LEEESBURG — Lee County Commission Chairman Billy Mathis said Tuesday morning he plans to recommend that the county “walk away” from a proposed intergovernmental agreement with the city of Albany concerning a 13.6-mile rail trail after receiving a letter from an attorney representing the South Georgia Rails to Trails group that entered into a contract to provide the property to the city.
The letter, Mathis said, threatened action that included a lawsuit charging breach of contract against the owner of the property, a portion of which the city of Albany has proposed turning over to Lee County for development.
“What the letter we got says, in essence, is that if Rails to Trails is not involved in any transaction involving that property, they plan to sue Lee County and the city of Albany,” Mathis, who did not disclose the contents of the letter, said. “Of course, you can sue anybody for anything, so the question for Lee County becomes do we want to get involved if the trail folks are taking this position.
“We have a great relationship with the city of Albany, and their proposal (to give the land to Lee County) would be beneficial because (Lee County) has to work with the city when working on roads that cross that property. But (given the content of the letter), my inclination is to tell the Rails to Trails folks good luck and walk away from the proposal.”
But an Albany City Commissioner said the trail group is itself in breach of contract, having failed to fulfill its requirements in the contract it signed in 2015. Ward IV Commissioner Chad Warbington, responding to a story about the threat of a lawsuit published on AlbanyHerald.com, said the South Georgia Rails to Trails group had “pretty much ruined the best chance they had to get the trail built.”
“We tried to sit down with the Rails to Trails folks and with Lee County to come up with a joint plan that would best serve the people of Albany and Lee County,” Warbington said. “But they walked away. They’re trying to make it look like the city of Albany has not met their obligations, and they’re tossing out these grenades. But the truth is, they are the ones in breach of contract. They have not fulfilled their part of the obligation.
“If the city wanted to go out, crank up a bulldozer and start work today, we couldn’t. Rails to Trails has not done what they said they’d do. We’ve tried to meet with them on several occasions, but they are not interested in trying to find a solution. With them, it’s either their way or no way.”
Mathis agreed that the action by the trails group most likely will complicate “the best opportunity they have to get the trail built.”
“Look, from a legal standpoint, Lee County has no skin in this game,” the Lee Commission chairman said. “There is no cause for action against us, so I am recommending to our board that we wish (the city and the Rails to Trails group) well and just walk away.”
The city of Albany entered into an agreement with South Georgia Rails to Trails in May of 2015 to turn a rail bed trail owned by the group into a walking/biking trail within five years in exchange for rights to expand infrastructure along the path of the trail. The city has since used that property to run cable, gas and sewer lines, but it has done nothing to improve the trail, part of which was cleared by Oxford Construction in an agreement with South Georgia Rails to Trails.
The trails group was to serve as manager of the property as part of the contract it signed with the city, but Mathis said the trails group is threatening a breach of contract suit against the owner of the property, which would include Lee County if it OK’d the intergovernmental agreement.
Warbington said city of Albany and Lee County officials were looking for a solution that would “best serve the interest of the people of Albany and Lee County,” but that the trail group nixed any such plan.
“What they said was, and I quote, ‘Lee County cannot build (their part of the trail) to our standards,’” Warbington said. “Lee County does a lot of that kind of work themselves, and the trail group said that would not be good enough. Several of us with the city — the mayor (Bo Dorough), (commissioners) B.J. Fletcher, Matt Fuller and Bob Langstaff — have met with the group to try and come up with a plan that would best serve the citizens of both communities, to work together as a coalition. But when we invited Rails to Trails to the table, they refused to show up.”
Warbington said the trail group had not completed a workable plan for the project.