Professor digs into community

David Berle backs his white pick-up truck onto a grassy patch of land outside the Pinewood Branch of the Athens Regional Library. He’s not here for books. Berle has a strange delivery on this hot April Thursday afternoon – a truck bed full of compost.

 Six children storm out of the library located in the Pinewood Estates North Mobile Home Park off Highway 29. Berle, an associate professor of Horticulture, hands them work gloves and tools as they hop into the truck,  eager to help.

 Athens Land Trust’s Laura Hall has been working pro-bono to fund a community garden in the neighborhood, but the money has been slow to come-by. She’s tired of waiting and ready to plant. With Berle’s contribution of soil, tools and student volunteers, she’ll be able to set up a demonstration garden at the library, using the “community focal point,” as she calls it, to build interest in the venture. She said Berle “is the real hero here today.”

“We’re going to do this without a grant,” Berle said, as children sent shovelfuls of rich, black compost flying through the air, some of it actually making it onto the grass and not onto their clothes. Dressed in blue jeans and an aqua checked short sleeve shirt, Berle lifts cinderblocks out of the truck and begins to outline where the first bed will lie.

“That’s enough for now,” Berle shouted from beneath a wide-brimmed straw hat. His helpers have almost emptied the truck. “You’ve been great workers. Now it’s time to till.”

Berle unloaded a motorized tiller, and he gave each child a chance to chop together soil and compost in deep, gas-powered plunges.

“There’s worms in here,” one young volunteer said as his shoes pressed into the compost.

Two weeks earlier, leaning back in a downtown café chair without his straw hat to protect his face, Berle squinted as morning sunrays shot through Espresso Royale’s windows. He swirled the iced coffee around in his short paper cup, the cubes like whalebacks in a milk and coffee ocean.

 The former extension agent’s eyes become alert when he talks about the potential impact an army of service-learning students could have on Athens: “We should take a greater role in the community.”

 Berle teaches an Introduction to Horticulture class every semester. If 400 students participate in a horticulturalist-for-a-day program at 3 hours a semester, that’s 1200 volunteer hours. That’s “a lot of volunteer power.”

 Giving back to Athens is an integral part of what drives Berle toward outreach projects like Pinewood.

 “There’s this big university in this town and it seems like we should have some responsibility,” Berle said. “In some ways we are part of the problem.”

 Berle tapped university resources beyond the student body to propel the Pinewood gardens into the ground: as a horticulturalist, the tools are on-hand; the cinderblocks are leftovers from other student-built raised beds; and, as long as the project involves students and falls under the service-learning umbrella, Berle can haul off UGA compost almost whenever he wants.

 Berle drew Thursday’s student volunteers from an upper level class, Understanding and Communicating with the Latino Community in the Green Industry.

 As Spanish speakers make up a huge part of the horticulture workforce, the class helps students “build bridges across cultural gaps,” said Nemer Narchi, Berle’s teaching assistant.

 While Berle and Hall dig and sweat alongside young and old volunteers, transplanting as many flower and lettuce starts as they can before the sun sets, Berle’s students fan out through Pinewood’s winding drives, canvassing the community and gauging interest in the project.

 The students are expanding on the social skills they’ve learned in the classroom, Narchi said. They knock on trailer doors and ask: “If the gardens extend their scale, will anyone care for them?”

 ACTION, Inc.’s Gwen O’Looney wanted to come out and help build the demonstration gardens, but she said Berle asked her to wait until they’d assessed community interest. ACTION, Inc. might be able to fund further gardens. In an email, O’Looney said she and Berle know a food-related event “always draws interest and involvement whereas sustainability requires a very different type of commitment and is the test of whether there is the interest needed to make this garden be a true legacy for that community.”

 Aida Quinones, the library’s branch manager, watched the children tossing dirt about with small shovels and said she’s sure it’ll take root: “This is working already.” All the gardening action “stirred up” a sense of community, and within a few hours, six new families signed up to participate. “The kids have got their hands dirty,” she said. “Now that they’re involved in it, it’s their project.”

 The legacy O’Looney is looking for may already be up to their leaves in compost.



As county budget tightens, parks feel pinch

Construction crews attacked Rocksprings Park last month with backhoes, dump trucks and human sweat. Jackhammers broke through the cracked, rundown basketball courts. Shovels and tractors dug up grass, gravel and concrete. Crews of workers poured new curbs and pads for extra parking.

