By Clint Parker
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.
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.
“Buncombe had already gotten a grant for $459,000. They were ready to get going on it and because we had the bond money, Woodfin got moved up to the first part of the greenway [projects],” said Giezentanner. “That was good for us too, and that saved us a lot of money.”
She mentioned that between the county and the NC Department of Transportation (DOT) that they had a $5 million federal grant. “It’s federal money, but it goes through NCDOT.” Mayor VeHaun added, “They’ve awarded us the money, but they’re not funding it.” Why? The problem stems from DOT’s overspending of $742 million, which came to light in a state audit report in May of this year.
“It doesn’t mean it’s not coming, it’s like everything with COVID, it’s where we are,” Giezentanner explained.
Giezentanner said the Town of Woodfin was independently moving forward on the Riverside Renovation and expansion (which is the whitewater park and extending Riverside Park) and the new Silver-Line Park.
“We’re very excited about all of the projects,” she added, “We want everything to be completed, and that’s the truth. It’s good for Woodfin, and it’s good for the county.”
Buncombe County Manager Avril Pinder also responded to questions put to her by the Tribune about the project. Asked if the county was still in full support of the Woodfin’s project? Pinder said, “Yes, Buncombe County remains fully in support of the Woodfin Greenway project. The funding stream utilized to fund the greenway project is complex and requires coordination of several agencies. Recreation Services works diligently to find and leverage multiple sources of funding and this project is utilizing funding from the Federal Highway Administration’s Surface Transportation Block Grant, which passes through the NCDOT.”
She went on to say, “The project encountered delays previously as we ran into cost overruns during the design of the Riverside Drive segment of greenway. Due to the complexity of the financial arrangements, it did take time to locate funding to cover the cost gap and have that applied to the project. Unfortunately, the NCDOT has dropped below its funding floor as a result of existing budgetary problems that became further exacerbated by COVID-19. We are currently working with our partner agencies to open up our access to funding and continue moving forward with the project. These conditions are not solely being experienced by Buncombe County, they are being experienced by many jurisdictions within our community.”
Asked if she was of the opinion that Woodfin and the county are fulfilling its inter-locking commitments to the greenway project, Pinder stated, “Yes. We are coordinating on a frequent basis with…Woodfin and have worked to keep the…county…commissioners apprised of the situation. While the project has experienced delays, both jurisdictions have been actively problem-solving in a coordinated fashion on how the project can be completed in a timely and cost-efficient fashion.”
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.