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Large residential project gets mixed reviews in Commerce

A proposal for a large subdivision in Commerce was met with resistance, both from the public and some members of the Commerce Planning Commission during its April 26 meeting.

The plan for a 570-home development by Cook Communities of Gainesville is the first large-scale residential project to be proposed in Commerce, a situation that stymied a planning board which found itself divided on the plans. In the end, the board voted 3-2 to table action on the matter until its May meeting.

"This is a pretty big step for us," said planning board chairman Joe Leffew.

Commerce is facing the prospect of a lot of growth in the coming years, much of it stemming from the SK Battery plant development, which has sparked a lot of real estate speculation in the area. The town has already seen an uptick in proposed industrial projects, but is just now facing proposals for large residential developments.

Because of that, action on the Cook Communities proposal will be, to an extent, a litmus test for how the town handles large residential projects in the future, perhaps setting a precedent.

One of the issues the Commerce planning board faces is that the town currently lacks a zoning code for planned unit developments (PUD), a zoning category designed for mixed-use projects such as the one proposed by Cook. (Commerce is working on implementing a PUD category. City planning staff proposed to retroactively make the project a PUD, if it is approved now with a mix of current zoning codes.)

The Cook proposal outlined plans for 370 single-family homes, 200 townhomes and a commercial shopping area on 181 acres along Whitehill School Rd. and Hwy. 441 South, across from Strange Duck Brewery.

But to do that kind of housing mix will require multiple rezonings, in addition to having a small amount of the property annexed into the city.

In addition, the project — as proposed — would require the city to grant a number of variances, including allowing smaller lots, higher density and smaller setbacks.

The impact on the city's infrastructure — water and sewer — would also be significant, according to city planners.

And the effect of such a large development on Commerce's small school system was also a point of debate during the meeting.

"The impact on the school is a tremendous concern, considering the marketing of the homes to families," said the city planning staff's report on the proposal.

That concern was echoed by several people who spoke against the project, including planning board member Jimbo Stephenson, a former long-time employee of the school system.

"I'd be strung up if I left here and voted 'yes' on something that is fixing to double our schools," he said.


Cook Communities attorney Jane Range made the firm's pitch to the planning commission for the rezonings, saying that Commerce is going to be impacted by the SK project and that the town needs to address its future housing needs. She said the development would be a "superior product" with larger houses and multiple price points for housing in the planned community.

But she admitted that the project would have an impact on the city school system and said a study is being done to quantify that impact. She also said that a traffic study done indicated the project would have a major impact on the area and some traffic mitigation would be necessary.

Nicholson area resident Robert Akin also spoke in favor of the project, saying the additional rooftops would help revitalize Commerce's retail sector.

"This is an opportunity to embrace," he said.


But several area neighbors spoke against the project, saying the number of houses being proposed was too many.

"This much is way too much," said David Smith.

Other nearby residents complained about plans to put the project's townhouses abutting a property line with a neighboring subdivision.

But the most impassioned opposition came from board member Melinda Chocran-Davis, who said "there's nothing here I can support."

She said the grouping of townhouses in one corner of the project looked like "exclusionary zoning" and that the project's amenities looked like they were just put in as an afterthought.

Cochran-Davis was also critical of the proposed housing styles.

"These are not high-quality homes," she said.

She said the proposed design of the houses "does not fit Commerce."

That sentiment was echoed by city planner Jordan Shoemaker, who pointed to a Saturday discussion by the planning board and city council about housing "modulation," that is having a diverse style of houses in developments to avoid cookie-cutter neighborhoods.

"Things have to work for us, that work for the City of Commerce" she said of proposed residential developments. 


Chairman Leffew said he liked "these kinds of developments" and thought they would work in Commerce. He also said he thought the houses would be a high-quality product.

"I think they (Cook) would make this beautiful," he said.

But he said he had some questions about the proposal that he couldn't answer.

"I don't know enough about it because we haven't done this (before)," he said of the mixed-use plans.

