Sidewalks were a big topic at Highlands Planning Board meeting in June

The June Planning Board meeting was short; mostly cleaning up verbiage in the Unified Development Code, until Chairman Brad Armstrong invited the public to participate.

Since “Review of the Draft Community Plan” was on the agenda, citizens came to hear the Planning Board’s take on the Plan. Stewart Company’s work is near the end of Phase 3 (Plan Development) in the 4-Phase continuum.

Two members of the Planning Board are on the Community Plan Steering Committee – Chairman Armstrong and Darren Whatley – so they have read it front to back.

Initially, talk centered around the extension or creation of sidewalks but included discussion about litter on Highlands’ roadways and the town allocating money to do things – construct sidewalks for instance “since it has no problem spending money,” which was an assumed reference to the new Fire and Rescue Department complex on U.S. 64 west and Oak Street.

Currently, where the town constructs sidewalks is mostly determined by the Master Sidewalk Plan which was adopted in 2008. With Highlands’ growth, Assistant Planning Director Michael Mathis agreed, as did the authors of the Draft Community Plan, that it needs to be updated.

According to the Master Sidewalk Plan, which the town uses to construct sidewalks as money allows, developers of new construction in the downtown area within the confines of the Master Plan must build a sidewalk.

To that end, the proposed Bryson cluster development on 5th Street was mentioned, but Mathis reminded the board that the development isn’t part of the Master Sidewalk Plan so the developers aren’t required to construct a sidewalk.

Citizen Chip Wilson asked if the Community Plan mentioned or if the town would consider constructing a sidewalk from Poplar Street where it ends, to the entrance to Little Bear Pen off U.S. 64 east.

Planning Board members discussed extending the sidewalk along U.S. 64 beyond Poplar Street to Little Bear Pen.

However, recommendations in the Community Plan include extending The Greenway from Poplar Street along U.S. 64 east to Little Bear Pen – not extending the sidewalk. Mathis took note and said he would mention it to the Stewart Company.

Rick Siegel who lives in Shelby Place off NC 28 south asked if the town or the Plan considered extending a sidewalk from where it ends at Highlands Plaza down to Shelby Place and would the town consider doing that.

Sidewalk extensions on NC 106 from Spring Street to Hummingbird Lane and from The Bascom bridge to Mirror Lake Road were also discussed.

Both those extensions are in the Macon County Transportation Plan which was adopted by all required entities in the county, including Highlands at its May Town Board meeting, but the understanding is that it would take years, possibly decades for those two projects to be funded by the state.

That got everyone asking if NC DOT would allow the town to do the job.

According to Public Service Director Lamar Nix, since those aren’t town roads, the town would need an encroachment permit from NC DOT and be able to fund the projects itself..

“If laying sidewalks was cheap or easy it would have already been done,” he said. “I estimated the one down NC 106 a few years ago. It was a million dollars then. I have not estimated the other two.”

Folks asked if federal infrastructure money could help fund such projects.

Currently, USDOT is seeking projects to award under the Infrastructure for Rebuilding America Grant Program (INFRA) to both large and small projects. 

For a large project, the INFRA grant must be at least $25 million. For a small project, the grant must be at least $5 million. 

Overall program guidelines require that at least 25 percent of INFRA funding be for rural projects so it’s possible Highlands fits into that category.

INFRA grants may be used to fund a variety of components of an infrastructure project, however, the Department is specifically focused on projects in which the local sponsor is significantly invested and is positioned to proceed rapidly to construction (shovel ready). 

Eligible INFRA project costs may include: reconstruction, rehabilitation, acquisition of property (including land related to the project and improvements to the land), environmental mitigation, construction contingencies, equipment acquisition, and operational improvements directly related to system performance. 

It’s not clear if sidewalk construction falls into those categories.

Armstrong asked Mathis to also note that Sunset Rock and Nature Center parking need to be addressed as does a more defined sidewalk to those areas.

“That area deserves some attention,” he said.

Pictured at the top of the article is the end of the sidewalk at The Bascom along  U.S. 64.

By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper

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