Road to ruin 

The Appalachian Scenic Corridor will help you get through the mountains faster, but will there be anything left worth visiting?

When the Georgia Department of Transportation completes the Appalachian Scenic Corridor, the road will snake through some of the most beautiful parts of Georgia: 169 miles of postcard-perfect views of the Appalachian Mountains and green valleys that cradle the state's most majestic rivers.

God bless the DOT -- the Appalachian Scenic Corridor will take you as close to Mother Nature as you can get. Too bad it's going to ruin every scene it'll take you through.

Having clear-cut the state from Atlanta to the Blue Ridge Mountains, developers are spreading ever northward into the mountains themselves. And the Appalachian Scenic Corridor is going to help them get there faster.

The only thing that could save the mountains from the new highway and the sprawl that will follow would be to restrict the volume of development and to bar development in ecologically sensitive areas. But the corridor runs through counties and cities with few or no rules against gross overbuilding.

Ultimately, it promises to stretch Atlanta's sprawl well past the long-debated Northern Arc expressway, about 75 miles from downtown and into the heart of Georgia's mountains.

"The construction of this truck route would be disastrous for a mountain environment already stressed by development and Atlanta's urban sprawl," says Robin Littlefield of the Mountain Community Alliance.

Littlefield, who lives in Dahlonega, and other north Georgians along the route formed the alliance and teamed up with the Sierra Club to try to block the construction of the corridor.

"We believe it would have a catastrophic effect on our environment, safety, economy, quality of life and culture," she says.

But the powerful folks who want the road appear to be winning the battle.

The route slices diagonally from the northwest corner of the state through the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Chattahoochee National Forest until it hits I-85 in Lavonia at the South Carolina border. It's projected to cost just shy of half a billion dollars.

The corridor starts in Trenton, four miles from Alabama and eight miles from Tennessee. Twenty-three miles to the east, motorists will hit Dalton, home to the impetus of the road.

Dalton's carpet moguls lobbied for construction of the corridor in the mid-1990s because they faced a transportation problem. Truckers hauling rigs stuffed with rolls of carpet from the "Tufted Textile Center of the Universe" must drive down I-75 to Atlanta, run east on I-285 and exit on I-85 heading north; either that or drive 18-wheelers up Highway 52 or U.S. 76, both of which are steep, two-lane mountain roads with hairpin turns and hills that strain even F-150 pickups.

Although it won't be an expressway (with exit ramps and above-grade lanes), the corridor is intended to work something like an outer-, outer perimeter. Like the long-debated Northern Arc expressway, it's supposed to be a shortcut for truckers heading to the northeast and mid-Atlantic states.

"This road will be much more desirable for use since there's no easy way to go east to west," says Dalton-Whitfield Chamber of Commerce President and CEO George Woodward. "And it will provide better access to Dalton, so it will promote some tourism in the area."

But it's hard to see how tourism will be encouraged by a road that takes everything scenic out of the term "scenic corridor." Unlike, say, with the Blue Ridge Parkway, this "scenic" route has few provisions to preserve or enhance the forests, rivers and vistas along the highway.

In fact, building the corridor will mean clear-cutting land that's as steep and fragile as it is green in the summer and bright yellow and red in the fall. It will graze the southern borders of the Rich Mountain Wilderness Area and Amicalola Falls State Park, and cut through Lake Russell Wildlife Management Area.

Sixty percent of the corridor's route will require adding passing lanes, straightening curves and widening existing two-lane highways. The remaining 40 percent will be built from scratch. The total cost of the highway, including construction and right-of-way acquisitions, is projected at $476 million.

Eventually, the Appalachian Scenic Corridor will be mostly four-lane; two thick, black strips of asphalt separated by a median cutting across the southern slope of the Appalachians and through stretches that are among the most biologically diverse places in Georgia.

Along the way, massive swaths of land will be clear-cut for truck stops, fast-food restaurants, hotels, gas stations -- each one replacing trees and natural drainage trenches with asphalt parking lots and black tile roofs -- the very things people head to the mountains to get away from.

Over the following 15 or 20 years, even more significant changes are sure to follow. Golf course communities and subdivisions on cul-de-sacs will replace mountainside forests and pristine creek valleys.

The silt from construction sites, the reduction in natural stream buffers and stormwater runoff from road surfaces, parking lots, driveways and rooftops will stress fragile mountain rivers and streams even more than they already are stressed.

And since it's an east-to-west route and most rivers in the state run north to south, the corridor will cut across almost every river system in north Georgia.

Truckers heading east from Dalton will take a new four-lane over the Conasauga River until it crosses U.S. 411, just south of Chatsworth. The road will then traverse the upper reaches of numerous mountain streams as it piggybacks the existing U.S. Highway 76. At Ellijay, it will connect with Highway 52 and 26 miles later will cross over the Etowah River, which provides drinking water for much of metro Atlanta.

