Displaying items by tag: DOT

Maggie Valley has emerged victorious in an ongoing tug-of-war with Jackson County over who can rightfully lay claim to tourists en route to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort.

The N.C. Department of Transportation rejected a request from Jackson County leaders that a new highway sign direct Cherokee-bound travelers past their own doorstep instead of through Maggie. Instead the current sign, which takes motorists through Maggie Valley via U.S. 19, will remain the lone highway marker pointing the way to Cherokee for tourists coming off Interstate 40.

Cherokee leaders had sided with Jackson County and joined the push for a second sign that would direct visitors to take the four-lane Smoky Mountain expressway instead of the curvy two-lane road over Soco Gap. More than 3.5 million visitors a year come to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort, and hundreds of thousands of additional tourists come to Cherokee as a cultural destination or jumping off point for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Maggie Valley leaders were happy to hear that DOT decided to maintain the status quo.

“It was certainly good news,” said Maggie Mayor Ron DeSimone. “It didn’t seem there was any compelling reason to change it.”

The route through Maggie is shorter mileage-wise, but a study by the DOT showed that travel time was essentially the same — about 35 minutes — no matter which road was taken. The study also looked at safety and found that the risk of a motorist getting into an accident on U.S. 19 compared to U.S. 74 was negligible. The Maggie route follows a narrow, two-lane winding road over Soco Gap. The crash rate — which in simple terms is the ratio of wrecks to the total number of vehicles — is 10 percent higher for the Maggie route than for U.S. 74.

“I am glad that they did come to the decision that they did,” said Maggie Alderman Phil Aldridge.

Leaders in Haywood County and in Maggie sent letters to the DOT asking them to deny Jackson County’s request, saying that the sign simply took from one and gave to another. The sign would take business and visitors away from an already struggling Maggie Valley, opponents of the new sign said.

“It definitely would have had an impact,” DeSimone said.

DOT, however, also denied Haywood County leaders’ apparent tongue-in-cheek request that it install a sign along U.S. 441 in Dillsboro that would inform travelers from the Atlanta area that they could reach Cherokee by going up and around through Waynesville and Maggie Valley. Dillsboro to Cherokee via U.S. 441 is 14 miles and takes some 20 minutes. Dillsboro to Cherokee via Waynesville and Maggie Valley is 45 miles and takes about an hour.

Jackson County leaders took the news about no-new-directional sign on U.S. 74 in diplomatic fashion.

“I’m not surprised with the final decision,” Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten said. “It seems our request did not fit within their policies.”

Jackson County Commissioner Chairman Jack Debnam said the county would not argue with the DOT regarding its decision.

“We’re OK with it,” Debnam said. “I just don’t think we’re going to qualify for a sign, and that’s just one of the battles you don’t pick. You’ve just got to let it go sometimes.”

The cost of a new sign had been estimated at about $100,000 minimum — and perhaps double that depending on how much information it attempted to convey about the two dueling routes.

In a letter sent to everyone involved earlier this month, DOT Division Engineer Joel Setzer noted that the agency’s focus “was to look primarily at traffic safety, travel time and travel distance” along U.S. 74 and U.S. 19 when considering the request. Other factors considered were traffic crashes, routing by mapping services and average winter weather conditions along both routes.

DOT tried to craft a highway sign that would include both routes, listing things such as mileage, drive time and road conditions for each. But, that proved problematic.

“NCDOT recognized that the request (for a second sign) was reasonable and made sense but struggled with how a sign or series of signs could effectively communicate to high speed traffic that this choice was available,” the letter stated.

This difficulty, the DOT letter continued, “is the very reason that it is against policy.”

“To a motorist unfamiliar with the area, seeing two choices for one destination would cause confusion, which could create a dangerous situation in a high speed highway environment,” the letter stated.

The DOT also noted that the current sign meets state rules on sign placement because the U.S. 19 route is 11 miles shorter than traveling U.S. 74 to Cherokee.

The agency, in rejecting Haywood County leaders’ request for a sign in Dillsboro rerouting Cherokee traffic their way, said what’s good for the goose is good for the gander: the route proposed is longer and therefore violated state policies for road signs.

There’s no clear winner in a complex and multifarious new system for ranking roads projects when it comes to the ongoing debate over Sylva’s main commercial drag.

In just-release road rankings, redesigning N.C. 107 out ranked the competing proposal to build a new highway bypass around it — but just barely.

The two dueling projects — redesigning N.C. 107 versus building a bypass to divert traffic from it — ranked second and third on a wish list of road building projects for the six western-most counties, with 45 and 44 points respectively.

The near tie means controversy is bound to continue over the best way to address perceived congestion on Sylva’s thoroughfare.

The two projects are neck and neck in the ranking process, despite a strong message by local leaders that they overwhelming prefer to rework N.C. 107. A regional transportation committee comprised of leaders from the six western counties got to weigh in on the road ranking — and in doing so awarded reworking N.C. 107 the maximum number of points it could.

By contrast, the regional leaders awarded zero points to the concept of a bypass around N.C. 107.

The bypass was catapulted forward anyway, however, thanks to heavily weighted points injected into the ranking process by the N.C. Department of Transportation.

Sarah Graham, a transportation planner and community liaison for the Southwestern Planning Commission, sees the ranking process as a success for public input, even though the preference of local leaders was nearly outstripped by DOT’s own rankings.

“The conversation we have going on now is of improvements to the current road, compared to a few years ago when the conversation going on was whether or not we wanted a (bypass),” Graham said. “The community said we want to see what it would take to improve 107 before you build a new 107.”

Indeed, community input got the idea of reworking N.C. 107 put on the list in the first place, and then advanced it forward.

But, some Jackson County leaders are discouraged that their input into the ranking process, which showed a clear preference for reworking N.C. 107 over a bypass, got watered down after the state DOT was done with the list.

“It is frustrating to see that a project the county planning board and the county commissioners ranked very low to score so highly on the statewide ranking,” said Gerald Green, Jackson County planner. “It made the time the county commissioners and planning board put into reviewing the projects and ranking them seem to be wasted and it felt as though our input was given much consideration.”


Point jockeying

The road rankings were done under a new system launched last year that is supposed to be objective and data-driven. The DOT awards its points based on several predefined variables. The old process was considered subjective, determined in part simply by the preferences of politically appointed DOT board members.

Gov. Beverly Perdue ushered in the new system, as one of many state government reforms aimed at transparency and ending political corruption.

“It is a scientific approach that would remove so much of the politics involved in funding transportation and try to infuse the process with more science and more local input,” Graham said.

The ranking process can be a bit daunting to the novice, however.

The final list is a mish-mash of rankings by local leaders, the local DOT office and state DOT planners. Each has its own system for awarding points. Points are also weighted, so the points awarded by the state DOT office count for a greater share of the total than those awarded by local leaders.

The system is still relatively new, but local leaders on the regional transportation committee have already figured out a way to game the system and try make their points count more.

Since the DOT’s block of points are weighted more heavily, input by local leaders can only carry a project so far. The regional committee is given a block of 1,300 point to divvy up among its favorite road projects, with the caveat that it can’t award more than 100 of the points to a single project.

Last year, the regional transportation committee carefully spread their allotted bank of points among a long list of road projects, splitting hairs over how many points each project should get out of the total 1,300 they had to work with.

Their balancing act ended up being for naught once the DOT added its points to the mix, however. The preferences of local leaders were watered down once the DOT plunked its more valuable points into the mix.

