Last night, the Blue Ridge City Council opened up the floor to discuss annexation publicly, and allowed the citizens of Fannin County to voice their thoughts, opinions, and concerns to the council directly.
Mayor Whitener began the meeting by explaining the annexation only annexes in the state roads and the state right of way, but if someone wanted to annex their property, they would have to do it using an application process through the council.
The running theme of the evening was citizens felt the city rushed annexation and overall a bad idea for Blue Ridge. However, many speakers relayed that they weren’t opposed to annexation, just to how it’s been handled.
Resident John Suave says, “I’m not against or for annexation.” He added that it “could be good” for Fannin. He also proposed that the developers pay for the sewer and not the taxpayers.
Mary Taylor’s concern laid with the future of Blue Ridge after annexation. She stressed the city needs to be weary of overgrowth.
Everyone supported growth, but it must be controlled and executed the right way. This annexation occurred the wrong way.
Paul Miguire declared, “back up and do it right.”
The speakers pushed for inclusion of city residents in annexation discussions. The Hwy 5 and Hwy 515 annexation took place without any public input until this town hall.
Additionally, residents of Blue Ridge and Fannin wanted to know how and who would be paying for extending sewer services, transportation, and security associated with this annexation.
According to Mayor Donna Whitener, the city will pay through grants. Currently, the city doesn’t have these grants. The city would apply for them after the annexation.
When asked by speaker Kirk Williams if the city could secure these intended grants, Whitener said, “Nothing is for sure.”
Williams continued, “Annexation is almost always a poor investment” and asked the council to not “Burn the taxpayers.”
Rene Sylo was anxious about the devaluation of her property and the thought of people living right on top of her. She didn’t support the “stack ‘em and pack ‘em” method of some developers.
Councilwoman Haight agreed with a lot of the speakers as she listened to their concerns. Many residents were concerned that with annexation the taxpayers would have to pay for the sewer, transportation, and security costs, if the city wasn’t able to get the grants.
Haight assured, “I will not as a city council member increase taxes to give sewer to private business.”
Nearing the end of the meeting, Council Member Mike Panter discusses his thoughts on the issue. Panter states that he’s for controlled growth.
Panter finishes by saying, “If you go five years from now and want to put sewer and water all the way out to Mercier’s; what’s the cost of that five years from now digging up the new highway versus doing it now? That’s something you’ve gotta think about.”
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.
FANNIN COUNTY, Ga – Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to oppose the annexation of more property to the city of Blue Ridge, citing lack of knowledge about the proposed change.
The annexation request is currently at the Georgia General Assembly and has reportedly already passed in the House.
Chairman Stan Helton, Post One Earl Johnson, Post Two Glenn Patterson, and County Attorney Lynn Doss all confirmed that the city of Blue Ridge had not contacted them regarding the expansion.
“I have some concerns because of this expansion, from what I understand, they’re talking about expanding the city limits where it’s at right now Trail’s End, which is down the end toward McCaysville from Walmart, all the way to Gravely Gap. Also, from the Toccoa River near Tammen Park out near Forge Mill Road,” stated Helton.
Doss thought the annexation was in the early stages and not in the General Assembly because no one from the city or city attorney had contacted her about it.
“I think it’s offensive and insulting for this to occur, frankly without any information at all. It just doesn’t seem right,” declared Patterson.
The chairman also inquired if city ordinances would supplant the county’s existing regulations, such as noise, speed limits, alcohol, and law enforcement jurisdictions.
Regarding alcohol, he said, “This is a huge issue. We’ve not had any input into this, and more importantly, the people in the county have not had any input, so all of a sudden, if they start seeing alcohol in places that they’ve not seen before and they don’t get a chance to vote on it. That’s going to be a big problem.”
Johnson wanted to know if the city could ask to annex any property in the county. The answer is must be contiguous to existing annexed property, but otherwise, yes.
“A lot of things are at stake when you start annexing that much property when you talk about major highways. Highway 5 is a major highway. Highway 515 is a major highway,” asserted Johnson. “I don’t know if the county was supposed to go along. I don’t know, and that’s why I am asking. I think everyone in the county needs to wonder where was the county’s input in this.”
Post Two Patterson asked if the county attorney had ever encountered the city by-passing county input in annexation matters. She said it doesn’t happen often, but stressed the importance of county involvment with these matters.
O.C.G.A. 36-36-6 addresses municipal governing authorities providing notice to county government about proposed annexation:
“Upon accepting an application for annexation pursuant to Code Section 36-36-21 or a petition for annexation pursuant to Code Section 36-36-32, or upon adopting a resolution calling for an annexation referendum pursuant to Code Section 36-36-57, the governing authority of the annexing municipality shall within five business days give written notice of the proposed annexation to the governing authority of the county wherein the area proposed for annexation is located. Such notice shall include a map or other description of the site proposed to be annexed sufficient to identify the area. Where the proposed annexation is to be affected by a local Act of the General Assembly, a copy of the proposed legislation shall be provided by the governing authority of the municipality to the governing authority of the county in which the property proposed to be annexed is located following the receipt of such notice by the governing authority of the municipality under subsection (b) of Code Section 28-1-14.”
Doss spoke to an annexation that occurred last year and confirmed that the city attorney sent over documents. Also, a notification about a change to the city charter ran in the paper. However, no one has contacted her about annexing property this year.
She also raised potential changes to LOST and county service delivery strategy if the annexation goes through. LOST distribution will come up for renegotiation in two years.
“One of the city’s arguments [during previous LOST negotiations] was their area and tourism and what they contributed to the pie. Well if they’re area is larger, they’re going to ask for a larger share of the pie. The pie hasn’t gotten any larger. So, they get a larger share of the pie, then do we have to come back and renegotiate the service delivery strategy because they got more money than the county does out of it, but the county still has to provide all the fire service,” explained Doss.
The expense might not come out of the county’s share either, but McCaysville as well. Morganton doesn’t qualify for a portion of LOST in part because of its size. However, if Blue Ridge continues to expand, then McCaysville could no longer qualify for a share of LOST.
The annexation could also affect the service delivery area of the water authority, who has reportedly also objected to the annexation. Members of the water authority were also made aware of the proposed annexation through third parties, not the city.
“I don’t know how in the world we got to where we’re at not talking about anything,” said Johnson. “It’s very amazing to me that’s it even being talked about, and we’re having to make a decision right now where to oppose or not, and no representative had any input whatsoever.”
“I ask for a motion that we oppose this annexation and that we instruct Mrs. Doss to alert the powers that be at the Capitol that this is the official position of the board,” stated Helton, “I would much rather have a face to face meeting, an open meeting with their council to find out exactly what they’re talking about.”
The commissioners unanimously approved the motion.