BLUE RIDGE, Ga – Councilmembers accused Mayor Donna Whitener of hiding information and expressed the need for county and citizen involvement before annexing more property into the city.
Rick Skelton and other local business owners urged the council to continue on the path of annexation. Skelton is developing the 9265 Blue Ridge Drive/Inola property. He presented a twenty-year plan with 21 houses, event space, one retail, and one restaurant on a septic system. However, on a sewer system, he proposed 144 homes/townhomes, 55K sq. ft. for retail, and 20K sq. ft. business center/venue. Sewer would also provide additional revenue for the city.
“I’ve been meeting with the city, Jeff, Kelsey, Becky, and others. There’s been many meetings about the annexation and the sewer along with Mercier’s and Joe,” stated Skelton. “You can tell we’re stuck without it. I understand that, I’ve been talking to the mayor and council members. They understand the necessity of it. One of the problems [is] all these different things going together and being voted on. I was under the original impression it was just for Mercier’s back to town, then that extended to Valero and then up to 515.”
Skelton said he first discussed annexation with the city in 2017. The intended annexation would cover the entire property discussed. Fitts claimed that was the first time he had ever heard of those plans as a councilmember.
“I think we’ve got to give ample time to meet with no. 1 the county because again they did not agree to it, and we have a letter from [Chairman] Stan [Helton]. I spoke with him and they said they did not know about it. And we’re got to have time to have a town hall meeting because we did not give our citizens any time to consider what could or couldn’t go on,” proclaimed Councilmember Nathan Fitts.
Mayor Donna Whitener tried to use a meeting from two-years ago with Helton, County Attorney Lynn Doss, and Christie Gribble that included an annexation discussion as the county’s notification.
According to Whitener, Helton agreed to help the businesses involved and the city in any way possible at this time.
Fitts countered with a meeting from two years ago doesn’t constitute consent, and the commissioners should have been informed as well as the city council. He maintained that he had no idea what the mayor wanted to do and outright called her a liar. He added that this perceivably underhanded mix-up could hurt county-city relations. Councilmember Rhonda Haight reaffirmed that Fitts and other members knew nothing about annexation until two days before the special called meeting.
Later in the meeting, Skelton explained the chairman and county representatives might have been confused since the meeting initially addressed sewer expansion. In that meeting, DCA confirmed that property would need to be annexed to receive the grants discussed. The businesses benefiting would pay for the extra costs since GDOT wouldn’t pay for it.
She added that a town hall meeting isn’t necessary for annexation with the route the council has chosen to go. Councilmember Rhonda Haight confirmed that Whitener’s correct, but that the people of the county have a right to know about the annexation before it goes forward. According to Haight, the last county-wide meeting pertaining to annexation took place eight years ago.
“I believe that is what we’re trying to constitute as our meeting. It does not count as a meeting if it was eight years ago,” stated Haight.
Whitener retorted that Haight could have asked for a public hearing. Haight quickly countered that the council found out the annexation was on the agenda only two days beforehand. Additionally, it appeared as a charter change and some councilmembers didn’t look into the details before voting on it.
Haight also raised the point that GDOT won’t begin taking bids to develop Hwy 5 until 2020, so there’s no rush on annexation. The council has time to gather public input.
In Department Head Rebecca Harkins report, she commented that annexation can’t happen unless existing infrastructure is fixed. Waterlines are aging and significant work needs to be done to the sewer as part of the plant project.
Skelton spoke up that his developers had an alternate plan in case of that to pay for roads on the property. He also said that just the roads would be annexed, and people could opt to become part of the city.
“But the citizens in the city of Blue Ridge, they don’t know that,” explained Councilmember Mike Panter.
This would also increase city residents’ taxes because of extra police control, according to Haight.
“We need input from people,” said Haight. “Maybe no one is opposed to it and that would be great.”
The mayor explained she received letters of support, but she hasn’t held a town meeting.
“We’re not against it by any means. We’re just against the process by which happened,” explained Fitts.
“I was in shock the way it was done because being a city resident, I had no knowledge whatsoever of it before the meeting,” added Panter.
Councilmember Robbie Cornelius asked why no one voted to table the annexation vote instead of blindly passing it in February. Fitts admitted he shouldn’t have trusted the mayor and vowed to research all topics from now before voting.
By the end of the meeting, the council tabled the annexation amendment until further discussion and directed the city attorney to inform the General Assembly of their decision.
“We do not want to put Speaker Ralston or Senator Gooch in a tough position and currently, they are put in a very tough position, said Haight. “What I would like to propose to the Mayor is if she could quickly schedule a town hall meeting and let’s schedule a meeting with commissioners…I think we can come to an agreement with them. We just need to schedule a meeting.”
She also offered to reach out to Helton about scheduling a meeting. Whitener stated that Chairman Helton has yet to respond to her email and asserted multiple times throughout the meeting that the city followed all proper annexation procedures.
“We want annexation. We just want to do it the right way,” finalized Panter.