By Liz Bracher
Athens and surrounding areas are known for rolling hills and acres of deciduous forests, but an increase in land development poses a threat to its natural beauty.
In the summer of 2007, Athens County sold Harmony Ridge, adjacent to Wal-Mart off of Route 50 for $131,000 to Brent Hayes after it was deemed unfit for city development. Before Hayes clear-cut the lumber on the site, Harmony Ridge was known as a scenic viewshed. Though a viewshed can technically be defined as any natural landscape, Athens residents are most concerned about hilltop development that threatens the scenery visible from their homes and hiking trails.
Scenic viewsheds are part of what Athens Conservancy member Donna Goodman enjoys about the area.
“I have always been drawn to the green hills which surround Athens, and have loved how nurtured and protected I feel within the valleys that comprise this region,” said Goodman, who has lived in Athens for 29 years. “Having watched the Hocking River Valley systematically be rendered into unsightly, industrial sand and gravel pits over the last thirty years, I knew that it was only a matter of time before our hills came under a similar siege.”
The Harmony Ridge development caught Athens resident David Gedeon’s attention as well.
“I had been out of town for a couple days and I came back, looked up at the hill across from Wal-Mart, the Harmony Ridge property, and thought, ‘My God, what’s going on?’”
Other residents had similar reactions and decided to take a stand.
Loraine McCosker, Environmental Studies Outreach Coordinator at Ohio University, along with Goodman and Gedeon, formed a group called Save Our Scenic Viewsheds (SOSV) to oppose further development in the area. The group had a brief hiatus shortly after forming, said Gedeon, but the Athens City Task Force created a viewshed interest group and “rekindled our interest in what we were doing originally.”
In 2005, a viewshed group developing the “Environment and Open Space” section in the city comprehensive plan added phrasing to the Athens City Code regarding the preservation of viewsheds in the area.
“[The Athens City Code] already had code that stopped people from radically altering the contours, but we wanted to make that even more clear,” Muriel Grim, head of the group, said. “However, when the people wanted to develop the Summit at Coates Run, the administration of the city at that time determined that the code had not stated specifically to stop that development.”
The Summit at Coates Run apartment complex site is considered a “viewshred”, or a viewshed that has been lost. While activism to stop construction of this complex was unsuccessful, McCosker says she still believes something can be done about Harmony Ridge.
“I do not see the Harmony Ridge area defeated,” she said. “Although Mr. Hayes owns this land, the hillside has not been destroyed. It is my hope that ultimately this land will either be acquired or that Mr. Hayes will not remove the fill.”
SOSV recently launched a new website with interactive features to increase viewshed awareness and encourage activism.
“We thought that cataloging viewsheds would probably be a good idea,” Gedeon said. He created a map for the website using Google Earth and ArcGIS (geographic information system software) with photo overlays of different viewsheds in and around Athens. “I’ve wanted to do this for awhile, but the technology wasn’t available until April of this year,” Gedeon said.
The ultimate goal is to have website visitors mark their favorite viewsheds and then send out photographers to take pictures of these spots. Each viewshed will be ranked on visibility and beauty, and the latitude, longitude and altitude will be marked as well. The process of deciding which viewsheds to put on the site is “being played by ear,” according to Gedeon.
Grim said that a map was displayed at the Athens Community Center where people could mark different viewsheds. “We ended up with about 50 points,” she said. “We plan to set it up again at places like the farmers’ market.”
SOSV also sees the interactive map as a tourism resource and they are thinking about having a link from the Athens city website. Members of SOSV also have other ambitions for the area to protect the scenery.
“I’d like to see the completion of a greenbelt around the city, an effort currently underway by the Athens Conservancy,” Goodman said. “It would preserve views though the use of conservation easements.”
SOSV hopes to see more citizen involvement as well.
“If [people] would like to join the taskforce there will be activities such as collecting viewshed points of interest, photographing views, writing articles, and expanding the awareness of the economic and environmental value of our views around Athens,” McCosker said.
“I would encourage anyone who does not care to see our country turned into a giant sprawling strip mall with cookie cutter housing developments to get involved in the movement,” Goodman said. “Anyone who has any interest in this issue is welcome to join our efforts or donate to our cause.”
To find out more about how you can help save Athens’ scenic viewsheds, visit <“http://www.athensohioviewshed.org”.