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Rock Hill couple braces as bridge plan intersects with family farm

He calls himself the “dove man.”

For 30 years Bill Branche has been raising pet doves behind the two-story farmhouse where he was born in a tiny front room 76 years ago – and he’ll show anyone, anytime, his birds.

“A dove likes nothing to ever change,” Branche said Wednesday as a caution before gently stepping into an enclosure where his doves cooed quietly. “If nothing would ever change, he would be happy.”

Raising ring-necked doves is just one part of the rural lifestyle Branche has long enjoyed – a “serenity” now threatened by a bridge being planned across the Catawba River.

The bridge would connect Sutton Road in Fort Mill to Mount Gallant Road somewhere near Dalehurst Road – a short gravel road that’s really more like a driveway – which leads from Mount Gallant to the Branche family home.

A project of the Rock Hill-Fort Mill Area Transportation Study, a regional transportation planning committee, the bridge would provide an additional route from Rock Hill to Fort Mill, alleviating north-south traffic along Interstate 77 and in Rock Hill, planners say.

The path is one of four proposals STV, a consulting firm handling the project, originally developed.

The path, which traverses largely wooded areas on both sides of the river, will impact 27 properties, planners estimate.

At a public meeting Tuesday night, planners didn’t have details on the affected properties or how many of them include structures. That will come later, after a more detailed environmental study is complete, said Brock LaForty, project manager with STV, the consulting firm hired to gauge the bridge’s feasibility and find possible paths.

But on maps presented at Tuesday’s meeting, the red line denoting the bridge and the roadway feeding it cuts across Dalehurst Road in front of the Branche home and eclipses a rental house closer to Mount Gallant owned by the Branches.

Ruth and Bill Branche, who ran a construction company in Rock Hill for 30 years before retiring and closing the business, have had hopes of leaving the property to their children and grandchildren.

The land is what remains of Branche’s family farm where he recalls the days of “crystal” radios, cotton gins, sleeping on the front porch before the days of air conditioning, and the “night sounds” – once of sharecroppers singing in the distance, and more recently, a whippoorwhil. “Priceless things that you can’t buy,” he said.

Now they’re waiting to find out if they’ll be asked to give any of it up.

Ruth Branche said she’s “not positive” how her property will be impacted, but “every sign that we’ve seen or heard” suggests it will, she said.

“They want to come down through our property, and we just don’t think it’s fair that they have the power to just take our home, come through here and take our home without our consent,” she said.

“You can’t fight city hall, as they say,” she said.

Fewer impacts

LaForty, the STV project manager, said Tuesday that his group will now present the study, including public input, to the RFATS committee for approval in June. At that point, the committee will decide how to proceed.

RFATS receives an annual federal allocation, much of which is being set aside to pay for the bridge.

Details on property impacts will be clearer after a more detailed environmental study, the next phase of the project, project leaders say.

“If there’s any way to avoid a property, why would you not?” said David Hooper, RFATS coordinator.

STV considered all the known impacts when developing the four alternatives, taking into account stream crossings, endangered species, archaeological findings, utility crossings and other factors, LaForty said.

Overall, the chosen path reflects an attempt to miss some of those areas and is one with “few human and natural impacts,” he said.

But the path could see some changes when the more in-depth environmental and engineering studies get underway, which may mean less of an impact to the Branche property, he said.

The three plans that aren’t being recommended would impact more people, including in the Twin Lakes Road area where residents worried that the bridge would funnel traffic too close to their communities, LaForty said.

Some residents along Harris Road in Fort Mill initially expressed an interest in having the bridge connect to their road, but later that interest lessened, Hooper said.

At $60 million, the path is also one of the least expensive, about $30 million less than two of the original options. Project cost estimates jumped from $53 million when planners, hearing concerns about I-77 traffic, added to the project an entry ramp onto I-77 which will allow for continuous flow onto to interstate, he said.

Mixed reactions

Tim Stegall, who lives near the project area, calls it a “waste of money” and blamed too many traffic signals for impeding smooth traffic flow along Celanese Road. He also believes the developers project planners mentioned as having interest in the area will benefit more than the residents.

But Charlie Mitchell, who grew up in the area and now owns an auto shop on Mount Gallant, said, “It’s always good to see growth come in” as long as safety and traffic concerns are also addressed.

After learning more about the project at Tuesday’s meeting, Mitchell said the bridge is a “good idea.”

Branche, who senses that the bridge is inevitable, still opposed the plan after Tuesday’s meeting, but expressed some resolve.

“When you draw as many high cards as I have, you can’t complain when you draw a low one.”

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