The seven Town Board candidates line up for Q&A number 5

Running for re-election Tuesday, Nov. 5 are Commissioners, John Dotson, Eric Pierson and Brian Stiehler. Opposing them are Marc Hehn, Nick McCall, Michael Rogers, and Hank Ross.

There are three seats open on the board. Each candidate has been asked to answer six questions. This week we will feature answers to Question 5 by the candidates in alphabetical order.

Question 5: What are your opinions concerning beautifying Highlands commercial district with trees or increased lighting?

John Dotson

I am a proponent of a well planned and thoughtful implementation of some additional trees on Main Street. As with everything, there are a number of considerations with placing more trees on Main, the greatest of which is parking. While I do not believe we have a “parking problem” per se, I am in favor of keeping the parking we have.

The last proposal for trees on Main Street did not remove any parking spots yet still softened the impact of the large swath of asphalt in the middle of our most utilized area. With regard to lighting, I am a firm supporter of the “dark skies” initiative proposed years ago by Hank Ross. We are still a spot where people gaze into the sky at night and are in awe of the majesty of the stars and planets. The Town lighting reflects a thoughtful, low-key, yet safe environment on our streets and sidewalks and that needs to continue. Lighting up the town other than the holidays, as an attractant to more visitors, is the wrong way to go.

As far as holiday lighting is concerned, my position is that since we are a small town, we need to keep our “small town flavor.” People don’t come to Highlands for the “light show” other than at Christmas.

Marc Hehn

I like Main Street like it is. One of my earliest memories is looking down Main Street as a small child and being in awe.

Nick McCall

I imagine that many in the community already know my life opinion on this issue. I believe it is a idea pushed by a few and they should be giving more thought for the people it effects the most. It is one of the main issues that compelled me to enter this election. So, to dive right into my opinion on what is really being asked here, I do not think it is, nor would I ever think it is a good idea to put trees down the middle of Main Street.

We honestly live in one of the most beautiful areas in the country. We are surrounded by forests as far as you can see in every direction. I have never heard anyone ever say that Highlands is aesthetically unpleasing. Looking at this concept from a practical standpoint, each of these trees will have to be big so their limbs have clearance from large trucks and tractor trailers. I don’t even want to imagine the nightmare we will face when the roots grow through the water and sewage lines buried underneath Main Street. Additionally, they are hazards with people hitting them with their vehicles and will create blind spots for seeing pedestrians trying to cross the street. I also question if the DOT, would not have an issue with this since that is US 64 a state road. And speaking for the business community, why in the world would we want to take away any parking? Saying that putting 26 to 30 trees down the middle of Main Street is not going to eliminate any parking spaces is not being honest.

The community came together in a large number in opposition of this idea. Citizen after citizen spoke with passion pleading for their voices to be heard. Sadly, they were ignored and dismissed by two commissioners who are running for re-election. The people spoke but were not heard and I can promise you that if elected that will never happen with me. My opinion on the welcoming lights are that the shops close mostly around 5 o’clock at night so I don’t understand the concept. I have also spoken to a majority of the businesses downtown and they are not on board with this concept. We also have an ordinance that was passed years ago the dark sky initiative which protects against light pollution which this would violate. Walking around town at night is so peaceful and relaxing and I would vote to keep it that way.

Eric Pierson

I believe downtown Highlands is quite nice compared to some towns yet is also lacking when compared to others (which is a concern that has been expressed to me by a number of citizens in town). Personally, I think that the addition of trees in downtown would make Main Street more attractive and create an atmosphere that visitors to town as well as our residents would enjoy. I understand that a lot of the business owners are against this idea, but I would like for the members of the board, the merchants and citizens to come together and discuss this idea more and see if there may be a way to enhance downtown for everyone’s benefit.

Michael Rogers

I would like to see some additional lighting, but I do not want to see the trees wrapped lights. I would like to have streetlights downtown that have an old town feel, that would be complimentary not harsh and glaring. I don’t want a Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge feel to our town. We are beautiful and what we do needs to set us apart and have class to it. I feel that we do need to plant some more trees and change the trees that are there as I don’t feel they complement the buildings. We need trees that grow tall and open so as not to take away from the beauty of the buildings. It is critical we plant the right type of trees as well as the location. They do not need to take up any additional parking spaces or be planted in areas that will grow into the power lines. If we are planting good looking nice trees, we don’t need to have to cut them. I would also like to see more rock walls in certain areas to tie into a cohesive look throughout the Town. Oak Street in particular needs work with trees planted and some beautification in areas, as well as the corner of NC 106 and Spring Street.

As part of the landscape, I want to see sidewalks extended out of our downtown corridor. There are areas that have no sidewalks and are dangerous for our visitors to walk. We have more and more visitors to our area every year and I want them to be able to walk safely.

Hank Ross

A beautiful and inviting downtown is vital to the health of our local economy. The downtown tree and streetscape program began about 20 years ago and vastly improved our shopping and walking experience. However, this landscape project has not continued in many years. The downtown streetscape is extremely important and can be improved without losing parking spaces. There are many areas of unneeded asphalt that could be removed and replaced with trees and planters.

Also, streetscape in the Highlands commercial district should be extended to other downtown streets that have businesses and parking such as outer ends of Main Street, Oak Street, Carolina Way, Second and Third Streets. Continuing the brick sidewalks and adding trees, benches and trash containers will help draw shoppers to areas other than Main Street by keeping a consistent look and appeal. Presently when passing from Main Street and the “Hill,” shoppers often do not continue to other areas believing the shopping district ends there.

I am not in favor of the Chamber of Commerce’s proposal for accent lighting of trees on Main Street due to appearance and potential harm to our street trees. Excessive artificial night lighting can negatively impact a tree’s ability to go dormant during the winter which is essential to protect it from freezing temperatures. Also, by “extending the day” and adding heat, artificial lighting affects flowering and pollination patterns. As someone that designs streetscapes and outdoor lighting, I always use a “dark sky” and “less is more” philosophy while making sure safety is provided. Our downtown needs to maintain its lovely mountain charm which will require careful thought when adding lighting and trees.

Brian Stiehler

As for the trees, I was one of two commissioners who opposed this from the very beginning. I want to stress that I am not necessarily opposed to trees themselves, it was more of the process that I was very much opposed to. If this is something residents of Highlands want, let’s get a streetscape expert to determine the proper location, planting methods and species of trees to ensure their long-term success and survival. For me personally, I think Main Street is beautiful and works just fine. I do worry that additional trees may impede sight lines and the safety of motorists. In addition, if you’ve driven down Main Street after an 8-inch plus snowfall, you’ve seen the mountains of snow that accumulate quickly. With additional trees, this creates a logistical challenge in terms of snow removal. Finally, as for the lights, I can only share my personal opinion and that is a firm, no. I don’t think we need the additional light pollution. Let’s leave Highlands as it is.

  • Next week Question 6: The Highlands-Cashiers Hospital is important to the sustainability of Highlands. As in every other sector in town, affordable housing for hospital employees is an issue and is said to be one of the reasons the hospital is 20 employees short. Do you think the town should assist in this and other hospital matters? Also, is there anything else you would like to impart to your future constituents?

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