MACORTS Meeting

The Madison Athens-Clarke Oconee Regional Transportation Study (MACORTS) will meet tonight to allow the public to comment on recent changes to its Participation Plan.

The scheduled meeting is in accordance with its newly updated document, which mandates that MACORTS hold at least one public meeting each month, to allow civilians to make their opinions heard.

The Participation Plan is prepared by the Athens-Clarke County (ACC) Planning Department, in conjunction with Madison and Oconee’s respective planning departments, the Federal Highway Administration, and the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT).

Because the ACC Planning Department receives federal funds to carry out planning for highway and transportation activities, it falls under government legislation requiring this.

Sherry Moore, Transportation Planner, explained some of the changes to be discussed in the meeting.

“What we have changed in the plan is very simple,” Moore said. “GDOT had very clear guidelines described for all the MPOs in Georgia. About a year ago, GDOT decided to reconfigure, and moved to more general guidelines, which allows them to do more things. Now, they just have to codify exactly what they’re going to do.”

MACORTS, one of fifteen Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPO) in Georgia, has been in existence since 1969, and steadily expanding its influence over the last thirty years.

According to the updated Participation Plan, the area that MACORTS affects is approximately 243 square miles and approximately 130,000 people, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

The MACORTS organization consists of two main committees, the Technical Coordinating Committee (TCC) and the Policy Committee (PC). Both of these committees work with citizen advisory committees to address public policy issues, such as the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP).

Electronic copies of the updated Participation Plan are available to the public on the MACORTS website: http://www.macorts.org.

 According to the MACORTS website, public comments can be either delivered at the meeting, or by email at: macorts@co.clarke.ga.us. There is also a comment box for the FY 2010-2013 Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) on the MACORTS website. Comments will be accepted up until April 9.

 Public information meetings are also scheduled within the next week for Madison and Oconee counties.

The meeting will be tonight from 4-6pm in the Athens-Clarke County Planning Department Auditorium on Dougherty Street.

-written by Robert Burns


Main Street Leads to Success

Broad Street isn’t the only main street in downtown Athens.

Despite a nationwide economic downturn, cities’ downtown areas are actually experiencing moderate fiscal success thanks in part to the Main Street development program, opperated on the state level by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs’ Office of Downtown Development.

“Downtowns are doing better than most other retail areas,” said Billy Parrish, GDCA Downtown Development director. “Most people are experiencing a budget crunch, but there are still quite a few who want to get on board with the Main Street program.”

Athens was one of the first five cities to join the movement in the incipient year of 1980. Since that time, approximately 1,800 cities in 44 states have earned the same certification, including over a hundred in Georgia.

According to a report submitted by the Athens Downtown Development Authority, Athens added a net gain of 386 jobs and 17 businesses to downtown during 2009. During that time, approximately $40 million dollars was invested into downtown, through both private and public sources.

“Main Street provides us with a network that allows us to bounce ideas off of one another,” said Katheryn Lookofsky, director of the ADDA. “No one ever has to reinvent the wheel, because nearly all issues we face have been dealt with some where else before.”

The ADDA is Athens’ Main Street sponsoring organization and has been an integral part in establishing Athens as a trailblazer in downtown development. Not only was Athens one of the first cities to join Main Street, but it remains one of the largest in the state.

“While Downtown Athens has its own unique set of challenges, it is unquestionably the envy of many cities in the Main Street program.” said Brenda Hayes, a public service associate at the University of Georgia’s Fanning Institute. Fanning is a social outreach program within the University that participates in similar municipal growth projects.

“With the amount of visitors we routinely have coming into downtown, Athens faces different issues than smaller communities,” said Lookofsky. “Still, each town has a unique perspective and we can easily learn from smaller cities.”

The GDCA operates a similar program called Better Hometowns for communities with populations less than 5,000. Athens has an estimated population of over 100,000.

To achieve its goals, Main Street focuses on four areas of municipal development: design, organization, promotion, and economic restructuring. The program provides a number of resources to their members including professional consultation, technical assistance, leadership training, and regional networking sessions.

A focus of the Main Street ideology is preservation with the hope that a downtown will make the most of what it already has. This approach is more manageable for smaller communities that do not have large budgets to spend on rebuilding.

Only a few years ago, the GDCA has altered the way cities are accepted into the program. A monitored start-up period is now involved to assure that the community is committed to a long-term development initiative.

