The editorial, Issues complicate road project, by Flat Rock Mayor Bob Staton appeared in the July 31, 2018, issue of the Hendersonville Times-News. CLG has taken a look at it and we offer our perspective below. (All links, including those in the mayor’s editorial, have been added.)
Two recent Times-News editorials (“Engineer a solution for path,” July 13, 2018; and “Share the road, save a life,” July 15, 2018) concerned, respectively, the proposed North Highland Lake Road improvement project and its potential impact on Pinecrest Presbyterian Church, and the need for drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians to exercise caution, avoid distractions and pay attention to the roads they share.
Mayor Staton left out one recent editorial: Local government’s broken process. This editorial outlined the case of the N. Highland Lake Road project as well, a project initiated by one council member who was able to allocate $2.7 million taxpayer dollars for an unnecessary road project without informing other council members or the community.
The first editorial was based on the misconception that the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s plan to include a sidewalk and multiuse path in the proposed road improvements is the reason for the removal of a natural buffer of trees planted some 40 years ago along the road and on the property of Pinecrest Presbyterian Church.
While it is true that a five-foot sidewalk will be installed in the right of way on the north side of the road, it is the widening of the road to increase the storage capacity of the road’s center left-turn lane at its intersection with Greenville Highway that requires the removal of the trees between the church and the road. Even if no sidewalk were to be installed at that point, the much-needed extension of the turn lane would require the removal of the trees.
The idea of increasing storage on N. Highland Lake Road was part of NCDOT’s original plan (October 2017) but there is no corroborating data that we have seen that backs up the phrase “much-needed extension” or the need for any extension of that space at all.
As to the proposed 10-foot multiuse path to the rear of the church, such a path will be installed within the road right of way and should not in any way interfere with plans the church may have for use of that part of the property in the future.
The suggestion that the project be redesigned to utilize land on the south side of the road is a sound one. However, the land on the south side is within the Flat Rock Historic District, as it appears in the National Register of Historic Places, and a number of land parcels along the south side of the road are encumbered by historic preservation easements that restrict the use of the land without the approval of the beneficiary of such easements.
A historic preservation easement does not “encumber.” Rather it protects and preserves the property for future generations, and for the Village of Flat Rock, helps keep that Sense of Place that is so essential to Flat Rock’s character. Flat Rock’s historic district is the largest in the state of North Carolina—something all of us, including our elected officials, should appreciate and work hard to retain.
To avoid conflicts with the beneficiary, who considers the easements inviolable, and the State Historic Preservation Office, DOT’s plans call for the road bed to be shifted four feet to the north to accommodate a much-needed two-foot-wide paved shoulder on the south side and a curb and gutter of similar width on the north side of the road.
It is unfortunate for Pinecrest Presbyterian Church that the historic preservationists consider their rights under the preservation easements to be sacrosanct. Expansion of the road bed by two feet or so on the south side would result in no loss of anything of a historic nature.
However, the church will suffer the consequences of DOT’s avoidance of a time-consuming and perhaps unwinnable conflict with historic preservationists by not touching the south side of the road. Those consequences could be minimized with the cooperation of the historic preservationists.
Property owners obtain historic easements to protect their property—that’s the point of a historic easement. The holder of those easements (in this case, Historic Flat Rock, Inc.) does not have the power or right to change those historic easements or to alter the National Register qualifications and boundaries. The holder’s responsibility is to be the custodian of the easements and make sure that the easements’ criteria and stipulations are followed.
So it is not a case of HFR not “cooperating”—it’s a case of HFR fulfilling their duty to property owners, as they should. To imply that HFR could “cooperate” to the mayor’s satisfaction is to imply that HFR could ignore their obligations–something they cannot do.
The second Times-News editorial shared the information that, each year, more than 3,000 pedestrians and 850 bicyclists are hit by vehicles in North Carolina; and, on average, about 160 pedestrians and 20 bicyclists are killed each year in the state, which represents about 15 percent of all traffic fatalities on North Carolina roads.
A sidewalk and off-road multiuse path were included in the plan for the North Highland Lake Road improvement project in compliance with the DOT Complete Streets policy adopted in 2009 and directing the department to incorporate several modes of transportation when building new road projects or making improvements to existing infrastructure. The benefits of this approach include making it easier for travelers to get where they need to go; encouraging the use of alternative forms of transportation; increasing connectivity between neighborhoods, streets and transit systems; and improving safety for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists.
Flat Rock is a semi-rural area. To add sidewalks, etc., changes the entire character of the village. Sidewalks on N. Highland Lake Road that go nowhere are an indication of what can happen on Little River Road, Rutledge Drive, etc. Every place in Henderson County does not need to be connected to every other place. Each jurisdiction should decide for themselves by consulting their constituents whether this concept fits into their character and is something they can afford.
The idea of Complete Streets is part of a push by the U.S. Dept of Transportation. In 2010, USDOT Secretary Ray LaHood issued a policy statement that required state and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to “integrate walking and bicycling facilities and programs in their transportation plans.”
Is this mandate appropriate for every locality? We would say no, especially for those areas–like Flat Rock–with rural characters and with historical significance reflected in their cultural landscapes. Top-down mandates from the federal government are a poor way to handle local policy.
The multiuse path along North Highland Lake Road is envisioned as an accommodation for bicyclists and pedestrians that would someday connect with greenways planned by Flat Rock, Henderson County and Hendersonville. Such a network of off-road paths could remove some bicyclists and pedestrians from our roads by putting them in a safer environment without conflict with motorists.
While such a network is a dream today, it could become a reality with the continuation of feasibility studies, multi-jurisdictional cooperation, long-range planning, and a desire to make it happen.
It is obvious from this language (“someday,” “a dream,” etc.) that there is no concrete development or funding for a Henderson County-wide pathway system—a system that is being created without adequate input from the communities impacted. Flat Rock does not have the financial resources or municipal infrastructure to create and develop pathways that go nowhere and connect to nothing, especially when there is no indication that they are wanted by the community. In fact, as evidenced by 1,700 petition signatures opposing the N. Highland Lake Road project, it’s the exact opposite.