Athens-Clarke County officials are racing to finish the county’s latest comprehensive plan, a state-mandated 10-year document that will guide local government decisions on development, housing, transportation, the environment and other areas.
“This is not a plan that sits on a shelf, as is often thought of,” ACC planner Gavin Hassemer told about 50 attendees at an Oct. 16 public input session at Chase Street Elementary that focused on land use. The last comp plan paved the way for Athens’ two farmers markets, the proliferation of community gardens, Sunday and night bus service, free rides for youth and the county’s public art program, Hassemer said. The previous one, passed in the late ’90s, created the “green belt” around the outskirts of the county and funneled development downtown.
Athens is routinely named one of the best places to retire, but numerous people have pointed out that there is little housing specifically for retirees. “There is nowhere downtown that’s friendly to aging in place that I want to live in”—not even the recently approved Mitchell Street condos for seniors, which lack patios or balconies and aren’t walking distance to a grocery store, Frances Helmsley said at the input session. “If I were able to buy one of those, that’s not where I want to live,” she said.
That’s not an issue restricted to retirees, University of Georgia student Taylor Worley said. “If you live downtown, you have to have a car, because you can’t walk to the grocery store, and you have to have a place to park,” he said.
The proliferation of luxury student housing downtown was another common theme. Dan Lorentz lamented that the University of Georgia has stopped building dorms. “I think we should build a wall, keep the students out of downtown,” he joked. “But seriously, I think it would be good if the university got back into student housing.”
As a solution to Athens’ affordable housing problem, one couple from Seattle proposed “pod housing” similar to apartments but with a common kitchen area. ACC planning commissioner Hank Joiner had another solution: revisiting the county law limiting the number of unrelated tenants in single-family homes to two. “We’re beyond that now, because we have so many student high-rises,” Joiner said. “Students don’t want to live next door to me, they want to live downtown.” Since fewer students live in neighborhoods and create problems for full-time residents, the law could be relaxed to make rents cheaper for working people.
Those are only a few of the hundreds, if not thousands, of ideas planners have received, both through the comp plan input process and Envision Athens, the master-planning process for the entire community. Now, planners and the comp plan steering committee—made up of the nine-member planning commission, county commissioners Sharyn Dickerson (who co-chaired Envision Athens) and Jared Bailey, and Deborah Lonon, director of the ACC Housing and Community Development Development Department—are in the process of sorting through them all. (And public input is still being accepted at athensclarkecounty.com/compplan.)
Envision Athens involves the school district, university, nonprofit sector, businesses and hospitals, but the comp plan is specifically focused on local government. At their most recent meeting Nov. 13, steering committee members seemed unclear on what can and should be included—for example, the government can influence health care in certain ways, but is not a health-care provider and can’t do much about things like insurance rates or access to clinics. The state will expect ACC to stick to its word. “We cannot put things in here that we cannot follow through on,” Hassemer said.
“I’m concerned we’re going to spend a lot of time on things that really don’t belong in the comp plan in the first place,” planning commissioner Lucy Rowland said. And time is of the essence—the plan is due July 1, which means it has to be presented to the Mayor and Commission by March or April at the latest, and it was delayed as the Envision Athens consultant, Planning NEXT, compiled data and public input. “I don’t think it’s possible [to finish the plan in time] unless we really start to step things up,” Rowland said.