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Who's On Colony? What's On Second 

Council meeting traffics in confusion

Mayor Pat McCrory got a nasty surprise when he stepped off the golf course to attend the city council meeting last week. McCrory, who showed up an hour and a half late, decked out in golf clothes, walked smack into a disturbing debate between Council and the city staff.Without bothering to mention it to the council, city staffers had apparently taken it upon themselves to help the school board "fix" an unpopular decision Council had made a year and a half ago in what was perhaps Charlotte's most contentious traffic debate ever. (It's worth noting for the record that the city staff works for the city council and not the other way around, although it's sometimes hard to tell.)

Anyway, two years ago a furious debate raged between housewives who wanted a traffic island in front of Myers Park High School on Colony Road to make their car trips more convenient and the folks who live in the homes on Colony who'd have to put up with 1600 to 1800 cars a day zooming by their homes if the neighborhood was turned into a froufrou high-speed thoroughfare. It may not sound like a big deal to readers who don't live there, or along any of Charlotte's residential thoroughfares, but blood was nearly shed over the matter two years ago and many of the members of council were caught in the crossfire.

At issue was a half-baked traffic-calming device; this monstrosity defies description, but suffice it to say that it forces drivers who turn left off Runnymeade Road onto Colony Road to make an illegal U-Turn (or three-point turn depending on the size of the SUV involved) in front of Myers Park High School in order to continue down Colony Road. The only other option available once drivers run into (sometimes literally) the cement island is to throw it into reverse and hope no one's coming around the corner behind them.

After much angst, the council finally voted to smooth the flow of traffic by getting rid of the cement island and building either a left turn lane or something called a traffic "bulb" at the site. The school system was supposed to donate the land for the bulb. End of matter. Or so Council thought.

What actually happened is that the school system, which is ostensibly strapped for cash, hired architects to redesign the intersection, and collaborated with city staff on what they were doing, without bothering to mention the situation to city council members -- or to the neighbors who participated in the two-year public process -- until a memo was issued by city staff a month ago.

"I feel totally blindsided," said McCrory, who apparently doesn't read the memos city staff sends him. "I had no idea any work was being done on this."

McCrory wasn't alone. Several other bewildered council members clearly hadn't been keeping up with their reading, either.

"We sent something out about a month ago, Mayor," Charlotte City Manager Pam Syfert told him. Of course, Syfert neglected to mention that for the entire year preceding the memo, the city and school staffs had kept the council in the dark about the fact that what they had approved wasn't going to happen.

Councilmember Lynn Wheeler directed her frustration with the situation at Guy Chamberlain, the assistant superintendent for building services for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, who had nothing good to say about the council's beloved traffic bulb last week.

"I'm with the mayor," Wheeler said to Chamberlain. "Was not the school system intimately involved with the (original) bulb out plan? Now you've suddenly come up with some alternate plan. It was my understanding the school system agreed with the plan we approved. I remember sitting in a meeting. I believe you were there and you urged me to vote for the plan that was on the table."

Well. . .not quite. According to the minutes from the meeting a year and a half ago when Council voted for the traffic plan, Wheeler had said it concerned her that the school system opposed what was being recommended, and that the council wasn't "really listening" to the school system. In fact, Chamberlain made it clear at that meeting that the school system didn't want the bulb.

"The bulb is the only option they (the school system) feel is totally objectionable," Chamberlain told the council at the time. And he certainly didn't mention anything about the school system committing to donating any land for the traffic bulb it didn't want. Despite this, the council approved a plan in which the school system donated the land for the traffic bulb or, if it didn't donate the land, to build a left turn lane.

Area neighbors who participated in the traffic debate two years ago are also scratching their heads.

"It's about [setting a] precedent that if you don't like the decision council made, you just start over without the stakeholders," said Mary Whitney. "We're the ones who have to live with this. We don't understand why we've been left out of the process."

It now looks like it will be a while before the neighbors get to have their say. Council is now waiting for the school system to come back with estimates for how much the changes they want for the intersection would cost, and a commitment that the school board will donate the land for the more elaborate traffic plan it prefers.

"Of a city that's 275 square miles, we've spent a heck of a lot of time on one area that's several hundred square feet," McCrory said.

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