A detailed account of the blight conditions in the Oconee Heights neighborhood was shared with members of the Baldwin County Board of Commissioners by two local students last Tuesday night.
The extensive Revitalization of Oconee Heights presentation was delivered to county government leaders by Christina Taylor and Catherine Woodall, both students at Georgia College.
Research for the project was conducted under the supervision of GC professors Dr. Damian Francis and Dr. Doug Oetter. The data, meanwhile, was led by Kaitlyn Gauthier, a recent GC graduate. She was assisted by Elias Torres and MaryElle Michael, both of whom are undergraduate students, along with Woodall, a graduate student. Spatial analyses were conducted by Taylor, a CHSI intern.
Taylor informed county commissioners that the research involved blighted properties in the Oconee Heights neighborhood. Such research was based on various properties’ physical appearance, she said.
Those in attendance at the meeting followed along with their slide presentation.
“We analyzed if there was trash, fallen debris, vegetation and stuff like that,” Taylor said. “We used the geographic information system to pull up all of this data and create a blight index and a blight index for each individual property.”
Such was created by averaging the individual properties to establish the neighborhood blight index score, she said.
“We did this to be able to quantify the neighborhood score and the individual score for each property,” Taylor said.
She explained that the Oconee Heights neighborhood was outlined by what is known today as Renaissance Park at Central State Hospital.
“We started by accessing blight and community assets,” Taylor said.
Such community assets included churches and community centers, she noted.
“This led to the development of our community blight map and our asset map,” she added. “The development of this map and the state quota input allowed us to come up with some action or policy that we think would be beneficial.”
Woodall explained what blight is.
“Property blight is land, housing or buildings that have been run down in the community and are generally unsafe or just abandoned,” Taylor said. “In the Oconee Heights community, there are 25 severely blighted properties and 33 very blighted properties. These combined are about one-third of the community that is suffering from this property blight. So, we really just think it would be best to target the red and orange spots to push them down to prevent blight from further expanding in the community.”
Taylor said the map took the blight score on a scale of 1 to 5 from every location and applied it to the road segments.
“This map takes the same thing and applies it with density,” Taylor said.
Woodall talked about a graphic representing the breakdown of the properties within the community.
“So, as you can see, about 20 percent have no blight, but as Christina mentioned a little over one-third — it was about 40 percent — were very blighted and severely blighted,” Woodall said.
She pointed out that trash was accessed, as well as fire damage, overgrown vegetation, and if there were casual injury potential.
Woodall said the latter could mean someone within the community simply walking into an abandoned building and getting injured, simply because the buildings are unsafe and hazardous.
She pointed out that not many properties were boarded up and the high percentage of blight can be problematic because it means there is casual entry within the neighborhood.
“Overgrown vegetation was also a concern, which we partnered with and worked with [County Manager] Mr. [Carlos] Tobar recently in getting some of the overgrown vegetation cut back, which has such a huge help,” Woodall said.
She was referring to Baldwin County Manager Carlos Tobar.
She also talked about a number of abandoned vehicles being found, along with several broken windows in buildings.
Commissioner Sammy Hall wanted to know whether any of the blighted buildings that Woodall had mentioned were occupied.
Woodall replied that some of those buildings are, in fact, occupied.
“We do not think they should be occupied, but unfortunately, they are,” Woodall said. “And some aren’t.”
She talked a little about the revitalization of the nearby Harrisburg neighborhood.
“That was done and accomplished through a community master plan,” Woodall said. “We believe that by implementing the community master plan in Oconee Heights, we might could accomplish some of the same things that have been so beneficial to the community, and the safety of the community members, as well.”
It is estimated that it will take a year or two to address the blight concerns in the Oconee Heights neighborhood.
Woodall talked about the possibility of designating the Oconee Heights neighborhood as a neighborhood revitalization zone.
“Doing that would develop a master plan and contacting the property owners of the severely and very blighted properties and trying to enforce the (property) codes that have recently been passed here in Baldwin County,” Woodall said.