A1 A1
Missing Gwinnett woman found dead in Bethlehem home, man taken into custody

A local man is in custody after the body of a woman reported missing out of Gwinnett County was found buried in the crawlspace of a residence at 31 Tanners Bridge Rd., Bethlehem, on Tuesday, April 6.

According to a Barrow County Sheriff’s Office news release late Tuesday afternoon, April 6, authorities served a search warrant Tuesday morning at the residence and found the body of Kim Mason there.

A man named Adam Heard was arrested in connection with the incident and has been charged with concealing the death of another, tampering with evidence, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, theft by taking – motor vehicle, theft by taking and probation violation. He was at the Barrow County Detention Center awaiting his first court appearance as of Tuesday afternoon.

No further information was released by the sheriff’s office Tuesday afternoon, but there are possible additional charges pending “based upon the outcome of the autopsy,” officials said.

The sheriff’s office is being assisted by the Gwinnett County Police Department and Georgia Bureau of Investigation on the case.

Officials break ground on future Spring Mountain Center headquarters in Barrow

Hailing it as a momentous day for the future of business in Barrow County, local and state government and economic development officials, along with company representatives, held a groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday morning, April 6, for global home products manufacturer Spring Mountain Center’s future headquarters at Park 53 in Winder.

“Over the past year, we’ve been looking for a location we could call home, and we’ve found that home,” Spring Mountain Center CEO Jie Xiang said. “This will help lay a foundation to serve the next generation of customers and jobs here, both of which are vital to the health of the community, and this will lay the groundwork for other businesses to build on this infrastructure.”

Tuesday’s groundbreaking came after Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and other state officials announced in January that SMC, an affiliate of another Chinese company, had chosen Barrow County for its new manufacturing and distribution headquarters. The company, which will become the first tenant at the county’s industrial park at the intersection of highways 53 and 316, plans to invest $45 million and build its headquarters in three phases, eventually totaling 1.4 million square feet. The company expects to hire a little over 200 employees over the next five years, with roughly half of those set to be employed when the first phase of 275,000 square feet opens by late 2022.

“We’re excited that they’re here. We’re excited that the folks who live in Barrow County will have an opportunity to join such a company,” Barrow County Chamber of Commerce president Tommy Jennings said. “The people who live here and will work here will be an asset (to the company). Shrinking the supply chain is an important part of business, and Spring Mountain Center has shown that foresight in bringing their manufacturing and distribution here. …We know that Barrow County won’t be successful if they’re not, so we will do everything we can to ensure that prosperity.”

“The opportunities (the company will) bring to our citizens will be immeasurable, but I know it will have a lasting impact on the community,” state Rep. Terry England (R-Auburn) added.

County officials, led by director of economic development Lisa Maloof, with the assistance of members of the state’s economic development department, had been in talks with Spring Mountain Center since December 2019 prior to the announcement, and the county included several economic incentives in exchange from commitments from the company. Under a memorandum of understanding between the county, company and the Winder-Barrow Industrial Building Authority, the IBA will pay 50 percent of the county's standard development fee and issue up to $15 million in bonds for Phase 1, whereby the IBA will own the property and lease it back to the company. The company will also have a five-year tax abatement for each phase. The deal also includes a "clawback" provision, meaning that if the company does not follow through on at least 80 percent of its commitments (investment level, job creation and minimum guaranteed wage amount), it will have to pay back those tax breaks and fee waivers in full.

The groundbreaking was another welcome milestone for county officials who have ramped up their efforts in recent years to attract businesses to the industrial park, which has sat vacant for more than a decade since the county purchased the property and serviced millions of dollars in debt on it.

“This is a great day for me, personally,” said county commissioner Bill Brown, who was on the board of commissioners when the purchase was approved. “A lot of people ask why local governments do certain things, and I certainly got a lot of those questions. But now the vision is starting to come to fruition, and I’m thankful for everyone involved.”

Officials also sounded a confident note that more companies will follow Spring Mountain Center to the business park. Maloof said earlier this year the county was in the running on two other projects. And Scott McMurray, deputy commissioner for the Georgia Department of Economic Development, said the park’s close proximity to Lanier Technical College and Sims Academy and ability to train an ample workforce, along with its proximity to State Route 316, makes the arrival of additional companies inevitable as commercial development continues to increase along the highway between Atlanta and Athens.

