Despite objections from a large and vocal crowd in opposition, the Barrow County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, Aug. 10, voted in favor of a controversial rezoning request for a mixed-use development in the Hoschton area. The decision came roughly 10 months after the board denied the original request and followed a settlement agreement reached last month between the county and applicants for the BOC to rehear the case.
After a more than 20-minute public hearing, the board was unanimous in its decision to rezone and change the county’s future land-use map designation for 53.2 acres at 1308 Lec Stone Rd. — about a mile south of the intersection of highways 211 and 124 — which will allow for Ridgeline Land Planning to develop a mixed-use project with 280 townhomes and 130,000 square feet of commercial space on 8.5 acres of the property.
The latest plans from developer Holt Persinger marked a change from plans presented last year that called for 280 apartment units, 158 townhomes and commercial space. Aaron Kappler, an attorney representing the developer, said the apartment component had been entirely removed from the plans, and a prohibition on apartments was one of 20 conditions attached to the BOC’s approval of the requests Tuesday.
Among other conditions:
•A traffic study must be prepared by a registered engineer in Georgia and submitted to the county’s planning department, and the developer must comply with any and all recommendations, standards and requirements set by the county and the Georgia Department of Transportation.
•The owner/developer must dedicate right of way necessary to “safely realign” the intersection of Highway 211 and Freeman Johnson Road.
•The commercial component of the development must not include any mini-warehouses or storage units or “grocery stores smaller than 30,000 square feet.”
•The residential portion of the development must have restricted gate access.
•The townhome units must be a minimum of 1,800 heated square feet with no vinyl siding.
•There will be a mandatory homeowners’ association and the residential streets must be privately owned and maintained.
•There must be amenities for residents — including a pool, clubhouse, fitness center, walking trails and open space.
The BOC also granted variance on stream buffer setback requirements, from 100 feet to 50 feet.
The board in October 2020 rejected the applicants’ original request by a 5-2 vote following a contentious public hearing, following along with the recommendation by the county’s planning commission and after hearing public comments from a contingent of residents who opposed the project over concerns ranging from traffic to stormwater issues to what they feared would be negative effects on their property values.
The developers and property owners, the Stone Living Trust, who are under contract for the sale of the property, filed suit against the county, and the parties agreed to stay the litigation while the BOC reconsidered the request. Kappler argued that the rezoning request was a property-rights issue and that the county would be wrong in allowing strong public resistance to control its decision.
The long list of conditions, including the requirement of the traffic study and required implementation of its recommendations, did little to appease the large contingent of area residents opposed to the development, as they once again packed the board’s meeting chambers wearing red shirts, several of them holding signs protesting the development. Following the board’s vote Tuesday, the residents angrily and loudly filed out of the chambers with comments like: “Vote them out,” “See you in court,” “Elections have consequences” and “You let us down.”
During Tuesday’s public hearing, Jerold Davis, a resident of the Cruce Lake subdivision across Freeman Johnson Road from and to the west of the planned development, pleaded with the commissioners to stick to their original decision despite the lawsuit.
“You (denied the request) for very good reasons. The facts haven’t changed,” Davis said. “There’s still traffic concerns. The increase in density is inconsistent with the planning principles, with the rural nature of the neighborhood and character area. And one thing that’s changed, and I’m astonished by it, is that you all are going to carry this forward.”
In a rebuttal, Kappler pushed back against Davis’ remarks and disputed claims from Joe Cooley, an attorney representing the concerned residents, that the county was “giving away” its zoning powers and was, at least in effect, engaged in “contract zoning” with the county, which is illegal in Georgia. County attorney Angie Davis pointed out that the board was not bound by the settlement agreement to approve the request, only to reconsider it, though Cooley suggested that the plaintiffs’ reserving the right to resume the litigation in the event of a denial amounted to the threat of more legal expenses being held over the county’s head.
With the board’s approval, the applicants have agreed to file for dismissal of the lawsuit within the next 35 days.
Following other public hearings Tuesday, commissioners:
•approved requests to rezone, change the future land-use map (FLUM) designation for and grant a special use for 64.5 acres of the Royal W. Hardigree estate property on Highway 211 Northwest, just south of Pinnacle Drive, in order for a subdivision of more than 170 single-family homes to be built. The subdivision will be called Royal Estates as a tribute to Hardigree.
•approved requests to rezone and change the FLUM designation for 4.05 acres at 405 Patrick Mill Rd. and 914 Fred Kilcrease Rd., Winder, in order for a gas station and other commercial/retail space to be built.
•denied a request to rezone and change the FLUM designation for 2 acres at 334 Dunahoo Rd., Winder, in order for a towing storage lot to be built.
•approved a request by Berean Church of Free Seventh-day Adventist to rezone 9.2 acres at 1340 Old Victron School Rd., Hoschton, in order for the church to build a 10,500 square-foot building and a 2,800 square-foot building on the property for church and community activities.
•approved a special-use request by Charles Howard to operate a wedding venue at 854 City Pond Rd., Winder.