“It’s not enough just to develop initially,” said Parrish, from the GDCA headquarters in Atlanta. “We want a community to maintain the basics of the program over time. This isn’t the old fashioned beauty contest.”

Clarkesville, Ga. is the latest Main Street city. Woodstock and Canton were predicted by Parrish as the next two in line. City leaders new and old to the program alike can attend the program’s state training session on March 17-19 held in St. Mary’s, Ga.

Athens has long been a good example of how to effectively manage available resources.

Downtown Athens does not have any alleyways to use for trash disposal and truck delivery. To address the truck issue, the city has adopted the infamous middle delivery lane.

“Having trucks constantly parked in the middle of the street isn’t the ideal situation, but it is the best available option for what we have,” said Lookofsky. “At least it works well to slow down traffic.”

This example might not have ever been used anywhere else before, but can be used as a teaching moment for places with similar issues in the future.

Preservation doesn’t only apply to a city’s buildings or resources, but also extends to each citiy’s unique identity.

“It is good to be able to collaborate on issues, but in the end each specific town has its own perspective and its own issues,” said Parrish. “After all, there’s only one Athens.”


Gold Rush

April Anderson slouched over a nearly empty case of gold and silver jewelry at Athens Pawn Shop on Hawthorne Road.  She looked out the window waiting for customers.

“We just can’t buy the same stuff as we used to since the recession,” said Anderson, an employ of Athens Pawn Shop, “and with new ordinances to change the waiting period to sell second-hand metals from 10 to 30 days, the cases could get emptier.”

On March 18, 2010 the Athens-Clarke County Commissioners will vote on an Amendment that affects how pawn shops in the Athens area will be able to sell precious metal and gems, a decision held for further review by the Commissioners earlier this month on March 2.  

The Athens Police Department submitted an agenda report to the county commissioner’s to amend the Athens-Clarke County Code of Ordinances related to Pawnbroker and Itinerant Dealer on February 4, 2010.  According to the report, “Where-as Athens-Clarke County finds that while pawnbrokers and dealers in precious metals and gems provide a valuable service to citizens, they may also inadvertently provide opportunity for criminals to sell stolen property which can be easily received and quickly disposed of.”  Their decision: to create an electronic database with photographs of all customers and to increase the time gems and metal must be held before selling.

But many of the pawnbrokers in Athens had not had enough time to get their questions answered by the initial meeting.

 “It is only logical that we will have lots of questions since most of us have only heard of this yesterday,” said Lauri Reeves, co-owner of Athens Pawn shop, at the first Commissioner’s meeting. “I feel personally offended to the first where-as statement [about pawn dealers inadvertently providing opportunities for criminals].  We are highly regulated by Clark County, and we have always abided by those rules.”

 In the history section of the agenda report submitted by the police, pawnbrokers are required to compile written pawn tickets for the police department each week under the current ordinances.  A police detective must travel to each of the pawnbrokers and collects these tickets.  In addition, the present ordinance only requires pawnbrokers to hold pawned good for 10 days.  

“The number of run-ins with the police can be counted on one hand,” says April Anderson as she looks over the jewelry and coins in the cases of Athens Pawn Shop. “Most of our clientele is single moms just trying to make it to the next paycheck.  It’s not like a criminal is going to come in here and give us their photo ID which we will then give to the police.  It would be too easy to track them down.  Criminals are going to sell big items on the streets so they can’t be traced.”

This argument seems to be one of the main rallying points for the pawn brokers.  At the meeting on March 2, as they got up to talk, they were bewildered by the accusation that they were middlemen to criminals and, like Dale Dunkin of Dunkin’s Jewelry, feel there isn’t attention to how the pawn business works.

“In the last 60 days, gold has changed 30 percent and silver has changed 60 percent,” said Dunkin. “By extending the period to 30 days, we would be gambling with our investment because the price of gold could change 20 percent, which historically it has.”

This means the customer would suffer, says April Anderson. 

 “We would have to undercut the customer because we wouldn’t know what the gold standard would be in 30 days,” says Anderson. “Someone who just needed to sell an old ring to buy diapers and formula for their baby would only be able to buy the formula with the money we gave them.”

