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Barrow County commissioner Isaiah Berry dies

Isaiah Berry

Isaiah Berry, the Barrow County commissioner representing District 4, has died. He was 74.

Berry, who passed away late Wednesday night/early Thursday morning, was a native of Sarasota, Florida, and moved to Barrow County in 1974. He spent years as an educator and coach in the Barrow County School System, including with the football and track and field programs at Winder-Barrow High School.

Berry was elected to the county board of commissioners in 2004 and had served on the board since being sworn-in in January 2005. He fended off a Republican primary challenge for his seat in May 2018 and won re-election without opposition to a fifth term that November. His current term was set to expire at the end of 2022.

"After living here for 30 years, my heart and love for the citizens of this county grew, which increased my desire to serve the district in which I live," Berry told the Barrow News-Journal in 2018, recalling why he first decided to get involved in local politics. "By seeking the office of county commissioner, I felt that I could help the citizens by listening and following up on their concerns, by helping them to understand the policies of the county, and then presenting the concerns of the citizens to the commission."

BOC chairman Pat Graham on Thursday described Berry as a "truly remarkable individual and a beloved member of our community."

"As a commissioner, he was always focused on how the decisions he made would impact the citizens of our community," Graham said. "Policies, programs, and projects that touched the lives of children were always quick to gain his interest and his support. It was a pleasure to serve alongside Isaiah. His knowledge, his kind nature and his genuine caring for people were gifts he generously shared with all of us. He will be greatly missed."

As word of Berry's death spread Thursday morning, dozens of tributes from community members began pouring in on social media for the man most people lovingly referred to as "Coach."

"Coach Berry was a Barrow County School System icon who meant a lot to our students and staff," Barrow County schools superintendent Chris McMichael said in a statement. "He will be sorely missed as a supporter and advocate for education."

Commissioner Ben Hendrix, a close personal friend of Berry, recalled spending time with him over the years and looked back on a county commissioner training trip down to south Georgia. When he and Berry walked across the parking lot of the building, Hendrix said, someone immediately recognized him and shouted, "Hey coach!" It was just one example, Hendrix said, of how Berry's influence spread beyond Barrow County.

"I don't think I've ever met a kinder, more generous soul than Isaiah Berry," Hendrix said Friday morning. "He was a very godly man who certainly stood by his convictions. He was all about taking care of children. A lot of people don't know this, but he and his wife, Margie, were foster parents, too. So his love for children throughout the community extended well beyond school and coaching."

One of those children who felt Berry's love and was impacted by him was commissioner Joe Goodman, who said Berry helped him navigate difficult childhood challenges.

"Isaiah Berry is part of the reason I am the man I am today," Goodman said. "He was a voice of reason and helped give me purpose when I was a kid in high school living on my own. I had ISS (in-school suspension) with him on a few occasions for various things, and he would hold me accountable and then talk to me one on one. For the last nine years I have had the privilege of being his peer and friend as a commissioner. He always asked about my children and how they were doing in school. He remembered all of their names and never missed a opportunity to talk about them or how my family overall was doing.

"I will truly miss hearing his passion for God and his joyful personality."

"I know he'd had some health issues the last few years and wasn't able to do everything he wanted, but the heart of the man was always there," Hendrix added. "You can't really talk to someone who was raised here over the last 40 years or so and didn't either personally know Coach Berry or was taught by him, affiliated with him through church, what have you. He was such a good friend to everyone and a respected person by so many.

"His loss, not just personally, but community-wide, is going to really be felt."

A celebration of life service for Berry is planned Saturday, December 18, from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. at Winder-Barrow High School Gym, 272 North Fifth Ave., Winder, Ga. 30680.

Visitation with the family will be held Friday, December 17, 2021 from 1-7 p.m. at White Oak Spring Church, 123 East New St., Winder, Ga. 30680.

See a full obituary on the obituary page of this week’s paper.

Statham residents continue to pushback on multi-use development

Two applications seeking to rezone roughly 12 acres from residential into two separate zoning districts to accomodate a proposed mixed-use development at the corner of Atlanta Highway and the west side of Mulberry Street returned to the Statham City Council this month after both applications were tabled Nov. 16 due to significant pushback from nearby property owners. 

The applicant, Presidential Oaks Properties, LLC., and property owner Margaret Ann Hamway seek to rezone nine out of roughly 12 acres into multi-family residential (MFR) to allow for 56 fee-simple townhomes and rezone the remaining 2.6 acres into highway business (HB) to allow for commercial use.

After both applications received significant pushback from neighboring property owners on Mulberry Street concerned about traffic conditions in November, the applicant returned to the council's work session Dec. 9 with a revised plan meeting the recommendations of the city's consulting planner, Jerry Weitz.

The revisions to the site plan removed the entrance on Mulberry Street so the only access to the development is from Atlanta Highway. In a memorandum to the city, Weitz concluded access should be limited to Atlanta Highway due to the “substandard condition” of Mulberry Street, which he said is “inappropriate” for additional traffic.

