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Gov’t clash in county seat: Rezoning for DFACS postponed in Danielsville

A conflict over a planned Department of Family and Children Services building in Danielsville involves multiple local leaders and more than just talk about a proposed facility.

It’s about long-time relations between three big entities in the county seat — the Danielsville City Council, the county school system and the Madison County government. Can the groups work together? If so, under what terms?

Those questions remained unanswered after the council’s March 9 meeting, along with the question of whether a new, $5 million DFACS facility will be constructed at the site of the old county school board office on Mary Ellen Court off Hwy. 29.

The county school board has asked the Danielsville council to rezone roughly seven acres of property off Hwy. 29 from residential to commercial to pave the way for the sale of the land to Don Chandler of Municipal Development Services, who was awarded a state contract to construct a DFACS facility in Madison County.

FEBRUARY FRICTION

Danielsville leaders tabled the rezoning in February after hearing from town residents who live near the proposed facility. Those neighbors voiced concerns over diminished property values and the proposed use of an easement over private property as access to the building. Meanwhile, city council members have voiced their own concerns about the impact of a new DFACS facility on the town’s sewer capacity, saying that the building would limit the town’s ability to serve future growth.

Danielsville Mayor Michael Wideman recently appeared before the county commissioners and offered to turn over the sewer system to the county, noting that the county could secure more funding for expansions than the city. But that suggestion hasn’t yet led to substantive talks, at least publically.

Wideman’s offer followed a letter from county commission chairman John Scarborough in which the chairman warned the city of a potential access to the DFACS building via the county-owned property where the city’s maintenance building now sits. If the council doesn’t approve the rezoning and the Hwy. 29 access to the property, then the county could end its agreement with the city and force the removal of the city maintenance building to make room for a DFACS access route. Scarborough notified the council that he had started the clock on the 90-day notice of the end of that agreement. This notice led to a tense email exchange between Danielsville council member Joe Federico and Scarborough.

A PROPOSED SOLUTION

Against this backdrop, school board attorney Dan Murphy approached the city council Monday, offering two solutions to the town’s concerns regarding the rezoning: first, he said Chandler has agreed to install his own access drive to the property and no longer needs the easement; second, he said new updated usage figures show that the proposed 40,000-gallons a month usage is actually about half of that figure. Murphy added that Chandler is also willing to put the building on a septic system if the council is uncomfortable connecting the new building to the sewer system.

“I think that should satisfy your concerns,” said Murphy.

It didn’t.

City attorney Dale “Bubba” Samuels said that Chandler has not received any indication yet that his access would be approved by the Georgia Department of Transportation (DOT).

“You would require pre-approval by the DOT?” Murphy asked Samuels.

“I think that would be appropriate,” said Samuels.

“That ain’t happening,” said Chandler.

Earlier, Chandler said: “I can’t go to the expense of going to full-blown drawings and going to DOT when I don’t even have a piece of property that’s zoned, yet. DOT is not going to deny the board access to their property.”

Chairman Scarborough asked if the council believes there’s no other way to access the property.

“Excuse me, is the point being made that there’s no other access to the property?” asked the chairman. “I’d like to hear it officially. Is there a suggestion that there’s no other access to this property?”

“Don’t point at me,” Samuels responded.

“I’m not pointing, I’m sorry,” said Scarborough. “I didn’t point. I’m sorry. I’m expressive. I was not pointing at you.”

Scarborough reminded the council of the certified letter on the 90-day agreement on the maintenance building, which could be torn down.

“It would be our preference that that would not be the access though,” said Scarborough. “That’s what I’m asking.”

THE MAINTENANCE SHOP

Former Danielsville Mayor Todd Higdon, who is running against Scarborough, as well as Larry Cox and Rhonda Wooten, for BOC chairman addressed what Scarborough said.

“I think John was making a statement that y’all may not have picked up on that you received a certified letter,” he said.

“I think everyone picked up on it,” replied Wideman.

