By Pete Zamplas
Debate over the North Highland Lake Road project is both a fierce campaign issue in Village of Flat Rock elections, and an area case study on municipal-state relations and potential future financial liability.
The $3 million project is designed mainly to shift the Park at Flat Rock’s entrance to a safer spot further from railroad tracks, to widen the road’s shoulder, and put in a walking-bicycling roadside path on the park side of the road.
Trees that would go down from the public park are mostly “scraggly pines,” project supporter Councilman John Dockendorf said, other than a prized oak the board is urging DOT to spare.
Project opponents such as Vice-mayor Nick Weedman are more protective of several large trees around the bend, near the road’s dead-end into the Greenville Highway/N.C. 225. “Trees are the essence of Flat Rock,” Weedman said. “I have believed that the project takes an excessive number of trees.”
Those roadside trees belong to Pinecrest Presbyterian Church. Many of its members join a trio of Council candidates affiliated with the Cultural Landscape Group: Flat Rock (CLG) in opposing the project. One of those candidates, Anne Coletta, is CLG president.
CLG has a website (hcscl.wordpress.com/home/) and challenges in detail the Village’s FAQ about the project and at least its original plans plans — though the width of it, for instance, has since been altered.
Project foes insist that if the wider shoulder and planned pathway go in along with a retaining wall to shield the church, all of that gets too close to the edge of the church parking lot to leave enough room to plant replacement trees.
The state’s practice is to pay a property owner a fair value for trees removed for a road project. CLG states more than 100 trees in all would be removed, while backers see better trees replacing the ones on the park perimeter. Weedman said “at least one of the (park’s) old oak trees is due to be removed.”
Trees on the project’s cutting block protect the church from “visual blight and traffic noise” and would go to “install a sidewalk to nowhere,” CLG asserted on its website. Weedman said some of the trees are as old (40 years) as the church.
Sidewalk is to go in and sandwich a “ten-foot wide asphalt path into the park,” Weedman said. He questions if it will be used enough to be of much value, along with its crosswalk linkage. “The pedestrian/bicycle path will require the Village to contribute 20 percentof the undefined costs initially, and to maintain it forever,” Weedman cautioned.
A wild card of area interest is a State House bill that would empower the state to bill a municipality that halts a state road project — if it has progressed to a certain extent — for expenses incurred up to that point. This is not yet law, and it is iffy whether it will become so. But if it does, it affects cities statewide.
In Flat Rock’s case, it might get billed for nearly a million dollars. The Tribune interviewed a prominent Village Council member on each side of this issue for this article.
Weedman, who is unopposed for becoming Flat Rock’s next mayor, strongly opposes the project. Dockendorf is all for it. They agreed DOT’s costs are already over $800,000 — such as for engineering, surveying and marking of easements — but differ about the chance the village might ever get billed for part or all of that.
Dockendorf is a Council liaison with state Transportation officials and road project managers. He said costs were about $825,000 a month ago, and likely about $900,000 by now. He said “a quarter of the project has already been spent” and the house bill if it passes could result in the village held “liable for at least a part” of the expense.
Weedman emphasized that for now, at least, assurances by the state are the village will not be billed if it pressures the state to abandon the project.
He noted that at Council meetings “the sentiment of those who spoke in the opens public sessions was overwhelmingly against the project.”
Weedman is the village’s longtime finance officer, and oversees tax collection. He has served on Village Council since 2003, and as vice-mayor since 2008. He will succeed Mayor Bob Staton, who is retiring after serving three terms since 2007.
Dockendorf is finishing one term representing District 3 of Flat Rock’s three districts. He is stepping aside, to focus on family and running Camp Pinnacle and Adventure Treks.
The anti-project Council candidate slate is Coletta, Thomas Carpenter, and David Dethero. Coletta has been a Tea Party leader. She has served on Council before. She is challenging Ginger Brown, in District 2.
Brown oversee the village park. She chaired its design committee, and has served on the village Planning Board and Park Advisory Board.
Carpenter is on Pinecrest’s church board. He and Barbara Platz vie to fill Weedman’s D1 seat. The race for Dockendorf’s D3 seat is Dethero versus Hilton Swing, on the Nov. 5 ballot. Each of Flat Rock’s three districts has two representatives.
Many Carpenter-Coletta-Dethero (C-C-D) mailings are listed as paid by CLG’s political action committee, and often align the trio with Weedman.
Eventually responding, a Brown-Platz-Swing mailing accuses their foes of “misleading statements to scare Flat Rock voters. There are no plans to ‘pave paradise’” — referring to the “Don’t Pave Paradise” signs. Another alarmist slogan is “Don’t Urbanize Flat Rock.”
Brown-Platz-Swing asks voters to “Reject negative politics, lawsuits, and endless sign clutter.” In a free speech case, CLG last month secured a federal court preliminary injunction on the village sign ordinance.