 It’s phase one in a long-term park renovation, said Leisure Services Director Pam Reidy. But in a government-wide effort to tighten purse strings, it’s one of only three park projects leftover from the 2005 SPLOST project list the department will tackle this year.

 Reidy laid out her department’s multi-year plan to build and improve Athens-Clarke County parks at a Federation of Neighborhoods meeting on Monday, April 5.

 In December, the Mayor and Commission told the department there’s money to build the parks from the 2005 list, but very little to keep them open. So, Reidy said they’re putting everything possible on the backburner.

 But Reidy said it’s more expensive to back out of some projects than others, so they’re moving forward on three already contracted projects:

  • Opening agricultural and planetary interactive learning environments at the ENSAT center at Sandy Creek Park.
  • A new tennis center likely to be built, for financial reasons, at Southeast Clarke Park.
  • Rocksprings Community Center. It’s already underway and slated to finish by November with “as little impact to the neighborhood as possible” – the pool will stay open all summer long.

 SPLOST projects are funded by a 1 percent special local option sales tax, instead of general funds or property taxes, and are spent on capital projects – the brick and mortar stuff. A citizens group pours over a long list of prospects submitted by Athenians and government departments. They whittle down a short list of recommendations and deliver it to the Mayor and Commission, who make the final decision. Citizens approve the Mayor and Commission list in a November vote.

 Leisure Services’ SPLOST 2011 projects will focus on “what’s in the ground.” As all departments have been asked to keep budgets tight, plans address problems with existing infrastructure, on fixing the “beloved jewels” of our city parks system that have been “loved to death.”

 Expected renovations include:

  • Sandy Creek: ACC’s prize park may still sparkle in the spring sun, but Reidy said it “needs an awful lot of work.” At the SPLOST citizen’s committee’s request, they’ve scaled back an on over $3 million plan that will fix old leaky bathrooms and rotting foot bridges, as well as revamp and improve the park’s entry gates.
  • Rocksprings Park Phase 2: the neighborhood pool is 20 years over lifespan. At $1 a visit, local kids swarm the pool each summer day even as the lining peels.
  • Overall, Leisure Services scaled back their SPLOST 2011 request from $7 to $4.5 million. But small infrastructure items like replacing a broken lift elevator at Holland Sport Complex haven’t yet been cut.

 The SPLOST citizens advisory committee, a 22-member panel, will present its narrowed list to a Mayor and Commission work session on Tuesday, April 13. Federation President John Devine, who also serves on the SPLOST committee, said that even though project requests have been trimmed substantially, their future is still not certain.

 The committee cut a proposed $47 million Classic Center expansion from its recommendations, freeing up funds for projects like Leisure Services’ proposed renovations. An $80 million jail expansion has already swallowed up most of the available funding.

 But Devine reminded the federation that citizen recommendations for SPLOST 2005 did not include the Clayton Street and Lumpkin Avenue parking deck slated to begin construction soon. The Mayor and Commission tacked it on themselves.

 “Something can always happen,” Devine said, and he urged federation members to voice concerns to their commissioners.

 And Devine may be right, in a way.

 District 10 Commissioner Mike Hamby said a cheaper, $20 million Classic Center expansion will be re-proposed. The lower price tag allows ACC to expand the center, viewed as a much need economic engine, without abandoning projects treasured by voters, Hamby said at a town hall Saturday, April 10.

 Reidy said the amount of Leisure Services projects on the SPLOST 2011 list speaks to the value the community places on the outdoors. Athens-Clarke County is home to 17 public parks – that’s 3,400 acres of municipal green space.

 “There’s rumor around town that you are a really tough group,” Reidy said, in reference to last month’s heated discussion of affordable housing. “I might be getting off easy.”

 In a 50-year long tradition, the federation invites government officials, community leaders and knowledgeable citizens to discuss local issues with neighborhood groups and concerned citizens. The federation meets currently at the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation’s refurbished fire hall offices at the intersection of Prince Avenue and Hill Street.

 But just as Reidy began to feel at ease, federation member Wray Witten grilled the director over the status of the department’s master plan. In 2005, a citizen’s advisory committee, which included current federation president John Devine, worked with independent consultants on a draft of the master plan.

