Our very own Kevin Griffin featured in the Asheville Citizens Times with regards to the I-26 interchange improvement.
ASHEVILLE – The three-bedroom house Lesley Cohen bought in 2004 sits just a few feet from where her street reaches a dead end at the edge of Interstate 240.
Preliminary plans for the I-26 Connector project say the home's location in West Asheville is destined to one day be at the top of a retaining wall, part of the right-of-way the state Department of Transportation says it needs to widen I-240 and improve its interchanges.
In other words, the house will be history in a few years.
As currently planned, building the Connector will require the removal of 114 homes, 36 businesses and two nonprofits, DOT says. The agency is holding a public meeting Tuesday to answer questions and gather reaction.
Construction of the I-26 Connector will mean dozens of people like Cohen will be searching for housing in a market where there is a major shortage of affordable options.
DOT says it has worked to reduce impacts and the total of 152 is lower than the 203 shown in previous plans.
Many of the structures standing in the future path of a new connector are in West Asheville. Current plans also show buildings will be removed along Hill Street and along the path of the new route over the French Broad River to be built as part of the project.
That will run northeast from the current I-240/Patton Avenue interchange near Sam's Club, between it and West Gate shopping center, and connect with U.S. 19-23 near Riverside Cemetery on the edge of Montford.
I-240 is to be widened to six lanes and improvements to the I-26/I-40/I-240 interchange and I-40/Smoky Park Highway interchange are also part of the project.
Can people hang on in a hot housing market?
Cohen's mother and two brothers all live here and she wants to stay in the Asheville area, but she wonders whether she will be able to afford buying another home in West Asheville.
The area's traditional core, from Patton Avenue south to Amboy Road, has changed from being one of Asheville's least expensive markets to one in high demand.
"West Asheville is so hot," Cohen said. The last time Buncombe County valued her home for tax purposes, in 2016, the amount the county said it would fetch on the open market nearly doubled.
Cohen, who works in a call center, says she would be happy just finding something similar to what she has now when the time comes to move.
But when she sees for sale ads for other West Asheville homes, "I'm stunned at the asking prices."
When it was built decades ago, what is now I-240 cut in two several West Asheville streets like the one Cohen lives on and left many homes only a few yards away from the freeway's nearly constant roar.
Those homes are among West Asheville's more affordable because many people would rather not put up with the noise.
Cohen said she chose her house because it was one of the few she could find that both fit her budget and did not need major repairs.
Finding something comparable in West Asheville will be difficult but can be done, said Kevin Griffin, president of West Asheville-based Hi-Alta Real Estate. "It all depends on how close they want to stay to where they are."
West Asheville used to be one of the city's most affordable neighborhoods, but now, "When you tack on (the words) 'West Asheville,' it doesn't mean affordable," Griffin said.
People are especially attracted to areas within walking distance of Haywood Road and its restaurants and breweries, he said, and home prices reflect that.
What sellers might get
State law requires that the Department of Transportation pay fair market value. The state also covers moving expenses and will make payments of up to $7,200 for renters and $31,000 in some cases to ensure people can afford comparable housing.
"There are many options that the (DOT) right of way agent has to aid the owners, business, renters, etc. in the relocation process," said Randy McKinney, DOT Division 13 construction engineer.
Meri Hannon, who makes leather bags and other sewn goods in her Night Heron Studio in a building on Haywood Road likely to be flattened to make way for the connector, said the project could signal the end of her business.
"I may be looking at a career change," she said. "I don't see myself being able to afford rent anywhere else."
Of course, DOT and property owners may disagree over what fair market value is, and it is difficult to put a dollar figure on the emotional impact of being forced to move from your home.
But Griffin said most people who sell to DOT end up doing fairly well from a solely financial standpoint: "It doesn't usually put them in dire straits."
In terms of cost per square foot, homes in some other city neighborhoods or in some suburbs are cheaper than in West Asheville, he said.
People who are willing to add to their commute to find a house a little farther out of town should be able to find homes at comparable prices, Griffin said.
"If you moved (to West Asheville) just because you want to be close to everything, that's another thing."
Renters in the connector's path may have a tougher time than property owners, said Mike Figura, head of Mosaic Realty.
"It's going to be difficult from them to replace their home with the rent that they're paying now," he said.
Griffin said there are rental properties available in Asheville, but "the affordability is difficult."
Dealing with noise
Owners of homes that are now one or two houses back from I-240 but will find themselves right beside it after the I-26 Connector is built "are probably the worst off of everybody," Figura said. DOT will not buy their homes, but their locations mean their values will fall, Figura said.
"Nobody looks for interstate frontage when they look for housing," he said.
The roar of traffic had subsided some late Thursday afternoon because eastbound traffic was at a standstill due to a tie-up on Bowen Bridge — the kind of traffic jam Cohen wryly noted the connector is supposed to prevent.
Ordinarily, the noise is "a little bit like living at the ocean," she said, and doesn't get her attention unless an especially loud truck passes through. But, Cohen said, "It's sort of hard to have a conversation outside."
DOT does expect to erect walls to reduce the amount of highway noise in some areas alongside the I-26 Connector, said Derrick Weaver, a DOT engineer who is in charge of planning for the project.
Planners are in the process of updating the project's noise analysis and will evaluate the entire corridor to see where walls might be appropriate. DOT's noise reduction policy has changed since homeowners last saw maps indicating where noise walls might be constructed, he said.
DOT employees will be at Tuesday's meeting to explain where things stand. Residents and property owners in some areas will eventually get to vote on whether their neighborhood gets a wall.
Locating walls will be an ongoing process because the I-26 Connector project is to be constructed under what DOT calls design-build procedures.
That means the work of designing the project, including deciding where noise walls might go, can continue even after the start of construction, which is scheduled to begin in 2020.
It also means the date DOT will need specific properties in the path of the project will vary by location. DOT says residents will get at least 90 days notice that they will have to move, although the period could be considerably longer.
Of course, Cohen has been hearing about plans for years, and noted that the projected start of construction has been pushed back several times already.
"I'm not holding my breath" until the day earth moving equipment appears behind her house, she said.
To learn more or comment
The state Department of Transportation will hold a public meeting Tuesday at the Renaissance Asheville Hotel, 31 Woodfin St., for people to look at preliminary plans for the I-26 Connector and offer feedback. An informal "open house" during which people can see maps and discuss the project one-on-one with engineers will run 4-6:30 p.m. DOT will make a formal presentation at 7 p.m. and the public can offer comments after that.
The maps can also be viewed at City Hall by visiting the city transportation office on the mezzanine level or at DOT's Division 13 office, 55 Orange St. They are online at www.ncdot.org/projects/I26Connector and www.ncdot.gov/projects/publicmeetings/ .
Comments can also be sent to NCDOT Public Involvement in care of Jamille Robbins, 1598 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC, 27699-1598, email@example.com or (919)707-6085. They will be accepted through Jan. 4.
**********Original Article can be found here.