operates with a student general manager and student program coordinator under the supervision of a faculty advisor. The student general manager and program coordinator work with a volunteer staff of students, staff, and faculty.
What is the programming?
Classic rock, plus weather, WCU sports programs, and some Native American-geared programming.
The Canary Coalition, a nonprofit group rooted in Jackson County that fights for air quality, might soon take to the airwaves via its own educational, community radio station.
Avram Friedman, executive director of The Canary Coalition, believes a local radio station would provide the entire environmental community in Western North Carolina with its own forum, plus open educational and networking opportunities for those involved. A range of community-oriented programs by other nonprofits could be included, and local musicians featured, Friedman said. A more complete vision of the future community radio station still must be hammered out, he said.
In a newsletter announcement last week to The Canary Coalition’s members, Friedman noted: “The organization’s leaders view this an opportunity to bring the public educational and advocacy mission of the Canary Coalition to a new level of effectiveness. This will be a radio station that offers programming found nowhere else, delivering in-depth coverage of environmental issues and news.”
Friedman added that in his view, the environmental and social progress community has little voice in a world of corporate-owned mass media.
“Important events, demonstrations, public hearings, discussions, debates and informational forums are often ignored by the conventional media or relegated to small back page, one-time articles that may even miss the point entirely. Even public radio stations have been less than forthcoming with covering the news and events organized by local nonprofits,” he wrote.
There are, at rough count, at least 34 environmental organizations based in WNC. If The Canary Coalition successfully launches its radio station, it could open the region’s airwaves to issues that are of interest to other nonprofits as well, empowering the grassroots movement in WNC as never before.
That’s because The Canary Coalition’s radio station wouldn’t be a dinky, low-powered station with a broadcast reach of a measly two blocks or so.
The Federal Communications Commission has given The Canary Coalition the OK for a full-powered FM station. Regional radio experts say the station could potentially broadcast to a three-state audience, depending on where the transmitter is placed. The radio station would be based in Dillsboro, frequency 95.3 FM (for two decades where listeners in WNC have found public radio WCQS, see accompanying story).
“We view this as an opportunity to provide that voice for the environmental community,” Friedman said one day last week in a cell phone interview as he headed to Washington, D.C., to take part in a protest against a pipeline that would connect oil sands in Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Port Arthur, Texas.
In an application filed with the FCC, The Canary Coalition promised to “coordinate with local educational institutions, community health, environmental, social and cultural organizations and the business community on developing programming for the station. In addition, it will broadcast cultural programming including musical content relevant to the population of the service area, as well as local news, public affairs programming and public service announcements.”
Friedman, a Bronx native, is a fixture in the WNC environmental movement. Friedman studied political science at Hunter College, and has been a grassroots activist since the late 1960s. Friedman, a Sylva resident, ran unsuccessfully — twice — against Democrat Rep. Phil Haire for the right to represent Jackson, Macon, Swain and Haywood counties in the state House.
He is unapologetically liberal, even perhaps something of a radical, at least by many mountain residents’ standards. He was arrested twice for protesting Duke Energy’s Cliffside coal plant, once in front of the governor’s mansion and once in front of Duke’s headquarters in Charlotte.
If the FCC issues a construction permit (Western Carolina University wants to wrest the frequency away from the nonprofit, see accompanying article), Friedman and The Canary Coalition would have a three-year window to study what programming to offer, and how to get the radio station actually up and running.
Larry Nestler, who chairs the nonprofit’s board, said he believes a radio station could serve both as a source of revenue for The Canary Coalition, and “as a way of getting the word out on soliciting help on getting clean air.”
Wally Bowen, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) in Asheville, which operates the low-powered MAIN-FM 103.5, said in his group’s case the Internet Service Provider side of MAIN subsidizes the radio station. The technical staff essentially has done double duty for the ISP and the station, Bowen said.
The Canary Coalition has even shallower pockets than MAIN. This would be noncommercial radio — minus paid advertisements — so listener contributions and grants would most likely have to sustain the operation in Dillsboro, Bowen said.
