ALBANY – At first glance the recent offer by the city of Albany to enter into an intergovernmental agreement to transfer to Lee County the deed to a 7.71-milelong swath of property that runs through the neighboring county might seem a no-brainer.
However, the announcement of this agreement led to an immediate response from Willian C. Berryman Jr., the attorney representing South Georgia Rails to Trails outlining potential legal actions by that organization toward Lee County and the city of Albany.
The letter reads, in part, “In an effort to enforce its roles, responsibilities, and contract rights that I have described above and to protect its investment in the Albany-Sasser Line, (potential) actions may include suits for breach of contract or violations of applicable law in the appropriate court. In view of SGTT’s ongoing and indeed ‘perpetual’ roles and responsibilities, any such actions or administrative proceedings will necessarily involve any successors in title to the city.”
Following receipt of this letter by the Lee County Commission, Lee County Attorney Jimmy Skipper responded to Berryman, stating, “With respect to the proposed intergovernmental contract, please be advised that the Lee County Board of Commissioners has not voted to approve or enter into that proposed contract; in fact the proposed contract has not even come before the Board of Commissioners for a vote.”
The letter concludes, “Given the position of your client as stated in your letter, including the threats from your client regarding possible lawsuits against both the city of Albany and Lee County, it is my understanding Lee County will not agree to the city’s conveyance of the Rails to Trails property to Lee County, and I am confident that the county’s position will be formalized by vote of the County Commission at their next regular meeting.”
In an article in The Albany Herald earlier this week, Albany City Commissioner Chad Warbington said, “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. But they walked away. They’re trying to make it look like the city of Albany has not met their obligations …”
Bo Johnson, the president of SGRT, responded to Warbington’s comment.
“We went to the meeting thinking we were going to discuss the concept of this (agreement) with the city of Albany and Lee County, but we were basically told ‘this is the way it’s going to be,’” Johnson said. “We did not have any input into this agreement.”
The roots of the current agreement between the city of Albany and SGRT can be traced back to a 2014 meeting of Albany’s Water Gas & Light Commission Board. The then interim general manager, Tom Berry, recommended the authority purchase the 13.6-mile corridor from SGRT for $150,000 and use the easement path for a variety of projects, including running WG&L gas lines and other utilities through Lee and Terrell counties.
At the meeting, WG&L Commission board member Warbington praised Berry for “thinking outside the box … a box that has always been the county line.”
“This gives us an opportunity to extend our services outside the county and bring additional revenue to the city,” Warbington said at the time.
In 2015, South Georgia Rails to Trails and the city of Albany entered into an agreement with SGRT transferring its title to the total of their property in Dougherty, Lee and Terrell County for $150,000 and the city’s agreement to complete a trail along the corridor as specified in a Master Plan that was paid for, developed and approved by both parties, by May 14, 2020.
The property involved in this dispute is unique in many ways. The 7.71-milelong, 100-yard-wide corridor runs through the southwestern corner of Lee County between it’s borders with Dougherty and Terrell Counties. It accounts for approximately 108 acres of greenspace within Lee County.
Johnson contends that most communities would love a “slam dunk” agreement that would provide them with a greenspace of that magnitude that already has a multi-use plan.
More importantly, this property is the central section of the 13.5-milelong Albany-to-Sasser Rail Trail property that is the spine of the Flint River Trail System connecting not only Albany to Sasser but a multitude of side trails in Albany and Lee County, many of which have already been completed or are currently under construction.
The following list of projects were funded and undertaken with the belief and understanding that they were components of the trail system:
♦ The downtown connector from the Riverfront to the beginning of the ASL trailhead on North Monroe Street has been completed at a cost of $2.7 million;
♦ Dougherty County has funded $60,000 to create a seamless connection from the downtown connector to the ASL. The county has also put $1.2 million toward the trail connector between Albany State University and the riverfront, supplementing the $700,000 put toward this project by the University System of Georgia Board of Regents;
♦ SGRT has assisted the city of Sasser in receiving a $100,000 grant from the Georgia Department of Natural resources, $50,000 from a private donor and $15,000 for property transfer so that a restroom is located at the Sasser end of the Albany-to-Sasser portion of the trail;
♦ The DNR also funded $200,000 through a grant to support the $450,000 Radium Springs trail that is nearing completion;
♦ Lee County has expressed interest to SGRT in adding two spurs to the trail at Armenia and Fussell roads.