 “Some people have seen it,” Witten said. “Where is it?”

 Reidy didn’t have a clear answer, saying that with less than a year on the job, she’s playing a lot of catch-up. Witten and Devine pushed Reidy: “[The consultants] were taking notes on laptops,” Devine said. They want to see those notes.

 Reidy shrugged and said they’re working on it, prompting one federation member to ask: “Have we proved that we’re hard bodies?”

 Federation of Neighborhoods meets the first Monday of every month at old Fire Hall No.2, 489 Prince Avenue. Programs begin at 7:30 and are always free and open to the public.


Old neighorhoods, new gardens

After a night of heavy March rain, Humberto Mendoza stands in crisp morning air in an empty lot of grass and young trees behind three homes in Pinewood Estates North. He points to a flow of rainwater still streaming down a slow grade and soaking the earth at his feet; his boots impress the damp soil, too moist to grow most vegetables. He backs up a few yards to a flatter, drier stamp of land. In a few weeks time, Mendoza and his neighbors will turn this surplus yard into a thriving community garden, feeding at least seven families in this largely Hispanic mobile home park off Highway 29 outside the Athens by-pass.

Tomatillos. Tomatoes. They’ll plant all the “Mexican favorites,” Mendoza said with a smile – maybe even his beloved papalo quelite, a leafy herb used in salsa, can find some room.

Back inside the loop, a different form of garden grows along the steep slopes of Tanyard Creek in the Reese and Pope neighborhood. Followers of an organic agricultural method called permaculture work to “restore the ecology of the creek while also creating an educational model of food production in an urban setting,” Athens Permaculture spokesperson Evan McGown said. “A site for people to visit and be inspired.”

Both gardens are tiny spurs in a city, state and nation-wide community garden movement. The American Community Garden Association estimates over 18,000 rooted in U.S. soil; the Atlanta Community Food Bank shades so many gardens (175) they need a coordinator to watch over the harvest.

 School gardens grow as quickly as their students in Clarke County; a multi-family garden entrenched itself years ago in the Brooklyn neighborhood near Pauldoe; and pre-built raised beds wait for soil at the Athens Community Council on Aging.

 David Berle counts at least 20 different local organizations currently planting or planning on starting a community garden. The associate professor of horticulture shares his time, knowledge and toil with a number of them. He plans on sending his service-learning students out to Pinewood.

 Community gardens are so bountiful in Athens that local gardening and food activists applied for a USDA grant that would fund a coordinator to improve knowledge and resource sharing between gardens.

Independent groups have planted for some time, and new desires appear every season, but the “history is we all haven’t talked to each other very much,” Berle said. If grant money appears – they’ll know by July – they’ll figure out which non-profit or city department would best house the position, a full-time job as “food issues don’t stop at the end of the summer.” 

 Pinewoods

Mendoza and his brother fix engines in their driveway 50 feet away from the Pinewood plot. Car grease coats his hands and sweater. He’ll add garden manager to his workload soon, and dirt will join the oil stains.

 “The goal is to get together neighbors,” Mendoza said. “A place for people to sit and talk.”

 Mendoza has a history of social justice organizing, and recently joined five other Athenians at the March for Comprehensive Immigration Reform in Washington, D.C. But his rallying efforts lack resonance with Pinewood residents. As a community activist, Mendoza asks his neighbors what their needs are. He said they often confuse social justice as purely political and don’t want to get involved. They said they did want to build a garden, though, so he hopes they can get together, grow tomatoes and “maybe talk about social justice.”

 Gardens create a “healthy space in a community,” Athens Land Trust Conservation Coordinator Laura Hall said. Hall marshaled ACTION, Inc. grant money toward Pinewood as part of ACTION’s neighborhood-strengthening Green Partners program. Mendoza will earn a stipend for acting as site manager, as well as translator and facilitator for ACTION and Berle’s students.

Pinewood resident Karla Sotomayor already grows tomatoes and watermelons around her kid’s swing set outside their home. She hopes the garden will lure neighbors away from their TVs. Gardening has inedible rewards, she said. But proving that to neighbors requires longevity, dedication, communication and courage: “People become less encouraged when they don’t see results.” 

