Public master plan meeting

Members of the community listen to Brian Wright, founding principal of consultant firm Town Planning & Urban Design Collaborative LLC, as he gives an overview of the process for creating Athens' new comprehensive master plan over the next year. The meeting was held Thursday at City Hall.

Athens has experienced a lot of growth over the past few years. With Mazda-Toyota Manufacturing and other businesses coming to Limestone County, that growth is expected to not only continue, but increase.

As such, the City Council has contracted consultant firm Town Planning & Urban Design Collaborative LLC to produce a new comprehensive master plan to help guide Athens in the proper direction. But what exactly is the proper direction?

Founding Principal Brian Wright of the consultant firm told residents gathered Thursday at City Hall that finding the best path is one of the main goals of the yearlong process to build the new master plan.

Part of the process is getting public feedback, and residents were welcome to pose questions and highlight concerns to Wright and his team during the meeting, which kicked off the planning process.

Resident Greg Skipworth asked how important a master plan is to a city and how likely they are to be followed once completed.

“It is the most important thing,” Wright said. “Otherwise, if you don't follow it, all of you will have wasted two hours of your night, and (everyone) will continue to do so for the next 12 months. That is one of the things we have been talking about throughout the process so far.”

Wright said the main goals of the new master plan are to be easy to update, reach all citizens, stay true to Athens' character, provide a key for understanding population growth and location, address the impact of growth on infrastructure, identify and prioritize areas that need investment, and make sure land is used responsibly in the future.

“What we want to do is create that plan that everyone is aware of and feels like they have a voice in,” Wright said. “From an elected official perspective, it's easy to follow, because you know it's the community's plan. Everyone was involved with it. It shouldn't be controversial.”

Resident Pete Peterson said he is a “refugee” from Madison and moved to Athens two years ago. He voiced concern that Athens needs to stay ahead of growth and not become a highway town like its neighbor to the east.

“I think Madison offers a cautionary tale,” he said. “I went through this process in Madison 10 years ago, and they never got ahead of the game. It is just jam-packed. Traffic is crazy. The developers drove the train. A vision without a resource is a hallucination.”

Several items of concern involved attracting a younger generation of residents who want to make Athens home. Opinions included increasing housing for college students, opening new restaurants and opening entertainment venues.

“We need young people to stay in this town, work in this town, live in this town, love this town and to die in this town,” resident Kelly Range said. “These young people are going to be what makes Athens vibrant and really a town. We have to have young people to take over in this town when we move on.”

Citizens said they also want the city's public transportation, difficulty finding housing, diversity outreach and representation, infrastructure updates and quality of life also considered in the plan.

Future events

Wright said Thursday's meeting, as the name suggested, was just the beginning for the master plan process. Other events that will involve public input have already scheduled for later in the year.

“Planapalooza,” an open presentation and hands-on visioning workshop, will be held May 15-19, according to Wright. He said members of his team will have open studio hours to gather input from residents in person and online. A work-in-progress presentation will be given as part of that event.

An open house to give residents a look at a first draft of the new master plan is scheduled for this winter, while the presentation of the final plan is set for spring of next year.

Wright said citizens will have another opportunity to get involved in the planning process by completing packets in what is called “On the Table.” These are at-your-own-pace packets that residents can fill out after small-group conversations about the issues at hand and whatever is important to those involved. The opportunity is available through June 6.

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