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Three weeks after County Commission Chairwoman Betsy Barfield introduced the idea of converting a former railroad easement into an 11-mile scenic trail from US 90 to the Georgia line, the board unanimously approved the concept.
Barfield had plenty of support for her idea from the many bicyclists and nature enthusiasts who crowded the commission chamber on Thursday evening, Jan. 3. The only objection to the idea came from one of the landowners alongside the trail-to-be, and this individual's objection was more focused on the notification process than on the actual trail.
Barfield introduced the topic by reiterating some of her statements from the Dec. 20 meeting, when she first broached the subject. She told how the idea had arisen from the last Dirty Pecan, an annual bicyclists' event here; how she had been in talks for the last year with Duke Energy, which owns the easement; and how the project had fallen into place only three weeks earlier.
She then introduced fellow biking enthusiast Rick Zelznak, who gave an overview of the proposed trail, calling it an opportunity for economic development, given the growing interest in travel and bicycling.
He said the trail will be 8 to 12 feet wide, resting on a gravel bed that will be elevated four feet above the surrounding land, and spanned 11 miles, from US 90 west of town to the Georgia line.
The trail, Zelznak said, will be divided into four segments. He described the first as running from US 90 north to West Lake Road, the second from West Lake Road to Lake Road, the third from Lake Road to Georgia Forks, and the fourth from Georgia Forks to the Georgia line. He said some segments were already ridable and others would require work to remove debris and vegetation.
Zelznak said the county would be responsible for the trail's safety and liability. It was also
important, he said, that the surrounding landowners have access across the trail.
Zelznak put the county's cost at $20,000 for the first year and another possible $20,000 in the second year. He said the money would go strengthen the bridge trestles and install directional signage, railings, bollards and the like. He said volunteers would largely maintain the trail.
Roger Hawkes, of the bicycle shop and brewery Hubs and Hops in Thomasville, GA, spoke of the economic benefits to small towns that incorporated biking trails into their communities.
“These communities have seen turnarounds in their economic growth because of the people that the trails bring in,” Hawkes said.
He described Jefferson County's clay roads as an invaluable asset that especially appealed to bicyclists.
“The beauty of this county is well known in the bicycling community,” Hawkes said, adding that Jefferson County had the potential to become the gateway to a network of other trails across the region and the state, affording it a national reputation in the bicycling world.
He cited the Monticello Bike Festival and the Dirty Pecan as examples of events that were already earning the county a reputation in the bicycling community.
Rick Ashton, a Tallahassee resident and recognized figure in the biking world, said he had been bicycling Jefferson County clay roads for more than 40 years and described them as some of the best around.
“You have an awesome opportunity to enrich the lives of your constituents,” Ashton said. “This could bring an economic boost to Jefferson County. It will bring nature lovers from all over.”
The trail also, he said, had the potential to access hundreds of miles of relatively traffic-free clay roads, which were increasingly appealing to bicyclists.
“The fastest growing segment of bicycling is off-road biking,” Ashton said. “More and more bicyclists are riding off-road bikes because of safety issues. They enjoy the scenery and lack of traffic.”
Barfield explained that the trailhead would be at the annex complex on Water Street, where water and bathrooms were readily available. The idea, she said, was to place the bicyclist in town to encourage them to patronize the local eateries and other establishments. The route, she said, would then take them around the courthouse circle, north on US 19 to Lake and then West Lake roads to the trail.
Others that spoke in support of the trail called it an investment, an asset and a draw to the community. They encouraged the commissioners to approve the measure. A few asked if the trail would be opened to hikers and horse riders. It would, was the answer.
David Ward alone expressed concern. As one of the proposed trail's adjoining property owners, Ward questioned whether the public notice of the proposal had been sufficient. He characterized it as less than adequate. Ward said he wasn't necessarily opposed to the trail, but he thought that it deserved more public discussion and consideration.
“I'm not coming here in opposition,” Ward said. “But I've spoken with several of the other landowners who were not aware of this issue coming up tonight. A lot of people man want to have input on this.”
Barfield, however, argued that the agenda item had received the proper public notice, a position that the board's attorney affirmed.
“I'm not here in opposition,” Ward reiterated. “But we have people who want to study this. They (adjoining landowners) have hunting that goes on. They've got liability issues.”
Commissioner J.T. Surles agreed. Although he supported the project overall, he had concerns, he said.
“I feel like there are unanswered questions,” Surles said. “I like to hear from the Sheriff and EMTs on this.”
Barfield, however, pressed for a vote. She noted that the item had been properly noticed and had even appeared on the front page of the local newspaper. If there was pushback from the surrounding landowners, the board could revisit the issue, she said. But she felt that the timing and the possibility that Duke Energy might change its mind on the agreement demanded that the county act on the offer expeditiously.
Commissioner Eugene Hall still had concerns about the adequacy of the public notice. But assured by the attorney that the notification had been proper, he relented. Surles too accepted Barfield 's compromise of holding a subsequent workshops to address any concerns that the adjoining landowners might have.
When the vote finally came, the board voted unanimously to approve the trail.