The Prometheus Radio Project, a national group promoting community-based radio, estimates that a “minimalist” studio can cost only $4,000 (not including furniture), depending on how much equipment is donated. A high-end studio, however, can cost as much as $100,000.
Friedman estimated it would cost about $50,000 to buy the needed equipment, hire some staff and get the radio station started. In a recent newsletter, he urged members to consider supporting the effort with cash donations.
Friedman told the nonprofit’s members that “if and when we overcome this challenge (from WCU) and gain the FCC license, we look forward to a new era when The Canary Coalition can serve the community in a new and spectacular manner, broadcasting news and information about air quality, climate change, new developments in the renewable energy and efficiency economy transformation. News of the Fukishima catastrophe and other nuclear accidents will not be blacked out in our region, on this station. Listeners will learn about the realities of hydraulic fracturing (or hydro-fracking). There will be no corporate tampering with this news. The facts will be presented, discussed and debated.”
In 2007, in a relatively rare event, the FCC accepted applications from community groups across the nation seeking full power, noncommercial radio licenses. A second round of applications took place last year.
There were a limited number of these new FCC licenses to go around — only in areas with open bandwidth on the radio dial, and only for nonprofit, community radio stations.
The idea was to open up the airwaves to non-corporate interests and encourage citizen access and community participation, said Wally Bowen, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) in Asheville.
Bowen, a nationally known advocate for local ownership of media infrastructure, was on the lookout for just such an opportunity. Bowen’s group already operates MAIN-FM 103.5, a low-powered FM radio station that bills itself as “The Progressive Voice of the Mountains” and is based in Asheville.
As Bowen followed the FCC’s release of new frequencies, he discovered there indeed would be one in the mountains, but not in Asheville — it was being issued in Dillsboro.
“We didn’t qualify, because we are Asheville-based,” Bowen said. “But I immediately thought of The Canary Coalition. This was a golden opportunity, and there are folks (including MAIN) who have the experience to help them.”
He called Avram Friedman, executive director of The Canary Coalition, and the idea of Canary Coalition radio was born.
Jackson County commissioners are leaning toward the May primary for putting alcohol on the ballot rather than waiting until the general election next November.
County Attorney Jay Coward briefed Jackson County commissioners this week on the nuts and bolts of a referendum, one that will decide whether the sale of alcoholic beverages is legal throughout the county. If it passes, Jackson would be one of only three counties in WNC with countywide alcohol sales. Henderson County is also holding a referendum on countywide alcohol in May as well.
Four of the five commissioners told The Smoky Mountain News three weeks ago of their intent to hold a countywide alcohol vote, but had yet to discuss the issue in public at a commissioners meeting until this week.
Commissioners will eventually have to formally vote to put the issue on the ballot, directing the Jackson County Board of Elections to stage the election in conjunction with the May primary. Coward indicated that the necessary timeframe doesn’t require the board’s commitment for some time to come, until about February. At that point, commissioners must sort out which — or all — of various options they will allow voters to consider. Beer and wine only? Only in restaurants or to-go from gas stations and grocery stores, too? What about mixed drinks, or a liquor store?
Commissioner Chairman Jack Debnam has indicated he’s interested in seeing voters decide on countywide beer and wine sales, plus decide on whether to open an ABC store in Cashiers. The only ABC store now in Jackson County is located in Sylva.
Asked about the genesis of a possible alcohol referendum, Debnam emphasized that “personally, I don’t care … I don’t drink.” But, Debnam said he strongly believes that people should be given a choice.
With its fast-food restaurants, box stores, gas stations and occasional backups of traffic, there’s not much that can be described as quaint about N.C. 107 in Sylva.
Except, perhaps, for Bryson’s Farm Supply, where Randy Hooper and wife, Debbie, sell such items as feed and seeds, hoes, bee-hive frames, and other rural must-haves to local farmers and gardeners.
