Commissioners revamp Land Use changes again

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Land Use

ELLIJAY, Ga. – Gilmer’s Board of Commissioners took another meeting this week to revisit changes to the Land Use Ordinance considering density, Residential, and Agricultural Zonings.

This time, the board met alongside the Planning Commission to inquire and discuss changes with them as well. While much of the focus recently has been on R-1 and R-2 zones and the lot size for those zones, the commissioners ultimately focused on Agricultural for most of its changes as proposed by the end of the meeting.

After the nearly two-and-a-half-hour meeting, these changes included backing off of lot-size changes in R-1 and R-2 as Commission Chairman Charlie Paris said he spoke with “a representative from the regional commission and the Department of Community Affairs last week.”

Paris said his discussion with the regional commissioner representative suggested that the high-density growth would follow the sewer lines through the county. Paris did say he wants to keep an eye on the topic so as to address it if this is not the issue.

Paris said of his discussion, “Without sewer lines, septic systems themselves will be something of a restriction because the health department will not approve so many of them that it endangers our groundwater supply.”

Along that idea, Paris said he contacted the Water-Sewer Authority to inquire of plans to expand the sewer system. He reported that he was told there were no plans.

Paris noted that the county also hosts a comprehensive plan to indicate regions to support agriculture in the county while designating areas for residential and density housing.

Land Use

Post 2 Commissioner Karleen Ferguson

Post Commissioner Karleen Ferguson agreed with the concept as well referencing a need for “affordable housing” in the county. A topic discussed over recent years in the Chamber, County Plans, and other agencies looking to increase workforce housing.

Ferguson did say that her concerns come from R-2 developments in isolated parts of the county. These become islands of high-density housing in the county.

Ultimately, however, changes to Residential Zone in the Land Use Ordinance changes were left behind in support of the theory that these projects will follow sewer lines and the idea that the board may revisit the idea when sewer lines expand or density does become a larger issue. One change that looks like it will remain for residential is the hobby livestock coverage. Instead of supporting large animals, the new change will likely only allow chickens and possibly small animals like goats in residential. Most of the meeting considered only allowing chickens until a comment brought up the idea of goats specifically. With the board’s efforts focused on larger animals including cows and horses, the main focus is likely to allow for a limited number of smaller animals for personal use.

The board instead is going forward with increasing lot size minimums from 3 acres to 5 acres for Agricultural zones. Also, they will move forward with separating campgrounds into their own Agricultural Recreation (AR) Zone, though the name is probably going to change before approval. This zone will require 25 acres and a 300-foot buffer for the campgrounds and RV grounds to be built in the county.

Elections, Density, Land Use

Commission Chairman Charlie Paris

Lessening the restrictions among lot sizes in the county comes after a packed meeting and many developers loudly opposing the restrictions saying the county is hurting their businesses.

However, the county also saw a meeting last month considering the changes with many supporting the changes to keep Gilmer a rural county.

Additionally, Paris himself opened this meeting saying he has received numerous emails both for and against the Land Use changes.

The third major discussion of the meeting focused on roads in the county and maintaining the quality of those roads throughout the county. As one of the driving forces, not much changed in the roads changes, however, consideration was given to shoulder widths in the county as thoughts were given to burying utility cables and the possibility of fiber optics stretching through the county.

The changes discussed were handed off to County Attorney David Clark who will be scribing the changes into the resolution to amend the Land Use Ordinance. The county is looking at these changes and could be seeing further discussion Thursday night at their Regular Meeting. However, the Board is also considering another Special Called Meeting towards the end of the month to discuss it then along with other topics.

February will decide the moratorium, ordinance, and future of Gilmer’s large developments

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ELLIJAY, Ga. – As Gilmer’s Commissioners continue working on limiting and controlling growing sizes and numbers of developments in the county through its ordinance, they received the other side of the moratorium’s effects when a Special Called Meeting saw a large group of developers seeking information about the future of their work.

