Buncombe County Commission

“This would be a frivolous, environmentally unsound road.”

— Asheville resident Julie Brandt, protesting the proposed paving of N.C. 197 near Barnardsville

Opponents of paving N.C. 197
Gotta hand it to ’em: Opponents of paving N.C. 197 gesticulate during the commisioners’ meeting. photo by Jonathan Welch

A 4.5-mile stretch of North Fork Road, aka N.C. 197, links Buncombe and Yancey counties near Barnardsville. The dust-and-gravel connector, which passes through Pisgah National Forest, is North Carolina’s last unpaved state road.

For now, at least, it looks as though it will stay that way.

At a public hearing held prior to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ Oct. 3 meeting, speakers overwhelmingly opposed putting a hard surface on the road. The commissioners seemed to get the message, voting 4-1 to defer consideration of the project. Board Chairman Nathan Ramsey was the lone dissenter.

“I just don’t see the benefits here,” said Commissioner David Gantt. “Progress does not mean paving. … Is it right to look at that road and say, ‘That’s the last unpaved road — let’s get it done.’ I don’t think that’s progress.”

In 2002, the board unanimously voted to pave the narrow, curving stretch, which winds up a forested cove, crossing several small bridges. Soon after, however, the commissioners reversed their decision, and Gantt is widely believed to have been responsible for the move.

Fairview resident Max Wilson sounded that note on Oct. 3, declaring, “I’ve tried all my life to get someone to pave that road. Four years ago, I thought it was going to happen. But David Gantt was out of town or something, and when he came back, he conned [his fellow commissioners]. If it hadn’t been for David, that road would’ve been paved by now.”

Wilson’s comments were answered with a light rap of the gavel. “Let’s not make personal attacks,” admonished Ramsey.

Steve Allen, who approached the lectern red-faced with indignation, also favored paving.

“I’ve eaten that dust for nearly 50 years,” he said. “I deserve a paved road across that mountain. All the people who’ve spoke out against it are move-ins. Barnardsville has forgot about its original people.”

But most of the roughly 25 people who spoke at the meeting opposed paving the road, citing reasons as diverse as increased motorcycle traffic, the loss of yellow-bellied sapsucker habitat, an onslaught of invasive plants, the decline of a quiet way of life, and the possibility that hard-surfacing the road might create a thoroughfare for people living in new, upscale subdivisions in Yancey County.

Barnardsville native Archie Huntsinger said, “It terrifies me to think of what will happen if you pave that road,” explaining that the asphalt would jeopardize his quality of life. “If you pave that road, where am I going to move next?” he asked.

More than one speaker questioned the county’s priorities, arguing that repairing “crumbling infrastructure” is a more appropriate use of tax dollars than resurfacing a scenic, rural route. In 2001, the state Department of Transportation estimated the cost of paving at $2 million; District Engineer McCray Coates said his agency hasn’t made a more recent projection, adding that the cost would be considerably more today.

“Where is the money coming from?” asked Asheville resident Julie Brandt. “And what are the valid reasons for it? … This would be a frivolous, environmentally unsound road.”

The commissioners’ vote will delay consideration of the project indefinitely, according to Clerk to the Board Kathy Hughes.

Less trauma

Department of Social Services Director Mandy Stone briefed the board on stopgap measures to provide a mental-health “safety net” following the financial collapse of New Vistas-Mountain Laurel. The commissioners unanimously approved sending a letter asking Secretary Carmen Hooker Odom of the state Department of Health and Human Services for funding to help with the crisis, with a copy going to Gov. Mike Easley. Created in 2003 as part of a state-mandated overhaul of mental-health care, New Vistas covers an eight-county area (see “Holes in the Safety Net,” Oct. 4 Xpress).

Stone said there will be “no break in services” for the roughly 3,500 Buncombe County residents who will be immediately affected by the Oct. 31 shutdown. Four private psychiatric-care providers capable of handling up to 4,000 cases will serve as a patch, said Stone. The county is also accepting bids on establishing a 16-bed crisis facility, she said. The PSC pharmacy located within the current New Vistas facility at 356 Biltmore Ave. will remain open.

Stone said the roughly 700 New Vistas employees will have the opportunity to attend local job fairs, where they can offer their skills to other care providers in the region. She added that the county has an Oct. 15 deadline to get the new system in place.

“Everybody who’s affected by this appreciates the work you’ve done,” said Vice Chair Bill Stanley.

“We’ve worked hard to not cause additional trauma or stress for consumers during this transition,” noted Stone.

Get the fire extinguisher

In a lighthearted moment, the board wished Comissioner David Gantt happy birthday. Gantt turned 50 on Oct. 2.

“I’d sing you happy birthday, but I sing to my cows all the time, and milk production is down,” joked Ramsey, who owns a dairy farm in Fairview.

In other business, the commissioners presented retiring state Rep. Wilma Sherrill with a resolution honoring her for her 12 years of service in the General Assembly on behalf of Buncombe County residents.

The board also appointed Linda Brown to the Abandoned Cemeteries Committee.

The meeting adjourned at 6:30 p.m. after County Attorney Joe Connolly said there was no business requiring a closed session.

“Hallelujah!” said Stanley.

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