A Hard-to-Grasp Greenway Decision in Wake County

A Hard-to-Grasp Greenway Decision in Wake County

News and Observer

Point of View

– Think of your favorite greenway and how this beautiful corridor of green connects you to nature and provides a respite for relaxation, clarity and focus. The Triangle can’t boast of a beach or mountains, but we can hold up our amazing and growing greenway system with pride.

However, recent decisions by the Wake County commissioners might have a significant effect on the future of greenways in Wake County.

In 1976, the Raleigh City Council approved a plan for 276 miles of greenways along stream corridors and began the slow process of acquiring the necessary land. It was slow in the beginning, but by early 2000s, bonds were being passed and budget funds allocated to expand the system and connect corridors.

Around this time, we started looking at greenways differently. Our greenways had moved from a neighborhood recreational amenity to an actual transportation corridor. With that shift, greenways started accessing NCDOT and federal transportation funding to continue the expansion of the system.

Smaller towns such as Morrisville, Apex, Garner, Knightdale, Wake Forest and Holly Springs started making investments to connect. For smaller municipalities, that investment was amplified because they didn’t have to build out a complete system as much as connect to the existing network. So as we enter 2014, Raleigh will soon have more than 100 miles of interconnected greenways while Cary’s system boasts of more than 80 miles.

A major element in this success has been Wake County Open Space Bond funding. Wake County partnered with Raleigh to complete the Neuse River Greenway Trail, a 35-mile corridor along the Neuse River starting at the Falls Lake Dam and soon to be recognized as the longest greenway in North Carolina. Success was immediate with counts of more than 100 trail users per hour.

This trail is also where the Mountains to Sea Trail comes together with the East Coast Greenway connecting Maine to Florida. Without funding from the Open Space Bond, that greenway and trail “crossroads” would not exist today.

In addition to the health, environmental and transportation benefits of greenways, these trails were an important component in our recovery from the recession. Trail projects employ professional engineers, planners and landscape architects and, once under construction, create more jobs for grading, hauling, paving, framing and a vast array of other disciplines. A project the scale of the Neuse River Greenway conservatively created or sustained more than 100 jobs from 2009 to its opening in 2013.

The positive effect of greenways on property values is well-studied and proven. A greenway loop in Colorado increased property values of one neighborhood by $5.4 million, resulting in $500,000 of annual property tax revenues. The tax revenue alone could recover the cost of the greenway in three years.

Our municipal leaders know that greenways make cities more competitive when businesses relocate and more attractive when residents are choosing where to live. The investment they make in planning, designing and maintaining greenways is calculated to attract these future residents and businesses.

So it is difficult to understand why Wake County commissioners decided to significantly reduce the use of Open Space Bond funds for greenways. Voters overwhelmingly approved the bond issue, and residents have enthusiastically embraced projects such as the Neuse River Greenway. Commissioners have reduced greenway funding and added a restriction that money can be allocated only to projects in unincorporated areas when 80 percent of Wake County property taxes come from people who live in a town or city.

Ironically, the only areas where voters rejected the bond issue were a handful of unincorporated districts.

Wake County Open Space funds are more crucial than ever as a catalyst to help municipalities bridge the gaps in their greenway networks. The budget passed in the last legislative session ends a long and productive history of using state dollars as matching funds to draw down federal funds for greenway projects.

We need to continue to access our voter-approved Open Space Bond funds to create the kind of places people desire, and that includes increasing our magnificent and beautiful greenways system.

Sig Hutchinson of Raleigh is a leading advocate for North Carolina parks and greenways.