City DopeNews

Commissioners Tweak T-SPLOST List, Discuss a Milledge Circle Historic District and Bishop Park Improvements

ACC commissioners are moving toward a final list of T-SPLOST (transportation sales tax) projects that voters will approve or reject in November. A proposal by Commissioner Mike Hamby seemed to draw a consensus, whittling the projects list down from $250 million to $100 million—the amount that the extra penny would bring in over five years.

The projects chosen need to be distributed throughout the county, Commissioner Andy Herod said. “There is a perception outside the Loop that inside the Loop gets selective treatment.”

The biggest portion ($25 million) will go toward repaving roads. Under Hamby’s proposal, bike and pedestrian projects would be cut to create funding for projects not recommended by a citizens’ advisory committee. Construction of the Firefly Trail to Winterville would be cut from $17 million to $11 million, and Oconee River Greenway planning and construction from $12 million to $10. Pots of money for bicycle and sidewalk projects yet to be determined would be cut by $6 million, and funding for Athens Transit reduced by $4.5 million.

Corridor improvements for Prince, Atlanta Highway and Lexington Road (“gateways,” not corridors, Hamby urged) were a priority for commissioners, and each would include significant bicycle and pedestrian improvements. Additional money to replace aging underground utilities on Clayton Street (some of them over 100 years old) and a bridge on Tallassee Road was added, and some airport improvements and a new bus route out U.S. 29 likely will stay on the list.

Commissioners seemed to favor including pedestrian upgrades on West Broad, too, and a roundabout at Milledge Avenue and Whitehall Road, but bonding costs (borrowing money in order to build some projects sooner) will cut into the budget. “People have lost confidence in SPLOST projects over the years, because we haven’t moved quickly enough” to show results, said Commissioner Sharyn Dickerson. If voters approve the T-SPLOST, Hamby said, progress on projects needs to be evident before the next SPLOST comes up for renewal in 2019. (Shoppers already pay 1 percent local sales tax for SPLOST; if T-SPLOST is approved, they will pay an additional 1 percent, at least until the current SPLOST runs out.)

The discussion was complicated by the a switchover in the county email system. “I’m far behind” in reading emails as a result of the switchover, complained Commissioner Jared Bailey. Some commissioners felt left out of the loop in discussing projects.

Following more discussion and public input at the July 18 agenda-setting meeting, commissioners will decide the final list on Aug. 1.

In addition, commissioners heard proposals from the Planning Department about which areas along Milledge Circle should be studied during a one-year moratorium on demolitions for possible inclusion in a protective historic district. The proposed Five Points historic district is controversial, especially among Realtors and homebuilders, since it would limit changes that can be made to existing homes and permanently restrict demolitions. But that would be fine with many neighborhood homeowners, who say the practice of demolishing homes to build larger ones is disrupting the neighborhood.

At times, the debate has been contentious. But commissioners seemed to feel that any areas along Milledge Circle (and also extending a couple of blocks northward) are fair game for study, since merely studying them does not mean they will be included in the protective district. Newer homes along the western end of Milledge Circle seem less likely to be included in an eventual historic district, because that area is “kind of a mixed bag of sentiment as to whether they want to participate or not,” Senior Planner Bruce Lonnee told Flagpole. Some of those homes could still be studied for independent “landmark” protective status, depending on their “historic quality and value and importance,” but not included in a contiguous district, he said.

Commissioners will decide Aug. 1 which areas to study. Eventually, a consultant will issue a report, and commissioners could vote on a district before the demolition moratorium expires next May.

Also at last week’s work session, commissioners discussed public feedback (mostly positive) about a proposed plan to refurbish Bishop Park. The plan would add some amenities—pickleball courts, an outdoor “classroom,” a larger gym, a new pool, a splash pad and some additional parking—but wouldn’t substantially change the layout of the popular park or remove any facilities. Gym programs are in “high demand” with waiting lists, and office space is needed for wellness programs, acting Leisure Services Director Kent Kilpatrick told Flagpole. The pool and other infrastructure have had only “Band-Aid” maintenance over the years, he said. “What we really need is event space,” and the covered pavilion will remain, with an outdoor plaza added. But the renovation is pricey: $25 million, a larger cost than most sales-tax projects (which would probably be the funding source, if voters approve the next SPLOST).