Updated: Mar 21
I'm Paul Bunce, a "community organizer" working on behalf of taxpayers, property owners and bike riders of Clarke County. We're trying to get the safest, most useful and least expensive bike trail route (Firefly Trial) from downtown Athens to Winterville. The commissioners picked a route last year which fails on all of these criteria due to the fact they they were given incorrect information on which to vote. We're trying to rectify that error. The attached letter spells out in detail what has been done incorrectly and what can be done to correct this error. If you'd like to express your support for the correction please email to BetterFFT3@gmail.com.
Proposals Regarding Clarke County Firefly Trail Section 3 (western edge of Winterville to Spring Valley Road) Submitted by Property Owners Directly Affected
The current Athens Clarke County planning for section 3 of the Firefly bike trail is flawed in many respects and urgently needs revision. It should meet three necessary criteria
The currently proposed route fails on all three criteria.
Three routes were originally proposed. The route that was chosen, Route A, would be tremendously more expensive than other possible routes (probably at least $ one million more for about one mile of trail), offers a lower level of safety and provides significantly less benefit to the community.
A trail route along Moores Grove Road directly to Spring Valley Road would be generally safer, would provide safe bicycle access from Winterville to Coile Middle School and, as stated, cost at least $ one million less.
HISTORY OF FIREFLY TRAIL SECTION 3
Perhaps 7 years ago we attended a meeting in Winterville at the Depot where we were first shown a map of the proposed route for a Firefly trail in the Winterville area. We observed that it was planned to follow the route of the defunct Union Point Railroad. The RR had been closed and the tracks removed years before we purchased our property on Carney Lake Road. We purchased the railroad right of way adjacent to our property in June 1988. So we inquired about how the project intended to acquire the land for the FFT. Was there a plan to seize our property by using eminent domain? “Oh, no, we’d never do that. If you don’t want to sell we’ll just wait. At some time in the future either you or your heirs will decide to sell or donate the property and then we’ll build the trail.” We were suspicious of that instant soothing answer. There were FFT (Firefly Trail) Inc. members helping with the presentation. We thought the trail was a good idea so we joined FFT Inc. at that time. As the years went on there would be another public meeting in Winterville every 6-12 months, and each time we would be reassured that eminent domain would never be considered. Then maybe three years ago a public meeting was held in the Clarke County maintenance HQ. There when we asked about eminent domain we were met with silence. No response.
When section three finally came up for public discussion of route options there were several public meetings and an online “survey.” That’s when it really became obvious that we were being railroaded. We were presented with three options. Route A which mostly followed the original rail bed (through our backyard). Route B would run along the west side of Moores Grove Road. Route C would cross over and run along the east side of Moores Grove road.
The in-person meeting had very basic maps showing a blue line drawn on an otherwise blank sheet except for showing roads. There was NO information given about cost, safety or community benefit or the private property affected.
The online “survey” showed the same map, also with no information given regarding cost, safety or community benefit.
If you picked Route B or C online, the program automatically picked Route A as your second choice. You were not allowed to pick B and C or C and B. Thus, the result was that every response indicated that the person picked A as either their first or second choice. We immediately notified Athens Clarke County of this problem. It was never corrected. And the results were submitted to the commissioners indicating that everyone “surveyed” was in favor of Route A. That was simply not true.
We spoke to some of the people at the in-person meetings and told them about what was involved with the various routes. Most of them had picked Route A by just looking at the blue line on a blank sheet of paper. When we told them what was actually involved regarding cost, safety, and benefit every person we spoke to changed their choice to Route C.
Firefly Trail Inc. supported Route C.
RELATIVE COST OF ROUTE A AND ROUTE C
We repeatedly asked Derek Doster, the county engineer, for cost estimates of the different routes. He kept telling us that he had no such estimates. In February of 2021 he finally gave us incomplete estimates. Later we learned that he had those estimated in October of 2020 and denied having them at that time. When we reviewed those estimates we found them to be grossly slanted in favor of Route A. The Route A costs were vastly underestimated and the Route C costs were considerably overestimated. And at that time we were informed that Route B could not be considered because of underground utilities on the west side of Moores Grove Road.