In other business Tuesday, commissioners:
•accepted nearly $16.2 million in federal funds through the American Rescue Plan, which county manager Kevin Little said will primarily be put toward water and sewer infrastructure projects in the county, following along with “strict” conditions attached to the money. The county has already received half of the money and is slated to receive the other half by next May. He said county officials would be providing future updates to the board on recommended projects for the money to spent on.
•approved the purchase of a new excavator for the public works department in the amount of $196,890 to replace a 1995 excavator.
•approved the purchase of a new work truck for the public works department in the amount of $54,823. The truck will replace a 1997 truck, which will be surplused.
•approved the purchase of a mobile-based system for the county assessor’s office in an amount not to exceed $24,520 for the fiscal year. The county’s agreement with the provider runs through September 2027.
•approved annual renewals of the county’s aging services and coordinated transportation agreements with the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission Area Agency on Aging for fiscal year 2022.
•appointed Joe Costello to the Keep Barrow Beautiful board to fill an unexpired term that will expire at the end of 2024.
•reappointed Mace Strickland to a four-year term on the Keep Barrow Beautiful board that will expire at the end of 2024.
•reappointed Lisa Maloof to the Joint Development Authority of Northeast Georgia.
This past spring, all fourth- and fifth-grade students in the Barrow County School System (about 2,100) participated in Tar Wars, a tobacco-free education program developed by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
It was the third consecutive year that Northeast Georgia Medical Center Barrow partnered with the school district to teach students about the short-term health effects of tobacco use, the cost associated with using tobacco products, and the advertising techniques used by the tobacco industry to market to youth.
“The future health of Barrow County communities rests in the lifestyle choices of the youth today,” Sunita Sing, public relations manager for NGMC Barrow, said in a news release. “With tobacco, nicotine and alcohol being at the root cause of many illnesses, it is important for our youth to be aware of the impact of decisions made today on the rest of their lives. With the goal of reducing tobacco use among young people and beginning a discussion about changing culture, we are honored to partner with Barrow County School System in our fight against smoking and (substance) abuse among our children.”
As part of the program, students also designed a poster to discourage tobacco use. Each class selected the top three posters, which went on to participate in a district-level competition with over 200 poster entries. NGMC Barrow narrowed the submissions to 36, which were then voted on through Facebook to select the top three poster entries for the school system, which then were submitted for the statewide competition.
Jailyn Delira-Castaneda, a fifth-grader at Yargo Elementary School (now in sixth grade), was voted the system winner for her “Be a Fighter, Put Down the Lighter” poster. Yargo Elementary fourth-grader Noah Self (now in fifth grade) was the system runner-up but also placed third in the statewide competition for his “Hit Tobacco Out of the Park” poster. Azul Velazquez, a fifth-grader at Bethlehem Elementary (now in sixth grade), placed third in the district for her “Say No to Smoking!” poster.
Traditionally implemented during Red Ribbon Week in October, the Tar Wars program pivoted last school year to accommodate Covid-19 mitigation measures the district implemented at its campuses and other limitations due to the pandemic.
With the district’s no-visitor policy, Tar Wars lessons transitioned from in-person guest speakers to Google Classroom so students in person and learning at home could participate equally. Nurse Angie Caton and NGHS produced instructional videos and created accompanying online activities. Following each video, BCSS teachers then facilitated classroom discussions with reinforcing activities, according to the release. For example, the first video discussed the ingredients in a cigarette and how tobacco affects the human body. Students then tried breathing through a drinking straw while jogging in place to simulate how a smoker may feel with reduced lung capacity.
As part of the program, students are given a pre-test to establish their baseline knowledge. After they complete the Tar Wars program, they also complete a post-test. School officials said that data gathered from the testing revealed significant knowledge gains in all areas by students.
•87% of students reported learning something new from Tar Wars.
•93% of students responded people who smoke are not healthy and fit (in the post-test).
•33% more students said advertisers are not telling the truth about tobacco use (from the pretest to the post-test).
•28% more students said that vapes are not safer than regular cigarettes (from the pre-test to the post-test).
On July 1, Georgia House Bill 287, which requires tobacco and vapor product instruction for all students grades K-12, went into effect after being signed by Gov. Brian Kemp.
BCSS officials said the district will continue to utilize the Tar Wars program with fourth- and fifth-graders in part of its efforts to meet the bill’s requirement. Officials said they hope the program will reduce the number of smokers in the future.
“We are thankful to Barrow County school teachers, nurses and counselors to deliver Tar Wars presentations to the fourth- and fifth-grade students,” Singh said. “With the education they are presenting, Barrow County’s youth will certainly have the knowledge and skills to be healthy and successful for many years to come.”
For the work completed to launch the program three years ago and transform it during COVID-19, Ellen Petree, school and community relations specialist for BCSS, was nominated this summer for the “Cure Lung Cancer Hero Award.”
The recognition is awarded to three individuals who have made a significant impact in the lives of those affected by lung cancer, according to the release.
