Residents debate motives behind proposed road

Some Macon County residents are questioning the need for a proposed $11.5 million road project billed by the N.C. Department of Transportation as vital to assist development.

The road would pass by the doorstep of the new Macon County library and a new campus for Southwestern Community College. But it would also provide much-desired road access to James Vanderwoude, a private developer in Macon County, who stands to gain a lot from the new road. He has been asking the DOT for better access to his property for years.

Vanderwoude owns 96 acres along the proposed route, valued at around $10 million, according to the most recent county appraisal from 2006. His plans include hotels, restaurants and shops centered around a mock-up of the fictional town of Mayberry from The Andy Griffith Show. He also has plans for an office park.

A common perception in the community is that Vanderwoude’s Mayberry development is the driving force behind the proposed road, a view shared by Joyce Handley, a resident of Franklin.

“I would like to know who went to the DOT to start with. Who is going to benefit the most? Somebody approached somebody for this. We can all imagine. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out,” Handley said.

A review of DOT documents on the project suggest the needs of private development did play a role in the road planning. Facilitating private commercial development was a primary consideration in the early planning stages for the road, according to documents and minutes of DOT meetings. (see timeline box)

References to specific private developments — namely Vanderwoude’s — appeared in early documents and were labeled on early maps outlining the need for the road. A 22–acre commercial tract owned by Duke Energy also figured into early planning meetings and was referenced on maps as the future site of a big box retail development. DOT planning documents stated that a new road is needed to enable these commercial developments, which in turn would be good for Macon County’s economy.

However, as the road planning progressed, specific references to private developments were eliminated from maps and documents and their importance in the road project downplayed. Providing access to the community college and library were elevated as a driving force of the road. The leading justification for the road in the most recent DOT documents became simply “to provide access to sites slated for development.”

The DOT claims these “sites” are the community college and library, not the private commercial developments. But Brent Martin, another Franklin resident and environmentalist, thinks the community college and library are being used as an excuse.

“My very first impression is that this is not in public’s interest, number one. And number two, this in someone else’s interest,” said Martin. “Providing good access to the library and the college is important and the community definitely has an interest in making sure that happens. But looking at the options proposed by DOT, I don’t see how the library or school are being served.”

Bob Scott, a Franklin town board member, shares the same theory.

“The whole thing is kind of suspect,” Scott said. “Is this really for SCC and the library, or is there another underlying purpose? I feel to serve the library and SCC is more of an excuse that an actual need.”

If providing better access to the college and library was the sole purpose of the new road, why not simply upgrade the existing road leading to the two — recreating Siler Road with wider lanes, better shoulders, and straightening its blind curves, Scott and Martin said.

The option of simply improving Siler Road never made the DOT’s official list, however. DOT planners say the option was considered internally, but it didn’t meet the “purpose and need” of the project so it was dropped. (see related article)


Not a one-track road

Vanderwoude, the community college and DOT disagree with theories that facilitating private development is the driving force behind the road. A DOT handout at a recent public hearing on the road said the project was needed “to improve access to land available for development,” citing “limited access to land available for development” presently.

“Providing access for development will stimulate economic development and enhance the area’s economy with new jobs in commercial, institutional and recreational development,” the handout states as the purpose for the project.

The handout specifically mentions the new library and future community college campus.

“The main focus of development has been the community college property,” said Undrea Major, a DOT planner in Raleigh who is over the project.

James Bridges, also a DOT planner in Raleigh, said Vanderwoude was not the driving force behind the road plans.

“The project wasn’t primarily to provide him access. It wasn’t just his property. It was also other development in the area,” Bridges said, citing the community college and the library. “Who knows whether that Mayberry development will come or not. If we knew it wasn’t coming, it is my understanding this project would still be wanted.”

Southwestern Community College opened the first building of what will one day be a full-fledged campus in Macon County, one that rivals the college’s campus in Jackson County. In another two decades, there could be five community college buildings serving 1,500 to 2,000 students, another 1,000 in continuing education courses and 40 full-time faculty, said Dr. Cecil Groves, president of SCC.

But the site is tucked at the end of a dead-end road.

“Our interest is finding a way to ingress and egress people out of the site,” Groves said. Groves does not like the idea of simply improving Siler Road, as it would still leave the new campus with only one way in and out. Groves said having two approaches to the college campus, from two different directions, will be the smart thing in the long run.