So this year, the local leaders on the regional transportation task force decided to game the system. Instead of spreading their allotted points around to lots of different projects, they dedicated all their points to a handful of top projects and gave zero to the rest.

In the end, they got more bang for their points.

“They realized you have to work together to get your projects moved up the ladder,” Graham said. “They said, ‘let’s give 100 points, the most we can give, to our top projects and start pushing them up faster.’ If we are going to be given some say, we want it to mean the most.”

Graham said the transportation planning committees across the state have caught on to the strategy as well.

Convoluted? Perhaps.

But, public input actually had an influence in the state’s road project rankings, so Graham sees it as a success.

“If we had not put improvements to 107 on the list and given it 100 points, it would not have been on there at all,” Graham said.

The rankings are all well and good, but the question ultimately is which ones will get money.

“We don’t really know how much money is going to be applied,” said Joel Setzer, head of the DOT for the 10 western counties. “What everybody wants to know is what is going to get worked on. We don’t know that yet.”

Technically, building a bypass is further along in the planning process than reworking N.C. 107. The alternative of reworking N.C. 107 emerged only a few years ago, while the idea of a bypass dates back two decades and has been inching ahead, albeit slowly.

“It is already in the development stage,” Setzer said.

But, “there is very little work being done on it,” he added.

Now, it is unclear whether that work should be halted, and the money put toward reworking N.C. 107 instead.

“We can’t hopscotch around the priority list,” Setzer said. “Because of the rankings, we can’t continue to work on the planning of the 107 (bypass) without addressing this potential project to widen existing 107 because widening existing 107 ranked higher.”


Devil in the details

While Setzer refers to the project as “widening” 107, that’s not what local leaders who requested the project would call it. They want traffic flow improved, but in their book, that doesn’t necessarily mean a carte blanche widening.

In fact, that highlights a source of contention between the community and DOT over what exactly a “reworked” N.C. 107 would look like.

DOT did a cursory plan for reworking N.C. 107 that calls for wider lanes, more lanes, bigger intersections and medians. The new footprint would be so wide it would take out nearly every business lining the commercial thoroughfare.

Local leaders and the business community believed there had to be another option for reworking 107, however.

“They didn’t like what the DOT suggested,” Graham said. “They said we don’t want the study defined for us. We don’t like the way it was defined for us.”

So a task force of town and county leaders, along with local business owners, hopes to come up with a more tenable solution. It has been meeting for a few months.

“There wasn’t really a clear vision of what had to be done with 107,” said Chris Matheson, a Sylva town board member and business owner. “There’s a lot more to consider than how to get from the light at 107 to the high school quicker. We are finding out just how complicated it is.”

Opinions on the committee vary on the extent of the congestion — which will ultimately frame out much of a “fix” the road needs.

Randy Hooper, owner of Bryson’s Farm Supply, doesn’t think traffic is that bad judging by his own commute.

“I can leave here in the afternoon and be home in 15 minutes. Twenty years ago, I could do the same thing,” said Hooper. “It takes no longer to get back and forth to work now as it did 20 years ago.”

The goal of the task force is to speak with one voice on what the community wants a “reworked” 107 to look like.

“We need our community leaders to be backing a single vision. We hope the corridor study will create the community consensus so as we move this project up the funding ladder we can say, ‘This is our vision. Help us fund it,’” Graham said.

Setzer agreed consensus is currently lacking.

“We are polarized right now on what we think we need to do, as a community,” Setzer said.

Will it decimate mountain beauty or open the economic flood gates?

Either way, the costly missing link of a four-lane highway through the remote southern mountains has hit a startling and potentially insurmountable roadblock. State and federal agencies are reluctant by some accounts — downright unwilling by other accounts — to issue essential environmental permits. Without them, the missing link can't go forward.

So for now, an 18-mile, $800 million highway through Graham County known as Corridor K is at an impasse.

Graham County is the final piece of a four-lane highway stitching together the seven, peak-pocked western counties before surging onward to Tennessee, blazing a pseudo-interstate from Asheville to Chattanooga.

The highway was envisioned nearly 50 years ago. Its purpose: to transform the far corner of Western North Carolina from an Appalachian backwater to economic prosperity.

"It was the same everywhere in Appalachia. It was just twisty two-laners, and it was a long trip to get anywhere," said Bill Gibson, the director of the Southwestern Commission, a governmental planning unit located in Bryson City for the seven western counties.

A lot has changed in the intervening decades, however. For starters, the region isn't exactly a backwater anymore. Also, environmental laws are much stronger, and road building is a lot more expensive.

But, Graham County is still clamoring for its promised piece of four-lane. Indeed, four-lane highways have been delivered to all the western counties except for Graham thanks to a special pot of federal road building money funneled to the region through the Appalachian Regional Commission since it was set up in the 1960s.

"I think to shortchange a small part of Western North Carolina of their opportunities is wrong," said Joel Setzer, head of the N.C. Department of Transportation for the western counties. "We got ours. We should care whether they get theirs."

Graham County's 18-mile missing link of the highway, pegged to cost from $700 to $900 million, is the most rugged, remote and environmentally challenging. The highway would bury streams and wetlands, cut into mountains and require a half-mile long tunnel.

Meanwhile, Graham County leaders blame their 18 percent unemployment rate and high poverty on the lack of a four-lane highway.

Graham County has come to view Corridor K as a silver bullet, the one thing separating it from the advances realized elsewhere in the mountains. If built, the county's unemployment and poverty would darn near solve themselves, leaders claim.

This easy fix to Graham's economic woes has proved anything but however.

"It has been studied to death," said Mike Edwards, the chairman of the Graham County commissioners. "It has been going on for four decades, and it has reached a point now where it is getting more and more difficult to justify building 18 miles of road."

So hard to justify, in fact, that the project has reached a stalemate. There's 10 different agencies, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, that can make or break the project by refusing to issue essential permits.

A few of these agencies are questioning whether the road is worth it. Given the price tag and environmental damage, will it truly bring the hoped for economic benefits?

"The regulatory agencies seem to be stuck," Gibson said. "They are saying why should we go through all this permitting if we aren't sure that the purpose and need really exists as was forecast? Will this realize economic development and improve lives? Is it true that this road is needed in the way that DOT now has it laid out?"

Misguided goal?

Economic development was once a driving force behind new highways. But, it is mostly touted as a side benefit these days rather than heralded as the sole purpose.

D.J. Gerken with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Asheville said it is rare to see road construction justified with economic development.

But, Setzer pointed out that was the rationale behind the four-lane highways in the seven western counties. From the bypass in Waynesville to the four-lane in Franklin, all were pursued for economic development under the banner of the Appalachian Regional Commission highway program.

"The purpose of the program was to end isolationism in the Appalachian region," Setzer said.

The question now, however, is whether that rationale is still relevant and will it work for Graham.

"It is not going to be the silver bullet they think it is," said Brent Martin, the Sylva-based Southern Appalachian director for The Wilderness Society.

State and federal agencies holding up the new highway have questioned whether there are other solutions to economic challenges in Graham County. They have also questioned whether the goal of ending Appalachian isolation when the highway was envisioned is still relevant today.

"It is doubling down with a half billion investment on an economic development plan from the 1960s rather than asking the question," Gerken said. "If Congressman Heath Shuler said 'I have half a billion to invest in Graham County economic development and just started taking ideas, I suspect you would get a lot better suggestions."

Building an $800 million highway for a county of 9,000 people is particularly problematic when there's no evidence to show it will accomplish economic development.

In a way, the state and federal agencies holding up the permits didn't have a choice, Gerken said.