Hooper, on this day — as always — characteristically attired in bib overalls, has worked at Bryson’s Farm Supply since the late 1970s. By then, he said, the highway was already four lanes. But Debbie remembers the road being just two lanes when helping her father build the store.
Today, this main business drag of N.C. 107 is five lanes. And, according to the N.C. Department of Transportation, it needs to be wider still to accommodate future traffic projections — a plan that in fact could lead to the state potentially paving right over this Jackson County landmark, as well as forcing many other “relocations” along the road.
The Hoopers have recently added a line of organic and naturally grown foods to their traditional feed and seed selection at Bryson’s Farm Supply. They are tapping into the burgeoning Jackson County segment of residents who frequent the farmers market, and who often drive more than an hour to Asheville to shop at whole-foods oriented grocery stores such as Earth Fare and Greenlife Grocery.
But their main clientele remains older and more traditional, and the traffic issues on N.C. 107 have created some problems for Bryson’s Farm Supply. While this might make big-city move-ins incredulous, the number of cars now using this highway is flat-out frightening to many of an older generation, Hooper said.
“What helped us out was about two or three years ago, a red light was put in,” Hooper said as he nodded toward the stoplight positioned on the busy highway directly in front of his store. “A lot of the older people were intimidated on this road.”
Jackson County resident Sara Hatton, busy shopping at Bryson’s Farm Supply, remembers when N.C. 107 was a two-lane road.
“When we got Wal-Mart in, that’s when it got really hectic,” Hatton said, adding that she does not, however, believe the transportation department needs to build a bypass to ease congestion as the agency also proposed.
Brother and sister Larry Crawford and Ruth Shuler, both avid members of the Jackson County Genealogical Society, remember further back than most — they can easily picture the days when there was just one small general store along this now busy stretch of highway.
“It was in Lovesfield,” Crawford said, and then explained that Lovesfield is after Love Hill. And that would be at the stop sign to Wal-Mart, which is across the highway from the Love Family Cemetery, which is behind Sonic Drive In — you always can count on genealogical folks to know their local place names, and history.
“The only (other) commercial development was the pole yard,” Shuler, who, like her brother, is intimately familiar with Jackson County’s roads from years of school bus driving.
The pole yard, she said, was located about where Cody’s Express Hot Spot is found at the intersection of N.C. 107 and Cope Creek Road. It was simply a place where poles — perhaps the phone company’s, Shuler isn’t sure — were cached.
Other than that, the area that now serves as the busiest section of Sylva was once simply a residential section of town, she said.
That’s hard to believe these days, given the hot debate about what best to do about N.C. 107.
Nearly every town has one — a five-lane road lined with fast-food stores, gas stations and grocery stores — and most sport a few. But those, it turns out, may have been a bit of a mistake.
The N.C. Department of Transportation has kicked five-lane roads to the curb in favor of landscaped medians. Throw in some sidewalks and street trees, and there’s an uncanny resemblance to the boulevard design lobbied for by new urbanists and smart growth advocates over the years — although the DOT’s version is decidedly larger and more utilitarian.
Despite a paradigm shift dating back at least a decade, the design is still being embraced by the mainstream, particularly in the mountains where there are few examples of boulevards.
“Part of that is a trickle down from Raleigh,” said Wade Walker, an engineer and transportation planner with the Charlotte firm Fuss and O’Neill. “The DOT central office has basically admitted it is going to take time for this thinking and philosophy to trickle down into the individual districts. It is like turning around an air craft carrier. You can’t do it overnight.”
When Derrick Lewis started working for the DOT road design unit in 1997, everyone was still designing five-lane roads for nearly every application.
“It was the standard at one time to be five lanes,” Lewis said.
By the end of the decade, however, five-lane roads were on the way out.
“It was probably more of a project by project decision at first and at some point it made a swing in the other direction,” Lewis said.
At first, medians cropped up only along part of a road, with a combination of a middle-turn lane and a landscaped middle, much like the Old Asheville Highway in Waynesville; it was designed in the late 1990s when the five-lane design was beginning to fall out of favor.
