Photo Caption: Rachel Hyden, an OU student and Clean Water Fellow with the Sierra Club voiced her concerns about water quality due to fracking in the region during the town hall meeting Tuesday night at the Athens Community Center.
Homelessness, landlessness and school-lessness toped the items of concerns for locals attending Tuesday night's Athens Town Hall meeting.
The Athens Community Center played host to the meeting where Mayor Paul Wiehl and his administration heard from those worried about horizontal hydraulic fracturing in Athens County, the lack of space at the Good Works Timothy House homeless shelter and a proposal to close Chauncey Elementary School.
The event, which was hosted in concert with the Athens County chapter of the League of Women Voters, consisted of Wiehl making remarks at the beginning and at the end, while a series of residents expressed a variety of concerns for the majority of the evening. Wiehl addressed the fracking issue right off the bat.
"It's a mixed bag," he said. "There are lots of concerns. Realize, we're a small player here."
He pointed to the city of Athens itself as making up 10 square miles out of 50 in the county.
Wiehl also addressed the issue of Good Works' Timothy House. Good Works several years ago was denied a variance to expand its homeless shelter on Central Avenue. This has led to a lack of room for the operation, which had to turn away over 140 people just last year due to a lack of space, according to Good Works Director Keith Wasserman.
Wiehl suggested that Good Works pursue a planned unit development, though he acknowledged that it's not an "easy solution."
Ohio University student Rachel Hyden first addressed the controversial oil and gas drilling technique commonly called fracking. She said that she's a clean water fellow for the Sierra Club. Hyden said that only 1 percent of fracking water contains chemicals but that still amounts to 7,500 gallons in an average operation. Moreover, she claimed, 93 percent of those chemicals are known carcinogens.
She was followed by Mary Costello, a member of the League of Women Voters who related three questions the group has come up with on the issue. These include what protections the community can put in place to protect water, soil and air; if baseline water testing is planned; and who will pay for the testing and/or corrective measures if they become necessary.
Fracking opponent nCelia Wetzel declared that she cannot stand by and watch the "stunningly invaluable region of Appalachia be destroyed acre by acre." She cited the economic benefits of a vibrant local food economy and the importance of protecting that. She said fracking is incompatible with it.
"Southeast Ohio should be protected from fracking so local food work can continue and expand," she said.
Others said they have already heard of local farmers losing food-supply contracts because of pending fracking leases.
John Knouse of the Athens Conservancy revealed that due to state-level cuts, his organization is in serious financial need and because of this, while the conservancy opposes fracking, there isn't much they can do about it.
CELIA JOYCE SAID THAT SHE advocated for Mayor Wiehl's re-election and is now calling on him to advocate for Good Works.
"Good Works helps these people tremendously help themselves," she said, noting that 65 children were turned away from the shelter last year. "It's not just a Good Works problem; it's a community problem."
Joyce said that she's a college student and that the people served by the Timothy House are not dangerous. From her perspective, she said, college students are more dangerous.
Timothy House director Andrea Horsch took issue with a statement she said Wiehl had previously made about how he wouldn't spend city money on Good Works Director Wasserman's agenda. She said they weren't asking the city to spend money.
"And it's not only Keith's agenda," she said. "It's my agenda. It's the agenda of 26 pastors and 343 people turned away since the (Athens) zoning board's decision not to allow expansion (of the Timothy House)."
Horsch said that Good Works is done guessing where they can help the homeless.
"We're asking you to consult with other members of administration and tell us where exactly it is legal to shelter people without homes in the city of Athens," she said.
Linda Clark said that she thought the homelessness situation was well in hand until she saw the statistics of people turned away.
"I can't deal with that inside me personally without having to do something about it," she said. "It seems like we're at odds between Good Works and the city. We don't need to be at odds. We need to be working together to solve the problem for the children."
MEANWHILE, A GROUP THAT has been working to save Chauncey Elementary from proposed closure by the Athens City School District also attended the meeting.
John Frost said that his group now has more than 300 online supporters.
"We don't want to see any schools close," he said. "Our focus has consistently been on our children's education."
He revealed that the group is working on proposing a new school levy as a way to generate more money, with the district facing a $12 million budget gap by 2016.
Mark McCutchen, a member of a new "Save Our Schools" effort, told those in attendance that the board is expected to vote on the Chauncey closure at its Feb. 23 meeting. He urged other residents to unite in support of the levy idea.
"We need to have a strong show of support so we can stay that decision and fund our top-notch schools for our children's sake," he said.
At the end of the meeting, Wiehl said that the residents had provided his administration with a lot of "food for thought." He said a companion meeting will be held in June to address what his administration has been doing about the concerns that were raised.
"I think there is a lot to do in the city," he said. "I think we should work together. That's why we come here."