These changes in the business would also change the dynamics between pawn shops in Athens and surrounding communities.  Because the amendment would only affect Clarke County, surrounding counties would have an advantage.  Doug Lowry, District 1 Commissioner, noted this while going over the details with Mike Hamby, District 10 Commissioner.

 “We read how these local pawn shops would be affected if Madison and our neighbors didn’t have it,” said Lowry. “Is there any understanding on working this ordinance on other counties?”

“All pawn dealers are regulated through the state community,” said Hamby. “So all we are doing is trying to track what the state wants.  State law says they must hold it for seven days now.  Are there other communities around us without this new ordinance of 30 days? I suspect that is true.”

“Is there any effort so that people couldn’t steal something here and then drive across the county line and sell it in Madison?” Lowry asked.

“As far as precious metals are concerned, I am not aware of a regional effort to try to make a network for the issue,” Hamby answered.

From April’s perspective, the only way this can work is if everyone has to do it. 

“We can’t be put to a disadvantage to our neighbors,” said Anderson.

Since the March 2 meeting, the police department held a Q & A for the pawn brokers on March 16 at the station.  There the business men and woman discussed many of the issues presented at the first meeting, but many of the issues are still not completely resolved.

“I don’t know what will happen,” said April Anderson. “I just don’t know how the business will be able to make it if this passes.”

Pawnbrokers will attend the Commissioner’s meeting on Thurs. March 18.  There they will find out the fate of their businesses, and April will find out if her cases will have less gold and silver than there already is.


Board to discuss sidewalk safety

Getting around Athens may become a lot easier after tonight’s mayor and commission meeting. The group is set to approve preliminary construction plans for several sidewalks and crosswalks in downtown Athens.

A number of sidewalks in the city are inconsistently maintained or were poorly planned. In some areas, a sidewalk does not even exist, despite the presence of bus stops and businesses. Instead, well-worn footpaths mark the landscape, frustrating property owners and pedestrians alike.

“There’s no consistency at all with the sidewalks,” said Rebecca Kutch, an avid walker. “One minute you’re walking on a nice flat surface, the next you’re tramping through someone’s front yard.”

High traffic areas such as Prince Ave. and Barber St. have benefited from previous sidewalk construction plans. Broken cement, poor drainage, and no wheelchair accessibility caused many headaches for pedestrians in the area. After a meeting about the situation, construction began on the most problematic places. Soon enough, sidewalks appeared where there were none before and handicap accessible ramps were in place.

“It seems like such a simple fix,” said Kutch, “but it takes a lot of fist shaking and shouting to get anyone to pay attention to how important these things are.”

One of the main issues surrounding the sidewalks is one of safety. Without proper paths, pedestrians are forced to walk through yards or on roads, increasing the likelihood of traffic accidents. This becomes especially dangerous during low visibility times at dawn and dusk which are popular with exercising runners.

Proper sidewalks also cut down on jaywalking deaths. National data from various traffic research shows that up to 58% of jaywalking deaths occur in areas with little or poor sidewalk infrastructure. On of the hurdles the board will face with the construction of the new sidewalks is the inconvenience of pre-existing objects such as lampposts, fire hydrants, and signs that must be moved and replaced before the concrete can be poured.

The mayor and commission meet tonight on the issue at 7 p.m. inside City Hall. The meeting is open to the public.


Local Documentary to Support the Rebuilding of the Georgia Theatre

The swanky room was full of hipsters, townies, and Athens’ traditional music lovers sipping on Terrapin beer while waiting for the first showing of the trailer for “Athens Burning,” a documentary on the history and future of the Georgia Theatre and importance of the Athens music scene..

The main idea behind “Athens Burning” is to continue to spread awareness of the Georgia Theatre devastation while raising funds for the rebuilding of the Theatre.

“Despite all the talk, the rebuilding of the Georgia Theatre is not a done deal,” said Eric Krasle, executive producer of Athens Burning and local attorney. “Wilmot Greene, the owner of the Theatre, is struggling day to day to get the money needed to rebuild.”

Money is a major concern and plays a vast part in the question of when the Theatre will reopen, if it ever does. The Georgia Theatre website marks New Years Eve 2010 as the long awaited day when “the marquis will be lit again,” but Greene has hit a few unexpected speed bumps along the way that might slow down the rebuilding process.

“I know they have had some trouble getting their new building plans approved,” said Meredith McBee, senior public relations major at the University of Georgia and former employee of the Georgia Theatre. “Last I heard they were hoping to reopen by February 2011.”

