Proposed Byway Meets Vocal Opposition
Wed, 09/21/2022 - 3:53pm admin
Amanda Mendez, publisher
The meeting for public comment on a proposed Scenic Byway through Howell County ended abruptly when raucous opposition deteriorated into shouted insults. Presenter Eric Hermanson was visibly shaking as he put an end to the meeting prematurely and began breaking down his displays.
Tuesday night’s meeting in the West Plains Convention Center theater was a chance for the public to voice their opinion about the proposed Ozarks Scenic Byway. A scenic byway is a series of roads designated by uniform signage. Meetings for public comment are a mandatory part of the process of establishing their designation as laid out by Missouri statutes. Any group or individual may make an application for a scenic byway. Hermanson said his application began with him individually. He has since joined the Board of Directors of the nonprofit Scenic Missouri.
The proposed byway begins in St. Louis County, travels south through the Arcadia Valley and Shannon County before veering west to travel through Howell County and end in Branson. Locally, the proposed route will travel through Howell County and the cities of West Plains, Alton, and Thayer.
To be included in the byway route, each political entity along the route must approve participation. In Howell County, the county commission will vote to accept or reject the scenic byway designation in December.
On Tuesday, Hermanson reported that Jefferson, Shannon, and Oregon counties are likely to reject the byway. He feels confident Washington, Iron, and Reynolds Counties will approve it, and he said he was “optimistic” that Taney and Ozark counties would approve it as well.
Hermanson repeatedly referred to the proposed byway as a “tool for tourism.” He presented research on the economic impact scenic byways in other states have had on their local economies. In a video Hermanson screened at the meeting, he said a byway will give “greater recognition” to the region along the route and be “a source of inspiration and pride to communities.”
Anticipating opposition to “any government intrusion,” Hermanson opened the public comment session of the meeting with an appeal for civility.
He gave a brief personal biography, including his career as an IT professional and sharing that he plays the organ at his church near St. Louis.
“I’m not getting paid for this,” Hermanson said. “All this is, is a tool for tourism. I’m here with good intentions.”
Hermanson is personally visiting all eleven counties on the proposed route to meet with the public and hear their comments. In response to the universal opposition and fear of infringement on private property rights, Hermanson reported the byway proposal will now contain a pledge that the byway will not result in any government intrusion.
Without exception, all public comments offered were opposed to the byway. The two main points speakers raised repeatedly were:
-Absolute opposition to any form of government intrusion, oversight, or regulation
-Rejection of increased tourism to the area
“We like it that people don’t know we’re here,” said Stacey Eagleman, a self-described fifth generation Howell Countian. “We are the best kept secret on the planet, and we want it to stay that way. We don’t want the traffic. We don’t want the attention. We’re 20 years behind the times and proud of it!”
Voices from the crowd of 60 citizens echoed, “Amen!”
The final comment of the night began on topic but turned into a personal attack on Hermanson’s Christianity. When Hermanson pushed back, shouts erupted from the crowd.
“Go back to St. Louis!”
“Get a new hobby!”
“Just because you’re in the henhouse don’t make you a chicken!”
Hermanson precipitously shut down the meeting, turned his back to the crowd, and began breaking down the presentation displays.
In an interview after the meeting, Hermanson told Howell County News he was surprised to encounter such vehement opposition to an increase in tourism.
“That is a surprise,” he said. “I encountered that in Shannon County. They do not want the tourism. There’s a lot of mistrust of the government. I get that they have suffered. I get both sides.”
Elected Representatives Weigh In
From here, Howell County is in a 30-day period of public comment on the proposed byway.
West Plains Mayor Mike Topliff expressed support for the initial application for the byway, dated November 6, 2021. In an interview on September 16, Mayor Topliff said he continues to support the proposed byway to promote the city as a tourist attraction. He reported hearing opposition to the byway, but not from his constituents within the city.
“I still support it to promote the area,” Mayor Topliff said. “My main job is to promote the City of West Plains.”
In an interview on September 15, Howell County Commissioners Mark Collins, Billy Sexton, and Calvin Wood said they had not heard from any constituents outside the meeting.
The period of public comment will close on October 13, and then the commissioners have 60 days to make their decision. Comments should be made in person or in writing. Email email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com to comment. Please include an address when commenting on the byway.