PATH trail blocked

Judge stops work in DeKalb after neighbors complain

It sounds like an ideal project — take people out of their cars, immerse them in nature and encourage recreational activity. Yet for some passionate and vocal residents in the sleepy DeKalb neighborhoods near Clairmont Heights, it’s a clear example of lack of public input and a threat to what they call their “enchanted forest.”

The South Peachtree Creek Multi-use Trail is planned to begin near the popular Mason Mill Park. A joint project by the Atlanta-based PATH Foundation and DeKalb County, the trail will weave through a thick forest and floodplain and cross South Peachtree Creek before it culminates in Medlock Park.

Neighborhood opponents have derided it as a “path to nowhere” – a $750,000 concrete-and-boardwalk trail less than a mile long that solely benefits cyclists and damages the environment. Advocates say the project would ultimately tie in to a future network of trails and give more people access to a public space.

But for now the debate has entered the stop-go legal realm of restraining orders, eminent domain battles and appeals. And with the stalemate comes the conundrum of preserving nature versus making it accessible – and whether the fight to preserve the park is a case of NIMBYism or eco-consciousness.

Last Wednesday, DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Gregory Adams put the PATH project on hold.

“I feel like a few adjacent neighbors are taking a 22-acre landlocked, county-owned park and holding it hostage,” says Ed McBrayer, executive director of the PATH Foundation. “They’re not allowing the rest of the county, who own the park as well, to use it. There’s just something wrong with that.”

Members of the Three Forks Heritage Alliance, a neighborhood activist group, call the trail a poorly planned project that may endanger the environmental well-being and natural charm of the park.

According to the group’s calculations, construction on the 10-foot-wide trail will result in 600 trees being cut down and 1.58 acres cleared. The group also worries about the addition of impervious surfaces to an untouched environment and how it may exacerbate runoff in the already flood-prone creek.

But not everyone is opposed to PATH’s vision for the South Peachtree Creek trail, which was first proposed 10 years ago.

Nancy Ciliax, president of the Clairmont Heights Civic Association, cooperated with PATH and other residents on a county-coordinated oversight committee coordinated by Commissioner Jeff Rader. She champions the trail’s potential to connect people to destinations without getting them behind the wheel, and says that PATH has been “adaptable and accommodating.”

Proponents of the trail say the path would make the tree-filled area more accessible to the elderly and people in wheelchairs and provide a safer route for users of alternate modes of transportation.

Since its inception as a nonprofit in 1991, PATH has created more than 100 miles of trails in metro Atlanta. Its success stories include such linear parks as the Silver Comet Trail and Freedom Park that offer cyclists, walkers and runners a place to exercise and commute. PATH builds trails in partnership with cities and counties, and serves essentially as a contractor for trail projects that often matches public funds – a welcome gesture for always cash-strapped local governments.

But the PATH Foundation is no stranger to controversy. The organization’s projects often rile residents who live in impacted areas.

“We get some opposition everywhere,” McBrayer says. “We come in and we change things. We introduce people to sights of properties that weren’t exposed to the public previously. We faced a lot of these challenges at Chastain Park. We faced some of them with the Silver Comet Trail.”

Look no further than Tanyard Creek Park near Piedmont Hospital. Residents there have been engaged in a bitter dispute with the organization about a proposed trail along the Beltline. Plans call for a concrete strip to hug a creek bed and cut through a cherished Civil War battlefield. Residents want the trail to avoid both the waterway and the landmark.

And a 2001 project along Peachtree Battle infuriated neighbors by what they considered a lack of public outreach and input.

Some of those critics refer to PATH as a trail-blazing bully. But McBrayer says the organization takes care to include the public in its planning process.

“The biggest piece of misinformation is that we don’t work with neighborhoods,” McBrayer says. “We don’t have a hidden agenda. Our agenda is to provide these trails to the very people who are fighting them. If you go to Chastain Park, a lot of people fought that trail. And now a lot of the same people are using it every day. If you could fast-forward a year from now, I think the alliance and those who support it will be using the trail along South Peachtree Creek.”

McBrayer says PATH’s vision is a labyrinth of greenway trails that connect Stone Mountain to West End and the airport to Alpharetta. “Not everybody doesn’t share that vision,” McBrayer says. “I’m sure the alliance doesn’t care if a trail ever gets built. I don’t know what their vision is of the future. I just told you mine.”

According to documents obtained by Three Forks through an Open Records request, PATH has reworked trails on its own dime to appease concerns about the environment – such as making the segment of the South Peachtree Creek trail that will run through the forest a boardwalk to lessen runoff. McBrayer says the project also applied for an unneeded land disturbance permit as an “olive branch” to the neighbors. The alliance has appealed the permit.

George Dusenbury is executive director of Park Pride, the Atlanta-based greenspace advocacy group to connect citizens in park-deprived Atlanta to nature. The city is already the nation’s largest municipal area with the smallest amount of greenspace, and Dusenbury says the dilemma in DeKalb may become more common as Atlanta continues to grow. The greenspace will become more scarce, and the need to access that public land for all to enjoy will remain constant.

“As Atlanta gets denser and we deal with trying to figure out what smart growth is, you’re going to see more of these situations where you try to create an outdoor experience that’s going to butt up against what homeowners’ traditional expectations are,” Dusenbury says.