Highway 9: The battle for saving rural life

Published 12:09 pm Thursday, October 13, 2022

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Somewhere in the throes of trying to stop the state from turning their pastoral section of N.C. Highway 9 into a transportation giant, a few Polk County citizens embraced the David vs. Goliath metaphor.


Although most people focus on the underdog angle of that tale, the biblical story also signified the unfitness of a ruler.

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Goliath is apt to win this battle because, well, that’s what Goliaths do. They bulldoze their way in any direction they want to go. If they want a four-lane highway from the South Carolina border to Rutherford County’s Lake Lure, they believe they will get it–eventually.


If the local citizenry is watching this one closely, they will learn a lot about local elected officials, their handlers, state bureaucracy and the value of an informed public.


County commissioners held a special meeting this week for the purpose of discussing with opponents of the state’s plans a so-called “No Build Alternative” letter it planned to send to the Foothills Regional Commission’s Rural Planning Organization’s (Polk, Rutherford, Cleveland and McDowell counties) transportation planner Alan Toney.


When Karen Pack, who organized the opposition, sought to help the commissioners with the wording of their letter to better represent the citizens’ feelings, she was given a stern dismissal. Pack and her husband, Kevin, live on their land along that stretch. They are quiet, hard-working, salt-of-the-earth folks–the epitome of rural N.C.


Karen was the first of many to walk up to the microphone and tell the commissioners how the project would harm the quality of life for everyone along the 2.7-mile stretch from U.S. 74 to Highway 108. When that was all done, some of the commissioners signaled that their letter was a done deal no matter what changes the residents wanted.


Besides, they suggested, if the N.C. Department of Transportation gets upset, it might never make any improvements in the county. “We don’t want bad blood with the DOT,” one commissioner warned.


Karen went back to the microphone after the letter was unanimously approved and said she hoped the wording of their letter did not result in the group’s failure. Commission Chairman Tommy Melton leaned in and snapped, “I can’t believe you said that.”


A week before the commission voted on the letter, state Rep. Jake Johnson was talking like the deal was already done.


“We are close to an agreement. It will be a compromise. It will be over by the end of October,” he said. “If this one dies, you are throwing away money.” Compared to the Highway 108 project, which the citizens managed to stop, the Highway 9 project “wasn’t on anybody’s radar screen,” Johnson said.


However, it was on the radar screen of the county commission as early as 2018.


One harsh lesson the “Keep Highway 9 Rural” group might have learned is that the only effective way to fight city hall is at the ballot box. But they also learned some heartwarming lessons about people.


“We now have a lot of people invested in keeping our county rural. They are passionate about protecting this area. This brought people together in a good way. We have learned that it isn’t people moving here from somewhere else who pushed for this project. People are coming here because it IS rural. Some said the pushing forces are Lake Lure people, Lake Adger people, the equestrian center. But what we know to be true is that people–regardless of their politics, religion or anything else–came together against this. Nothing will change that,” Karen said.


The Rural Planning Organization will take up the matter on November 16 at 10:30 a.m. at the Rutherford County government building at 289 North Main St. in Rutherfordton.


Perhaps the RPO will project on a big screen the primary promotional photo on its new website. It shows a traffic-free, two-lane highway meandering through a rural area with farm fencing on either side and the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance. It’s a beautiful sight.


Larry McDermott is a local retired farmer/journalist. Reach him at hardscrabblehollow@gmail.com