When Mills River residents voted to incorporate as a town back in 2003, they did it to preserve the area’s rural character, to keep taxes and regulations minimal, and to avoid being annexed by other municipalities.

Now, 15 years later, Mills River is one of Western North Carolina’s fastest growing areas. So the N.C. Department of Transportation is planning to widen N.C. 191, the two-lane highway linking the town to Hendersonville, to four lanes with a median.

Many Mills River residents oppose DOT’s plans to expand N.C. 191 to four lanes in the town. But state engineers, in a concession to town leaders, now say they are open to a five-lane design. That could spur strip development and congestion where residents along the current route don’t want it.

A standing-room crowd packed Mills River Town Council’s Tuesday night joint meeting with DOT officials over plans to widen 191 from Mountain Road to N.C. 280, about a mile of which runs through the town. The state plans to begin acquiring right of way at an estimated cost of $7.5 million in June 2019 and to start the projected $45 million construction project in 2021.

In April, council passed a resolution opposing the plan for four lanes with a median and calling instead for three lanes with an unobstructed center lane from School House Road to Banner Farm Road. The same resolution called for a “four-lane highway with unobstructed center lane” — a euphemism for a five-lane road — from Banner Farm Road to N.C. 280.

Brian Burch, DOT Division 14 engineer, said the three lanes proposed by the town would not be enough to handle projected traffic. DOT estimates the 12,400 vehicles that now travel the road between Banner Farm Road and N.C. 280 will grow to 15,700 by 2030 and to 17,100 by 2040.

Residents and town leaders have opposed the four-lane, median-divided design in part because it would not allow for unobstructed left turns. Motorists would be forced to make U-turns at protected turnouts. This same design was used to widen Upward Road against much opposition from businesses along the way, but motorists still manage to get to their destinations.

Councilman Roger Snyder noted that county commissioners recently voted to kill the four-lane Balfour Parkway after public opposition to that project. “Could this council take a vote and kill the 191 in our town limits?” he asked.

Burch told the council that it could oppose the project, but if it were looking for something it could support, the two options are a five-lane highway or a four-lane divided highway, based on traffic projections.

Many residents remain opposed to widening the highway to four or five lanes. But if DOT bows to council’s wishes and allows five lanes, it will be up to the town to try to prevent sprawling development from choking mobility.

We already have an example of what can happen when too much traffic meets too many traffic lights on Four Seasons Boulevard. We don’t need a replay of that in Mills River.