Swain, Macon commissioners try to rein in DOT plans for Needmore Road

Swain and Macon commissioners believe a state plan to widen and pave a 3.3-mile gravel road along a remote stretch of the Little Tennessee River goes too far.

Leaders of both counties have unanimously called for a scaled down version of the full-blown design suggested by the N.C. Department of Transportation. The DOT plan would widen the narrow road to a minimum of 18 feet, with additional construction work on the roadway’s shoulders.

The estimated price tag is $13.1 million, which environmental groups have termed a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars. That said, many of those same environmentalists have called for some type of surface treatment because of river-damaging sedimentation from the gravel road. The Little Tennessee River is within spitting distance of the road, and dirt is spewed routinely into the water, damaging the fragile aquatic balance.

The resolutions by Swain and Macon commissioners for a compromise design received rave reviews from those same environmental groups. Julie Sanders of the Little Tennessee Watershed Association offered “many thanks” for the wisdom shown by both boards.

“We appreciate Macon and Swain counties’ leadership on this issue and feel that this is an important move,” she said. “It shows that both boards care about Needmore and that they listened to the community.”

Some residents along Needmore Road, however, believe the scaled down version backed by county commissioners falls short of what’s required to actually make the road safer.

“Needmore will essentially remain an unsafe road,” said Stephen Poole, one of those few people who actually live in the remote area. “Those of us who actually use the road would like to see it paved and made safer. We also would like to see this done with extraordinary care for the environment the road passes through. We not only live in the area, we love it.”

Brian McClellan, chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners, said he believed that the two county boards, via the resolutions, walked the line between protecting the area and helping residents have a safer byway to and from their homes. The resolutions (with wording agreed on beforehand by representatives from both counties) noted: “both … agree and support efforts to improve and pave in place … with modifications including river-access areas and guardrails at specific needed locations.”   

Additionally, commissioners from Macon and Swain counties called on state officials to include only “minimum lane width” and “minimum shoulder widths.” They pointed out that the primary purpose of the project is to improve the quality of travel for local residents and to reduce sediment to the Little Tennessee River, which McClellan said the counties’ proposals would do.

“We suggested let’s meet in the middle on this one, and try to do something that might be the most feasible for everybody involved,” he said. “For the people there, this would be a much-improved surface without mudholes and potholes, and this would minimize runoff into the river and maintain the rural character of the area.”

Poole said paving is a priority for the people who use the road regularly so that the dust in the summer and the quagmire in the spring are eliminated.

But it is not the only problem residents face with the road, he said. During heavy rains, the road floods in spots, and those areas need to be raised “so that we aren’t stranded until the water recedes and the roadbed repaired.”

Also, the road should be widened where it is too narrow for two vehicles to safely pass, Poole said. During a 2009 traffic count, an average of 320 vehicles a day used the road.

Julia Merchant, a spokeswoman for the transportation department, said the next step is a concurrence meeting. Transportation officials and representatives from other state and federal agencies “will choose the least environmentally damaging, practicable alternative for the project,” Merchant said.

That meeting is tentatively scheduled for July in Raleigh. If the past is any indication of the future, agreement might be hard to come by. State and federal environmental agencies for more than a decade have questioned the need to make substantial improvements to Needmore Road. They’ve also repeatedly raised concerns about the possibility of serious environmental damage and worried about public reaction, based on a review of road documents by The Smoky Mountain News last fall.

Construction at the level proposed by the transportation department would require cutting out and removing Anakeesta-type rock, often dubbed “hot rock” because of the possibility it can leach acid when exposed.

The transportation department has maintained that the acidic levels of the rock are low, and that at those levels, runoff would not be considered “hot.” Furthermore, any runoff that did occur could be neutralized.

Merchant said that as part of the decision-making process, officials would take into account the commissioners’ votes as well as public comments received. Two public hearings were held, one in Macon County at the specific request of commissioners there.

McClellan said he’d find the situation very odd if transportation officials chose to ignore a “100 percent agreement” among elected officials in two counties on what should be done to improve Needmore Road.

“With every elected official in the counties involved unanimous on what’s to be done, I wouldn’t quite understand what’s then not to like,” McClellan said.


What, and where, is Needmore Road?

Needmore is a rough, one-lane road paralleling N.C. 28 between Swain and Macon counties, but on the opposite bank of the Little Tennessee River.

The attention being paid to such a short stretch of gravel might seem outsized except for a couple of important caveats: Needmore Road runs smack through the protected Needmore Game Lands, which were created after a broad coalition of environmentalists, hunters, local residents and others saved the 4,400-acre tract from development some six years ago after raising $19 million to buy the land from Duke Energy.

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