With lot size minimums looking to increase, current lots smaller than the minimum would be grandfathered in. Some comments in the meeting revolved around these increases with one speaker, Develle Frady, asking about a parent looking to split their land and give a piece to their child to build on. He said this would hurt some of those people working hard all their life to cut some land and leave it to kids.

Frady said the changes wouldn’t stop growth, but rather create more class division.

Crystal Chastain spoke in the meeting as well asking to support some more of the developments. While she said she the county needs to control growth and it does need to grow, she wanted the county to put off the vote for the ordinance changes advertisement to look deeper into the topic. She said the county needs “affordable workforce housing.” Something that could be accomplished through developments.

ordinance

Crystal Chastain speaks to the BOC about her opinions and requests for the county’s Land Use Ordinance in a meeting on January 29, 2021.

Post Commissioner Karleen Ferguson agreed saying she has been thinking about the affordable housing. She said she and the board is trying to balance the issue and she was thinking on a half acre increase and what it would do to affordability. It is something she has worked on in previous positions as well. She promised Crystal that the board is considering the issues saying, “We’re working on it.”

Much of the discussion centered on lot size changes and the effect the changes will have on citizens and the county. Other commenters repeated asking the commissioners to delay and look closer at what consequences and effects the changes may cause.

The meeting also saw minor confusion on the exact changes as the county continues to work on the issue. It has yet to formally approve anything on the Land Use Ordinance, and, in fact, it remains in unfinished business on their agendas as the county once again pushed back approving advertisement of the changes in favor of continuing talks with the community. Some of the confusion in the community has come from exactly this reason, the county has had two separate meetings with numerous speakers both for and against the changes being discussed. As new changes and adjustments are made at every meeting, the county is constantly changing the proposed ordinances to keep pace with citizens comments.

ordinance

Keith Sumner, a local builder in Gilmer, debates the Land Use Ordinance and its effects on citizens.

Commission Chairman Charlie Paris said during the meeting that if they were to have voted on something that day, it would only have been to advertise changes.

To make these changes, the county must go first approve an official advertisement of the changes, hold an official public comments meeting, then approve the changes once during a monthly meeting, then approve changes a second time during the following meeting for final adoption of those changes. After all of January with its work session, regular meeting, and a special called meeting, the county has yet to take its first official step in making these changes to the ordinance.

Instead, with some commenters in the meeting asking the county to look again and one asking to wait and see if the market changes soon, they are once again tabling the discussion to possibly adjust the changes once more and consider advertising again in February. Pushing the item back is creating an issue with the county’s moratorium in place and set to expire in a few months. The County Attorney David Clark suggested the board consider this alongside their motion to table the discussion. He asked that if the commissioner continue pushing the vote back, they discuss lifting the moratorium. He said it could be unfair to developers to continue the moratorium indefinitely if the ordinance change discussions continued too much longer.

Clark said, “I’d encourage you not to extend the moratorium.”

ordinanceClark also warned that he felt like much of the current discussion focused on lot sizes, but there could be more “nuts and bolts” in the changes that could come to light after the lot sizes.

Other issues the county is considering includes road quality and zoning labels among others.

Ferguson requested a joint meeting between the Board of Commissioners and the Planning Commission to further discuss the Land Ordinance. Paris agreed saying that he also wanted some representation from the Builders Association and a few other associations at the meeting to include their input as well.

That joint meeting has officially been published for Monday, February 8, 2021, at 2:30 p.m. in the Jury Assembly Room of the Gilmer County Courthouse. It will prove to be a busy week for the county as this meeting comes only two days before their February Work Session on February 10, 2021, at 9 a.m. and the Regular Meeting on February 11, 2021, at 6 p.m., both at the same location.

The county is also going to obtain information from other neighboring counties on the topic from the Northwest Georgia Regional Commission (NWGRC).

