Speakers square off over greenway: The Union-Recorder (Milledgeville GA), 6/10/05

By Keich Whicker

Of all the rhetorical fireworks at the public hearing about Baldwin County's proposed budget Tuesday, those regarding the funding of the Oconee River Greenway Authority and the proposed greenway project were the most incendiary.

Five people addressed the commissioners during the appearances portion of the meeting. Three speakers were against the greenway, two in support - although there were about another half dozen residents in attendance with "Greenway Supporter" stickers affixed to their chests.

Jim and Mary Purcell, who own property in Wilkinson County along the Oconee River, were not among them.

They believe the greenway should not receive the $75,000 currently earmarked by the county in its 2006 budget to cover ORGA's operational costs because they view the authority as an entity bent on controlling the river and its tributaries and keen to seize private property. They also believe the public is being misled by the authority and its supporters.

"After reading the documents and requesting and receiving a copy of the mission statement from (ORGA), my husband and I discussed the possibility that the general public was being spoon-fed information on an as-needed agenda basis," Mary Purcell told the commissioners Tuesday.

"House bill 596 (which created ORGA) allows (ORGA) to control the Oconee River and all impounded waters of the Oconee River," she said. "What I anticipate is a taking, which will allow the authority to control a corridor along the banks of the Oconee. Who will do the taking? I called the state attorney general's office and was told that all (ORGA) had to do was ask and they would have the power for a condemnation or a taking."

Alison Spencer, an assistant attorney in the state attorney general's office, told The Union-Recorder on Wednesday that ORGA did not have the power to condemn or take ownership of private property. She also said the legislation that created the authority did not grant it control of the river on any other impounded waterways.

She also said she thought it was unlikely anyone in the attorney general's office informed the Purcells that ORGA only needed "to ask" for such powers, as the authority was only empowered to do what was explicitly spelled out in its legislation.

To acquire the power the Purcells believe ORGA already possesses, the authority would have to seek amendments to its legislation, which would have to be approved by the General Assembly.

Mary Purcell also argued that the bill and its subsequent amendments granted ORGA the authority to control properties that border the greenway's property on the river, and stated that she believed commissioners from a variety of counties would be asked to condemn land so that it could be taken over by the authority and create a lengthy greenway corridor down the river.

Both the chairman and executive director of ORGA denied this.

"That is patently false," said Peter Boylan, who is president of Georgia Military College and chairman of ORGA. "In fact, the attorney general has rendered an opinion that the greenway does not have that power. The greenway will not encroach on the property of any landowner who does not wish to provide a property easement."

Jim Purcell followed up his wife's comments with questions about the integrity of the 2004 economic report produced by Dr. Faye W. Gilbert and the J. Whitney Bunting School of Business at Georgia College & State University, which claimed the greenway could benefit the city and county's economy by as little as $325,560 or as much as $5,331,102 per year.

Purcell said the report was based on broad assumptions and a lack of projections for the specific aspects of activities associated with the facilities.

"If you think greenway is a gold mine for Baldwin County, you may believe in fool's gold," he told the commissioners. "They have not been forthcoming. They have not told you everything that they are up to, they just told you what they wanted you to hear."

Gilbert said her report was never intended to be a specific forecast of the future. Her goal was look generally at what might be possible if a greenway were constructed.

"You cannot pinpoint sales forecasts in the absence of data," she said. "So the whole point of this report was to estimate the potential and to paint different pictures of what might occur for this greenway."

Gilbert also stressed she was not biased either way with regard to the greenway, and pointed to her use of three different methods in the report as evidence of her efforts to ensure the accuracy of its final estimates.

"That's the reason to do three different approaches," she said. "For me personally, my academic task was to paint some potential pictures of what might occur."

Boylan shrugged off the assertions of the Purcells and argued that the greenway would be a positive addition to the community that would improve local economics, aesthetics and quality of life.

He said the river was an important resource and that residents should be able to view the river, to use the river and realize the other advantages that come to communities with rivers flowing through them, all of which were almost impossible now, given the current conditions along the riverbank.

"Presently, the Oconee River is an uninviting resource, lined with privet and trash," he said. "Shouldn't our citizens be provided the opportunity to share in this wonderful resource by visiting it and be able to walk along it, enjoying the scenery?"

The Union-Recorder: www.unionrecorder.com