By Amy Wenk
It’s been almost a year since the National Park Service publicly discussed a proposal to build a pedestrian and/or bicycle bridge across the Chattahoochee River near the Morgan Falls dam.
Now park leaders are ready to select one of five options for the project that would connect Sandy Springs with Cobb County.
On May 18 and 19, park staff were scheduled to deliberate the options — which range from doing nothing to building a 10-foot-wide bridge for pedestrians and bicyclists and establishing trails on the park land in Cobb — and ultimately selected what they consider the best choice.
Their decision will not be released to the public until an environmental assessment is complete this summer, said Dan Brown, the superintendent of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.
Brown explained the selection process at a May 13 meeting in East Cobb. Like meetings held last April and June, people from both sides of the river expressed concerns or support for the proposed bridge.
The bridge would link Sandy Springs’s new Overlook Park with 135 acres of national park land in Cobb County, including the newly acquired Hyde Farm.
A meeting was scheduled for last September, but it was delayed because Brown left for four months to fill a vacancy at the Park Service’s regional office.
Since then, options for the bridge were finalized.
A lot of questions at the recent meeting were about how park leaders will select the best option.
“I thought it was a very productive meeting,” said Linda Bain, executive director of the Sandy Springs Conservancy.
The park staff used eight factors in their selection process, said Brown, who equated the process to rating the pros and cons of a SUV before making a purchase. Factors included making sure that the option protects natural and historic resources, fulfills the wants of visitors, improves park operations and enhances access to parks.
Brown said he anticipates that a draft environment assessment will be complete in early to mid July.
Brown said a public meeting will be held after the assessment is ready. He thinks that will occur in August. The purpose of the meeting will be to collect comments about the selected bridge option and the results of the assessment.
The Sandy Springs Conservancy is funding the assessment and hired Jordan, Jones & Goulding to conduct the work. The conservancy in 2003 also paid for a feasibility study that offered ideas about the bridge design and the best location to build it.
“I know there will be a lot of public scrutiny when the draft environmental assessment comes out,” Brown said in a phone interview. He said most of the hundreds of comments collected from the public over the last year are in support of the project. But he said those who oppose the project are “very strongly opposed.”
Many people against the idea are Cobb residents who fear mountain bikers will destroy the historic Hyde Farm that once belonged to the Powers family, who were early settlers of the area.
“I really think bikes go too fast to be on the same trails as pedestrians,” said Cobb resident Maureen Donohue at the May meeting.
None of the proposed options would allow bicycle access to Hyde Farm. Devices would be installed to serve as physical barriers along trails.
But some people think bikers would disregard the restrictions.
Other opposition came from local conservationists.
“This is a beautiful natural area,” said Alan Toney Sr. with the State Soil and Water Conservation District, Fulton County. “It’s a wetland, and it’s full of critters right now.”
Many Sandy Springs residents favor a bridge for pedestrians and cyclists since the city has few recreation areas of its own.
“Sandy Springs is virtually entirely built out,” Brown said.
The bridge would link green space in both areas and promote non-motorized transportation.
Funds are not available to construct a bridge or build trails, Brown said. He estimates the project will cost around $1.5 million.
Of the five options being discussed, three would not build a bridge. Two of those “no bridge” options instead would make improvements to existing trails that run north to Hyde Farm and south to Johnson Ferry North park on the Cobb side of the river. Other proposals include improving roads at Hyde Farm and building small bridges over former irrigation channels along the Colonial Pipeline easement.
Of the two alternatives that build a bridge over the river, one option would allow only pedestrians. The other would permit pedestrians and bicyclists.
If park staff chooses to build a bridge over the river, it would be constructed with a low-profile design. It would be located as far north as possible, close to the Department of Natural Resources boat ramp at the end of Morgan Falls Road in Sandy Springs. The bridge would be 10 feet wide and constructed of weathered steel.
Brown guessed it could take two to three years to see a completed bridge if that is the decision reached. He stressed no choice has been made.
“There are a lot of ifs here,” Brown said, as well as a lot of people with strong opinions on the project.
For more information about the five bridge options, check our website at www.reporternewspapers.net.