BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – The future of the farmer’s market property and the city pool stood out among five main topics of conversation addressed by the Blue Ridge City Council as well as dozens of attending citizens in a town hall meeting Tuesday, March 27.
In the February and March council meetings, the council discussed options for either selling, leasing or renovating the farmer’s market property off of Summit Street. At the most recent meeting, Jim Sisson, owner of Sisson Log Homes, expressed his desire to either buy or lease the property as an overflow space to use for drying materials for his business.
While the council members seemingly agreed in the past meetings in their desire to renovate the property and to reopen it as an arts and/or entertainment destination in an ideal scenario, the podium was opened to the audience at the town hall meeting for direct input from citizens to gauge the consensus of residents.
Accepting the invitation was Joe Webb, of Dial, who explained that while he lives outside the city limits, he does have an interest in the city, working with the Blue Ridge Community Theater. Among the suggestions put forth by Webb were to use the property as a centralized location for a stand-alone public library or to simply sell the property to the highest bidder in an effort to establish “hotel and some retail density in that area.”
Webb went on to admit while there is some sentimental value attributed to the property, “economically, it’s literally a relic of the past.”
Another citizen, Larry Bersyn, asked about the amount of income the farmer’s market property was contributing to the city.
“It has zero income, right now, just expenses,” Mayor Donna Whitener answered, referring to utility costs.
“So, why do we still have it?” Bersyn asked.
Councilwoman Rhonda Haight explained the farmer’s market is a unique property that the city owns. “It could become a really neat art district, which we don’t have,” Haight added, also stating she would like to see the property double as an event center.
Councilman Nathan Fitts stated he liked the idea of converting the area into an arts and cultural center but was concerned about the cost to renovate.
“We do have somebody who would like to lease it,” Whitener reminded the council, likely referring to Sisson. “So until we we come up with a plan, why do we not consider leasing it out? At least it stops our bleeding.”
Whitener also explained Sisson would be willing to temporarily lease the property and move off the property once the city did produce a long-term plan for the property as long as he was given a 30 to 60-day notice to vacant.
Another citizen pointed out that an arts and cultural district would mostly benefit tourists but selling the property to make way for a stand-alone library would benefit the working people of the community.
Brian Pritchard, publisher of FetchYourNews, pleaded with the council to lease the property to Sisson, a 17-year local business owner, until a long-term plan was established. “Make a long-term plan, but maybe in the short-term, lease it to Mr. Sisson and say, ‘Thank you for being a business owner in the city for 17 years,'” Pritchard said.
Ultimately, Mayor Whitener agreed this was the best option for the city.
Tony Byrd, city street superintendent and shop mechanic, was on hand at the meeting to discuss maintenance issues with the city pool. Whitener explained the pool has a leak in the main drain and needs replacement of internal filters, manifold gaskets and valves. She also stated there was possible leak in the skimmer system.
Byrd stated to repair the aforementioned issues, the estimate would be between $5,000 and $10,000. If there is a leak in the skimmer system, Whitener stated it would be “many tens of thousands” of dollars to repair. The mayor also said she asked Byrd to present a definite amount to the council by the April meeting for the costs to repair the smaller issues to open it for this summer and then the city would look to the 2019 pool season to have the more expensive issues resolved.
Whitener also stated 1,429 people used the pool in 2017, which amounted to just under $6,000 in revenue.
In addition to repairing the pool, the council discussed ideas for constructing a city splash pad and Whitener suggested forming a committee to look for grants and/or create a campaign to generate funds to pay for these projects.
When Haight asked the audience for input, Bersyn said, “Sell the farmer’s market, use the money from the farmer’s market to pay for the pool (and) we have a new pool next year … And stop wasting the city’s money.”
Webb also spoke on the issue and mentioned that the county was studying the prospect of creating an indoor pool at the Tom Boyd Recreation Center. Webb stated he would rather see an indoor pool located more centrally and within the city.
Council members Nathan Fitts and Haight agreed to meet with the county in the near future about the possibility of forming a joint venture to build an indoor pool.
The upcoming Georgia Cities Week, which will take place April 22 to 28 in Blue Ridge, was discussed by the council. Georgia Cities Week is a week-long celebration sponsored by the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA). GMA is a non-profit legal advocacy organization, of which Blue Ridge is a municipality member, that offers consulting services to its member cities.
During the week, Blue Ridge will be coordinating a city-wide litter clean-up campaign in which residents and organizations are asked to dispose of accumulated litter in two dumpsters donated by Advanced Disposal that will be situated at locations within the city limits. Possible dumpster locations discussed by council included the farmer’s market property on Summit Street, near the Co-Op store on East Main Street and possibly at the Kiwanis Fairgrounds.
In the same vein, Council Members Ken Gaddis and Rhonda Haight put forth the idea of the city beginning to conduct a regular small brush pick-up twice in the month of April and again during the fall after leaves have fallen in an effort to keep gutters and storm drains clear of debris.
The city will also conduct a Mayor’s Essay Contest during the week, which will be open to all elementary, middle, high school or home school students. Those participating in the essay contest should compose a 150 to 300-word essay centered around the topic of “If I were mayor, I would …”
Other discussed ideas for Georgia Cities Week included reaching out to Red Cross, the Humane Society of Blue Ridge, and Georgia Mountains Health about possibly conducting a blood drive, animal adoption fair and health fair, respectively.
Mayor Donna Whitener stated she had recently spoken to representatives from the local chapter of Future Farmers of America (FFA) who expressed interest in participating in a beautification project for the downtown area, which would include situating planters along the sidewalks near downtown businesses. Whitener explained the city would be responsible for the purchase of the planters and plants and “they (FFA) will put (the planters) together for us.”