Several C-C-D sign slogans imply a drastic change will happen. One mailing paid by CLG’s PAC quotes Joni Mitchell’s 1970 pop song “Big Yellow Taxi”: “They paved paradise — and put up a parking lot.”
That mailing cites an “historic election that will irreversibly set the direction of Flat Rock for generations” and pledges protecting “our open spaces, scenic byways and our quality of life.” Another mailing financed by CLG’s PAC vows “no taking of private land (of Pinecrest church) for non-essential use,” and for “road improvements ‘surgically applied.’”
The project in question is not to pave an unpaved road, nor to add driving lanes to the two-lane Highland Lake Road, nor taking land of several landowners. Instead, it is mainly to widen the shoulder —on land on the park side of the road, instead of many private lots on the other side.
“All we’re adding is two feet of shoulder, to make the it safer,” Dockendorf said. “I don’t see the apocalypse” from the project.
He sees the village getting shelved for any future requests to DOT, if it urges this project be stopped. “If we kill it, we won’t get state money for 20 years. Someone in five to ten years (as traffic worsens) will say ‘what a bunch of idiots!’” for turning away the project. Weedman questioned that the state would hold such a grudge.
Council has “worked an incredible compromise with DOT” on behalf of historic and land interests, Dockendorf said. He said the village’s basic road plans put pathways on both sides, and DOT initially planned that in this project.
CLG criticized the original plan to widen the roadbed from 22 to at least 52 feet, by widening the road six feet; adding curb, gutter, 10.5-foot walking-cycling path, and 4.5-foot buffer on each side.
But Dockendorf noted Council got DOT to shrink the width such as by putting a multi-use path only on the park-church side. He said this spared property owners on the other side. “Ginger (Brown) and I said the giant greenways on either side were too huge. We said, ‘let’s have a walking path on the park side of the road. So people don’t have to walk down the road. This is instead of bike lanes, which take up too much land.”
A bonus is the park entrance and village gateway will be more aesthetic, Dockendorf said, with “trees and plants we can plant. Now, it’s at best a mediocre entrance to Flat Rock. There’s not a tree (other than an oak or two) on the park side you’d say ‘oh my god, we have to keep that tree! Landscaping and new trees will make the park entrance beautiful.”
The most compelling reason for this project is to make winding Highland Lake Road safer — especially near the park and in slick weather, Dockendorf said.
Northbound traffic from Flat Rock has to turn left into the park. Dockendorf said, “I’m afraid I’m going to get rear-ended, while waiting to make a left turn into the park.” Worse is if the left turner does not signal, and the driver behind is distracted by glancing at a cell phone. He said with entrances bunched together, “it’s an accident waiting to happen.”
The left turn cross southbound traffic from Spartanburg Hwy./U.S. 176 and the super Ingles at that corner. Cars heads around S-turns and over railroad tracks. As some slow greatly over tracks, others behind might tailgate closely.
Once accelerating from the tracks, motorists come out of a blind turn with the Highland Golf Villas-park shared entrance on the right. At left directly across the road is the drive for Dale’s Auto Service and its crowded lot. Dockendorf notes how motorists might enter the road from opposite sides and at the same time.
The Villas has requested the park no longer share its entrance along Highland Golf Drive, Dockendorf said. The park entrance is to shift about 100 yards southward. DOT “picked the place where you have the most sight lines,” Dockendorf said. “It’s where they can put in a left turn lane” into the park, without having to use any of Dale’s land. The village can pay the contractor to also improve the path into the park.
CLG counters that traffic more safely flows with “railroad tracks, the curves in the road, and the lack of left-hand turn lanes.”
Further, CLG disputes safety needs near the park by stating DOT accident data of 2011-16 shows most crashes are at or near 176 and 225 rather than by the park. Weedman said DOT rated the road at”only 30 percent capacity for traffic.”
Yet the park has added many amenities and users since ’16. More visitors are apparent by spotting more cars parked there. The park for the first time was recently the site of an area high school cross country meet. Its Tot Lot opened this month, near the often busy playground. Many people regularly walk the park trails, and the pavilion houses group functions.
Further, North Highland Lake Road (NHLR) is a main route to Flat Rock Playhouse and the Carl Sandburg Home.
Traffic heading north on 225 can turn right onto NHLR at a traffic light, where southbound cars can turn left from NHLR onto 225. Weedman and Dockendorf agree this is a very tight right turn — especially for buses returning from plays — and needs widening. Weedman said a strip of private land is “deeded” to DOT.
Also, NHLR’s intersection with 176, he wants a redesign so southbound traffic from 176 no longer squeezes from two lanes to one “suicide” right lane entering CVS. Some motorists cut others off merging left onto the single lane, and many then promptly turn left into Ingles’ gas station.