"It is rare for a project to be so lacking in a clear purpose that the agencies are forced into this position," Gerken said. "The law states clearly that projects like this one cannot be given the required permits if there are practical alternatives that will cause less damage."

Nonetheless, the resistance by agencies to sign off on permits for the highway is unprecedented.

"I was a little surprised, but given the environmental impacts, these agencies are doing their job," Martin said.

Along with the run-of-the-mill road-building complaints that are par for the course in Appalachia — from despoiling historic farmsteads to fragmenting wildlife habitat — Corridor K in Graham County has some particularly sticky environmental challenges. It would mar views from the Appalachian Trail. It would cut through acidic rock with the potential to pollute streams. It would go through terrain that's steep even by mountain standards. And, it would require a half-mile tunnel.

Critics claim these would detract from the natural beauty Graham has to offer.

"I disagree with that, but I certainly understand the point of 'don't destroy what it is you are trying to enhance,'" Setzer said.

As for the tunnel, Setzer sees it as an environmentally sensitive solution. It goes under the Appalachian Trail, avoiding a major highway crossing for hikers. It could also be a possible tourism boon.

"There might be people who come to drive the road just to go through the tunnels," Setzer said.

Tired of waiting

Graham County leaders believe a four-lane highway is what separates them from their more prosperous neighbors — both literally and figuratively.

The county's unemployment rate of 18 percent is the highest in the state. It also has the highest rate of child hunger.

"That is my reasoning for trying to advance corridor K as soon as possible because of how destitute the area is," said Roger Shuler, a retired contractor in Robbinsville.

Graham is not only poor but small, with young people leaving to find work.

"The thing you always gave kids for a graduation gift was a suitcase," said Edwards, the chairman of the county board.

A four-lane highway could change that. It would not only bring business but quicker commutes to everything from shopping to jobs to Western Carolina University.

"When people think economic development, they think factories and four-lanes and tractor trailers. That is very narrow. It is also access to health care and access to education and access to tourism assets," said Ryan Sherby, planning liaison with the Southwestern Commission.

The biggie for many is access to medical care since Graham lacks a hospital.

"We have too many people being flown out of the community on an emergency helicopter at $15,000 a ride," said Edwards, a retired teacher and school administrator.

But with $800 million on the table, Graham County could build a hospital instead of a road. It could solve education woes by building a satellite university campus, Martin said.

"You could bring in an entire team of economists to come up with an economic development plan in Graham County for that much money," Martin said.

Some question whether the county has embraced the economic options at its fingertips now.

"What I would say to Graham County leaders is focus on what you have," said Julie Mayfield, director of WNC Alliance, a regional environmental group. She rattled off the diverse and unique outdoor tourism appeal of Graham County: the scenic Cherohala Skyway, Joyce Kilmer's giant trees, Lake Santeetlah, class V paddling on the Cheoah, Tsali mountain biking and the world-class motorcycle ride known as the Tail of the Dragon.

"We go to vacation in Graham County," said Mayfield, who lives in Asheville. "I am no PR expert, but I am confident I could design a tourism brochure for Graham County that would draw more outdoor recreation tourism."

While Graham County laments its plight as the only county in the state without a four-lane road, it's actually an asset, Mayfield said.

"I would celebrate that. I think there are a lot of people who would go to Graham County because it is a hidden gem," Mayfield said. "There is an audience there to be appealed to."

But, Edwards said the four-lane highway would actually help tourism if Graham County wasn't so hard to get to.

"The easier it is to get here the more likely they will come," Edwards said.

Graham County may be the last county without a four-lane — but it is also the last county that is completely dry. Even the grocery stores in Robbinsville don't sell beer or wine.

When asked whether the lack of alcohol could be a deterrent to young people staying in Graham County or hurting tourism, Edwards didn't deny it.

"It has been said by some, but that is a very volatile issue," Edwards said, adding there are no plans to change it.

Age-old debate

Highway supporters in Graham blame outside environmentalists for holding up progress.

"They want to come and tell us, 'No you cannot build a road because it devastates our landscape,'" said Roger Shuler a Graham County resident.

These outsiders have packed the numerous public hearings on Corridor K over the years, painting a tainted picture of public opinion, said Edwards, chairman of the Graham County commissioners.

"The thing that gets me is there is always an outside influence that wants a say-so on what is going to impact us here locally," said Edwards. "We've been impacted from attorneys of every flavor of organization over the years.

I respect that, but the 9,000 people in my county have to be accounted for in the environmental argument. The people here have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

That doesn't change the reality of environmental court challenges should the road proceed. In fact, the threat of lawsuits was among the concerns cited by resource agencies that are holding up the project as currently designed.

The road known as Corridor K has long been mired in a philosophical debate that on the surface pits outside environmentalists against more conservative locals.

But that would be over-simplifying things. Retirees lean both ways — some eager for quicker access to a hospital and others relishing the rural lifestyle.

Some multi-generation families in Graham are eager for progress the highway will surely bring, but others fear an erosion of their heritage and way of life.

Even the outdoor industry is torn. Getting tractor-trailers out of the paddling-crazed Nantahala Gorge would no doubt please some rafting companies and kayakers, who would no longer have to worry about the barreling freight traffic. But outdoor enthusiasts like the rugged nature of Graham County's prized recreation areas.

These debates are merely academic, however, as long as the state and federal agencies continue to dig in. Many local advocates for the project don't even realize it's in jeopardy, however.

"We think our chances are very good," said Antoinette Burchfield, with the local Corridor K Coalition. "We think it is going to be sooner than everybody realizes."

Birchfield knew nothing of the impasse with federal agencies about permits, asking whether that was the same as the lawsuits being threatened by outside environmental groups.

Birchfield has been going door-to-door to county commissioner and town board meetings in the seven western counties seeking an official endorsement for Corridor K. She has racked up an impressive number of formal resolutions from local government bodies, suggesting a majority of leaders in the region support their brethren in Graham County in its quest for a highway.

Two roads better than one

Ironically, the DOT's strategy to advance the highway has backfired. Instead of building the entire 18-mile missing link at one time, the DOT broke it into two roughly equal segments — one from Stecoah to Robbinsville and one leading on toward Andrews.

Only the first half is up for debate now. The other half — from Robbinsville to Andrews — would be years away.

"We didn't have the finances to go in and build the whole thing at one time because it is an expensive project," Setzer said.

Tackling one segment at a time was also seen as an easier route to dealing with environmental concerns. The drawn-out timeframe for the project meant the DOT had to keep revisiting its environmental assessments — first in the 1980s, again in the 1990s, and again a decade later. Redoing the environmental studies each time was a massive undertaking.

"We decided let's not do a plan that is going to have to be refreshed again. Let's separate it and do it in manageable chunks," Setzer said.

Agencies questioning the highway argue that the costs and environmental impacts should be analyzed in their entirety, not piecemeal.

Regardless, the DOT is now hamstrung by its piecemeal approach. If the DOT wants environmental impacts to be considered in standalone segments, the benefits must also be justified in standalone segments.

But, justifying the economic benefits of half a highway — the single 9-mile segment leading in to Robbinsville — hasn't worked.

"I think it is gong to be very difficult to quantify the economic impacts of building a four-lane road that will dead end in Robbinsville," Martin said.

Setzer agreed on that point. The economic benefits of the highway won't be fully realized unless both segments are built.

And, that begs the question: does building the first segment make the second segment a foregone conclusion?

