MACON, Ga. — A large gray heron took flight from the shallow edge of a west Bibb County pond as county leaders approached from two vans.
For most of the county commission, it was a tour into uncharted territory of somewhat secret scenery on Bibb County land.
Macon-Bibb County Mayor Lester Miller recently scheduled a commission field trip to secluded scenic views on county-owned property off Houston Avenue and at Lake Tobesofkee’s Duck Ponds.
“You don’t feel like you’re in Macon,” Miller said of the ponds, as county commissioners marveled at the beautiful landscape where a lone fisherman seemed surprised to have all that company.
The Duck Ponds are a hidden treasure, with barely a mention on the county’s Lake Tobesofkee website. On the online map, it’s only listed as the Tobesofkee Recreation Area.
In the 1100 block of Bonner Gilbert Road, not far from the Monroe County line on Thomaston Road, a brown sign announces, “Lake Tobesofkee Area ‘E’ or Duck Ponds Tobesofkee Recreation area.”
A smaller sign instructs visitors that “lake usage requires admission or permit,” which can be purchased at the lake’s other gated entrances at Claystone, Sandy Beach and Lake Arrowhead. During the commission’s visit, rangers in vehicles patrolled the trails winding around the finger-like ponds that connect to the lake’s “Big Water” north of Lower Thomaston Road near Beaver Oaks subdivision.
On the county surplus property list of places that could be sold, the mayor discovered the county’s parcel at 8470 Rock Mill Road, which provides access to the ponds.
Miller pulled the property off the surplus list. Online tax records show it is valued at over $560,000 for 202 acres, but the mayor said that “property acreage is off” but did not know the exact size off the top of his head.
He sees these ponds as “a valuable asset” and “untapped resource,” although he did not mention any pending plans for the area.
Trip Advisor lists the Duck Ponds as No. 24 on its list of 47 things to do in Macon.
In a 2015 post on the travel site, contributor Lizzey Riley wrote about the “secret fishing lake.”
“The Duck Ponds offer a secluded area to fish, kayak, and canoe. It is also just a pretty area to sit and picnic near the water. On one side of the ponds there’s an eagle’s nest and eagles are often seen flying in the area.”
No eagles were spotted in the county’s visit, and the duck ponds were strangely bereft of ducks.
Miller pointed out to commissioners the tranquil waterways and creek leading to the lake are just seven miles from I-475.
Commissioners were taken back by the beauty of the land.
“This is beautiful,” was a common comment as others acknowledged they never knew this spot existed.
Miller says he believes it was once used as part of the fish hatchery at the lake.
Cliffview Lake work funded by SPLOST
While future plans for the remote Duck Ponds are evolving, Miller has taken steps to spruce up another natural setting closer to the heart of the city. The Cliffview Lake property that’s surrounded by houses off Houston Avenue has been sitting idle since the county bought it in 2004.
Former Macon mayor C. Jack Ellis initiated the purchase of nearly 21 acres of private land under Governor Roy Barnes’ Georgia Greenspace Trust that sought to preserve 20 percent of the land in each of the state’s counties.
Ellis said he used to travel about the city when he was in office and was surprised to discover a lake hidden by woods between Antioch Road, Robert Henry Street and Cliffview Drive.
Ellis made the acquaintance of property owner Jimmy Woodard, who during one of their conversations suggested the city buy the land.
“It’s a spring-fed lake, it’s a natural lake, it’s not manmade, and I’m getting old and I want to sell all of this,” Ellis recalled Woodard saying.
For $52,000, the city of Macon purchased the land to provide a bit of nature near downtown.
“I just thought this was so important because it would give families an opportunity to go have picnics, to fish, to just sit under a tree and read a book and have open space. To have greenspace to walk around and do nothing, if they didn’t want to,” Ellis recently told The Macon Newsroom.
He envisioned a mini-Amerson River Park with walking trails and a place to fish.
The city was “running on fumes” financially at the time and Ellis left office without any further work being done.
In 2016, Macon-Bibb County Mayor Robert Reichert took commissioners on a field trip to the secluded spot just a block off Broadway, but no plans were formulated to make better use of the land.
Miller recently used $100,000 from the blight elimination revolving loan fund to purchase Woodard’s heir’s remaining home on 1.77 acres on the property. The county agreed to a month-to-month, $750 lease to allow the former owner time to secure near living quarters and remove her belongings.
In August, county commissioners approved up to $1.9 million in SPLOST funds to acquire neighboring property and improve the park.
As commissioners loaded up on bug spray to board golf carts and utility vehicles for the recent tour, county manager Keith Moffett spoke about plans for Cliffview Lake Park.
“Our goal is a passive area,” Moffett said. “This is a walking area that could be hiking trails, things of that nature. Because of concrete and all that, I don’t anticipate us doing any sidewalks through here. Make it a nature trail.”
Moffett said they are looking at how much fencing to put up because of the deep cliff that drops on the property behind neighboring homes.
SPLOST project manager Clay Murphey said the property was used as an old borrow pit where soil was excavated and removed.
Mayor Pro Tem Seth Clark led the entourage off the newly cleared trails, through spider webs and up a hill to get a better vantage point for the lake and its rising cliffs.
Upon seeing an empty swimming pool at the old Woodard place, Clark jokingly asked the mayor if the county had enough lifeguards to staff it.
Miller said he envisions youth from 4-H and scouting touring the land and enjoying this oasis of natural beauty just outside downtown.
Discarded beer cans near the lake show that the hidden hideaway and fishing hole is not a total secret.
A bass jumped out of the water as the mayor spoke with commissioners about plans for a possible pavilion and rustic camp sites.
During the commission’s prior tour in 2016, the then facilities manager said there are water and sewer lines running through the land, which could make future restrooms a possibility.
Nearly 20 years after Georgia’s greenspace investment, Cliffview Lake park is taking shape, which pleases Ellis.
“I’m glad that Mayor Miller has put this as a priority to get it done because it’s for the people,” Ellis said. “And it’s just been sitting there and we could have cleared it a long time ago and people could have been enjoying it all these years.”
– Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Jarvis Fabian covers Macon-Bibb County government entities and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 478-957-2829.