Buena Vista historic district approved, though many are left unhappy

On Tuesday, March 5th, the Athens-Clarke County commission board voted to designate the Buena Vista neighborhood as an historic district. Fourteen days later, Mayor Nancy Densen allowed it to pass into law without signing it, officially sealing the area’s fate as a protected neighborhood.

This decision marks the end of an almost two-year controversy between local home owners and perhaps one of the more divisive issues for Athens in recent years.  Though the decision is now final, home owners and developers on both sides of the issue remain unhappy with the outcome.

“It leaves something that everyone can say they dislike,” said one official.

The issue was first raised in May of 2011, when the Athens Banner-Herald reported that the residents of the neighborhood were considering applying to be a designated historic district.  While the neighborhood itself does contain many historically significant homes, it also contains various contemporary homes and rental properties.  With the advent of the University of Georgia’s new medical campus, residents in the area decided to pursue this designation in order to protect the area from development geared toward student housing.  Other home owners in Buena Vista opposed the decision, fearing that it would take away some of their rights as property owners.

In October of 2012, the designation proposal finally went before the Mayor and county commission, where it was tabled until February due to the amount of dissention between residents.

 “I’m glad that there was no final vote back in October,” said district nine Commissioner Kelly Girtz.  “That window allowed us to track up a lot of important things.”  Girtz, along with commissioners Kathy Hoard and George Maxwell, took that opportunity to take another look at the proposed district in order to reach a compromise.  He also explained that preserving the city’s character and history was part of his reason for redrawing the district map, but that he also wanted to make sure that many of the non-contributing properties and the home owners who opposed the designation would remain out of the area.

The purpose of historic designation is to preserve the look and feel of a community as well as protect property values and promote the refurbishment of historic buildings.  In an historic district, any new development or external change to existing buildings must first be approved by the preservation commission.  In this manner, the preservation commission is able to manage development and preserve the character of historically significant areas.

The new district is roughly bounded by Prince Ave. on the South, Pound St. and Park Ave. on both sides and Nantahala Extension on the Northern side.  With just 62 properties, the approved district is significantly smaller than the Historic Preservation Commission’s original 100-property plan that was recommended last fall.  Proposing a plan that included fewer properties, the commissioners sought to protect the historic homes and cut out the properties that were described as not contributing to the historic significance of the area.

But few advocates or opponents of the historic designation are content with the resulting compromise.

“This is not a compromise, but a sellout,” asserted Melissa Link, a community activist and resident of the neighboring Boulevard district at a commission meeting in February.  Standing her ground, she maintained that the smaller district would only allow the area to be taken over by developers capitalizing on the growing neighborhood.  She also argued that Buena Vista should have been included in the Boulevard historic district when it was designated 25 years ago.

Jared York, Vice President of the Athens Area Home Builders Association, owns properties in Buena Vista and was opposed to the designation of this district.  He argued that this decision would complicate many things in regard to renovation for home owners in the area.

“The biggest thing for property owners is that is creates uncertainty,” said York.  “You don’t know if the commission is going to approve what you are asking for, so you are less likely to ask for it.”

York described the process of having to go through the preservation commission to make exterior changes to buildings as discouraging for property owners.  He explained that the fees and permits involved in renovation of these properties could potentially add two or even three months to certain building projects, even if these changes were approved by the commission.

George Maxwell, who represents district 3 which includes the Buena Vista neighborhood, voted against the new plan.  Though he had previously supported the redrawing of the district, he voiced reservations on the idea of a smaller district.  He ultimately decided that he would support the original plan or none at all.

“That compromise is not serving the district as I feel it should be served,” he explained to the commission when he decided to vote against the measure.

Buena Vista resident Kristin Morales however, is relieved by the recent vote, telling OnlineAthens that she would rather see some of the district protected than none of it.

“It’s certainly the most contentious issue I’ve seen since I’ve been on the commission,” Commissioner Jared Bailey, who represented the area before redistricting this year, told OnlineAthens.  This proposal remained controversial for many property owners of the area throughout the entire process.  At tense public meetings concerning Buena Vista, home owners and activists arrived in large numbers to assert their position.

 “People on both sides of the issue brought up valid arguments,” said Kelly Girtz, “but it got to the point where neither side was listening to the points made by the other.”  He maintained that the decision to create and approve the smaller district was not an easy one, but that the commission had to respect the wishes of the people in the district.  In the end, the issue came down to protecting the historic area without infringing on the rights of the property owners.

“It leaves something that everyone can say they dislike,” explained Girtz, “but that’s what a compromise is.”

