Asheville Unpaved learns from community pushback

TRAILBLAZER: Asheville on Bike's Mike Sule is spearheading a plan to build multiuse trails within the city. Photo by Anthony Bellemare

Three nonprofit organizations want Asheville residents to hit the dirt.

The Asheville Unpaved Alliance, composed of Connect Buncombe, the Pisgah area chapter of SORBA (Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association) and Asheville on Bikes, is rolling ahead with a plan called AVL Unpaved.

The initiative will connect parts of the city via two multiuse natural surface pathways, a project that could be the beginning of a network of trails, says Mike Sule, executive director of Asheville on Bikes, which he founded in 2006.

“The whole idea of the AVL Unpaved initiative is to be able to connect from the existing built environment into pockets of the natural world that would serve as recreational facilities, but would also have a transportation value as well,” Sule says.

AVL Unpaved kicked into gear in October 2022, when Asheville City Council adopted the GAP Plan, which updates and combines the City’s Greenway Master Plan (G), Americans with Disabilities Act Transition Plan (A) and Pedestrian Master Plan (P) in one comprehensive document. The plan identified natural-surface trails as one strategy to improve Asheville’s active transportation network, connecting existing greenways, streets, city transit hubs and parking facilities.

“These are mostly multiuse trails, meaning that they are not exclusive to people riding bicycles,” Sule adds. “These are walking trails, running trails and hiking trails. It often lands in people’s minds that we’re building these exclusive bike trails. And that’s just not the case.”

While the initial plan called for three pathways, the idea of a trail running close to existing homes in the South French Broad neighborhood did not sit well with its residents. And their public outcry over the proposed Bacoate Branch Trail, which would have connected Aston Park and the River Arts District, resulted in an unexpected roadblock for the alliance.

Before the backlash

Prior to neighborhood pushback, the alliance focused on the perceived benefits that a series of pathways would bring to the city’s residents. A system of multiuse trails could foster an increased sense of community and equity, says Alex Smith, vice president of Connect Buncombe.

“I look at it as a way [that] these spaces are being cleaned up through public activation, a little more public eye on those lands,” says Smith, a recreation and environmental planner at the Asheville planning and design firm Equinox. “[It’s] kind of like communities … taking ownership of these lands that are around them.”

Since the trails will be made of dirt or crushed stone, they are faster and cheaper to build than paved pathways — 35 times cheaper to build than greenways, according to AVL Unpaved’s website.

Fueled by a $188,355 grant in 2022 from the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, the alliance hired Elevated Trail Design to draft a proposal for a phase one plan.

When it came to picking locations for the pilot trails, the City of Asheville and the alliance were looking for contiguous, forested pieces of publicly owned land that would be conducive to natural-surface trails, Natalie Narburgh, Pisgah area SORBA executive director, writes in response to an Xpress email. The proposal came up with five locations, but the group narrowed it down to three.

“Out of those five, it seemed [through] working with the communities adjacent to the properties, that three were ready to go and would be the most feasible to move forward,” Sule says.

The initial proposal would have extended about 4.8 miles: 2.33 miles for French Broad River West; 1.6 miles for Azalea Park in East Asheville; and roughly .9 miles for Bacoate Branch Trail.

Asheville owns the Azalea Park land and has a long-term lease on the French Broad River area, while Bacoate Branch Trail land belongs to Asheville City Schools. Proximity of the trails to improve connectivity to greenways and bike lanes was also considered, as well as neighborhood approval.

Asheville Unpaved posted a public survey last fall to gather community feedback on anticipated trail usage and attributes while the City of Asheville hosted community sessions with residents and businesses whose properties are adjacent to project areas. Subsequent public meetings, however, revealed that concerns from some Black residents may not have been heard.

Hitting a roadblock

For Sule, the path ahead seemed clear. Speaking at the Asheville City Board of Education’s June 3 meeting, he urged the board to grant an easement to the City of Asheville on Asheville Middle School property to build Bacoate Branch Trail.

Part of the path, which would have run behind four houses on Charles Street, was slated to be used by the public as well as an after-school bicycle club led by Sule.

Neighbor Sharlen Mayfield, who is Black, said she felt no one was listening to neighbors who opposed the unpaved pathway during the June 3 meeting.

“Informed by 12 years of doing this, we know differently,” Sule said.

Nine neighborhood residents had already sent a letter to the school board opposing the project, citing concerns over crime, drug use and increased vehicle traffic.

Charles Street resident  Lilian Childress, who also attended the June 3 meeting, said that AVL Unpaved’s proposed trail would become a “crisis zone.” Childress and her neighbors said that unhoused people and drug users had already been seen congregating in the forest near the proposed path.

Mayfield and her neighbors also said Black people would not use the proposed trail. Sule disagreed.

“Are there historical barriers to access? Have Black people historically not been invited to participate? Absolutely. I’m not arguing against that. Our job is to remove those barriers and create the access point so that all people, the next generation specifically, have the opportunity to participate,” he said.

TWO PATHS: Connect Buncombe’s Alex Smith shows plans for two proposed natural-surface trails. Photo by Claire Sheehy

Sule’s dismissive response to neighbors’ concerns backfired.

Spurred by the perception that Sule was insinuating that he knew better than Black people what Black people wanted, members of  that community came to the following Board of Education meeting on June 10 to speak out about Sule’s plan.

Sule apologized publicly for his disrespect and for disregarding the community’s concerns.

“I appreciate and thank the community leaders who’ve held me to account and helped me see my exertion of privilege and its potential to perpetuate harm and legacy to neighborhoods,” Sule said.

He asked the board to remove his proposal from its June 10 meeting. With that, the Bacoate Branch Trail was dead.

Getting back on track

“Initially, we had a lot of community support for that project,” Sule says about the experience. “I think as it started to get nearer toward actually getting funded and approved in an easement, some [people] came up and opposed that project.”

Sule says he was shortsighted in not really listening to what the opposition had to say about the trail.

“I was really focused, hyperfocused, on providing a trail system for the students in our after-school bicycle program,” he adds.

The lesson learned from the contentious meeting, Smith says, is for the alliance and the City of Asheville to continue to listen to the people who will be affected by the trails.

The alliance shifted focus on forging ahead with the two other proposed pathways. The city has already received permission from Duke Energy to construct the French Broad River West Trail on Duke-owned property.

Asheville City Council scheduled a vote for Tuesday, July 23, on a natural-surface trail use agreement, which could pave the way ahead for the plan.

“City Council has to approve the partnership between the AVL Unpaved Alliance and  the city to build on these public facilities,” Sule says.

“The use agreement is a contract that lays out the terms of the partnership, such as the scope of work and each party’s responsibilities, the length of the agreement (in years), and any other details the city will require for the AVL Unpaved Alliance to build on the public property,” writes Lucy Crown, City of Asheville transportation planning manager, replying to an Xpress email.

The agreement applies only to the two proposed trails.

While the coalition is working with the city to obtain rights of way, the costs are being covered by the nonprofits. “No city funds are being used for the construction of the AVL Unpaved projects and the three years of maintenance and management of the trails,” writes Crown.


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About Patrick Moran
As Mountain Xpress' City Reporter, I'm fascinated with how Asheville and its people work. Previously, I spent 25 years in Charlotte, working for local papers Creative Loafing Charlotte and Queen City Nerve. In that time I won three North Carolina Press Association Awards and an Emmy. Prior to that, I wrote and produced independent feature films in Orlando, Florida. Follow me @patmoran77

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