Permanent Agriculture

 Tanyard Creek needs help, said ACC Senior Planner Bruce Lonnee. Years of illegal dumping trashed it and the city doesn’t “want to make it worse.”

 “It’s a water quality issue,” Lonnee said. City and state codes seek to prevent land disturbance near flowing water, so Athens Permaculture submitted and received an Environmental Areas Permit for the garden. Their organic repair may prove to be a “win-win” situation.

 Permaculture stresses design in which “humans and nature interact in ways that are mutually beneficial,” McGown said. Stretching along the southern side of the creek, with hopes of a foot bridge to the north bank, the garden will focus on perennial producers – fruit trees and bushes, herbs, wild self-maintainers like rosemary and blueberries. Nature itself will be the main gardener – “humans are designers here, not laborers.”

 Before nature takes over, humans must sweat.

 A dozen volunteers met March 20 to uproot kudzu and honeysuckle to form an erosion barrier called a swale. They dug a 30-yard ditch and filled it with wood chips and mulch, added compost and planted blueberries. As rain runs off the unpaved parking lot at the top of the creek’s slope, water will slowly release through the swale and into the soil instead of overflowing Tanyard Creek with dirty runoff.

 McGown said two forces draw people to community gardens. One is tangible: people want to know where their food comes from.

 The second is invisible, and “more important in the long run”: humans long to reconnect with nature, its cycles, other humans and “focus on happiness as well as hardware.”

 But to strengthen neighborhoods and shift culture in such a way, “we’ve got to throw a better party,” he said. “And community gardens are better than a parking lot.”


Big grant spurs small business

 “We’re creating a new animal in a short period of time,” said Gwen O’Looney of the micro-enterprise development work underway at ACTION, Inc. The former mayor is managing a $1.2 million American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant that bolsters much of ACTION’s anti-poverty and community stabilizing work, but with a portion of the funds, O’Looney is breeding an economic development tool that targets low-income Athenians who lack access to traditional credit.

 “We’re turning mom and pop shops into businesses,” ACTION CEO John Scoggins said. ACTION aims to make legitimate businesses out of weekend, garage and kitchen table operations by reaching out to entrepreneurs with household incomes at or below 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines – $21,660 for one person, $44,100 of a family of four. Existing business are fair game as well, as long as they meet the standards, but ACTION wants to focus on start-ups that can’t go to banks, the local government or other non-profits for help due to financial or credit problems.

 On top of tracking down a population previously unmapped, ACTION has the added task of completing their stimulus-funded mission by the end of September. But funds didn’t arrive until December of last year, and at this point, there’s only a few months left to finish the job.

 There’s been some confusion as to just how much of ACTION’s recovery money, a Community Service Block Grant, is earmarked for direct economic stimulus: about a quarter goes to micro-enterprise development – sole-proprietorships or businesses with fewer than five employees.

 Clarke County is home to over 8,000 micro-enterprises, representing 13 percent of businesses in the area, according to data compiled by the Association for Enterprise Opportunity.

 Another quarter of the grant goes to employment initiatives; they’ve created 10 part-time assistant positions to help administer programs throughout the region and given daycare scholarships to job seekers and the newly employed. A bulk of the money goes to eviction and foreclosure assistance, which has become increasingly important as furlough days take their toll on many ACTION clients, O’Looney said.

 Scoggins is quick to defend perceived criticism of their work.

 “We don’t give away money to anybody,” Scoggins said. When ACTION helps someone meet a mortgage or rent payment, that money is “leveraged” by a mortgagee or renter contribution. Scoggins added: housing support goes to a property owner, and that money goes back into the economy. “The notion that ACTION and ARRA is giving away money” is false, he said. “Nobody gets money without contribution.”

 While ACTION, a private non-profit, runs human development programs in a 10 county area stretching from Walton west to Elbert, from Jackson south to Greene, Clarke County uses 45 percent of the community action agency’s resources due to its population and high level of poverty, Scoggins said.

 With strict state and federal oversight of stimulus money, and a public wariness of recovery efforts in general, ACTION finds itself under the watch of many eyeballs.

 The Georgia Department of Human Services (DHS) oversees the stimulus grant and is “so careful with this money,” O’Looney said. Their state-level monitors are questioning but responsive, which has made the experience difficult but positive.

