Hall County could soon have more multi-use trails, which are a frequently requested amenity by residents.
And a recently completed study outlines where the trails could go in the future.
Officials hope that eventually the trails could connect from Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport in Gainesville to the new side path along Friendship Road in South Hall.
In 2017, the Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization partnered with Hall County and the cities of Gainesville, Oakwood and Flowery Branch and received a grant from the Federal Highway Administration to complete two trail studies, one for Gainesville and one in South Hall. Alta Planning and Design, an Atlanta firm, was hired for the project, which included a community meeting in November and an online survey.
Trails were one of the top-requested amenities at public meetings for parks master plans for both Gainesville and Hall County.
“Green infrastructure needs to have a place in the equation. … trails connecting people to parks and getting around is a really high priority,” said Tony Herdener, the chair of Vision 2030’s green space committee.
Vision 2030 is a Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce community initiative that focuses on improvements in areas like health care and education.
The Highlands to Islands Trail initiative is a planned countywide network. Parts of Highlands to Islands already are open, including the Midtown Greenway and the Chicopee Trail in Gainesville. The Gainesville study area focused on the space between those two trails, with officials hoping to bridge the gap to make the city more walkable.
The study suggests building a connector trail between the Midtown Greenway’s end near Industrial Boulevard and Palmour Drive, with the trail running along Georgia Avenue and Aviation Boulevard.
Trail safety was a concern among people who took the online survey, and it is a worry shared by some residents of Sterling on the Lake, a subdivision in Flowery Branch. One of the proposed trails in the South Hall study would be along Bragg Road, a currently closed and unpaved road that runs behind some homes in Sterling.
The proposed path for the trail runs through part of the subdivision that is yet to be developed, but when Sterling is built out, the trail would go behind several homes in the neighborhood. A crowd of Sterling residents filled a room at the Hall County Government Center Thursday for a GHMPO meeting where the trail plans were discussed.
Safety was a concern voiced by many residents.
“Bragg Road by its very nature attracts crime as it did in the past,” Merce Bolling said. “The solutions of low lighting, fencing and even cameras doesn’t stop these crimes with dense woods for hiding places.”
The dirt road was the site of a 2002 double murder. The Flowery Branch City Council voted to close the road in 2011 after it became a dumping ground for trash and a party spot. Only one resident lived there, and at the time he was accessing his home from nearby Capitola Farm Road, not Bragg Road, so it made sense to close the road, City Manager Bill Andrew said. Andrew said a trail has been considered for the road since it first closed.
Marie Jones, another Sterling resident, lived there before Bragg Road was closed and said she remembers the loitering, noise and people racing along the road and turning up dust.
“As a result of the closure, things got somewhat quieter but many residents who still border Bragg Road continue to have great concerns about safety in general, and specifically about the reopening to the public of this same isolated stretch of road bordered by wooded areas,” she said.
Jones also said she was worried about how the trail would bring people into Sterling who would use the amenities meant for residents, a concern shared by many of her neighbors.
“A public path will no doubt expose our neighborhood to far more people than it currently does, and trail hikers who are curious investigators will find their way to our private waterfall, tennis courts, bathrooms, fishing in our lake, and parking on our already narrow streets,” Jones said.
Andrew said that the roads in Sterling are currently public, so people can already freely access the neighborhood.
“All the roads in Sterling on the Lake are public roads. It’s not a gated community, so right now you can park at the library. … You can walk all of the sidewalks in Sterling and all of the roads are public,” Andrew said.
Sue Barcus, who also lives in Sterling, pointed out that the GHMPO actually features a photo of one of Sterling’s green spaces on its website, prompting some residents to believe Sterling itself would be viewed as almost a public park.
Barcus said she is not opposed to trails at all — she coordinates a neighborhood hiking group, and her husband is a cyclist, so they both appreciate being near quality trails.
“A trail where you can cycle and everything is great. We would love for it to be near our neighborhood. We just don’t want it through (the neighborhood),” Barcus said.
Bolling also said most Sterling residents favored trails in general, just not disrupting their subdivision.
“The whole trail initiative, I think for most people in our community, is very positive and very supportive,” she said. “There’s not a lot of people that don’t see it as a great benefit.”
Barcus and Bolling are co-chairs of a group called Concerned Residents of Sterling that is advocating against the trail along Bragg Road. A petition opposing the trail had gathered more than 500 signatures as of Thursday.
Residents are proposing Hog Mountain Road as an alternate trail path nearby that would not have to cut through Sterling. A trail along Hog Mountain is one suggestion in Flowery Branch’s comprehensive plan that was adopted in 2016.
Members of the Vision 2030 greenspace committee attended Thursday’s meeting in support of the trail network, and they said they hoped to address residents’ concerns, particularly about safety.
Brian Whalen said his research has not found a link between trails and higher crime rates, and a busy trail can actually enforce a neighborhood watch mindset that makes an area safer. He lives in Flowery Branch near a trail and enjoys the convenience of it, he said.
“I bought my house because it is 30 feet from a trail. … I wanted to be close so I could walk to the lake and walk into town,” Whalen said.
Jason Everett said he was surprised to learn about the opposition to the Bragg Road trail — with the spot currently being used for dumping. He said he thought it would be welcomed by the community.
“I’ve been working on this for over four years now, and this is the first time it’s ever come up that somebody did not want a trail coming to their neighborhood,” Everett said.
Herdener said that often when trails are proposed, nearby residents are concerned about traffic or safety, but once the trails are done, they come to enjoy them. The Chicopee Trail in Gainesville faced some opposition at first but has become a community asset, he said.
“It will be an attraction someday. … This is not a heavy industrial, belching manufacturing plant,” Herdener said. “This is an enhancement to our community, and we’re looking at the bigger Hall County community.”
The trail study proposes a trailhead at Blackjack Road, which also faced opposition from residents at Thursday’s meeting. Matt Horton lives on Blackjack Road and said the parking lot, across from the entrance to Sterling, would be right outside his home.
“I’m sure that not one of you would vote to have a parking lot put in your front yard,” he told the GHMPO citizens advisory committee Thursday.
Horton proposed that parking lots at nearby Cherokee Bluffs Park and Williams Mill Greenspace could be used to access the trail, a suggestion that Andrew said was a possibility. And Mickey Dutton, another Blackjack Road resident, brought posters with photos of the view from his front yard, which would become a parking lot for the trailhead.
Steve Barker, Horton and Dutton’s neighbor, said the curve where Blackjack Road meets Bragg Road would be a hazard for people trying to access the trail.
After hearing from residents, the citizens advisory committee decided to table a vote on the trail study, and they are asking the GHMPO policy committee to also table the vote scheduled for Feb. 12.
Other proposed paths in the South Hall trail study include side paths along Thurmon Tanner Parkway, McEver Road and Spout Springs Road.