Carolina Journal: DOT Bridge-Widening Project Threatens Iconic Farm Alternate routes being considered after public outcry

NCDOT Bridge-Widening Project Threatens Iconic Farm

Alternate routes being considered after public outcry

By: Sara Burrows

Apr. 10th, 2013
VALLE CRUCIS — A picturesque farm in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains featured by The New York Times as a model for local, sustainable agriculture soon may have a road — and three bridges — paved through its crop fields and hog pens, right up to its barn doors.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation informed the owners of Maverick Farms Feb. 5 the department would make an offer for several acres of their land by the end of February. If they didn’t accept the offer, DOT would condemn the property and begin construction within 30 days.

The proposed project involves moving, widening, and modernizing three bridges that connect a single-lane, dirt road that winds up through the property and dead ends into two relatively new vacation home developments at the top of the mountain. The width and placement of the new bridges essentially would put the farm out of business, the owners say.

More than 1,500 petition signatures, hundreds of phone calls and emails from around the country, and a resolution of support by Watauga County Commissioners have caused DOT to take a second look at the proposed bridge project to see if there are alternatives that would make a lesser impact on the farm. Negotiations are continuing as this story goes to press.

While the news leaves farm co-owner Hillary Wilson “cautiously optimistic,” a DOT spokesman told Carolina Journalthat funds are tight and building a road around the farm may not be in the budget.

The farm

As reported in a New York Times Magazine series called “Food Fighters,” Hillary Wilson and her sister Alice Brook — along with three friends — took over their father Bill Wilson’s farm in Valle Crucis in 2004, in an effort to protect family land from development and to “reconnect local food networks.”

Alice Brook moved from Brooklyn with her boyfriend Tom Philpott, who writes for Mother Jones and Grist. The five friends were on a mission to do more than grow veggies. Together, they’ve created a non-profit “center for sustainable food education.”

In addition to hosting elementary school field trips, teaching teens to run a farm, and operating an “eco-tourism” bed and breakfast in its 130-year-old farmhouse, Maverick Farms works with Appalachian State University on programs including sustainable development, Appalachian studies, and fermentation sciences. The farm also offers apprenticeships and education to interns from local universities.

Maverick Farms has helped the local economy by supplying local restaurants and facilitating a multifarm community supported agriculture program. Hillary Wilson said Maverick expanded its own successful CSA program to include other small, local farmers. The farm also organizes a low-income CSA and a program for farmers who don’t own property on donated land nearby.

The bridges

Maverick Farms lies in what DOT calls a deep narrow valley, hemmed in by hillsides and streams. “A one-lane, unpaved, dead-end road cuts through the property, winding its way to a ridgetop. Despite these tight conditions, the county approved development of 140 house-lots up the road from the farm over the past 15 years, concentrated in two major developments, Hunters Ridge and Meadows at Valle Crucis,” stated a March 5 press release from the farm.

The owners of the luxury cabins on Justus Road “have been leading a push to pave the road for years,” Wilson said. “The bridge project represents the fruition of their efforts.”

While a DOT spokesman says there currently are no plans to pave the road, the bridges — which he says are due to be replaced anyway — must be widened “in case it is ever paved in the future.”

“It has been on the books for awhile to replace those bridges,” said Jerry Higgins, a DOT communications officer. “Because they do need to be replaced. Are they going to collapse? No. But they’re on the books to be replaced.”

The farm’s owners dispute the idea that the bridges are unsafe and that they need to be replaced with larger bridges. In a Feb. 25 meeting with two DOT engineers, the owners were told the bridges were “functionally obsolete” and “structurally deficient” simply because they are one-lane bridges.

In a subsequent phone conversation with Maverick Farms co-founder Tom Philpott, one of the engineers, Ivan Dishman, said “structurally deficient” does not mean the bridges are unsafe, just that they require regular maintenance.

The bridge enhancement proposal involves converting the three single-lane bridges on the property into two-lane paved culverts. Hillary Wilson said the project would disrupt much more than the bridges’ current footprints. Because Justus Road is the only route in and out of the housing development above them, the new bridges must be built alongside the old bridges, rather than in place, to allow traffic to continue to flow during construction.

“They’re going to go off the old road bed, and build a whole new road bed,” Wilson said.

The first bridge — which is set to be built 200 feet away from the original — will go through a major portion of her most productive cropland, where she grows seasonal vegetables like potatoes, onions, tomatoes, and spinach. “The second bridge goes up to the front of our barn and through one of our animal pens,” she said. “The third goes through our driveway and up through the bottom of another one of our fields.”

“These crop fields have been in production for over 100 years,” she added. “Once they’re used for the roads, they’ll never be productive again.”

Wilson said while she might be able to grow some food crops in the years after construction is finished, “it would be so drastically reduced, I wouldn’t be able to make a living from it. And the safety issues associated with going from one lane to two lanes, I don’t think I would feel ethically safe having school groups doing our nonprofit educational events here.”

“I’m not against making the roads safer,” she said. “It’s just their proposal takes the working heart out of my farm.”

The alternative

The Watauga County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution by unanimous vote March 5 in support of the farm, stating that Maverick Farms was “a vital asset to the community,” and urging DOT to “consider any and all options and alternatives.”

Wilson said her father has offered to donate right-of-way along a ridge-top on their property. The family also has suggested that an even better solution to the “traffic problem” caused by the development up the hill would be to connect Justus Road to nearby Seven Devils Road, which would take less than a quarter mile of new road. Both options would eliminate the need to build a second set of bridges, as they would provide an alternate route for traffic to flow during and after construction work on the old bridges.

DOT engineers said they would consider that option, but cautioned that for now DOT had only about $1 million set aside for the bridge improvements, not road construction.

March 22, the farmers had a second meeting with the two local DOT engineers. They walked several potential routes together and settled on one along a ridge that the engineers said they would look into further and get back to them in couple of weeks.

Wilson said the route under consideration still would involve her family “ceding significant amounts of land and altering the mountainside,” but would spare farm fields and structures.

On March 27, Dishman told CJ he was continuing to look into alternatives, and that he was “optimistic that some more palatable solutions” could be found.

But on the same day DOT spokesman Jerry Higgins warned, “It’s not just as simple as someone donating a dirt trail to DOT and saying ‘OK, here you go.’ It would have to be studied. How much work would need to be done? How much it would cost?

“Funds are tight,” he said. “There might be other road projects up there that are higher priority to the county commissioners and the locals.”

Sara Burrows is a contributor to Carolina Journal.

Editor’s note: This story was edited after initial publication to clarify the March 5 press release was issued by the farm rather than DOT.