Questions about housing dominated the first forum for Athens-Clarke County Commission District 2 candidates Melissa Link and Kirrena Gallagher, allowing Link to display the knowledge she acquired during her eight years previously serving on the commission.
Link emphasized the threat facing District 2—a newly redrawn district that includes Boulevard and parts of Normaltown and East Athens—from enrollment growth at the University of Georgia. Students are putting pressure on the intown housing market because UGA is not building enough dorms to keep up, Link said. Artists and musicians have been pushed out of Boulevard, and the problem is even worse in Rocksprings and the Hancock Corridor, she said.
“We have a huge issue with the UGA population ever, ever growing,” Link said. “We have to find a way to accommodate those students if UGA isn’t going to build any more dorms.”
ACC officials are planning to revise the county’s future land use plan this year for the first time in more than two decades. Link said that District 2 should be targeted for working-class housing rather than student housing.
Gallagher said she would support undefined legislation to help keep people in their homes, as well as allowing tiny homes so family members could live in the backyard. She also advocated for ACC to spend more tax dollars in neighborhoods that are gentrifying, if property taxes are going to go up.
But Gallagher, a former school board member, professed that she’s not an expert on land-use issues. “Planning and zoning is not my strong area, but I love learning,” she said.
While still a commissioner, Link opposed a measure that would have allowed accessory dwelling units in single-family neighborhoods and tried to broker a compromise that would have limited such ADUs to one bedroom. She said legalizing ADUs without limits would cause parking problems.
On transportation, Link said she supports more sidewalks, bike lanes and transit generally, and in particular supports a multi-use path on Barber Street that the commission tabled earlier this month, except for a segment between Boulevard and Prince Avenue that she said is unnecessary and too expensive.
Gallagher said she wasn’t well-informed enough to speak about Barber Street, but she called for more frequent Athens Transit service. “Someone shouldn’t have to get up three hours before they have to be at work to get there on time,” she said.
Asked about youth development, Link laid the blame for a recent uptick in gang violence on cuts to Leisure Services programs during the Great Recession. Gallagher agreed that more after-school programs are needed, and spoke about how she advocated for the commission to restore the Grand Slam program from the 1990s.
There are 92 organizations that provide youth services in Athens, and ACC should be coordinating with them, as well as the school district, Gallagher said. “We have lots of resources in Athens,” she said. “We just need to do a better job of using them.”
Link previously represented District 3 until Republican state legislators moved that district to the East Athens/Winterville area, leaving her with nowhere to run when her term expired last year. But the new District 2 includes about three-quarters of the old District 3, and Link said she knows the district well from knocking on doors for her own and others’ campaigns. The seat opened up when Mariah Parker resigned in September.
Gallagher left her seat representing District 2 on the school board in December to run for the open commission seat. The changes could be beneficial for “neglected” parts of the old District 2 because now they’re lumped in with areas along Prince Avenue that are drawing more investment, she said.
Link was also asked to address a comment she made during a 2021 budget meeting when she said UGA football players were “raping and murdering.” She had proposed that the ACC police and fire departments recruit ex-football players who didn’t go on to the NFL. Another commissioner responded that they all got drafted.
Link said she meant to highlight her belief that UGA doesn’t do enough to help athletes find jobs after graduation. “I saw guys I grew up with who, when their football careers were over, they were lost,” she said.
State Rep. Houston Gaines (R-Athens) and others attacked Link over the comment. “It was an out-of-context comment seized upon by a Republican state legislator who wanted to see me strung up,” she said.
The forum, held at the ACC Library, was sponsored by the Economic Justice Coalition and Athens Community Agenda, and moderated by Chaplain Cole Knapper and the Rev. B.A. Hart, pastor of First AME. Early voting for the Mar. 21 election starts on Feb. 27.
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