ALBANY — Lines have been drawn in the sand, and both sides have settled in for a battle, one that both insist they will win, as the South Georgia Rails to Trails conservancy group unveiled this week its $7 million breach of contract suit against the city of Albany.
Officials with both sides have been mostly close-lipped about the legal action, but by all appearances the Rails to Trails group plans to hold the city to an agreement it reached with SGRT in May of 2015 to build a recreational trail on 13.6 miles of a former rail corridor that has been controlled by the group for 26 years. City officials say they are under no obligation to put down an asphalt surface on the trail recommended in a Trail Master Plan and that the cost to lay such a surface — estimated now at $7 million — has become too exorbitant, given other more pressing issues it faces.
“I can’t get into specifics because this is pending legal action,” Albany City Manager Sharon Subadan, who was not in that position when the agreement with SGRT was signed, said Friday. “But looking at the minutes of (commission meetings at which the agreement was reached), the trail was represented to be a $1 million to $1 million-and-a-half project. Now it’s more like $6 million to $7 million. That’s a lot of heartburn, especially when we’re going through a pandemic.
“Frankly, the city does not have that kind of money. And I’ve heard some say we earmarked money for trails in our T-SPLOST, but we haven’t collected all of that funding. And the idea that we’re not acting in good faith is just not fair. We’ve been through four presidentially-declared disasters in the last few years and are in the middle of a pandemic.”
But South Georgia Rails to Trails President Bo Johnson said that, as it looks to the future, the city can no longer afford to look past amenities like the trail system, of which the Rails to Trails section is a vital part.
“Yes, I know the city has infrastructure needs,” Johnson said. “But we also need to change the perception people have of the city. I appreciate the budget the city is working under, but we have to change the perception of Albany being somewhere people want to get out of. I have two daughters and a son who, when they graduated from college, said they had no desire to come back here.
“Our leaders need to look at the positive impact — health and economic — a trail can have on our city; they need to look at the impact they’ve had on other cities. (Rails to Trails officials) love this city; we want to work with our city officials. We all want to work for the betterment of our community.”
The lawsuit, filed by South Georgia Rails to Trails attorney William C. Berryman with the Athens-based Fortson, Bentley & Griffin law firm, said the city “failed to perform its duty” agreed upon in the May 14, 2015 pact the city and SGRT officials signed. Specifically, the suit says, the city agreed to “develop property for public, open space and recreational purposes” along the 13.6-mile corridor that runs from downtown Albany to Sasser in Terrell County.
The suit also said “the city’s default under the agreement damages the property’s trail use status and possible the city’s ownership.”
Under the agreement reached in 2015, the city paid SGRT $150,000 for the property, which it would use to expand its utilities customer base, in exchange for development of a trail along the corridor. But city officials say they never signed off on the subsequent Master Plan, and therefore there is no agreement to lay an asphalt or any other type of surface on the trail. (See guest opinion columns written by Albany Mayor Bo Dorough and Albany City Commissioner Chad Warbington on Page 1B or today’s Herald.)
“I wasn’t a part of the city government when this agreement was signed, but I’ve seen several iterations of the Master Plan,” Warbington, who represents the city commission’s Ward IV, said. “But (the city) never agreed to a Master Plan. There have to be budgetary constraints, so until we were given costs of the project, it would have been foolish of us to agree to anything.
“And what South Georgia Rails to Trails isn’t saying is that we were as close to having this situation worked out as we’ve ever been when I talked with Lee County officials about taking part in the trail project. They were ready to do their part, and we were ready to do our part. And Sasser was ready to come in with their part. We had it figured out. But Rails to Trails stepped in and said they would have no part of it, threatening Lee County with a lawsuit. And by doing so — by saying Lee County couldn’t meet their expectations — they have essentially slowed Lee County’s growth by holding up several transportation projects they have going on.”
The lawsuit specifically asks for:
♦ Compensatory and consequential damages of $7 million;
♦ A court order that the city move forward with construction of the trail;
♦ Attorney’s fees;
♦ Other costs associated with the action;
♦ Other relief that the court deemed proper.