Athens Land Trust (1994)

Athens, Georgia


Starting around 1993, Skipper StipeMaas and Nancy Stangle were part of a group of about 10 families who were establishing a community on 132 acres near Athens, Georgia. The community was based loosely on a cohousing model of sharing resources, with a focus on land stewardship. The property was an old farm with hundred-year old oaks, springs, steep slopes, rocky outcrops, and terraced fields. The goals of the group were to conserve as much of the land as possible and to make it affordable for anyone who wanted to live there. Skipper and Nancy wanted to permanently protect a portion of the property as neighborhood greenspace. They found that the existing land trusts in the area were not interested in holding conservation easements on the old fields being used as neighborhood open space, but Skipper and Nancy were hesitant to start another conservation land trust.

They learned about community land trusts purely by chance. Nancy found herself in the office of the Cabbagetown Revitalization and Future Trust (CRAFT) in Atlanta when her car broke down after taking her children to the zoo. A neighborhood resident who offered help said to Nancy that she would never have been able to afford to own a home in Atlanta without CRAFT. Structured and operated as a community land trust, CRAFT was busy rehabilitating historic buildings and building new infill homes around an old cotton mill in a downtown neighborhood. Nancy realized that the CLT model might be applicable to their community outside of Athens. She and Skipper soon came to see, moreover, that some of the same decisions and issues of land use that had arisen in dealing with their community were being faced by people and neighborhoods throughout Athens.

Skipper, an attorney employed by Georgia Legal Services, incorporated the West Athens Land Trust (WALT) in December 1994. Its dual goals were land conservation and affordable housing. The original 11-member Board of Directors included local leaders from Athens, as well as individuals from Atlanta. WALT’s first president was Peggy Williams, the Executive Director of CRAFT,

Athens-Clarke County is a consolidated government and is the smallest county in size in Georgia, which has 159 counties. It is ranked 19th in population, with approximately 121,000 people. Land use is an ongoing and prevalent issue. In 1994, housing had become expensive due to a growing student market, since Athens is the home of the University of Georgia. The homeownership rate was much lower than the state average, and the poverty rate was high. Sprawl-type development was degrading the water and air quality. Georgia was ranked third in the nation for loss of farmland due to development.

WALT received a 501(c)(3) tax exemption from the IRS in September 1995. Two years later, recognizing that its charitable purposes and planned activities should not be limited to West Athens, the organization changed its name to the Athens Land Trust (ALT).

ALT focused initially on education about land use issues in the Athens community. It held informational sessions on sustainable development and sound land use practices. In 1997, ALT completed its first conservation easements, permanently protecting the 21 acres of springs, steep slopes, forest, and old fields in Kenney Ridge, a rural area on the edge of Athens. Like most conservation easements, a private landowner continued to own Kenney Ridge but ALT’s easement ensured the property will not be developed in the future. ALT also received a building lot in the Kenney Ridge neighborhood and its first grant (from the Turner Foundation in Atlanta), which was used to hire staff.

In 1999, ALT received the donation of a vacant in-town lot where a house had previously burned down. This lot was located in one of two historically African-American neighborhoods that had been targeted by Athens-Clarke County for revitalization. It became the catalyst for ALT’s Affordable Housing program. With the leverage of having a buildable lot in hand, ALT was awarded a capacity building grant from the County’s Community Development Block Grant program, headed by Julie Brunner. ALT later received HOME funds for a portion of the construction of a house on the lot. A local bank gave ALT a construction loan and many volunteers helped with painting and landscaping. When the house was completed and sold, a ribbon cutting attended by local leaders and community residents was held for ALT’s first homeowner, a single-mother with four children who had grown up in the neighborhood.

ALT’s continuing ownership of the land underneath its first home and the ones that followed was sometimes an issue. Concerns were occasionally voiced in the black community about the land trust being run by “white folks.” ALT made an effort to spread the word about the history of the CLT movement and the work of Charles and Shirley Sherrod, who had created the first CLT in Albany, Georgia. ALT also had wonderful black community leaders on its Board of Directors, as well as the land trust’s first homeowner. Skeptics remained, but ALT gradually proved itself though its work.

ALT rehabilitated two historic houses in a traditionally African-American neighborhood and later rehabilitated several more, believing it was important to the historical and cultural fabric of the neighborhood to save these dilapidated homes. This rehabilitation work was supported by CDBG and HOME funds from Athens-Clarke County and by a loan from Equity Trust. ALT’s presence in the community was deepened by working with residents and the police to start neighborhood watch organizations.

