By Bill Moss, Published: August 23, 2019 Hendersonville Lightning

When he was asked if he’d heard that the state had awarded a grant for the proposed Ecusta Trail, Zach Pickett affirmed that he had indeed.

“The owner of the building sent me a text — ‘woohoo!’” Pickett said. “It’s going to hopefully bring in a lot more traffic around here.”

The building is the Appalachian Coffee Co. on Fifth Avenue and, more to the point, on the railroad tracks. It’s 35 steps from the track to the coffee shop deck and Pickett, the general manager, can envision walkers, bicyclists and moms pushing strollers becoming App Coffee patrons. He may even coax some off the trail with an irresistible aroma.

“We’re going to start roasting our own beans here,” he said. “We’ll do signature batches. We’ll package up some that talks about the trail. We’re planning on doing a lot more events in our event space to bring in some folks and enjoy the space.” He’s thought of “ a walk across the trail,” serving coffee.

Many steps remain before the Ecusta Trail — a 19-mile bike-ped path between Hendersonville and Brevard — can become a reality. But the nine-year-old effort by trail enthusiasts got a huge boost two weeks ago when the state Board of Transportation authorized a $6.4 million grant for Conserving Carolina, the Hendersonville-based land conservancy that would purchase the rail corridor from the owner, Kansas-based Watco Companies. Not only is the grant by far the biggest allotment of cash the community has landed, it also confirmed that Watco, which bought the railroad five years ago from Norfolk Southern, is open to a sale. 

The land conservancy has ordered a survey and retained an appraiser; “the best case scenario” for completing a sale is around the middle of next year, said Chris Burns, a founder of the Friends of the Ecusta Trail and chair of the county’s Greenway Master Plan Committee. “I’m trying to tell folks, too, that really at this point construction is a ways away right now. It’s more about preserving and securing this corridor. That’s a huge step but we’ve still got a lot of moving pieces in order to make that happen.”

‘May be a Greenway IPA’

If pouring asphalt is a long ways off, plans to capitalize on rail-trail traffic are already forming in the heads of business owners.

Jeff Golliher started Dry Falls Brewing Co. on Busy Bend because he liked the look and feel of the old Oates Paint & Body Shop. It’s 172 steps along Kanuga Road from the tracks to Dry Falls’ front door. Golliher has already been hatching ideas to attract folks in for a beer.

“We are very excited about the traffic that it’s going to bring to the area,” he said. “This is just another lucky thing of being in the right place at the right time. I think it’s going to be a good thing for Hendersonville overall. Who knows? There may be a Greenway IPA if it’s not already taken.”

Bicycling and craft beer go together, for whatever reason, and along the Ecusta Trail, two-wheelers could make stops at Dry Falls, Appalachian Coffee Co., Sideways Farm & Brewery in Etowah and Oskar Blues. Taking Brevard’s greenways, bicyclists could even push on to the Ecusta Brewing Co. at the gateway to Pisgah National Forest. The brewery’s owner, Josh Chambers, can see it happening.

“I’ve been a huge advocate for that project even prior to getting Ecusta (brewery) going, not even just the bicycle part of it but for families and people walking it, pushing strollers,” he said. “Our brand is geared toward the outdoor enthusiast. If (tourists) start typing in Ecusta, I’m sure we’re going to pop up.” 

Oskar Blues located its East Coast brewery in Brevard because the brewery owner loves mountain biking. The founder of the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Ken Grossman, ran a bicycle shop before he started a home-brewing shop. Complementing Brevard’s reputation as the No. 2 mountain biking destination in America, the Ecusta Trail would offer a flat paved path that all ages and ability levels could enjoy. Companies that value outdoor recreation amenities can’t help but notice, Burns said.

“This will be a factor” in business recruitment, he predicted. “It will be an industrial recruitment tool because it’s right there with Pisgah Forest, Dupont. It is a tool, another piece of ammo in the belt.”

Chuck Brown, the listing agent for a restaurant property beside the tracks in Horse Shoe, said he doubted the Ecusta Trail would be a factor “because people are skeptical that it’s ever going to happen.” He hadn’t heard about the $6.4 million grant, which trail advocates hope would cover about three-quarters of the corridor purchase. The news made Brown a tad more optimistic.

“I don’t know if you’ve been to Damascus, Virginia, and seen the Creeper Trail,” Brown said. “It really has helped that area with their growth and just economy. So I think it would do absolutely do the same thing.”

The former Fidelia’s restaurant is listed for $395,000.

“It’s just well situated for whatever happens on that corridor,” he said. “It’s right at the crossroads and it would be awesome if they could negotiate that purchase. That would be great.”

Landowners say no

Clearly, some homeowners along the tracks will resist having a greenway in their backyard. A first shot came this week when Pisgah Forest landowners Courtney McDowell and Richard Gregory wrote a letter to the editor saying the trail “would entail the government taking a wide swath across the center of our property against our will. The property on which we have paid taxes would be turned over to a group that does not pay taxes, and has no means to manage, maintain or police the area that would literally cut our land in half.”

In the letter, published in the Hendersonville Times-News and Transylvania Times, called the idea a “taking of a person’s property without consent” and urged elected commissioners in both counties to oppose the trail.

“Their letter was not very factual,” Burns said. “They claimed that it’s a land grab, which it is not. It’s the railroad’s corridor and the railroad has the right to do with the corridor whatever it pleases and one of the options is to sell the corridor, which is what they’re choosing to do.”

He said it’s also improbable that the landowner has been paying taxes on the rail corridor. “Whether it’s right of way or it owns it fee simple, the railroad is responsible for the property taxes,” he said. 

Burns and other trail supporters recognize that the public will have its say. And in an era when homeowners can use social media to easily organize neighbors, control the message and rally opposition to land uses they dislike, opposition is likely.

Appalachian Coffee Co. manager Zach Pickett stands on railroad tracks that could become the Ecusta Trail.

Burns said the trail organization will be there to challenge misinformation. 

“For 10 years I’ve tried to make sure that they understand facts,” he said of those who have concerns or questions about the Ecusta Trail. “As a landowner I completely understand how change is scary. One of the things that happens when you’re involved in change is you tend to be anxious and you start looking for information to support or not support whatever the change is.” When the topic comes up, “I encourage folks to be sure you’re separating fact from fiction and that’s what Friends of Ecusta has tried to do for 10 years,” to help people “understand, learn, and separate fact from fiction. We’ve got good bike paths in both Hendersonville and Brevard. That’s where you can get information” about crime, economic impact and cost, he added.

Pickett, the Appalachian Coffee Co. manager, won’t be among the sign wavers opposing the trail.

Recently, a herd of about 15 bicyclists came into the shop, their bicycle shoes clopping on the hardwood floor like little horseshoes. 

“They stuck around for about three hours, got some food, got some beer,” he said. “Next thing you know they’re all taking pictures. We’ll be getting a bike rack or two pretty soon