The Maze of Answers That Answer Nothing : City of Blue Ridge

Citizens Speak, Downtown Blue Ridge, Opinion

Remember the days of old when you went to the Fair and visited the House of Mirrors.  You made your way through the maze looking at the confusing, funny and often times distorted reflections.  It was something fun, amusing and sometimes challenging to go through that maze.  Yet, why are those childhood memories suddenly replaced with the challenge of the maze citizens find themselves in while trying to discover answers to questions from government.

I recently attended the City of Blue Ridge’s Town Hall on Annexation.  I was called to the podium and quickly voiced my concerns to the Council as you only have two minutes.  After I went through the questions, I was told to leave a copy and they would respond.  A week later that response arrived.

My first question was why are developers ‘driving the bus’ with annexation?   I’m not certain how the response was even relevant to the question, but it basically said the expansion of new business and developments in the designated area would create the need for city services. OK, but what I asked was why are developers leading all these efforts.

One developer initiated the discussion on annexation in 2017 and later brought in a few others who wanted it. Four developers discussed their plans at the City Council Meeting on May 19.  Now the City has confirmed there are 10 interested in annexation.  Since we now know what the developers want, it would be nice if the City would share what their vision is for Blue Ridge.

We need to know, with certainty, that the City has development plans, zoning and land use protocols in place.  What is even more important is those plans should have been developed with input from the public and be accessible for public review.

The City is embarking on an attempt to secure rights to portions of two highly trafficked roadways, one of which is scheduled for a significant expansion, but what are their plans for the area?  If the first developer who spoke at the May 19 Council meeting is any indication — hold on — because their plans look more in line with Gwinnett County than Fannin.

My next question focused on the public and what they wanted for their community.  I was told that the majority of letters and conversations the City received had supported annexation.  The majority of letters?  Where are those letters?  Better yet, if there was such overwhelming support, why would three Council members suggest they needed to get input from the public and County Commissioners and ask to schedule the Town Hall?

One Council member told me it was uncertain how they could move forward when the majority who spoke opposed the annexation.  It is disappointing the Council did not include any information concerning annexation at its most recent meeting (June 9).  From what I’m told from the County ‘nothing more has transpired’ with regard to meeting with the Commissioners.  We also know a letter was sent to Speaker Ralston asking him to hold off on the Annexation Resolution unless the City advised otherwise.  So what is the status of the annexation and why is the Council now silent?

Probably the key question in everyone’s mind is what is the total cost for the annexation.  While this question has been asked numerous times and the response varies only a little, it remains vague and unknown.  Here are the responses I’ve received so far:

— We’re only annexing the road and right of way – there is no cost

— Some things are paid by GDOT at no cost

— Minimal costs for legal fees and an ad for the newspaper

— The cost is minimal compared to the revenue that would be generated

We still have no clear understanding of what the cost will be and continue to be told there is no cost and they will apply for a grant.

Impact studies are important for any city considering a change in zoning or an annexation.  What will the impact be on existing infrastructure? How many car trips in and out of these large developments will impact existing roads and neighborhoods?  Has the City analyzed what spare capacities their systems have and when they will need to be increased?  Are there any backlogs in maintenance to existing systems and if so what is the financial burden of those backlogs?  What is the impact to a current homeowner who could very well see their taxes increase?  Noise impact?  Quality of life impact?  The list goes on.

No one knows, but the response said that GDOT makes the decisions for the roads, traffic lights, access lanes, etc.  Yes, GDOT is responsible for the road, but they are not responsible for zoning, land use, what current systems can handle, current debt load and an understanding of what the citizens want their community to look like.  This, again, is where developers are leading the parade and the City has willingly joined it.