 In January and February, after using funds to stave off foreclosures and set up 5 new food pantries, ACTION has spent 25 percent of the total grant – including $60,000 of a budgeted $326,441 for economic development, according to a budget prepared by O’Looney.

 ACTION applies for a reimbursement from DHS each month, slowing down cash flow and creating a “difficult hurdle” for the agency that lacks a “soft cushion.” But O’Looney said reimbursement turnaround time is quickly improving. Compared to a previous month and a half wait, the most recent return took two days.

 ACTION splits the economic development portion of the grant into four parts: micro-enterprise training, job creation grants, individual development accounts and a program called Green Partners that’s planting gardens in Pinewood Mobile Homes, a local school and various faith-based organizations throughout ACTION’s coverage area. Outside of Clarke County, ACTION is the food bank for many communities, O’Looney said. Scoggins said a pound of tomatoes given to someone in Madison County is a pound they don’t have to buy at the store: “It translates into money.”

 Micro-enterprise training begins with a stack of perspective entrepreneur applications that Angelyne Diaz, O’Looney’s program assistant, whittles down into classes of 15. During the initial application process, and over the course of two five-hour training sessions, Diaz assesses the applicant’s progress and selects up to 10 for continuation. Out of the first class of 16, nine made it through.

 Each one of the graduates “selected for continuation” receives a 4 GB computer and software worth $500 and another $500 for paperwork needed to legitimize their business – a license, articles of incorporation or insurance –  $1,000 dollars total. Any money beyond that will depend on the graduate’s success as an entrepreneur – how their business plan develops and whether or not the business can create jobs for others besides the owner. After all, the project is job creating, not job sustaining.

 “If we believe the business is moving toward job creation, then it’s legitimate in my mind to give them money for job sustenance,” O’Looney said. So far, out of the nine selects to graduate from the program, only two have received job creation grants. These two grants will produce five jobs, O’Looney said.

 After her husband heard an ACTION ad on the radio, Tonya Knox signed up for the training to develop her fairy tale-themed children’s party planning business. She flew through the program, according to Diaz, and Knox’s Princess Dream Party business has customers already. Knox said she keeps a few employees ”on-call,” and is working to become Job Creation Grant eligible. Diaz also is helping Knox legitimize her three-year-old summer camp for girls.

 Diaz said she’s working through 100 new applications for the next two classes.

 Unfortunately, O’Looney hasn’t had too many takers on her favorite development tool: the individual development account (IDA).  New to the Athens area, an IDA is a basic matching fund program whose savings can be spent on secondary schooling, business building and homeownership, anything that helps low-income families build assets and economic well being, according to the Corporation for Enterprise Development.

 IDA holders set a savings goal for a computer or piece of equipment and ACTION matches the savings dollar for dollar. ACTION partnered with Athens First Bank and Trust on the project, but only one person has opened an account, O’Looney said.

 “We really need to get the word out on this,” O’Looney said.

 ACTION planned initially to use a flexible, low-interest revolving loan to develop micro-enterprises, but recently scrapped the idea. They’ve changed strategy for two reasons. First, Scoggins said implementing such a complex financial tool in an eight-and-a-half month timeframe is next to impossible. Second, ACTION found it difficult to find existing, credit worthy businesses that met the poverty guidelines. O’Looney said the government made it clear they don’t want the stimulus going to people who’ve been in the economy and know the channels to find money, they want it in the hands of people in need. Restrictions required ACTION to hire and pay the employees, not the employer, and that wouldn’t empower anyone. But O’Looney isn’t worried about the loss: “I feel good about having us focus more and more on the truly beginning small business.”

 While not a business novice, Seth Hendershot needed ACTION’s help when he decided to “up the ante” on his coffee shop operation.

 Hendershot owns the Tasting Room inside the Jittery Joe’s roaster on East Broad Street but is “not in the position to get a traditional loan from a bank” as he plans to open a stand-alone Tasting Room on Oglethorpe Ave. Hendershot meets the federal requirements for the Job Creation Grant, and he said he’s hoping to receive $20,000 to create more than 2 jobs.

Besides providing grants instead of loans, what sets ACTION’s program apart is the focus on entrepreneurs “who seldom see themselves as appropriate [for real financial assistance] but are doing legitimate business.” The original press release calls them the “underground economy” – but has ACTION been able to reach their quarry?