Now, medians are the standard for commercial roads.
Lewis said he was an early convert to medians.
“I was one of the ones trying to get people trying to think about putting a median in,” Lewis said.
He oversaw feasibility studies for makeovers of N.C. 107 in Sylva and South Main in Waynesville — and both have proposed medians.
The DOT hasn’t necessarily embraced medians for their aesthetics, but for their ability to move more traffic without adding more lanes every couple decades.
Traffic moves faster with a median. Without cars darting in and out of parking lots across lanes of oncoming traffic motorists aren’t as brake-happy.
“You feel like they are about to cut out in front of you,” said Joel Setzer, head of the DOT division for the 10 westernmost counties. “Once you start getting congestion, and you have one person that has to come to a stop to make a turning maneuver, it creates an accordion effect, or slinky effect. That stop leads to congestion all down the stream.”
Businesses are often the opponents to medians, however, fearing they would lose prospective customers cut-off from making left turns into their parking lots. And so the DOT acquiesced by installing that middle-turn lane.
“In the past they just kowtowed too much to adjacent property owners,” Waynesville Town Planner Paul Benson said.
Far from being newfangled, boulevards historically were the design of choice for the flagship artery of a city, moving high volumes of traffic through town, yet flanked by high dollar commercial real estate.
“It is basically reinventing an old idea,” said Scott Curry, an urban designer and planner with the Lawrence Group, one of the state’s most well-known and progressive planning firms based in Davidson. “Boulevards are one piece of rediscovering design that is more oriented toward the pedestrian.”
So where did the DOT go wrong all those years?
“For many years, street designers and transportation engineers have been preoccupied with the volume and speed of cars only,” said Curry. “The car became the singular focus of what people planned and designed for.”
Enter the boulevard.
“When it is done effectively it is a good compromise between accommodating through moving traffic and local traffic and pedestrians,” Curry said.
There’s a novel solution afoot for traffic woes on Sylva’s commercial thoroughfare: widen the road so much it obliterates most of the businesses.
“You certainly wouldn’t have a traffic problem on 107 if you took out 80 businesses,” said Sarah Graham, a community transportation planner with the Southwestern Development Commission.
Yet that’s the top option in a study of how to fix N.C. 107 recently completed by the N.C. Department of Transportation.
Of course, bulldozing businesses wasn’t the goal, but rather an accidental side-effect of all the lanes along with a 30-foot medians the DOT says will be needed one day to allay congestion.
The massive widening contained in the DOT’s study has been summarily rejected by elected leaders in Sylva, and at the county level.
“Nobody liked it,” Graham said.
Joel Setzer, head of the DOT Division for the 10-western counties, can understand why. It’s not exactly the vision people in the community had in mind, Setzer said, citing comments he heard at a public input meeting during the feasibility study.
“Folks said they wanted to see 107 operate more as a Main Street commercial district and be improved within the existing footprint,” Setzer said.
But 107 also has to move a high volume of traffic.
“For it to be both will be a difficult thing to pull off,” Setzer said.
In hopes of finding a middle ground, Graham has applied for a grant to hire an independent consultant to do a new feasibility study. Graham believes a solution for 107 is within reach if the community thinks outside the box.
“We’ve all been to areas with roads similar to 107 but that function better, look nicer, are safer to drive on, but are equally as full of businesses,” Graham said.
It will take a whole bag of tricks to solve 107 traffic woes, she said, ticking off a list of catch phrases common in traffic planning circles: access management, traffic calming, intersection redesigns, turning nodes, rear-access drives and shared entrances.
“We might just need to look at it one block at a time and look at fixes that are real specific to each area and what it can handle,” Graham said.
Graham hopes a do-over of the DOT’s feasibility study will come up with such suggestions.
Setzer said these micro-fixes might work for a while, but would be temporary Band-Aids.
“We can do a little bit here and a little bit there,” Setzer said. But “after some time we are going to run out of tricks.”