The second segment is predicted to be even more expensive and environmentally challenging, but state and federal agencies fear they will be pigeonholed into approving it once the first one is already built, preventing a true analysis.

Setzer said tackling the entire missing link as a single project as some of the agencies want to do would essentially mean starting over — and would likely derail the process.

"It builds in certain delays and the longer you delay it the more apt funding will be seized for what somebody else thinks is more important," Setzer said. "We should allow the fragmentation to eventually get to the ultimate goal."

Money on the table

While opponents point to the sizeable price tag, money is not a hang up. The DOT has almost enough to build the first nines miles sitting in the bank, waiting on the green light. It has been saved up thanks to a special pot of federal highway dollars earmarked for the Appalachian region.

The money is burning a hole in the DOT's pocket and driving the project, according to critics.

"They either spend or they don't," Gerken said. "So they are trying to come up with a legitimate purpose for building this road."

The view is shared by at least some of the state and federal agencies.

"There are disagreements among the agencies about whether the project is really needed or is driven by the availability of Appalachian highway funding," states a report last year summarizing concerns of the agencies.

One of the agencies interviewed for the report said the special pot of money "creates a want without a substantiated need."

Preconceived notions

The DOT hit a stumbling block two years ago that in hindsight was a harbinger of more serious roadblocks to come. The Army Corps of Engineers, one of the many agencies that can make or break the project by denying permits, called for a partial do-over of the DOT's environmental analysis.

Several agencies were questioning why the DOT couldn't upgrade the existing two-lane highway through Graham County instead of building an entirely new one. The Army Corp sent DOT back to the drawing board to determine whether upgrades to the existing road would suffice.

They wouldn't, DOT determined.

The DOT countered that simply dressing up the winding two-lane road through Graham County with an extra climbing lane here and there, wider shoulders and gentler curves isn't really fixing the problem.

Cars just won't take a route around the Gorge if it is only marginally better.

"They say it has to be big enough and fast enough to lure traffic away from the Gorge," Gerken said.

Not surprisingly, Gerken doesn't think the DOT did an "adequate analysis" of upgrading existing roads.

"I would characterize it as a half-hearted attempt," Gerken said. "Because this is a project in search of a defensible purpose, DOT shouldn't have eliminated a lighter footprint from consideration. Targeted improvements to the existing roads could be built now without controversy and at a fraction of the cost."

Agencies holding up highway permits have been frustrated that DOT is unwilling to consider anything but a new four-lane highway. Critics say DOT has blinders on to anything except a four-lane highway and are refusing to think creatively about an appropriate road through the mountains.

"There seems to be all kind of options other than building your 'anywhere-in-America' four-lane," Martin agreed.

The existing road could be upgraded not just with climbing lanes, but all sorts of bells and whistles aimed at luring eco-tourists. Picnic areas, overlooks, wildlife viewing pull-offs, hiking trails, fishing access, cultural heritage sign boards could all be built in.

The premise is hard to argue with, no matter how many lanes a new road would have.

"If we do need a new road, let's design it so we can capitalize on the assets we do have," said Ryan Sherby, regional planner for the Southwestern Commissioner. "It would go through some fabulous public lands. Let's provide access to them."

Setzer said the goal is to get traffic now using the Nantahala Gorge to use the new highway instead, and if it isn't any faster, they won't take it. That means the road through the Gorge itself would have to be upgraded.

Even the reluctant state and federal agencies agree that the Nantahala Gorge is congested and unsafe, clogged for six months of the year with rafting buses and an onslaught of cars sporting kayaks on roof racks.

Gibson, director of the Southwestern Commission regional planning agency, has had a front row seat to the Corridor K debate over the decades. Brand new on the job in 1975, he traveled to Raleigh to see design options being considered by the DOT for a four-lane highway through Graham County.

One option was a double-decker highway through the Nantahala Gorge, achieving four lanes by stacking them on top of each other. Another was to divide the highway, with two lanes in one direction on one side of the river and two lanes in the other direction on the other side.

Those obviously fell by the wayside in favor of a new highway through Robbinsville. Yet three decades later, it is still floundering.

"The folks in Graham County are still waiting," Gibson said. "A lot of the people who hoped to see it in their lifetimes are gone now. Others who hoped to see it in their lifetimes are afraid they will be gone."

Will dollars flow down new highway?

Will a four-lane highway bring economic development to Graham County?

While local leaders and the N.C. DOT have a hunch that it will, state and federal environmental agencies aren't convinced and so far have refused to sign off on permits for the environmental damage the highway would cause.

But, there may be a way out of the impasse. A regional economic development plan for the seven western counties will be launched in coming months. It may prove the highway is needed, but likewise, it may not.

"Everything is on the table," said Ryan Sherby, a regional planner with the Southwestern Commission agency based in Sylva. "People need to quit thinking about fighting for a four-lane road. People need to think about what is our economic development vision for our region."

The study may indeed quantify the economic benefits of a four-lane road, and if so, highway supporters will have the justification that state and federal agencies say is lacking.

But, it may also show that there are other economic ideas. The Southwestern Commission will act as project manager, but an outside consultant will be brought in to lead the study. It will take 12 to 24 months and involve dozens of players.

The study will be funded with a piece of Appalachian highway money, but that doesn't mean road-building interests will have an inside track to influence the study's outcome, according to Joel Setzer, head of the N.C. DOT for a 10-county mountain area.

"We aren't trying to stack the cards," Setzer said, pledging that his agency is willing to let the "chips fall where they may."

A way through the impasse

The impasse over a $800 million four-lane highway in Graham County is a rarity in road building.

It is not uncommon for state and federal agencies to express concerns about a project's environmental impacts but rarely do they rise to the level of refusing to sign off on permits.

In hopes of breaking the logjam, a firm that specializes as mediators in environmental disputes was brought in to assess the prospects of a resolution and recommend a course forward.

The U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution interviewed 58 stakeholders in early 2011 in hopes of ferreting out the hot button issues that must be solved.

"There are disagreements among the agencies about whether the project is really needed," the mediators concluded in their assessment. "Several agencies expressed the view that the environmental impacts are severe and that the expectations of economic benefits are not sufficiently supported to justify the environmental impacts."

Those interviewed include the Environmental Protection Agency, Army Corps of Engineers, N.C. Division of Water Quality, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, Appalachian Trail Conservancy, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, as well as local leaders, DOT and federal highways.

Here's a sample of concerns expressed by some of the agencies as listed in the mediators' report. The firm points out that not all agencies share the same level of concerns.

• There are many questions about whether the expectations of economic benefits from the road are realistic.

• There are disagreements among the agencies about whether the project is really needed or is driven by the availability of Appalachian highway funding.

• There are different perspectives among the agencies as to whether the recognized environmental impacts are worth the environmental costs, especially given uncertainty about the expectations of economic benefit from the road.

• There is disagreement about the feasibility of and plans for mitigating the environmental impacts, especially related to acidic rock.

• The feasibility, cost and desirability of the tunnel is a concern.

• The project is driven by a 'Build it and they will come' approach.

• Many are not clear about why the option of improving existing routes is not a viable alternative.

• The fact that the "Purpose and Need" was developed in the 1980s raises questions for some about whether it is still applicable and relevant.

Pity the poor visitors trying to find their ways to Cherokee if the N.C. Department of Transportation heeds requests of local leaders in Haywood and Jackson counties when it comes to directional signs.

First, Jackson County wanted a “This way Cherokee” sign added in Haywood County that would bring visitors past their own doorstep en route to Cherokee rather than through Maggie Valley via U.S. 19.