“I think the council picked up on it, but I want to make sure everybody in the room picked up on it,” said Higdon. “If you approve this without DOT’s permission, he’s approved. And once he does that and once the DOT turns him down for any reason, what John is saying is he will administer his right to bulldoze the maintenance shop.”

Higdon also asked if the commissioners voted on the letter. Scarborough said he shared the letter with the commissioners.

Scarborough added that using the maintenance building access is “not the option I want to do.”

“But it’s the option you’re willing to take,” said councilman Federico. “So you backed us into a corner is what you’re saying, John. You give us this or we take this, that’s what you’re doing.”

“No, it’s not,” responded the BOC chairman.

“Yes, sir, it is,” said Federico. “You explain to me how it is not. You’re trying to back us into a corner.”

“You are wrong,” said Scarborough.

“No, sir, you are wrong,” said Federico. “You’re playing us.”

Scarborough said the rezoning is a land-use issue.

“Is the property suitable for the proposed use,” said Scarborough. “That’s the question before you tonight.”

WHAT TO DO WITH THE PROPERTY?

County school superintendent Michael Williams addressed the council, saying the school board wants to do something useful with the property.

“We just want to rezone commercial, and if this falls through, nobody is going to buy that piece of property and put a house on it,” said Williams. “We’re just asking for the rezone to be approved. I don’t think we’re going to sell that property for a residential use. It’s been on the market for over two years. That’s where we stand as a board of education.”

Josh Chandler, chairman of the industrial authority and owner of the current DFACS building, spoke up and questioned why the county is involved in the rezoning.

“I’m curious why the county is involved in this,” he said. “Who’s the ultimate owner? We seem to have three parties here all representing one rezone request.”

Don Chandler, no relation to Josh Chandler, said he will not own the property.

“I am a developer that does public/private partnerships; I’ve done them all over the state,” said Don Chandler. “The owner of this building is you all, not me. The county will be the owner… The state of Georgia went out to RFP (request for proposal) and I was selected to develop this. Everyone in this community owns this building. It’s not costing taxpayers a dime.”

The developer voiced dismay with not being able to get the building construction under way.

“I’ve never had such a problem in a community trying to do the right thing for the poor in this community,” he said. “It’s sad. It’s just damn sad.”

“Are the services of the DHS (Department of Human Services) going to change when they’re in a $5 million facility?” Josh Chandler asked Don Chandler.

“Sir, I don’t run DHS; call Brian Kemp and ask him,” responded Don Chandler. “They’re trying to help this community and put a first-class office building here to attract a better clientele of employees and to also help the clients that go there.”

IMPACT ON TOWN

Wideman said the council is simply interested in the impact the facility will have on the town, “the impact of traffic, the impact of sewage.”

“You’ve hit the City of Danielsville at a time when we’re still trying to get past some growing pains,” said Wideman. “That’s what’s holding us up here is infrastructure.”

Don Chandler repeated that he would be willing to put in a septic system to alleviate infrastructure concerns.

“I want to do what I’ve been tasked to do and our state government is trying to do something good for this community,” he said. “Please don’t let sewer be the issue that decides whether this community gets a $5 million building or not. I don’t have to have your sewer.”

Josh Chandler asked: “What good does a $5 million building do if it’s not on the digest, if it’s not collecting any tax revenue?”

Murphy said the school board addressed the council’s concerns from the last meeting, adding that “at some point it’s not fair to the land owner to keep moving the ball.”

“If there’s a new hurdle every month, it’s going to be very difficult to satisfy your concerns,” said Murphy.

Wideman said he appreciated the effort to address the council’s concerns.

“In my opinion, you have answered part of it,” he said. “But I don’t know if it’s enough.”

ACTUALLY ZONED RESIDENTIAL?

Realtor Kim Shupe, representing the county school board, said that when the property was listed nearly three years ago, she found out what the property was zoned on qPublic.net, what the school board had been paying taxes on and how they were classified.