According to Georgia law, Greene must rebuild the Theatre to meet the current building codes. In order to meet these standards, the Theatre needs about $3 million, which is double the amount insurance awarded the Theatre for replacement costs.        The Theatre is working with The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, a not-for-profit organization whose goal is to restore historically and culturally important buildings. With their help, the Theatre hopes to create a functional building that satisfies current building ordinances while reconstructing the same look and feel of the 1930’s historic theatre.

“We have held at least 20 fundraisers and benefits and only raised around $5,000,” said Wilmot Greene, owner of the Georgia Theatre. “It’s a lot harder than it seems.” 

Krasle believes that a place like the Theatre is essential to the viability of Athens and its music scene.

“In a bad economy, the savior of Athens is going to be music tourism,” said Krasle. “ A midsize venue, somewhere between the Classic Center and small clubs and bars, is critical.”

Kathleen Curley, a senior real estate major from Dallas, TX agrees. “When the Theatre was still there, I would go to concerts all the time, at least one every month,” Curley said. “Now I rarely ever go to concerts because I never know who is playing or where they’re playing, or if I’ll enjoy the venue.”

The Theatre has received donations from previous owners and established musicians, like the Dead Confederates who are taking donations for the Georgia Theatre in exchange for their Dirty Ammo EP. But Krasle feels that the average Joe is capable of doing the most good for the Theatre.

“If every person who has ever been to a show at the Georgia Theatre donated the price of one ticket, that would help tremendously,” said Krasle. “It’s the average local who is going to keep the spirit and tradition of the Theatre alive once we’re all gone.”

When talking to Krasle about the Theatre, there is a clear spark in his eye and passion in his voice that is not uncommon amongst the streets of Athens. The Georgia Theatre has its way of leaving its mark and inspiring people with its unexplainable presence. Dating back to 1889, the Georgia Theatre is a historic landmark that symbolizes a vital element of Athens culture and music.

“If Disney World burned down, Orlando would die,” said Krasle. “The music scene, specifically the Theatre, is our Disney World. Music tourism is our niche to survive.”

A large portion of the money raised from “Athens Burning” will go towards the rebuilding of the Theatre.

“Ideally, I would like the outcome of Athens Burning to be the long-term viability of the Georgia Theatre and Athens,” said Krasle.


Construction in Historic Zones Requires Approval

Any change in design or materials to the exterior of buildings in all ten of Athens’ historic districts must be approved by the Athens Historic Preservation Committee before construction can begin.

On Wednesday, March 15, the committee will hold its monthly meeting to decide three cases of residential home improvement in designated historic zones.

Held in the Athens Clarke-County Planning Department building on West Dougherty Street, the meeting is scheduled to begin at 5:30. The meeting is open to the public and opportunity will be given for expression of public opinion on the items being discussed.

Prior to the start of the meeting, the committee will set an agenda for their next meeting on April 21. The agenda setting is also open to the public, but will not include an opportunity for public comment.

The three cases currently pending approval include requests for the construction of a new house, the building of a rear addition, and the building of a detached carport. Although these properties are in different locations around Athens, they all fall into one of the ten historic districts in Athens.

Jim Robinson, an architect for Design South Builders, designed the plans for two of the three properties up for approval.

“This is my first experience with the committee, but so far they have been reasonable as to what they require and leave a wide variety of options that can be used,” said Robinson.

Although historic areas do not inherently carry any zoning restrictions on property use, the committee was established with the effort of protecting the character of areas determined to be of historical significance.

“There is a comfort in knowing that your neighbor cannot build something out of character that would detract from your property,” said Amber Eskew, the Historic Preservation Planner at the Planning Department.

Robinson agrees.

“The work they do is important because it preserves the valued character of these historic neighborhoods,” he said. “I’ve seen beautiful communities ruined by the construction of a monstrosity that is not consistent with the other houses.”

All properties wishing to make renovation must submit a formal request to the Planning Department with the planned changes. These applications are reviewed by Eskew who makes recommendations to the committee based on researched findings.

“Some people see the timeframe and planning involved in applying to be a negative,” said Eskew. “Others find that it forces them to think through their plans thoroughly, resulting in fewer changes during construction.”

