NCDOT listen to residents concerns over Walnut Street
A standing-room only crowd gathered Thursday night at Town Hall for a special-called meeting to make it abundantly clear they are in it for the long haul, if necessary, to protect their beloved Walnut Street historic district.
An estimated 70 people crowded the room in hopes of getting answers to their many questions following the release last month of the preliminary design for the Russ Avenue / Walnut Street project.
By a show of hands most were there with specific concerns about the section of Walnut from North Main to the Branner Avenue/Boundary Street intersection.
Unlike the commercial sections farther down on Russ Avenue, this section of the road is mostly residential and light commercial. It is lined with large shade trees, historic homes and brick landscape features that residents are concerned will be destroyed if the DOT’s current plans go forward unchanged.
Speaking for most of the room, property owner Charles McDarris said the road widening on Walnut would require the removal of irreplaceable trees, historic brick walls and the taking of excessive portions of property.
McDarris grew up in the nearly 100-year-old Stringfield house on the corner of Walnut and North Main Street and attended the First Presbyterian Church across the street.
The very thought that his childhood community at the heart of historic Waynesville could be altered so drastically is unacceptable to him.
The worst part, he stressed, is that the proposed changes don’t seem to be necessary given the nature of this stretch of road and the projected traffic counts.
According to data he obtained from DOT traffic projections for 2040, the increase in traffic would be negligible. The peak hour traffic counts for 2016 show 432 cars per hour, in 2040 show 480 cars per hour.
Those figures break down to just one additional car per minute at peak hours — numbers that McDarris and others agree don’t warrant adding an additional travel lane along that stretch, which is what the plans call for at present.
Russ Parker, whose business, EPIC Photography, is based in the home he grew up in at 99 Walnut Street, on the corner of Walnut and Branner, is rightfully concerned about the structural integrity of his former home and current business office.
He said that the plans call for work to occur less than a foot away from the hand-stacked river rock foundation of his property, which is more than one hundred years old.
He worries that one wrong move with heavy machinery could cause significant damage to his home.
He was also concerned that removing trees from his property would remove the physical barrier preventing cars from striking the building, which has happened in the past.
As McDarris, Parker and others took their turn to speak, their comments were recorded and Mayor Gavin Brown assured the audience that all of them would be given over to the DOT to be included in the record of public comments.
“We want to assure you all that you’re not preaching in the wilderness. The historical aspect of his community is foremost on the board’s mind,” Brown said.
Linda Pearson, member of the First Presbyterian Church, echoed the statements by McDarris and others saying that widening along Walnut is not necessary and poses a risk to the church’s historic building and the recent renovation work completed there.
A one point the question was posed to the room, ‘Would it satisfy all concerned if improvements were made to Walnut, while staying within the current footprint of the road?’
The response appeared united in agreeing that as long as the project did not disrupt historic homes or structures, such a compromise would be acceptable.
After a period of public discussion, Brian Burch, DOT’s District 14 project development engineer, came forward to answer questions.
One concern that arose during the meeting was how the Walnut Street portion of the plan even came to be included in the Russ Avenue project.
He was not able to fully answer the question because some of those discussions happened at various levels of the planning before it got to DOT.
He briefly explained how projects are ranked and funded, but said without further research he wouldn’t be able to give a definitive answer on when the Walnut portion was included.
Burch said he was concerned that people focusing on how the project came about would miss an opportunity to provide valuable input into what they do want.
“This is the time to speak up and tell us what you want to see improved. In that area, there are sidewalks and curbs that need to be modified to come into ADA compliance. We want to make sure we can take care of those issues, while the funding is available. If people say they want absolutely no changes and it is taken out of the plan entirely, there will be no opportunity to make important safety upgrades,” he said.
He added though, that based on the feedback he witnessed first hand at the meeting, and the anticipated response from Waynesville, he expects to see changes made to the plans to reflect the desires of the community.
“Obviously, the citizens and the town did not realize Walnut would be included or impacted in the plans to make improvements to Russ Avenue, and that has caused a conflict,” he said.
“That’s why, as you go through the process of developing a project of this size, public input is a big part of it.”
Burch said that DOT would take these suggestions and likely modify the plans, creating alternates that will go back out for public comment later this year.
A likely alternate will be to make improvement to the curbs, gutters and sidewalks while staying within the current footprint to minimize impact on historic properties.
Burch explained that once the plans have been through the public input process, the DOT is required to submit them to what are called resource agencies for approval. Depending on the project, resource agencies could include the Army Corps of Engineers, the State Historic Preservation Office, and the Department of Environmental Quality among others.
Anytime an area of historical significance is included in a DOT project, the plans must be approved by the SHPO as an additional safeguard to impacting historical districts, like Walnut Street.
This step comes later in the process though, when the plans are closer to being finalized.
In the meantime, Burch assured the crowd that the input from the public is very important and is listened to.
“I can’t make definitive statements on what will be changed until all the feedback is in, but I can say that for the DOT, it’s much easier to receive this type of unanimous opinion than when communities are apathetic or split in their opinions,” he said.
“I always like to be able to walk out of meetings with a clear idea of how the public feels, and Waynesville residents made themselves quite clear, Thursday,” he said.
“I was very pleased with the participation and encourage anyone who still wishes to comment to reach out to us at the DOT or to the project engineers.”
The public comment period concludes on Jan. 13. To submit your comments on the proposed Russ Avenue / Walnut Street project send your letters or emails to:
Martha Hodge, CALYX Engineers + Consultants, 6750 Tryon Rd Cary, NC 27518
or Wanda Austin, NCDOT Division 14, 253 Webster Road, Sylva, NC 28779