Greenway Planning is Food for Thought for Westside Residents

Salena Lynch has lived in west Athens on the Middle Oconee River for 25 years. When she received a letter this month saying that the city plans to run the Middle Oconee River Greenway behind her house, her first thought was that it would mean more condoms, beer cans and wine bottles on her property. An avid biker and hiker, Lynch says of herself and her husband, “We love trails. We are not against trails.” But she is worried that a greenway would increase litter and crime in her backyard.

Although Athens-Clarke County has had greenways for years, fears of rising crime rates and falling property values obscure statistical data to the contrary. The ACC Department of Leisure Services held two meetings in October for public comment on the Middle Oconee Greenway plan. The plan would extend a greenway—part trails, part conserved greenspace and wildlife habitat—from the State Botanical Garden of Georgia to the Jackson County line, a distance of approximately 14 miles. Land and easements will be acquired from willing sellers and donors, not through eminent domain, and paved multi-use paths will probably avoid backyards in dense, established neighborhoods. Mel Cochran, Athens-Clarke County greenways coordinator, says, “People automatically assume the county is going to take away their property by force.” The route of the path depends on the voluntary agreement of those whose property sits along it. If such abutters of the currently proposed route object, plan maps will be adjusted accordingly.

The current draft map will be revised based on public comments received at three meetings for landowners and two public meetings. Says Cochran, “This is a completely voluntary, long-range draft plan for the future.” Leisure Services calls the plan a “generational effort” that “provides a framework for development of natural areas.”

Not everyone at the meetings was reassured. Rachele Gibson lives along the proposed greenway, and she says, “Since we have kids, we’re worried that people would have access.” But, said Cochran at one of this month’s meetings, “We don’t have issues with crime.” She cited only one violent crime on an Athens-Clarke greenway. County statistics place crimes reported on the greenway far below those in other parts of the county.

Gibson, like several others at the same meeting, is also concerned that a greenway would negatively impact property values. Mike Wharton, Department of Leisure Services natural resources division administrator, said that properties along Athens greenways have increased in value by an average of 7 percent (University of Georgia studies document increases of up to 15 percent).

Cochran draws comparisons to the Silver Comet, a public trail through Cobb, Paulding and Polk counties that is open to all types of non-motorized uses. “People pay more to have a house on the Silver Comet,” she says. “It’s an amenity.” She and Wharton repeatedly suggested that concerned citizens see for themselves by visiting the North Oconee Greenway, open since 1999, and talking to members of the community.

According to Dr. Gwynn Powell, associate professor of recreation and leisure studies at the University of Georgia, the public’s concerns are textbook scenarios. “There is constant conflict between ’not in my backyard’ and ’it’s good for the community,’” Powell says. Gibson exemplifies this division. “I am also excited,” she says. “I want to be supportive. This is the kind of thing I want our community to have.”

Wharton and Cochran acknowledge that it will take a long time to build public support for the project, and they are committed to the task. “Nothing would kill this project faster than to make people angry,” Cochran says.

Throughout the first of the two public meetings, Cochran, Wharton and their colleagues were posted at tables in the cafeteria of Oglethorpe Avenue Elementary School. With large maps before them, they fielded non-stop questions and comments. Wharton did not appear to tire of repeating the environmental, health and financial benefits of greenways. The greenway counts among its missions protecting biodiversity, providing increased business opportunities and reducing pollutants and improving health through increased non-motorized transportation. “If we could get people out of their cars, just a few times a week, we’d see a difference,” he says.

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