From 1997 through 2000, Athens undertook a comprehensive land use planning process. The negative effects of sprawl had become a growing concern throughout the community. ALT collaborated with other groups to present educational activities on smart growth and sustainable land use, such as the annual Tour de Sprawl, Earth Day events, and the lecture entitled “Will Athens Become a Suburb of Atlanta?” Throughout this period, ALT also continued to accept conservation easements and was the fiscal sponsor of the Athens Grow Green Coalition.

Following the local government’s adoption of a new comprehensive plan in 2000, ALT’s focus shifted to neighborhood revitalization, which included both the production of permanently affordable housing and the preservation of open space. The historic African-American neighborhoods close to the campus of the University of Georgia were gentrifying. At the same time, there was still blight in many areas.

In 2001, when a large in-town mobile home park was sold to make way for luxury student housing, the whole community suddenly became aware of the shortage of affordable rental housing in Athens. ALT became involved in helping to relocate the park’s displaced residents. This ultimately led to ALT’s involvement in building the Fourth Street Village, a multi-family housing community of 120 mixed-income rental units, using Low Income Housing Tax Credits. By 2015, ALT had developed 6 additional rental units, constructed or rehabilitated 49 single-family houses on scattered sites, and acquired five lots for future development. Included among the occupants of its single-family houses were 26 homeowners and 13 families who were lease-purchasing their homes. All of ALT’s homes are built or renovated to EarthCraft standards.

ALT also became involved in the Oconee Partnership for Farmland Protection in 2001, which has led to ALT becoming a state-wide leader in farmland protection. ALT’s conservation efforts have expanded over the years, with ALT now holding conservation easements on13,505 acres of private lands in 26 Georgia counties. This acreage includes forests, wetlands, river corridors, historic sites, public parks, and neighborhood open space.

Urban agriculture and food security are more recent concerns. ALT became involved in promoting community gardens as a part of neighborhood revitalization in the same areas where it was providing affordable housing. ALT’s staff saw that gardens could be a way to connect people to the land and to bridge the organization’s conservation work and housing work. A community-wide initiative to address the high poverty rate in Clarke County, which exceeded 30%, began in 2006.

As a way to address the food insecurity resulting from high poverty, an interest in community gardens was fueled. ALT became active in this effort, receiving a federal grant to establish a network of gardens. The grant led to establishment of the West Broad Market Garden and Farmers Market on the site of a vacant historic African-American elementary school in the neighborhood where ALT has provided much of its housing.

Providing access to land for growing food and addressing the need for economic opportunities through agriculture area has been a natural fit for ALT’s social justice mission. The West Broad Market Garden provides employment for neighborhood residents and ALT provides education and support for the 20 low-income vendors of the West Broad Farmers Market. A Young Urban Farmer Program provides entrepreneurial opportunities and hands-on training in sustainable agriculture for at-risk high school students.

In 2014, ALT completed the purchase of a five-acre urban farm where ALT is demonstrating sustainable agriculture. The farm is adjacent to a five-acre public park protected by ALT and across from a two-acre site that will be developed for affordable housing.

That same year, ALT celebrated its 20-year anniversary. To guide the next phase of its history, ALT adopted a new mission statement: conserving, empowering and sustaining communities through responsible and visionary land use.

ALT’s mission and programming have evolved over the years, responding to its community’s needs. This has broadened the organization’s base of support among a large number of constituencies. ALT remains very much a grassroots organization, but it also draws support from government, the University, local businesses, the faith community, and other agencies. ALT’s Board has always been diverse as well, with representation from individuals and communities who have not had access to land in the past. Even before ALT had any leaseholders, a significant percentage of its Board consisted of African-American neighborhood leaders who believed in the land trust philosophy and strategy. Homeowners on leased land now make up at least one-third of the Board. ALT’s other Board members are in occupations such as ecologists, builders, attorneys, and planners.

ALT’s homeowners have become some of the organization’s best advocates. Especially at community meetings where doubts about ALT’s continuing ownership of land still arise from time to time, ALT’s homeowners speak up, explaining why they chose to buy their homes from ALT. They talk about the quality and affordability of their homes; they express gratitude for the support they receive; and they encourage others to participate in ALT, both to receive the same kind of help as they have received and to lend their support to an organization that is improving their neighborhood for everyone who lives there.

Narrative contributed by Nancy Stangle (2015)

To learn more about the Athens Land Trust, past and present: