“There’s a lot of really creative solutions we’ve seen around the county for how to address those (issues) that I’m hoping there’s a window of opportunity there if we can find a design that might be able to bring that footprint a little tighter,” said Chris Joyell, director of the design center.
Preliminary plans for the N.C. 107 redesign, released this spring, drew widespread opposition from the community when it was revealed that they would require 54 businesses, one nonprofit and five residences to relocate. In a small town like Sylva, 54 businesses is a lot of businesses — roughly one-sixth of the town’s total.
The large number of businesses likely to be affected drastically increased the project’s estimated price tag, as well. When initial plans were released in March 2017, the N.C. Department of Transportation estimated the project would cost $35.5 million total, with $14.6 million of that going to right-of-way and utilities. The revised estimate in February 2018, however, said that right-of-way alone would cost $47.6 million.
The plans — which are only 25 percent complete and so still subject to change — sparked a strong reaction from the community and spurred a revival of the Jackson County Smart Roads Alliance, which originally formed in 2002 to oppose DOT’s proposal to build a connector road between Cullowhee and U.S. 74. The project was eventually killed but led DOT to its current proposal — both plans aimed to reduce congestion and crashes on N.C. 107.
The existing proposal would affect N.C. 107 from the fire department on West Main Street all the way out past Ingles, plus a one-third-mile section of the Old Asheville Highway from McDonald’s to the intersection with N.C. 107. With the exception of the West Main Street portion, which would remain a four-lane road, the result would be a five-lane road with a grassy median in place of the existing “suicide lane.” Drivers would be able to turn across the median only at designated locations, and bike lanes and improved sidewalks would encourage non-vehicular transportation.
During a public meeting held Aug. 6 at Sylva Town Hall, well over 100 community members packed the building and 29 people signed up to speak. None of the 23 people who actually delivered public comment were actively supportive of the proposal, though several spoke passionately about the need for something to be done.
“I felt like the general consensus at that meeting was that something needed to be done to improve the condition of the road, or that people realized that,” said Town Manager Paige Dowling. “I think they felt that the design could be improved.”
That’s why the town decided to call the Asheville Design Center, part of the nonprofit MountainTrue, which offered its services pro bono to help find a project design that would solve the traffic issues while leaving more existing development intact. During a regular meeting Aug. 9, commissioners voted to work with the center.
Joyell is in the midst of assembling a team, which he says will consist of experienced professionals with a “fair understanding of the challenges on N.C. 107” who “probably know a lot about the internal politics and social dynamics in the community.” While Joyell is a MountainTrue employee, the remainder of the team would be working on a volunteer basis.
Joyell said he’ll ask his team to start with a blank slate. The plan is to begin the process by listening to the community describe the problems, then working with the DOT and the town to find a solution. He also plans to involve the cycling community, looking for ways to include bike lanes without requiring businesses to relocate.
“I should be really clear that up front we don’t know what the outcomes are going to be and I can’t really tell anyone what the center’s products will look like,” Joyell said.
Outside of anything the Asheville Design Center proposes, there’s potential for the DOT plans to change significantly between now and the end of the year. The agency is waiting on utility companies to submit their plans for the corridor before moving forward on its end. The content of those utility plans could drastically affect the DOT’s constraints. One wild card is whether buried lines are a possibility. If so, the number of businesses relocated could decrease, Division Engineer Brian Burch said during the Aug. 6 meeting. If not, the number could increase.
“Until we get that information any decision that we make is somewhat premature,” Burch said Aug. 6.
That said, Joyell believes that the 25-percent mark is a good place for the Design Center to enter the conversation.
“I think we’re in a good spot,” Joyell said. “At 25 percent there’s enough room to really make some tweaks. There’s also something on the table for people to at least be able to react to. What we’re hoping to avoid is we don’t want people simply reacting to designs. We’d much rather have a proactive process where we’re engaging the community up front and learning what their desires are.”