Originally published by The Sylva Herald
Businesses along Highway 107 lay stark and empty as the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) prepares to widen the route between Cullowhee and Sylva. Graffiti coats the sides of once well-loved buildings and community staples as many businesses have closed or relocated to accommodate the lengthy and expensive construction.
What will the new road look like
The Highway 107 expansion project, internally known as R-5600, is a long-expected project that has been discussed for more than 20 years. The 2.6-mile project will provide wider lanes, bike lanes, sidewalks, and a grass median in some segments of the new road. The primary purpose is to modernize the roadway with special attention to road and sidewalk safety.
Jeanette White, project development team lead at the Department of Transportation office in Sylva shared information about the project including documents and presentations with details.
The construction starts just before the Innovation Brewery in Sylva with a new sidewalk, all the way to Lovedale Road past CVS and the cemetery.
It will include one bridge replacement and refurbishing of the second bridge on Scott’s Creek going toward downtown Sylva, new traffic light on the intersection with Cherry Street and East Hall Heights; six new bulb-outs to allow for U-turn access points in addition to signalized intersection U-turn capabilities. It will also have 23 to 25 walls that will, as White explained, lessen the project impact and will range in height from a few feet to 35 feet tall.
From the intersection of Asheville Hwy, and NC 107, the primary roadway cross-section will have a small 5.5 feet concrete median since grass cannot be easily maintained in areas less than 5 feet wide. Near O’Reilly Auto Parts, the corridor will transition from a concrete median to a grass median.
It will have a new Stormwater Box Culvert, and the project is still going under revision there because as White explained the work will be bigger than expected when they discovered that there are two streams, Mill Creek and an unnamed tributary going under the road. Buildings and businesses from Pizza Hut to the first entrance of Lowe’s will be impacted and might have to relocate.
Though many businesses have spoken out against the construction it’s not just businesses that will have to be relocated.
“We also have to relocate the existing utilities, utilities being those that are underground and those that are overhead on the power pole. And so in order to move them out and away to a widened road, we have to purchase the land in order to move them out,” said White.
White estimates 60% of the land to move these utilities has already been purchased.
This work will start before the work on the road in the summer of 2025 and be finished by 2029.
The cost to the business
The Highway 107 expansion budget continues to increase. In 2021 NCDOT estimated the cost of the project at $118.6 million. When we talked to White in October, she said the new estimate is $152.4 million. Of that, $52.7 million is for right-of-way acquisition to get the land from the property owners. The acquisition started in the summer of 2021 and should be finished by June 2025.
Kevin Mahoney is an attorney with NC Eminent Domain and a former NCDOT lawyer. Mahoney is partnering with well-known Sylva attorney Jay Coward who has long been a critic of the 107 expansion. Together they represent 22 of the property owners losing land in this project.
“[The] DOT has filed condemnation against several of our clients and we have gone to court to withdraw the deposit for them, but we’ve not yet gone to court to try any of these cases because they’re still very young in the process,” Mahoney said. “152 parcels that are impacted according to DOT and of those, the expected relocations are 20 commercial relocations and seven residential relocations,” he said.
Evidence of the opposition gains visibility as more and more businesses are closed, torn down or burned. Coward estimates that half of the business district in this stretch of the road are going to be eliminated from the local economy.
“Most of the businesses that have been destroyed so far are not coming back. And so that was one of the principal concerns I have is you know, as a citizen of this local community, that this project was ill conceived, but I failed in that effort to get the DOT to stop it,” Coward said.
Some of the businesses that chose to relocate are moving outside of town limits.
Even though the option to relocate outside of Sylva seems like a bright opportunity, some businesses like the Jackson County Veterinary Associates have a lot to consider before the move.
Diana Jones is the office manager of the veterinary office. She says the business is waiting for a response from the state about buying their property.
“Right now, the holdup is the state,” Jones said, “it’s not a simple thing for a medical business… “We have to get the DEA and get our papers changed to the right address, get the state people to come in, get the x-ray people to come in. So, it’s not an overnight thing like the state thinks it is,” Jones said.
Jones was also concerned that the move will also be taxing to the vet’s patients as they also will have to adjust to a different location.
“We will be on Skyland Drive, hopefully by the end of the year. It’s really up in the air,” Jones said. “I’ll be retired but I’m so glad my employees will still have a job…we were so scared because we couldn’t find anything. There was nothing nearby,” she said.
Though she was grateful for the state provided relocation assistant, she couldn’t help but wish things would move faster.
Unlike the veterinary office, Tagged Out hunting supply is able to keep their location but anticipates losing several feet from the front of their business. Soon, their business may be face-to-face with the newly reconstructed road, sacrificing the entrance and awning to the building. “They aren’t taking our property,” Tagged Out owner Dustin Hayes said.
Hayes commented that Tagged Out’s business is good, however there is nothing that they can do to prepare for the disruption to business that the road will cause.
“We don’t really have any way to prepare. It’s just going to have to be one of those things where we deal with it when it comes,” Hayes said.
Tagged will not receive any monetary or physical assistance from the state or the Department of Transportation since the building itself is not being demolished in the expansion process.
“They’ll pay for the property but outside of that no. What I do think is going to happen is that those people who are left in business will end up having to pay the taxes of everyone else that got kicked out,” Hayes said. He warned that everyone needs to prepare if they have property in town. “It’s gonna cost them, I promise you…someone’s gotta pay for it,” he said.
Some businesses affected by the road expansion were less open to talking than others, like Bryson’s Farm supply. From the moment the road expansion came up in conversation the entire demeanor changed. The employee adamantly refused to speak on the topic. “We’re angry,” the employee said, visibly shaking and upset. “It’s more than I can bear to talk about…we’ve been here for 51 years.”
The construction is anticipated to conclude in 2029 according to DOT plans. However, the project from East Laporte to Tuckasegee that began in 2016 is three years past schedule.
This project will be a painful and costly endeavor for the community, the town and the county, but, as White says, it is an investment in safety for the growing town.
The story was reported with contributions from Bryson Jusko and Jake Harkey. The series was produced by students in News Practicum (COMM 385) and supported by a small grant from the Center for Community News.