When we contacted Mr. Doster about the considerable errors in the estimates, he gave us a series of “updates”. We identified errors in each successive update. Each update continued to be heavily slanted in favor of Route A. We pointed out factual errors in each update, and they were never corrected. Major errors were the cost of moving power poles on Route C and drainage on route A. Mr. Doster estimated moving 11 power poles at $35000 each for a total of $385,000. I walked Route C with a Georgia Power engineer. He stated that 5 poles would need to be moved at a cost of $7000 each, a total of $35,000. Mr. Doster never included an estimate for drainage mitigation on Route A. After the commission had voted in favor of Route A based on false cost estimates, Mr. Doster quite a bit later called in an engineering firm from Augusta to design a drainage plan. It’s quite extensive, and he has still not provided us with a cost estimate for that plan. Two of the affected property owners on Route A (Tim and Paul) have construction engineering backgrounds and can tell you that the plan as drawn will almost certainly exceed $500,000 in cost. Thus, just two items underestimated the cost of Route A by over $500,000 and overestimated the cost of Route C by $350,000.
ADDITIONAL COSTS OF ROUTE A
There are other costs not considered for Route A as well.
Nearly ¼ mile of this route will require retaining walls on both sides of the trail for a total of ½ miles. We have no estimate for cost of retaining wall at this time, but it would be significant.
The property owners affected need to have privacy and security fences on both sides of the trail for over ½ mile for a total of over one mile of fence. (The trail would be within 120 feet of some houses and within 15 feet of workshops and storage buildings.) Through this entire process the neighborhood members have been repeatedly told that ACC would pay to erect whatever fence the properties needed. In one of Mr. Doster’s estimates he proposed putting in a 5 foot high field fence (hog wire) as a privacy and security barrier. That type of fence would provide no safety and security at all. One possible estimate is that 6-8 foot high barriers cost $24 per square foot or $192 per running foot for an 8 foot high wall. This would total slightly over $1,000,000. That is a very high price for this short piece of bike trail. 8’ high vinyl fence is about $50 per running foot at Home Depot. The panel cost alone would be about $250,000. Installation and posts could easily double that. But vinyl fence will require periodic replacement and maintenance.
ACC would have to pay for the relocation and reconstruction of one large storage building that is currently in the direct path of the trail as drawn by the engineer. (Rails to trails guidelines would permit redrawing this section by a few feet so that this building would not need to be moved. So far the county engineering department has not provided the alternate routing.)
SUMMARY OF COST DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ROUTE A AND ROUTE C
So, the cost estimates for power poles and drainage mitigation as voted on by the previous commission favoring Route A over Route C were IN ERROR by around $800,000. Then add in the cost of privacy fence of about $500,000 to $1000,000. And we have not yet included the cost of retaining walls and related grading which will be a great deal more. Parts of Route A are not level and are quite swampy. Route C, along Moores Grove Road already has a sidewalk, with easement, for over half of the distance needed, so there’s no property to purchase. Route C requires very little grading and no drainage mitigation.
Winterville has long wanted a walking path to the Coile Middle School. Route C would provide about ½ of that distance, and that route could be adjusted to provide complete access to Coile Middle School.
Winterville, a Tree City USA, would lose over 70 large old growth trees as a result of constructing Route A. That would be a major detriment to the community.
Route A will trap trail users within an 8 foot high privacy fence for over ½ mile. People cannot get out, and help cannot get in if anyone has any problems in that area. That is completely unsafe. In addition, all of the initially proposed routes also have an additional 4000ft. (0.8 mile) of remote woods and fields out of sight of any help and perfect for predators to hide and attack trail users. That’s also not safe. Yes, the trail is posted for no use after twilight. And that restriction is universally ignored.
