Watkinsville candidates discuss connectivity, bike paths - Oconee Enterprise: News

     Watkinsville, Oconee County, Georgia

Watkinsville candidates discuss connectivity, bike paths

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Posted: Wednesday, October 10, 2018 12:00 pm

How can Watkinsville be more walkable? How can cyclists feel safer?

These were the questions asked at a city candidate forum Tuesday night organized by the Oconee County Cycling Organization.

Incumbent for Post 3 Marci Campbell is challenged by Scott Brannon, a retired comptroller. Post 4 is contested between incumbent Christine Tucker and former councilman Mike Link. Lee Morgan, a retired attorney, and Bill Mayberry, a former physician, have challenged incumbent Dan Matthews for his Post 5 seat. 

Watkinsville is planning to pay $25,000 for a transportation study, which will include a reevaluation of the city streets and whether the addition of sidewalks and bike lanes is feasible and, if so, where the best areas to place these additions would be.

Cycling and walkability are desirable additions to any cityscape because they create connectivity in the community, said moderator Tony Glenn, citing the Belt Line in Atlanta that has revitalized parts of the city.

“It’s not just about the sidewalks and how to get around,” incumbent Marci Campbell told the audience about the transportation study. “It’s about where are we going and what do we do when we get there? If people are meeting up at Watkinsville Woods or Harris Shoals Park and you’re meeting your neighbors, you’re having conversations with them. It’s important to me that we have those spaces where we can come together and celebrate who we are in Watkinsville and be proud of those things.”

The addition of sidewalks, with the imminent groundbreaking of the Harden Hill project, was a favored topic at the forum.

“I think everyone can agree we need more sidewalks in Watkinsville—the question is, how do we get them and how do we make them?” Candidate for Post 5 Lee Morgan asked the audience before proposing making a priority list of the areas that could use sidewalks. “We need to… make this place safer for pedestrians, more accessible for pedestrians.”

Incumbent Christine Tucker said that connecting the city is a critical task.

“It’s not realistic to have a bike path and a sidewalk on every road in Watkinsville, necessarily,” Tucker admitted. “However, it is possible to have a big picture plan so that there is a safe way for any citizen to get from point A to point B safely and I think that’s what we need to be looking at.”

Matthews said that the city should aim for sidewalks to be regulations.

“I hope that when we have plans to build new subdivisions, when we have new buildings, when we have new communities planned, that we have sidewalks as part of the regulations to let them come into this community,” said Dan Matthews.

Due to the fact that Harden Hill is not ADA-approved for multi-use—meaning that only children are permitted to ride their bikes on the sidewalk—Harden Hill would require the addition of bike lanes if cyclists are to be able to use the area.

“That’s the direction we need to look,” Scott Brannon said about making sidewalks multi-use. “The cyclists are wanting to get off the streets because of Ga. 15 coming through town. Those are big trucks and they have no other way to come, except through town where Ga. 441 and 15 meet. Because we don’t have a bypass, we’re dealing with tractor-trailers coming through there. I’m not going to ride my bike downtown. I used to, but I’m not now; it’s dangerous.”

Brannon added, “We need to determine, are we going to build bike paths on the streets, which we cannot widen, or are we going to put in sidewalks that are multi use? And that’s what the study needs to look at.”

Lee also proposed asking whether or not property owners would donate easements to allow for a sidewalk on the street, reasoning that a large expense of planning sidewalks is the purchasing of the land.

Brian Brodrick, Councilman for Post 1, said that none of the property owners on Harden Hill donated their land.

Dan Matthews added that 8 out of the 21 property owners on Harden Hill accepted the initial offer made by the city on Sept. 11.

The subject of imminent domain was also discussed at the forum Tuesday night.

“When you start talking about taking somebody’s front yard or their side yard, you’re talking about taking 15 feet—that’s what it’s taken all the way up Harden Hill Road, 15 foot width,” explained Mike Link, candidate for Post 4. “Some people just don’t want to see the beautiful front yard they’ve been landscaping for years lose 15 feet. That’s why, on the Harden Hill thing, I don’t think there’ve been many people donating their land.”

Candidate for Post 5 Bill Mayberry said that imminent domain and the added red tape will only complicate the issues.

“All questions become complicated when dealing with governments, monies, property rights. I’ve also been imminent domain-ed by Southern Company. The complexities amount logarithmically,” said Mayberry, adding that he wants to act as the taxpayer’s advocate on the city council. “Plans are great and I’d love to blow smoke at all of you and say, ‘Yes’ to everything, but as stewards of your money, priorities rule—and how much money is there?”

Mayberry added that he’s for bike safety and for making Watkinsville into a walking hub and community.

Mike Link added that any project of this size would cost more money than the taxpayers of Watkinsville can raise on their own, mentioning a cityscape project the City Council began working on 30 years ago to add sidewalks and foliage near Rocket Field, School Street and Ga. 15.

“That all costs money,” said Link, who also serves as the Fire Chief at Station 1. “We were able to get grants back then—we put in grants to the state to match the city’s grants. And that’s what it’s going to take to continue doing in Watkinsville. It’s not going to be [a situation] where the local citizens are able to come up with money for this through local taxes to pay for all this.”

To incumbent Dan Matthews, the most important portion of the bike trails problem is ensuring that there are safe routes to school.

“The only public school inside the city of Watkinsville is Colham Ferry [Elementary],” said Matthews. “We can extend from that to the library, from the Montessori school to the library, we can extend from Westminster Christian School to the library. I’d love to see Athens Academy have a connection down here and there are plenty of places between North Oconee High and here. Connectivity is the key and the most important issue… it’s important we have a way to get together.”

Matthews also suggested the addition of mountain bike paths, pointing out that the end of Mulberry Street or Harris Shoals Park would be good sites.

Tucker proposed revitalizing the railroad for a Rails-to-Trails program.

“I would love to see the railroad track become a Rails-to-Trails between Madison and Athens,” said Tucker. “Can you imagine what that would do for our community and the communities around us? That’s going to take a lot of coordination, a lot of connections, a lot of money, but I think we can make it happen.”

For more stories, see the Oct. 4 edition of The Oconee Enterprise, on sale now at convenience stores and grocery stores and newspaper boxes throughout Oconee County. To subscribe, go to oconeeenterprise.com or call (706) 769-5175.

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