The upper Etowah and its more than 100 tributaries catch rain water in a 610-square-mile basin, which already is suffering flooding and reduced water quality caused by uncontrolled development.

By 2020, the Etowah's plight is likely to get worse: Between 27 to 30 percent of Cherokee County will be covered in manmade surfaces, according to a 1998 University of Georgia study. And upstream -- in the area affected by the Appalachian Scenic Corridor -- land that now filters crystal clean mountain water into the Etowah will be changed by development lured by the new road. Six to 9 percent of Dawson County, for example, will be covered by solid surfaces.

It doesn't take a genius to see what'll happen: Runoff from those solid surfaces will carry motor oil, exhaust soot, silt, pesticides and herbicides into the Etowah, home to 76 different species of fish. (The 76 species make it one of the richest river systems in the country in terms of biological diversity; the massive Colorado River, which dwarfs the Etowah in size, has only 25 species).

About nine miles downstream from the Highway 52 bridge is a place where the only sounds come from Amicalola Creek, an Etowah tributary, as it drops about 35 feet over rolling rapids.

Upper Etowah River Alliance Program Manager Candace Stoughton stands on large boulders next to Edge of the World rapid, taking pictures with a digital camera for her group's website. After finishing grad school at UGA, Stoughton formed the Upper Etowah River Alliance in 1997 to protect the river. She has her work cut out for her and she knows it.

She wants people to see this section of the watershed, even if it's on a computer screen, because the area is home to two species of endangered fish that don't live in any other river system in the world: the Etowah and Cherokee darters. Because this section of the creek runs through a state Wildlife Management Area, it's an area where the darters are less scarce.

"The road and other developments from it add stress to the [Etowah] watershed, not just to wildlife species, but on drinking water supplies, anything that requires clean water," Stoughton says.

There also are eight species of mussels on the endangered species list that are now believed to be extinct. Biologists haven't found a live mussel in the Etowah for several years. If they don't find any this year, they'll bring in other mussel species from a farming program at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga.

The Etowah already has lost 15 fish species since the first biological inventories were done in the late 1800s, and it'll lose even more. And there are two other types of endangered darters in Etowah that haven't been even been named yet.

"These are little fish that most people never heard of," Stoughton says. "They just aren't as charismatic as eagles and polar bears, so it's hard for people to appreciate that they are worth protecting. A lot of counties are very interested in bringing growth to their counties, and that's a difficult trade-off. How do you know when too much development will impact your streams?"

You don't usually -- until it's too late.

Nobody pushing for the road wants to admit that it could ruin North Georgia. Then again, they aren't exactly disagreeing.

"Those are not totally invalid concerns. DOT's goal is not to ruin north Georgia -- it is a beautiful area up there," says DOT spokesman Bert Brantley. "The planning is done by local governments. We don't have any say over what they do [or] the way they control and restrict development."

That's precisely the line DOT officials used for years in the Atlanta region, where the agency's single-minded attempt to move people exclusively by automobiles created the traffic crunch and air-pollution mess that is the metro area.

Finally, Gov. Roy Barnes was elected on the promise that he'd clean up that mess and, to some extent, he did. He created the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority to coordinate road and transit plans all over metro Atlanta. But GRTA only addresses part of the problem: It just oversees metro counties that were hit with a federal road-building moratorium because state and local officials were only coming up with transportation plans that would make the region's air dirtier. And the governor never followed through on his aides' earlier promises that he'd address Georgia's impotent land-use planning system.

Then, on June 28, he announced he was speeding up the pace of DOT's road paving across the entire state by expediting the Governor's Road Improvement Project, a $2 billion plan to encourage economic development in rural areas by putting 98 percent of Georgia's population within 20 miles of a multi-lane highway. GRIP uses taxpayer debt to fund "developmental highways," which by definition are roads that aren't needed; they're just being built to spur economic growth in the communities through which they run -- a dubious supposition.

Barnes' plan would accelerate construction of the Appalachian Scenic Corridor, which is part of GRIP. Road building on some parts are scheduled to begin this fall. But even the DOT doesn't know how long it will take to complete the widenings, brand new segments of highway and other "improvements."

In its 4-inch thick, 346-page feasibility study of the Appalachian Scenic Corridor, the DOT doesn't mention the endangered darters or mussels on the brink of extinction.

But it does claim benefits of the corridor will reach $1 billion annually by cutting back on travel time, gas and vehicle maintenance, and the potential income of new jobs the road will spur.

Ah yes, new jobs. The mantra of Georgia governors typically has been, build the roads and the jobs will follow. Barnes is singing that same song.

The foothills of the Appalachians aren't exactly a fountain of wealth. The per capita income of residents in the 15 counties along the corridor's route ranges from $14,590 to $21,425 -- all below the state average, according to the DOT. So it's no surprise that plenty of folks up there are looking forward to the perks that come with new development.

