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Opponents of the multi-use (bike) trail from U.S. 90 to the Georgia state line dealt the project a deathblow last week.
By a 3-2 vote on Thursday evening, Oct. 3, the Jefferson County Commission chose not to refer the multi-use trail application to the Planning Commission for a major development review, essentially killing the project.
Commissioner Stephen Fulford's was the pivotal vote, with Commissioners Betsy Barfield and Stephen Walker remaining steadfast supporters of the project and Commissioners J.T. Surles and Eugene Hall standing equally steadfast in their opposition.
“I was excited when this idea first came up,” Fulford said right before casting his vote to defeat the measure. “Unfortunately, this trail intersects with significant obstacles that it is unable to overcome.”
He noted that when he had voted to rescind the earlier vote of approval for the trail, it had been with the understanding that when the project returned for reconsideration, the issues that had concerned its opponents would have been resolved. As it was, he said, the project had remained unchanged, which he found not to be feasible or reasonable.
Opponents of the project, who once again had crowded the meeting room and wore red in declaration of their opposition, broke into applause when the vote was announced.
The discussion began with brief remarks by County Attorney Scott Shirley relative to the project's history and what would follow if the board decided to refer the application to the Planning Commission for a major review. Shirley then turned the presentation over to Planning Official Shannon Metty, who gave a detailed account of the trail, complete with maps showing its proposed route, a copy of the application and development review checklist, and general information about multi-use trails.
“It's development that's not super invasive,” Metty said of the trail, touching on its possible economic benefits and grants that were available to communities to enhance such pathways.
Following which presentation, Shirley noted that he and staff had reached out to the affected property owners in an attempt to “ameliorate their concerns.” The meeting, however, “hadn't been terribly productive,” Shirley conceded.
“But we did open a line of communication, which isn't a bad thing,” he added, casting the situation in its best light.
One of the significant obstacles that Fulford had earlier alluded to was Pyro Works LLC., the pyrotechnics company that Wallace “Bubba” Bullock owns and operates on his family property near the Duke Energy easement that would serve as the multi-use trail. Bullock had objected to the trail since the idea first surfaced, saying it would put him out of business because of the strict government regulations that governed his fireworks manufacturing business.
True to his word at an earlier hearing on the trail, Bullock this time around came represented by legal counsel. Speaking on his behalf was Attorney Mallory Neumann, of Foley and Lardner LLC., who informed the board that the trail would impede her client's livelihood.
Neumann reminded the commissioners of Bullock's longstanding residency in the county, his employment with the county and his business and family's contributions to the community. The trail, she said, would not only split Bullock's property but it would also make two of the buildings that he used for his fireworks manufacturing ineligible for certification by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and other regulating agencies.
“To be certified by the federal government, the building must be a minimum of 200 feet from any area openly traveled by the public,” Neumann said. “Violations carry criminal penalties. He will not be in compliance with the law because of the trail. So please consider the impact on Mr. Bullock, who has contributed to this county for so long.”
Neumann wasn't the only attorney to make implicit or explicit threats of litigation at the meeting.
Another was an attorney who identified himself as representing several of the property owners adjacent to the proposed trail. This attorney enumerated a list of concerns that he said the project posed, including diminution of property values, restricted use of properties by owners and public safety risks.
“There will be legal activity if this project moves forward,” this individual said.
Several other individuals who spoke on the issue included Lynn McGrady, Doug Darling, Carmen Rogers and Phil Calandra.
McGrady, a county resident whose property is near the trail, said she couldn't believe that the issue was before the commission again.
“But what bothers me most is the lack of regard for Jefferson County citizens,” McGrady said. “It's appalling to me that the trail is more important than the livelihood of the Bullock family.”
She also resented, she said, the implication that only plantation owners opposed the trail.
“There are a lot of us who don't have deep pockets but who value our little piece of heaven,” McGrady said.
Darling, who heads a local group calling for responsible government, set out to debunk what he said were misleading statements surrounding the project.
He contested the projected $40,000 total cost for the trail, citing engineering estimates that he said put the cost closer to $2.4 million, including archeological surveys and permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Already, he said, the county had probably expended near to $20,000 on Shirley's legal fees and Metty's staff time alone.
Darling cited the Duke Energy contract, which he said called for the installation of culverts capable of withstanding 80,000 lbs. of weight so that Duke could move its heavy equipment up and down the trail to do whatever work was necessary.
He questioned why the trail couldn't proceed south of U.S. 90, where it impacted fewer residents, instead of going north, where it wasn't wanted and impacted a significant number of residents?
He disputed that the federal government would provide grants to make improvements on a private company's right-of-way and offered that bicyclists already had 45 miles of existing trails in the county.
“I'm going to ask that you stop this charade and vote no on a trail that impacts so many homeowners and ends in litigation,” Darling said.
Rogers brought to the podium a Bible, within which she said she had found the answer to the commissioners' dilemma. Quoting from selected passages that she had marked with pieces of paper, Rogers conveyed her message, which was basically that commissioners should look inside their hearts and do the right thing, i.e., vote against the project.
“This project is wrong because it impacts on property rights,” Rogers said. “I hope you vote your conscience and against the special interest of someone.”
Calandra's was the only voice in support of the multi-use trail. The opposition, he said, was largely based on a NIMBY (not in my backyard) mentality. Everybody in the room, he said, “had a special interest,” but not everyone had thousands of acres that allowed them to enjoy the outdoors. Nor was the trail going to be a conduit for criminal activity, he said, offering that most of its users would be “family with kids and people in spandex.” Some of the figures quoted, he said, were also greatly exaggerated.
“You have to filter out what makes sense from what doesn't,” Calandra said. “Biking is a big movement in this country. I hope you have a sense of balance when evaluating this.”
The commission, however, didn't dwell long on the topic when its turn came.
“I continue to be offended by the figure of $20,000,” Surles said right off, referring to the $20,000 per year that proponents said it would cost to construct and maintain the trail. “And Ms. Metty should be more neutral, instead of being such a cheerleader for the project.”
He moved immediately to reject the project, and Commissioner Hall, whose district encompasses the trail, seconded the motion.
“Initially I voted for the trail because I was told that all the landowners had been notified and were onboard,” Hall said. “But I can't go forward with it after meeting with the landowners. The District 2 voters have spoken.”
Once Fulford indicated his leanings, the outcome was a foregone conclusion.