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County commission candidates address bikes, land use

WITH GREEN issues becoming more important locally as well as nationally, Chatham County Commission candidates showed up in force Oct. 14 for a forum on land use and transportation issues sponsored by the Georgia Conservancy and the Savannah Bicycle Coalition.

(The only candidates missing were Priscilla Holmes, who had a health issue in her family, and Harris Odell.)

Interestingly, the most blunt statements were issued not by candidates in contested races, but by several unopposed candidates, who perhaps felt freer to speak frankly.

On the issue of how best to fund current and future greenspace planning, incumbents all touted the generally accepted fact that the current commission has purchased more greenspace, over 1000 acres, than any in local history.

“SPLOST is an excellent source for these types of purchases,” said Patrick Farrell, commissioner of the islands’ District 4. “There’s no time like the present to set aside some land before it becomes so valuable to others that it becomes cost-prohibitive to acquire.”

However, his challenger, Gerald Freedman, countered that “We can’t just keep purchasing land and making greenspace and not being able to upkeep it. Right now a lot of parks and areas in Chatham County need more upkeep, and it’s not being done, because we keep using money to continue purchasing land.”

John McMasters, a former commissioner now challenging Pete Liakakis for the chairman spot, agreed that the current commission shouldn’t rest on its laurels and isn’t doing enough.

“The commission has the authority to regulate and set standards for development,” McMasters said. “When I was on the commission doing the southeast land plan, we couldn’t even get a 15 percent greenspace requirement because builders and developers objected to it.”

Liakakis answered, “As soon as we came on board we started looking at numerous things, and one of them was greenspace. That’s not something new that just started here in the past few weeks.”

Karen Grainey, who’s challenging incumbent David Gellatly in the southside Sixth District, said, “SPLOST is one way to fund this but I don’t think SPLOST can be relied on entirely.Every year that goes by the land values increase and a lot of the best properties are the most worth pursuing – wildlife corridors, along waterways.”

Gellatly said that because of recent economic issues, “Funding for some of these programs is going to be difficult if not impossible.”

Interestingly, he added, “We’ll have to take a look at our biggest businesses and industries in the county and have to ask them to step up to the plate and make some contributions.”

Seventh District Commissioner Dean Kicklighter of West Chatham, running unopposed, said, “My theory of government pretty much resembles my theory of personal finance: You should go as green as possible if and when moneys are available. During the good years we’ve been able to do great things, and we’ll do more in the future and hopefully the money will be there.”

On the issue of enhanced bikeways, the challengers in particular were strongly pro-bike, with a little pushback from the incumbents on the issue of how to fund more bikeways.

Steve Willis, challenging incumbent Helen Stone for the First District, said, “I think that I’m maybe the only person up here who rides a bicycle all the time. The problem is that once I head down to DeRenne and south of there, it gets to be more and more scary to ride.”

Willis recommended that “we have to think about integrating all the different modes of transportation in the county. We have to build a network so people can get around multimodally and get to work. It’s not just a recreational thing.”

Stone, however, defended her work on the issue, particular with helping to pass the current Roadways Amenities resolution. “It allowed in all future roadways bike paths, sidewalks, pedestrian-friendly access. We were going to take that forward to the Whitefield Avenue widening project that unfortunately was put on hold. That was going to be the model for that resolution.”

McMasters took another shot at the current commission, saying that “when the county was booming and the real estate market was running up before the bubble burst, we had double-digit tax growth every year. I’m a little uneasy hearing about how we’re coming into doom-and gloom, while the county budget has gone from $350 million to $500 million in three years.”

Going back to his time on the commission, McMasters said, “I can tell you personally that the Truman Linear Bikepath is a 1998 SPLOST-approved project that is fully funded. It’s three and half miles from Daffin Park to Lake Mayer, and we have managed to do a quarter mile.”

Kicklighter shot back, referring to McMasters: “He sat on the commission for three and half years, which was within that ten-year time period. He didn’t jump then, but sitting in front of a crowd that wants it, that’s great, it’s double-talk again.”

On the charge of a bloated budget, Liakakis responded that, “The simple facts of the matter is that there are $140-150 million that are SPLOST projects that will be paid for by the one-cent sales tax. We didn’t add all kinds of projects in there, this was money specifically from SPLOST funding.”

As for the controversial Amendment 3 vote on this year’s ballot — which would allow county commissioners to give developers authority to issue bonds, which would then be recouped from homeowners — while some candidates seemed woefully underinformed, it’s safe to say that most oppose it in principle, some strongly.

“I unequivocally oppose it,” said Steve Willis. “In the free market, if developers can’t raise money to pay for a development, then it’s probably not a very good idea.”

Gerald Freedman, running for the islands, said, “Our county would end up having to bail out whatever problems came about. There are A bonds, B bonds, C bonds, but this is a bond with no class at all.”

Karen Grainey said, “This is an example of extremely poor policy. It’s a giveaway to developers.”

Liakakis said, “I don’t think this is a good amendment, because what you’re doing is allowing developers to place a burden on the residential or commercial owner where they will have to pay the bond off.”

“I’ve learned a lot more about the bond market the past month than I wanted to, but somebody has to underwrite those bonds,” mused the Third District’s Pat Shay, running unopposed.

“I don’t know who would guarantee a bond that was issued by a developer relying on such a revenue stream. I think that’s what Alan Greenspan would call a ‘derivative,’ and I think those are out of style right now.”

A couple of candidates, both incumbents, had more nuanced takes.

Helen Stone said, “This proposal has been described as ‘a homeowners association on steroids.’ That can be frightening depending on which way the economy is swinging. My concern with this in an area like Chatham County that’s more urban is it might encourage sprawl. It’s a difficult question to put a one-size-fits-all answer.”

Kicklighter, nothing if not consistent, weighed in with, “I don’t mind to see an American taxpaying developer get a tax break. Developers aren’t the bad guys, they’re the ones boosting our economy, so that part of it I see nothing wrong with.”

However, the main problem for Kicklighter was that “this is another example of the state of Georgia throwing things at a county with no explanation.”

But winning the night’s Too Much Candor Award was Commissioner Pat Farrell, who almost seemed offended at being expected to know something about the proposed amendment:

“I can unequivocally say that with a two-minute response and having to twist my neck and read the question after it was read to me, that I am not prepared to make any type of judgment on this with such little amount of time and little amount of information,” Farrell said.

“So I’ll pass the mike.” cs