The path ahead: County greenways plan faces major hurdles

After years of planning and public meetings, Buncombe County is poised to release a comprehensive proposal for an extensive greenway system linking towns, parks, schools and other key sites.

Bolstered by recent successes in the city of Asheville, and by growing support for transportation alternatives, advocates are eager for the plan to be released (it’s due out next month). Black Mountain, Woodfin and Weaverville are also developing greenways.

But with the economy still reeling, even supporters concede that major funding and organizational hurdles lie ahead. Meanwhile, many opponents are adamant that limited tax revenues should fund other priorities.

Both sides cast their arguments in terms of economic development. And with the debate unfolding in the midst of a heated election year, it’s unclear how much support the greenways plan will ultimately find on the new, expanded Buncombe County Board of Commissioners come December.

Working together

The Buncombe County Greenways and Trails Master Plan has been in the works since 2008, when the county hired Park and Greenways Planner Lucy Crown and established the Greenways and Trails Commission.

Since then, Crown and other officials have spent countless hours poring over data and maps, and meeting with residents and other stakeholders, to determine the optimum routes. The plan highlights seven priority areas, with about 83 miles of suggested pathways all told. Many link existing parks, greenways, residential areas and schools; several follow waterways such as the Swannanoa and French Broad rivers.

The purple lines indicate proposed greenways. The green lines mark existing greenways.

The ultimate goal, explains Dwayne Stutzman, the commission’s chair, is for “people to be able to utilize a connected system of trails, greenways, sidewalks — all systems working together.”

A good greenway system would give county residents much more than just recreational opportunities, notes Stutzman, who spent 20 years as the state’s regional trails specialist.

“It’s not some fancy, rich people’s toy-type situation. … This is a public service,” he maintains. “We want this to be alternative transportation. We want people who choose not to drive a car to be able to utilize it. We want people who can’t afford a car to be able to utilize it. We want to connect to transit stops so people can do multimodal transportation.”

Looking to the city

In recent months, the process of developing the master plan has been bolstered by a pre-emptive marketing push to rally public support.

Commissioned and funded by the county’s Parks, Greenways and Recreation Services Department, the $7,000 effort has included online and in-person efforts to tout economic, health, safety and environmental benefits, reports public-relations consultant Susanne Hackett of Pollinate Collaborations. The goal is to “establish pride and ownership in the process,” she says, and to “create opportunities for engagement with business and organizational partners to illustrate support for countywide greenways.”

Greenway advocates are also hoping to build on growing momentum for transportation alternatives in Asheville.

After voters narrowly rejected an $18.2 million bond referendum to fund park-and-greenway improvements in 1998, development languished for a decade, notes Asheville City Council member Marc Hunt, former chair of the city’s Greenway Commission. Over the last several years, though, the city has accelerated implementation of the plan, he reports, with new greenways near Reed Creek in north Asheville and Hominy Creek in West Asheville.

The Beaucatcher Mountain, Town Branch and Clingman Forest greenways are also nearing completion. During that time, there’s also been a huge increase in city bike lanes and a major overhaul of the transit system, says Hunt.

He credits increased cooperation among activists, as well as federal stimulus funding and growing political will.

“The advocacy for multimodal transportation has really expanded to encompass, at this point, sidewalks, bike lanes, transit and greenways,” Hunt says. “And now, those are viewed together.” About five months ago, Asheville moved administration of its greenways program from Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts to the Transportation Department.

Meanwhile, city planners continue to work on overlaying the transit, pedestrian and bike plans with the greenways plan to see “how best to network these things so people can get around,” says Hunt.

While acknowledging the funding challenges — witness Council members’ recent debate over whether to raise taxes or scale back on capital improvements to fund employee raises — Hunt asserts: “Having a vital urban environment really requires providing ways people can get around without relying on the automobile.”

Council members have also hinted that they’re considering putting a bond referendum on the November ballot to fund capital improvements, which could include greenways.

New Belgium, new momentum

New Belgium Brewing Co. executives say Asheville’s growing multimodal infrastructure was a key factor in their decision to build a $175 million production facility along Craven Street in the River Arts District and hire an estimated 154 workers. As part of the deal, they’re requiring the city to spend up to $500,000 building an adjacent greenway along the French Broad River, as well as new bike lanes and sidewalks.

“It was very important to us that our customers and co-workers be able to bike, walk or use transit to get to our new brewery,” explains Jenn Vervier, the Fort Collins, Colo.-based company’s director of sustainability and strategic development. “To make it impossible to access our site in any way other than a car would have been contrary to our core values and beliefs.”

Invited by the advocacy group Asheville on Bikes, she recently made the trip to town from Colorado to participate in the Mayor’s Leadership Community Ride (part of Strive Not to Drive Week). Biking, says Vervier, is part of the brewery’s “DNA,” noting that the company was “conceived on a bike trip through Belgium.”

“We believe that the bike is one of humanity’s most elegant inventions — promoting health, pollution-free transportation, the ability to slow down and interact with your neighbors … and of course, biking is fun!” she adds.

In summer, 30 to 40 percent of New Belgium’s Colorado employees commute by bike, she reports. And while details of the Asheville greenway are still being discussed, Vervier leaves no doubt the company wants to help kick-start local bicycle and greenway development.

