Mayor Calls Out Commission for Failure to Address Ecusta Request
Brevard's mayor blasted Transylvania commissioners for a lack of "transparency" in declining to support or publicly discuss the city's application for a grant to fund the Ecusta Trail.
BREVARD — Brevard Mayor Maureen Copelof delivered her typically peppy list of upcoming events at the end of Monday night’s City Council meeting — and then dramatically shifted her tone.
“I’m going to close tonight on a note of disappointment,” she said, before reading a statement blasting the Transylvania County Commission for failing to support, or even discuss, the city’s application for a federal grant intended to cover the remaining cost of building the $43.4-million, multi-use Ecusta Trail.
The Commission backed two city applications to fund the project last year, but Copelof said Monday she had learned that the Commission had decided not to place the most recent request on the agenda for next week’s meeting — the last one scheduled before the grant’s Feb. 28 application deadline.
“Our citizens deserve transparency and accountability from their elected officials,” her statement said. “Not only has the Board (of Commissioners) apparently reversed its previous stance on open support for the railroad-corridor development, but it has done so without explaining (its) motives or reasoning to our residents.”
Copelof presented her request at last week’s Commission meeting, highlighting the otherwise growing support for the application for the federal grant from the city, which is seeking $24.5 million, $18.7 million of which would be spent in Transylvania.
Citing increasing construction costs, she said this week that the total price is “a moving target.”
She pointed to the roughly $5 million in pledged or available matching funds for the project in Transylvania and the backing of Henderson County, the city of Hendersonville, Conserving Carolina and Friends of the Ecusta Trail. The state Department of Transportation, she told commissioners, has not only paid for the writing of the grant but agreed to be the “grant administrator and project manager” if it is awarded.
The 19-mile trail would link Brevard and Hendersonville, and she emphasized its potential to boost tourism, community health and economic development. She also stated the importance of showing broad community support to the US Department of Transportation, which will award the grants from a pool of $1.5 billion.
“I’m hoping I will be able to add Transylvania County as one of our partners going forward,” she said.
Last March, the Commission voted 4-1 to back the city’s unsuccessful application for a grant through the same program, Rebuilding America's Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE). And in October, by a 3-2 vote, it supported the city’s application to a separate grant program targeted at transportation projects reaching federal or tribal lands.
Commissioners voted for these previous requests at the same meetings that Copelof presented them, but after last Monday’s meeting the only response to her request came from Commissioner Larry Chapman, who said that the $1 million in matching funds pledged from the Transylvania County Tourism Development Authority would need Commission approval.
Commission Chair Jason Chappell said last week that he would include the city’s new request on the agenda for its Feb. 27 meeting if it had the support of a majority of commissioners.
In an email Tuesday, he wrote, “I have not heard from commissioners that they would like to have this as an added item.”
Former Commissioner David Guice, who did not seek re-election last year, was a vocal supporter of plans for the trail. Newly elected Commissioner Emmett Casciato is an outspoken critic.
Commission Vice Chair Jake Dalton voted in favor of applying for the RAISE grant last March but against the grant seeking connection to federal land, which in the case of the Ecusta would be the Pisgah National Forest. The city has not heard whether it will be awarded that grant, Copelof said Tuesday.
Commissioner Teresa McCall has been a consistent critic of the trail, and Chapman has previously voted in favor of supporting the city’s funding requests, saying that the construction of the trail is inevitable.
Referring to the most recent request, Copelof wrote in an email, Chapman “told me he supported it going on the agenda.”
Chapman and Dalton did immediately respond to requests for comments. Casciato declined to speak on the matter.
McCall wrote an email standing behind her previous statements that the trail infringes on the rights of nearby residents, especially those who have a claim on the old railroad right-of-way that will serve as the trails’ path.
“I will work to protect the rights of property owners and in this case the property owners have been done a great injustice,” she wrote. “I do not and will not support expending any funds whether it be through allocation or support in seeking funds for the construction of this trail without the complete 100-percent support of every affected property owner.”
Though the city’s application for the RAISE grant did not require a funding commitment, some commissioners have previously raised the possibility the county will be on the hook for providing trail maintenance and security.
Copelof said the city has already received a grant that is paying for the design of the trail in Transylvania, a process that has included meeting with adjacent landowners. Significantly more funds have been raised for the project in Henderson, where trail construction is scheduled to begin later this year.
Mark Tooley, the president of Friends of the Ecusta, sent commissioners an email before last week’s meeting, comparing the trail’s potential for economic development to that of a $75 million resort planned for the site of the former golf course at Glen Cannon.
Commissioners last week voted to pledge as much as $2.3 million in tax incentives for that development, originally code named Project Moon.
Tooley noted that trail projects had transformed other communities, pointing to the dramatic impact of the Prisma Health Swamp Rabbit Trail on Traveler’s Rest in South Carolina. He wrote that the Ecusta could similarly boost the local tax base and reduce health care costs.
“I dare say that the long-term economic and community benefits of the Ecusta Trail will outweigh the ones provided by Project Moon,” he wrote, “and will potentially benefit every citizen of Transylvania County.”