Certain minor changes can be approved by Eskew without the involvement of the committee. Examples of minor changes include window alterations or addition of signage.

“From a design standpoint, I did not do anything differently than I would have normally done,” said Robinson. “I tried to say sensitive to the overall character of the house and in turn with the houses around it.”

Because the majority of buildings in Athens’ historic districts are residential, most requests come from residents. There are a number of commercial and business requests, most of which come from downtown, which is entirely zoned as historic.

“Most people living in these areas don’t mind the approval process because of the results,” said Eskew. “The historic character initially draws many to live in those areas.”

Applications that are not met with approval can be passed with conditions for how to make the plans acceptable. This is in the attempt to make the process less repetitive for applicants.

The committee seeks to work with residents trying to improve the property as appropriate changes can serve to increase property value in the area.

All seven committee members are volunteers appointed by the Athens Clarke County Mayor and Commission and serve three year terms.

Although members tend to be professionals in the fields of construction or property development, the only requirement to be on the committee is a sufficient interest in historic preservation.

All decisions by the committee can be appealed to the mayor and commission. If still not satisfied, applicants can have request to have their property permanently removed from a historic district.


Second cup of zoning for local business

The plan is no longer up for review April 1. After this story originally posted last week, the writer received notice that the application for special use had been pulled while the lot is being re-surveyed.

A slow drip.

Working through any re-zoning process can be a drawn-out percolation. And that’s surely the case for the East Broad Street parking lot that serves the Jittery Joe’s Coffee Roaster and Tasting Room.

Lot owner Don Bennett and the Jittery Joe’s Roaster and Tasting Room team seek approval for an off-street parking lot – a no-no as far as Athens-Clarke County’s long range development plan for downtown is concerned. After submitting and withdrawing a plan in November, after resubmitting and being denied another time in February, the applicants come armed with a proposal that improves on previous plans.

In a decision that could not only affect the emerging character of the East Broad Street section of downtown but also directly impact a beloved local business, the Athens-Clarke County Planning Commission will approve, deny or table a special use permit for the lot at an April 1 meeting.

“The lot is definitely a must for my business,” said Tasting Room owner Seth Hendershot. “The roaster could survive, but the coffee shop couldn’t.”

At the February 4 planning commission meeting, commissioners denied the special use permit on its face due a poor site plan. Plan applicants Don Bennett and Jittery Joe’s CEO Bob Googe withdrew the request and submitted the upgraded plan coming before the April planning commission session.

The zoning ordeal began back in October of 2009 when planning officials ordered the lot closed to public access, according to Athens Banner-Herald reports.

Creating a special use in this case could have far-reaching effects on downtown, planning staff said. If the city grants a special use, other less popular or attractive businesses could demand the same treatment – access to parking lots instead of existing street parking. Planners aren’t trying to attack local business – Jittery Joe’s and Starbuck’s have to be weighed equally, Senior Planner Rick Cowick said.

“We try to treat everyone equally,” he said. “Our charge is to implement what is adopted by the community,” he said, referring to voter-approved comprehensive development standards.

For David Spooner, a resident of the nearby Chicopee-Dudley neighborhood, it doesn’t matter whether or not Jittery Joe’s receives the special use – he walks.

Spooner understands fully the city’s fears of compromising the entire code for future development, but there’s room for exception in this case.

“Jittery Joe’s is a great asset to this community,” said Spooner, an assistant professor in UGA’s College of Environment and Design. “If anyone should get a break it should be these guys.”

High-density development is coming to the area “like a freight train” as the multi-acre Armstrong and Dobbs lot is up for sale.

“It’s just a matter of time and economy, so why not let them park there in the meantime,” he said.

The new plan may appease planning commissioners like Lucy Rowland who said she was “interested in seeing this happen if a better plan had been submitted” at the February review session.

Bennett and Googe’s original plan lacked certain qualities the city needs to see in off-street parking. Improvements to the new plan include:

  • An up-to-code paved surface, a must for any in-downtown parking lot.
  • Four feet added to the curb cut that improves entry and exit, easing the traffic burden on East Broad St.
  • Five fewer parking spaces.
  • Improved landscaping to help with storm water issues.

The new plan meets “a lot more of the standards,” Cowick said. “It’s a workable parking lot now. It will function.”

Cowick said it’s easier for the Mayor and Commission to decide up or down when the comprehensive plan principle of whether or not the city wants off-street parking is the only question.

