After nearly seven years since the Friends of Ecusta Trail was formed, momentum for the rails-to-trails project continues to grow, but still needs support from county officials.
The Ecusta Trail is the proposed rail-to-trail conversion of the 19-mile stretch of unused rail line from Brevard to Hendersonville. The rail has not been used for freight since the Ecusta paper mill closed in 2002. WATCO, a short-line holding company, purchased the rail line from Norfolk-Southern Railways in March of 2014. Short-line railroads are defined as local railroads with annual operating revenue of less than $20 million.
Brevard City Council officially backed the Ecusta Trail in 2015; shortly afterwards the Henderson County commissioners also endorsed creation of the trail in a unanimous vote. The Henderson County Tourism Development Authority approved a tax appropriation that same year to help fund the trail in the form of an occupancy tax.
Transylvania County officials have not been as enthusiastic about the project. In 2016 efforts to get language about the proposed Ecusta Trail in the 2025 Comprehensive Plan for the county were rejected. The purpose of that plan is to provide a framework for how the county will invest in itself for the future.
The county has maintained that the line is a vital piece of economic infrastructure, citing concerns over private property rights and an increase in crime.
Don Scheldjahl, the corporate recruiter who brought Sierra Nevada brewing to Mills River, said that he just doesn’t see the need for a rail line any longer in Transylvania County.
“The question is, is the Ecusta line viable?” Scheldjahl said during an interview in 2015. “There are very few (examples) of land between Hendersonville and Brevard, and most is useless because of the flood plain. You must also consider that the rail line is a spur, connecting to nothing. My position is that any large company would have to build at the old Ecusta site.”
Renova Partners, LLC now owns that site. Renova is an investor and developer of former industrial properties commonly referred to as “brownfields” where the company has removed contaminated soils after buildings have been torn down.
Renova has worked closely with the North Carolina Department of Transportation to expedite the construction of the connector road from U.S. 64 to N.C. 280, which will include a new bridge and a roundabout in the center on Ecusta Rd.
That site, dubbed “Davidson River Village,” is in the planning phase to become a “mixed use development,” much like Biltmore Park in south Asheville, with 1,000 residential units, 250,000 square feet of resort/lodging space, 150,000 square feet of office/industrial space and 850,000 square feet of retail space. Road construction began in 2016.
During the county’s comprehensive planning survey, which only eight percent of the county resident’s responded to, one question asked was, “Thinking about the next 10 years, what would you like to see in the county that is not here now?” The Ecusta Trail was the second highest response after jobs. Still, the line sits. The Friends of the Ecusta trail remain positive, however, and are actively seeking volunteers to help with their efforts. “The big thing we’re focusing on is we’re really trying to engage volunteers,” said Chris Burns, volunteer with the organization. “There are a lot of different events that we’re being asked to be present at.”
Burns said the Friends of the Ecusta Trail is currently exploring the potential for a fundraising feasibility study, something on a much larger scale than a Go Fund Me page.
Anyone interested in volunteering or learning more about the Ecusta Trail can visit www.ecustatrail.org.
“Our group is excited about all the things going on, like the N.C. 280 bike path that would connect Mills River with destinations like Sierra Nevada brewing. Buncombe County is also looking at how they could connect a bike path to Sierra Nevada as well. There’s lots of positive energy right now,” he said.