But growth certainly hasn't been a problem along the corridor. Population increases in counties along the route all were pretty healthy during the 1990s, ranging up to 76 percent in Gilmer County. And while the road might help move that rapid growth into the kind of hyper-drive that has created so many traffic problems in places like Gwinnett and Forsyth counties, it's unlikely to raise the low incomes of folks who already live there.

As the Mountain Community Alliance's Littlefield points out, the typically minimum-wage fast-food and gas stations jobs the corridor is expected to generate aren't the high-paying professions that'll really help the region.

"It's a boondoggle sort of thing," Littlefield says. "No one seems to think it's a good idea except for DOT and big business."

Not to worry -- everyone pretty much wants unfettered growth in the mountains, according to corridor advocates.

"The area is very much in pro-growth mentality," says Vanden Bosch, director of community and economic development services at the North Georgia Regional Development Center. "There's no effort to control growth to the point of limiting it."

As required every 10 years by state law, Bosch and others with the development center are working with elected officials in Fannin, Gilmer, Murray, Pickens and Whitfield counties on a plan that'll guide development and land-use patterns. Bosch expects the counties and cities in member counties to adopt the plan in October.

The good news is the plan seeks to set aside an ambitious goal of 40,000 acres of green space in the five counties.

The bad news is that, in accordance with the area's pro-growth mentality, the plan will only recommend to developers where they can build subdivisions.

That means developers can set aside greenspace or preserve stream buffers if they feel like it. But it's only an option; nothing holds them to it, and there will be no tax incentives or other motivations. And, given the kind of development that predominates along the route, it seems unlikely developers will volunteer to try out progressive, environmentally sensitive ideas that'll cost them more money.

When the road does open, between 500 and 2,000 trucks will thunder each day along the Appalachian Scenic Corridor. The DOT's own study says the amount of traffic along the corridor's proposed route would not get worse unless the new road was built. In fact, traffic in Lumpkin, Gilmer, Dawson and Pickens counties will increase two-and-a-half times when the corridor opens.

That much traffic means charming mountain towns will end up looking like Jimmy Carter Boulevard.

From Ellijay, state Highway 52, soon to be the backbone of the Appalachian Corridor, winds through 38 miles of mountains before it gets to Dahlonega, a vacation and college town that's undergoing its second big boom -- the first happened during America's initial gold rush in 1828.

Only 3,638 people live in Dahlonega, according to U.S. census data -- but the 18 percent growth the city has seen in the last 10 years was tough for the small town to handle.

"The mountains are in danger," says part-time city planner Larry Sorohan. "Clear cutting affects water supply so dramatically with runoff. If you get anywhere north of Atlanta, you can look at the streams and if they're brown, it's because of runoff."

Sorohan has been working for more than a year on a tree-protection ordinance and has had to revise it three times because "originally it had elements in there that a lot people thought didn't protect individual property owners," he says. Now though, he thinks the current version has enough exemptions that it will pass when it's before the city council Sept. 10.

Sorohan knows of at least four, maybe five, developers looking to build in the city right now. But he hopes the Dahlonega City Council will pass the tree ordinances this time before the bulldozers start rolling.

"The ordinance is to protect against, let's see, unconcerned developers. That's trying to say things in a nice way," he says. "We mainly want to avoid all the clear cutting and make sure [developers] don't detract from the natural beauty of the area. Clear cutting leads to runoff problems and poorer air quality, and just as significant is aesthetics. This is a very pretty, attractive little town.

"We all know growth has real positive aspects. We also know if you aren't careful, you end up with a mess out of control. If you want to see out of control, drive down to Gainesville and look at Brown's Bridge Road."

Thirty years ago, waves of sprawl began to ripple out from Atlanta's then-new perimeter highway. First, places like Tucker and Sandy Springs filled up with strip shopping centers, fast-food joints and ranch-style subdivisions.

Then, the quick-development scheme inundated Norcross, Alpharetta, Kennesaw and, eventually, Canton. Now, it's gotten to places like Brown's Bridge Road in Gainesville.

One single block of Brown's Bridge, heading out from town toward the mountains, is loaded with a Red Lobster, an Applebee's and a Ruby Tuesday. In land mass though, all the businesses are dwarfed to car dealerships. Besides Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Hummers -- the city probably can claim it has a dealership, maybe two, for every one of the world's auto manufacturers.

Drivers looking through their windshields beyond a red light see a strip of asphalt five lanes wide, surrounded by neon and cookie-cutter buildings.

You get the feeling you've been here before. Though Gainesville is tucked away in Hall County 57 miles northeast of downtown Atlanta, you may as well be on Buford Highway or Jimmy Carter Boulevard.

It's also less than 20 miles south of the Appalachian Scenic Corridor. As you head north, for now, traffic isn't backed up so badly. The road toward Dahlonega narrows to two lanes. McDonald's and Jiffy Lubes fade into fresh fruit and boiled peanut stands.

And it begins to feel again like rural Georgia. Farms are scattered through the woods on hills that grow into mountains.

Maybe you can tell your children about the sweet memory of what they used to call scenery.



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