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Johns Creek officials trade barbs in Ocee Park trail debate

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JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — Johns Creek City Council members exchanged heated words on July 26 over discussions of a construction contract for a soft-surface trail in Ocee Park.

The proposed construction would stabilize an already existing trail that wraps around the park in the woods, City Engineer Erica Madsen said.

“The path is not really safe,” Madsen said. “It’s a nice walk in the woods if you’re a very capable human being, but to make it an actual amenity for the park that people could use, that we would feel good about people using, it needs to be formalized and improved.”

The soft-surface trail was first identified in the 2015 strategic park plan and was budgeted in the 2019 parks bond.

Councilman Lenny Zaprowski argued that existing trails in the park are perfectly adequate, and the proposed addition would not provide a good return on investment for residents.

Councilman Chris Coughlin disagreed.

“A safer place to walk in Ocee would be a good addition, in my perspective from a utilitarian standpoint,” Coughlin said. “There’s a lot of kids on scooters and things like that (on existing, paved trails) and I’d say most folks who walk stick to the exterior parts, so we need to give them a better path to have those walks.”

Frustrated, Councilwoman Stephanie Endres spoke about a “decision loop” she said the City Council often gets trapped in.

“At the end of the day, it was in the park bond, we had made the decision, we’re now following through, and it just makes sense to make that happen,” Endres said. “And the quicker we can get that stuff done, when the decisions are made, the less opportunity we have to have to recirculate our decision making. So, I’m all for moving this forward.”

Zaprowski continued to argue that the trail is not well-used enough to warrant the update, but Madsen stood by the project.

“The path back there is well-used. I say that because it’s a different experience walking on a paved track around a baseball field and walking through the shaded woods,” Madsen said. “So especially on a day like today when it’s 90 degrees out, I think you’d probably find more folks out in the woods than you might expect.”

Ocee Park soft surface trail

The proposed Ocee Park soft-surface trail from an agenda report presented during the Johns Creek City Council meeting on July 26. 

After Zaprowski pushed back again, saying the funding would be better used elsewhere and that the issue was political, Coughlin stepped in.

“Mayor Pro Tem, it is not a political decision. This was in the strategic parks plan that we’re supposed to fulfill to the best of our capability,” Coughlin said before being briefly interrupted by Zaprowski and then continuing by stressing there is anecdotal and staff testimony pointing to the need for trail improvements.

Coughlin went on to share his personal experience witnessing three collisions on the paved paths within the park, saying that is reason enough to provide a safer walkway for pedestrians.

Endres proposed a motion to pass the action item as presented, with Councilwoman Erin Elwood seconding the motion.

Now discussing the motion, Coughlin reiterated Endres’ earlier point against redundancy.

“This would be good for Ocee Park, and it was in our park plan, so if we disagreed with this enhancement to the park, we should’ve settled it in 2015, we should’ve settled it when we had this in the budget,” Coughlin said. “At this point that we’re having discussion after it’s been in multiple plans and multiple budgets, we need to fulfill the promise that we made.”

Zaprowski countered by saying a lot has changed since the parks plan was initially passed and thus changes are warranted.

“We’ll just agree to disagree on this one,” Coughlin said.

After Zaprowski again repeated his thoughts on spending the money elsewhere, Endres spoke again.

“If we’re gonna have this debate, are we going to take up every cost, because I’d be happy to have this discussion on so many levels and have legitimate conversations about why we shouldn’t be putting money to certain areas, but we’ve made commitments to do that,” Endres said. “So, if that’s a debate you honestly want to go toe-to-toe with, I’m happy to do it with you because you will lose.”

“No I won’t,” replied Zaprowski. “Just cause you say it, doesn’t make it so.”

Council members began speaking and shouting over each other at this point, leaving Mayor Mike Bodker to literally bring down the hammer and return the floor to Endres.

“Councilwoman Endres has the floor, I haven’t heard her yield the floor, so I will allow her to finish her discussion and hope that we can finish this in an orderly fashion,” Bodker said.

“My only purpose in this discussion is to talk about decisions that we have made,” Endres said. “We spend a tremendous amount of time revisiting decisions after the fact when we’re in the decision phase. It is not fair for staff, it is not fair for council. We either need to start bringing these conversations up at the time they’re happening, but not at the end. I can’t tell you how many times in the last year we have spent redoing decisions we’ve made. ... residents keep being caused to go in a circular drain listening to discussions that we revisit over and over and over again because the outcome isn’t where you want it to be.”

Breaking the tension, Coughlin expressed his excitement to “lace up his Chuck Taylors” and walk on the trail after its completion with “knees and elbows high like a geriatric in the mall.”

For a final time, Zaprowski reiterated his disapproval of the project.

“We all make good decisions and bad decisions, but we need to make the right decision,” Zaprowski said. “And to say ‘Oh we did this back then, we should’ve talked about it then’ look we gotta get the right thing for the… things have changed since then. …I’m just saying I’m going to oppose it.”

The motion passed 4-2, with Zaprowski and Councilman John Bradberry voting nay.

Reach Sydney Dangremond at 770-847-7404 or sydney@appenmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @syddang_.

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