He pointed out that the county had not yet responded to the proposed annexation aspect of the development, a possible legal sticking point.

But Cochran-Davis said the proposal "flies in the face of everything we talked about" at the Saturday planning retreat with the city council.

"Lipstick on a pig," she said of the plans.

The board first voted down a motion by Cochran-Davis to deny the rezonings 3-2. It then discussed the possibility of just passing along the project to the city council without any recommendation, but decided against that after Shoemaker said such a move probably wouldn't be welcomed by the council.

Leffew then made a motion to table the request until May, a move that was approved 3-2 with Cochran-Davis and Stephenson opposed. 

Generations of Jefferson High Alumni honor Coach Jack Keen

Members of the Jefferson community struck gold in 1965 when Jack Nolan Keen was recruited from Atlanta to help shape what is now a culture of academic and athletic excellence at Jefferson High School.

“Coach” Keen didn't just preach excellence to his students and athletes over his 42 years at Jefferson, he embodied the very idea of excellence in everything he did in life.

It isn't by coincidence that over the course of his career at Jefferson, the school simultaneously became one of the most successful school systems in the country. The mirroring reputations of Coach Keen and Jefferson High School prove just how integral he was in building the school into the athletic and academic powerhouse it’s known as today.

Generations of Jefferson alumni attribute their life successes to the beloved Coach Keen, whose life was celebrated April 25 at the Arena at JHS. Keen died last year.

The event featured an elaborate exhibit chronicling his academic and athletic career as well as his personal life, which many of his students and athletes know little about.

As most in the community know, he was an athletic force of nature with a brilliant mind in the classroom. One would assume someone who excelled in academics and athletics would likely struggle in another area of life, such as having social anxieties, or lacking an appreciation for language, culture or art.

Not Coach Keen.

Coach Keen, in the words of Elvis Presley, “ate life up and spit it out.”

According to those who knew him, he was fearless, but cautious, determined but docile, nurturing but relentless. When others flew away from a storm, he flew above it.

“Coach Keen was an eagle,” said his son-in-law, Chad Cheatham, in his eulogy.

Eagles symbolize pride, determination, leadership and courage, he said. They reach higher and achieve more than expectations, always seeking greater. Coach Keen lived his life with this mindset and felt an innate responsibility to serve others and help them see life through a similar lens.

For a math teacher and legendary athlete, many would be surprised to learn Keen was a poet. He appreciated a good metaphor, which is evident when listening to the playlist of his favorite songs, which played in the exhibit hall during his memorial. Each song is riddled with brilliant and inspiring metaphors that one could live by.

“He was born in the summer of his 27th year, coming home to a place he'd never been before,” the opening line of John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High”, for example, was one of Keen’s personal favorites, according to Cheatham, as he could relate to the same feeling when he first visited the Rockies.

“Time is a wheel in constant motion always rolling us along,” from LeAnn Womack’s “I Hope You Dance” and, “I'm the sunshine in your hair. I'm the shadow on the ground,” from Lonestar’s “I'm Already There”, are metaphorical songs on his playlist that show he had a soft, spiritual side he didn't always let people see.

Over the summers when he wasn't teaching or coaching, he took his RV and traveled to the western U.S. for a 6-week vacation with his wife, Beverly, and five children. He grew so fond of the Rocky Mountains he eventually built a family vacation home in Colorado, which he named “Where the Eagles Nest”.

Unsurprisingly, his home’s name is an eagle metaphor, but it couldn't be more appropriate.

“They may fly high, but even eagles have to stop and rest sometimes,” said Keen’s youngest daughter, Katherine, explaining Keen’s logic behind the unique name.

“He was a teacher of life, not just math and sports,” she said.

During the event, the City of Jefferson donated a monument in dedication to the school and community and Coach Keen’s legacy of excellence. At the bottom of the monument’s plaque reads “Quod erat demonstrandum”, which translates to “what was to be shown.”

“He used this latin phrase in his classroom often after solving an unusually complicated or lengthy math problem to indicate the work is over,” said Keen’s eldest daughter, Karen.

“We thought it was a perfect way to symbolize the completion of his life well-lived here on Earth,” she said.

Townhome project gets pushback in Jefferson

A proposal that could lead to a townhome development on the Winder Hwy. in Jefferson got a lot of pushback from neighbors during a recent public hearing on the matter.

Developers got approval in a 2-1 vote of the Jackson County Planning Commission for a map amendment from "suburban" to "urban" for 12.3 acres at 2877 Winder Hwy., Jefferson. The  initial plan was to build 50 townhouse.

But a spokesman for the project said there was flexibility in the plans, including the possibility of changing the project to single-family homes. 

Several residents from the neighboring Briarcrest Subdivision voiced opposition to plans to put townhouses on the property, citing the higher density than surrounding property and the impact on traffic in the area.

The developers will now have to get the map amendment approved by the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, then come back to the JCPC for a zoning request. At that time, more specific plans for the property will be required.

The planning board was clearly conflicted about the map amendment request since map amendment approval can't carry any conditions. A motion to deny died due to the lack of a second, then motion to approved died for a lack of a second. A motion to approve with conditions was withdrawn after county officials noted no conditions could be put on a map change.

Another round of motions led to a final 2-1 vote to approve the map change.


In other action, the planning board:

• approved a map amendment for 113.6 acres on County Farm Rd. Jefferson for a 63 lot subdivision. Developers had to clean up an old landfill on the property, a situation that delayed the project for several months.

• agreed to table a special use request until May for a composting facility on Yarbrough Ridgeway Rd. in Commerce.

* agreed to remove from consideration a request to allow 60 ft. lot widths for a large subdivision on P. J. Roberts Rd. in Jefferson. The move came at the advice of the county attorney.

• agreed to a rezoning at the corner of Hwy. 332 and Skelton Rd. for 64 acres for a large subdivision being done by Heritage Homes. But the board denied a special use request for the project for a master planned subdivision.

• approved a rezoning request  for a 4-lot development on 8.4 acres at the corner of Hwy. 124 and White Plains Church Rd.

• approved a map amendment for 9.1 acres at 1044 Raford Wilson Rd.  from commercial to residential.

• denied a map amendment at 2435 Hwy. 124 West, Jefferson, for 6.3 acres  from agricultural/forestry and public institutional to commercial. The developer wants to build mini-warehouses on the property.

• approved a map amendment for 5 lots on 13.5 acres at 5259 Brockton Loop Rd.

• approved a rezoning from A-2 to R-1 for two lots on 2.75 acres at 338 B. Wilson Rd., Commerce.

• approved a rezoning from A-2 to commercial for a retail center at 1596 Ridgeway Church Rd. The project is across the road from the SK Battery plant.

Jefferson to spend up to $10,000 for new amphitheater concept drawings

Jefferson’s long-discussed amphitheater project will get a fresh look.

With a 4-1 vote at its April 26 meeting, the Jefferson City Council agreed to spend up to $10,000 for new conceptual drawings for a potential city amphitheater south of the downtown square.

Previous conceptual drawings exist, but those drawings do not account for a Regions Bank drive-through location situated on city property in the area of the amphitheater site. Councilman Mark Mobley said the bank facility could be there for 14 more years. He said wants drawings that reflect the drive-through and other moving parts “so that we can begin building pieces out.”

“If we have a drawing, then we can build parking where parking is going to go, we can build sidewalks where sidewalks are going to go and not have to worry that later we’ll have to tear it down,” Mobley said.

Councilman Malcolm Gramley, who voted against the drawings, said he was unsure if a $10,000 expenditure for new drawings to include the bank drive-through were worth it.

“Are we going to change a great deal of the existing plan or existing the concept drawing we have now?” Gramley asked.

