After a decade, Athens-Clarke County will break ground on a long awaited East Athens rails-to-trails project by the end of the year.
The rail-trail is just part of an 11-mile network of trails that should be completed sometime in 2014. “We’re right at the edge of really getting a lot of greenway on the ground again,” ACC Greenway Coordinator Mel Cochran told the audience at a Federation of Neighborhoods meeting Apr. 1.
Also in the works are a North Oconee River Greenway extension running south from Carr’s Hill, a trail between the greenway extension and the park-and-ride lot near the bypass (which Cochran dubbed the “Waffle House connector”), a greenway running along Pulaski Creek from downtown past the Council on Aging to the railroad tracks and a path along Trail Creek from Dudley Park to East Athens Community Park. Eventually, the rail-trail could run all the way to Winterville, hook into Firefly Trail—a much longer-term project—and head down through Maxeys to Union Point.
What took so long? Well, the rail-trail, which is partially funded by a federal grant, has been in Georgia Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration purgatory due to staff turnover and lengthy environmental and historic preservation reviews. The process involves a 28-page flow chart that takes seven years to complete, according to Cochran. We’re from the government, and we’re here to help.
“I know a lot of you are frustrated, but not as much as we are, with how long this is taking, especially the rail-trail,” SPLOST Program Manager Don Martin said. (SPLOST 2011 included $7.7 million for rails-to-trails and $6 million for the greenway.)
Negotiations with CSX Transportation to buy the abandoned Georgia Railroad bed have been arduous, but a quarter-mile is now in ACC’s hands. The initial leg of the trail will run from Old Winterville Road to Dudley Park. The famed Murmur Trestle, as Flagpole has previously reported, will be left to just sit there and deteriorate for now due to lack of funding. But Martin said ACC plans to go back in a future phase and either utilize the trestle or build a new bridge so that the trail will be at grade.
Cochran and GDOT have also worked out another potential roadblock—interchange improvements at Oconee Street and the Loop that initially didn’t take the rail-trail into account. GDOT has promised to build an underpass for the trail if ACC buys the right-of-way, Cochran said.
Still unresolved, though, is the issue of development along the greenway, such as a new student apartment complex that towers over what used to be Easley’s Mill, where Athens was founded. “We knew that bad development on the Boys & Girls Club property was coming for at least five years,” said Athens Grow Green’s Elizabeth Little. When ACC’s comprehensive plan was updated in 2007, she suggested an overlay zone, but county officials told her no, she said.
Then there’s the Selig development, which initially turned its back on the greenway. “When I first saw that, I said ‘Whoa, whoa, look at us, we’re a great amenity,'” Cochran said. Revised plans released in December show apartments facing the greenway, rather than a parking deck and a blank wall.
More School Cuts: Last April, Clarke County School Superintendent Phil Lanoue told the Board of Education it would have to lay off about 100 employees (mostly teachers and parapros) and even then, the budget wouldn’t balance. He warned that even worse cuts could be coming.
Things are looking up, at least a little. After years of declining property values, officials expect the tax digest to level off this year. Gov. Nathan Deal has restored some of the austerity cuts put into place during the Great Recession. State funding for CCSD will increase by $1.4 million next year. The district expects to collect a total of $116 million in fiscal 2014.
But that’s still not enough to keep pace with expenses administrators have no control over, such as health care costs, workers’ comp and mandated step increases in pay. If everything stayed the same, the district would spend $125 million, so Lanoue is recommending about $5 million in cuts to next year’s budget.
He’s proposing five furlough days for all employees (the same number as last year) and seven for those making more than $80,000 a year, restructuring the central office and eliminating some school staff. Lanoue said he hopes to avoid any layoffs after teachers sign their contracts for the coming school year, instead reducing positions by attrition. The remaining gap would be plugged with $4 million from CCSD’s $18 million reserve, which didn’t shrink as much as expected over the past year.
Lanoue will present a tentative budget to the board Thursday, and they’ll take a preliminary vote Apr. 18. Don’t like it? Public hearings are scheduled for May 14 at Gaines Elementary School, May 16 at Alps Road Elementary School and May 21 at the Mitchell Bridge Road central office (all at 6 p.m.) before a final vote June 6.
HUD Refunds: Like Ben Folds, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development wants its money back—and don’t forget the black T-shirt.
After a 2011 Washington Post investigation into stalled affordable housing projects funded by federal HOME grants, HUD started clawing back grant money for projects that haven’t been completed and probably never will be. Among them were a $400,000 development by the Athens Housing Authority and East Athens Development Corp., which, incidentally, had its funding cut by the Athens-Clarke Commission for poor performance in 2008.
HUD actually deciding to do its job likely puts the last nail in the coffin of People of Hope, a planned mobile home park for residents who were displaced by student apartments on North Avenue in 2001. HED and the ACC Commission gave People of Hope a $175,000 HOME grant in 2003. The group bought 18 acres on Freeman Drive and cleared some land in 2007, but was never able to find enough money to complete the $1.3 million project.
“We’ve come to a situation where now repayment is required or completion of the project, but they don’t have the means to complete the project, so now we’re at a point where the grant has to be repaid,” said Keith McNeely, director of the ACC Human and Economic Development Department, which administers federal block grants.
But People of Hope doesn’t have the money. One option is to seize the land and sell it to pay back the grant, according to McNeely. In the meantime, other affordable housing agencies like AHA and the Athens Land Trust will take a $175,000 hit in next year’s HOME allocation so HED can pay back HUD.
The commission approved a new set of rules Apr. 2 giving them more oversight over HOME grants. From now on, the commission will approve contracts and review them after six months, and any reallocations will also require commission approval. “When you receive this money, we want you to use it,” Commissioner Mike Hamby said.
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