The ASL segment presented a multitude of challenges, beginning with the initial clearing of the old railbed so that it could be surveyed for condition and grade for the development of the master plan. Estimates to clear the trail were approximately $200,000. SGRT was able to reach an agreement with Oxford Construction Co. to clear a 30-foot right of way along the railbed in exchange for the ballast, which no other party was interested in.
In furtherance of its contractual obligation to complete the construction of the ASL, the city had staff prepare construction drawings completed and approved by SGRT. The initial plans had the construction divided into phases. Phase 1 was the segment of the corridor in Dougherty and Phase 2 in Lee County.
An initial bid for Phase 1 was conducted but not awarded, as it was determined there was a cost of efficiency in combining both phases into one. A subset rebid took place with a bid opening on July 31, 2019. Oxford was the lowest bidder. However, the bid was not awarded at that time, and the deadline was extended.
SGRT officials that If the city had awarded the bid at that time, its obligation to complete Phases 1 and 2 construction would have been satisfied.
“We don’t have a problem with Lee County building the trail,” Johnson said of the proposed intergovernmental agreement. “If the property is being transferred, points in that agreement need to be transferred, too, so that the obligation to us is upheld. That was not done. They negotiated with Lee County and said, ‘You can have it.’ The only specifications Lee County made was they would build it to Lee County road standards and will, at its convenience and timing, complete and fully pave portions. We had a timeline, we had engineered drawings, we had very specific requirements. All that is being scraped and sent to Lee County, who can, under this agreement, do basically whatever they want to.”
“We have no choice but to defend our rights and our consideration and compensation that we had in our agreement (with the city of Albany). In sending what I think was a nice letter to Lee County, we are saying, ‘Please don’t do this. You are stepping in our way. We have to deal with the city of Albany first.”
Dougherty County Attorney Spencer Lee, who has been a driving force for decades behind the plan to create a countywide trail system, expanded on the reasoning behind South Georgia Rails to Trails’ stand on the issue.
“We can’t have an agreement signed between the city of Albany and Lee County that jeopardizes our position with the National Surface Transportation Board and the 2015 agreement,” Lee said. “We have to be a part of it, and we have not been asked to be a part of it. We should have been talking with the city prior to their offer to (Lee) county.
“Since we were not part of this discussion, there are flaws. Specific construction recommendations, our responsibility to remain as the trail managers, were overlooked. We have a responsibility to review the language in any real estate transfer to make sure that it does not jeopardize the continuity of the rail corridor. You cannot break one link in that chain. That’s what I think people don’t understand is rail banking laws are there as a public benefit. Someone must sign a ‘willingness to accept responsibility’ letter to ensure the rail corridor stays intact and is protected for public use. That is our charge.”
Both Johnson and Lee say they do not have any doubts that Lee County is capable of building a section of the trail to the necessary specifications.
They say they are concerned that the proposed agreement does not require the county to build its section of the trail to the specs outlined in the master plan. It also has no timeline for completion or that segment of the corridor.
“We want to grant the easement, but we must protect the corridor,” Johnson said.
The Rails to Trails officials point to the closing statement of their attorney’s letter to the Lee County Commission to sum up their position.
“I emphasize, however, that SGRT’s singular purpose is the development, construction and operation of a bicycle-pedestrian trail on the Albany-Sasser Line,” the letter says. “My client is willing to work with Lee County and the city of Albany and any other governmental entities to achieve this goal. SGRT must be included in this process and allowed to participate as required by federal law and the contract. Note, however, that SGRT’s commitment to this end is not open-ended. … The time has come to build a trail.”