NEWPORT—The number of visitors to the Hartford area continues to grow each year as more and more people raft the Pigeon River.
The safety of those visitors and the residents of the Hartford community was discussed at Thursday evening’s Public Safety Committee meeting.
Commissioner Casey Gilliam said he has been contacted by several citizens who are concerned about visitors crowding the roadway in downtown Hartford.
He said a few people have been bumped by cars when crossing the road.
“My concern is for the pedestrians at the off ramp on the eastbound side,” Gilliam said.
“People in the public want to know what can be done about people flying across the road, dragging their kids behind them. A few people have been bumped by cars. Nothing outlines what can or can’t be done up there.
“We need to see if the rafting companies can help. If something goes wrong, it will be a major wrong.”
According to Gilliam, the majority of visitors cross the roadway near Rafting in the Smokies. The actual crosswalk is just above the company at the three way intersection.
Commissioner Forest Clevenger said he has spoken with many of the rafting companies and they agree that something needs to be done to protect all concerned parties.
Several company owners were in attendance and expressed their concerns.
Danny Stewart with Outdoor Adventures echoed the comments of the commissioners. He said the roadway stays packed all summer long.
“There is a flood of humanity that crosses from Rafting in the Smokies to the parking lot across the street,” Stewart said.
“The line can be 20 people wide, and it’s like that all summer long. Some places are forced to load their rafting buses in the road because there are so many people.”
Clevenger said he spoke with the owners of Rafting in the Smokies and they too are seeking a solution and a safer way to handle the pedestrian traffic.
Gilliam said it will take a unified effort to makes things safer all while keeping the traffic flowing and businesses happy.
Lora Wright also spoke during the meeting about the foot traffic and crosswalk on Big Creek Road.
Rafting company Big Creek Expeditions is located along the roadway and a lined crosswalk helps with the traffic.
Wright’s concern is with the speed of drivers coming from Grassy Fork towards the interstate and downtown Hartford area.
“The problem is a lot of people are speeding when they come out of Grassy,” Wright said.
“When they top the hill they aren’t paying attention and there are a lot of kids and adults crossing Big Creek Road.”
Mayor Crystal Ottinger said it may be possible to receive the state’s assistance with the traffic issues in the area. The addition of sidewalks to the area would help slightly, but Ottinger said that idea was dropped in the mid 2000s due to issues with obtaining rights-of-way.
Gilliam said he would speak with Road Superintendent Dwayne McCallister to see what the county can do to help. Ottinger will do more research on the state side of the issue.
Gilliam hopes to get ahead of this issue as Hartford continues to grow.
“There are a lot of other things picking up in Hartford and it’s becoming a mecca for tourism. This is just one small concern of many that we will be facing. We need to get ahead of it.”
Before the meeting adjourned, citizens expressed their concerns about recent social media posts pertaining to the development of Hartford.
The ideas of a wastewater facility and large tourism developments have left citizens in the dark about the plans for the area.
Partnership President Lucas Graham addressed the rumors and discussed the zoning issues in the county.
“None of the rumors are accurate,” Graham said. “Right now no development or project is imminent. The issue is that there is no zoning in the county. We have no control right now if anyone wanted to place something in the area.
“We need to have some control when it comes to the types of developments that are coming in. Creating zoning rules and regulations is a long process. It would take six to eight months and dozens of meetings to set things up.”