A plan to expand Mount Airy’s greenway system has received the go-ahead, but not everyone is on board with the project.
The city board of commissioners voted 4-1 Thursday night to proceed with the Northern Greenway Connector after a vigorous debate and objections from a homeowner in its proposed path along the Ararat River toward Jones Intermediate School and White Sulphur Springs.
That action included committing $430,000 in city funding for the project — an annual allocation of $100,000 beginning this year, with $30,000 due within 30 days in accordance with a contract approved Thursday with The Resource Institute.
The total cost of the northern connector is estimated at $5.7 million, with The Resource Institute — a non-profit organization based in Winston-Salem — now commissioned to seek grants to cover the bulk of that expense.
In addition to adding about three miles to Mount Airy’s greenway network now totaling just under seven miles, the project will include restoration of stream banks along the Ararat River.
The commissioners’ action — which included a separate 4-1 decision to amend the present 2016-2017 city budget to supply another $55,000 for this year’s municipal allocation along with $75,000 approved last spring — reflected a majority belief the expansion will be beneficial.
This includes drawing more visitors and new residents to town.
“The greenway is one of the things tourists love when they come here,” Commissioner Jon Cawley said.
However, the greenway expansion does have its critics, namely Commissioner Shirley Brinkley — who cast the dissenting votes on both issues — and Jason Pflug, who lives on Riverside Drive with his wife Liz and their children.
Jason Pflug spoke against the plan during a public forum portion of Thursday night’s meeting, saying he bought a house along the Ararat River about two years ago for its amenities — “a little piece of paradise right on the river.”
“I think it’s a ridiculous idea,” Pflug said of the greenway, a 10-foot-wide asphalt train open to bicyclists, walkers and runners. He said it would disrupt his family’s quality of life, including compromising fishing in the Ararat River.
“This is personal for us,” Pflug told city officials.
“We live on the side of the river where the greenway would have to be on,” the homeowner said of its logical route. “We bought the house for the river and not for having bicyclists ride through our backyard.”
Pflug questioned why a greenway offshoot is needed, since Mount Airy already has nearly seven miles of trail space in a tidy loop. He also challenged the idea that the expansion would attract more people to the community.
“(Not) if you’re looking to draw in families like ours who are trying to get away from government oversight,” Pflug said of the sparsely populated area where he lives. “This type of project might not appeal to those families.”
He also said it concerned him that the city government is trying to secure funding for the project. “And we (landowners) haven’t even been notified.”
Other objections came during the public forum from John Pritchard, a frequent city government critic who cited concerns about the cost of the greenway expansion and agreed with Pflug that Mount Airy already has sufficient mileage.
“Is this really such a high priority?” Pritchard said.
“Grants or not, there is no free lunch,” he said. “Maintenance, upgrades and policing will go on forever.”
Brinkley also weighed in on the expansion.
“I think we should give some serious thought to this,” the dissenting commissioner said, including weighing how it will affect residents in the greenway path. “I think we should consider homeowners like this young man (Pflug).”
Brinkley also reiterated previously cited concerns about the cost, saying Mount Airy shouldn’t undertake such expenses without balancing its budget, which is increasingly reliant upon city reserve funds.
In advocating that the project be delayed, Brinkley expressed concern for the “not-so-deep pockets of the taxpayers.”
She further referred to the idea of the expansion drawing in new residents. “I like to think that they would not only be looking at what we have to offer,” Brinkley said of such amenities, “but that we will manage their tax dollars wisely.”
Though he later would vote favorably for the greenway efforts, Cawley also voiced concerned about the affected property owners.
“I’m bothered sometimes that we make decisions without notifying citizens,” he said. “I keep thinking we’ll learn, but we don’t.”
Cawley acknowledged the fact that people such as the Pflugs bought property with no idea a greenway would be built there.
Mayor David Rowe and Commissioner Jim Armbrister said one reason for this is that the exact route of the greenway expansion has not been determined.
“We can’t say if it’s going to go here or there,” Rowe said.
“This is not just a greenway we’re talking about, but also river restoration,” Armbrister said.
“I think it’s important to continue,” Commissioner Steve Yokeley said regarding the extension of the trail network, “mainly because of the river restoration.”
Armbrister said despite Thursday night’s action, the greenway expansion is not a done deal.
“This is not locked into stone if something comes up to make it a bad deal,” he said.
Pflug was not convinced, based on his comments after the meeting.
“My only comment is it’s not unexpected,” he said of the action taken.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.