There are some people in town who oppose growth entirely and would like to go back to quieter days — 1970 perhaps.

That has never been the view here at this site. Growth has brought us world class medical care, marvelous shopping options and events like the recent JazzFest on the square.

Planned vs. haphazard growth is issue

The real issue is whether we can grow in a planned way that doesn’t degrade our quality of life. Specifically, the question is whether we will provide the roads this growth requires or merely superimpose new housing on the existing infrastructure. That is the unfortunate path New Jersey followed in the area around New York City. Rapid growth there simply overwhelmed the roads and public services.

City council members confronted this issue last Thursday when two families petitioned the city to annex 285 acres of farmland so Parks Development can build  771 homes on 242 of those acres.

Nearby residents weren’t complaining about the added homes. Their beef was all about additional traffic the homes would put on Blackman and Florence Roads, which are already under stress. No one disputed their comments.

“It’s a terrible road.”

Everyone from Planning Commission Chairman Bob Lamb to councilman Rick LaLance agree that Blackman Road doesn’t meet the needs of the surrounding community. In essence the issue was as clear cut as you could ask for between planning for growth and growing like a weed.

What side did the council members come down on last Thursday? They basically punted, voting unnimously to give Parks Development the rezoning it needs to build those 771 homes and hoping someone will solve the traffic woes later.

The Blackman Road Morning Commute Social Club: Cars like up to navigate the four-way stop at Blackman and Burnt Knob Roads.
The Blackman Road Morning Commute Social Club: Cars line up to navigate the four-way stop at Blackman Rd., Manson Pike and Burnt Knob Rd. A developer wants to add 771 homes to this mix.

Fourth and long

Vice Mayor Doug Young was the chief punter.  “The buildout on this property will be about 15 years,” he said. “We’ll have some opportunities to get this straightened out. Some funds will be available (for road improvements).

Turning to the city’s environmental engineer, Sam Huddleston, Young added: “You do have a plan. You’ve outlined it for us. Some things can be done to mitigate this problem.”

A limited response

The developer’s contribution to solving the traffic problems the new homes will create will be limited.

Parks has agreed to provide right- and left-turn stacking lanes into his development from the two entrances on Blackman Road and a third entrance off Florence Road on the property’s eastern boundary. In addition, a landscaped strip along the property’s Blackman Road boundary will be at least 75 feet wide and could be tapped for a future road widening.

County needs to become active partner on Blackman project

The issue, however, is a bottleneck outside the city between this property and a four-way stop at Blackman, Manson Pike and Bunt Knob Road. The city can no longer annex county property without the landowner’s permission, and the county is loathe to condemn land for road improvements.

When the issue came up before the planning commission in March, some residents calculated that 771 homes could produce nearly 3,000 added trips a day if one assumes each house had two cars — each coming and going from a home once a day.

Study minimizes impact of homes on traffic problem

"Often the guy paying a consultant for a study gets the conclusions he is looking for."
“Often the guy paying a consultant for a study gets the conclusions he is looking for.”

Huddleston said a traffic study paid for by the developer claimed the new homes would add only about 100 trips a day during the morning rush hour to the botleneck intersection at Blackman and Burnt Knob Roads.

Councilman Rick LaLance questioned how 771 homes could produce only 100 additional trips at the intersection during the rush hour.

Huddleston said the other cars would likely be taking other routes to the north, away from the intersection. He added that city staff members reviewed the study and approved the consultant’s methodology.

A glorified wagon trail

There is no question that improvements are needed on Blackman Road, a two-lane country road that one resident said is little better than a paved covered wagon trail.

Here are some of the comments made about Blackman by city and county officials.

— County Commissioner Joe Gourley said Sheriff’s Department reports show there have been 100 accidents on Blackman Road in the past four years or 25 a year. He added that at the busiest times the road is clogged with commuters, parents taking their kids to or from school and trucks from the Rogers Group sand and gravel operations.

— “I’ve been on Blackman Road a bunch. It is not a good road to be on at certain times of the day,” said Councilman Rick LaLance. … It’s a rough road. It’s a terrible road to be real honest with you. Even just 100 extra trips is a 30% increase, and it (the road) is already awful.”

Developer walking away from problem he helped create

— Councilman Eddie Smotherman noted that in general developers pay for road improvements to accommodate the additional traffic their developments will produce. “In this case, he said, “once the developer builds his turning lanes and stacking lanes, he washes his hands of the problem and walks away.”

— “My only concern is that we’re putting roughly 800 homes in an area that we are setting up for failure when we know the (required) infrastructure is not planned to be there. There needs to be a plan in place if we are going to allow this many homes to come in. We have to have a timeline on when the infrastructure and plan of services is going to be in place. If it’s not there (now) we need to see how long it’s going to take to be there.” — Mayor McFarland.

Not even on city’s radar screen until now

City council members originally took up the Parks Development proposal on April 21. They deferred action at that time in the hope that a meeting between city and county officials would produce a solution to the Blackman Road Blues. If there was an agreement  there was no word of it at the May 5th council meeting.

Instead, Huddeston opened the item with a long recap of all the road projects the city and county have done in the area. None of these projects is directly relevant to the Blackman Road problem.

Huddleston said the city staff plans to make significant improvements to the critical instersection, including turning lanes and signalization. He added that the Blackman Road problem wasn’t on the city’s radar screen until this annexation request and the Parks housing plans came before the staff.

Ironically, a traffic signal might make the problem worse. When I was out there, there was a long line of cars on Blackman during the morning rush. Yet cars were working their way through the four-way stop at Blackman and Burnt Knob at a steady pace. The line of cars could build up during red light phases.