U.S. 62: At a crossroads / Documents reveal residents' hopes, fears as plans reconsidered
GREEN FOREST -- For two months Green Forest residents have been anxiously awaiting news of the proposed expansion of U.S. Highway 62. They finally have some.
Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department spokesman David Niles said Monday that the project had been referred back to the environmental and planning divisions for further review. He said they were taking "a closer look" at traffic and economic impacts in the project area.
Department officials came to Green Forest in June to gather feedback on the proposed expansion. More than 100 people showed up to learn more about the project and voice their opinions.
Those in attendance were, for the most part, not allowed to speak their minds, leading some to question the point of having a meeting at all. They were instead told to write their comments on a piece of paper and hand them over to department officials.
Carroll County News submitted a Freedom of Information Act request last week to obtain copies of these comments.
The response filled 109 pages, and these were only the comments received during and following the June meeting. Excerpts of the comments can be read here. The full PDF of all the comments submitted to the Highway Department can be downloaded and viewed here.
Nearly 200 people had attended an earlier meeting, on Sept. 8, 2011, at which an additional 91 comments were received. The Carroll County News submitted a second public records request to obtain these documents on Monday. However, a response had not been received by deadline.
The Environmental Impact Assessment does contain a summary of the earlier comments, which gives an idea of their content.
(Editor's note: Visit the website to read the full assessment (including maps of the proposed routes), as well as all 109 pages of public comment.)
The assessment, completed in April, outlined the reasons for the project, the options being considered, and the human impact of each. The options listed were:
* Upgrading the existing route, which would mean widening the highway from the present two lanes to five.
* Rerouting the highway to the north of Green Forest.
* Rerouting the highway to the south. Two different southern routes were considered in the assessment, varying only slightly from one another.
According to the assessment, the majority of those polled at the September meeting felt the section of Highway 62 passing through Green Forest needed some kind of improvement. Out of those considered, the proposal to expand the existing route garnered the most support.
However, nearly as many people said they would like to see the highway rerouted to the north of town, and a still substantial number favored a bypass to the south.
In the cross-hairs
A preliminary analysis of the comments received after the second meeting in June reveals a similar pattern: There is no clear consensus among residents. Reece and others have been very vocal in their opposition to a bypass. They have said such a move would destroy the town's already struggling economy.
In a letter to the highway department dated June 28, 2012, Reece wrote that any of the options proposed would be a "death knell" for Green Forest.
Department officials had tried to cast doubt on this argument by citing studies that indicated only 6 to 7 percent of travelers passing through Green Forest stopped in the City. In his letter, Reece wrote that this changed nothing.
"Any business owner will tell you that the bottom line of most businesses in only 1 to 10 percent," he wrote. "So, if we exclude that bottom line margin, then most of our business will not survive a bypass."
Other business owners have questioned whether the department's statistics were valid in the first place.
Rob Kerby owns a business in downtown Green Forest. He spoke at the June meeting. "I don't know where you guys got this research that only a very small percent of business is traffic," he said. "We just looked at what we have going through the Country Rooster Antique Store, and we know good and well that 20 percent of our business is tourist traffic." Kerby said he had spoken with other business owners for whom the percentage was even higher.
In his letter, Reece wrote that, even if the city were bypassed, truck traffic would still have to be routed through town. He also wrote that rerouting the highway would force the Green Forest School District to redraw bus routes.
Reece proposed his own list of alternatives, none of which were considered in the assessment:
* Do nothing.
* Upgrade the existing route with just four lanes.
* Split traffic into two one-way streets.
* Add a center turn lane to help alleviate congestion through downtown.
The department discarded the idea of upgrading the existing route because this alternative would have impacted too many homes, businesses and historic structures. The authors of the assessment wrote that this option would have required relocating 52 businesses, 14 homes, and one non-profit. Furthermore, they wrote, there was not enough commercial real estate to accommodate the relocated businesses.
These relocations would have included 15 buildings either on or eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. Federal law prohibits the use of significant historic sites unless there is no "prudent or feasible alternative." For these reasons and the high cost of relocating so many buildings, this option was discarded.
Despite this explanation, some who submitted comments to the department implied there was more to the story.
"You folks seemed to have nixed that idea by stipulating five lanes," Stanly Norris wrote in a letter to the department. Norris, a realtor in Green Forest, wrote that the proposal was doomed to failure "because there just isn't enough room."
"There is room, however, for four lanes of traffic with no turn lane," he wrote. He proposed that the City eliminate on-street parking in order to accommodate four lanes.
Proponents of four-laning the existing route argue this solution would eliminate the need to relocate so many structures. It would also be less costly than the other solutions and, significantly, would not deprive the town of tourist traffic.
Some also implied that the highway department was not dealing fairly with Green Forest.
In his letter, Norris wrote that Highway 62 was four lanes wide through Berryville, and two lanes in Eureka Springs. "I doubt if there are plans to bypass either of these two towns," he wrote. "You would simply catch too much flack. I am fully aware that both Berryville and Eureka Springs carry much more political clout than Green Forest. We seem to be much easier prey maybe because of our size or importance."
At a crossroads
Though many of those who submitted comments were opposed to bypassing Green Forest, a significant number of pages were also occupied by arguments in favor of a bypass.
Some Green Forest residents expressed hope that a bypass would promote growth in the industrial sector to the south of town, alleviate congestion, make the historic square less noisy and noxious, and encourage a pedestrian environment.
Greg Smith and his wife have lived a few miles west of Green Forest for more than 20 years. In an email sent to the department on July 5, Smith wrote that his daily commute through Green Forest was a blood-pressure heightening experience.
"I many times wish I was driving a Sherman tank so I could make a clear path through town," he wrote. " ... Being so-called locals, we have heard all the talk about a new highway destroying the town, but we both feel the exact opposite. ... (O)nce you build a new highway to the south of town and eliminate all the large semis who are all in a hurry to get their load of chickens to Tyson's ... it will create a much safer and more inviting place to visit and shop."
"The mayor of Green Forest has made the remark that a new highway would kill the town," he wrote, "but if a person would take a good look he would see a town that is and has been dying for a very long time."
Among those in favor of a bypass, support seemed to be divided between the northern and southern options. The dividing lines were partially personal. A number of those who commented in favor of one or the other owned property along the routes.
Jimmy and Christine Hale live along one of the proposed southern routes. "My husband and I bought this property in 1964 and have raised our children here," Christine Hale wrote. "We are both in late 70s and have cattle to supplement our social security (to pay for medicine, groceries, and gas). If you take our property, you are cutting it in half, and there won't be enough land to have our cattle."
"We had expected to leave the place to our children and grand children to be handed down in the family. We had put in our will that it wasn't to be sold. Now there will be nothing to leave to the children. All because you think you have to have a four lane highway that isn't needed. ... You are destroying a family home and our life."
People made similar appeals against each of the proposed routes.
Other comments were less personal.
Don and Anna Harlan wrote that a southern route would offer better access to industrial facilities to the south. Many others echoed this idea.
However, still more people wrote that the northern route would be better because it would keep traffic from Highways 103 North and 311 North from passing through town. A southern route, they wrote, would do nothing to stem the flow of traffic from these busy arteries.
Are we there yet?
After the meeting in June, highway department officials assured the anxious crowd that their comments would be considered and that they would receive answers soon.
The department has yet to announce a decision and deliver answers. However, Reece said he was pleased the department would re-evaluate the project.
The two areas the department is now focusing on were areas of concern for Reece and others.
Niles said there was still no timeline for a decision. However, Reece is optimistic.
"I think we'll win this skirmish," he said.