 “I think we have,” O’Looney said. “It’s hard to find these people.” Out of the original class of sixteen, only two held previous business licenses. Nine brand new businesses, 6 expanding businesses and one legitimizing business completed the training, according to an ACTION document.

 The former mayor admits they need better PR, so they’ve taken out ads in Zebra magazine, checked in with faith-based organizations and improved contact with banks that can refer the entrepreneurs ACTION wants to help.

 O’Looney said she’s excited about “carving deeper and deeper into that population that has not been helped by programs in the past.” ACTION is doing what needs to be done and what hasn’t been done before and getting the money to the right people in “an accountable and honorable way.” Hopefully, ACTION can knock it out by the September 30 deadline – which means spending quickly $750,000 as accountably and honorably as possible.

“The private non-profit sector is asked to do a job much greater than creating a new jet or a new weapon,” O’Looney said. “We’re given less money and more ropes. If we had the liberty they give a weapons builder – a billion dollar contract for ten years. We’re supposed to change the tide of culture and poverty in very little time with very little resources.”


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.


ACC trims down on waste

“Does the whole place smell like this?” A Gainesville State environmental science student asked out of the corner of his mouth as he entered the 15-year-old Athens-Clarke County Recycled Material Processing Facility.  The stench, somewhere between industrial paint and stale beer, has some students covering their noses with their shirts.

“That’s probably just a new load of trash,” said Suki Janssen, waste reduction administrator for the Solid Waste Department.

Recycling Education Specialist Kristine Kobylus, hardhat and protective goggles in hand, stands ready to lead the group of 30 students on a tour of the facility. Through the wall behind her, amidst the reverb of steel beams and clanking conveyor belts, workers slog through mountains of shredded paper, broken down cardboard, sticky beer bottles and crushed plastic milk jugs.

“How many of you are recyclers?”

About 75 percent raised their hands. The response can be 25 percent for this age group, Janssen said, but over the past two years there’s been a definite increase.

Waste has a habit of not disappearing. So finding ways to ease the burden on the ACC landfill, which is nearing its current capacity, is a major priority for the Solid Waste Department. In a “good faith effort” to set “stepped, aggressive goals,” the department and the Athens-Clarke County government set a 25 percent waste reduction target below 2006 levels by the end of this fiscal year (June 30).

“We weren’t that far from 25 percent when the county set the goal,” says Solid Waste Director Jim Corley. Between fiscal years 2006 and 2009, the diversion rate increased 14 percent. Commissioners, staff and citizens committees have exchanged reduction tactics for over two years, but since waste reduction strategy remains officially unclear, the target has been pushed back another year, Solid Waste staff said. Commissioner and Solid Waste Task Force Co-Chair Kelly Girtz said there are “many moving parts” to the issue and readjusting timelines isn’t uncommon.

Now, feeling a time crunch on some options, the Solid Waste department is forging ahead on projects even though the task force hasn’t concluded its work – a move that won’t impact task force recommendations, committee co-chairs said.

The Solid Waste Task Force (SWTF), a citizens, industry and business committee formed to examine short-term, ordinance-driven waste reduction options, met throughout 2009 to establish best practices for reducing waste in Athens. After a fall presentation of SWTF recommendations, which included single stream recycling, a Center for Hard to Recycle Materials (CHaRM) and tackling recycling in multi-family dwellings, Mayor Heidi Davison and Manager Alan Reddish asked that staff deliver cost estimates for further committee review, Girtz said. The task force will meet one last time on March 17 before presenting final recommendations to the Mayor and Commission, said Commissioner and Task Force Co-Chair Doug Lowry.

Single Stream

Many private haulers operating in the Clarke County area truck recyclables over to Gwinnett County’s single stream plant, Janssen said. The exodus takes revenue out of the county ACC makes money on reselling recycled materialsand skews waste reduction figures.

“We will switch back [to Athens] if they go single-stream,” said Jennifer Bond, owner of Bogart hauler Curbside Services, Inc. In an e-mail, Bond, who serves on the SWTF, said they chose Gwinnett “purely because it was single stream” for cost saving reasons.

