The Bulloch County government’s proposal to extend the paved S&S Greenway walking and cycling trail into Brooklet divides the opinions of neighbors, who disagreed in a passionate but neighborly way during a forum on the subject Thursday evening.
At least 120 people filed into Brooklet’s Randy Newman Community Center, where rows of individuals stood in the back after almost all of the 80 folding chairs were filled and city officials handed out the last of 100 information sheets.
“Some things that you’ve got concerns over, now is the time to ask,” Brooklet Mayor Joe Grooms III said in opening comments to the crowd. “Just remember that this is not something that is going to happen tomorrow, but I wanted to make sure that the community knew what was going on and that they have a voice in this.”
This would be the third phase of the greenway, which is maintained by the Statesboro-Bulloch County Parks and Recreation Department. The established trail starts at Gentilly Road in Statesboro and is about 2.5 miles long. Construction on Phase III is slated to begin in 2024 and take about one year to complete.
With an estimated to cost of $5.6 million from concept through construction, the project would extend the trail about 4.5 miles southeastward from where it currently ends at the Five Points roundabout to a proposed small trailhead park with restrooms behind the John Wesley Center in Brooklet.
Proposed funding sources are a combination of federal Transportation Alternative Program grants and the county’s own Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or T-SPLOST.
The county already holds a 100-foot-wide right of way from the long-abandoned Savannah & Statesboro Railway route. The trail surface would vary from 12 to 10 feet wide, asphalt in the rural area and concrete in town.
From Brooklet’s city limits to the Wesley Center, the trail would follow West Lane Street across from Brooklet Elementary School and pass through a residential neighborhood, crossing lot edges that some homeowners consider part of their yards.
A number of Lane Street residents voiced opposition in comments to county officials when they held two information meetings in Brooklet in May.
Brooklet’s city government then planned Thursday’s forum but invited county staff members to provide information. Grooms introduced County Manager Tom Couch and County Engineer Brad Deal as the sources for the project description and an opening question-and-answer session.
In May, Bulloch County Board of Commissioners Chairman Roy Thompson said the commissioners would halt the project outside of Brooklet or at its city limits unless the mayor and council indicate that they want it to continue. The commissioners have not voted on this, and Thompson did not attend Thursday’s forum, but Couch brought a similar message.
“Nobody’s trying to shove anything down anybody’s throat,” he told the crowd. “I think anything that the county tries to do with producing this greenway, and especially should it come through Brooklet, we want it to be a good, safe and attractive project, something that the whole community, but especially the people living along the trail, are immensely proud of.”
Couch traced the project back to a “master greenway plan” drafted about 20 years ago for trails throughout the county, which he suggested wasn’t realistic overall, at least not for completion in current lifetimes. The idea of connecting the greenway with trails to Georgia’s larger cities is even farther from current reality, he said.
After the questions, more than 40 people, who had signed up on the way in, took turns speaking. That number seemed to divide almost equally between those opposed to bringing the trail through Brooklet’s residential area and those supporting the current plan.
Brooklet Municipal Court Judge Joey Cowart, who served as moderator, tried to limit the speakers to one minute each, but some went a little over.
While advocates of the trail plan often identified as users of the current trail and spoke of benefits for exercise and family outings, some of those opposed compared Brooklet to the fictional Mayberry and said they want to keep it that way. Others spoke more personally of safety concerns.
A number of those opposed wore “No Trail Here” pins, and some, such as Roger and Sheila Wentz, brought signs as well. Having measured, Roger Wentz said the trail would pass 35 feet from the side their home on the corner of Ingram and Lane streets.
“Her coming home at night and somebody’s standing in my back yard, or walking over to the carport where her vehicle’s at, it’s a security thing,” he said. “You take the ditch out of play, it’s a straight shot into my yard. … We don’t need this greenway. It’s going to tear up the town; it’s going to split everybody up. They’re going to be angry about it one side or the other. I say, no.”
But even West Lane Street residents are not unanimously opposed. Carol Todd, who lives on the street and owns more than two acres there, said she has lived at various places around the United States and “never lived in a community that wouldn’t consider a bikeway and a walkway an asset.”
She has four grandchildren who live with her, and three of them attend Brooklet Elementary. She currently drives them to school rather than let them walk and thinks that the greenway would be safer for them to ride their bikes on than the street is now, with no sidewalk.
“At least give us a sidewalk, if not a walkway,” Todd said. “But I’ve always hoped that I would never be the kind of person, when there’s something that’s for the community, that I would say, ‘not in my yard.’ … I’m 100% in favor of that greenway.”
At least one other West Lane Street resident spoke in favor of the plan, but a couple of those who spoke in opposition said that 90% of the street’s residents are opposed.
Several people said they are not opposed to the trail extension, only to the proposed path into Brooklet. Some suggested ending it at the Brooklet city limits or a proposed trailhead at Grimshaw Road.
Council to decide?
Brooklet officials also provided and collected slips of paper with a couple of questions about support for the project and a space for comments. Someone during the spoken comments suggested a city referendum on the project, and Grooms after the meeting indicated he was interested in this idea.
“It’s going to take us a little bit of time to get all of this information and look at it,” he said. “I kind of like the idea of voting on this, but it would have to go to the voting poll to do it. I don’t know exactly what that would entail, but that gives the city of Brooklet a way to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
But he also said the county commissioners want an answer from Brooklet’s city government soon.
“So we’ve got to get something figured out shortly,” Grooms said.
The issue is slated to be on the agenda for a possible vote during Brooklet City Council’s regular meeting at 7 p.m. next Thursday, said City Clerk Lori Phillips.