Bridge project threatens farmland

Worth Kimmel and Hillary Wilson say they're concerned about a bridge replacement project that will require right-of-way from Maverick Farms, a member of the Voluntary Farmland Preservation Program. Kellen Moore | Watauga Democrat.

A bridge replacement project planned for a narrow gravel road in Banner Elk has owners of one property worried about the fate of their farm.

Maverick Farms, located at 410 Justus Road, is one of several parcels that will be affected when the N.C. Department of Transportation replaces four aging bridges: one at the intersection of Justus Road and Clarks Creek Road and three others on Justus Road.

District Engineer Ivan Dishman said the DOT’s preliminary designs include replacing some of the bridges with culverts beneath gravel and others with traditional bridges with paved surfaces. All will be two lanes wide, while the road will remain its current width, he said.

“The bridges are in such condition that something’s going to have to be done,” Dishman said.

The DOT is in the process of staking the proposed right-of-way boundaries, appraising land and offering fair market value to the affected property owners, Dishman said.

If an agreement can’t be reached, the DOT may condemn the land through eminent domain, and the courts will determine a fair price.

If right-of-way purchasing is complete, the department hopes to begin construction early this summer, he said.

Maverick Farms concerned

Three of those bridges will affect Maverick Farms, and the plans have co-owner Hillary Wilson worried and frustrated.

The farm, formerly called Springhouse Farm, has been in the Wilson family since 1972. Wilson said the land’s use as a tobacco farm goes back decades before that.

She and her sister, Alice Brooke, assumed control of the land and launched Maverick Farms in 2004 with several friends as an educational nonprofit.

The stakes driven into the soil by right-of-way agents show the project area cutting through a sizeable piece of the fields used for growing crops such as greens, tomatoes, potatoes, flowers and herbs.

“We’re not against road improvements,” Wilson said. “We want everyone to feel safe. … But the way it’s planned now, it disregards my vocation as a farmer.”

The crops and chicken eggs produced at the farm — which are Wilson’s sole income — are sold at the Watauga County and Banner Elk Farmers’ Markets and consumed at educational events on the farm.

Maverick Farms also founded the High Country CSA, a cost-sharing program in which members receive weekly crop shares from participating local farms. Almost 100 members were part of the CSA during the 2012 season, Wilson said.

“Honestly, I’d rather be planting seeds in the greenhouse and planning the growing season,” she said. “But this is about whether the farm has a future. Literally, what I can plant this spring is up to the DOT.”

Wilson said she hopes the DOT will consider an alternative route that won’t require so much of their prime farmland.

Dishman, the division engineer, said he plans to meet with the Wilson family in the next few weeks and look at the land more closely. But he can’t make any promises.

“At least in my mind, there’s some issues with doing alternate routes that I would assume are insurmountable,” he said.

Opinions split on project

Jan Boren, who lives past the farm on Justus Road, said she supports what she has heard about the project.

“We feel like the bridges need to be strengthened, and we’re glad the Department of Transportation is going to do it,” she said.

School buses use the road, as well as numerous homeowners in two developments, she said. Boren said she worries about what might happen if her husband, 77, experienced a medical problem and the road or bridges were inaccessible.

“We want everybody to be happy with everything they do, but there are a hundred families up here that need good access, and access for safety reasons,” Boren said.

In the past, community members also have diverged on other road proposals. In May 2011, a few homeowners approached the county commissioners asking for support to get Justus Road widened and paved.

DOT staff said at that time that it had not been able to get enough homeowners to volunteer right-of-way in the past. Unlike the push for widening and paving, this bridge replacement project will compensate homeowners for their right-of-way, Dishman said.

Farmland Preservation Program

The farm may have some recourse as a member of the Voluntary Farmland Preservation Program.

Under state statutes, government agencies may not condemn VFPP properties without a public hearing hosted by the local agricultural advisory board.

Such a hearing has never been required in Watauga County since the preservation program started in 2000, conservation technician Brian Chatham said.

If the discussions progress to the point of condemnation, the board would hear from the DOT, Maverick Farms and the public before making recommendations to the DOT, he said.

“I don’t think we’ll necessarily outright change (the plans), but we can make some good recommendations and maybe be a good mediator between the two,” Chatham said.

Wilson said that’s all she wants to see: An alternate plan that won’t threaten her livelihood.

“Once that soil is lost and paved over, it can never be recouped,” Wilson said. “There’s no amount of money that can compensate for that.”

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