And while the planning commission may still recommend denial, Jittery Joe’s lack of access to street-level parking “makes a good argument” for Mayor and Commission approval of the special use permit, and the planning department recognized that, Cowick said.

Off-street parking is a necessity for Seth Hendershot’s Tasting Room. Foot traffic makes up 30 percent of his business and the building is allotted only three spaces in an easement between the roaster/Tasting Room and Dixie Cannery next door. The spaces are short-term – 20 minutes for loading and unloading, technically – which affects the Tasting Room’s spring, summer and fall business “when people want to hang out,” said Hendershot, who rents the Tasting Room space from the Jittery Joe’s corporation.

Planning officials raised concerns as to why the parking decks along East Broad St. can’t meet parking needs. Hendershot said he’s tried to negotiate with both Georgia Traditions and 909 for access to their decks, but to no avail. The planning department wondered why the county-owned deck up the hill wouldn’t do.

“Convenience is a big factor in people wanting to come to your place,” he said. “If people have to cross a busy street and come down that extra 30 or 40 yards, they are less willing to do that. It’s the nature of business. They’ll just keep driving.”

Other options for parking in the East Broad Street area may soon emerge. At the March Mayor and Commission voting session, Mayor Heidi Davison asked City Manager Alan Reddish to look into clearing out room for street-level parking on Hickory St., a spur that runs from East Broad Street directly in front of the roaster and Tasting Room.

Cowick said the planning department is ready to work out and wrap up the situation.

“We look forward to getting this issue resolved,” he said.

Other items on the planning commission agenda include a special use permit for a proposed renovation of the Arnocroft house, the former Junior League museum, into a Chi Phi fraternity.

If you go:

The planning commission meets at 7 p.m. in the auditorium of the 120 East Dougherty Street government building. Get there early – public comment is high up on the docket. The planning commissions decision needs a final Mayor and Commission approval at a voting session at least one month from now.


Low-income homeowners given the chance to speak

There has been little change in the list of those who require affordable housing in the past year, according to the data collected by the Athens Housing Authority. Yet there are still plenty of families who are living in poverty and currently deprived the opportunity of homeownership.

The Athens Housing Authority has released its Five-Year and Annual Agency Plans for public review, and both contain goals to correct this situation.

The Athens Housing Authority will conduct a public hearing on March 23 at 4:15 p.m. with a board meeting to follow. The hearing is held to allow public comment on the Five-Year and Annual Agency Plans that will go into effect July 1, 2010. The meeting will take place at the Athens Housing Authority’s central offices on Rocksprings Street.

Public hearings are held once yearly, or more if the Annual Plans are amended during the year, according to Carol Kirchman, Executive Assistant for the Athens Housing Authority.

“Our Mission is to provide secure, affordable, quality housing and resources which encourage and sustain independence for wage earners, elderly and families,” Kirchman said.

Section 9.0 of the Five-Year plan details the housing needs of these demographics in specifically the low, very low, and extremely low income groups.

There are 5,700 families in Athens-Clarke County have an income 30 percent less than the median, according to data from the 2010 Annual Action Plan of the Consolidated Plan of the Unified Government of Athens-Clarke County. Many of the Athens Housing Authorities customers fall into this category.

The information in Section 9.0 states that 80 percent of the approximately 553 families on the waiting list for the Athens Housing Authority are below 30 percent of the median income.

The reports states that for a community where rents are largely affected by students at the University of Georgia, rents in the private market remain to a great extent “unaffordable” to this population.

This makes providing housing to the low-income population a consistent problem, and makes it necessary for the Athens Housing Authority to focus many of their programs on this need.

Section 9.1 of the Five-Year Plan describes the strategies for addressing these housing needs including, issuing Mortgage Revenue Bonds, continuing the ACT I Home program, and maintaining strong partnerships with local government, other agencies, and private industry.

The ACT I Home program strives to provide affordable home ownership opportunities.

The Athens Housing Authority newsletter, the Resident Report, outlines the requirements to qualify for an ACT I Home. Families must be at or less than 80 percent of the median income for Athens Clarke County, but a minimum of $20,000. An ACT I Home resident must also attend housing counseling, have a credit score of 600 or more, have a minimum of $1,000 for down payment funds, and be able to obtain a mortgage.