More recently, in what smacks of tongue-in-cheek retaliation — though Maggie Valley officials might be perfectly serious, given that small town’s current economic woes — Haywood County sent an official request that the DOT install a sign along U.S. 441 in Dillsboro that would helpfully inform travelers from the Atlanta area they can actually reach Cherokee by coming back through Waynesville and Maggie Valley.

Amusing, perhaps, but here’s the time-travel differences for motorists: Dillsboro to Cherokee via U.S. 441 is 14 miles and takes fewer than 20 minutes. Dillsboro to Cherokee via Waynesville and Maggie Valley is 45 miles and takes about an hour.

Possible? Yes. Circuitous? Definitely.

“That’s crazy,” said John Marsh of Decatur, Ga., after listening to a CliffsNotes version of the now three-month old sign squabble. Marsh was in Dillsboro this past weekend with a friend on one of his frequent visits to this area.

“That probably seems funny to everybody to talk about, but it isn’t if you don’t know this area and how to get around. It’s confusing,” he said.

Theresa Brady, visiting the area for the first time from her home in northern Virginia, said she relies on GPS information and highway directional signs to guide her travels.

Brady was at the Huddle House in Dillsboro with friends. They’d stopped to eat on their way to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.

“I don’t know what all that’s about, but it doesn’t make sense,” she said. “Signs should tell you the safest and fastest” route.

Her traveling companion, Jane Langley, agreed, saying she’d found navigating Western North Carolina difficult enough without the potential added burden of directional sign games.

“It sounds ridiculous,” Langley said.


Dillsboro reacts  

Shop owners in Dillsboro seem sympathetic toward Maggie Valley’s economic struggle to survive following the latest round of death convulsions by the theme park Ghost Town in the Sky. Dillsboro experienced something similar when Great Smoky Mountain Railroad in 2008 moved its headquarters to Bryson City and cut train routes to the small town.

Interestingly or ironically or both, railroad owner Al Harper was heavily invested in the most recent failed attempt to revive Ghost Town. One could even say Harper broke the hearts of two small WNC towns.

Be that as it may, however, the Dillsboro shop owners didn’t particularly care for the potential confusion visitors to the region would experience if the DOT pandered to Haywood County and Maggie Valley’s for an alternative sign leading Cherokee travelers the long-way around.

“The whole thing sounds pretty silly,” said Travis Berning, a potter and co-owner of Tree House Pottery on Front Street in Dillsboro. “That’s kind of a long way around to go through Haywood — (the sign) needs to show the most direct route.”

That, however, is exactly the contention of Maggie Valley leaders when it comes to Jackson County’s request for a second sign on their turf. In Haywood, the route to Cherokee through Maggie is shorter than the one through Jackson County, prompting Maggie to rebuke Jackson’s sign request there.

But, Renae Spears, a Bryson City resident who has the Kitchen Shop on the main drag in Dillsboro, pointed out that the road to Cherokee through Maggie is curvy and narrow.

“Obviously, from Dillsboro to Cherokee it is four lanes, which is the quickest and safest way to get there,” Spears said. “And if I direct anyone to Cherokee, that’s exactly the way I send them.”

And while she was on the subject of which way to Cherokee, Spears added that when headed west from Asheville she prefers to use four-lane highway if going to the reservation. Not, she said, U.S. 19’s mainly two-lane route via Maggie Valley to Cherokee.

“It’s not as safe or direct,” Spears said in explanation.  

This raging sign dispute started simply enough, when Jackson County governmental and tourism leader were reviewing state data and discovered the county’s visitation numbers were below par when compared with neighboring communities. That led to a flurry of activity intended to pump up those visitation stats.

Not surprisingly, Jackson County decided it needed a cut of the 3.5 million visitors who make their way to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino each year. The tribe supports Jackson County’s request.

Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten said last week he was astounded that what seemed such a simple request had snowballed into a multi-town, multi-county, even regional dispute.

“I had no idea it would cause such a stir,” Wooten said.

Wooten added he’d recently told Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown that if he had known about the ensuing uproar to come, he’d never have written to Waynesville Manager Lee Galloway asking for the town’s backing on a new directional sign. Wooten did not say, however, that the county would have backed one iota away from making the request directly to DOT.

The Haywood Board of Commissioners agreed to put its John Hancock on a letter asking the N.C. Department of Transportation to post an additional “This way to Cherokee” sign near Dillsboro.

The letter is a classic case of turn-about being fair play. Jackson County previously touched off a firestorm when it asked for a sign in Haywood County directing Cherokee-bound travelers past their own doorstep, hoping to divert traffic from the Maggie Valley route its way.

“Traffic is the livelihood of Maggie Valley,” said Commissioner Mike Sorrells “As we all know, that particular area is struggling.”

So in a rebuttal of sorts, Haywood leaders are asking for a sign in Jackson that would direct tourists to Cherokee back through Haywood County.

Specifically, Haywood’s letter asks DOT to consider placing a sign on U.S. 441 in Dillsboro to catch travelers coming up from the Atlanta area. The new signage would inform motorists that they can also reach Cherokee by coming back through Waynesville and Maggie Valley, although it is considerably longer than simply continuing on U.S. 441 to Cherokee.

Haywood County leaders stated that they are willing to share the expense of the new sign pointing Haywood’s way.

Because DOT’s safety and travel time survey’s do not favor one route over the other, Haywood County officials say there is no reason to post alternative signage directing Cherokee traffic through Jackson County instead of Maggie Valley.

“I don’t necessarily oppose it, but it’s not necessary,” said Chairman Mark Swanger.

However, Jackson County leaders say that two-lane U.S. 19 can be treacherous for large vehicle drivers and during the winter months.

Cece Hipps, president of the Greater Haywood County Chamber of Commerce; Teresa Smith, executive director of the Maggie Valley chamber; and Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood County Tourism and Development Authority have already signed the letter.

Maggie Valley has been rallying allies in its fight to save a small but perhaps precious sliver of its struggling tourism trade: pass-thru business from travelers en route to Cherokee.

A highway sign currently proclaims Maggie Valley as the proper way to reach Cherokee for tourists coming from Interstate 40. But Maggie could be stripped of this coveted status.

A new sign has been proposed that would lay-out two possible routes to Cherokee: one through Maggie Valley and one that continues through Jackson County.

The Maggie route is shorter distance-wise, but follows a narrow, two-lane winding road over Soco Gap. The route through Jackson County is longer, but sticks to a four-lane divided highway.

Maggie leaders perceive any change in the signage as a threat, potentially diverting tourist traffic away from their doorstep and into the welcoming arms of Jackson County instead.

Maggie Valley Mayor Ron Desimone said directional signs shouldn’t be hijacked as a tool to promote one town at the expense of another.

The push for new signage came from Jackson County leaders and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. As a result, the N.C. Department of Transportation has been studying the issue for several weeks, comparing traffic counts, drive time, crash statistics and scouting the roadside for where a new sign could go.

While tourists’ wallets are clearly an undercurrent in the tug-of-war over the Cherokee sign, DOT maintains that won’t influence its decision.

“Economic development is not going to be a factor,” said Cece Hipps, president of the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce. “It doesn’t carry any weight to say it would hurt economic development in our county if they changed the route. Their number one is safety.”

As a result both sides have resorted to arguing their route is the safest or most direct.

But clearly that is not what drove Jackson County to try to wrest the Cherokee sign away from Maggie Valley in the first place, Maggie Valley Town Manager Tim Barth said.

