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Path not clear for greenway addition
Possible route runs into some obstacles
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Forsyth County News
On any given day, Jim Harrell said, the parking lots and trails along the Big Creek Greenway in Forsyth County could be “almost standing room only.”

“The first three phases have been met with overwhelming enjoyment,” said Harrell, a county commissioner.

The popular recreational walkway has built a large following since it opened in September.

The 6.8-mile greenway runs from McFarland Parkway in south Forsyth to Bethelview Road, where the trailheads and parking lots sit.

While commissioners hear plenty from residents about the success of the greenway, extending the trail north has proved more problematic.

The county has the money — the greenway’s final two phases are part of the $100 million bond for parks, recreation and green space — just not the route. And officials are struggling to find an acceptable alignment.

The greenway’s extension will cover an additional seven miles, from the Bethelview trailhead north to Sawnee Mountain Preserve Center northwest of Cumming. It will also pass through more challenging terrain than on the county’s south end.

The first two phases largely clung to Big Creek and went through low-density areas. Phases four and five must cross several residential areas, said Tim Allen, assistant director of engineering.

The third phase drew some concern from residents of the Polo Golf & Country Club, Allen said, though that feedback was taken into account when plotting the path.

Margaret Stenson, president of the homeowners association, said residents often use the trail, which they access from the neighborhood’s outdoor recreation center.

“They love it when it’s not flooding,” said Stenson, describing the trail as a “beautiful environment” and “fun activity.”

Consistent heavy rains in fall and winter have frequently flooded parts of the greenway.

While the subdivision has had some problems with parking and people trying to enter the private community, Stenson said residents are taking a proactive approach by putting up signs listing the rules.

She recommended that other communities concerned about the greenway and safety join a neighborhood watch program through the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, which her subdivision has done.

Jerry Kinsey, director of county parks and recreation, said the department has park rangers who patrol all the park areas daily. So far, no safety incidents have occurred along the greenway.

The county has worked to inform residents how to stay safe on the trail, even holding informational meetings on the topic.

Safety has been a common theme for residents near the trail’s route, said Commission Chairman Charles Laughinghouse.

“Some people love it and want it through their neighborhood, but a great number are concerned about perceived safety issues,” he said.

Property values have been another issue, he said.

With the current trail having been open just a brief time, there isn’t enough data to confirm either side of these issues.

For large property owners along the proposed trails, losing land or feeling imposed upon has held up plans to place the path.

Commissioners reviewed some of the possibilities at a work session Tuesday, but as Allen noted, “You’re not going to find 100 percent consensus on this trail anywhere you put it.”

The planned fourth phase, which has hit the most barriers, will fall largely in Harrell’s District 3, southwestern Forsyth.

The commissioner has visited with concerned residents and property owners who do not want to lose any land.

Joe Taylor owns a large tract of land off Kelly Mill Road. Harrell said he spent several hours with him recently, surveying the property in Taylor’s truck.

Harrell agreed that the alignment may be too intrusive.

“I personally can’t support going through there at this time,” he said.

In looking for a “path of acceptance,” he suggested that the board revisit what’s called the “red alignment” for the part of the trail near Taylor’s property, which would run along Kelly Mill Road from Bethelview to Johnson Road.

Harrell plans to talk to residents who might have “a wider than normal sidewalk” in their front yards before the board revisits the topic.

With few other options, Commissioner Patrick Bell has suggested working on a more northern route for phase five or taking the path from the mountain to Poole’s Mill Park.

The county could have both northern and southern trails until a connection could be made.

But more snags have been worked out in the fifth phase than the fourth, including a part that was realigned in District 1 to avoid a neighborhood whose residents didn’t want it.

Laughinghouse represents District 1, which includes part of Cumming and much of west Forsyth.

He said the commission may have reached “an impasse in the fact that there is no natural path to follow” for extending the greenway north.

If commissioners were to settle on an alignment in the coming months, Allen said, construction could start by fall 2011 and the trail could open by 2013.

The county has no timetable for a decision, so it may revisit the issue later when attitudes or land owners could change, Harrell said.

He also noted other issues take precedence to a recreational endeavor.

Laughinghouse agreed.

“We’re just right now going to have to play it a little bit by ear and see where it goes,” he said. “There’s really other problems we have to deal with right now rather than the greenway.”