UPDATE 3/2/21: The commission has chosen route A in a 6-4 vote.
The ACC Commission is considering alternate routes for the Firefly trail near the intersection of Athens road and Moores Grove road in Winterville which could potentially divert the trail from its original path along the old railway line.
The commission may choose to build the trail along the near side of Moores Grove road (route B), or even across to the far side of the road (route C) instead of following the original plan (route A).
The commission decided to consider alternate routes after the objection of some property owners who live along the planned trail. According to public comment collected by the local government, some Winterville residents aren’t keen on having the Firefly trail in their backyards. They worry about the loss of privacy and about security issues stemming from numerous people gaining easy access to their homes.
“For us it will destroy quiet enjoyment of our property,” wrote one commenter.
Adding to the difficulty, two or three outbuildings would have to be moved before construction of route A, including a shed which extends very close to the rail easement. Several mature trees would need to be taken down as well. Furthermore, route A would be an engineering challenge as it poses significant stormwater issues and has a risk of flooding.
Of the two alternates to route A, route C seems to be the preferred option. It was the choice of the Firefly Trail nonprofit whose board of directors voted unanimously in favor of route C over the other options. They prefer C primarily to avoid a confrontation with property owners, who may refuse to sell the part of their land that would be needed.
Although local governments can use the power of eminent domain to force property owners to sell, the Firefly Trail’s Board of Directors feels that such a heavy-handed approach would “increase opposition to the Firefly Trail in Oglethorpe County, which could greatly delay work to complete the trail from Winterville to Union Point,” according to a letter they sent to the ACC Commission. They also worry about a potentially high construction cost for route A, even though engineers currently estimate route C to be the more expensive of the two.
While the Firefly Trail nonprofit group prefers route C, the Firefly Trail user group — which is a different body — advised the mayor and commission to pick route A, as did the Athens in Motion commission, the group responsible for implementing the bicycle and pedestrian master plan. These groups picked route A primarily out of the safety concerns involved in the crossing of Moores Grove road.
“Alternate Routes B and C would expose trail users to the hazards of Moores Grove Road which, according to the Georgia Department of Transportation data, has an Annual Average Daily Traffic of up to 6,000 vehicles per day, with travel speeds more than 50 mph. Alternate Route C in particular forces trail users to cross this road without a signalized crossing,” wrote the Athens in Motion commission.
Public opinion collected by the local government strongly favors route A by over three to one in 248 total responses. This is true even though Winterville residents made up a large proportion of these responses; 29% of survey respondents were from Winterville, a town where roughly one percent of Athens’ total population resides.
Breaking the responses down by location, Winterville residents appear to have a slight preference for route C (31 votes) over routes A (29 votes) and B (three votes), whereas the rest of Athens overwhelmingly favors route A (136 votes for A, 23 for C and one for B).
Commissioner Carol Myers, the former chair of Athens in Motion, is a strong supporter of route A for the same reasons as her former committee — safety and the desire to create a family-friendly environment. She’s an avid cyclist who often shares the road with cars going 50 mph, as she said at the commission’s agenda-setting meeting last week, but she worries being in such close proximity to speeding cars might make the average trail user uncomfortable.
“I see families [on the Greenway]. They’re not going to go bike riding anywhere else. When I think of them crossing over onto Moores Grove road, it really takes away from the whole Firefly experience,” Myers said.
Commissioner Russell Edwards agreed with Myers and brought up the additional concern of legal liability if the commission knowingly diverts from the plan laid out in the 2017 TSPLOST referendum. “The farther we diverge from the original plan of the rail-bed, the more legal exposure we have,” Edwards said.
However, Commissioner Patrick Davenport, who represents Winterville, strongly supports route C. He wishes to avoid intruding on his constituents’ privacy, and also touted the idea that the alternate route could eventually serve to connect the Firefly trail with Coile Middle School.
Myers is planning a slight adjustment to route A in an attempt to ease the impact on one Winterville resident’s backyard. Her commission-defined option will prevent the trail from making a small diversion from the railbed, minimizing the disruption, although two outbuildings will still need to be moved with this plan.
The vote is planned for Tuesday, March 2, so if you have a strong preference between these options be sure to contact your commissioner using this online form (the Firefly trail is item #12).