SILER CITY — The town’s board of commissioners again postponed acting on a petition from Mountaire Farms to close portions of three roads near the company’s Siler City facility, more than two …
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SILER CITY — The town’s board of commissioners again postponed acting on a petition from Mountaire Farms to close portions of three roads near the company’s Siler City facility, more than two years since the poultry processor initiated its request.
It was at least the eighth time Mountaire representatives approached the town in a public meeting asking for portions of East Third Street, East Fifth Street and all of Johnson Avenue to be closed and rerouted, citing safety concerns as their primary motive. According to a timeline included in its most recent petition, Mountaire identifies about 45 total interactions between company representatives, the Town of Siler City and the N.C. Dept. of Transportation concerning its proposal.
Mountaire’s original request was submitted in Oct. 2018, before construction of the $170 million, 255,000-square-foot facility finished. For much of that year, East Third Street had already been closed to facilitate construction traffic, and the company hoped Siler City would make it permanent.
“Based on the number of chickens we will be processing, we estimate there will be 1,518 trucks crossing the street every week,” said then-Community Relations Manager Mark Reif, who has since retired. “We think that in the interest of safety and the interest of traffic flow, we believe that it would be best for the city.”
The commissioners responded with trepidation. About 50 other Siler City businesses operate on East Third Street, they pointed out, and it serves as a major artery to downtown. The board tabled the request without having made any decisions.
About a year after opening its processing plant — making it one of Chatham County’s largest employers — Mountaire Farms renewed and expanded its request to the board of commissioners. In addition to partial closure of East Third Street in front of its facility, Mountaire asked that East Fifth Street and all of Johnson Avenue be closed to through traffic. The company again cited safety concerns as its primary motivation, but the commissioners’ response was generally apprehensive. They feared limiting or adjusting access to downtown might clog alternative roads, strip other businesses of patronage and slow emergency vehicle response times.
There would be “a lot of unintended consequences for this,” Commissioner Bill Haiges said at the time.
About six months later, Mountaire returned with an updated proposal, to which the commissioners again voiced numerous concerns. They would refrain from advancing the project, they said, until results from a traffic impact analysis and an economic impact study were conducted. The results of those investigations were presented at Monday’s commission board meeting, held at town hall.
“The biggest takeaway from the survey was that road traffic is a really important factor for businesses that are located along East Third Street,” said Sam Rauf, project manager at Chatham’s Economic Development Corporation, which was contracted to perform the economic impact assessment.
“The majority of them rely 100% on in-person customers to sustain their revenue and to sustain their business,” he said. “And certainly then, if traffic were impacted, or if this rerouting made it more difficult to access this road, that certainly would impact the revenues of businesses.”
Cathy Bassett, director of communications and community relations at Mountaire, emphasized that while the on-paper proposal calls for road closures, it’s more accurate to think of the roads shifting and traffic rerouted.
“It may seem like semantics, but it’s important,” she said. “We’re only asking for it to be rerouted, and we’re offering to pay for the total cost of the rerouting project. When it’s built, I think it’s safe to say it’s probably going to be the nicest road in all of Siler City. It will truly be a gateway to downtown.”
The EDC’s evaluation similarly concluded that despite drawbacks, Mountaire’s proposal may be in the town’s best interest.
“From just an economic standpoint — and there are other factors obviously to consider in this decision — but strictly from an economic standpoint,” Rauf said, “the benefit that the road rerouting would have to Mountaire Farms outweighs the potential detriment that would impact the small businesses along East Third Street.”
Ramey Kemp & Associates completed the town’s traffic impact analysis, with subsequent commentary from the Timmons Group; both are engineering firms with Raleigh offices. Timmons representative Jeff Hochanadel expressed some reservations about the potential road rerouting in written correspondence to the town at the end of last year. Mountaire suggests East Third Street will be redirected onto the existing North Avenue, but definitive plans have not been offered, complicating the reliability of a traffic impact analysis.
Without concrete realignment plans, the commissioners were uncomfortable advancing Mountaire’s request to a public hearing.
“This is a nice concept, but what is the final going to look like?” Haiges said. “Because we need to be able to stand up in front of the town and say this is what it’s going to look like, this is how it’s going to work.”
Until that’s possible, the project is unlikely to move forward. The board will hold a special work session on June 1 to revisit Mountaire’s proposal.
Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @dldolder.