Commissioners authorize eminent domain to connect Firefly Trail to Winterville

The ACC Commission met last Tuesday for their monthly voting session. Here are some of the things they did:

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Eminent domain authorized for the Firefly Trail
Planning Department’s work plan tweaked
155 Mitchell Street development approved

Eminent domain authorized for the Firefly Trail

The ACC Commission authorized local government staff to connect the Firefly Trail to Winterville, even if some Winterville landowners don’t want the trail in their backyards. The vote was somewhat controversial with four commissioners voicing their opposition.

Land taken without consent? How is that possible?

Property rights are not absolute in any country, including in the United States. Eminent domain is the right of a sovereign nation, state or municipality to take private property from an individual to benefit the public at large. While the 5th amendment to the US Constitution requires that property owners are given “just compensation,” it does not block local governments in Georgia from using this power in certain situations.

[No] private property [shall] be taken for public use, without just compensation.

The Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution

Why did commissioners authorize eminent domain in this case?

Commissioner Russell Edwards
Commissioner Russell Edwards

Commissioner Russell Edwards, who made the motion to authorize use of eminent domain, emphasized that the Athens community has already made a significant investment in the Firefly Trail. For example, TSPLOST 2018 raised $16.8 million for the trail while TSPLOST 2022 will provide another $7.5 million. Furthermore, the Firefly Trail has been planned for nearly 20 years and the local government has provided property owners with ample notice of the impending action, Edwards said. 

Still, some homeowners along the proposed trail are refusing to cooperate.

“We have some property owners who simply have said, ‘No. No way. No how. Until you show us a resolution [to use eminent domain] then go away, get off my property,’” Edwards said. “We’ll never get 100% agreement on any project.”

Commissioner Carol Myers seconded Edwards’ motion, saying that ACC staff would continue to reach out to property owners in a respectful way and would only use eminent domain as a last resort.

“I feel pretty reassured that our staff has been reaching out to the residents, will continue to reach out and that we’re just allowing this process to go forward [by authorizing eminent domain]. Because of my commitment to this [the Firefly Trail] and the community’s commitment, I want to see this move forward,” Myers said.

Why were some commissioners opposed?

Commissioner Patrick Davenport voted no, saying that he wanted to give property owners more time before they were forced to negotiate.

“It is our government’s duty, regardless if it’s been 20 years or not, for us to do our due diligence to the residents who have been paying taxes to this county,” Davenport said. “All they are asking is for the county to show them a little bit of respect.”

Davenport pushed his colleagues to delay authorizing eminent domain until December. Three other commissioners agreed with this idea, including Commissioner Allison Wright who was previously subject to eminent domain at her former residence in Kentucky.

Commissioner Allison Wright
Commissioner Allison Wright

Wright is so opposed to the use of this governmental power that, at a meeting last month, she even compared the current use of eminent domain to that used during the “urban renewal” period of the 1960s and 70s. At that meeting, Wright urged white property owners in the audience to “stand strong” as she compared their struggles to those experienced by Black residents of the former neighborhood of Linnentown, which was destroyed through eminent domain during urban renewal.

“It’s not an easy thing, but you can stand strong. There were people in Linnentown who stood stronger than others,” Wright said in October. 

This month, Wright hinted at her previous comments while being careful not to mention urban renewal by name, saying that she wanted to be sure the commission was “learning from the past.”

It should be noted that the local government will only need a 20 foot wide slice of these homeowners’ backyards to connect the Firefly Trail to Winterville. No residents will be displaced during the creation of the trail.

Commissioner Ovita Thornton likewise pointedly mentioned that she was not going to mention Linnentown as she urged the local government to give property owners more than their land is currently worth in compensation.

“The value of the land is going to increase. What does that look like 20 years from now, 30 years from now? I think we’re robbing people if we don’t take those kinds of calculations into consideration,” Thornton said.

The final vote to authorize eminent domain was 5-4 in favor, with Thornton, Davenport, Wright and Commissioner Mike Hamby voting no.

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Planning Department’s work plan tweaked

Another item considered at this meeting was a change to the ACC Planning Department’s work schedule. Commissioner Tim Denson suggested moving up two items in priority that are currently making their way through committee as a way of aligning the Planning Department’s schedule with work happening elsewhere in the ACC government. The other commissioners agreed with his idea in a 7-2 vote.

Commissioner Tim Denson
Commissioner Tim Denson

The two items Denson wanted to focus on include an ordinance relaxing restrictions on accessory dwelling units, also known as “in-law suites,” and another that would place regulations on short-term rentals such as AirBnBs. A draft version of the ordinance on accessory dwelling units is currently under review by the ACC Planning Commission. Likewise, regulations on AirBnBs are under development in the Government Operations committee.

Denson hopes that these two ordinances will help encourage affordable housing in Athens by making more units available for long-term rental, whether by allowing new accessory dwellings or by shifting old AirBnB units to long-term rentals.

Wright and Thornton did not agree with Denson’s proposal. Wright explained that she wanted the Planning Commission to know that the ACC Commission did not unanimously support accessory dwelling units. Allowing accessory dwellings would be “a huge deal” that “needed more community discussion,” according to Wright.

Thornton also voted ‘no’ despite claiming to support accessory dwellings, saying that she wanted to slow down the process of approving them. 

“Just because I like ADU’s [accessory dwelling units], it might not be the best thing for everybody,” Thornton said.

There will be opportunities for discussion and public comment while the accessory dwelling unit ordinance moves through the normal legislative process. As a point of clarity, it should be noted that Denson’s proposal was for the community and governmental discussion on accessory dwellings to happen sooner; he was not suggesting that discussion should be cut short.

155 Mitchell Street development approved

Finally, the commission unanimously approved the 10-story student apartment complex planned for 155 Mitchell Street. Likewise, the “Mill Row” townhouse development planned for 165 Mill Center Boulevard and 160 and 180 Mellwood Drive was also unanimously approved.

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