I asked about sewer treatment because this falls in the category of impact when looking at infrastructure.  I’ve heard there are some concerns with the facility.  I’ll quote the response:

“The 22 year old sewer plant has been experiencing problems with repair cost.  There is a need to comply with NEW EPD regulations, temperature control, belt press, dehydrator and various other issues to keep the plant operating efficiently.  A Grant/Loan was applied for to correct these issues in the amount of $5M and has been awarded in the past few weeks.  A portion of these upgrades is funded by a Loan requiring a payment to be offset by current customer rate increases or by adding NEW customers.”

My question to citizens is, did you know the City made a commitment to a loan that will come from either current customer rate increases or adding new customers?

With the first developer stating his is a twenty-year plan, at what point will they be adding new customers to share the load?  Does the developer pay a connection fee and then the new home owner assume the role of ‘new customer’?  What happens if something goes wrong with the development and the City’s outlay is not matched and exceeded by that magical anticipated revenue?  Based on their response – customer rate increases.

The financial part remains a ‘smoke and mirrors’ situation.  For as many times as citizens have asked what is the cost, what is the financial impact, the response remains “there is no financial burden to taxpayers”.  The City states “The proposed annexation would increase sales tax dollars for the City and County and NEW sewer revenue for the City.”  I have yet to figure out how those sewer lines will suddenly appear in the dirt and who will pay for them to be placed there.

There is one question that haunts me trying to get through this maze – What if?  What if these developments are not quite as successful as they are being marketed?  Any challenge to the economy or the housing market will greatly impact the success or failure of development plans.  Blue Ridge markets itself as a place to slow down and relax.  What happens when you build high density, new urbanist developments?  Will tourists be drawn to the same crowded developments and traffic they have where they live now and want to escape from?  I don’t think so.

An additional impact is what happens when a high-price development is built in close proximity to average priced homes for the general population.  When I asked if people would be able to afford their taxes due to the impact of high-priced developments nearby and increases in assessments, the response was “the impact is unknown at this time.”

Annexation is often thought of as a quick fix to bring in revenue without really doing all the math.  I’m not convinced the math has been done.  I also remain steadfast in my concerns for how these decisions will impact taxpayers.  The fact most of these discussions were done without any public knowledge sends a clear message and one of concern.  Why would a City not want public input and support so the project is a win for everyone.

My last question asked what possible impact could the thoughts of the citizens have on the Council when most had already expressed their strong support for this annexation in the May 19 meeting.  The project manager encouraged me to reach out to the Council members to determine their position on annexation.  He did say he supported the annexation based on economic progress and job creation.  He also said the City has zoning and any development would have to adhere to those guidelines.  It should be noted that the developer who first sought this annexation chairs the Planning Commission and also sits on the Zoning Board of Appeals.  Since I have found no published minutes from either of those Boards, I can only wonder if he was or will be involved in anything regarding the review of and decision making with this annexation.  Speculation, of course, but a real concern.

The closing comment from the project manager was “It is imperative that the growth along those highways have regulations to protect adjoining neighbors and maintain the beauty of our community.” Why was that not the focus and commitment spoken by every Council member and the Mayor?  It should have been the first comment made.  It should make me feel more comfortable, but a few questions earlier he said “the impact (on surrounding neighborhoods) is unknown at this time”.

The fact that impact is unknown is what just turned this maze into a house without an exit, when/if they move forward with annexation, there will be no way to escape whatever consequences may result.  Annexation is a critical decision and one that should not be made hastily.  I certainly hope the City will step back, get the public involved in developing a future plan, include the County and work together for a better tomorrow.

I want to close by saying I know our elected officials have an enormous responsibility, but I also strongly believe in public input.  I don’t want to see a community lost to the direction of developers while the public is pushed to the sidelines.  I hope our elected realize there are citizens who are knowledgeable and they should not be dismissed.  If they are so quick to buy into a developer’s pie-in-the-sky projected revenues, then why not give equal time and respect to the average citizen.

Donna Thompson

Blue Ridge, GA

Annexation tabled amid accusations of “secret meetings”

Business, City Council, News
annexation

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.

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