Jason Kiminker, a Sylva businessman and advocate with the Smart Roads Alliance, disagreed.
“I think the correct solution is going to be surgery. A very precise surgery. Not a bomb that is dropped on the road,” Kiminker said.
Setzer countered that the feasibility study is far from a final road plan.
“If this project goes into design, we would be looking at finding ways to avoid these impacts,” Setzer said.
Setzer said there is wiggle room in the lane width and the width of the median, which is a whopping 30-feet in the feasibility study.
But the community also has to figure out how much congestion they are willing to tolerate.
“Is congestion out there today an acceptable level? Can we live with more or do we need less congestion?” Setzer said.
Kiminker questions the so-called congestion, and considers the future traffic estimates predicted by DOT a flawed premise.
“They can forecast whatever they want then say 107 won’t be able to carry it,” Kiminker said.
Percolating at the edge of the debate over 107 is the looming question of whether to build a new bypass around the commercial stretch. Once known as the Southern Loop and now deemed the 107 Connector, the bypass would plow virgin countryside to skirt the business district, giving through commuters a direct route to U.S. 23-74.
Opponents to the bypass clamored for the DOT to instead fix 107 traffic congestion without building a new road.
County commissioners and town board members also called for examining fixes to 107 first.
So the DOT sanctioned the feasibility study, and like Setzer predicted, it concluded 107 would have to be much, much wider to handle future traffic on its own, without the aid of a bypass.
“I intuitively knew it would be very disruptive but I wanted to have people take a professional look at it,” Setzer said. “Everybody said fix 107, but the devil is always in the details as to what it would take to fix 107.”
Graham said even with a bypass, however, future 107 traffic woes won’t be resolved.
“The studies show the connector will relieve some traffic on 107 but not enough to solve our problems,” Graham said.
“I have been an advocate for both projects. Fixing 107 and also offering an alternative to 107,” Setzer said.
Kiminker fears the DOT is using fear mongering to steer the public toward supporting a bypass.
“They are showing you all the worst possible scenarios,” Kiminker said of the feasibility study.
Kiminker said there are “much more palatable, much less expensive and more low impact” options, but the DOT had an ulterior motive.
“The entire point of the study was not to see how 107 was improved, it was about showing that the connector was needed,” Kiminker said. “We haven’t been fooled — this feasibility study can be shelved in the garbage can where it deserves to go.”
Setzer said the public wanted a feasibility study, and that’s what they got. He can’t help the findings.
“We had input from the general public, we had input from advocacy groups and input from local government that said they would like us to look and see at fixing 107 before relieving congestion through other means,” Setzer said.
Setzer welcomes a second feasibility study by an independent firm should the grant come through, as well as the continued dialogue it is bound to bring about.
Of course, talk is cheap. The price tag for the full-blown widening outlined in the DOT’s feasibility study is $103 million. And it’s nowhere on the horizon, at least according to the DOT’s long-range road building list.
Nonetheless, it’s not a moment to soon to start crafting a design the community can get behind, Graham said.
“At least the town and county would be armed with a plan so as funds came available to do some road improvements they would have defined what their problems were and solutions were on more of a micro level,” Graham said.
If given a blank canvas, no road engineer today would build a road that looks or functions like 107. Constraints posed by commercial development flanking the corridor certainly makes it harder to fix, she said.
“So it is working backwards a little bit, but there is no time like the present. I don’t think it is hopeless,” Graham said.
Waynesville and Sylva are at a crossroads, ones that will irrevocably shape the character of their communities.
Both towns are clamoring for a makeover of their commercial avenues — South Main Street in Waynesville and N.C. 107 in Sylva — but neither likes the plans that the N.C. Department of Transportation came up with.
Instead, both communities want to do their own street plans, drawing from new urbanist philosophies that use street design as a springboard for creating vibrant and lively shopping districts where not only cars but people feel at home.
But traffic is a fact of life, and whether the communities can marry the needs of the thoroughfares with their lofty visions remains to be seen.