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Views on toll road wanted

BELMONT -- Since a spring decision on the probable route for the Gaston East-West Connector, better known as the Garden Parkway, plenty of voices began offering opinions on the project. Next week, anyone with something to say will have a chance.

The North Carolina Turnpike Authority will host a series of meetings beginning June 22 to discuss the $1.18-$1.42 million proposed toll road connecting I-485 in Mecklenburg County to I-85 in western Gaston County before making its final decision, by the end of next year.

"The environmental process is dictated by federal statute," said turnpike spokesman Beau Memory of the draft environmental impact statement released April 30. "That leads us to a route we're saying is the route we want to do. However, the public will obviously have a say."

Pre-hearing open houses will be held June 22-25, with official public hearings June 23 and 25. Comments will be submitted into the project's official record at each meeting. Open houses offer informal discussion vs. a formal, mandated setting.

In August, the Turnpike Authority held several public workshops in the Belmont and opportunities for the public to speak with and question project officials in a setting not required by state law, compared to public hearings where individuals can s Steele Creek areas, revealing basically, a northern or southern route through the Belmont peninsula. Opposition, including the formation of a homeowner group known as the Gaston SouthEast Connector Coalition, argued against the southern route, which ultimately was not chosen because of environmental impact findings determining the northern route to be less invasive.

"The southern route doesn't make sense because of the environmental issues -- the lake primarily -- and all the considerations as far as the value of what's in the location of the southern route opposed to where the northern route would be," said coalition member Gail Shook.

Recently, the Catawba Riverkeeper and a new group -- stopthetollroad.com -- are opposing the entire project, questioning the need for a road at all. The groups, during public meetings of their own, have seen more than 100 residents turn out to say the road is fiscally irresponsible and unnecessary. The Stop the Toll Road grassroots group has sent out letters to 1,006 listed property owners in the projected path, and plans to use everything from signs to bumper stickers to promote its cause.

"How the decision is going to go, who knows?" said group organizer Stacey Ivancic. "We're definitely giving it our best effort."

However, some residents are praising the project, two decades in the making, saying it could have a positive impact on their communities. A new Web site -- buildthegardenparkway.com -- recently popped up offering contacts for decision makers, links and information about the project.

"The Garden Parkway is not a 'road to nowhere,'" reads the home page. "It is the result of many years of hard work and planning by people who care about their community. It is a commitment to Gaston County's growth and development."

Even Ivancic, a staunch organizer against the plan, admits the supporters have an "absolutely valid" point of view.

"Sometimes in the back of my mind I think it's a good idea, but not the way they're implementing it," she said.

Shook, however, who organized for months against the southern route to lean toward the northern path, embraces the position of no new road at all.

"Widening I-85 is far more reasonable and makes more sense," she said. "When all is said and done, I think most of us would like to see this roadway disappear."

Want to know more?

For more information about the groups hoping to sway the parkway decision, visit gastonsecc.com, stopthetollroad.com and buildthegardenparkway.com. Anyone wishing to speak at upcoming public hearings about the Gaston East-West Connect may register at pre-hearing open houses, by calling 919-571-3000 or e-mailing gaston@ncturnpike.org. To be eligible for full consideration, comments should be received by July 17. Public comments can be mailed to Jennifer Harris, P.E., North Carolina Turnpike Authority; 1578 Mail Service Center; Raleigh, NC 27699-1578 or e-mailed to gaston@ncturnpike.org. The project hot line is 1-800-475-6402.

Pre-hearing open houses:

• June 22, 4-8 p.m., Gaston Adult Recreation Center, 519 W. Franklin Blvd., Gastonia

• June 23, 2:30-6:30 p.m., Forestview High School, 5445 Union Road, Gastonia

• June 24, 2:30-7:30 p.m., South Point High School, 906 Southpoint Road, Belmont

• June 25, 2:30-6:30 p.m., Olympic High School, 4301 Sandy Porter Road, Charlotte

Public hearings begin at 7 p.m.:

• June 23, Forestview High School, 5445 Union Road, Gastonia

• June 25, Olympic High School, 4301 Sandy Porter Road, Charlotte

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