“All indications, including in qPublic, which was changed at some point, showed it as commercial property, which would make sense, because there’s commercial property adjacent to it,” said Shupe. “The land use plan of this piece of property fits to a commercial status because of everything else around it….We wouldn’t even have to come before you with a buyer or a contract. The board of education is simply asking you to rezone this property to make it more marketable for us.”

Former school superintendent Allen McCannon addressed the zoning issue, saying he didn’t understand when the property was zoned to residential status.

“I feel bad, because I was the superintendent and I honestly tried to do whatever I could to improve relations with all government entities,” said McCannon. “So when we abandoned that site and were no longer using it, I asked Mrs. (Bonnie) Knight (former assistant superintendent) to verbally ask for it to be zoned commercial. I will tell you, the sign says commercial. It never said residential. I heard Mrs. Knight verbally request for it to be commercial…We simply made it commercial. It’s not our property. It’s the people’s property and we simply wanted to put something else on the digest. We were not trying to cause problems. We were hoping a business would come….I feel bad about this whole thing, because technically, it’s not Mr. Williams’s fault, it’s my fault. And we’re just trying to get a piece of property back on line…I am sorry. There was no alternative motive and there was no bad intention. I promise you that.”

Josh Chandler said he has an issue with the property being zoned commercial and not actually having a commercial use.

“Dr. McCannon, I don’t think your wish (for a commercial property) will be fulfilled,” he said.

A TWO-WEEK POSTPONEMENT

Samuels advised the city council to postpone the matter until the developer gets in touch with the DOT and provide some level of assurance that their access proposal is feasible. He also said the sewer situation needs to be reviewed with the new figures.

The council agreed to postpone a decision for two weeks. No date was set on when the group would reconsider the rezoning.

WATER RATE RELIEF FOR BOE?

In a separate matter Monday, Murphy asked the council to consider holding off on steep water rate increases on the school board until the board of education sets its fiscal year 2020-2021 budget. The new fiscal year starts in July. And Murphy said the increase in water expenses was not budgeted into the current fiscal year. Wideman said that’s a matter the council could consider at its next work session.

BRIDGE WORK DELAYED

Also Monday, Danielsville Mayor Michael Wideman reported that he spoke with officials with the DOT and was told that the replacement of the bridge on Hwy. 29 south of town has been delayed until 2023. Traffic on the road won’t need to be re-routed due to construction, since the DOT plans to build a new bridge next to the existing one.

POLICE REPORT

In a separate matter, police chief Jonathan Burnette reported 266 calls for February. There were 23 total citations within the city and 38 verbal and written warnings. There were reports of simple assault, false imprisonment/kidnapping, drug possession and an accident on private property. Burnette reported that three new Pro-Vision body cameras were purchased in February for a total of $1,047. The old cameras had become unreliable with age and were purchased in 2015 for a total of $4,015. Burnette reported that he and Officer Cleveland Williams taught community-oriented policing, de-escalation and use-of-force training at the Auburn Police Department in February. He explained that area departments are helping each other out on training, which saves food, travel and lodging expenses. Burnette said the Danielsville Police Department attended a Piedmont Area Traffic Enforcement Network meeting in February at the Auburn Police Department.


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UPDATE: Ban on burning creosote passes through House unanimously

Legislation to stop the burning of creosote-treated wood as a fuel source for biomass power plants in Georgia is working its way through the Georgia General Assembly — and it passed through the House of Representatives by a unanimous vote Thursday. It will now go to the State Senate.

House Bill (HB) 857, sponsored by District 32 Rep. Alan Powell and District 33 Rep. Tom McCall, was considered on the floor of the Georgia House of Representatives Thursday after passing out of the Natural Resources and Environment committee and the House rules committee.

Now the bill will cross over to the Senate, where it will go through the same committees before going to a vote on the Senate floor. If it passes out of the Senate, it will go to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk to be signed or vetoed. The law would take effect once signed by Kemp.

District 47 State Sen. Frank Ginn has said he will support the legislation to ban the burning of creosote treated wood as a biomass fuel source.

