Wednesday, 09 January 2008 00:00

Change is on the way for Howell Mill Road: DOT expansion project will carve through the heart of community

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By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

The widening of Howell Mill Road in Waynesville will take years to complete, cost millions of dollars and displace residents who live along the thoroughfare.

The two-lane road starts at Russ Avenue next to Rite Aid, winds through a residential area, passes the Waynesville Recreation Center and ends at Business 19 close to the Haywood Community College High Tech Center. The DOT project aims to widen the entire road and install sidewalks that will provide pedestrian access to the recreation center and a turning lane that will help alleviate backups and accidents on the increasingly busy stretch.

The town of Waynesville and DOT recently agreed on Alternative 2, which calls for a sidewalk to be put in on one side of the road and a middle turning lane at a cost of $12.5 million. The other proposed alternative, number four, would have consisted of the installation of a median down the center of Howell Mill and a multi-use path separated from the road by a ditch at a cost of $14 million. At one time, the town hoped the multi-use path would be connected to its greenway system.

“The town likes Alternative 2 because of the sidewalk, and DOT likes it because it’s a million cheaper,” explained Town Engineer Fred Baker.

Additionally, Baker said, the multi-use path would have cost the town more, since it would require additional right of way to be purchased. The cost would have been $590,000 rather than the $270,000 to only build a sidewalk.

“We were really pushing to do a good pedestrian component to the road. Right now, the best we can do is putting a sidewalk in. At least there will be a pedestrian pathway,” Baker said.

The DOT will start purchasing right of way in 2009, according to District Engineer Jamie Wilson. Five residences and two businesses will be displaced. Construction will begin in 2011 and take two and a half years to complete.

“One thing that takes a long time is buying people’s property,” Baker said.

“There’s people losing their property that aren’t happy. That’s one thing DOT has to balance — the need for the public at large to be able to move about in a community,” he said.

 

Uprooted and moved

Eighty-two year old Laura Gunter is one resident of Howell Mill Road that will have to be relocated. Gunter has lived in her house for 31 years with Dewey, her 59-year-old mentally handicapped son.

“We hate to give it up, because it’s been home,” she said.

Gunter said she understands that sometimes these things happen, but admits it will be hard to leave.

“It would be bad to have to jerk up and move, but the state’s going to build roads eventually,” she said.

Gunter has another son in the area who will be in charge of talking to the DOT on her behalf. She says her son Dewey, though used to his surroundings, won’t be bothered by the move — and she’ll continue to care for him somewhere else.

“I’ll tend to him as long as I can,” she said.

Gunter is far from alone in her dilemma. According to Andy Simpson, relocation coordinator for the DOT, 231 owners and tenants were relocated due to DOT projects in 2006.

The DOT offers as much assistance as possible to the people they relocate.

“We have to go out and find three comparable properties to what they live in or rent,” Simpson explained from his Raleigh office. “Our right of way agents work very closely with Realtors because they know what the housing market is. We have to inspect all the properties to make sure they’re decent, safe and sanitary.”

The DOT provides transportation to look for housing, provides referrals, sets residents up with Realtors, provides information on mortgages, and pays most of the closing costs of the new property.

It’s not always possible, though, to get a property near the one that has been acquired as right of way. This is a particular concern for Gunter, who says she would miss her proximity to the recreation center, where she walks one mile every day.

“It really depends on the housing market in the area. We start out as close to their house as possible. If they’re in a subdivision, we look at that subdivision, or we look down the street or at side streets, then we go further out to find comparables. In rural areas, we can’t necessarily find other houses similar to those, and they can be up to 15 miles away,” Simpson said.

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