The owners of this home proudly display their support sign for the designation of Buena Vista as an historic district. This sign contrasts sharply with others in the area that read, “Say No To Buena Vista Historic District.”


Jean Spratlin: Committed to government for almost four decades

“Most people don’t even think about local government ‘till something comes up and they need something done.”

In her office in City Hall, Jean Spratlin, the Athens-Clarke County Clerk of Commission talks about her job and the importance of local government to herself and to the people of Athens.  With white hair and glasses, Spratlin just began her 39th year as a civil servant in local government, and she does not plan on retiring any time soon.

“Good Lord willing, I’ll be having my 40th Anniversary with the Athens-Clarke County government next year,” Spratlin said with a twinkle in her eye.  For Spratlin, government is not only a job; it is her passion, and as she described it, it began as a challenge.

Jean Spratlin, the Athens-Clarke County clerk of commission, sits in her office on the 39th anniversary of her tenure in local government.

Jean Spratlin, Athens-Clarke County clerk of commission, sits in her office on the 39th anniversary of her tenure in local government.

“I had never worked in local government before, didn’t know that much about local government, so I thought it sounded interesting,” said Spratlin in a vibrant southern drawl.  Back then she had no way of knowing that in 39 years she would be in the same office, doing what she loved.

She began working for Athens-Clarke County in 1974, serving as a clerk under the clerk treasurer, but since that was almost four decades ago, she cannot quite recall what her specific title was.  From there she moved up to deputy clerk, and then on to her current title.

“This has been a continuous job,” said Spratlin, “I have not worked anywhere else since I started.”

As the clerk of commission, her job is to direct the activities that lead to decision-making for the county commission.  Essentially, she helps the government of Athens communicate and understand one another in order to govern more effectively.  She also has a hand in making sure that all of the information gathered by the commission, all of their documents, and videos of the meetings are available to the citizens of Athens.

“I’m not sure there’s any such thing as ‘a normal day’ around here,” Spratlin said with a chuckle.  She explained that any day could bring any sort of issue that she would need to deal with, and often no two days are the same.  Of the few things that her office deals with daily, helping the public and the department of directors to find information from years past are more normal.  Her office is also in charge of publishing press releases that detail any city and county code and law changes, and making sure that the public is aware of what the county commission is doing.

As the official record keeper for the Athens-Clarke County government, Spratlin’s office preforms a vital duty to the public and the government, both now and in the future.

“Twenty, 30 years from now when someone comes and looks something up, are they going to know what was done?” said Spratlin.  “So, when I’m gone, whoever comes after me, or whoever is the mayor or manager or whoever, could come in and find that information without difficulty.”

When speaking with Spratlin, it is easy to see that she is fascinated by government.  While she thinks that people do not appreciate the local government enough for what it does, she enjoys getting other people excited about government.

 “Everything is of interest to me,” said Spratlin, “I can’t decide which item is more important than the other.”  She stressed that remaining neutral in regard to the issues she deals with is a large part of her duty, and one that she takes seriously.  She explained that there is a balance to working in her office, in order to properly allow the commission to understand and vote on every aspect of an issue, she has to be able to explain every aspect.  “If it is important to a commissioner, it is important to me.”

Spratlin has had health problems that cause her to miss some work.  But she dismisses any questions about her ability to carry out her duties.  She conceded that health issues can cause problems when it comes to the workplace, but was sure to make it clear that she is committed to local government and the citizens of Athens-Clarke County.

“It’s just a matter of getting down here and getting mind over matter, I guess.”

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-Zach Parker


Local food movements clash with globalization trends

Walking through the produce section of your preferred grocery, you may decide to buy some apples, but where did those apples come from?  Were they grown locally in Georgia’s apple capital Ellijay?  Or, as is more likely the case, were they grown and harvested somewhere else, somewhere 2,600 miles away?

The world’s food systems have become increasingly globalized over the past decades; with more companies producing food on a mass scale, we as a society have seemingly gotten farther away from our food than ever before.  However, local food trends are growing across the nation, allowing local farms and food movements to flourish.

As the old adage goes; an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but in today’s food market, getting that apple requires more process than is seen by the consumer.  As is the case with all produce, apples do not grow year-round, nor do they grow well in every state’s climate.  According to USDA statistics from 2000, slightly less than 50 percent of all apple production in the U.S. occurs over 2600 miles away from Georgia; in Washington State. Apples are only a minor example of the scale of production and shipping required to get consumers the foods they demand.

Availability of many types of food depends on season.  With processed foods, production and manufacturing factors play a larger role in where food comes from. 

