Gaston & Catawba

Leaders to reconsider grant for recreation

Gaston County commissioners could reconsider applying for federal funding later this month to help pay for recreational projects to promote cycling and walking after turning down a recommendation to do so last month.

The proposed projects, which include building a greenway, are eligible for a grant worth hundreds of thousands of dollars under a federal transportation program aiming to improve air quality.

Yet at a Dec. 9 meeting, commissioners withheld their support of a resolution to apply for those funds, reaffirming their opposition to any federal oversight they deem intrusive.

“It’s just more government,” said Tracy Philbeck, chairman of the commissioners. While he added that he is not opposed to recreational improvements in the county, he said the projects would amount to a “waste of taxpayer dollars.”

“A trail is not a priority at this time,” he added.

Another issue was that the county would have had to pay its share with money from its general fund, Commissioner Mickey Price said.

“I wanted to know where the county’s part of the money was coming from,” said Price, who removed the resolution from the agenda.

Part of a list of planned public improvements the county adopted in 2011, the projects involve the building of a greenway from Rankin Lake Park to the Gastonia Technology Park and a sidewalk from the main street in Lowell to George Poston Park.

In addition, the county would expand an existing greenway linking the Gastonia industrial park, a county park in Dallas and nearby Gaston College.

To help fund two of them, the county can apply for a nearly $690,000 grant under the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program, which would require a 20 percent match.

The U.S. Department of Transportation program offers funding to state transportation agencies and metropolitan planning organizations for projects that would reduce traffic congestion and tailpipe emissions.

But turning to the federal government to help fund such projects is bound to draw at least some resistance in a county whose leaders have taken a firm stance against involving the federal government in local improvement projects.

In 2012, commissioners passed a resolution opposing any projects that they believe are tied to a far-reaching environmental initiative, known as Agenda 21 that was started by the United Nations in the early 1990s.

The initiative, which promotes sustainable development around the world, was described in the resolution as a “comprehensive plan of extreme environmentalism, social engineering and global political control.”

Philbeck said that using federal funds to help pay for the recreational projects too closely resembled a scenario under Agenda 21.

In 2012, the board also declined an invitation to join a consortium of local governments and private organizations to develop a growth strategy across 14 counties in the region. The plan, CONNECT Our Future, is overseen by the Centralina Council of Governments.

It involves nearly $5 million in federal funding the regional planning agency secured before forming the consortium.

“We tried to convince” Gaston commissioners, “but I don’t think we got through,” said Sushil Nepal, the project manager for the plan, which is nearly complete. He noted that while Gaston County was not the only local government to turn down the invitation, municipalities in the county, including Belmont and Gastonia, did participate.

But the commissioners’ decision last month not to seek federal funding for the recreational projects came as a surprise, County Manager Earl Mathers said.

While he acknowledged that the opposition to Agenda 21 is “consistent with the general philosophy of our commission,” he called the move “mildly perplexing,” saying he was unable to draw any parallels between that initiative and the recreational projects.

Moreover, the resolution supporting those projects appeared on the consent agenda, meaning commissioners determined beforehand that it would pass with no major objections.

“I don’t think the board fully understood,” said Joe Carpenter Sr., vice chairman of the commissioners, who introduced the resolution.

In Gaston, 13 improvement projects are seeking funding under the federal program for 2016 and 2017, said Bjorn Hansen, a senior transportation planner at the Gaston-Cleveland-Lincoln Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Among them are the installation of closed-circuit cameras along Interstate 85 in Gastonia for quicker incident response times and the building of sidewalks in Mount Holly and Bessemer City.

Commissioners have one last chance to apply for those funds, at their next regular meeting on Jan. 27. If they do not pass a resolution then, the county would have to wait to apply until the next funding cycle.

While it is not certain that commissioners will consider the issue again at the Jan. 27 meeting, Willie King, manager of development services for the county, said, “the probability is there.”

“To me, it’s pretty clear,” Carpenter said of the recreational projects. “What we would get as an amenity to our county, to me, would be enormous.”