If you blink, you’ll miss 230 Boulevard. You’ll miss the bags of soil and the saplings waiting in blue recycling bins. The mayor and commission approved plans in February to turn the tiny lot into Boulevard Woods, a community park.
Land is very expensive in the historic neighborhood, but owner Gary Bayard chose not to clear it and sell to a developer; instead he placed it in a conservation easement, a privately owned property that can’t be mined, timber farmed, or developed, per the owner’s request.
Boulevard is only one lot out of more than 800 acres in Athens-Clarke County designated as conservation easements.
But to the average Athens-Clarke County resident, what difference does a conservation area make? Most of the county’s 120,000 residents rent, not own, property.
The answer: land conservation protects biodiversity and ecosystem services such as clean air and water. Athens area conservation protects the water supply in particular.
Many easements border the middle Oconee River or its tributaries. Athens Land Trust protects more than 600 acres along the Oconee in multiple counties.
People care about water, said Dr. Liz Kramer of the Natural Resources Spatial Analysis Lab. “When we start seeing a stress on a resource, it’s going to impact us.”
Georgia’s land and water are stressed more than ever, Kramer said. “Georgia changes a lot because we have a lot of development,” she said.
Permanent easements insure some of Georgia’s resources are maintained.
Because more than 95-percent of Georgia land is privately owned, these easements are the most effective tool for conservation, according Clint McNeal, Georgia Land Conservancy conservation specialist. Landowners retain the rights to sell and bequeath the land, local governments receive property taxes, and registered conservation trusts care for the land and its resources in perpetuity.
The State Assembly introduced the tax incentive program in 1993 to encourage more land owners to protect forests, wetlands, and greenspaces from destruction.
The state offers transferable tax credits for 25-percent of the land’s resale value minus the development or timber value prohibited by the easement, up to $250,000.
The credit especially helps “land-rich, cash-poor” individuals who can sell the credit for about 80 cents on the dollar, said McNeal, although as few as eight easements in the state qualified for credits last year.
Limited liability corporations also contributed to the increase in number of easements in the last two to three years, said Athens Land Trust Conservation Director Kyle Williams.
Although people tend to think of conservation areas as large tracks of land like Bear Creek Reservoir, the average size of an easement in Athens-Clarke County is 67 acres, that’s about two city blocks.
In the Boulevard neighborhood, less than half an acre makes a difference. Boulevard Woods will provide a greenspace in Athens’ urban center, a unique role in the growing city.
Boulevard is an affluent pocket in a mixed student, townie, and low-income area. Williams says the conservation easement is a really a community easement.
“Recognizing a tree is valuable, or a flower, gives them a greater sense of stewardship of resources.”
By Audrey Milam
Athens-Clarke County Animal Control expects the expansion to the shelter on Buddy Christian Way to be completed in June.
The expansion, one of 33 projects funded by the 2011 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or SPLOST, package, will allow more animals to stay longer, reducing the euthanasia rate of adoptable animals.
According to Animal Control Superintendent Patrick Rives, the expansion includes plans for six kennels added to the existing 30, and an additional five quarantine kennels built in another location for dogs with behavioral problems.
“Right now those quarantine pens are part of our existing kennels,” Rives said, “so moving those dogs to these other pens will open up additional capacity as well.”
The 3500-square feet of new construction will also include a heated puppy care room, administrative offices, an evidence storage room and a larger intake area designed to ease the process for introducing dogs into the shelter.
“The flow of animals through will make a lot more sense,” Rives said, referring to the current layout that requires officers to process new dogs in the back of the shelter and move them around until they are ready for the kennels at the front.
Susan, a volunteer of four years, takes a black lab from one such kennel. A purple wooden sign says, “I’m an owner surrender.” A green sign says, “I’m housebroken.”
The lab, Lottie, plays with Hawkins in a 15 by 15-foot gravel pen. Freezing rain falls, but Susan stays. “I stay until they’re all out,” she says.
Susan is hopeful that the expansion will help save dogs like Lottie. Her owners adopted her from the shelter after Animal Control seized Lottie and several Chihuahuas from a hoarder.
They returned her, Susan said, because she kept getting out of the fence.
An expected efficiency boost will come from the addition of a cat shelter wing to the main shelter. Currently the staff walk the back and forth between the separate cat and dog facilities.
Volunteer Meredith Pierce, 21, said the joint facilities may also lead to “cross-exposure” of adoptable animals, meaning people looking for a dog may take home a cat too.
Pierce, along with friend Jeremy Bullard, 23, also thinks the changes will allow greater capacity for volunteers. On the weekends, she said, there can be one or more volunteers per dog at a time.
According to the Animal Control’s records, nearly 1500 people have volunteered in the last six months alone.
The mayor and county commission regularly review the planning, design and construction at public meetings, like all of the 2011 SPLOST “community improvement projects,” according to the Athens-Clarke County official website.
Although county voters approved the project in November of 2010, ground did not break on the shelter expansion until October of last year. Phillips Brothers Contracting, Inc. won the contract with the county for $1,074,202, although there is a little more than $200,000 extra budgeted for the project.
The Animal Shelter project makes up only two-thirds of one-percent of the total budget for the 2011 SPLOST package. The one-cent sales tax raised nearly $200,000,000 over the course of the tax term.
The shelter modifications cost each of the county’s residents only $10.65 in additional taxes, spread over three years.
That 10 bucks and change, or about two medium lattes, is helping Athens-Clarke County Animal Control ensure that the euthanasia rates that have consistently dropped during Superintendent Rives’ tenure, will continue to fall for another 19 years.
From July 2014 to January 2015, only 115 adoptable animals were euthanized, about 8.8-percent of all animals that came through the shelter. Animal Control Officer Michelle Carrigg said, “We’re not a no-kill shelter, but we’re a low-kill shelter, because our rates are very low for adoptable dogs.”
“We try our best to leave the dogs at home,” Carrigg said, “and then the ones that have to come here, when they are here we work hard with our volunteers to get them out via adoption or rescue.”
Keeping animals out of the shelter is key to keeping euthanasia low. Animal Control is only required to hold strays for five days before they euthanize, although they keep many animals longer if they have the space. When the shelter is crowded, however, officers are forced to euthanize the animals that have been there the longest.
Owner-surrendered animals like Lottie the black lab have no holding period. She would be the first to go.
The increased capacity of the renovated facility, however, will allow Animal Control to humanely serve a greater number of animals like Lottie.