By Leslee Kulba
Buncombe County – Buncombe County Recreation Services Director Josh O’Conner recently provided the county commissioners with an update on how the county is progressing with its greenway master plan. Adopted in 2012, the plan called for the creation of 102 miles of greenway, and, to date, only four-tenths of a mile has been constructed. O’Conner explained there was no dedicated funding when the plan was adopted, and it took about two years to get any funding sources in place.
Once funding is secured, construction typically takes 5-10 years. The master plan was only the beginning, identifying where people wanted to have greenways. The next step was to perform feasibility studies that would identify topographical, financial, and land acquisition impediments, again only as an overview to direct further study.
In the engineering phase, which usually lasts one to two years but could take longer, professionals work out the bugs, preparing site plans and construction drawings, securing environmental permits, and otherwise getting plans shovel-ready enough for grant applications. The county would next work to acquire easements and rights of way. The county can’t use eminent domain, so if a landowner is unwilling to accommodate a greenway, the process might have to begin again from scratch.
O’Conner said he often tells greenway enthusiasts that even a gift of $1,000,000 would be powerless in expediting the pre-construction process.
He then added that when state and federal grants are accepted, the process moves even more glacially because higher government agencies impose more regulations. Those grants are sought, though, because, using the example of Woodfin’s greenways, the federal government offered four times the $1,130,000 the county committed to the project.
With limited funds, the county had to triage proposals according to which ones had funding to move forward and which ones were most pragmatic for improving connectivity. O’Conner spoke the most about the Woodfin Project, which included two greenways totaling five miles and costing $2,500,000 per mile plus costs of land acquisition. Work on the project started about ten years ago, with an estimated cost of $1,000,000 per mile.
The county had committed over $1,000,000 toward completing both greenways, but obtaining rights of way had proven difficult. First, there were many businesses with which to negotiate; and secondly, although many landowners were supportive of the greenway projects in concept, the selected path would require them to relocate parking lots, fences, retaining walls, or storage grounds. A permit had to be secured to cross the railroad, and an exception had to be granted by Duke Energy to build within 30 feet of utility poles. The alternative would have been to construct an expensive cantilever boardwalk.
In addition, a lot of soil must either be removed or augmented, and studies are needed to show the greenway won’t contribute to flood conditions. O’Conner said there were over 150 pipes whose origins and contents had to be identified and possibly mitigated before federal funding could be received. “We’ve encountered pretty much everything we could along that section of greenway,” said O’Conner, adding, “That’s not something we didn’t anticipate.”
Commissioner Joe Belcher recommended pursuing the low-hanging fruit, like the Enka Heritage Trail, which would connect the high school, the new ball fields, the sports park, and the new intermediate school in his district. “Kids get excited about [new greenways]. You don’t want them to grow upon you before it’s done.” Like many of his peers, Belcher wanted to focus on completing a few greenways, “instead of having this big monster plan where we’re getting a little bit of money everywhere.”
O’Conner said, in light of escalating costs, just about any county accepting federal funds for greenways is seeing grants thought adequate 10 years ago are only half, or even less, of what’s needed. More unique to the area, O’Conner said a common problem with building greenways has been “underestimating what’s underground.” He said once crews start digging, it is not unusual to unearth cars or other landfill situations that may require brownfield remediation. In the end, O’Conner requested that the commissioners find $958,000 in the budget to support preparing the Woodfin greenways for the construction phase.
At the commissioners’ main meeting, O’Conner asked the board’s permission to turn over to the City of Asheville. The $20,000 the county had committed for a greenway connecting the Woodfin greenway system to the River Arts District. O’Conner explained the city wanted the greenway to run alongside the river. Still, when numbers were crunched, it was estimated doing so would cost $3,200,000, compared to the $1,600,000 needed to run a sidewalk alongside the road. There was also a chance the county could piggyback off the NCDOT’s realignment of I-26 and Riverside Drive and thus get the sidewalk built, paying only 40% of the cost of materials. The gift was the county’s way of telling the city, “Have at it.”