Get the ball rolling

Vanderwoude said he has been working on plans for Mayberry for five years, shortly after buying the main tract of property in 2000. But he lacks what he considers decent road access, and so has worked with DOT to make that happen. But the development isn’t the driving force for the new road, he said.

“I think it is very unfair for anybody to think this project is just for Mayberry,” Vanderwoude said, citing plans for the community college campus. “All that traffic right now has to go down a two-lane road. That would be a problem even if Mayberry isn’t built.”

Vanderwoude approached the DOT several years ago about better road access for his planned development, he said. Under advice from the DOT, he hired an engineer and designed plans for an interchange off U.S. 441 to his property.

“We spent over $100,000 on design work for the interchange and submitted it for approval. But they came back with the idea to extend Siler Mountain Road instead of an interchange,” Vanderwoude said. Vanderwoude said he likes that option better anyway.

He has been in a holding pattern with his development in the meantime, calling it “frustrating.” He has wanted to get the project moving but can’t until he knows which road option DOT will pick.

Tired of doing nothing, Vanderwoude began clearing and grading land this spring. The work has puzzled some locals.

“As an observation, to be spending this much money without access is pretty strange,” Martin said of the grading on the north side of the road.

“Obviously we wouldn’t be pushing dirt if the project wasn’t going to happen,” Vanderwoude said. But any serious work on the development will be contingent on the route DOT picks for the new road, Vanderwoude said.

So far, about 10 acres have been clear-cut and bulldozed, exposing a large tract of bare soil along the Little Tennessee River. Vanderwoude is in compliance with his erosion control permits, according to an inspection of the site by the county erosion control officer in recent weeks.

The massive grading project has disturbed Angus DeHart, a regular walker on the Little Tennessee Greenway. She has watched the view from the greenway deteriorate over the summer as grading progressed.

“They took off all the foliage and greenery. I didn’t know it was going to end up with nothing left. I don’t think it enhances the greenway at all,” DeHart said while on her regular morning walk three weeks ago.

Vanderwoude is clearing land on the north side of U.S. 441 (see number 1 on the map). But the new road will traverse Vanderwoude’s property on the south side of the highway, leaving the tract to the north still without road access of its own.

Although U.S. 441 bisects Vanderwoude’s property — all but isolating the two sides from each other — there is a narrow passage under highway along the Little Tennessee River. Where the highway bridges the river, there is just enough room between the footings of the bridge and the greenway along the river for an access road to the northern portion of his property, Vanderwoude said.

Whether the Mayberry complex happens, and whether a big box retail center comes to the Duke property, it will be up the town of Franklin. The property all lies within Franklin’s planning jurisdiction.

A new land-use plan passed by the town last month cracks down on large commercial developments by requiring any project with a cumulative footprint of more than 30,000 square feet to get a special-use permit from the town. The town’s leaders can ascribe whatever conditions they please to such a development in exchange for granting a building permit.


Who pays?

Some residents have questioned why the state would foot the bill for a road project that in part would benefit private development.

“This would primarily be serving one person’s interests and everyone else would be footing the bill,” Martin said. “Why should my tax dollars go to facilitate one individual’s interests?”

Scott raised similar concerns.

“My question is: how does this help the individual taxpayers?” Scott asked. “To me, this looks like it is more of a service to a couple entities rather than tax payers as a whole.”

They are not the first ones to raise the question.

In January 2007, Marelle Bunick, a representative of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service attending a DOT meeting on the project in Raleigh, asked “why the private developer wasn’t paying for a portion of the road,” according to minutes of the meeting.

DOT often requires cost-sharing for road projects aimed at helping a particular development. For example, developers of a new Super Wal-Mart in Waynesville are paying for the extra lanes and new stop lights around the site, as well as the traffic design and engineering to develop the plan.

But in this case, DOT maintains cost sharing isn’t applicable.

“We don’t deny that the road would benefit Mr. Vanderwoude,” said Bridges, the DOT planner in Raleigh. But that doesn’t mean he should share in the cost.

The proposed road is only two lanes. Chances are Vanderwoude, and whatever development goes in on Duke’s property, would need extra lanes and its own entrances or stop lights off the new road. The developers would likely have to pay for those extras, Major said.

“That is something that happens at different stages and different phases,” Major said.

The project was officially launched in January 2005 with an allocation of $400,000 for planning and environmental studies. The DOT made two extra allocations in March and in August of this year, bringing the total spent on the project so far to $670,000.

According to current estimates, DOT would spend $2 million buying right-of-way, $8 million on construction and $900,000 on environmental mitigation.

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