Gaston residents fear parkway, politicians

Residents along proposed routes for Gaston County's Garden Parkway fear their homes could be demolished to make way for the six-lane expressway.

Some are also concerned that politicians who own land nearby will get favorable treatment when the route is tentatively selected in January.

There are two main routes for the parkway as it crosses the Catawba River and southeast Gaston: a northern route closer to downtown Belmont and a southern route that cuts through affluent communities that hug the South Fork of the Catawba.

Residents of those communities think it makes economic sense for the N.C. Turnpike Authority to select the northern route, which would keep the road about one mile from their homes.

But the northern route would cut through real estate owned by Republican lieutenant governor candidate Robert Pittenger and State Sen. David Hoyle, a Gaston Democrat, who pushed for the parkway.

If the southern route is chosen, the parkway would place exits near their property.

“I just have no faith in politicians,” said Bill Waltz, a homeowner in Woodland Bay.

David Joyner, executive director of the N.C. Turnpike Authority, said data, not politics, will drive the route choice. He said a number of agencies, such as the Federal Highway Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA, will recommend the route.

“This is as devoid of politics as I've ever seen,” Joyner said of the route selection process.

Pittenger and Hoyle said they won't lobby the turnpike authority about which route should be chosen.

Gaston County planners have discussed the Garden Parkway for nearly 20 years as a way to relieve traffic on Interstate 85 and to better connect the county with Charlotte.

Hoyle lobbied colleagues in the General Assembly this summer to dedicate $35 million annually to the parkway – a critical vote that moved the road forward.

Now, residents of south Gaston are scrambling to see if they will be affected by the parkway, scheduled to open in 2015.

“Suddenly this is on the front burner,” said Belmont Mayor Richard Boyce at a city council meeting last week.

The turnpike authority recently scrapped a third parkway route across the Belmont peninsula because Duke Energy said it would interfere with a proposed landfill. That route was preferred by local officials, and it would have been though an industrial area, affecting the fewest residents.

The elimination of that route caused many residents to panic.

Noise, pollution

Lynne Weinberg lives in Misty Waters, a new neighborhood of luxury homes just north of the Lower Armstrong Bridge. If the southern parkway route is chosen, she said, the expressway will slice through her neighborhood, and will be visible from her breakfast room window.

If the state places the road through her home, she would be compensated for her loss. But Weinberg doesn't want to leave.

And she's worried the road will be far enough that she won't be bought out, but close enough to bring noise and pollution close to her home.

“I feel violated,” said Weinberg, who is against the road's being built.

Weinberg and others said the northern route makes more economic sense.

They think the bridges would be cheaper to build, because the Catawba River and its South Fork are more shallow and narrow there than they are farther south. They also said the northern route would impact fewer people. The turnpike authority is studying how many homes are along the routes.

But Weinberg and others are worried because the northern route would cut through more than 1,000 acres of Pittenger land along the South Fork of the Catawba, as well as land owned by Pittenger and Hoyle along Union New Hope Road.

Pittenger said he and other investors in the undeveloped property have not lobbied for any route.

“We don't care where it goes,” he said.

About three miles west of the South Fork of the Catawba, Hoyle and other investors plan to build high-end homes and 750,000 square feet of retail on 327 acres along Union New Hope Road, about 1,200 feet from a parkway exit on the southern route.

He said he isn't following the route selection process.

“I will have nothing to do with it,” Hoyle said.

A drawing submitted to the city of Gastonia shows the parkway going to south of Hoyle's property – not cutting through it.

Hoyle and Pittenger both invested in land along the parkway route earlier this decade, when it was gaining momentum in the General Assembly.

Pittenger later recused himself from two votes relating to the turnpike authority because he was worried about a conflict of interest.

Hoyle, however, took at least three votes relating to the turnpike authority or the parkway, and is credited with being the driving force behind the road.

Hoyle's votes have been criticized by some advocates of open government, but Hoyle said he didn't do anything wrong. He told the Observer he didn't think about the parkway when he bought the land in 2006, and didn't know there was an exit planned near the property.

Longtime residents

An engineer with the N.C. Turnpike Authority said it will only consider the effect on existing homes when determining a parkway route – not developments that are planned and only exist on paper.

“We really can't take into account undeveloped areas, or planned lots,” said Jennifer Harris, a turnpike authority engineer.

While homeowners are increasingly vocal, others are still uncommitted about the route. The city of Belmont hasn't taken a position, and the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden is also neutral.

The southern parkway route would place the expressway about a quarter-mile from the garden.

Residents in Woodland Bay and Misty Waters may be the most vocal parkway opponents in Belmont, but others are also concerned. If the northern route is chosen, some longtime families would be affected.

Barry West has lived on the Belmont peninsula for more than 30 years. He grew up in a house on Allison Street, which would likely be demolished if the northern route is chosen. He now lives about two miles to the south, near the proposed southern route.

“I don't think you can stop progress,” said West, 46. “But I'd hate to move. …I've lived on Southpoint Road for 42 years. Would you want to leave your house?”