Macon County News  Sept.23, 2010

Opinions divided over $13 million Needmore project

NCDOT accepting public comments through October 21

The North Carolina Department of Transportation cites sediment runoff into the Little Tennessee River as one of the rationales behind a $13 milllion project to pave Needmore Road.

By Christopher Carpenter
Staff Writer

There are almost as many opinions on what to do with Needmore, the old gravel road paralleling 3.3 miles of the Little Tennessee River, as there are federally-listed species within the corridor, not the least of which is to just leave it alone.

On Tuesday, the N.C. Department of Transportation held a combined open house and public hearing at the Southwestern Community College Swain Center regarding proposed improvements to a section of Needmore Road that lies within a 4,500 acre tract of protected game land straddling the border of Macon and Swain counties. The alternative currently being recommended by the agency entails a $13.1 million improvement project that will widen and pave the entire section of the road from where it begins at Tellico Road in Macon County to the pavement that begins in Swain County.

After the open house session, during which NCDOT representatives were on hand to answer questions and field comments, a formal presentation was given followed by the public hearing. Residents of the two counties as well as representatives of various conservation organizations in the region gave comments to be officially entered into the public record.

The picture that emerged from the more than 30 citizens who got up to speak at the hearing was not unified. Like the river in springtime, controversy seems to be rising as stakeholders assert divided opinions.

Some area residents and frequent users of the unpaved road say improvements are long overdue. There are numerous places along the road too narrow for two cars to pass. The road is dusty, and wind blows the dust into the river, coating the rocks and plant life on its banks. Rain washes tons of silt into the river every year. When the river rises, it can wash the road out, leaving deep ruts and sometimes making it impassable.

“ ... people need to continue encouraging the agency and other groups of influence to do the right thing and consider all possible alternatives before committing to something that can’t be undone.” — Dr. Bill McLarney, Aquatic Biologist

Others, including residents, users and a number of local conservation groups are more wary. They see the potential for road improvement to negatively impact the unique and diverse ecosystem of the area, which is inhabited by the Appalachian elktoe mussel and the little-wing pearly mussel, both on the federal endangered species list, as well as the threatened spotfin chub. In addition, the proposed project could irreversibly alter the pristine rural environment so valued by the people who fish, walk, jog, canoe, kayak, play and live there.

In 2004, the state purchased the Needmore tract from Duke Power to be preserved as game land after an intensive lobbying effort from citizens, the local governments and various conservation groups had put the tract at the top of the state’s conservation priority list. The $19 million used to purchase the tract included a mix of private and public funds, including $7.5 million from the NCDOT itself through the state's Ecosystem Enhancement Program.

Aquatic biologist Bill McLarney, who has spent the last 25 years studying the Little Tennessee watershed, says people should be grateful to NCDOT for their part in helping to acquire the preserve. “They deserve our thanks and our support,” said McLarney at a recent informal meeting hosted by the Western North Carolina Alliance (WNCA).

On the other hand, McLarney says, people need to continue encouraging the agency and other groups of influence to do the right thing and consider all possible alternatives before committing to something that can’t be undone.

“At this point, we don’t have enough information to make a choice,” McLarney said of the possible alternatives that have been proposed by the state.

While McLarney supports some improvements to the road, he is skeptical of the alternative the NCDOT is currently recommending, the Alternative E. McLarney calls it the “how-can-we-spendthe- most-money-and-make-the-biggest-roadthrough- here alternative.”

The alternatives

NCDOT proposes to upgrade Needmore Road from a one-lane gravel throughway to a two-lane paved road with shoulders. The section of the road targeted for improvements runs for 3.3 miles, including 1.4 miles in Macon County. Each mile of the project, then, would cost about $4 million to develop. The agency notes that it intends to do all necessary widening on the opposite side of the road from the Little Tennessee River to minimize impacts to the river.

According to the NCDOT, the proposed project will improve safety for vehicles utilizing the road, reduce erosion into the river, minimize impacts to habitat and reduce maintenance costs currently associated with the road. While the agency acknowledges that there are no consistent capacity problems (in 2008 daily traffic was estimated at 340 vehicles), it argues that the improvements are warranted due to the fact that the road provides system linkage in an area where travel between key destinations is made more difficult by the mountainous topography and limited routes.

In studying the project, the agency identified five different alternatives which are referred to as Alternatives A-E:

• Alternative A: No-build—the “do nothing” alternative. Price tag: $0 to build; expensive to maintain.

• Alternative B: No paving but with selected improvements including using alternative surfacing techniques. Price tag: $375,000.

• Alternative C: Pave in place of existing road (18 ft. maximum width). Price tag: $5.2 million.

• Alternative D: Pave in place of existing road (18 ft. minimum width). Price tag: $9 million.

• Alternative E: Pave and upgrade the road to Division 14 standards for secondary roads with modifications and design exceptions. Price tag, by conservative estimates: $13.1 million.