Kansas is the nation’s largest producer of wheat, but the process that takes it from wheat to bread is a long one with many different stops on the way.  In the process of bread-making alone, the supply chain, or the chain of production necessary for today’s bread-production system, relies on yeast production, sugar production, wheat production and processing, and countless other variables tied together by shipping lanes; all to get a loaf of sliced bread from the field to the dinner table. 

Just as the trend towards the globalization of food grows, so does the movement towards local, organically produced foods. 

In Athens alone there are a multitude of options when looking for local or organic foods.  When it comes to organic food, every supermarket around town carries a selection of organic produce, with specialty stores like Earth Fare and Trader Joe’s offering an even wider selection.  There are even more options for organic and local food with the influx of local farm cooperatives and farmer’s markets that have come to Athens in recent years.  The Athens Farmers Market will come together on the sidewalk around City Hall twice a week beginning in April, offering locally grown and organic produce at good prices to the residents of the downtown area.  The Daily Groceries Co-op and Athens Locally Grown are two programs that allow interested parties to buy a membership or ownership of the organization in exchange for fresh organic and local produce.  Farm 255 is yet another example of the power of the local food movement as a restaurant that is fueled entirely by Athens-area farms.

Recent legislation introduced by Representative Keisha Waites (D) of Georgia’s 60thdistrict will provide an avenue and incentives for Georgia schools and school districts to purchase foods and other products from Georgia farms.  This bill, introduced into the Georgia House of Representatives, would signify a large step forward for the local food movement, as well as a huge helping hand to local farms around the State.  While still in its infancy now, this bill proposes the creation of a farm-to-school program that would facilitate and promote the sale of Georgia grown farm products to the school districts around Georgia, providing a ray of hope for local farms and local food movements in the state.

Even with local and organic food options being more available than ever, people find it difficult to go out of their way to buy food, and because this idea of global food has become the norm, people seldom make efforts to purchase locally. 

Supermarkets have been extremely popular for decades, offering one-stop shopping and competitive prices.  Wal-Mart provides 18 percent of the country’s groceries annually, but sometimes struggles to provide local and organic food to its shoppers.  In 2006 however, the company released that it had doubled sales in organic foods, and in 2008 outlined a plan to sell more local foods, planning to reach 9 percent local produce by 2015.  According to Jim Prevor, a produce industry analyst and editor of the blog Popular Pundit, one of the biggest problems that companies like Wal-Mart have in regard to the sale of organic and local foods is due to scale. 

“They just couldn’t find operations with sufficient quantity to supply them,” said Prevor in an interview with Tom Philpott for Mother Jones.  Companies as large as Wal-Mart need to be able to purchase extremely large quantities of produce from farms, and these smaller organic farms are not able to keep up with supply. 

While any effects of the globalization of our food systems may not seem immediately apparent, they have affected our lives in ways that we may not be able to see on a daily basis. 

Colleen O’Brian Cherry is an assistant research scientist at the Center for Global Health in the College of Public Health at the University of Georgia.  She has recently completed research on the culinary and cultural practices of groups in Southern Arizona, centered on how changing environments impact the health and well being of the population. 

Her research has shown, among other things, that a breakdown in traditional food gathering and preparation practices has had a negative impact on culture and cultural tradition as well as a negative effect on health and wellness for the populations studied.  The findings of this research carry implications not only for the area that was being studied, but as she explained it, the health and nutrition practices of our country as a whole.  

“The globalization of food can be a huge factor in nutrition,” said Cherry. “Even in rural areas, the [traditional] diet has been replaced by the typical American diet. We have grown distant from our food sources; everything is so packaged and processed, and half of the stuff on your dinner plate is from thousands and thousands of miles away.”

With processed and junk foods more available than ever, they become harder for the average consumer to stay away from. 

For all of progress that the local food movements have made around the country, the movement toward more globalized food systems still progresses, begging the question; which trend is more powerful? 

J. Scott Angle, the Dean of the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at the University of Georgia, seemed to believe that industrial agriculture is only growing. 

“We’ve had a doubling in the number of students enrolled in our programs in the last 7 years,” said Angle.  He mentioned that while programs like Agribusiness, the most popular program in CAES, are growing exponentially, more non-traditional and less-popular programs like food science are growing as well.  Indeed, the farming industry is doing well, offering more jobs than almost any other field, as well as the recorded 2nd highest salary for graduates right out of college. 

While this does not necessarily mean that the local food movement is in danger, it does not bode well for the future of smaller, less commercial farming initiatives. If there is hope for the independent farmer, it seems that it may come from education.