Residents around Georgia Renewable Power (GRP) biomass power plants in Colbert and Carnesville have protested for months about the company’s practice of burning creosote-treated railroad ties as a source for generating electricity. Creosote is a known carcinogen. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ruled that creosote-treated railroad ties can be used as a fuel source for biomass plants. But many neighbors of the plants say this practice endangers their health and the environment. Company officials have countered that the practice is safe and well regulated.

The legislation includes an amendment to exempt forestry processing plants from the regulation, leaving the rule applying only to commercial electricity generation.

The initial legislation stated: “Permits issued for biomass boilers shall prohibit the use of railroad ties treated with creosote compounds or treated with naphthenate compounds for purposes of commercial electricity generation.”

But amended legislation would tack the following clause to the end of that statement: “unless the boiler also provides steam or electricity to any co-located forest products processing plant.”

Powell said that amendment would apply to an existing forestry plant in Dublin.


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Scarborough re-enters BOC chairman's race

John Scarborough was in the race to keep his seat as chairman of the county commissioners. Then, he dropped out. Now, he’s back in, with just minutes to spare.

The decision puts him in a four-person race, which includes county clerk Rhonda Wooten, whose office is adjacent to Scarborough’s in the county government complex and who serves at the chairman’s pleasure. Larry Cox and Todd Higdon are also seeking the seat, which will be decided in the May 19 Republican primary. No Democrats threw their hats in the ring for the post.

Scarborough qualified to keep his current seat at 11:54 a.m. Friday, just six minutes before qualifying closed for the 2020 elections. He said Wooten will keep her position as the county clerk.

Scarborough, who was elected in 2016, announced in the fall that he would seek re-election, then in January he dropped out of the race, citing a desire to spend more time with his family. He also announced his public support for Wooten.

“She (Wooten) has the experience and knowledge to continue leading our county,” wrote Scarborough in announcing his withdrawal from the race. “I urge your support for Mrs. Wooten.”

Following Scarborough’s most-recent announcement, Wooten posted a public statement on her campaign Facebook page about the race.

“We have four choices for the chair position,” she wrote. “I am one of the four and continue in my resolve to offer my wholehearted devotion to serving the citizens of Madison County. Chairman Scarborough has assured me that my current position as county clerk is secure and voiced his belief in my right to continue in my convictions.”

Scarborough spoke March 9 about his decision to re-enter the race.

“Rhonda shared with me that she wanted to run while I was still a candidate for the office, and she kind of went through some of the same emotions,” he said. “She kind of thought, ‘No, I don’t, yeah, I do.’ Well, I went through that, and I came in here and asked her for a few minutes of her time Friday morning and sat down and talked with her. And she said she wanted to run. I said I won’t lose a minute of sleep if I were to run and not be re-elected, but I might lose some sleep if I don’t try. It’s kind of on my heart right now.”

Scarborough said there are several things he wants to continue working on during a second term, adding that he sees things improving.

The chairman was asked if Wooten would remain in the position for 2020.

“Absolutely, it’s America,” he said. “I’m not going to blame anybody. If our working relationship becomes uneasy, and certainly if it becomes silly, whatever that might mean, then my hope is we would both agree that the situation doesn’t work out. But short of that, I’m not getting rid of her. I wouldn’t suggest replacing her, because somebody else told me to. That’s not happening. She’s been very, very good for this county. And my understanding with her is should I be re-elected, she would like to be considered to continue in this position. I don’t have any reason to not want that. A lot of people will cite the awkwardness, or loyalty issues. I don’t sense that. She made a decision at a time where we were both trying to figure out what we were going to do. And to her credit, she wants to stay with it. And that’s fine.”

Scarborough said he recognized that Wooten had made a financial commitment to run for chairman and he didn’t want to feel like he led her into a bad place.

“I didn’t want to lead somebody on and then jump in,” said Scarborough. “It wasn’t about that. My sole reservation and the reason it took so long was I didn’t want to trample that. And after talking with her, she absolved me. There is no animus or anything like that. And we’re just going to run it. I’m running to win it, though. I don’t know why anyone would do this if you don’t want to win.”