Zoning request for Hastings Development tabled

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Blue Ridge, Ga. – A development that has drawn the attention of many in Fannin County has once again come to a temporary halt as the developer seeks to have land rezoned in the City of Blue Ridge to accommodate the plans.

What has become known locally as the Hastings Development is a residential development set in the City of Blue Ridge with access points to Highway 515 and College Street. The 14 acre property sits adjacent to Overlook Subdivision.

The proposed development itself has seen a number of changes based on community feedback and most recently the city zoning board gave approval for an 83 town-home high density site. The Blue Ridge City Council has final say on whether zoning of the land will be changed for the development to take place.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Zoning, Hastings, Development, College Street, Highway 515, City Council, City, Mayor, Planning, Attorney, Donna Whitener, Rhonda Haight, Nathan Fitts, Robbie Cornelius, Mike Panter, Harold Herndon, James Balli, Utility Director, Rebecca Harkins, Integrity Development Group LLC

Developer Johnnie Hastings addresses concerns of the citizens and presents a revitalized plan for the development.

The Hastings Development has been met with concerns ranging from the possibility of high volume traffic on narrow College Street to whether the city’s infrastructure can handle the additional stress of the new units.

A vote was expected to take place at the Jan. 12 Blue Ridge City Council meeting but with last minute changes to the proposed plans, a motion was made to table the decision until next month’s meeting.

“We listened,” Johnnie Hastings, the developer of the property, spoke to the council and citizens, “What is the need in the community? What is it that you guys need in terms of housing?”

Hastings explained that the original concept for the development dating back to Jan. 2020 was for affordable housing in the $250,000 range, but after gathering further community input the design was changed to upscale town-homes in the $450-500,000 range.

“I want to do something…that’s good for the community, that we can all get around,” Hastings said as he revealed the revised plan based on community push back to the suggested 83 town-homes, “Believe it or not but that’s my heart.”

Hastings’ new plan consists of 56 freestanding family homes at 4 homes per acre. The price will still be in the range $500,000 per home.

“We’re here to compromise and bring a little unity to this project,” Hastings said, adding, “At the end of the day you’ll be very pleased with what I did up there.”

Citizens who had come to the meeting to speak in opposition or at least express concerns over the development were taken off guard with the proposed changes to the site.

The main concerns echoed by the citizens present was the need for the new changes to be approved by the planning commission or flow through proper channels, whether the city’s infrastructure could handle the added usage and traffic coming onto College Street.

“It concerns me that you would vote on this when the planning commission has not,” one citizen spoke.

“The sewer system won’t handle it. The water system won’t handle it,” another citizen voiced.

Utility Director Rebecca Harkins addressed the concerns of city infrastructure stating that the city has more than enough capacity remaining in their system to handle the proposed development.

“I don’t have a position on this development,” Harkins stated adding that she simply wanted to present the public with the facts.

Harkins confirmed that the city did have capacity to handle the additional units to the system and that there are issues that need to be fixed and updated throughout the city’s infrastructure, but that those issues would have to be addressed regardless of the development adding on.

“I agree that it needs to be worked on and it needs to be worked on diligently,” Harkins said of the city’s current infrastructure and reassured residents that the development would cost nothing to the city: “The city does not fund any portion of the water and sewer system for a new development.” 

Harkins also pointed out that the developer would be financially responsible for any impacts on the system from the development to the plant caused directly by their connection.

Mayor Donna Whitener confirmed that City Attorney James Balli had sent in writing that council could vote on the rezoning if Hastings had lowered density but that it would need to go through proper channels before coming to council if the density had increased.

Council member Mike Panter made a motion to table the vote until the next regular meeting in Feb. giving the council more time to look over the proposed changes. 

All council members voted in favor of tabling the vote with the exception of Council member Rhonda Haight who stated her reason as “I think we’ve kept people waiting long enough”.

