The ACC Commission has rejected candidate sites for a new fire station #5, disregarding over a year of work from the SPLOST site selection committee.
They also extended the ban on new short-term rentals, awarded $531,000 to Historic Athens to help low-income residents preserve their historic homes, approved the first audit work plan in over two years and approved multi-use paths for Timothy and Mitchell Bridge Roads.
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Fire station #5 candidate sites rejected
The ACC Fire Department has been planning for years to replace fire station #5, which is currently located on Whit Davis Road. Fire department officials say the current location is too small for their needs, does not have a dedicated exercise room and is not ADA compliant or energy efficient. It was designed decades ago for an all-male staff and thus lacks a women’s restroom as well as privacy in the living area.
Ironically, fire station #5 also lacks fire protective equipment such as a sprinkler system, making an upgrade necessary. Fortunately, funding is available – $6 million was earmarked for a new fire station in SPLOST 2020.
While the current location could conceivably be modernized, fire department officials also want to change locations and move this station further out in the county. As things stand now, fire station #5 has a significant coverage overlap with fire station #7 in particular, located on Barnett Shoals Road.
“The basis of this is trying to reduce duplication of fire service around the fire stations and to move out into the county to serve additional residents, not only with fire protection, but also with emergency medical service responses,” ACC Manager Blaine Williams told commissioners at Tuesday’s meeting.
The majority of the fire department’s calls these days are actually for medical emergencies, not for fire service. For some of these calls, time is truly of the essence and a rapid response is critical.
The SPLOST site selection committee was put in charge of developing a short list of potential sites for the new fire station by Mayor Kelly Girtz. They placed a high priority on service coverage and the need for a rapid response to all areas of the county. After over a year of work, with ample opportunity for public input on the criteria for site selection and on the sites themselves, this committee decided on the intersection of Morton Road and Old Lexington Road as the optimal location for fire station #5.
There’s only one problem. Residents of this area do not want a fire station in their neighborhood.
Not in my backyard
Residents of southeast Clarke County have objected to the proposed location for multiple reasons, including increased traffic, noise, light pollution and the possibility of damaging wildlife habitats. About half a dozen speakers lined up to express their disapproval during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting, with many more having already spoken at the agenda-setting meeting in October.
“To me, it’s apparent that the site-selection process was generally faulty,” said one resident of the area. “It’s obvious that the geographic center of the area served was taken priority over the center of population.”
“It is a really naturally peaceful and pleasant area,” said another resident. “So when I heard about fire stations with fire trucks screaming their sirens on a two-lane road, I thought ‘that’s a joke!’ That can’t possibly be where they want to put this. It would make a lot more sense out by Walmart.”
A responsive commission takes action
The ACC Commission responded to these complaints, siding with their constituents over fire department officials and other experts. Commissioner Patrick Davenport, whose district includes Morton Road, made a motion to deny the proposed sites out of a concern for quality of life in the area.
“It’s nothing against our fire department,” Davenport said. “It’s nothing against the user groups who work really hard, but I would say over 95% of the people [in the area] are opposed to this site… People move out to the agricultural zones because they like the peace and quiet. The [site selection] process needs revamping.”
Another issue Davenport had with the proposed sites is that they are not currently owned by the county, and the people who do own them don’t want to sell.
“I’m not a big fan of the public taking anybody’s property,” Davenport said, referring to the process of eminent domain which allows governments to forcibly purchase property in the public interest. “I’m 100% against that. We can do a better job of using the land we already have to accommodate the fire station.”
Davenport has fought in the past against use of eminent domain by the ACC government along with Commissioners Allison Wright and Ovita Thornton in particular.
Commissioner Tiffany Taylor seconded Davenport’s motion, appearing to side with this group in opposition to eminent domain even though she did not mention the practice by name in her remarks.
The commission voted unanimously to reject the candidate sites.
At this point, the SPLOST site selection committee will have to find another, less-optimal site for the fire station that has more amenable or less politically-connected neighbors who won’t object as strongly.
It’s notable that Commissioner Carol Myers, who chairs the site selection committee, voted against her own committee’s recommendation. She did so because she doesn’t want to spend the additional money on engineering that would be necessary as the project continues, at least not if the commission may vote against acquiring these sites regardless. Davenport, Taylor, Wright and Thornton would likely be joined by Commissioners Mike Hamby, Dexter Fisher and John Culpepper to form a majority opposed to the forced acquisition of any potential fire station site.
Myers gently urged her colleagues to reconsider, speaking to the fire department’s expertise on these issues and the importance of emergency services generally.
“Emergency services are one of the basic services local governments provide,” Myers said. “I’m not sure if the community as a whole and the 7,500 people serviced in the population basin for this proposed site are all aware of the effect on emergency response times. I’m having a real conflict between what the people are saying and what the fire department is saying.”