The idea, she says, is to “create a healthful environment for work and play” and “build connectivity in West Asheville and the River Arts District.”

She adds: “Safe access and infrastructure are key, and we’ve already begun talking to local nonprofits and folks from the city of Asheville and Buncombe County on how New Belgium can help develop that infrastructure.”

That’s music to the ears of many greenway supporters, who view the company’s wholehearted endorsement of their goals as exactly the kind of economic clout needed to make local greenways a reality.

“The relatively few dollars our community puts into this kind of infrastructure seems to be paying off from an economic-development standpoint,” Hunt maintains. City and county officials, he predicts, will now be more willing to fund greenways — and to try to recruit employers who value environmental stewardship.

Waste of money?

But several current candidates for the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners aren’t convinced that putting county resources into greenways is a good idea — or the best way to attract jobs.

In a recent Xpress candidate questionnaire, stances on the issue fell largely along partisan lines, with Republicans urging fiscal restraint and Democrats saying they’d be more likely to dedicate taxpayer dollars toward implementing the master plan.

District 2 Republican candidate Mike Fryar, while praising New Belgium’s decision to build in Asheville, thinks cutting regulations could do a lot more to create jobs. “It’s wasted tax money,” he asserts, saying he’s “totally against” raising taxes to build greenways.

Several other Republican candidates share those sentiments.

Asked if funding greenways is a priority, J.B. Howard, who’s running for board chair, declares: “No. We need to get jobs and affordable housing before walking through the grass in a utopian lifestyle.”

District 3 candidate David King says he’s “an essentials person” who doesn’t consider greenways a core service. Funding law enforcement, schools and social services should take precedence, he believes.

“Right now, we’re in a recession, and we’ve got to deal with the recession,” King maintains, adding that he’s not yet convinced greenways are an economic engine. “I would not be willing to raise taxes for greenways, and I would not be willing to take away from core services.”

Fryar, however, goes further, arguing that in some cases, greenway development can hurt the economy — and questioning the logic of even drafting a master plan.

Noting that he used to net about $72,000 a year from work at the former Asheville Speedway (now Carrier Park), the retired racecar engine builder says the facility was an important economic hub — bringing in tourists, sponsors, beer sales and other money — before it was converted to a park and greenway in 1999.

“They took a money-making thing away and called it a greenway. They run jobs off as much as they create them,” he declares. And he dismisses the idea of a great number of citizens using them to commute long distances as unrealistic. “Walking from Candler to town is over with,” he maintains.

In the 2011-12 fiscal year, the county chipped in $50,000 for the master plan process; another $65,000 came from grants. All told, local companies Kostelec Planning and Equinox Environmental were paid $115,000 to draft the plan. Those expenses, Fryar asserts, are pointless, “because we’re not going to have the money to do it.”

Uphill climb

Due to be completed in July, the master plan will include only “ballpark figures” for the total implementation cost, says Crown. More studies, site plans and engineering estimates will be needed to get a better handle on the costs, she explains.

But a 2010 feasibility study for one of the proposed corridors suggests that the price could be high. Building an 18-mile greenway along the Swannanoa River/U.S. 70 corridor from the John B. Lewis Soccer Complex on Azalea Road in Asheville to Ridgecrest, east of Black Mountain, would cost an estimated $10.3 million.

It’s hard to say where that kind of money might come from. The proposed county budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 already relies on $8.3 million in reserve funds; it includes no money for greenways.

Crown hopes that will change once the plan is completed and approved by the commissioners. “The idea is to come up with the priority areas first, so they then have something to fund,” she notes.

In the Xpress questionnaire, incumbent Democrats David Gantt, Holly Jones and Carol Peterson said they think funding greenways should be a high priority. The other Democratic candidates — Brownie Newman, Ellen Frost, Michelle Pace Wood and Terry Van Duyn — agreed. But how much money they might be willing to commit remains unclear.

Meanwhile, the county has created a nonprofit to solicit donations from private businesses, residents and organizations. Ultimate Ice Cream in Asheville, says Crown, recently raised $300 for the cause from sales of its “The Trail” flavor. And Dynamite Roasting Co. in Black Mountain plans to donate 100 percent of proceeds from its “Greenways, Please” coffee during the month of June. Still, she concedes, “Although there’s been a growing interest, we don’t have a whole lot of financial support at this time.”

Supporters also hope that increased use of existing greenways will highlight the need for more. But while community rides organized by Asheville On Bikes have drawn big crowds in recent years, hard data to back up the claims is hard to come by.

The city doesn’t track greenway usage, reports Superintendent of Business Services Frank McGowan, adding that doing so “would be exceedingly difficult.” Asheville’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Task Force conducted a couple of point-in-time counts in 2009 and 2010, but that data wasn’t intended “to somehow give a picture of citywide and bicycling volumes,” cautions Transportation Planner Barb Mee. She’s recruiting volunteers for another count planned for this summer.

Still, Crown and others maintain that, long-term, the prospects for more Buncombe County greenways look promising.

“I’m an optimist,” she declares. “This plan will give us the directions for our department, me as the planner, and our greenway commission for the next 10 years.”

“Or even longer,” adds Stutzman.


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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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