In addition to changing the access location, the applicant also agreed to donate a right of way to the city, a 20-foot landscape buffer around the entire perimeter of the development and along the border at Mulberry Street, a privacy fence along the southern portion of the site and reduce the total units from 62 to 56.

The 2.6 acres being proposed as highway business zoning for commercial use consists of three tracts fronting Atlanta Highway. After the previous meeting, the applicant requested to rezone one of the three tracts into office-institutional zoning per the recommendation of Weitz.

Still, those opposed to the development weren’t satisfied with the revisions presented by the applicant's legal council Adam Rosen. Lingering concerns over the development’s impact on water use and traffic on Atlanta Highway were brought up by property owners who don't believe the city has the infrastructure to accommodate another development.

“I just don't think it makes sense for Statham right now,” said Phyllis Wells. “It’s just too many cars added to our little streets.”

In addition to public pushback over the request, the upcoming exit of three out of the five-member council seems to have also been a source of the council’s indecision. Outgoing council members have hinted at delaying the vote to allow new council members to make the potentially impactful decision. Although the council is slated to make a final decision on Dec. 21, another vote to table the matter until next month is a possibility.


In other business, the council discussed the following items to be voted on Dec. 21:

• A rezoning application requested by Thomas Holcombe seeking to rezone 0.532 acres from suburban residential (SR-2) to multi-family residential (MFR) on his property fronting the south side of Jefferson Street west of its intersection with Village Pass. Holcombe is seeking to subdivide his property so a second dwelling can be constructed. He needs to rezone the property as proposed because the first tract is 0.249 acres and the second tract is 0.283 acres and does not meet the square footage required for current SR-2 zoning. As a solution, staff recommended the MFR zoning district as the best remedy since it allows a minimum lot size of 10,000 square feet, which is enough to permit both tracts.

• An application requested by Niko Patel seeking to obtain an alcoholic beverage license for retail sales of beer, wine and distilled spirits at 0 Bethlehem Road, also known as Niko’s Fine Wine & Spirits. A crowd of supporters filled the meeting room giving Patel praise as a pillar of the community.

• The preliminary plat for Statham Place was recommended by staff to be tabled due to ongoing investigations on code violations found at Jackson Estates and the proposed Statham Place site along Highway 211. Code enforcement inspectors with city contractor Bureau Veritas discovered land-disturbance activities occurring at both sites including burying of construction debris and moving dirt from site-to- site without proper permitting. Mayor Joe Piper issued stop-work orders, which are still current, and an investigation by the state environmental authorities remains underway. “There’s too much going on for us to feel comfortable enough to approve this preliminary plat,” said planning staff when requesting to table the matter.

• The city plans to stay with its current Worker’s Compensation carrier, Georgia Municipal Association (GIRMA, Georgia Interlocal Risk Management Agency) beginning January 1, 2022 through Dec. 31, 2022. The premium total is $31,526. The city accountant will budget for potential adjustments, which is based on payroll. Staff’s recommendation is to stay with GMA for longevity purposes and benefits offered by GMA not offered by other carriers.

• The authorization to sign an updated agreement with Axon for new and upgraded tasers for police officers. The updated agreement includes new tasers with the latest technology and includes cartridges. The currency agreement doesn't include the expense of taser cartridges and the technology of the tasers currently used is outdated by approximately 10 years. The total cost of the agreement is $18,580, or $3,716 per year for five years and the city will pay Axon $2,212 to cover the remaining balance owed from the previous hardware.

Statham ends well development near Hillman-Rainwater Park

Statham’s journey toward water independence has proven that when it comes to water matters in a growing city, nothing worth doing is ever easy — or cheap.

Statham’s current groundwater exploration project was revisited by the Statham City Council during a special called meeting prior to its regular work session Dec. 9. The meeting was called to vote on a change of order proposal from Ground-Water Services, Inc. proposing additional funds to cover nearly a dozen unexpected tasks necessary for completion of the well project at Hillman-Rainwater Park.

According to the proposal, each task is contingent upon favorable results of the pumping sampling and each subsequent task thereafter. As of Dec. 9, the water quality and overall viability of the Hillman-Rainwater park location as a water source remains unknown.

Ground-Water Services, Inc. has requested an additional $50,000 to $70,000 to cover unexpected costs, which have been budgeted for in the city's 2022 approved budget for the overall groundwater exploration project, but is more than the city wants to spend for testing on a site they aren't sure will be viable. 

The questionable viability of the site has created some skepticism among council members as to whether it's worth pouring more money into. On the other hand, the only other option would be to move to a new location, which could be more costly because the same problems could happen again. 

In a motion to approve the change order, the council opposed it in a narrow 3-2 vote. Council members Tammy Crawley and Gary Venable voted in favor of an approval.