“This is going to be a very vibrant and dynamic center of commerce,” McMurray said.

Winder council pushes back decision on requests for planned townhome development

The developers of a planned residential community off Carl-Bethlehem Road next to the Barrow Crossing Shopping Center will have to wait a little longer on a Winder City Council decision over whether to modify zoning conditions that would help their goal of changing the development from a mix of apartments and townhomes to all townhomes.

During its Tuesday, April 6 meeting, the council voted 5-1 — with councilman Sonny Morris opposed to councilman Chris Akins’ motion — to table the requests after Akins and councilwoman Holly Sheats requested that the council have more time to review the applicants’ requested new conditions. The council is now scheduled to take the issue back up at its work session scheduled for April 29, which would put the requests up for a vote at the May 4 council voting session.

Farm Development, LLP was granted a request last August to rezone 67 acres at 399 Carl-Bethlehem Rd., on the south side of Highway 316 and to the east of the shopping center, in order to build 300 apartment units and 99 townhomes, along with several amenities. But the developer has since switched gears and now intends to develop the property with 349 townhomes and no apartments.

Because of that, the applicants are asking to reduce the required front- and side-yard setbacks from 35 to 13 feet, which Lanham said would leave 25 feet between front of the house and sidewalks (allowing for driveway and garage parking) and would be in keeping with typical townhome developments.

They are also seeking relief from one of the conditions on the rezoning and are now requesting eliminating the planned 5,000-square-foot clubhouse that would have been next to a swimming pool and instead having two separate pools with smaller cabanas. The planned nature trails, pedestrian paths and dog parks would remain as amenities.

The city planning board last month recommended denial of the setback request, but Shane Lanham, an attorney representing the applicants, said approving the setbacks would help ease concerns about on-street parking. A homeowners’ association would be responsible for the inner streets of the development. Lanham said the applicants are also agreeable to requests from residents of neighboring properties to install vegetative screening and fencing buffers.

The latest request has also drawn some pushback from the Barrow County School System over the amount of additional bedrooms and children an all-townhome development of that size might bring.

While the overall number of dwelling units would be reduced from 399 to 349 under the proposed change in scope, the number of bedrooms would likely increase by more than 200. When the city council approved the rezoning last summer, it did so with the condition that at least 40 percent (120) of the apartments be one-bedroom units and no more than 5 percent (15) be three-bedroom units. Under the new proposal, Lanham has said all 349 units would be at least three bedrooms with the possibility of some four-bedroom units — meaning there would be at least 1,047 bedrooms in the development. If the project were developed under the original plan with the city council stipulations in effect, even if the remaining 165 apartment units all had two bedrooms, that would only total roughly 800 bedrooms for the entire development.


In other business Tuesday, the council:

•approved a request to annex and rezone 3.59 acres at 851 Loganville Hwy., Bethlehem, in order for the applicants to build a 2,700-square-foot coffee shop and a 3,751-square-foot restaurant to the south of a planned RaceTrac gas station on the western side of the highway. The applicants sought the annexation because setback requirements under the current Barrow County zoning for the property would have only allowed the property to be developed in two separate parcels, while the applicants wanted three separate parcels. The back part of the property will be reserved for potential future development.

•awarded a $448,000 contract to Eagle Dynamic Solutions to dredge the raw water pond at the Winder-Auburn water treatment plant.

•approved the budgeted purchase of utility truck and spray for the Chimneys Golf Course at a combined price of $41,594.

•approved a special-event permit for the CASA Block Party at The Plaza at Jackson from 6-9 p.m. April 24, which will include street closures along Athens, Jackson and Candler streets. Alcohol consumption in the party zone will also be permitted.

•approved a special-event permit for a concert by the Swinging Medallions, hosted by the Downtown Development Authority and Akins Ford, set for 7-10 p.m. May 22 at Jug Tavern Park. Alcohol consumption at the park will be permitted from 6-10 p.m.

•appointed Howard Evans and Jennifer Faulk to fill two vacant posts on the city’s Historic Preservation Commission.

•approved a proclamation declaring April “Safe Digging Month.”


