Needing more space for outdoor events in downtown Jefferson, the city’s MainStreet Jefferson organization wants an outdoor venue.
Main Street director Beth Laughinghouse presented the city council on Sept. 23 with a capital projects request for a $2.5 million amphitheater with both terrace and lawn seating. The project would include parking spaces. The venue, which would be located behind the South Public Square section of downtown, could hold approximately 1,000 people.
“We need that dedicated space downtown for events,” Laughinghouse said.
All events currently being hosted on streets and sidewalks downtown — including the farmers' market and the city’s Freedom Festival — could move to this facility. The space could also be rented out to organizations and businesses that wish to host events.
Main Street Jefferson seeks more space for its own operations as well.
Laughinghouse presented a $200,000 capital project request to renovate an old gas station into an office for the organization. Main Street Jefferson is currently housed in the Crawford Long Museum and is crunched for space in that building.
Laughinghouse also presented the council a $300,000 capital project request to renovate South Public Square. The project adds 15 to 20-foot sidewalks from one end of the block to the other, more parking spaces and paving of lanes and traffic spaces.
The project would require acquiring property behind South Public Square. Two of the four property owners have told Laughinghouse they would be willing to donate or sell that property to move forward with the project.
“This project would certainly be a great addition to downtown and improve the looks of that back of the building, especially from the new amphitheater park,” Laughinghouse said.
These items were not in the city’s 2020 budget, which was approved Sept. 23. The council, however, will review larger capital improvement projects over the next month that could be prioritized through budget amendments.
REC DEPT. ‘BUSTING AT THE SEAMS’
The council also discussed expansion of the city’s recreation department facilities with director Fenton Morris telling city leaders that more space is sorely needed.
“Right now, we’re busting at the seams with the growth of Jefferson,” Morris said.
The council is considering an addition to the recreation department building that would allow more room for gymnastics programs, youth volleyball and basketball leagues, senior-citizen activities, exercise classes and the childcare program. But the department is also in need of athletic fields since the city only owns two, though it does use some of the city school system’s fields.
The department saw a 23 percent increase in participation in spring baseball and softball, according to Morris.
Morris said while new ball fields would certainly be welcomed, an addition to the building would impact a greater number of programs and citizens than field additions would.
“The building expansion has more of an immediate impact to several different programs and community members within Jefferson,” Morris said.
Councilman Jon Howell asked Morris to come back to the council with definitive recommendations for the best options for expansion.
A Jefferson Elementary School 2nd grader was slated to return to class this week after a steak knife was found in his book bag on Sept. 19.
While the incident left some parents upset, school officials said this week that they don't believe the 8-year-old had malicious intent.
According to a report from the Jefferson Police Department, the child also had a list of names of fellow students who he wanted to "arrest" or "ticket" while playing a cop.
"Apparently, the juvenile thought he needed something like the police have (a weapon) to better play his games as a police officer," the report said.
The report also said that "at no time did the juvenile brandish the knife and threaten any student or use the knife in any offensive manner toward anyone."
However, a police report quoted by an Atlanta television station about the incident quoted officers as saying the boy had been in a dispute with some other boys the day before and that he had brought the knife to the school to scare the other boys. This newspaper was not given a copy of the police report which had that information.
Because of his age, the student doesn't face any criminal charges, although the police report was forwarded to the Department of Juvenile Justice for review.
The student was reportedly suspended for several days following the incident.
Superintendent John Jackson said he doesn’t believe the student had any malicious intent and said the incident had been mischaracterized.
Jackson said the school system handled the situation the same way it would any incident involving a student bringing a knife to school.
Following multiple discussions over the past month, the Jefferson leaders unanimously approved the city's millage rate and budget for 2020 on Sept. 23.
The city council unanimously passed a millage rate of 5.75, a .15 drop from the current rate of 5.9, to provide a small property tax decrease for city residents.
“I think there’s been a good deal of discussion, and a great deal of thought has gone into this process,” councilman Jon Howell said. “I think this is a measured approach, but a meaningful approach to a tax reduction for our citizens.”