Councilman Clint Roberts said the location of the bank drive through would impact the configuration of the parking and access to the area.

“I don’t know, given the plans that we have today, that our team could go forward in developing those particular pieces of access to parking,” Roberts said.

Mobley said the point of the concept process is to “put everything back on the table and look at it with some of the fresh things that have happened and may yet happen.”

“I think it’s entirely possible to do something more than just place a building back,” Mobley said.


The council voted to give city manager Priscilla Murphy permission to apply for a $600,000 matching grant to renovate the city’s historic Roosevelt Theater. The council will also allow for a budget adjustment to allocate funds to match the $600,000 for improvements. Any donations for the project would be included toward matching those dollars. Renovation plans would restore the building, which was built in the 1920s, to a 109-seat movie theater.


In other business, the council:

•approved an annexation and medium density residential zoning request for 0.57 acres on Brockton Rd. to allow for a single-family dwelling.

•approved a variance request to increase the square footage allowed for a cottage industry from 1,500 to 4,079 square feet for 1.04 acres on Washington St. for a furniture store with a portable sawmill.

•approved a resolution to accept 0.383 acres south of South Public Square from the Jefferson Downtown Development Authority.

•approved a resolution to add items to the city’s planning and development fee schedule, specifically fees related to review of water and sewer plans.

•will look into purchasing speed cushions — similar to a speed bump — for areas of the city where speeding is an issue. The areas receiving speed cushions would be determined by public safety officials. The speed cushion design allows for fire trucks — but not general traffic — to pass over them without having to slowdown.

•heard from Gramley, who heads the new city logo and branding subcommittee, that said proposals for a new logo will be submitted by Friday and available for subcommittee review by the first of next week. The group will then meet Thursday (May 6).

•heard from councilman Cody Cain that the city has sought bids for conceptual drawings for improvements to the city pool on Memorial Drive. Cain, who chairs the pool improvement subcommittee, said his group will meet with the city school system’s facility committee to discuss the project. The city and school system have agreed to work jointly on a potential improvement project, but an intragovernmental agreement between the two still requires approval.

•heard from Mobley, who chairs Exit 137 beautification subcommittee, that his group will hold its final meeting May 11 and will bring recommendations to the council by the May voting session. The subcommittee has raised concerns about animals being caged and sold on the weekends near the exit. “We would like to discover if that is legal within our code or something that the council would entertain changing so that’s not a possibility,” Mobley said. The subcommittee also requests to ask the state department of transportation to clean-up and pressure wash the bridge over I-85 as well as improve lighting on the bridge. The subcommittee also requests arranging an internship with a University of Georgia landscape design student to help execute plans for the project.

•heard from Roberts, who chairs the city’s code and charter modification subcommittee, that the group will work on the city’s much-discussed food truck ordinance and bring it before the council for its next work session.

Commerce council, planning board meet to discuss growth ordinances

Members of the Commerce City Council and city planning commission held a planning retreat April 24 to discuss proposed changes in the town's development ordinances and codes.

Mayor Clark Hill said he'd like the two groups to be in general agreement on how the city should grow in the coming years. City manager James Wascher said a lot of developers are interested in doing projects in the city.

The town has been in the growth spotlight since the development of the SK Battery plant in the community, one of the state's largest industrial projects.

The group covered a lot of subjects, but spent much of the morning meeting focused on lot sizes, house sizes, setback requirements and housing materials and design standards.

No final action was taken at the meeting. Any changes will now go before the city planning commission then the council for public hearings and action before taking effect.

Mayor Hill noted that Commerce had to grow, or face the loss of revenue from sales taxes.

Hill said that while the council shared a concern about the impact on the city school system from residential growth, there has to be a "balance" of growth for the city to prosper.

"We can't not grow because over time, the SPLOST dollars and LOST dollars — all those things get share with the county based on population," he said.

Hill pointed out that as the rest of the county has grown more than Commerce, the town's share of the sales tax pie will shrink, unless Commerce has enough growth to offset the loss.

He also said the town needs to have at least 50% of its tax digest as commercial or industrial to balance the anticipated residential growth.

"There's so many things that make this complicated," he said.

Among the items discussed at the retreat were:

• Strengthen the town's sign and tree protections ordinances.

• Having minimum lot size of 1/3 acre per single-family house in most zoning districts. 

• Having a minimum heated house size in R1 at 1,800 sq. ft. Planning commission chairman Joe Leffew said he'd like to see that minimum higher since most houses being built in the South and state are over 2,000 sq. ft. now.

• Eliminating single-family housing in R4 and R5 zoning areas (which are mostly for multi-family and mobile homes.)

• Activating the R6 zoning code for townhouses. The code had previously been approved, but not implemented.

• Building material standards and house design standards so that subdivisions don't become cookie-cutter with the same style.

County GOP to re-do local leadership vote

Jackson County GOP chairman TJ Dearman said he does not plan to appeal Sunday's district GOP decision to have the county political party re-do its recent convention election for the party's local leadership.

Dearman said that he won re-election to the county chairmanship on April 10 in a "landslide."

"We won in a landslide the first time and will win again," he said, declining to appeal the district's ruling to the state GOP leadership.

Challenger Adam Ledbetter, who was disqualified during the county's April 10 voting, said all he wanted was a chance to stand against Dearman for the chairmanship of the county party.

"Looks like I got it," Ledbetter said of the district's ruling.

Sunday, the 9th District GOP board held an emergency hearing on the matter. The April 10 county results had been contested by four Jackson County GOP members who claimed the process used by Dearman was wrong and not transparent.

The district board ruled in their favor, saying the county GOP needs to re-do its elections process. 


Dearman blamed the situation on former county GOP chairman Ron Johnson.

"Ron Johnson has made a reputation of stirring the pot and thriving off the chaos," Dearman said. "The Jackson County Republican Party does not believe in that. We have outlined a clear set of goals that we will pursue.

"Let me be clear to everyone, myself and my team are not going to be pushed out like Katie Griffin (Dearman's predecessor as chairman) was. We have served with honor and integrity, and will continue to, and will not be intimidated by Ron Johnson."


One of those who filed the challenge of the April 10 convention vote, Sam Thomas, said he was happy about the outcome of the appeal, but said Dearman's reaction was wrong.

"This is a huge victory for the grassroots Republicans of Jackson County," Thomas said. "As conservatives, we strongly believe that we must follow the rules in conducting our elections, and this decision ensures we get it right.

"While I'm happy about the 9th District GOP's commitment to fair and secure elections, I was very saddened by our county chairman's response. His profanity-laced outburst was an embarrassment to our party and our family-centered values."


The appeals complaint said no copy of the county GOP rules were made available on April 10 and that some candidates for a GOP office were wrongly disqualified based on those rules.

 Ledbetter, a Hoschton city council member, was nominated by the GOP nominating committee for chairman of the local party against incumbent Dearman, but Ledbetter was disqualified by Dearman during the meeting.

Jeff Hughes, a member of the Jackson County Board of Elections, did challenge Dearman from the floor, but was defeated. That vote reportedly had to be held twice after the first vote showed more people voting than delegates who were present.

The disqualification of Ledbetter was based on a reference to a rule that GOP delegates and candidates have to volunteer for at least 10 hours during the year.

But the complaint appeal says the Jackson County GOP had broken ties with the Trump campaign in February 2020, making it impossible for local members to officially have volunteer campaign hours.

The appeal was filed by Thomas, Ross J. Harvin, Wesley Colley and Crystal L. Colley.

The local GOP organization has a long history of tumultuous leadership. Dearman's predecessor resigned as local chairman in protest over how the group was being run by shadow leaders who didn't support her.

Some years ago, a local chairman refused to release the names of those who had qualified to run for local office to the newspaper after qualifying had closed. He was later ousted from the job.