For now at least, it’s back to the drawing board for fire station #5.
Ban on short-term rentals extended
The commission voted unanimously to extend their ban on new short term rentals like AirBnBs and VRBOs in single-family neighborhoods until February 6. Short term rentals that have operated at any time since September 19, 2022 are exempt from the ban and can continue as normal.
AirBnB “party houses” with out-of-town owners have become a nuisance in some single-family neighborhoods in recent years. Even with the most well-behaved guests, these types of short-term rentals remove properties from the long-term rental market, reducing supply and contributing to Athens’ housing shortage.
The ACC Planning Commission is currently considering a zoning code update to regulate short-term rentals permanently. These regulations should be coming before the ACC Commission for adoption next year.
Historic home preservation
The commission has awarded $531,000 to Historic Athens for an ‘equitable home preservation initiative’ as part of their commitment to reparations for urban renewal with the Athens Justice and Memory Project.
Historic Athens issued a press release about this program which reads as follows:
“In 1999, Historic Athens launched Hands On Historic Athens, a program designed to assist low-income individuals with repairing and maintaining their historic homes. Today, that program provides up to $5k in assistance per homeowner. Projects can be small (railings, ramps) or significant (roof holes, collapsing floors, sewage leaks). Our clients, almost exclusively senior women on fixed incomes without local families, allow us an opportunity to preserve their homes, improve their quality of life, and serve this community.”
With the current award, Historic Athens will be able to expand the program to “coordinate an additional four projects a year for three years, each at up to $25k per address.”
Audit work plan passed
On Tuesday, the commission approved the first work plan for the ACC Internal Auditor in over two years. The lack of productivity in the ACC Office of Operational Analysis is a result of it being completely vacant from September 2021 until July 2023 following the firing of former ACC Internal Auditor Stephanie Maddox.
New ACC Internal Auditor Gavin Hassemer, together with a revamped audit committee, intends to conduct a comprehensive audit of ACC Human Resources regarding employee recruitment, hiring and orientation over the next year. Simultaneously, his office will conduct quicker “check-in” audits of the Housing and Community Development and Economic Development Departments as well as the Tax Assessor’s Office.
Multi-use paths on Timothy and Mitchell Bridge Roads
The commission also approved the construction of multi-use paths along Timothy Road and Mitchell Bridge Roads, but not without controversy.
There was unanimous agreement on the proposed 10 foot-wide path along Timothy Road from Skyline Parkway to the perimeter loop, given that $4.3 million is available for the project via TSPLOST 2023.
Commission discussion grew contentious when attention turned to the multi-use path along Mitchell Bridge Road. Since the body had just allocated most of the available TSPLOST 2023 money to the Timothy Road path, there was very little remaining for Mitchell Bridge. Hamby, Culpepper and Fisher proposed funding the path using money from a TSPLOST 2018 project intended for Atlanta Highway corridor improvements.
This irritated Commissioner Jesse Houle, whose district includes Atlanta Highway but not Mitchell Bridge.
“This proposal seeks to yank millions of dollars, all that remains of a prominent project in a voter-approved referendum, a project titled Atlanta Highway, a road in the heart of District 6, and move all the money from that entire project to pet projects in other Districts, miles away from Atlanta Highway,” Houle wrote somewhat angrily in an email to their colleagues.
Houle urged that Atlanta Highway TSPLOST money should be spent on Atlanta Highway, a sentiment supported unanimously by the TSPLOST 2018 Oversight Committee in a vote they took in 2021.
It’s rare for a SPLOST Oversight Committee to vote against a project, a fact which was noted by committee chair Alice Kinman after their 2021 vote. But that’s exactly what happened in this case.
Additionally, there are state laws that govern how SPLOST funds can be used. In Athens, these projects are voted on by the community and they typically can’t be abandoned after the SPLOST tax used to fund them is approved. However, Williams argued that the Atlanta Highway project wasn’t being abandoned, saying that “the Timothy Road corridor and the Mitchell Bridge corridor could be seen as part of the Atlanta Highway corridor.”
That wasn’t enough to pacify Houle.
“I don’t even know how we can justify that this is related to Atlanta Highway when it’s two miles away,” they said. “It’s not an Atlanta Highway bike / pedestrian project.”
Commissioner Melissa Link motioned to delay the vote until the oversight group and a project-specific user group could both weigh in. Myers, Davenport and Houle supported Link’s motion but it ultimately failed 4-6.
Attention then returned to the original motion to fund the Mitchell Bridge path with the Atlanta Highway money, which was made by Fisher. This vote passed 7-3, with Houle, Link and Myers voting no.
Houle told APN that they feel there are “valid grounds for a lawsuit” to challenge this vote, which they feel is a misuse of SPLOST funds.