Howell said the decrease comes as surrounding cities have raised their millage rates.
“I think this will be appreciated by our citizens,” he said.
The council then unanimously OK’d an $11.66 million budget. The spending plan is down 8.1 percent from last year’s budget. The budget calls for $4.33 million in property taxes.
The spending plan included only standard capital improvement projects undertaken by the city annually. The council, however, will review larger capital improvement projects over the next month that it may want to prioritize through budget amendments.
The council also approved a $7.19 million water and sewer budget, down 22.42 percent from last year’s budget.
BOND REFINANCING PASSES
On Thursday, Sept. 19, the council approved a resolution to refinance bonds from 2009 and 2012 that will save the city three years on the term of the bonds and $130,000 over the term of the bonds.
In other business, the council:
•granted a variance to relax a five-year restriction on the development of land after an unauthorized tree harvest. The applicant, Alliance Residential, will apply the variance to 63.7 acres on Concord Rd. to construct apartments. Conditions of the variance will prohibit the construction of three-bedroom apartments and limit the number of two-bedroom apartments to no more than 50 percent of the total project. The conditions were included to help ease the strain an apartment complex might place on the city school system. The variance passed with a 3-1 vote with Howell casting the lone “no” vote.
•approved financial procedures to address debt management, fund balance and investments.
•approved a resolution to authorize investment in Georgia Fund 1, a local government investment pool.
•approved a request to modify a phase-in of 88 townhomes on Carriage Avenue and Athens Street from three years to two years. No more than 44 townhomes would be built in year one.
•approved a land use management code (LUMC) amendment concerning small wireless facilities to adhere to new state legislation. The new state mandate will allow wireless antennas to be installed on city rights-of way. In two related items, the council approved an ordinance amendment to allow for small cell sites, as well as a design guide for decorative poles for small cell sites in historic districts.
•approved a LUMC amendment that would prohibit mini-warehouses and warehouses or storage buildings in the downtown district.
•approved the city’s five-year comprehensive plan update, which has undergone both regional and state review.
•voted to accept .063 acres of rights-of-way on Mahaffey Street from Cream and Shuga owner Angela D’Zamko
•approved the planning and development department’s fee schedule for 2020.
•voted to condemn land in the Apple Valley area needed to create an easement for Jefferson’s Parks Creek Reservoir project. The action followed a brief closed session. The city will submit $275,000 to the condemnation court for purchase of the property needed. The property owner will have an opportunity to contest through the court.
Jackson County has the third-highest suicide rate in the state, according to a recent study done by Ohio State.
In a national survey broken down by counties, the study rated each county by comparing the expected number of suicides with the actual number. Counties with a ratio of 1 represented the expected rate.
In 2014-2016, Jackson County had a ratio of 2.03, a little more than double the expected rate. That was only behind Franklin County (2.07) and Hart County (2.23) in Georgia.
September is national Suicide Prevention Month.
According to state health data, in 2016 Jackson County had 10 suicides for a rate of 15.6 per 100,000. That was not in the top tier of rates in the state, according to that data.
So far in 2019, Jackson County has had three suicides in unincorporated areas, according to the Jackson County Sheriff's office. Suicides in the county's towns were not included in the data.
The national study echoes earlier studies that have shown Jackson County to have a high suicide rate.
A 2005 Georgia study showed Jackson County to have a suicide rate of 13.7 per 100,000 population between 1994-2002, above the state's 11.3 rate for the same period of time.
That study pointed to mental illness, substance abuse, access to firearms and social isolation as factors affecting the state's suicide rate.
The Ohio State study also echoed a CDC study that shows suicide rates between 1999-2016 had climbed significantly in many states.
Across the country, rural areas tended to have higher suicide ratios, according to the study. That was especially true in many Western states (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming), Appalachia and the Ozarks.
Counties with high "social fragmentation" had higher rates, as did counties with a large number of veterans and those who don't have health insurance. In urban areas, access to firearms appeared to be a factor in suicide rates, according to the study.
Rural counties with a high level of "deprivation" also had higher than expected suicide rates, according to the study. Deprivation in the study means lower levels of education, employment and household income.
"Rural counties may lack the flexibility and human capital necessary to adapt to meaningful changes in the broader economy, leading to greater susceptibility to deprivation than more urban or suburban communities," the report stated.
The Jackson County Board of Commissioners agreed Sept. 16 to amend a planning commission decision involving a business expansion at 2367 Hwy. 441 South in Commerce.
The planning commission had recommended approval of a rezoning for 134 acres to allow M&M Properties of Commerce to expand its manufacturing of farm implements, but with the condition that once the firm had 45 employees, it would have to connect to a public sewerage system.
Dylan Wilbanks, attorney for M&M, told the BOC that the company already has 35 employees on its existing neighboring site and that with the new facility it plans to build, would hit or exceed the 45 employee cap. With the nearest public sewerage line several miles away, the company would have to shut down, or not expand at all, he said in a memo to the board.
The BOC agreed to allow M&M to continue using a septic system until public sewerage becomes available in the area.
In other action, a planned roundabout at the intersection of Hwy. 53 and New Cut Rd. in Braselton took a small step forward Sept. 16 with action by the BOC.
The board approved an agreement with the Georgia Department of Transportation to maintain lighting at the roundabout as its part of the project.
The DOT will install the lighting and the county will be responsible for the electricity, operation and maintenance for the lighting system, according to the agreement.
The DOT estimates the total cost of the project will be $3.8 million. The project will take about 24 months to complete and is slated to open in 2024.
DOT coordinators will hold a public information meeting to discuss plans for the roundabout at some point, according to the concept report for the project.
In other action, the BOC approved:
• a rezoning at 1321 Savage Rd. Bogart to split a parcel into two lots.
• hiring a consultant to help analyze what kind of communication system the county will need to upgrade to as the existing system is phased out.
• an indigent defense service agreement for court defense services in the amount of $510,900 for the year 2020.
• a contract for striping 50 miles of various county roads at a cost of $108,300 plus a $100,000 road grant from the state.
• a request to abandon a part of Joe Bolton Rd. and Y.E. Bolton Rd. in Commerce.
The Jackson County government began a series of public comprehensive plan meetings Wednesday (Sept. 18) at the Jackson County Administrative Building. The first meeting was for members of the South Jackson communities to give their input on the future direction of the county.
Justin Crighton of Jackson County planning and zoning, gave those in attendance a background of the compressive plan, its purpose and the importance of public input.
"At its best, a comprehensive plan should be used as a guide for a community for the next 10-20 years," Crighton said. "We use it in a lot of different ways. It sets up policies, some aspirational goals, there's also a short term program that works to implement goals and policies. It's a good idea to stop and take stock especially with the pace of development in recent years. It's good to stop and see what our policies are and how policies in other counties affect growth.
"The purpose of this document is to express the will of the entire community. This is what Jackson County wants as far as growth goes and as far as transportation and infrastructure go. When someone goes against that plan, we can say no, this is not what Jackson County as a collective group wants."
The comprehensive plan in the past has identified where development should occur and where development shouldn't occur, said public development director Gina Roy.
"Some of the success stories have come from maybe having a little dispute with a municipality that's wanting to do a weird annexation and maybe not have the services," Roy said. "In both cases, it's helped on legal statute. It's a document that held importance in our office.
"In the past it was always considered a document you did and then it sat on the shelf. In at least the last eight years, it has really brought policy home and driven some of the ideas the planning commission has placed in these documents and we've utilized them."
Members in attendance were shown various maps. On one map, people were allowed to mark areas of South Jackson they love and areas they want to see improved. One woman in attendance marked every intersection featuring a train track on Hwy. 129. Overwhelmingly, members of South Jackson wanted to preserve the rural and wooded areas.
Boards where people could write in suggestions for the comprehensive plan were also made available. The suggestions ranged from creating a passive park to managing climate change.
More outreach events for the comprehensive plan are scheduled in the coming months, including more workshops for each district. From October to January, a survey will be put on line for Jackson County residents to give more input to the plans.
A second required public hearing will take place in May 2020 and the county is set to adopt the updated plan in June.
All four high schools in Jackson County topped the state average graduation rate last year.
The Georgia Department of Education released its 2019 four-year cohort graduation rates last week.
East Jackson Comprehensive High School had the highest graduation rate in Jackson County, totaling 97.4-percent.
Jefferson High School had a 95.9-percent graduation rate, followed closely by Commerce High School at 95.8-percent.
Jackson County Comprehensive High School came in at 94.6-percent.
All four schools were well above the state average of 82-percent.
Hearings for two recall petition challenges in Hoschton have been scheduled.
Senior Judge David R. Sweat will hold hearings on the "sufficiency" of recall petitions against Hoschton mayor Theresa Kenerly and mayor pro tem Jim Cleveland on Oct. 2.
Kenerly's hearing is set for 9:30 a.m. followed by Cleveland's at 11 a.m.
Both will be held at the Jackson County Courthouse.
Sweat, a visiting judge, has heard multiple cases in Jackson County in recent years.
Kenerly and Cleveland came under fire after Kenerly was accused of pulling an application of a candidate for city administrator because he is black. In a news article, Cleveland defended Kenerly and voiced his opposition to interracial relationships.
Citizens have since packed the Hoschton City Council meetings, calling for their resignations. Multiple ethics complaints have been filed and a recall effort was started earlier this year.
Organizers gathered over 100 signatures against both Kenerly and Cleveland and turned in a recall petition application in early September. The Jackson County Board of Elections verified those signatures a few days later, opening the next round of signature gathering. But that next step was quickly put on hold when Kenerly and Cleveland filed their challenges in the Superior Court of Jackson County.
A proposed controversial subdivision off Jefferson Rd. in Commerce was recommended for approval Sept. 23 by the Commerce Planning Commission. It had been tabled by the group in August.
The recommendation comes with seven conditions, among them reducing the number of houses on the 50 acres down to 69. The property would be annexed into the city and would be zoned R-1, the same zoning it is now in unincorporated Jackson County.
The Commerce City Council is slated to vote on the recommendation at its Oct. 21 meeting.
The planning commission approved the revamped proposal with no discussion.
Chairman Joe Leffew, commission member Melinda Cochran-Davis and city manager James Wascher reportedly met with developers about the proposal.
Among the seven conditions are: That the front of the houses will be brick, stone or rock; half of the houses must be at least 2,900 sq. ft. in size and the other half 3,400 sq. ft.; and that an amenity package, including a swimming pool and clubhouse, must be built within 24 months of groundbreaking and that space can be included in the green space area.
Several people in the audience asked questions about the conditions and the process.
Leffew said the final plat must come back to the planning commission.
In the only other item on the agenda Sept. 23, the commission recommended that two tracts of land, both about 1.8 acres and owned by Beverly George, be annexed into the city and zoned R-1.
Suzanne Owens, a candidate for Hoschton City Council, plans to withdraw her candidacy.
Owens qualified to run for one of two Hoschton City Council seats on the Nov. 5 General Election ballot. She said Sept. 19 that she plans to withdraw since she is moving and will no longer reside in Hoschton.
That leaves three candidates — incumbent Mindi Kiewert, Shantwon Astin and Adam Ledbetter — to vie for the two seats in November.
The two top vote-getters will secure the seats. Council member Susan Powers is not seeking re-election.
Developers of a proposed large development in Braselton have requested to defer a hearing on the project.
Stolz Partners, LLC, requested to defer its request for one month. It was set to go before the Braselton Planning Commission on Monday, Sept. 23.
Stolz Partners is requesting annexation and rezoning of 77 acres at the corner of Hwy. 53 and Braselton Pkwy.
Developers plan 240 multi-family units, six commercial outparcels and nearly 500,000 square feet of warehouse/distribution space.