Public debates paving, widening Needmore Road

More than 100 people attended last week’s public hearing on a state Department of Transportation proposal to pave and widen a 3.3-mile section of road that cuts through the Needmore Game Lands and parallels the Little Tennessee River.

The crowd included environmentalists, hunters and fishermen, residents of the Needmore community and several reporters. There were about 15 representatives of the transportation department, plus regulatory officials from other agencies.

The comments were as varied as the people attending: endorsements of the transportation department’s proposal to widen the gravel one-lane road to two lanes at a cost of $13.1 million, and questions about the overall need for such a large-scale project in an environmentally sensitive setting. About 25 people spoke publicly.

Swain County resident John Herrin spoke in support, citing economic benefits to the two counties involved, Macon and Swain.

“You are looking at an improvement that will bring a substantial value to the counties,” he said. “Both of them.”

Others, including Mike Clampitt of Toot Hollow Road in Bryson City, pointed to rescue workers’ possible need for an alternative route to N.C. 28 during emergencies as the reason they supported the transportation department’s proposal. N.C. 28 parallels Needmore Road, but on the opposite side of the Little Tennessee River. N.C. 28 is a paved, two-lane highway.

Swain County Commissioner David Monteith also talked about possible emergency-response needs, plus described an overall faith in the state’s Department of Transportation ability to make the best decision for all involved.

“I’ll support anything DOT thinks they need. They are the experts,” Monteith said.

Others, however, weren’t persuaded, or as trusting.

“This is a resource that is not replaceable,” Macon County resident Richard Kennedy said in opposition to the project.

Kennedy, a motorcycle rider himself, warned that an improved Needmore Road would attract scads of motorcyclists, and that “people will get hurt on it.”

Western North Carolina in recent years has become something of a Mecca for motorcyclists, particularly a stretch of highway along U.S. 129 known as the Tail of the Dragon in neighboring Graham County.

Cheryl Taylor, who lives along a paved section of Needmore Road, warned her fellow fourth, fifth and so on generations of Swain County-rooted residents (several cited their antecedents prior to speaking; Taylor, as it happens, is fifth generation) that “we can’t get this back” if the area is damaged.

She characterized the transportation department’s plan as “drastic” and “invasive.”

“I don’t want to see it changed,” said Taylor, who was part of a massive campaign to save the 4,400-acre Needmore tract from development about eight or so years ago. The effort, involving a coalition of groups and individuals who are often at odds, saw $19 million raised in the form of private donations and grants. Duke Power, which owned the land, had intended to sell it off for development.

Along with many of the speakers, Taylor did endorse some improvement measures. She spoke in favor of paving and widening.

Ron Allen, who lives on Wagon Wheel Drive in Swain County, like Taylor spoke in favor of a middle way — do some improvements, but compromise and not go to the lengths proposed by the transportation department.

“Significant improvements can be had for less,” Allen said.

Bill Crawford, who lives in Macon County and is a member of WNC Alliance, said the environmental group is opposed to the plan proposed by the transportation department. Other environmental groups also have come out against the plan.

There is still no word on whether the transportation department will honor a request by the Macon County Board of Commissioners. Those county leaders want a public hearing held in Macon. The one last week was held in Swain County. The crowd seemed representative of both counties when a hold-up-your-hand count was requested.

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