Civic

Citizens voice concern over Woodfin’s greenway/blueway project

Woodfin Town Commissioner Debbie Giezentanner

Woodfin – A group of citizens is voicing concerns over the progress, or lack thereof, on the Woodfin Greenway/Blueway Project. Buncombe County has delayed nearly half a million dollars of funding on the project, the project is behind schedule, and federal grant money is nearing an expiration date to be used. These developments, along with other issues, have caused some citizens to become concerned about the state of the project.

A history of the project

The greenway/blueway project was put into motion back in 2016 when the citizens of Woodfin voted to borrow about $4.5 million to get the project started with the total cost of the project expected to cost over $18 million.

In October of 2017, Buncombe County voted to pass a resolution stating that their “…desires to support and promote the development of an environmentally friendly system of connected trails and greenways to improve health, alternative travel, economic development, and recreation in coordination with towns, cities, communities, businesses, non-profit organizations…” 

The document stated the “county has the opportunity to receive a grant from the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority (TDA) in the amount of $2.25 million for the construction of the Woodfin Greenway & Blueway, which will include five miles of new greenway trails and will be part of a 25 mile-plus network of greenways within Buncombe County.” The NC Department of Transportation also committed $4 million to the project.

In February of 2018, the public offered input into the design of the project during a meeting at the French Broad River Academy. In October of the same year, a “Catch the Wave” event was held in Woodfin to celebrate $14 million of the $18 million being raised.

In April, Woodfin Town Commissioner Debbie Giezentanner told the Tribune how the COVID-19 had effected work on the project. “Work on the Silverline Park and The Wave Park continues to be happening – recently the town attorney made an offer to purchase the WastePro site – normal time for response is 30 days, said Giezentanner.

She also talked about efforts by Equinox, Inc to complete the final design list for Silverline Park. 

 “The information on said bids for Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the Silverline Park project will be sent out for bid considerations on April 6 or 7th – only one week later than planned, but based on the shutdown of businesses due to directives from Buncombe County and the State of North Carolina, an acceptable time frame,” she said. “The cover letter gives a 30-day window to qualified contractors to respond.”

Citizens raise question

On May 19, Jen Langdon Ramming sent an email to the Woodfin Town Commissioners, voicing her concern about the project’s progress. “This project seems like an amazing asset for Woodfin and increases Woodfin property values, but Greenway design has been frozen for over a year and a half and now we’re losing design funding, slowing the process further. What is Woodfin leadership doing about this?” said Ramming.

On May 23, Buncombe County Recreation Director Josh O’Conner responded to an email by Ramming and three other citizens, Coral Darby, Mark Guidry and Wilson Sims. In the email, O’Conner first addressed the interlocal agreement saying, “ Buncombe County holds an agreement with NCDOT regarding the design of the NC251/Riverside Greenway. That is why there is an interlocal agreement regarding the funding because there is an existing agreement in place with NCDOT. Similarly, subsequent phases of the greenway projects will require interlocal agreements as those segments progress forward.”

He then addressed delays. “In terms of the schedule delays, the delays have been caused by a variety of factors rather than a function of problems with the design. We did realize cost design overages and we have been working to pare down the cost of the design. We have also been beholden to NCDOT’s funding and cash flow problems. The funding that we have been allocated for the greenway comes from the Federal Highway Administration’s Surface Transportation Block Grant Program. Although it is federal money, it passes through NCDOT and must be utilized, accounted for, and audited per NCDOT requirements. One of the reasons Buncombe County is the recipient of the allocations is that all of the allocations require that we first pay for segments of the project to be executed and then apply for reimbursement. While the federal allocations are the main reason that we can move forward with greenway projects, they also create a complex regulatory environment and lengthy set of approvals that do cause project delays.”

He explained the county did not pull funding but also said the county did not agree to pay any cost overruns, which should be covered by Federal Highway Administration’s Surface Transportation Block Grant Program.

He added, “We did stall on the project due to cash flow issues and attempted to understand what the fundraising capacity of the project partners were, including the Friends of Woodfin Blueway and Greenway. When it became clear that we were not going to be able to fundraise those amounts, we sought new avenues for public funds, those efforts are taking shape, but assembling public money is a lengthy process.” Also concerning to the group is the outdated timeline found on the woodfingreenwayandblueway.org website.

Woodfin Mayor Jerry VeHaun
Woodfin Mayor Jerry VeHaun

Officials respond to concerns

The Tribune sat down with Woodfin Mayor Jerry VeHaun and Town Commissioner Debbie Giezentanner to ask about the state of the greenway/blueway project.

“The Town of Woodfin is really responsible [for the entire project]. Working with, we have an agreement with Buncombe County, with the greenways,” said Giezentanner when asked who was in charge and had final responsibility of the project. She said the greenway agreement with the county included French Broad I, French Broad II and Beaverdam Creek. She said the town partnered with the county because they already had a masterplan for the greenways as well as a department responsible for the development of the same.

Pinder was asked if the county was concerned over the federal greenway grants expiring or being pulled back. She responded, “At this point, we do not anticipate federal rescissions. We have been in continuous communication with the French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization who helps administer the Federal Highway Administration’s Surface Transportation Block Grant, the grant source that is funding the project. The stall on the project to date has been directly linked to the procedural requirements of the funding sources rather than inaction.”

Asked about the outdated timeline on woodfingreenwayandblueway.org website, Woodfin Commissioner Giezentanner agreed it was out of date. “It has not been updated…it needs to be updated.” She said part of the delay on the updating arises from the death of the town’s longtime administrator, Jason Young, who was the one keeping that updated. She hopes to have it updated later this month or the first of July. She added a timeline was being updated on the town’s website at www.woodfin-nc.gov/greenwayNew.htm. 

According to VeHaun and Giezentanner, the Silver-Line Park is about on schedule and the contracts to start construction on the park was approved at the June meeting of the commissioners this week. Plans are to start on the park in July. “Plans are phase I will be completed by December and the entire park by March (2021).”

She said securing of property for the whitewater park should be done by the end of July, which will lead to a bidding package to be sent out for the final masterplan for that park.

Of the $4.5 million bond voted on by the people of the town, Giezentanner said none had been spent. “It’s like grant money, like a home equality loan… we get how much it is and submit it.” She said the money would start being spent next month when Silver-Line Park begins construction. Asked about any concerns federal grant money would expire, VeHaun noted that it could be renewed.