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Going Green: Greenways becoming more popular in parks

SUWANEE - People used to call it Trice's Folly.

Now, nearly two decades after former Suwanee Mayor Richard Trice decided to turn a sewer easement into a trail, the idea of greenways is becoming a popular one.

With development filling most of the large tracts left in Gwinnett, the new parks trend is to go linear, that is, build trails on long, thin tracks of land, mostly stretches along creeks that cannot be developed.

In fact, Gwinnett County government has hired a staffer to work on greenways full time, and Lilburn is working on its one spoke-wheel trail system to link the entire city.

"It's a new concept, but people are really grabbing on," said Marcie Diaz, the woman who was hired to create the greenway network in Gwinnett. "There's a big demand, and the more we can get (open), people will be using them. It's kind of like dog parks. Nobody knew what to think of the first one, but now it's in every master plan."

Greenways serve two purposes, Diaz said. Not only do they provide recreation in the form of trails, but they also ensure land remains undeveloped.

"You've got this 12-foot-wide trail, but the rest of the land can be left in its natural state," she said. "They are a great asset to the community."

While trails are a popular part of many of Gwinnett's parks, the idea of buying wetlands for greenspace recently came under fire, when Chairman Charles Bannister challenged a purchase at Beaver Ruin Road and Satellite Boulevard.

Bannister called the land unusable, but Commissioner Lorraine Green had a list of 20 parks the county has developed with a significant portion of the land as wetlands. She pointed to the Suwanee Creek Greenway that Trice began so long ago as an example.

"It is a crown jewel in what you can do in flood plain and wetland," she said. "This land is certainly not the best in the county - let's face it, all that's already taken - but it's certainly the best for my constituents instead of 300 apartments."

Trice's Folly

In the late 1980s, the county's first trail system was spurred by talks of senior citizens going to Gwinnett Place Mall to get some exercise.

"When it started it wasn't exactly cutting edge," Trice said. "Nobody'd done this."

With few sidewalks in the area at the time, Trice was struck during one of his weekly drives through the city. He spotted a work crew clearing land to put in a sewer pipe, and he realized that the land would remain clear and fairly straight once the dirt was filled back in.

"Everybody thought I was out of my mind," he said. "They said, 'Why would people want to walk where its wet?' Why not?"

But Trice convinced his fellow politicians. One selling point: the county agreed to allow a trail over the pipe, so the land was free.

To raise money for construction, officials sold sponsorship for $8 a foot, and the Falcons, which at the time practiced within the city, donated $5,000.

The trail began as an eight-tenths of a mile stretch. A year later, officials decided to pave it.

Now, the trail covers four-miles, and officials have plans to extend it so it will reach the new Town Center Park.

Trice's own children used to skate on the trails, which are often full of bicyclists, joggers and families pushing strollers.

"For a mile and a half, you don't know a soul exists," he said.

New priorities

During the process to define and plan Gwinnett's future in terms of parks and recreation several years ago, officials heard an outcry for linkages and connectivity between communities and public spaces, such as parks and schools, according to Community Services Director Phil Hoskins.

The idea was a high priority for a citizen committee, driving the county to create its Open Space and Greenway Master Plan.

"There are recent examples of providing greenway or trail connections between county parks and existing neighborhoods, including Graves Park and Little Mulberry Park," Hoskins said, adding that the larger greenways are not yet in place. "Obviously, greenways offer alternate means of transportation, walking, jogging, biking, etc., while also providing for recreational opportunities."

The county government's first greenway is just starting to take shape.

Last year, the first stretch of the Ivy Creek Greenway opened along with the new Environmental and Heritage Center near the Mall of Georgia. Another portion of the trail, which was built through the Mill Creek Nature Center, is complete, but the nature center is still closed to the public.

According to Diaz, the Ivy Creek greenway will connect apartment and home dwellers to mall shopping, and will even connect to nearby schools and then the Suwanee trails.

"The more connections we can make to schools and parks, that's going to be ongoing," she said. "There's a big demand and the more we get, people will be using them."

Alternatives

As part of the effort, the county has purchased land between Tribble Mill Park and the planned parks at Harbins and Palm Creek to build trails connecting them.

The county has joined in the city of Lilburn's efforts to build the Camp Creek Greenway, and the National Park Service is working to place trails along the Chattahoochee River.

While most projects are along waterways, such as one planned along the Alcovy River, the Gwinnett Department of Transportation recently completed a multi-use path that follows Peachtree Industrial Boulevard.

Including purchases and donations from developers, the county has acquired 300 acres of greenspace in the last two years.

Money is available through the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax for real estate buys, but Diaz said the only greenway with funds available for construction is the Ivy Creek one.

"These are time-consuming projects because you're often dealing with difficult topography and flood plain," she said.

Despite recent reports of crime along some trails, and even a high-profile murder along Cobb County's Silver Comet Trail, officials believe greenways are the future of Gwinnett's recreation and transportation.

"People want alternatives to roadways. People want to walk to their libraries and stores," Diaz said. "A lot of people yearn for the time of their childhood when they could walk from neighborhood to neighborhood or ride their bike to school."