by Megan Archer
When they’re ready to hit the trails, many Asheville cyclists load their bikes on roof racks and drive out to the Bent Creek Experimental Forest, which encompasses almost 6,000 acres of the Pisgah National Forest and boasts nearly 30 miles of biking tracks.
It’s a nice enough car ride. The route passes near the French Broad River, the Biltmore Estate, the WNC Farmer’s Market and the Asheville Outlets on the way to the forest. But what if bikers could skip the car trip altogether and safely cycle all the way to Bent Creek? And what if walkers could use the same route?
That’s the vision the Buncombe County Parks and Recreation department is exploring through a feasibility study for the Bent Creek Greenway, a path that would connect to the existing Hominy Creek greenway on its northern end and then travel along Brevard Road to the Asheville Outlet Mall. From there, another greenway segment studied last year (the Bent Creek to Lake Julian Greenway) would continue the route to Bent Creek.
Claudia Nix, co-owner of Liberty Bicycles and a board member of greenway advocacy organization Friends of Connect Buncombe, has worked to advocate for this potential stretch of greenway since 2000. “I think there’s so many destinations out here that people want to go to, and you have a lot of people in the Bent Creek area that enjoy walking and are cyclists. It will bring in tourism and revenue. It’s a win-win situation for everyone,” Nix says.
On the evening of Thursday, March 24, the county recreation department hosted a drop-in public meeting to collect public input and answer questions about the proposed greenway. Attendees included residents, business owners, nonprofit representatives and local government staff.
Along with county recreation staff, Eric Seckinger, a consulting engineer for the project, responded to questions and outlined the project. “We’ve laid out the options, and we need to hear what the public prefers,” Seckinger said.
One Bent Creek resident expressed the opinion of many attendees when she commented, “It would be great if we could have a safe way to walk or bike to the trails from various city and county communities.” Though most comments were in support of the greenway, some attendees expressed concerns regarding pedestrian safety.
While greenways are easy to love, however, they are often challenging to route and to fund. At the meeting, advocates discussed a potential stretch of the greenway that would run along the eastern side of Brevard Road (state Highway 191), adjacent to Biltmore Estate. Planners said that placing the greenway on the western side of the road would pose far greater technical and safety challenges, since there are approximately 9,140 feet of residential driveway and roadway crossings that intersect with the highway on that side.
County Parks and Recreation Manager Josh O’Conner explained that the route alternative running along the eastern side of Brevard Road from the Hominy Creek Greenway (called “S2”) would be located within the highway right of way. That’s important, clarified O’Conner after the meeting, because the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners has made it clear that the county will not take property through condemnation for greenway use. Though the independent advocacy group Friends of Connect Buncombe is urging the The Biltmore Company to designate additional area for greenway use (including a culvert close to the Asheville Outlets), requiring private property owners to accommodate greenways is not the policy of the County.
Marcia Bromberg, a member of Friends of Connect Buncombe, commented that she would be disappointed if Biltmore does not agree to cede some land to give the greenway some extra breathing room. “I understand the concerns,” Bromberg said, “and they are valid, but we are worried about pedestrian safety. It’s imperative to build on the Biltmore side because of all the driveways and street crossings on the west side.”
According to a LeeAnn Donnelly, spokeswoman for the Biltmore Company reached after the meeting, the company is still in the information-gathering stage and will likely voice the company’s comments during a future public meeting.
Another major area of concern is the Brevard Road bridge crossing over Interstate 26. At the meeting, residents argued for installing a pedestrian bridge over interstate entrance and exit ramps, eliminating the possibility of conflicts between cars and greenway users while offering a safer alternative than crosswalks.
Seckinger warned that the cost of including a pedestrian bridge in the initial greenway project might make the project financially unfeasible, since the costs of the bridge could be as much as double the total cost of the rest of the greenway. O’Conner urged advocates to be patient. “We don’t want to completely flush this project,” he said. “We could move forward, building the east or west side of 191, and put in another project [to construct a pedestrian bridge] based on updated North Carolina Department of Transportation usership scores.”
Where funding might come from to build the greenway is unknown. One mile of greenway can cost $1.7 million or more to build. Past funding options have included using county sales tax revenue, issuing bonds, allocating money from the county’s general fund and securing grant funding.
Residents wishing to view information and route alternatives for the current feasibility study can visit the Buncombe County Parks and Recreation Greenways page.
An online survey is available for submitting input and comments. Public comment will be accepted through April 21, 2016.
Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article inaccurately characterized the ownership of the right of way through which the proposed Bent Creek Greenway would run if the S2 alternative along the eastern side of Brevard Road were chosen as the final route. The greenway would utilize the right of way owned by the North Carolina Department of Transportation.