Single stream makes recycling easier on citizens – no need to separate – and carries a potential 20 to 30 percent waste reduction impact, Janssen said. The county will be able to use the rear loading trash trucks as back-ups for their existing recycling fleet, another cost saving.

The MRPF operates under a private-public partnership with FCR, Inc., who owns the building, staffs the plant and finds end markets for the processed recyclables. ACC fills the plant with glass, plastic and paper and earns 80 percent of the profit.

Converting the MRPF to single stream carries a $1 million price tag, and with FCR contract negotiation deadlines looming, the Solid Waste department is already moving to find funding pending final approval by the Mayor and Commission. Corley said he felt the idea had wide support.

“We didn’t feel that was too much of a leap,” he said.

Janssen said FCR isn’t interested in paying for the retrofit, and the department has applied for a $1.5 million Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) to help pay for the modifications. They money may not come from the grant, but Girtz said he’s confident the support and funding will appear.

CHaRM

The Solid Waste department wants to convert their former offices on College Ave. into a Center for Hard to Recycle Materials. Corley and Janssen pitched the idea to the SPLOST committee and tacked it onto their EECBG application.

With such a cheap price tag (under $200,000), funding shouldn’t be hard to find, Girtz said.

While it won’t have a huge impact on waste reduction, the CHaRM will divert environmentally harmful materials that can end up in the landfill and will hopefully end myths that certain items aren’t actually recycled when dropped off at the landfill, Janssen said.

“There’s a sense that we aren’t going to do the right thing,” she said.

Apartments

Dustin Rinehart, community manager at The Reserve student housing, walked into his office one morning to find a petition of 200 signatures sitting on his desk. Each name demanded recycling options for the complex, so Rinehart immediately called Janssen to see what choices he had. After weighing space and location concerns, the department dropped off two 8-yard bins. Rinehart said The Reserve’s 612 residents have “a lot of potential for recycling,” and that tenant response is phenomenal.

“Every week, we get multiple calls from tenants wanting recycling services,” Janssen said. But that’s up to property managers to decide. Requiring recycling infrastructure at all multi-family dwellings would be a boon for the county’s waste reduction efforts. The Solid Waste Task Force called multi-family dwellings a “challenging, but very significant area for waste reduction.”

ACC bids alongside private haulers to service multi-family dwellings for trash pickup, Corley said. Whenever the property managers want recycling services, the county is very competitive. It’s just a matter of managers wanting it, he said.

“When it’s straight trash, we don’t compete.”

The county can’t require private businesses to use their waste services, but they could demand on-site recycling infrastructure. Janssen and Corley said they hoped the Mayor and Commission pass an ordinance requiring recycling at these sites and they are preparing by working with planning to develop zoning practices for new and old complexes.

What’s next?

“We are great, private haulers are sketchy,” Corley said. Many companies do a great job tracking pick-ups and keeping orderly books, others aren’t that transparent, Corley said. Waste reduction is necessary for the whole county, not just the urban service district. “We’re not reaching it as a community,” he said. He’d like to see clearer audits of private haulers – where and what are they dumping and recycling. The numbers need to be “as accurate as possible,” he said.

Solid Waste now has a permit to compost at the landfill, and biosolid (treated fecal matter) and mulch compost will be officially decomposing on a concrete slab by the summer, Janssen said. Food scrap composting, both institutional and residential, is a ways off.

As far as the 25 percent reduction is concerned, Janssen said a single stream conversion would single handedly push the county past that goal. But Corley and Girtz want more.

“The goal should be stricter,” Corley said. “25 percent is not much.” He said he’d like to see a federal law “with teeth to it.”

“I’m a little frustrated that there have been these little steps in the process,” Girtz said. “I want a comprehensive approach, but if a comprehensive approach begins with a few specific items, I’m okay with that. I just don’t want it to stop there.”

POP-OUTS

Recycling Economics

  • Georgia is home to over 900 recycling related companies.
  • Plastics employ over 36,000 Georgians.
  • Paper’s payroll tops $1 billion.

Source: Department of Community Affairs 2006 study

Glass to Gwinnett

In 2006, private haulers delivered over 6,000 tons of recyclables to the RMPF and accounted for almost 50 percent of the all materials processed at the facility. By the end of FY09, that number dropped below 3,000.

Source: Solid Waste Department Annual Reports