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Inch-by-inch, Jackson County plods toward vision of Tuckasegee greenway

fr cullowheeThe vision is grand: a snaking, multi-use recreational path along the shores of the Tuckaseegee River — approximately 20 miles stretching from East Laporte to Whittier — lined with trees, dotted with parks, fishing spots, river access, picnic tables and pedestrian bridges.

In the future it would link in with other regional trails, perhaps even the Western Carolina University Millennial Campus Trail that will extend to the airport and the Mountains-to-Sea Trail that goes all the way to the coast.

But with many grand schemes, the execution can be complex, mired in struggles for funding and direction. The Jackson County Greenway is no exception. Convincing private property owners to let the greenway cross their land has been the biggest obstacle.

“This has been a project on the drawing board for years,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said. “A master plan was done; trails were established; and a dream put in place, but the challenge is acquiring the easements to put that dream in place.”

Despite more than a decade passing since the first greenway planning committee was formed, a few road blocks don’t discourage the project’s supporters, especially when a clear plan is in sight and a begin-construction date for the first segment of the greenway is close enough to visualize.

“I think it’s had priority for quite some time,” said Jackson County Commission Chairman Jack Debnam. “It’s just slow moving.”

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For Debnam, the project has been on his mind for years. He even encouraged a friend to donate land to the county to be used in the first segment of the greenway project. That was six years ago, before he was a commissioner.

Now, all the easements for the first phase — a 1.5-mile section in Cullowhee from the N.C. 107 bridge to Monteith Gap Road — have been acquired. The second phase would bring the greenway the rest of the way through Cullowhee to the doorstep of Western Carolina University. However, easements for that section are proving much tougher.

If all goes according to plan that first 1.5- mile section in Cullowhee should be completed by fall 2013.

But first, several steps must be taken.

One is building a pedestrian bridge across the river from a parking area to the actual walking path. While not part of the original plan for phase one, the county just last week hired an engineer to conduct a feasibility study for the bridge. It will tie in to Duke Energy’s public river access near the start of the 1.5-mile section.

Jackson County planning Director Gerald Green said although the link will not only serve as parking to access the greenway, but tie in with picnic areas and possibly bathrooms at the access site.

The study will look at the most economical location to put the bridge as well as potential environmental impacts of the project. It should be completed in a month.

But after the bridge study is complete, there are still many rivers to cross.

The county does not have a solid source of funding for the bridge project. With $300,000 set aside in a special greenway capital fund, the county is still about half a million dollars short of the total estimated price tag.

Green’s hopes, along with the rest of the greenway supporters, are riding on a $400,000 grant application being submitted in January to the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund. The announcement will be made in spring.

If the county gets the grant, which Green is confident it will, construction can begin. While the county has some money to get started on construction, it’s holding off to see if it gets the grant. The grant requires matching funds. If the county spends the $300,000 is has already set aside, that money couldn’t count toward a match of the state grant should it come through.


The big picture

But it’s too early to pop the champagne bottles. Progress on the first phase of the greenway is somewhat bittersweet in light of other troubles the county has had acquiring easements over private property for phase two, which would link that first segment to nearby population hubs such as WCU and Cullowhee.

Completion of phase one would bring the greenway within a stone’s throw of the WCU and Cullowhee. But the river gets rockier upstream. The second phase would bring the greenway to campus, allowing students, many without cars, to leave campus to enjoy the benefits of a bike and walking path.

However, several private landowners stand in the way, and according to County Manager Chuck Wooten, some have not been so willing to negotiate.

While some are, unless the county can get contiguous property owners on board, Wooten said it makes little sense to buy islands of property easements the greenway can’t connect to.

One property, which would get the trail considerably closer to the university, is an estate with multiple heirs. The land the county is eyeing for an easement is in a floodway and unsuitable for building, Wooten said, but perfect for a greenway.

“Yet, when we made an offer, they turned it down,” Wooten said.

He said the owners wanted more money and would only grant an easement good for a finite number of years.

The county is somewhat constrained in its negotiations. Money to buy up easements for phase two of the greenway is coming from a $400,000 grant from the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund. But the grant stipulates that the county can’t pay more than the property’s real value and the easement must be in perpetuity — not for a finite number of years.

The impasse has led some county officials consider alternate paths, such as re-routing the trail along a road to campus, using an easement with the N.C. Department of Transportation, or shifting their focus to another segment of the greenway altogether near Whittier.

But time could be of essence. Unless the county can reach the land deals by end of 2014, the $400,000 grant will expire.

Wooten is optimistic that if the first section is completed, the easements will come.

“Once we get this thing started and show them it’s an asset to the community — other property owners will come forward,” Wooten said. “It may actually make their property more valuable.”

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