“They said it has nothing to do with business, but it has everything to do with business,” Barth said.

“I’m sure their motive is the same as ours,” agreed Ron Leatherwood, chairman of the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce.


Much ado about nothing

Just how much Maggie stands to lose if the sign is changed is anyone’s guess, but to the struggling mom-and-pop motels and diners lining Maggie’s main drag, losing even one room night or one table is one too much in this economy.

Thus, Maggie pledged earlier this month not to give up without a fight, and since then has sprung into action.

A meeting of key players in Haywood County’s business and tourism sectors, along with town leaders from Waynesville and Maggie, held a strategy meeting Monday to craft their own lobbying campaign.

The attention the debate has garnered had some in the room scratching their head over how much difference it will really make.

“I don’t think anyone is going to see a blip in their business one way or the other,” Leatherwood said. “I see it as much ado about nothing. But there are 10 of us in here having a meeting about it so it must be something.”

Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown also questioned whether directional signs really influence the route travelers take.

“If you want to go to Cherokee, you already know how you are going to Cherokee,” Brown said.

Waynesville was put in the middle of the debate early on. Technically, Waynesville stands to gain by a new sign. Right now, Cherokee-bound travelers who take the Maggie highway exit never make it to Waynesville’s doorstep. Jackson County leaders assumed that Waynesville would like the idea of a new sign, encouraging Cherokee visitors to instead stay on the highway and giving Waynesville a shot at capturing some of the traffic.

But Waynesville, it appears, has put its allegiance with Maggie Valley as a fellow Haywood County town first. Rather than join sides with Jackson, Waynesville has sided with Maggie Valley.

Brown isn’t sure how much tourism business Waynesville would really pick up from pass-thru traffic heading for Cherokee, except for gas stations right near the highway exits.

“I think the gain for Waynesville would minimal, but it could hurt Maggie,” Brown said. “I am not going to stick them when they’ve got problems.”

While it’s easy to ascribe an ulterior motive to Jackson County’s posturing, Haywood’s leaders were puzzled why the tribe has weighed in.

“That’s what I want to know — what’s it in for them?” DeSimone asked.

While U.S. 19 slides undramatically into the backside of the reservation with little in the way of an official welcome, Cherokee sees U.S. 441 as more of a bona fide gateway to the reservation, passing by the doorstep of its signature golf course and bringing tourists in closer proximity to the heart of downtown Cherokee — before eventually arriving face to face with the towering casino entrance. For tourists who come over Soco Gap on U.S. 19, their first view of the casino is its parking deck.

Both the tribe and Harrah’s direct travelers to come in on U.S. 441 — and specifically advise travelers not to take U.S. 19 — in their tourism literature and web sites.

“They are already doing everything they can to drive traffic that route,” Hipps said referring to U.S. 441.

Only about 3,500 vehicles a day on average make the climb over Soco Gap, but it fluctuates widely given the seasonal nature of tourism in Maggie and Cherokee.

“That number can be pretty high in the summer and pretty low in the winter,” said Reuben Moore, technical services engineer for the DOT regional office in Sylva.

Meanwhile, about 15,000 vehicles a day frequent U.S. 441 near the Cherokee exit.


A new sign

The cost of a new sign would be about $100,000 minimum — and perhaps double that depending on how much information it attempts to convey about the two dueling routes.

It’s unclear whether those requesting the new sign could be made to pay for some portion of it.

Maggie leaders expressed frustration that DOT is trying to fix what ain’t broke, but N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, pointed out that this landed in DOT’s lap.

“DOT didn’t invite this. They don’t want it,” said Rapp, who represents Haywood County in Raleigh. Jackson County and the tribe forced the issue with their requests to DOT.

“They have a responsibility to respond to that. They can’t just blow it off,” Rapp said. “I think they are trying to find a compromise that will satisfy everyone.”

But Moore, the DOT’s staffer who came up with the alternative sign, doesn’t like to call it a compromise. That would imply DOT’s goal is to satisfy the whims and wishes of dueling tourism interests.

Rather, DOT is merely acknowledging that there are in fact two ways to Cherokee.

“I hesitate to even call it a compromise, so much as from my point of view a position that correctly communicates the travel options,” Moore said.

The new sign would list each route followed by driving distances: 35 miles through Jackson County and 24 miles through Maggie.

But the sign wouldn’t stop there. A series of footnotes and disclaimers would caution drivers that U.S. 19 through Maggie has “six miles of steep winding road” and is “not recommended for large vehicles.”

There’s plenty of additional factors drivers might like to consider, however. Elderly drivers whose hand-eye coordination and reaction time isn’t as keen as it once was might prefer sticking to the four-lane highway. For any cell-phone addicted drivers out there, it’s worth noting the route over Soco Gap has a whopping three-mile dead zone with no reception. But if you’re craving boiled peanuts or in the market for pottery, the roadside stands of Soco are a must.

But alas, when it comes to additional footnotes, there just isn’t room on the sign as it is. Besides, the DOT won’t get into judgment calls like this and instead is sticking to the empirical data — which route is most direct and which is safest.

U.S. 19 through Maggie wins for being the most direct route, hands down.

“It is a beeline. A curvy, windy beeline maybe, but it is the shortest distance,” Moore said.

So which route is safer? The crash rate — which in simple terms is the ratio of wrecks to the total number of vehicles — is 10 percent higher for the Maggie route.

But Desimone said the crash rate difference is negligible.

“We are really splitting hairs here to get to the safest route,” Desimone said. “There is no compelling reason to change that sign.”

However, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians continues to express concerns about wrecks on the narrow, two-lane mountain road, Moore said, especially when it comes to large vehicles, like campers, RVs and motorcoaches.

Moore said he plans to study a breakdown of wrecks in more detail, particularly the large-vehicles that seem to be a source of greater concern.

While each side in the case clamors to pull off the best lobbying campaign, Moore said that won’t factor into their decision, nor will who carries the most political weight.

“Absolutely not,” Moore said of directional signs. “That is a DOT responsibility.”


The great Cherokee sign debate

Haywood and Jackson counties are butting heads over the privilege of being the preferred route to Cherokee — a tagline that carries with it a shot at enticing Cherokee-bound travelers to drop a little change on their way by.

With 3.5 million visitors a year, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort is the largest single tourist attraction in the state. Couple that with hundreds of thousands of additional tourists coming to Cherokee as a cultural destination or jumping off point for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — and it’s easy to see why neighboring communities would be fighting over what at first glance seems like little more than crumbs. All those crumbs can add up.


Turn-about is fair play

No longer resigned to playing defense, Haywood County’s leaders decided to mount their own push for a second sign to Cherokee — one that would be placed in Jackson County letting tourists know they can get to Cherokee by coming through Waynesville and Maggie.

To cater to travelers from the Atlanta region, Haywood wants a highway sign on U.S. 441 near Dillsboro letting travelers know they can get to Cherokee by coming up and around through Haywood County — even if it is a far more circuitous route.

Ron Leatherwood, chairman of the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce said if Jackson is asking for a second sign in Haywood, Haywood can ask for a second sign in Jackson.

“We should ask DOT to do the same study. If they are doing it for one, they should do it for us,” Leatherwood said.

The DOT will soon be getting formal letters signed by the county tourism board, the Haywood County Chamber, the Maggie Chamber, the towns of Maggie and Waynesville, the county’s economic development commission and perhaps the county commissioners asking the route through Maggie remain on directional signs for Cherokee. They hope their letters will counter the letters DOT has already received from Jackson County and the tribe.