In a called meeting Thursday, April 1, the council:

•approved a pair of Fiscal Year 2021 budget amendments — one where the city will fund membership and retirement enrollment in the supplemental Peace Officers’ Annuity and Benefit Fund for all sworn officers within the Winder Police Department, and the other to reclassify experienced and non-sworn police cadets to higher pay rates, retroactive to the current fiscal year. Chief Jim Fullington has recommended the changes as part of an effort to improve retention rates in the department. Both items will be budget-neutral and paid for through salary savings.

•extended the grace period for the city’s occupational tax deadline by one month to May 15.

•postponed a vote on first reading of a new “unfit buildings” ordinance to allow for further discussion.

•approved new rates and fees for the Chimneys.

Barrow schools to get close to $20M in new federal COVID relief, stimulus funds

The Barrow County School System is set to receive roughly $19.9 million as part of the recently-signed federal American Rescue Plan aimed at COVID-19 relief and economic stimulus.

The money stemming from the massive $1.9 trillion spending plan will provide the school system a much larger trove than the more than $2.3 million it got last year through the 2020 CARES Act legislation and a second round of CARES Act funding allocated in January that totaled about $8.9 million.

Combined, Georgia’s public school systems are receiving a little more than $3.8 billion through the new legislation, according to figures from the state education department.

Districts are required set aside at least 20 percent of the funds they receive to address student learning loss. The remaining funds are flexible and can be used to support at-risk student populations, distance/remote learning, school meals, mental and physical health, supplemental learning and addressing learning loss, facilities and equipment, continuity of core staff and services, and more, according to a Georgia DOE news release.

“These funds will help Georgia schools address learning loss and ensure the safety of students, staff, and families," state school superintendent Richard Woods said in a statement. “I encourage all school districts to take advantage of these resources to continue or expand safe in-person learning options for students."

Some more specific items the funds may be used for include:

•avoiding layoffs and hiring additional educators to address learning loss, providing support to students and existing staff, and providing sufficient staffing to facilitate social distancing in schools.

•implementing strategies to meet the social, emotional, mental health and academic needs of students hit hardest by the pandemic, including through evidence-based interventions and critical services like community schools.

•funding crucial summer, after-school, and other extended learning and enrichment programs.

•hiring additional school personnel, such as nurses and custodial staff, to keep schools safe and healthy.

•providing for social distancing and safety protocols on buses.

•funding for Wi-Fi hotspots and devices for students without connectivity for remote learning and supporting educators in the effective use of technology.

"This pandemic has taken an extraordinary toll on students, parents, educators, and schools, and we know that our schools, students, and communities need help now to reopen safely and quickly, and to stay open," U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement. "These funds from the American Rescue Plan and the extraordinary steps the Department is taking to get these resources to states quickly will allow schools to invest in mitigation strategies to get students back in the classroom and stay there, and address the many impacts this pandemic has had on students — especially those disproportionately impacted by the pandemic."

Barrow County school officials have not yet detailed fully how the district will plan to utilize the new funds, though superintendent Chris McMichael has recommended that the board of education approve spending up to $400,000 on a summer remediation program to help students at each school at least start the process of getting caught up on material they fell behind in when there was no in-classroom learning. Transportation to and from each school for the program will be provided under the plan, McMichael said.

The school board is expected to approve the spending amount at its Tuesday, April 13 voting session after agreeing last week to place the item on the consent agenda for the meeting.

Barrow lagging behind in COVID-19 vaccine rate

More than 19,000 COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in Barrow and roughly 9 percent of the county’s residents are now fully vaccinated, according to the latest numbers from the Georgia Department of Public Health, but the county continues to lag behind much of the state in vaccination rate.

As of Tuesday afternoon, April 6, 7,378 Barrow Countians had received both vaccine doses, while another 11,894 (15 percent) had received at least one dose.

The county’s full vaccination numbers likely got a boost last week, when more than 1,000 Barrow County School System employees received their second shot, but the rate will need to pick up in order for most people in the county to be vaccinated by the end of May, a goal that has been set by the Biden administration.

All Georgians 16 years and older are eligible for a vaccine. To locate vaccine providers (including pharmacies and health departments) and to learn how to schedule an appointment, go to https://dph.georgia.gov/covid-vaccine.

Meanwhile, six new coronavirus cases were confirmed among county residents by the DPH on Tuesday, and the seven-day average of new daily cases has sat between 7-8 the last two weeks. There have been 126 deaths among county residents confirmed by the state.