Forging new paths: After delays, Buncombe pushing greenway projects forward

AMBITIONS ON PAPER The county plans more than 100 miles of greenways. Funding is where plans get derailed. Map courtesy of Buncombe County

About 10 years ago, Carol Groben and other Swannanoa residents thought Buncombe County government was on the cusp of building a greenway through the community.

Consultants who wrote a 77-page feasibility study completed in 2010 said that a path in the Swannanoa River/U.S. 70 corridor “should be considered a top priority.”

Two years later, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a greenways master plan calling for 102 miles of greenways, including one serving Swannanoa. The plan primarily envisioned paved paths for walking and biking, with some running through protected natural areas and others close to highways. 

Paths would run along the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers and Hominy Creek in Asheville and extend along those corridors into suburban and rural areas of the county. Others would go to Reynolds High School, the Reems Creek valley outside Weaverville and other destinations in northern and southern parts of the counties.

But while Asheville has built miles of greenways in the 11 years since commissioners adopted the county plan, Buncombe County has built about a quarter-mile, connecting with Lake Julian Park in Skyland.

“It’s frustrating,” Groben says. “A lot of work was done, obviously, and we were in a position where we thought we were a high-priority project. To see that not come to fruition was very disappointing.”

But several developments, most notably the passage of a $30 million county bond last year for open spaces with 69% of the vote, are fueling optimism among greenway backers once again. “There’s a lot more momentum now than there has been in a long time for greenways,” Groben says.

The bonds will fund greenways, buying land for passive parks and conservation easements to preserve farmland and environmentally important areas.

Other local governments in Buncombe and nearby counties have built or plan to build greenways that will connect with those in the county. A group of local officials has approved a plan for a regional greenway network incorporating many of those paths called the Hellbender Trail.

Buncombe County is moving ahead with plans for as many as 6.3 miles of greenway: along the French Broad and Beaverdam Creek in Woodfin and beside Hominy Creek in Enka. Most of the money is already in place and the Woodfin sections could be completed by the end of 2026.

 “There’s been a transition” in key jobs in county government and those holding them now “have the will to make [greenways] happen,” says Marcia Bromberg, an Asheville resident who was one of the early leaders of a nonprofit formed in 2014 to promote greenways in Buncombe. People have seen the benefits of greenways in other area communities, especially when COVID pushed people onto trails and greenways, she says. 

“Citizens have awakened to greenways and what they can do,” Bromberg says.

Lines on a map

County commissioners appeared to be gung-ho for greenways when they adopted the county greenway plan in September 2012, but the response from the public was mixed. Then the board’s political makeup and the county’s financial situation changed.

Two Republican candidates for commissioner spoke against the plan when it was adopted, and one of them, Mike Fryar, won a seat on the board in that November’s election. The board shifted from all Democrats to four Democrats and three Republicans, with results so close that the GOP was only 18 votes from gaining a majority.

Tight budget years saw commissioners raise property taxes in 2013 and reduce general fund spending in 2014, leaving little room for greenway funding. The state General Assembly in 2013 passed a bill sponsored by then-Rep. Tim Moffitt (now a state senator) to move the county’s libraries and its parks department, which has responsibility for greenways, into a separate government agency. The county began implementing the law, but, at Moffitt’s request, the legislature repealed it in 2014.

That episode was a significant setback, Bromberg says: “There was a lot of confusion for a very long period of time.”

It is difficult to say how much political factors had to do with the county’s sluggishness in implementing the 2012 plan. The GOP surge brought new scrutiny to county spending. However, Doug Hattaway, head of a community group pushing for construction of the Enka Heritage Trail, says Republican Joe Belcher played a crucial role in getting funding for the trail during his 2012-20 tenure as a county commissioner.

Belcher, Bromberg and commissioners’ current chair, Democrat Brownie Newman, all say financial constraints have limited greenway spending. Officials have sometimes been surprised at how much greenways cost.

“They’re not cheap. They’re just not,” Belcher says.

“A lot of lines have been drawn on maps, but sometimes when you go out there and look at the land … it’s like, ‘Wow, that is going to be tough to build and maybe really expensive to build,’” Newman said during a commissioners meeting Aug. 1. During a discussion of policies to govern bond spending, he argued that the county should place a high priority on feasibility when deciding which greenway proposals to fund.