A compromise has emerged in a fight over the historic McCoy truss bridge, one that would keep the old bridge in place for foot traffic while building a newer, bigger bridge alongside it for vehicles. But Macon residents who have spent nearly 10 years fighting for the bridge still feel ignored.

N.C. Department of Transportation workers and county commissioners cooked up the deal independently of the community’s wishes, according to resident Doug Woodward, who has labored for years to see McCoy Bridge renovated and saved for all types of vehicular traffic.

The debate over the truss bridge has become a symbol for a larger clash in the region between development and a rural way of life. Residents claim a sentimental attachment to the truss bridge, and fear a bigger, newer bridge will pave the way for more people and more traffic in their valley.

Commissioner Bobby Kuppers, who represents that area of Macon County, has said that he believes building a new bridge while saving McCoy Bridge is the best option available. Last May, the full five-member board of commissioners endorsed Kuppers’ proposal.

DOT officials are now indicating they’ll go along with the idea, including kicking in $126,000 toward renovating the truss structure. The DOT sent a letter to the county agreeing in concept. The money is contingent on Macon County assuming ownership of McCoy Bridge.

McCoy Bridge, which straddles the Little Tennessee River in the Oak Grove community, is one of a few truss bridges remaining in the state and the last in Macon County. DOT, which would have access to federal funds for much of the cost of a new bridge, wants to replace the one-lane crossing with a new one.

The DOT has cited safety as a factor. Engineers have deemed McCoy Bridge “functionally obsolete” and unable to handle future traffic demands. Its structural integrity is suspect, they say.

They’ve argued for a safe and historic working bridge: Not two bridges — one for motorists and the other for pedestrians and bike users — but a single, working bridge for everyone.

Woodward said the commissioners’ compromise had been considered, but discarded, as an option early on. Residents even submitted an engineering redesign of their own during a meeting with state transportation officials a few years ago.

Woodward said that the redesign was a workable compromise and that it would bring McCoy up to modern load-bearing standards, yet retain most of the historical character of the bridge.

Ralph Kennedy of the state Department of Transportation said will buy necessary right-of-way for the new bridge in 2014 with an estimated cost of $410,000. Construction is slated to begin in 2016, with a cost of about $2.5 million, he said.

The road less traveled

The question ‘which way to Cherokee?’ continues bedeviling the state transportation department, which has been caught in a tug-of-war between Jackson County and Maggie Valley over who deserves a sign pointing the “right” way to Cherokee.

Maggie Valley currently holds title to the sole directional sign pointing motorists to Cherokee via U.S. 19 and over Soco Gap — and would like to keep it that way.

“We are all for helping promote Jackson County, but not at the expense of Maggie Valley,” said Maggie Valley Mayor Ron DeSimone.

The N.C. Department of Transportation is “leaning toward” posting a sign indicating that there are in fact two routes to Cherokee — one through Maggie and one that continues on past Sylva.

But by posting another sign, the department of transportation would “take away from one and give to another,” said Alderman Mike Matthews. “There has not been enough information to say you should go this way versus this way.”

Jackson County officials, meanwhile, have lobbied for the second sign, pointing out that the four-lane highway going past Sylva is actually safer and more user friendly than the route through Maggie. The tribe has expressed a desire for a second sign.

“They feel like the two-lane road over Soco is hazardous,” said Reuben Moore, a DOT official who works in the regional office in Sylva.

But DeSimone questioned Jackson’s true motive.

“Obviously, Jackson County did not bring this up because they were concerned for public welfare,” DeSimone said.

Maggie Valley could win out, however, as the DOT has yet to find a place to put the new sign and has not settled on concise wording.


Safety and travel time

Moore updated the Maggie Valley Board of Aldermen on the status of the sign issue at a town meeting last week.

If the DOT decides to allow a new sign, it would be placed by May before the beginning of the tourist season.

But, posting a new sign faces several obstacles, including where to place it.

“It takes about a mile of signage to properly sign an exit,” Moore said. But the roadside leading up to the Maggie exit is already cluttered with signage.

DOT has not settled on the appearance of the sign. It cannot simply put two dueling arrows on a sign pointing this way or that way to Cherokee.

“That is strictly against policy,” Moore said.

The DOT has discussed making a sign with the words Cherokee spanning the top half of the sign and the mileage for both routes below it: U.S. 74 at 37 miles and U.S. 19 at 24 miles.

Although the route through Maggie is shorter distance-wise, a study by the DOT showed that travel time was essentially the same — about 35 minutes — no matter which road was taken.

“We found that the travel time was very nearly the same,” Moore said.

Initially, Moore wanted the sign to specify that the travel time was about the same no matter which route is taken, but DOT vetoed the idea because traffic or accidents could delay travel along one of the roads.

The department only test-drove the routes three times during the late fall and winter. The times do not account for increased traffic during the summer and early fall months when tourists flood the area. Get stuck behind a slow moving Winnebago, and the trip through Soco Gap could be a grueling one.

The review of both routes showed that the crash rate on U.S. 19 is 10 percent higher.

Alderman Mike Matthews said that the two roads are incomparable when it comes to wrecks because U.S. 19 runs through a town where cars are often slowing down or speeding up and pulling in or out of parking lots. The U.S. 441 route, however, is a four-lane divided highway.

“I don’t even see how that could be compared,” Matthews said.

Maggie Valley officials said they want “overwhelming, definitive information” showing that the road through Jackson County is safer.

Does DOT consider U.S. 19 to be safe, Matthews asked?

“Absolutely,” Moore responded.

Aldermen Saralyn Price asked Moore pointblank which road would he take if it was snowing and he was in Lake Junaluska.

“I wouldn’t be out,” Moore said.

The Board of Aldermen argued that the DOT has not provided any information that would validate a decision to post a new directional sign.

“I have not heard anything definite about (U.S. 441) being safer,” DeSimone said.


Capturing tourism dollars

Maggie Valley and Jackson County each hope to attract a portion of the 3.5 million people who visit the casino in Cherokee each year.

The idea that Maggie Valley will lose business should an alternative route be posted “presupposes that people are going to do what the signs tell them to do,” Moore said.

Jackson County commissioners haven’t been shy about their desires to funnel tourism traffic through that county. Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten and the five county commissioners expressed surprise last week that their request for a sign had triggered uproars in Maggie Valley.

As they hammered out possible designs for a new welcome sign at the county line, Commissioner Doug Cody joked that they should add to Jackson County’s fantasy sign: “This is the best route to Cherokee.”

A decision will be made based on safety and the speed of traffic, assured Moore, not based on which route is more scenic or needs more business.

According to Jackson County Travel and Tourism, visitors have said that they prefer to take U.S. 441 to Cherokee. But, Moore said he can’t confirm whether that is true.

Counties and towns in the region are sparring over a highway sign that points the way to Cherokee, each hoping to capture a share of the 3.5 million annual visitors en route to the tribe’s casino by bringing that traffic past their own doorstep.

There are two routes to Cherokee — something any tourist could figure out using the Internet or an in-car GPS unit. However, only one route has a highway directional sign pointing the way to Cherokee, namely the route through Maggie Valley.

Jackson County officials are urging the North Carolina Department of Transportation to post a second highway sign letting travelers know they don’t have to get off the highway and head through Maggie but can continue on past Waynesville and Sylva to reach Cherokee as well.

Jackson sees itself as the big winner from such a sign but has appealed to Waynesville to join it in its request.

“We thought Waynesville might also be the beneficiary of that (sign),” said Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten.

