The Transylvania Times -

By Mark Todd
Staff Writer 

Rails To Trails Still Faces Opposition

 

Travelers Rest in South Carolina has its own example of a Rails to Trails project. (Times photo by Mark Todd)

The proposed Rails to Trails project (see article below) that would connect Hendersonville to Brevard on the right-of-way now owned by Norfolk-Southern Railway faces some opposition in Transylvania County.

For one, Transylvania County commissioners, who hope to lure an industry interested in rail service to the former Ecusta Mill property site, remain opposed.

Some residents who live along the path are also strongly opposed and say the trail would be an invasion of their privacy and their property rights.

Transylvania County Commission Chairman Mike Hawkins said he needs more information before he personally could support the project.

“The county commissioners are on record as currently opposing any proposal that would permanently eliminate the county’s only rail line,” Hawkins said. “The information presented at the meeting (see above article) was interesting and will be considered if the process moves forward.”

Speaking just for himself, Hawkins said he believes “it’s reasonable to believe the project might create the economic impacts suggested by the report.”

“Certainly there are examples of those types of economic outcomes with other rails projects,” he said. “From a purely economic perspective, the question then becomes which use provides the more likely route to sustainable 21st century economic benefit? Is it use as a rail line or use as a multi-purpose path?”

Hawkins said there are non-economic questions to be considered, as well, including conveyance of usage rights and “visionary questions of how this might reflect and support who we are as a community.”

“These questions and others would be considered if this discussion continues,” he said.

Legal Opposition

Local attorney Jim Kimzey has represented concerned landowners in the past on this issue and on the issue of the old rail line between Pisgah Forest and Lake Toxaway.

“My clients are insistent on protection of their private property rights,” he said. “To date, the railroad has shown no interest at all in abandoning the rail line between Hendersonville and Pisgah Forest. They are the key player.”

Well over a decade ago, the railroad did abandon the rail line between Pisgah Forest and Lake Toxaway.

Kimzey represented the private property owners in that area and was successful in getting a court ruling favorable to those property owners. Even though the railroad abandoned the railroad line, they claimed the right of way.

“The key difference here is that the railroad has not abandoned the railroad line,” Kimzey said.

City of Brevard

The City of Brevard has supported the project to a point but has yet to issue a resolution making that position official, Mayor Jimmy Harris said.

“At the time (of the request) no part of the proposed path was in the city’s jurisdiction, but that has changed with the request by Davidson River Village for annexation,” Harris said. “I believe the next time the city revisits the issue that it will pass a resolution. This is based on recent comments from Mayor Wayne McCall of Traveler's Rest, S.C., who has seen economic benefit from the Swamp Rabbit Trail there and additional information we gathered at the recent meeting in Hendersonville.”

Harris said it is clear the city’s current multi-use path, which runs five and a half miles, is a strong amenity that is used daily.

“I have personally visited Damascus, Va., where the Virginia Creeper Trail has literally saved the town from extinction,” Harris said. “I am eager to hear more about the concept as it develops.”

Harris said he is not sure enough information has been shared to know if the rail line is still viable.

“I look forward to hearing from Norfolk-Southern about their future plans,” he said. “If an industrial use presents itself that Norfolk-Southern agrees upon, then that obviously changes some things.”

Other Officials

In attendance at the presentation of a study of the Rails to Trails project last week were Harris, all city council members, except Charlie Landreth, City Manager Joe Moore and Planning Director Josh Freeman.

Representing Transylvania County were Hawkins and Commissioner Jason Chappell. County Manager Artie Wilson and county Planning and Economic Development Director Mark Burrows were also in attendance.

Next Presentation

Proponents of the project will make a presentation Thursday, May 3, from 4 to 8 p.m. at the Transylvania County Library’s Rogow Room.

The Study

Development of a multi-use recreational trail along the inactive Norfolk Southern Ecusta rail line would generate an estimated $42 million one-time economic benefit, a consulting firm reported last week.

The trail, which would connect Hendersonville and Brevard, would add an additional $9.4 million in annual revenue for the area, the firm said.

People from all walks of life almost filled the 450-seat West Hendersonville High School auditorium last Wednesday to listen to the presentation.

The audience heard the results of a nine-month planning study and economic impact analysis conducted by Alta/Greenways, a national consulting firm that specializes in greenway and trail planning and design.

The city of Hendersonville initiated the Ecusta Rail Trail Planning Study and Economic Impact Analysis.

The goal was to determine the feasibility of converting the rail corridor into a paved shared-use trail for the purposes of providing alternative transportation, recreation and economic development.

Since the Ecusta mill’s closure, plans for a mixed-use village have been developed and approved by the City of Brevard for site.

The rail corridor now terminates at the old mill.

The study says the Ecusta rail corridor could be preserved for long-term public use as an alternative transportation route through the process of federal rail banking.

The rail trail could become a regional destination with a multitude of benefits to users and non-users.

Based on the results of the study, the Ecusta Rail Trail has the potential to offer a safe route for pedestrian and bicycle travel.

The proposed Ecusta Rail Trail is anticipated to bring a variety of economic benefits to users and non-users on a local and regional scale.

By investing the direct costs of construction for this amenity, residents and local government can expect to see an estimated $42 million one-time return resulting from direct and indirect expenditures for materials and labor costs during construction, and initial property value increases.

Annually, a $9.4 million return can be estimated on tax revenues, visitor spending, health care cost savings, property value increases, and direct use value.

An economic impact analysis was undertaken to determine the economic benefits and returns of the proposed Ecusta Rail Trail. Because the trail is proposed, and not actually built, it was decided to conservatively estimate economic impacts

Construction employment opportunities and tax revenues will be generated as a result of the Ecusta Rail Trail project.

An estimated $20 million in expenditures and 180 jobs will be created in Henderson and Transylvania counties, the consultants say.

The Ecusta Rail Trail would be a major recreational resource to local citizens, increasing interest in living in proximity to the trail, their report says.

Demand for housing near the trail would increase house values and population, generating additional tax revenues, the consultants say.

Once constructed, the Ecusta Rail Trail would become a regional attraction drawing visitors to the area, the report says.

Visitors spend money on local goods and services, which support local business and government, the report says.

Conservative estimates suggest the rail trail will draw about 20,000 visitors annually with a $2 million increase in visitor spending and the creation of 27 jobs, the report concludes.

The planning study was funded by federal transportation funds administered by the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) along with local matching funds.

The city of Hendersonville, City of Brevard, town of Laurel Park, Henderson County Travel and Tourism, and the nonprofit group called Friends of the Ecusta Trail provided the local funds.

 
 

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