Arguing erupts over City Park playground

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Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Playground, Park, City Council, City, Mayor, Planning, Zoning and Project Manager, Attorney, Donna Whitener, Rhonda Haight, Nathan Fitts, Robbie Cornelius, Mike Panter, Harold Herndon, Jeff Stewart, James Balli, Legal, Safety, Reopen

Blue Ridge, Ga. – It was clear from the onset of the Blue Ridge City Council meeting that tensions were high between fellow council members Rhonda Haight and Mike Panter.

During approval of the minutes from a Special Called Oct. 20, 2020 council meeting Haight made the motion to accept the minutes but with it being noted that Panter had brought forth non agenda items at this meeting and that this was illegal according to the Open Meetings Act.

During this meeting Panter asked to speak and used this time to point out the history of dysfunction within the city council.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Playground, Park, City Council, City, Mayor, Planning, Zoning and Project Manager, Attorney, Donna Whitener, Rhonda Haight, Nathan Fitts, Robbie Cornelius, Mike Panter, Harold Herndon, Jeff Stewart, James Balli, Legal, Safety, Reopen

View of playground in City Park showing height of slide.

Mayor Donna Whitener pointed out that it was a council member who had made the request for this for the time to speak.

“It doesn’t matter if it was a council person,” Haight responded to the Mayor’s comments, “I’ve never been allowed to do that.” 

The motion to accept the minutes with the added note passed 3-2 with council members Robbie Cornelius and Panter opposing.

Contention didn’t stop there, as Haight then moved to have the agenda amended, moving Panter’s line item (Presentation of playground and Purchase) from Action Agenda Items to Purchasing Approvals.

Haight stated that according to the city charter and for clarification in minutes that the item should be moved: “Are we going to be purchasing?”

Council member Nathan Fitts backed Haight stating, “If we’re going to go by procedures, let’s do it correctly.” Fitts added that everyone needs to get on the same page.

“An action item can be an action item where you are taking action on something and a purchasing approval,” City Attorney James Balli clarified whether the item had to be moved. “Legally you can do it under either one.” 

The motion to move the item passed with only Panter in opposition and council member Harold Herndon expressing his opinion that it didn’t really matter.

Panter had previously presented to the public his research and opinion on the route that should be taken when considering reopening the City Park’s playground area.

During his presentation at the current meeting Panter reiterated that his concern is with safety and the lack of upkeep the city has done in maintaining the playground area. 

Panter advocated for using rubber padding in lieu of mulch and stated that while the initial cost would be over $60,000, the benefits of not having the upkeep of mulch would save the city money in the years to come.

“We had two grants of over $150,000 offered to the city,” Panter stated of the park’s history, “We got zero because we couldn’t make a decision.” 

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Playground, Park, City Council, City, Mayor, Planning, Zoning and Project Manager, Attorney, Donna Whitener, Rhonda Haight, Nathan Fitts, Robbie Cornelius, Mike Panter, Harold Herndon, Jeff Stewart, James Balli, Legal, Safety, Reopen

Panter presenting his research and findings into reopening the City Park playground.

Arguing among council and mayor erupted over who had been previously responsible for the decisions made about the park and playground.

“Ms. Whitener went down to the park yanked all the equipment out and left it totally blank,” Haight said of the park’s two year saga of renovation between 2015 – 2017.

Haight acknowledged that there was a grant for $120,000 to be used in the park but that the grant was for a botanical garden and not for the playground. 

Mayor Whitener retorted to Haight, defending the landscaping that began but was later removed, “You were moving the park to the other side.” 

“And yes I did want it to go at the other end but it was too late at that point,” Haight responded to Whitener’s remark.

One thing that the two did agree on was that $12,000 was spent during this time on sod that was later removed and a sprinkler system.

Conversation became more heated when Whitener pointed out that council member Haight’s husband had been involved with the park at that time. Haight acknowledged that her husband had volunteered some of his time but was not involved in the ultimate decisions that were made.