“We haven’t made the kind of progress to date that we would like to, so when we take on new projects, let’s make sure we’re taking on something that we can actually follow through on,” he said.

Not so easy

Buncombe’s challenges sound familiar to Brett Baronak, director of the Carolina Thread Trail, a network of greenways and other trails in 15 counties centered around Charlotte. Many counties devote a smaller share of their budgets to parks and recreation than cities and towns do, he said at an Aug. 31 forum in Asheville put on by groups behind the Hellbender. Greenways often see more resistance outside cities and towns because of concerns about private property rights and “the political will sometimes is not as great” as in municipalities, he said.

Many local governments find getting greenways built to be tougher than expected, Mike Calloway, an engineer with the state Department of Transportation, told those attending the Hellbender forum. “We all want these things on the ground as soon as possible, but the reality is these things take time.” Rising costs, undiscovered utility lines and difficulty locating property owners or convincing them to sell are only some of the problems that can derail a project even if funding is in place, Calloway said.

“I have not seen a project yet that did not have some challenge to it,” he told attendees. “Something’s going to happen with your project. Something’s going to come up.”

A boost from bonds

Groben and other greenway advocates say the need for greenways is clear and that more officials and members of the general public see it. “We know it can be a great benefit for alternative modes of transportation, whether it’s kids trying to get to school safely or a family pushing their kid in a buggy to get out for a walk,” she says.

Swannanoa has very little pedestrian infrastructure and needs both sidewalks and greenways, she says: “People walk beside the road with very narrow shoulders. … There have been accidents and people have been hit.”

Hattaway says, “Trails and greenways are well documented to have public health benefits. If people have a place to move, they will.”

The two Woodfin greenways and the Enka Heritage Trail are first in line for proceeds from open space bonds approved in November among greenway projects, says Jill Carter, the county’s project manager for the bonds.

The French Broad Metropolitan Planning Organization, a group of local officials who set regional transportation priorities, already approved funding for them in a competitive process. Money will come from federal and local governments and the county tax on hotel, motel and vacation rentals. Bond proceeds will make up any shortfall, Carter says.

How much bond money will be available for other greenway projects is unknown. The county hasn’t said how much it will spend on each of the three areas the bonds are to fund, and the county will not evaluate other greenway proposals for funding until 2026, well after it makes decisions on parks and conservation easement spending. 

But, Carter says she expects “a good amount of money” will be left over for other greenway projects, and “I can assure you that the county is committed to making sure that greenways get their fair share.”

Time to build

Thomas Gull, the county’s new principal planner for parks and recreation, says he expects construction of 3.25 miles of greenway along the French Broad River in Woodfin to begin in early 2025 and finish the same year. Work on 1.2 miles of greenway along Beaverdam Creek in Woodfin should follow in 2026. About $16.3 million has been committed to the two projects, though Gull cautions that “drastic fluctuations in construction costs” mean their final price tags could be different.

The Enka greenway has been delayed before, and although $6.4 million is committed to the 1.85-mile project, Gull says he can’t provide a timeline for construction. Rules governing use of the $5.1 million in federal money set to go to the project require tests for underground contaminants, he says, but some property owners have declined to allow them.

The county has hoped this project would construct a greenway from the intersection of Sand Hill Road and Warren Haynes Drive to a point near the Enka Lake Road/Sand Hill Road intersection. However, Gull says the testing issue may mean the county will have to shorten it.

Buncombe also committed $400,000 for sidewalks, bike lanes and intersection upgrades in Black Mountain to make it easier for pedestrians and cyclists to travel between the town’s existing Flat Creek Greenway and In the Oaks Trail. Work will likely begin in 2025, says town Planning Director Jessica Trotman.

Greenway supporters are not looking for the county’s efforts to result in greenways on the ground tomorrow or the next day but do predict progress.

“It happens over a very long period of time,” Bromberg says. “I never thought I would see the development that’s happened along the river in the city, but there it is.”


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2 thoughts on “Forging new paths: After delays, Buncombe pushing greenway projects forward

    • Mark Barrett

      Just to clarify: Buncombe County government doesn’t run the water system, Asheville does. I believe the county has at times paid to extend waterlines into unincorporated areas of the county, however.

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