At the December Town Board meeting, citizens turned out to hear the final word on the proposed tree planters on Main Street but what they got was yet another proposal.
This began a litany of comments and insinuations claiming the board wasn’t being transparent.
“As a business owner on Main Street, this process has been the most nontransparent program I have seen,” said Bob Kieltyka co-owner of The Christmas Tree. “I understand this came on suddenly because of the state paving plan, but the issues that came forth regarding the plantings has struck a chord with this community. The meetings on the subject were very well attended by people who spoke on both sides of the issue; an agreement was made, renditions shown and now at this meeting at the 11th hour a new proposal that no one has seen until tonight when everyone thought this was a settled issue regarding two plantings on each block. I’ve always found this commission over the years to be extremely transparent in its dealings, but this particular proposal has been nontransparent. This is not the way the town normally conducts its business.”
A final design for “greening up Main Street” was proposed at a special meeting Monday, Nov. 26 involving the Land Use Committee made up of Commissioners Donnie Calloway, John Dotson and Eric Pierson; Chamber of Commerce representatives President Bob Kieltyka, Jerry Moore and Amanda Sullivan; NCDOT engineer Andy Russell, Highlands Town Manager Josh Ward and Public Service Director Lamar Nix.
If NCDOT granted the town the 5-ft encroachment rather than the required 8 feet between the tree planter and the travel-way, then the group agreed to two trees on two blocks – 3rd to 4th and 4th to 5th with flush grates for drainage and iron tree guards around the lower trunk of the tree.
Russell thought he could get the 5-ft. encroachment OK’d, which he did.
Consequently, citizens came to the December meeting expecting the town to vote on that design.
However, Commissioner Eric Pierson said he had gotten numerous calls from people asking for more trees – perhaps four on the 3rd to 4th street block and three on the 4th to 5th street block.
“I have had some businesses and citizens say it would look better aesthetically to add a couple more trees if we can,” said Pierson. “It’s been a busy last few days. [Winter Storm Diego.] I didn’t intend for this to be a last second thing, this is just another concept we are putting out there; people have called saying two trees on each block looked rather straggly down big expansive Main Street. So, I was trying to get another proposed design out there so people could see it.”
A mock-up of the street with additional trees was shown Thursday night.
“People don’t want this. This is confusing. You have always listened and heard us if it’s a good idea or a bad idea and this time it’s different. There was an agreement,” said Harry Bears of Southern Way.
Mayor Pat Taylor took offense to suggestions that the town hasn’t been transparent.
“To say that we have not been including people is really a disservice because we have had open meetings, so we aren’t trying to cover anything up. The new plan has popped up and that is what Commissioner Pierson is showing here. There is no underground anything going on,” he said.
Chamber board member and owner of Kilwin’s Jerry Moore, like others, kept coming back to the point that a decision had been made Nov. 26.
“We found a reasonable compromise from the people who said ‘do nothing’ to the other groups who wanted a lot of trees on Main Street. I’m a little disappointed because I wasn’t even going to come tonight because I thought we had a pretty good agreement. I don’t want the trees to block my view so I am disappointed about the idea of more trees. We had a good agreement,” he said. “I would encourage the commission to vote on what was agreed upon which is two trees or put the new plan in the newspaper and we will go through this whole process again.”
Commissioner Brian Stiehler has not been in favor of adding trees on Main Street from the beginning and said considering how hot the asphalt gets it’s an extreme environment for a tree to grow in anyway.
“Upcoming paving isn’t enough of a reason for me to do this right now. Table it or shoot it down,” he said.
Commissioner Donnie Calloway, who was absent at the meeting, saw the new rendition beforehand. According to Ward, Calloway said he is for the two trees, but anything different needs to go back into full committee for discussion.
Dotson, who like everyone else was seeing the new rendition of seven trees down the two blocks for the first time had a different reaction.
“The visual effect of the additional trees down Main Street is more appealing to me. In looking at this, the difference between two and four visually is great. The consequences are all positive. We’re still not losing any parking. Trees down the sidewalks are more a pain to me than the ones down the middle of the street. So visually, this is far superior to the two-tree plan,” he said. “It’s a beautification aspect that we can use to enhance the Main Street of Highlands making it a welcoming, shady environment.”
Mayor Taylor said studies show that a green canopy and green space is good for a business district because people want to stop and walk around.
Business owners present were mostly worried about trees blocking their store fronts and signs.
“Putting more trees on Main Street, which is a commerce street that generates the tax revenue for this town creates visual obstacles. We know what shops are where, but if you come in here as a tourist you are overwhelmed and if you see more things in your way, you’re not going to see a shop that you might otherwise see with more trees either blocking the front or the signs that say what they do,” said Moore. “I am not saying it’s not pretty. I totally agree with you, but we live in a National Forest, if you want to see trees there are plenty of opportunities to see trees. We are an economic engine in WCU and we are looking at a street that works. But we came up with a compromise and I don’t see why we are rehashing this and making more work than we need.”
Kieltyka suggested tabling the issue for another month so there is time to get the new rendition published so everyone can weigh in.
“Perhaps the new rendition will be acceptable to everyone. I’m not passing judgement on it. It’s a beautiful plan and anything we can do to beautify the town is fine. But make the options open to the public and let residents, business owners and other stakeholders have an opportunity to speak to the matter again next month,” he said.
MIS/GIS Director, Matt Shuler who used to be the town arborist suggested planting tall trees – 75 feet London Plane trees – so the line of sight is clear under the limbs so people can still see business store fronts and signs across the street while getting shade and greenery.
Based on the state of the trees on the sidewalks and in Town Square, business owners say they don’t believe the town will keep the new trees properly trimmed so despite what is promised, the trees growth will not be checked and will block signs and storefronts.
Thomas Craig owner of The Ugly Dog Public House on South 4th Street who has been for more trees all along said he’s in favor of the new proposed plan, too.
“This looks fine. But if you decide not to do this, the businesses on South 4th will take that money. You can improve our sidewalks, put our power lines under the street, take away parking and add trees. I’ll take it. If it’s not welcome on this street, I promise you the businesses on South 4th Street would be happy for it,” he said.
Ran Shaffner who used to own the Cyranos Book Shop on Main Street, said yes, it’s about economics but people come to Highlands for the beauty of it.
“We might talk about the money we make, but they come here for the beauty,” he said. “Part of that is the natural environment even on Main Street. People say it gets hotter up here each year, and that’s because of the asphalt. Let the beauty lead and let the economics follow.”
Mayor Taylor said the Land Use Committee and the Chamber will meet again before the January 17 Town Board meeting; the time and date to be announced.
By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper