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Jefferson passes moratorium on public use permits after heated debate

For the foreseeable future, the City of Jefferson will not grant permits for street activity, sidewalk activity and public facilities.

The Jefferson City Council passed a moratorium on such permits during its Sept. 13 work session, much to the chagrin Mike Martin, owner of Revival Hall Taproom and a candidate for city council in the upcoming November election. Martin sees the moratorium as an attack on his business, which often draws people downtown and onto the sidewalk area of the south square.

The moratorium is slated to be lifted at the first council meeting in January, or when the city completes a new parking lot downtown.

Mayor Jon Howell and members of the city council were adamant about only wanting to halt private events from happening on public properties. Howell also said the moratorium won’t keep Revival Hall from having food trucks at the south square as it often does on weekends.

Councilman Mark Mobley proposed the moratorium in the wake of Revival Hall’s second-anniversary event, which saw the closure of the south town square parking lot. Other nearby businesses complained about the situation at the council's August meeting.

Since then, tensions about the situation have apparently been ratcheted-up on social media.

Jay McClay from Diesel Donuts said "misinformation" had put him and fellow business and building owners on the south square in a bad light.

“The picture that is being painted is that we’re against Mike bringing people to this area,” McClay said. “Myself, Ray [Stanjevich] from Friends, Alex [Jerebie], we’re painted to be villains here through social media. I share business with Mike, same customers, we even share staff. I have no problem bringing people down here. Again, clarity needs to be made, it’s choking 40-percent of the parking lot that kills us. There are 14 parking spaces for nine businesses, it just doesn’t work. That’s what we’re fighting for. It’s not against Mike, we want people to come, the more people the better. It’s that simple. We’re doing everything we can to stay open every day through a pandemic and it’s not easy. Adding a parking issue, choking up the whole parking lot doesn’t help the situation at all. We don’t have a problem with anybody, we just don’t want the parking lot choked off anymore.”

Mayor Howell, who did not vote on the moratorium or give his opinion about it, addressed the situation.

“I think it’s important to understand what the council is contemplating this evening, and perhaps even more important, what we are not entertaining,” he said. “We are entertaining hitting the pause button on private events on public land. Private events on private land are going to still continue as usual. What the council is contemplating is the use of special permits for events on public land. That is a bright line of distinction that I think everyone needs to hear and understand."


For his part, Martin said the council had not worked with him as some councilmen claimed and that he had been lied to by the city.

During the Sept. 13 meeting, Mobley claimed a business owner in favor of the moratorium was “bullied” and received “threats to boycott” if they attended Monday’s meeting. Mobley also claimed the council has a history of helping Revival Hall and he presented a timeline of events he believed showed that.

Councilman Clint Roberts also took issue with Martin’s assertion that the council doesn’t respond to him. Roberts presented a chain of emails from August 18 between him and Martin about food truck fees.

Martin responded by accusing the council of slander and manufacturing lies. He claimed Roberts’s rendition of the emails took their conversation out of context and dismissed Mobley’s claim that the city has worked to support Revival Hall.

“To try and make this like we’re trying to use the city to make a bunch of money just isn’t accurate,” he said. “We’re here to serve the city. I was a pastor for 10 years… We started saying ‘what do we need help with here in Jefferson, how can we serve you?’ We were thinking teen pregnancy, homelessness, you guys have heard this story. And people kept saying ‘we don’t have anywhere to hang out, there’s nothing to do.’ Eventually we said, ‘what if we could address a secular need with some sacred energy.' We brought that to the city. We were excited, we thought the city was excited until we found out you weren’t… To paint it like you guys have bent over backward and really tried to help and you’ve been for us just isn’t true. The community knows it… I hate to say it this brashly, but you guys lied a lot.”

Martin also noted his campaign for the District 2 seat on the council, saying it “will be interesting” when he joins the council. 

His statements drew applause from the largely anti-moratorium crowd. Nine people spoke in favor of Martin's position at the meeting, saying they believe the moratorium is an attack on Revival Hall and  defended the taproom's image.


Also Sept. 13, the council held its first public hearing on its proposed FY22 budget. City manager Priscilla Murphy presented an amendment to the proposed budget which includes a raise for all police officers, as well as an increase in pay grade for new officers.

Police Chief Joe Wirthman had requested a raise at the council's Aug. 23 meeting, saying Jefferson wasn’t paying its officers a competitive wage. 

The proposed raise and new pay grade won’t put Jefferson on par with other nearby departments, but Howell alluded to possibly more raises in future budgets.

 Josh Barrett spoke in favor of giving officers a raise regardless of what it takes.


In other business, the council:

•approved presenting a planned I-85 exit beautification project to Georgia Department of Transportation. The project includes lawn maintenance and the installation of various plants along the four exit ramps at Exit 137. The project is being funded by the city’s hotel/motel tax which has raised money that has gone untouched for several years. 

•held a public hearing on the conditional use application for Elite Blasting. The company is moving its existing explosive storage facility to another area on the Jefferson quarry. The council approved Elite Blasting’s rezoning request in August. The area Elite Blasting is moving to is heavily wooded so trees would need to be cleared to prevent a possible forest fire should an explosion happen.

•held a public hearing on a variance to the sign ordinance requested by Tull Signs, LLC. The company is requesting a 10x20 sign in front of the Amazon Distribution Center at 235 Hog Mountain Rd.

•held a public hearing on a backyard chicken ordinance which would allow the raising of chickens in certain residential areas in Jefferson. Roosters are excluded from the ordinance and a conditional use request is needed for residents of areas zoned R1 and R2.

The Jefferson High School ROTC hosted its 9/11 program on Friday, Sept. 10. Shown is Bryli Woodall, director of personnel for JROTC.  Those in attendance at the program include: the Jefferson fire station, Jefferson police station and sheriff, American Legion and local veteran organizations. Due to COVID-19, the ceremony was live streamed for students to view inside their classroom.

Commerce to 'pause' growth for a while

Commerce plans to push the "pause" button on growth in the city until it can make plans for additional infrastructure.

While it's not an official moratorium on rezonings as both Jackson County and Banks County have recently done, Commerce's pause could have the same impact.

The move came during an off-agenda discussion at the Sept. 7 meeting of the city council. City manager James Wascher told the council that his staff had calculated  how much water and sewerage capacity the city has now compared to the estimated need from known commercial, industrial and residential projects in the works.

Based on that, Wascher said the city has about three to four years of capacity left and noted that it would take that long to get some of the projects for expansion of those services completed.

"In the interim, I think we need to be very careful about what projects we're going to be looking at and entertaining and in many cases, we may not be able to commit (resources) until we have a good, solid, actionable plan on the table," Wascher said. "Once we have that, and we're comfortable with our ability build a plant or expand — whatever we're going to do — once we know more about the capacity coming then we can really move forward and continue on the growth pattern we're on. Hopefully, it won't take too long to get to that point."

Mayor Clark Hill echoed the idea that there were already a lot of development projects in the works.

"So I guess we sorta pause a little bit and just say we're not likely to entertain annexations or rezonings or changing density or classifications," Hill said.

Wascher agreed.

"I think 'pause' is a good word, at least until we get our initial planning done," he said.

Hill asked if action by the council was necessary for a pause, but Wascher said he thought simply telling prospective developers the city couldn't commit to infrastructure would be enough to halt development for a while.

As a prelude to the discussion, Wascher said the city needs to engineer and plan for several water system upgrades.

One aspect would be to source additional water. The city does have an agreement with the county water system to buy additional water, but for the longer term, Wascher said the city needs to study adding wells or possibly a new reservoir.

In addition, he said the city needs more water tanks for storage capacity, to expand the water treatment plant's clear-well capacity and to rehab the plant's filtration system.

For sewerage treatment, Wascher said studies need to be done on whether to expand the existing plant or add a second treatment plant. He noted that preliminary information suggests that the Oconee river basin isn't suitable for a plant since the City of Jefferson is planning to build a new reservoir below where Commerce would need to dump treated effluent.

A more likely location would be in the Grove River basin below Commerce's current water reservoir in southern Banks County.

Joe Ruttar speaks to those who came to honor the lives lost on 9/11 and those who died in active duty.

Community members call for schools to mask, get vaccinated

While anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers have gotten a lot of media attention in recent weeks, pro-masking individuals recently appealed to two local boards of education to enact or enforce greater masking mandates in local schools.

Five members of the Jefferson community urged the Jefferson Board of Education on Sept. 9  to reconsider its lack of a mask mandate across Jefferson’s four schools. The speakers pointed out how the COVID-19 Delta variant is more contagious for children than the original COVID-19 virus.

Two community members also called on the Jackson County Board of Education to enforce its masking rules, citing social media posts that show students and teachers ignoring the system's mask mandate.

The pro-masking comments come in contrast to a recent anti-masking outburst at a meeting of the Jackson County Board of Education where false information was spread about masking and vaccinations by some audience members.


Winther Hardy, in a prepared statement to the Jefferson BOE, compared the school system’s lack of mask mandate to a “drunk driving a school bus.” Hardy is a COVID-19 contact tracer for the department of public health.

Other speakers — Karen Bridgeman, Pete Fuller, Christy Mitchem and McKinsey Stone — questioned the BOE about why it wasn’t doing the “bare minimum” to decrease the spread of COVID-19. They also questioned why the school system could enforce a dress code but not a mask mandate.

“I hope our school system can take the necessary precautions before something tragic happens to one of our own,” said Stone, an ICU nurse and parent of a Jefferson Elementary School student. “I have seen firsthand the impact COVID can have, not just on the patients, but their families as well. I want my daughter to have the socialization she deserves, I want high school students to be able to go to homecoming, I want the football team to be able to finish out another amazing season. The best way to accomplish this is to begin with mask mandates.”

Superintendent Donna McMullan and chairman Ronald Hopkins responded to the speakers.

“We certainly do not take our decisions lightly,” McMullan said. “We established a medical advisory board, so we are talking to healthcare professionals, we are talking to representatives from CDC, we are talking to emergency management officials in our county. We are not making these decisions alone, this is something we had in place last year.”

Hopkins added: “This will be a continuous process. We will continue to monitor. The data is our data, it’s not what Jackson County’s data is. The data is not Hall County, Clarke County, whatever, it’s our data. We’re going by what our data is showing us. This is something that is looked at daily, several times a day. Our situation can change, our whole decision guide can change."

McMullan also said the school system’s COVID-19 guidelines aren’t an “exhaustive list," saying each school has specific mitigation strategies. Bridgeman was critical of the school system’s guidelines because masks are only mentioned once.

“I appreciate your comments about the guidelines, they are the only thing the parents and the community can see,” she said. “They do escalate across the percentages, masks are mentioned once. Masks are mentioned to be encouraged, and there’s clearly a disconnect between the layers of strategy that we’re using when something as simple as masks, requested by 70,000 pediatricians with nothing on their agenda but the health of our children, say it’s the first thing we should do.”

Currently, the Jefferson system has around 26 active Covid cases, less than 1% of its students and staff.


Bridgeman also spoke to the Jackson County Board of Education at its Sept. 9 meeting, praising the board for implementing a mask mandate, but saying it needs enforcement. She cited social media posts that show students and teachers not wearing masks.

"Inspect what you expect," Bridgeman said.

Bridgeman also read a letter from a Pendergrass parent who said her special needs daughter had been diagnosed with Covid on Sept. 8 after attending class at a West Jackson school. 

"My point is that a mandate without enforcement is useless," said the parent. 

The Jackson County BOE also heard from Manda Barnett at its Sept. 13 meeting. Barnett, an RN and family nurse practitioner, said it is "horrible" that discussions about Covid had become political. She said that she is pro-vaccination, but also believes people should be given a choice to vaccinate or not.

Barnett said the current virus surge was breaking the health care system, causing shortages in resources and that the situation was approaching the need to ration who gets treated.

"Your best chance of not being hospitalized or becoming very ill from Covid is to be vaccinated," she said.

She encouraged people to question what they see on Facebook and to "try and pull away from the political part of this."

Through Sept. 9, the county school system reported 91 active cases, a little less than 1% of its students and staff. Since the start of the school year, it has had 865 positive cases.

Rucker withdraws candidacy from Ward 1 race

Stacey Rucker has withdrawn from the Commerce City Council Ward 1 race.

The move comes after Andre Rollins, another candidate for the Ward 1 seat, filed a challenge against Rucker's candidacy, alleging that Rucker did not meet the residency requirement to run for office.

Rollins alleged that Rucker does not live at the 327 Hill Street address listed on her qualifying documents, claiming she actually lives in Banks County. Rollins  cited both utility records for the Hill Street residence and Rucker’s voting records.

Candidates for Commerce City Council must reside in the city for at least 12 months prior to qualifying for election.

A hearing on the candidacy challenge had been set for Tuesday, Sept. 14. That hearing has been cancelled.

With Rucker out of the race, Andre Rollins and Eric Gatheright are the two remaining candidates seeking to fill the Commerce City Council Ward 1 seat to be vacated by Archie Chaney. The election is set for Nov. 2.

Four more deaths reported in Jackson County

Four more people have died of COVID-19 in Jackson County.

As of Sept. 13, there have been 159 reported deaths among county residents since the start of the pandemic, along with 13 probable COVID deaths. (The four new deaths did not necessarily occur this past week since there is a lag in state reporting of deaths.)

The county has had 11,663 confirmed COVID cases, the fifth highest county in the state per capita.

Over the past two weeks, there have been 1,038 new cases reported in Jackson. That rate per capita is nearly double the state average (1,390 new cases per 100,000 residents in Jackson County, compared to 745 new cases per 100,000 residents statewide).

Meanwhile, the number of fully vaccinated residents reached 39% this week, still below the state average of 45%.

30th annual Art in the Park Festival coming up at Hurricane Shoals Park

Bluegrass music, artisans, 5K race, living history exhibits and lots of food….all this and more will be happening at the 30th annual Art in the Park Festival at Hurricane Shoals Park.

This year’s event will be held on Saturday, September 18, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday, September 19, from 12:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission, parking, and entrance to all the exhibits are free.

The Tumbling Waters Bluegrass Festival lineup includes Deja Blue Grass Band, Bluegrass Confidential, The Heard, Brush Fire and 3 Bucks Shy.

Throughout the weekend, gospel music will be showcased in the Miles Wilson Matthews Chapel in the Heritage Village.

Saturday morning’s activities kick off with the 5K Mill Race at 8 a.m. A wide selection of handmade arts and crafts will highlight the vendor area and a new and expanded kids zone will include games, inflatables, animals and cookie decorating.

Visitors can learn about the history of Jackson County by playing a round of putt putt golf on the “Spirit of the River” course. The course features wood carvings, a canoe, water features and replicas from the Heritage Village. The cost is only $3.

The grist mill will be grinding corn all weekend. Cornmeal will be for sale for $5 a bag.

Visitors can learn how things were done in the 1800s by touring the Heritage Village and watching artisans at work. Tours of the building in the Heritage Village will also be on tap.

Civil War Skirmishes will feature actual Banks and Barrow County skirmishes. Saturday’s skirmish will begin at 4 p.m. and Sunday’s will start at 2:30 p.m. Visitors will be able to tour the actual encampments and visit with the soldiers, nurses and family members that follow the troops.

The finale for Sunday is the Duck Dash. "Buy a duck and possibly win a cash prize," organizers state.

For more information, visit www.hurricaneshoalspark.org or call 706-908-7287.