After commissioners nixed the NC DOT plan for beautifying Main Street that involved the center walkway and parallel parking, the Land Use Committee was asked to get with the agency to see if the town’s original plan could be resurrected. It involved curbed, tree planters set at the ends of a few center, diagonal parking spaces from 3rd to 5th streets.
Originally, NC DOT rejected the plan because the agency requires eight feet from a tree trunk to the travel-way on roads posted at 25 mph or less.
Monday afternoon, Andy Russell, district engineer with NC DOT attended the Land Use Committee meeting at the Community Building to hash out possibilities.
In attendance were committee members Commissioners Donnie Calloway, John Dotson and Eric Pierson as well as Town Manager Josh Ward, Town Engineer Lamar Nix and three Chamber representatives – Bob Kieltyka, Jerry Moore and Amanda Sullivan.
Originally, Russell said for safety reasons, should a vehicle run off the road, the NC DOT policy on urban landscaping and tree planting stipulates that there be a clear recovery area of eight feet from the travel-way for a tree four inches or larger at the base.
However, by the time the discussion was over, Russell said he “felt optimistic” about getting permission from the Roadside Environmental Unit to reduce the travel-way encroachment to five or six feet instead of eight. Nix said the maximum he could get with the desired design was five feet.
If the answer is no, then Nix said the other option was a tree planter or two, each in the middle of a parking space down the middle of each block – 3rd to 4th and 4th to 5th streets.
Unlike the preferred scenario, that design would severely shorten the spaces occupied by the trees – not take them away but make them more suitable for motorcycles or mini-cars, something Bob Mills of Nancys Fancys thought would be a good thing.
Though some don’t want any changes to Main Street, by the end of the 45-minute discussion everyone agreed a few extra trees on Main Street either at the ends of a few spaces or in the middle, if that is the only option … would be OK.
“I don’t think everyone is against a tree or two; I think it’s the overkill that got to everyone. I am still not for all those trees with curbing, but a tree or two, I would look at that,” said Commissioner Calloway who was originally adamantly opposed to changing the street.
Chamber member and Director of Marketing and Public Relations for OEI Amanda Sullivan said she was glad a compromise had been reached.
“I love that we are coming to some sort of compromise where we have some green features down Main Street. This makes it easier to do some photography and market the downtown area in a visually compelling way,” she said. “I think what people have come around to is a viable solution if we can make it work. From a marketing perspective, I love the idea of being able to shoot a business across Main Street underneath a tree lit with lights or with fall color in the foreground. It really represents Highlands and the reason people come here. All the studies show people are spending more time downtown and they actually are spending more money.”
Once the public was invited to speak to the issue, OEI General Manager Jack Austin said he believes more trees on Main Street would make it even more beautiful than it is and suggested “greening it up” would heighten its appeal.
“Architectural Digest did its list of ‘Prettiest Small Towns in America’ recently. Highlands wasn’t on it and Cashiers was number 30-something. It’s a matter of opinion and perception,” he said.
In the end, depending on what NC DOT says about the encroachment issue, the Land Use Committee decided that any new trees on Main Street would be set within a grate flush with the road which eliminates the problem of curbing obstacles for pedestrians or drivers. To protect the trees – without curbing – wrought iron tree guards would be installed.
Russell said he was sure he could have an answer concerning the travel-way encroachment within a week or two.
Once the town knows which direction to take, visuals will be drawn up for the public to see both prior to and at the Dec. 13 Town Board meeting at which time a final decision will be made.
Owner of Southern Way Harry Bears who would rather Main Street be left as it is, offered his perspective.
“Main Street is beautiful. It’s never been a parking lot. If you guys want to put some trees up that’s fine. But it’s a beautiful place as it is. Cashiers would love to have our problems. This is Main Street. This is the magic. This is the golden goose. This is all of it. Please be careful what you do to it because we are very, very lucky people.”
Chamber member and owner of Kilwins Jerry Moore said a couple of aesthetic trees on the main block areas of Main Street without losing parking, without creating obstacles and still being able to pull through is something he and others could live with.
“But I agree with Harry. If we did nothing, we would still be an amazing awesome town. But I am not against enhancing things. This is tweaking not reinventing Main Street because it’s pretty awesome just the way it is,” he said.
– By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper