Athens-Clarke County commissioners are considering a number of changes aimed at reducing binge drinking and overcrowding downtown, from preventing bars from clustering together to banning glass beer bottles.
ACC Manager Blaine Williams presented commissioners with a set of recommendations at a Jan. 9 work session that came out of a $90,000 downtown health and safety study. Among them: The commission or another body would vet applicants for licenses to serve alcohol, rather than issue those licenses by right. One recommendation is to make restaurants and bars that exceed a maximum occupancy of 100 people a “special use,” which would give the commission the power to make sure that such establishments aren’t too close to each other, presenting a fire hazard—similar to the way the government regulates fraternity and sorority houses on Milledge Avenue, Planning Director Brad Griffin said. Another would let the government look at how often a bar has been charged with serving a minor or other violations when renewing alcohol licenses.
“Hopefully, it’s not so much a punishment as encouraging compliance throughout the year,” Williams said.
The recommendation to ban glass beer (but not wine or liquor) bottles drew quite a bit of discussion, with most commissioners leaning toward incentivizing the sale of cans rather than an outright ban on bottles.
“We just have a really hard time handling the glass downtown,” Williams said. “It’s heavy. It breaks. People get cut. It’s not the [most valuable] commodity for recycling.”
Commissioner (and noted beer lover) Andy Herod objected to a ban, saying he prefers the taste of beer in a bottle, and that many beers don’t come in cans. Commissioner Jared Bailey, though, said the 40 Watt Club stopped selling bottles when he owned it. “If a bar wants to do it, there are ways to do it,” Bailey said. “It can be done.”
More broadly, officials are also revisiting how trash is collected downtown. Because the area lacks alleys where businesses could store receptacles, and health regulations prevent restaurants from keeping them inside, they generally place bags on the sidewalk, where they’re continuously picked up by sanitation workers in specialized trucks—but not always before they start to leak. “We’re at a juncture where we have to make some decisions on trash,” Solid Waste Director Suki Janssen said. “We can’t put it off any longer.”
The idea of “environmental stations”—often derided as “trash corrals”—met with a less than enthusiastic response from commissioners in 2013, but now they’re ready to revisit it. During the upcoming Clayton Street project, the fenced-in areas for businesses’ trash cans could be tied in directly to the sewer line, making it easier to keep them clean, Janssen said, and Commissioner Mike Hamby suggested that they could be decorated by local artists.
An alternative would be to tell businesses to bring their trash bags to a central location at certain times after lunch and after bars close, where an automated truck could pick them up. But with the Clayton Street’s center lane set to be removed, Janssen said she thinks loading zones on side streets will be too busy.
A more extreme solution: Put the trash corrals underground. That’s what Kissimmee, FL, does, Janssen said, but it would be expensive, requiring the purchase of special equipment that’s only available in Kissimmee.
Other recommendations include limiting the number to four-bedroom apartments in a development to 25 percent to encourage housing other than student housing; requiring training for servers on alcohol laws; revisiting the sidewalk cafe ordinance so that the additional sidewalk space on Clayton isn’t eaten up by cafes; building a public toilet, perhaps in a parking deck; and raising the minimum drink price from $1 to $2.
Although the study prompted a lot of discussion about issues facing downtown, several commissioners said they wished it had dealt with panhandling, and others said they were unhappy with the $90,000 expense. “I don’t think it was worth the money we paid for it,” Commissioner Sharyn Dickerson said. “It didn’t tell us much that staff didn’t already know.”
Study Maps Out Transit Expansion
It will all depend on how much money commissioners want to spend, but they have a blueprint for expanding Athens Transit in Athens in the form of a study they were briefed on at last week’s work session.
Over the next five years, the study recommends revamping routes 5, 6 and 7 (Baxter Street, Atlanta Highway and Prince Avenue) and adding service to Martin Luther King Jr. Five to 10 years out, it recommends changes to routes 8 and 9 (Barber/Chase and Five Points), extending service further down Atlanta Highway (to Caterpillar), Lumpkin Street and Milledge Avenue, an Eastside flex route, higher frequency on routes 5, 7, 9, 25 and 26 and transfer stations on Atlanta Highway, at the corner of Baxter and Alps Road and the Corner of Lexington and Gaines School roads. By 2033, the study recommends adding frequency to other routes and extending service to Epps Bridge Parkway in Oconee County. (Commissioners have resisted that last idea in the past because they don’t want to make it easier for people to spend money over the county line.)
“The bus to Epps Bridge Parkway? Really?” Commissioner Jerry NeSmith said.
“People want that,” said Commissioner Melissa Link. “They really do.”
“We’re not doing it,” Herod said, flatly.
“I don’t see us going out to Epps Bridge Parkway unless we already have service to everyone in our county,” Dickerson added. And that won’t be happening, even 15 years from now.