Also during its special called meeting Dec. 9, the council approved the following items:

• Agreement for reserved sewer capacity with owner and developer Adam Ewing of Old Mill Properties for 51 equivalent residential units (ERUs) , or approximately 12,750 gallons per day, at a cost of $229,500, which will be paid directly to the City of Statham. Upon receipt of full payment and execution of agreement, the city will purchase 51 ERUs from the Barrow County Water and Sewer Authority, which will be reserved for this development. The council approved the agreement unanimously.

• The Northeast Georgia Regional Solid Waste Management Plan resolution required by state law for the next 10 years.

State Supreme Court upholds murder conviction, life sentence for Auburn man

The Supreme Court of Georgia has upheld a murder conviction and life sentence for a man who shot and killed his neighbor and his dog in July 2017.

Larry Bates, an Auburn man, was convicted of malice murder in 2019 and sentenced to life in prison plus 10 years.

Bates, then 46, shot and killed his neighbor from across the street, Paul Wilson, 44, a little after 1 a.m. on July 2, 2017, while Wilson was walking one of the family dogs, Scooter, on Crest Pointe Court in Auburn. Wilson had just returned home, where he and his wife, Beth, lived with her parents, from working at a restaurant in Lawrenceville. Beth heard the gunshots and ran from their home and found her husband and the dog shot to death. Bates walked past her during the incident and was yelling at her, Beth Wilson said at the time.

The murder followed a weeks-long dispute between Bates and the Wilsons as Bates repeatedly alleged that Scooter and the Wilsons’ other dog, which escaped and ran home during the shooting, were defecating in his yard.

The Wilsons denied that allegation, but Paul had offered to pick up any dog feces in the yard in an attempt to ease tensions.

Bates later confessed to Auburn police that he shot Wilson and the dog because he believed the dogs were defecating in his yard.

BOC gets look at jail, courthouse expansion plans

Barrow County leaders got a first look at one of their big projects this week with a presentation of plans for updating the county courthouse and jail.

Silling Architects presented preliminary plans to expand both facilities to the Barrow County Board of Commissioners on Dec. 13.

Once completed, the project will add three more courtrooms to the judicial center bringing the total to nine. That project will require some remodeling of existing facilities as well as an addition to the center.

The project will also add 188 beds to the county jail and other necessary support service areas to accommodate additional inmates.

Both projects are being driven by the county’s rapid population growth and pressure on existing jail and judicial infrastructure.

The cost of the projects will be around $38 million and paid for from SPLOST funds approved in November by county voters.

In a related move, the BOC approved a $13,000 budget amendment from the jail fund to cover part of the cost of that study.


In zoning business, the BOC:

• denied a rezoning from R-1 to AG and a related special use request for 12 acres at 1298 Carl-Bethlehem Rd. for a special event center. Neighbors to the property told the BOC that property owners are already operating at the facility without proper building permits and a business license. They cited numerous complaints about the property and related 911 calls due to loud noise and music. The property owner wasn’t at the BOC meeting.

• approved a rezoning from AG to R1 and variances for 3 acres at 1411 Cronic Town Rd. for three single-family lots.

• approved a rezoning for 2 acres from AG to AR at 1373 Hwy. 211 NE and variances for side setbacks.

• approved a rezoning for 27 acres at 570 Atlanta Hwy. from 3 to M2 with a variance to allow a gravel parking lot. The owner intends to use the land for a truck parking lot.

• approved rezoning 4.6 acres from R1 to AG at 776 Will Maynard Rd. for a horse farm.

• approved a rezoning of 12 acres from AG to R1 on Rat Kinney Rd. in Statham for five single-family lots.

• approved a rezoning of 12.6 acres from AG to R1 at Austin Reynolds Rd. Bethlehem for three residential lots.

• approved a rezoning of 8.6 acres to M1 at 1032 Atlanta Hwy. SE.

• tabled action for a rezoning of 136 acres at Finch Rd. at the request of the applicant.


In other action, the BOC:

• voted to move forward on creating a speed hump ordinance.

• approved a text amendment to the county sewer ordinance.

• approved a contract with GIS 1 to provide GIS services for the county following the resignation of the county’s GIS director. Commission chairman Pat Graham said she wanted the county to get a GIS firm on board to bring the county’s GIS up to par with other counties in the area.

• approved a routine agreement with the NEGA Regional Commission for the county senior center.

• voted to approve a final change order of $269,000 for the Tanners Bridge Waste Water Treatment Facility. That new $15.8 million facility is slated to come online in January.

• approved selling surplus equipment from the county recreation and parks department.

• approved an agreement with Ascencion Program Management to oversee the upgrade of HVAC systems in the county judicial center.

• approved ordering 15 new vehicles for the Sheriff’s Office for FY23. The move is being made early due to supply chain problems with getting new vehicles.

• approved correcting an accounting problem for the new radio system with a $149,600 budget amendment.

• approved new, higher speed internet connections for county buildings with Comcast.

• approved a driveway easement agreement with the DOT for the county water and sewer department for the construction of the roundabout at Hwy. 11 and Hwy. 211.