As Sandra Slight-Brennan put it during a meeting I had with members of the Athens City Planning Commission, the Regional Planning Commission, the City of Nelsonville Planning Commission, and others, "the challenge is keeping our quality of life."
For those in the small city of Athens (non-student population of about 5,000), the 600 pound gorilla is Ohio University, with a student population of about 20,000. An amazing 75 percent of the city's housing stock (4,800 units) are rental -- and that's despite housing 8,000 students on campus.
[photo: four ladies in front, from left to right starting with Linda Watkins (in black), Peg Cohn, Sandra Slight-Brennan, and Leslie Schaller. In back, from left edge of photo: Joe Sligo (in green jacket), Joanne Prisley, Bob Eichenberg, Chuck Hammer, Steve Pierson, Ray Hazlett, Ric Abel, and John Sullivan]
Given the enormous size of the school, it's no surprise that the student-related impacts have spread beyond the city's borders into other parts of the county, including the nearby city of Nelsonville -- which also is home to Hocking College, a well-respected two year college.
The impacts range from the large number of cars students bring to campus, to noise and trash, to affects on the city's tax base.
[photo of a student-occupied house, the "Lovepen." I also ran across houses named "Bud" and "Miller" -- at least that's what the banners on them said!]
As one participant at our meeting put it, "student housing is everywhere in town." Another added, "if you're a young family you can't afford to live in the town." Steve Pierson (who directs the city's five-person code enforcement staff) summed it up concisely: "if you live in this area, you can't escape the impact of the University."
The City has tried to address town-gown issues in its new comprehensive plan. As Peg Cohn, who has served 16 years on the city planning commission, explained, the new plan calls for designating higher density areas close to campus. But the plan has not yet been adopted by city council.
In the meantime, several city efforts seem to have had mixed results. New off-street parking requirements for houses converted to rentals have resulted in the loss of backyards and green space. Family definitions (seeking to limit the number of unrelated people living in homes in single family zoning districts) have been modified by the courts. And dealing with the Board of Trustees in a large state university system can be a challenge. For example, University dorm rates have a major effect on the demand for off-campus housing by upperclass students, yet they seem totally out of the hands of city influence.
Given the magnitude and complexity of issues involved in managing city-university relations (something I'm familiar with from my own experience on the Burlington, Vermont, Planning Commission, where we had constant dealings with the University of Vermont and Champlain College) I found it remarkable that the City of Athens does not have a planner on its staff.
While the city came up with $250,000 for outside consultants to assist with developing its new comprehensive plan, it apparently has not budgeted funds for a planner of its own.
But despite the quality of life concerns, Athens appears to be a lively and, in many places, quite attractive city. Yes, it has strip commercial shopping on its outskirts. Yes, it has rundown, student dominated blocks.
But turn a corner and there are well-maintained residential streets and inviting neighborhoods. Turn another corner, and you're in the heart of a dynamic downtown with historic "main street" storefronts.
And most importantly -- at least based on the folks I met with -- there's an engaged citizenry trying to tackle some tough problems.