“I think you’ve told so many lies over the years, you don’t even know what the truth is,” Haight spoke directly to Whitener.

Fitts tried to steer the conversation back to addressing the playground as it is today instead of discussing the history: “We need to do what is best for the citizens right now. What would it take to get the park open to code?”

Cornelius finally made a motion to purchase the turf option presented by Panter, stating that the problem should just be fixed rather than “putting a band-aid on it”. The motion, however, failed to pass with only Panter and Cornelius voting in favor.

“I’m not interested in taking the liability and doing that,” Panter said when suggested that the city use mulch for now.

Haight responded to Panter,  “Just because we voted you down, you don’t want to participate even though you’re over the park?”

“I’ve done my job,” Panter responded “You do your job. I’ve done mine.”

Haight motioned for $10,000 to be spent in bringing the playground up to code with the use of mulch and to address drainage issues in the area. This motion passed 3-2 with Cornelius and Panter in opposition.

Planning, Zoning and Project Manager Jeff Stewart agreed to take on the project of the City Park playground and will oversee the steps necessary to reopen the playground to the public.

Arguing erupts over City Park playground

Community, Downtown Blue Ridge, News
Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Playground, Park, City Council, City, Mayor, Planning, Zoning and Project Manager, Attorney, Donna Whitener, Rhonda Haight, Nathan Fitts, Robbie Cornelius, Mike Panter, Harold Herndon, Jeff Stewart, James Balli, Legal, Safety, Reopen

Blue Ridge, Ga. – It was clear from the onset of the Blue Ridge City Council meeting that tensions were high between fellow council members Rhonda Haight and Mike Panter.

During approval of the minutes from a Special Called Oct. 20, 2020 council meeting Haight made the motion to accept the minutes but with it being noted that Panter had brought forth non agenda items at this meeting and that this was illegal according to the Open Meetings Act.

During this meeting Panter asked to speak and used this time to point out the history of dysfunction within the city council.

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Playground, Park, City Council, City, Mayor, Planning, Zoning and Project Manager, Attorney, Donna Whitener, Rhonda Haight, Nathan Fitts, Robbie Cornelius, Mike Panter, Harold Herndon, Jeff Stewart, James Balli, Legal, Safety, Reopen

View of playground in City Park showing height of slide.

Mayor Donna Whitener pointed out that it was a council member who had made the request for this for the time to speak.

“It doesn’t matter if it was a council person,” Haight responded to the Mayor’s comments, “I’ve never been allowed to do that.” 

The motion to accept the minutes with the added note passed 3-2 with council members Robbie Cornelius and Panter opposing.

Contention didn’t stop there, as Haight then moved to have the agenda amended, moving Panter’s line item (Presentation of playground and Purchase) from Action Agenda Items to Purchasing Approvals.

Haight stated that according to the city charter and for clarification in minutes that the item should be moved: “Are we going to be purchasing?”

Council member Nathan Fitts backed Haight stating, “If we’re going to go by procedures, let’s do it correctly.” Fitts added that everyone needs to get on the same page.

“An action item can be an action item where you are taking action on something and a purchasing approval,” City Attorney James Balli clarified whether the item had to be moved. “Legally you can do it under either one.” 

The motion to move the item passed with only Panter in opposition and council member Harold Herndon expressing his opinion that it didn’t really matter.

Panter had previously presented to the public his research and opinion on the route that should be taken when considering reopening the City Park’s playground area.

During his presentation at the current meeting Panter reiterated that his concern is with safety and the lack of upkeep the city has done in maintaining the playground area. 

Panter advocated for using rubber padding in lieu of mulch and stated that while the initial cost would be over $60,000, the benefits of not having the upkeep of mulch would save the city money in the years to come.

“We had two grants of over $150,000 offered to the city,” Panter stated of the park’s history, “We got zero because we couldn’t make a decision.” 