The trouble with E

During Tuesday’s presentation, NCDOT representative Jamille Robbins put forward Alternative E as the agency’s recommended alternative, claiming that it met all of the safety goals of the project while avoiding negative impacts. McClarney and others question this assertion and feel that the agency has not done its due diligence in considering Alternatives A through D, all cheaper options with potentially lower impact to the river and the surrounding area.

Regarding improved safety, the opponents of Alternative E point out that a paved road will not only lead to an inevitable increase in traffic, but that traffic will be traveling faster, leading to much more serious accidents than are currently recorded on the slow, bumpy, unpaved road.

Besides being more dangerous, such accidents could potentially be disastrous for the ecosystem if they involved commercial vehicles carrying hazardous materials. Even now, large commercial vehicles are frequently spotted on the road, according to numerous residents who attended Tuesday’s meeting.

Another major concern is that the recommended alternative will cut through rock embankments, including areas identified as containing Montane acidic rock deposits. The NCDOT claims that they will install filtration systems to mitigate potential impacts to the river, but not everyone is convinced that such systems will eliminate the risk.

Aside from these environmental hazards, McLarney notes that the Needmore tract is the last corridor for bears and other wildlife crossing into the Nantahala forest areas. Such corridors are negatively impacted by any increase in traffic on roads that cross them.

Other concerns include the inconvenience of a 15 to 18 month construction schedule and the fact that even asphalt can wash out during a flood, and, last but not least, the thorough altering of the pristine rural character of the area that will come with paving, widening, cutting down trees as disturbing other aspects of Alternative E. “We are using a lot of maintenance money, effort and materials out there that we could be using for something else,” said Ed Lewis of the NCDOT Public Involvement Community Studies Department.

However, no one claims that maintenance costs come anywhere near the $13 million price for the road the agency would like to build, which calls that rationale into question. Some feel that there are more pressing infrastructure needs in these counties that would be better served with such a large investment of tax dollars.

Conservation groups speak out

Besides the comments of individual citizens, the public hearing also included a number of individuals representing various local conservation organizations. Position statements were read from the Little Tennessee Watershed Association (LTWA), the Western North Carolina Alliance (both Swain and Macon chapters) and the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee (LTLT), all of which said they could not support Alternative E as presented by the NCDOT.

According to Jenny Sanders, director of the LTWA, Alternative E “has been consistently cited as the most invasive, environmentally damaging and most risky in terms of cost-benefit ratio by every commenting agency.”

Sanders went on to list the commenting agencies to include the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the N.C. Division of Water Quality, the N.C. Ecosystem Enhancement Program, the N.C. Natural Heritage Program and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

The LTWA urged the NCDOT to reconsider both the no-build option and the minimal paving option (Alternatives B and C). “With more information and perhaps some modifications these may become more affordable, palatable options that better serve the community,” Sanders said. The organization also requested that the state complete a full environmental impact study and biological assessment.

A better road

Despite the criticisms, however, Tuesday’s meeting was far from unanimous in its objection to the recommended alternative. Swain County resident Mike Clampitt, who was the first to speak, said he was very much in favor of the project. He noted that besides being much needed, the investment will produce jobs in Swain, Macon and surrounding counties for as long as two years.

Others, like John Herrin disputed claims that a paved road would be more dangerous than the gravel road, noting that widening it will make it safe for school buses and other vehicles that are already traveling on the route.

Swain County Commissioner David Montieth commented that he also thought the improvements were necessary, adding that he trusted the NCDOT to study the alternatives and choose the best one.

Similarly, the Nature Conservancy has granted a 50 ft. easement for the project, which tacitly seems to endorse the full blown option, even though it means sacrificing more trees and creating a larger footprint. As Lewis explained, the NCDOT sees the tradeoffs as reasonable.

“You’re giving up some trees,” Lewis explained, “but you’ve got a more stable road out there.”

At their last meeting, the Macon County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a motion to request that the NCDOT hold a separate public hearing in Macon County on the Needmore Road improvements project. At Tuesday’s hearing, several people voiced that same request, including James King, a Swain County resident who supports the recommended alternative.

King concluded his comments by saying to the NCDOT officials present, “For goodness sakes, go to Macon County and let them have a meeting.”

According to Lewis, the agency had not yet decided whether or not to hold a separate hearing, but he emphasized that public input was still being solicited.

“We’re not done yet,” said Lewis. “The decision is not made. All we’re saying is that we prefer E. ... We won’t have our official decision until we finish our public involvement process.”

The NCDOT will accept all written comments regarding the Needmore improvement project received by Oct. 21, 2010, the end of the official public comment period. Comments and requests for additional information can be sent by e-mail to jarobbins@ncdot.govThis email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it or by regular mail to the following address:

Mr. Jamille Robbins
NCDOT Human Environment Unit
1598 Mail Service Center