There are packets of information regarding the ACT I Home program available at the Athens Housing Authority offices, but all had been given out as of Wednesday. This could be an indication of the program’s popularity.

So far, the ACT I Homes program has put 19 families in affordable housing located in the downtown area, according to the Resident Report. Each house is two or three bedrooms, contains Energy Star appliances to reduce utility bills and is made of low maintenance materials.

Programs such as ACT I Home are important, as Section 9.0 of the Five-Year Plan anticipates that a continued depressed economy will affect jobs in Athens. Many jobs have remained untouched up until now, as Athens jobs are largely tied to stable government positions at the University of Georgia, local government, or hospitals.

For those interested in previewing the Five-Year and Annual Agency Plans before the meetings, copies are available at the Athens Housing Authority’s main office, Athens Regional Library, Jack R. Wells Boys and Girls Club, and Offices of East Athens Development Corporation.

Any interested party is welcome at the hearing, but in Kirchman’s experience, typically AHA residents and members of local agencies that partner with the Athens Housing Authority attend.

Despite the fact that the Five-Year and Annual Agency Plans directly outline policies and goals that will affect the community, historically few people have attended the public hearing, said Kirchman.

Though this is commonly the case, Athens Housing Authority residents are well represented.

“The Agency Plan is developed in conjunction with a Resident Advisory Board comprised of AHA residents. Therefore, AHA resident input was incorporated into the draft plan from the beginning,” Kirchman said.


Road repaving project “doesn’t seem necessary”

A state and federal allocation of millions of dollars received a less-than-enthusiastic review of “doesn’t seem necessary” on Tuesday.

March 16 marked the second in a series of informational meetings hosted by the Madison Athens-Clarke Oconee Regional Transportation Study (MACORTS), the cooperative transportation planning body for the urbanized area which includes Athens-Clarke County, portions of southern Madison County and northern Oconee County.

A central point of discussion at these meetings is a proposed project that involves resurfacing a 2.7-mile stretch of road on US 441 from the SR10 Loop to 0.2 miles south of Newton Bridge Road. The project proposal estimates that almost 15,000 drivers use this area every day. Daily traffic volume is expected to increase to nearly 25,000 by 2035.

Athens-Clarke County Transportation Planner and meeting moderator Sherry Moore questioned whether US441 actually needed repaving. She stated that places like North Avenue demonstrate more need of upkeep.

MACORTS, as well as Athens-Clarke County Public Works Director David Clark, have contacted the Federal Highway Administration and the Georgia Department of Transportation to inquire about their reasoning. No reply has been issued. Both organizations declined requests for comment from this publication as well.

“Those agencies are not always open with their rationale,” Moore commented. “The only reason I can think of is because this project can be finished quickly,” she added.

Moore went on to describe how many legislators in the federal government are feeling similar apprehension to measures like the repaving project.

The project proposal estimates that nearly $3 million would be needed to fund the project. The money would come from the Jobs for Main Street Act, a federal stimulus bill that is working its way through the Senate.

The House version of the bill passed in a narrow 217-212 vote with no Republican support. An Associated Press report details similar conflict in the Senate, where many members are hesitant to increase government spending. While many agree the bill would stimulate the economy, many disagree over whether the programs funded–extending unemployment benefits, covering Medicaid costs, extending child tax credits, etc.–will directly put people to work.

Also of concern is how slowly money from the first stimulus bill has been used. For instance, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that only $1.7 billion of the $39 billion directed to departments of Transportation and Urban Development will be spent by October.

Because the bill is not yet law, no funds have been formally allotted to the repaving project. Furthermore, the project must be added to the MACORTS Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), the list of all projects receiving federal funds, before it can be initiated.

Moore explains that local governments have only 90 days to use federal funds once they’ve been allotted. Because it would take much longer than 90 days to hire contractors, the FHA and the GDOT requested that MACORTS add the project now so the funds can be employed as quickly as possible if the bill becomes law.

Moore guesses there is a “50-50” chance the bill will pass and expects to receive a decision in the next 2-3 weeks. Moore went on to mention that if the bill did not pass, the road would not be repaved because the county government is not responsible for upkeep of state roads.

The effect of the project on drivers is expected to be minimal. “A few people may have slightly bumpier commutes, and we might receive some phone calls asking what we’re doing,” Moore added, “but it won’t be that big of a deal.”

