“For TWSA, until we see what is going on underground it is hard for staff and you all to understand what the impact is on TWSA and what the real impact is on the adjoining properties,” Harbaugh told the board. “That is when we will really begin to sink our teeth into the impact of the project.”
So far, preliminary plans — 25 percent complete — are all that have been released for the project, with right-of-way acquisition scheduled to start in January 2020 and construction in December 2021. The N.C. Department of Transportation has draft drainage plans in hand with approved versions due for release in January. The next iteration of road plans — the 65 percent complete version — is slated for release March 7 with a public comment period extending through April 18. Once that public comment period is complete, said Harbaugh, the Policy Committee can resume discussing TWSA’s response to the road project.
A series of meetings has been scheduled between DOT and TWSA, with Harbaugh having met Nov. 28 with project engineer Jonathan Woodard and Dec. 13 with Sylva Town Manager Paige Dowling. He will hold a follow-up meeting with DOT and attend a utility kickoff meeting planned for mid-January, which will be the beginning of the planning process for utility relocations associated with the road project. Design plans for water and sewer relocations won’t be determined until 90 percent plans are released in April 2021.
“As soon as we know a little bit more, we’ll schedule a follow-up meeting with the Policy Committee to look at this project in more detail,” Harbaugh told the board Dec. 18. “Until we have more information there’s not much we can discuss at this point.”
Preliminary plans released in spring 2018 showed that 54 businesses, one nonprofit and five residences along the N.C. 107 corridor would be so heavily impacted by the project that they would have to be relocated — about one-sixth of Sylva’s business community. But the project will impact many more businesses and residences on less severe levels, restricting the number of driveways and making travel between businesses difficult during the two-year construction period. TWSA’s initial estimates have shown that about 150 customers will likely experience some impact to their water and sewer service as a result of the project.
TWSA has long borne criticism for its high up-front costs to begin or expand water and sewer service. Though it dramatically reduced those fees this year due to a 2017 state law, the fees can still be substantial and follow the property they’re associated with, not the person. That, combined with the fact that there are few suitable locations in Sylva for businesses to relocate to, has led to concerns that impacted businesses might choose to shut down or leave the area rather than reopen in town. The policy committee began to discuss the issue during an Oct. 18 meeting, with ideas including waiving system development fees — formerly called impact fees — for relocated businesses, allowing those businesses a certain number of years of free water and sewer service before charging fees and creating a policy that would extend any fee waivers to businesses that rent their locations in addition to those who own them.
Renters comprise the vast majority of businesses in the affected district, with Dowling telling the TWSA board in November that her calculations show that 71 percent of businesses in the area rent their locations. Therefore, a policy that truly addresses the issue would need to include renters.
TWSA members were leery of outright waiving the fees, though — especially for renters, who are not property owners and therefore don’t have a “vested interest” in the water and sewer allocation. Harbaugh warned board members that allowing the fees to be waived could set a precedent they might not want to set. In addition, he said, the board must first understand how DOT will compensate impacted businesses to ensure TWSA isn’t footing the bill for something the state would otherwise take care of.
Those are all important questions, and TWSA has time on its side, said Board Chair Tracy Rodes.
“We need numbers and a plan before we do the policy, enact the policy,” Rodes said during the October Policy Committee meeting.
Board member David Nestler disagreed, however, saying that business owners are already making decisions about whether to stay or go — if TWSA hopes to convince them to stay, he said, it needs to act now.
“I think we do need to approach this with some urgency because I think business owners and renters, they’re going to be trying to move before all this starts, and if we wait and keep waiting until we get the full picture of everything that’s happening, it’s going to be too late,” Nestler said during a Nov. 13 work session. “I think if we can develop a policy and be working on this policy while this new information comes in, I think it’s the smartest thing to do.”
It remains to be seen what the board consensus will be in 2019, which will bring a shakeup in board membership. Longtime board member Harold Hensley, a Sylva town appointment, has rotated off the board, and the town chose to end the appointment of former mayor Brenda Oliver early. Replacing them will be Sylva attorney Jeff Goss and Lulu’s on Main owner Mick McCardle. Jackson County has opted to reappoint sitting board member Tom Sawyer.
The new members will attend their first meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 8, which will be TWSA’s regularly scheduled work session. The board will hold its official meeting the following week, at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 15.