New development threatens historic site

Just a year ago, a drive down Oconee Street through Carr’s Hill would show a bustling neighborhood community, housing students and non-students alike, multiple churches, and the historic Oconee Street School; now the headquarters of ACTION Incorporated.  This, however, may not be the case for much longer.

Today, a similar drive reveals a new student housing complex that presses the boundaries of Carr’s Hill, cutting the area off visibly from Downtown and the Oconee River, and choking the already cramped streets and intersections.  This new development coupled with the current economic recession could signify the end of mixed-use housing in the area, and devastating blow to the future of the historic building that houses ACTION Inc.

Located in the old Oconee Street School building on the corner of Oconee and Poplar Street, the Area Committee to Improve Opportunities Now, or ACTION Inc., was founded in 1965 with the goal of helping impoverished families and individuals in Northeast Georgia.  With offices in ten counties, ACTION Inc. provides various services to the children, elderly, and poor of North Georgia, including emergency home repair and self-sufficiency classes, just to name a few.  Marilyn Appleby, the Marketing and Communications Director for the Athens Housing Authority, described the organization as a great benefit to the community and the state.

“They provide programs that help senior citizens who have difficulty paying their utilities,” said Appleby.  “They also offer housing counseling, and they teach classes on budgeting and money management.”

The Community Development Block Grant program plays a big part in the services provided by the organization.  Formed in 1974 by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the CDBG fund provides communities with funds that address a wide range of unique community development needs, allowing ACTION Inc. to provide vital services like weatherization, emergency repair, and various other utility cost-cutting services to the elderly and poor around Georgia.

The Oconee Street School that houses the organization has long been a staple of the neighborhood, offering historic charm to Carr’s Hill, an area that the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation has called; “one of Athens most historic areas.”  The building itself was built in 1908 as an initiative to build three new public schools in Athens, and is the only one of that era still intact today.  As one of Athens’ earliest public schools, this building is both architecturally and historically significant, making it eligible to be designated as a national landmark and placed on the national register of historic places, though this is not yet the case.

This important community resource and the historic building that it is located in may be in danger, and it will not be the first time.

With the sign in front of the building dirty and almost unreadable, and the parking lot full of potholes and rocks, this area has definitely seen better days.  A quick survey of the ACTION building as it is now quickly reveals that the organization has been unable to correctly care for it, and has resorted to, among other cost-cutting measures, renting out office space to other organizations.

ACTION Inc. has had several financial difficulties over the years, which has caused many further problems for the organization and put the building that houses it in danger.  In 2005, the ACTION board of directors decided to sell the building in order to eliminate debts reaching a reported $1.4 million dollars, according to the Athens Banner-Herald.  Over the next year, several prospective purchasers of the property came and went, with each ultimately backing out of a deal.

In December of 2006, ACTION filed for a special use permit that would allow for a potential buyer of the property to demolish the existing historic building to make way for 17 townhomes.  After considerable effort by the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation, and two separate appeals, the application was denied.  A study was then commissioned, according the ACHF, to assess potential use and historic significance of the building itself, with the ultimate goal of designating the building as a nationally recognized historic landmark.

The Oconee Street School Feasibility Study, commissioned by the Heritage Foundation and carried out by Lord Aeck Sargent, an Atlanta-based architectural firm, detailed the historic and architectural significance of the building, as well as potential uses, renovation costs, and tax credits associated with use and renovation of the property.  The study concluded that adequate renovations would total to just under $2.5 million, but the use of the building would be eligible for significant tax incentive programs if the property is ultimately deemed a national historic site.

ACTION Inc. met further financial difficulties in 2011 due to federal budget cuts, forcing it to cut back its hours of operation across all ten offices, as well as make significant cuts to programs like Full Plate, which collects leftover food from restaurants and cafeterias to donate to local shelters.

With a history of debt and mismanagement, coupled with an uneasy economic foothold, the future of ACTION is a little foggy.  According to the Athens Banner-Herald, the organization was able to come to an agreement with the IRS in 2011 to wave a large portion of unpaid taxes, though the organization is still having trouble making payments.

As of yet, the Oconee Street School building has still not been formally designated by the national register as an historic site, and even though it has been deemed eligible for historic status, it is still venerable to new development initiatives in the area.  Amy Kissane, Executive Director of the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation, expressed concern regarding the status of this historic building, especially with the advent of large-scale housing-developments in the area.

“With the new development going on in the Carr’s Hill area, we don’t know what’s going to happen to the school,” said Kissane.  “We will certainly be watching the area carefully.”