When the final commissioners’ vote was taken to choose Route A two commissioners who had pledged to pick Route C changed their votes and picked A. Their reason? Safety. At the meetings prior to the commissioners’ vote, a number of statements were made by members of the public regarding safety. Many of them were absolutely false. There were many accusations made that either Route B or C would be unsafe because “Moores Groove is a dangerous high-speed road.” And “bike lanes are unsafe.” Those arguments are totally irrelevant because we were never discussing using a bike lane which is a painted line on the edge of an existing road. The Firefly Trail is specifically designed to take bike and walking traffic OFF of the highway. (Not to mention the fact that actual bike lanes have recently been added to a true high speed road, namely Hull Road.)
People also stated that in order to use Route C it would be necessary to cross Moores Groove, once again labeled as a “dangerous high-speed road”. The currently proposed Route C crossing point is about half way between the stop light in Winterville and the four-way stop at Spring Valley Road near Coile Middle School. That location has a sight distance of over 1/2 mile in both directions on a straight flat road. That’s over 30 seconds in either direction for cars moving at 10 mph over the posted speed limit. It takes less than 5 seconds to cross that road. We also suggested that a manually triggered flashing light could be installed at the crossing. The director of ACC DOT told the undersigned Paul Bunce that Federal Regulation wouldn’t allow a crossing of such a high-speed road unless either a four way stop light or four way stop sign were installed. He found that argument to be invalid given the sight distance at that proposed crossing. As an example, let us suggest you look at Whit Davis Road. There are multiple manually triggered flashing light crossings there with less than half of the sight distance available on Moores Groove. There is a manually triggered flashing light right in front of the Winterville Elementary School on Cherokee Road. The director’s answer was, “Those were grandfathered in and we have no control over that.”
In any case, our proposal outlined below would eliminate that alleged danger as well.
PROPOSAL FOR A BETTER ROUTE
Given the nature of the process which has resulted in the selection of Route A for section 3 of the FFT, we hereby petition the commissioners to begin this process anew. It could be handled better. Hold public hearings in person and on-line. Tell the people who are voting about the cost, community benefit and actual, not falsely alleged, safety of the options. Also point out to them that Winterville, a Tree City USA, would lose over 70 large old growth trees as a result constructing Route A.
Now for another proposal which should be included as a choice. Extend the FFT on Spring Valley Road to Moores Grove road. This allows a crossing to the east side of Moores Groove where there is an existing four way stop, a crossing deemed safe by DOT. This will eliminate the unsafe passage through the woods and fields far from any oversight or help. It will provide Winterville school children a safe route to Coile Middle School. Given that much of that route will follow existing road right of way easements the cost of acquiring property should be lower. The cost of grading will be far lower than Route A. There will be no cost of drainage mitigation, retaining wall, or privacy and security fence.
Another argument against deviating from the previous abandoned rail bed is that when voters approved the initial SPLOST referendum they were voting to have a FFT trail follow the abandoned railbed and that any deviation might be grounds for a lawsuit from voters who didn’t approve putting a trail anywhere else. We find this argument to be specious. There have been a number of deviations from the previous railbed in various areas. We believe that if voters are given full information about community benefit, safety and cost, they will have no objection to picking a route which is safer, of more benefit and less expensive than the one initially chosen due to false information.
As members of the Winterville community, we want to see a FFT route which will be of most benefit to the community. A Moores Grove route to Spring Valley would meet that criterion.
The first signatory on this letter is a Firefly Inc. member and a member of the Winterville Firefly Trail Local Action Committee. I want to see the safest route for the trail. Note that I am speaking for myself on this issue and not for the Local Action Committee or for Firefly Inc, in my choice of route ( Firefly Inc. did in fact strongly support Route C, the east side of Moore’s Grove Road). As a Clarke County Resident since 1950 and a Clarke County property tax payer since 1970, I want the best trail for the lowest reasonable amount of money.
The current choice of Route A, which, to be fair to the commissioners who chose it, was based on false information given to them, fails on all three criteria:
We need to rethink and restart this process in order to give the citizens, the taxpayers and the trail users a better option.
Paul and Ann Bunce
Katie and Tim Bemisderfer