“With Ellen’s leadership and guidance, over 2,000 fourth- and fifth-grade students successfully participated in Tar Wars for each of the last three years, including the pandemic,” said Angie Caton, assistant nurse manager for NGMC, who nominated Petree.
At least seven people so far have put their name in the hat to fill the at-large Winder City Council seat left vacant after Holly Sheats’ resignation last month, including a former council member. And there could be more on the way before the special qualifying period closes at the end of this week.
Former Ward 2 councilman Al Brown, who was appointed to the council in 2013 to fill the remainder of the late Charlie Eberhart’s term following his death, was among the seven people who had applied to be appointed to the seat by the rest of the council as of 4 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 10. Brown was elected to a full term in 2015 and was defeated by Kobi Kilgore in his bid for re-election in 2019.
Other candidates who had qualified as of Tuesday afternoon were Robert Lanham, Bobby Yarbrough, Power Evans, Pam Powell, Jerry Martin and David Brock.
Lanham, a longtime observer of city government and regular attendee of council meetings, ran unsuccessfully against Sheats for the at-large post in 2019. He was also among the seven candidates who interviewed for Eberhart’s seat in 2013. Lanham currently chairs the Winder Planning Board and is a member of the Barrow County Planning Commission. Brock is also a member of the city’s planning board. Meanwhile, Powell was among a large contingent of residents who recently spoke out against the city’s planned doubling of its millage rate during a slate of public hearings on the increase. That proposed increase, amid intense backlash from residents, along with the city’s adoption of a fiscal year 2022 budget in a split vote, played a large part in Sheats’ decision in late July to step down a little over 18 months into her first term on the council.
Qualifying for the at-large seat is free and open to all city residents and is scheduled to end at noon Friday, Aug. 13. Anyone interested in filling the seat is asked to contact Monica Franklin, Barrow County’s director of elections and voter registration, by phone at 770-307-3110, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by fax at 770-307-1054.
The council is scheduled to appoint Sheats’ replacement at its Sept. 2 meeting, and the new member will be sworn in at the Sept. 7 meeting. The person chosen will fill the remainder of Sheats’ term, which expires at the end of 2023, and will be up for election that year.
Meanwhile, qualifying for the Nov. 3 municipal elections across the county is set for next week.
In Winder, qualifying for the seats held by Sonny Morris (Ward 1), Jimmy Terrell (Ward 3) and Chris Akins (at-large) will be Monday through Thursday, Aug. 16-19, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Friday, Aug. 20, from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the county elections office, 233 East Broad St., Winder. The qualifying fee for each of those seats is $180.
In Auburn, qualifying for the citywide council seats held by Robert Vogel III and Bill Ackworth will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Aug. 16-19 and 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Aug. 20 at city hall, 1369 Fourth Ave. The qualifying fee for each seat is $144.
In Statham, qualifying for the citywide council seats held by Tammy Crawley, Betty Lyle and Dwight McCormic will be held from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Aug. 16-19 and 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Aug. 20 at city hall, 327 Jefferson St. The qualifying fee for each seat is $180.
In Bethlehem, qualifying for the town council seats held by Bryan Bell (Post 1), Joe Price (Post 3) and Tommy Buchanan (Post 5) will be from 12-4:30 p.m. Aug. 16-19 at town hall, 750 Manger Ave. The qualifying fee for each seat is $22.50.
And in Carl, qualifying for the mayor’s seat currently held by David Brock (no relation to the Winder council candidate) and the town council seats held by Frank Cheely and James Shedd will be from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Aug. 17-18 and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Aug. 19 at town hall, 1690 Carl-Bethlehem Rd. The qualifying fees are $86.40 for the mayor’s seat and $72 for each council seat.
The spread of COVID-19 continued to worsen over the past week in Barrow County, while the county did not move the needle on its vaccination rate.
Another 39 new cases in Barrow were confirmed Tuesday, Aug. 10, by the Georgia Department of Public Health with a rolling seven-day average of 37.7 new daily cases as the county, state and country continue to see the highest infection levels since the winter peak.
As of Tuesday, 466 new cases had been confirmed in Barrow in the last two weeks, a rate of 539 per 100,000 residents. That was the second-highest rate in northeast Georgia, behind only neighboring Jackson County (625 per 100,000).
Area hospitalizations due to COVID-19 also continued a recent dramatic increase. Northeast Georgia Health System reported Tuesday morning that there were 170 confirmed-positive patients across its facilities with 30 more awaiting test results, the highest numbers the system has seen since early to mid-February. There were six patients at Northeast Georgia Medical Center Barrow in Winder, where there were only three beds available as of Tuesday morning, and 52 at NGMC Braselton.
The hospital system’s numbers also continued to back up the assertion from many national health leaders and experts that the current COVID situation is a pandemic among the unvaccinated, as 86% of the confirmed-positive patients at NGHS facilities have not been vaccinated.
And while Georgia continues to lag behind the national average, with only 41% of residents fully vaccinated as of Tuesday morning, Barrow (32%) continues to lag even further behind.