Blue Ridge, Georgia, Fannin County, Playground, Park, City Council, City, Mayor, Planning, Zoning and Project Manager, Attorney, Donna Whitener, Rhonda Haight, Nathan Fitts, Robbie Cornelius, Mike Panter, Harold Herndon, Jeff Stewart, James Balli, Legal, Safety, Reopen

Panter presenting his research and findings into reopening the City Park playground.

Arguing among council and mayor erupted over who had been previously responsible for the decisions made about the park and playground.

“Ms. Whitener went down to the park yanked all the equipment out and left it totally blank,” Haight said of the park’s two year saga of renovation between 2015 – 2017.

Haight acknowledged that there was a grant for $120,000 to be used in the park but that the grant was for a botanical garden and not for the playground. 

Mayor Whitener retorted to Haight, defending the landscaping that began but was later removed, “You were moving the park to the other side.” 

“And yes I did want it to go at the other end but it was too late at that point,” Haight responded to Whitener’s remark.

One thing that the two did agree on was that $12,000 was spent during this time on sod that was later removed and a sprinkler system.

Conversation became more heated when Whitener pointed out that council member Haight’s husband had been involved with the park at that time. Haight acknowledged that her husband had volunteered some of his time but was not involved in the ultimate decisions that were made.

“I think you’ve told so many lies over the years, you don’t even know what the truth is,” Haight spoke directly to Whitener.

Fitts tried to steer the conversation back to addressing the playground as it is today instead of discussing the history: “We need to do what is best for the citizens right now. What would it take to get the park open to code?”

Cornelius finally made a motion to purchase the turf option presented by Panter, stating that the problem should just be fixed rather than “putting a band-aid on it”. The motion, however, failed to pass with only Panter and Cornelius voting in favor.

“I’m not interested in taking the liability and doing that,” Panter said when suggested that the city use mulch for now.

Haight responded to Panter,  “Just because we voted you down, you don’t want to participate even though you’re over the park?”

“I’ve done my job,” Panter responded “You do your job. I’ve done mine.”

Haight motioned for $10,000 to be spent in bringing the playground up to code with the use of mulch and to address drainage issues in the area. This motion passed 3-2 with Cornelius and Panter in opposition.

Planning, Zoning and Project Manager Jeff Stewart agreed to take on the project of the City Park playground and will oversee the steps necessary to reopen the playground to the public.

Commissioners adopt Moratorium on Greenspace subdivision roads

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ELLIJAY, Ga. – Originally considered for Class D and Class E roads, Gilmer’s Board of Commissioners is placing a moratorium on green space subdivisions as they work on details before planning to release the moratorium with a modified ordinance in early 2021.

According to Planning and Zoning Director Karen Henson, Gilmer has a couple subdivision projects currently approved in R2 that are abiding by lot sizes. However, the concern is if these lots are sold and then divided and resold. Class E Roads are only allowed to have 10 lots on them. The county will be looking at options to prevent such a process that would ultimately result in an larger number or lots on roads that cannot support them.

Discussion of the agenda item saw more focus on the moniker of “inferior roads” and right of ways than specific Class E roads. However, Henson indicated in the meeting that all Class E designated roads would be considered a part of the moratorium and later clarified as such.

As approved in the meeting, Henson herself clarified in an email that the Moratorium will be for:

  1. The suspension of Class E roads.

  2. The suspension of subdivisions of land along inferior County roads, which are roads with less than 40 foot right of way and 20 foot surface width with 3 foot shoulders (except for the 2 annual splits).

  3. The suspension of greenspace developments.

During the meeting, with advice from Henson and County Attorney David Clark, the Board is setting the moratorium to take effect later, and will begin the process of the ordinance change that will take several months to complete through advertising, First Reading, a Public Hearing, and a Second Reading with Final Adoption.

As contractors move into the moratorium, it will not shut down developments in areas as it was stated that they can continue developments with upgraded road systems. It will not affect Class D roads in general unless they fall into the county termed “inferior roads.”

 

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