Currently, Cherokee-bound tourists coming off Interstate 40 are funneled toward Maggie on U.S. 19 just before they get to Waynesville.

Waynesville leaders discussed the issue at their town board meeting last week but postponed a decision until next year.

Neither Town Manager Lee Galloway nor Mayor Gavin Brown had spoken with officials in Maggie Valley about their take on the matter. However, at least one board member is against siding with Jackson County over Maggie Valley.

“I don’t feel like we should go against our own,” said board member Gary Caldwell.

As for Maggie Valley, officials said they had not heard about or had only heard tell of the possible signage.

Tim Barth, Maggie Valley’s town manager, said he was not aware that Jackson County had reached out to Waynesville looking for support. However, he said he would oppose such a sign.

“We would prefer that they come through Maggie Valley,” Barth said.

If the sign was erected, Maggie Valley would likely see fewer people driving down its main drag – which could further harm tourist businesses that are already struggling.

“Obviously, less people would be coming through the town then, and we depend on people coming through the town,” Barth said.

People traveling to Cherokee sometimes stop at restaurants or stores along the way, which is the main reason why Jackson County wants the sign — to cash in on some of those travelers’ checks.

“Our whole goal was to increase traffic (to the county),” Wooten said.


Which way?

For leaders in Cherokee and within the Eastern Band, having two routes to the reservation is about keeping customers happy.

“It’s important for our customers to have a choice,” said Robert Jumper, the tribe’s travel and tourism manager. “We want people to be able to come, in their most comfortable way, to Cherokee.”

If visitors are not happy with a particular route, they might not come back, said Jumper, who expressed support for the sign. He added that the additional route, which runs past Waynesville, would benefit both Haywood and Jackson counties.

When people call the Cherokee visitor center, they are directed through Maggie Valley or Jackson County based on their driving preferences.

Although vehicles traverse fewer road miles on the route through Maggie Valley, the low speed limits and a windy, two-lane road makes the scenic drive longer than expected, including a rather lengthy dead zone for cell phone users.

“The most direct route, of course, is through Maggie,” said Teresa Smith, head of the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce. “Obviously, it’s a straight shot (to Cherokee), and a majority of our businesses are on this main thoroughfare.”

However, the Great Smoky Mountain Expressway through Jackson County is generally the quickest route, a divided-highway with a faster flow of traffic, but drivers miss out on the views when going over Soco Gap in Maggie.

Jackson County has applied for a similar sign in the past, but nothing happened.

While the DOT has indicated that it would be possible to place a second sign near the existing one at Exit 103 on the by-pass, it is still unknown whether it will actually happen, Wooten said.

Hoping to sway the transportation department, the county has applied to others for support. Representatives from Cherokee and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians have signed their names to letters that indicate their support for the new sign.

“We feel that giving the motoring public an additional option of four-lane travel will provide better flow of traffic and enhance safety on both routes to Cherokee,” reads the letter signed by Jumper; Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band; Jason Lambert, the tribe’s executive director of economic development; and Matthew Pegg, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce.

The letter also states that the route through Jackson County provides drivers with a “direct, unimpeded” road to Cherokee.

A similar letter written by Jack Debnam, Chairman of the Jackson County commission, states that the expressway route offers an alternative that is easy for any type of vehicle to travel, during any type of weather.

Smith admitted that ice and snow have made the trip over Soco Gap hazardous on occasion but said that the road is nowhere near impassable.

“Vehicles have traveled it for years,” Smith said. “It’s not like it’s impossible. It’s not like it’s dangerous.”

Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority, declined to comment on the topic until she could meet with other members of the tourism board.

Rules in Jackson County controlling how development occurs along the five-mile stretch or so of U.S. 441 that leads into the Cherokee Indian Reservation are undergoing review.

That concerns former Commissioner William Shelton, a resident and farmer who lives and works in that area. Shelton helped pass the regulations after the Whittier community developed a long-range vision and plan for this critical stretch of four-lane highway, known as the Gateway area.

“It is their plan, what they want to happen and to not happen,” Shelton said.

The Whittier land-use plan was a landmark event when passed four years ago. It marked one of the first attempts by any county west of Buncombe to undertake what is essentially spot-zoning. The county planning board now wants to revise the land-use plan.

County Planner Gerald Green, who was hired by the previous Democrat-controlled board just before its members were ousted during the last election, said there’s no desire in play here to strip the regulations of meaning.

Green said that he initiated the review himself. The planner maintained this is a simple attempt “to improve” rules on development in the corridor “and make them work for everyone.”

“The intention was to preserve the scenic rural character of the area. But I’m not sure the ordinance does that,” Green said.



Republican Commissioners Charles Elders and Doug Cody both said this week they support a planning board review of the U.S. 441 ordinance.

Cody described the existing regulations as “anti-development.” Elders, who lives and works in that area and replaced Shelton on the board, said that he’s heard a multitude of complaints in his community about the rules being too restrictive.

The current regulations don’t particularly limit where development can occur along the strip of highway leading to Cherokee. Instead, it lays out aesthetic standards, such as architecture and landscaping, to ensure what development does occur will be attractive. And that’s sort of what’s there now — some older motels, a consignment shop or two, service stations and a few businesses dot the corridor.

Green said he believes stipulating “nodes” of concentrated development might actually work better, such as at the juncture of U.S. 74 and U.S. 441. Concentrated development might be preferable to allowing growth to sprawl along the entire strip, he said, adding this sprawl actually could under-gird, not weaken, another goal of the original plan — traffic management.

Green also wants to take a hard look at rules now in place that dictate any new parking lots go behind buildings, not in front. The ordinance, he said, fulfills “new urbanist philosophies” but doesn’t take into account more practical considerations, such as the “context” of development already in place along U.S. 441.

Additionally, the ordinance fails to stipulate that developers can’t just “flip” their new businesses around. In other words, new development could technically meet the ordinance requirements by “fronting” the highway with the actual back of a new building, he said. Then the parking lot would be “in front” of the building as required — but that would not be what motorists on U.S. 441 were looking at as they travel to and from Cherokee.

The ordinance also fails to meet a more desirable planning goal of being able to get to several shops from a single access road instead of having a long smear of strip development along the entire corridor, Green said. And that discourages pedestrian movement between shops, he added.


Urban fix to rural problem

A Charlotte firm helped develop the ordinance, and the county planner said that big-city approach to controlling development simply doesn’t work well on the ground in rural Western North Carolina.

“I see it as improving these regulations,” Green said of the planning board review. “The more I look at the ordinance the more questions I have about it. The plan (by the community) was very well done. It is the ordinance that is being reviewed.”

A series of community workshops and public meetings was held in Whittier to help develop a vision for the corridor. That vision laid the groundwork for the logistical aspects of the ordinance written by the contracted firm.

Green said he does not believe “that the goal of protecting the corridor and encouraging development is exclusive.”

Next May, Jackson County residents will vote on whether to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages countywide. In April, Cherokee residents will vote on whether to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages reservation-wide. A “yes” by both or either of those communities is likely to trigger some development along U.S. 441, though Green believes it will be fairly slow because of poor economic conditions.

“I do think it will grow, but given the state of the economy, it won’t be fast,” the county planner said.

And, if Jackson residents OK the sale of alcoholic beverages in May, it would take about a year for the actual reality of sales to occur. And that, loosely, is the timeframe Green wants to see the planning board work within, too.

“We want to make sure (Gateway) is both attractive and viable as a transportation corridor,” the planner said.

Page 8 of 17

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