The amendment’s public comment period lasts until March 23. Comments can be submitted via phone (706-613-3515), e-mail (macorts@co.clarke.ga.us), mail (120 W. Dougherty St., Athens, Ga.) or the MACORTS website (athensclarkecounty.com/macorts). Another meeting will be held at the Danielsville, Ga. Courthouse (91 Albany Ave.) from 5-7 p.m. on March 24.

Possible add-ons

1. PDF copy of the comment form, which readers can print and submit to MACORTS.

2. Timeline graphic of major congressional actions on the bill (as recorded on the website for the Library of Congress).


Upcoming meeting to discuss new paving project

  The passage of a new bill in the House of Representatives will help fund a repaving project in Athens-Clarke County. Local residents can participate in the action.

 The meeting, headed by the Madison Athens-Clarke Oconee Regional Transportation Study, also known as MACORTS, will let the public review drafts of the project documents and give their suggestions and criticisms.

 MACORTS, a cooperative transportation planning group, encompasses the urbanized areas of Athens-Clarke County, parts of northern Oconee County and southern Madison County.

 The group has scheduled a series of public informational meetings in Athens, as well as Madison and Oconee counties, for citizens to review and comment upon drafts of the documents required for the project to take place. The meeting in Athens will take place on Tuesday, March 16, 2010 in the Athens Planning Department Auditorium from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.

 The project, US 441/SR 15 Resurfacing, will repave US 441/SR 15 from SR Loop 10 to about 0.2 miles south of CR 478/Newton Bridge Road.

According to Sherry Moore, the transportation planner for the Athens-Clarke County Planning Department, some necessary steps must take place before the project can begin.

 First, the project needs to be included in two documents: the Transportation Improvement Program, also known as TIP, and the Long Range Transportation Plan, otherwise known as LRTP. Both of these documents are required for MACORTS to have access to federal and state transportation funding.

 The annually-updated TIP document contains all of the projects that will receive funding during the next four years. The repaving project is the latest addition to the document. After its annual update, the Athens-Clarke County Planning Department makes it available to the public.

 The LRTP deals with the transportation needs for the next 20 years in the region. Any project that makes it into TIP must also be included in the LRTP to be eligible for funds. The planning department makes this document available to the public after they update it every five years.

 Both documents can be accessed via the Madison and Oconee County Planning Department Web sites, as well as the MACORTS Web site.

 The next step in the process is to supply a space for the public to provide input and discuss their concerns; this is a federal requirement for the county to receive funds.

 Moore says the Georgia Department of Transportation can do the paving quickly if they have the money.

 After the public meetings, Moore says MACORTS compiles all public comment and summarizes it for review by two committees. The committees then make any necessary changes and decisions according to the public’s input.

 The project will begin depending on when the House passes the new bill, titled Jobs for Main Street Act. Moore says this project is a bit different from those in the past because its completion relies on the passage of the bill.

 MACORTS cannot determine an exact time for when the project will begin until the House signs the bill. However, Moore estimates that the project will begin sometime in the summer.

 According to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Web site, the purpose of ‘Jobs for Main Street Act’ is “to create or save jobs here at home with targeted investments ($75 billion) for highways and transit, school renovation, hiring teachers, police, and firefighters, small business, job training and affordable housing – key drivers of economic growth that have the most bang for the buck.”

 The investments are paid for using funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, otherwise known as TARP. The government buys these funds from financial institutions, mainly located on Wall Street, for use in the financial sector to make economic improvements.

 A major component of the bill is to stabilize jobs by investing in infrastructure improvements. Approximately $27.5 billion will be allocated to improving highway infrastructure across the nation. This improvement will have short-term and long-term benefits, such as supporting jobs and saving commuter’s time and money, respectively.

 In 2007, the average daily traffic volume on USS 441/ SR 15 was 14, 615. By 2035, the projected volume is expected to be 24, 720. The bill will cover the $2,291,000 cost of the project.

 Moore says the public should come to the meeting to see what is going on in their region and help build awareness about the project. The public can help ensure that MACORTS spends the funds efficiently.

 If anyone is unable to attend the meetings, he or she can email their comments via the MACORTS Web site, http://www.macorts.org, or stop by the planning departments in their respective counties to view copies of the project drafts. Public comment will be accepted from Feb. 22, 2010 to April 9, 2010.