When the mayor asked local business owner and President of the Blue Ridge Business Association (BRBA) Cesar Martinez of the number of planters he thought would be needed, Martinez said he felt 30 planters would be sufficient.
Regarding another area of downtown beautification, Martinez spoke to the council about the possibility of erecting standards along streets to display small flags or banners. Martinez stated several different types of banners could be produced displaying the various downtown events, such as Fire & Ice or Trout Fest, that take place throughout the year. He added if the city paid for the standards, the Chamber of Commerce and the BRBA would be willing to split costs with the city to produce the banners. Whitener stated she thought the standards ran around $25 a piece and Pam Fink, of the BRBA, said the cost to produce the flags would be around $35 per flag.
Martinez was told to put together a definite proposal to present to the council at a later date.
An update on the current Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) project near Orchard Boulevard was given. The mayor stated the water infrastructure improvement project was scheduled to begin April 5. The council spoke of what to consider for the next CDBG project, and it was agreed that addressing the flooding issues near Ada Street should be the next project.
At the March 13 council meeting, Ben and Natalie Kissel, city residents who live in the Ada Street flood plain, talked with the council about recent flooding problems in that neighborhood. Gaddis reported that he along with a representative from Carter & Sloope, the city’s contracted engineering firm, visited the area Wednesday, March 21, to study the issue.
“There are some serious issues we’re having in flooding areas and we put together a pretty good game plan,” Gaddis explained. He added that surveyors from Carter & Sloope would be examining the area to determine which property owners would need to provide the city with easements to allow the city to move forward with a long-term improvement project. In the short-term, Gaddis stated the city could install storm culverts and water bumper rails to help direct water flow away from owners’ properties.
Whitener also mentioned the city could receive additional state funding assistance by pursuing a WaterFirst Community designation. The mayor said this application process typically takes about six to eight months. The designation is awarded to municipalities demonstrating a strong commitment to water resource stewardship by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.
A project to construct a two, or possibly three, story downtown restroom facility near the depot was also discussed. According to Whitener, the existing plan to build a two-story facility would cost $450,000 and the city has already been approved for a $300,000 Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) grant, leaving the city to pay the remaining $150,000. Fitts reported he had heard the cost would be in the range of $750,000.
After Martinez asked about a target date for finalizing plans for the restrooms, Mayor Whitener stated the city would know more after its meeting with the Georgia Department of Community Affairs Wednesday about options for the ARC grant.
BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – An agenda has been set for Tuesday night’s Blue Ridge City Council town hall meeting.
Headlining the meeting will be discussion of the upcoming Georgia Cities Week, a week-long celebration from April 22 to 28 of cities across Georgia sponsored by the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA). GMA is a non-profit legal advocacy organization, of which Blue Ridge is a municipality member, that offers consulting services to its member cities.
During Georgia Cities Week, the city will be coordinating a city-wide litter clean-up. Donated dumpsters will be situated at locations within the city limits. Also, the city will conduct a Mayor’s Essay Contest, which will be open to all elementary, middle, high school or home school students. Those participating in the essay contest should compose a 150 to 300-word essay centered around the topic of “If I were mayor, I would …”
The council will also report on the progress of the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) water infrastructure improvement project occurring in the neighborhoods east of East Second Street.
The farmer’s market is also on the agenda for the town hall meeting. During the last two city council meetings, the future of the farmer’s market property has been a much-discussed topic. At the February meeting, Council members Rhonda Haight and Ken Gaddis led discussion of the city council’s desire for the city to keep the property and refurbish the facility.
However, at the March 13 meeting, Jim Sisson, owner of Sisson Log Homes, approached the council with the prospect of buying, or perhaps leasing, the property through a bidding process. Sission explained his company would use the property for an overflow area for materials during the drying process. No decision was made, and the council agreed that local input from citizens at the town hall meeting would assist in reaching an ultimate decision for the future of the property.
Another item to be addressed at the town hall is downtown public restrooms. At the March 13 meeting, local business owner and President of the Blue Ridge Business Association (BRBA) Cesar Martinez pleaded with the council to find solution to what he felt are the city’s two most important downtown needs: parking and restrooms. Councilman Nathan Fitts assured Martinez the city was working diligently to address both of these downtown needs.
The city pool is also slated to be discussed at the town hall. The council has addressed the idea of refurbishing the city pool at prior meetings and have mentioned the success of the Blairsville city pool as an example for Blue Ridge to follow in this regard.
Rounding out the meeting will be a public commentary session.
The town hall meeting will take at 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 27, at the Blue Ridge City Hall on West First Street.
Fetch Your News is a hyper local news outlet that attracts more than 300,000 page views and 3.5 million impressions per month in Dawson, Lumpkin, White, Fannin, Gilmer, Pickens, Union, Towns and Murray counties as well as Cherokee County in N.C. FYNTV attracts approximately 15,000 viewers per week and reaches between 15,000 to 60,000 per week on our Facebook page. For the most effective, least expensive local advertising, call 706-276-6397 or email us at advertise@FetchYourNews.com
[Featured image: Jim Sisson, left, of Sisson Log Homes, discusses the possibility of purchasing the farmer’s market property from the city with council members Ken Gaddis, second from left, Nathan Fitts, Mayor Donna Whitener, and City Attorney James Balli.]
BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – In a three-hour Blue Ridge City Council meeting Tuesday night, March 13, a wide variety of topics took center stage.
The future of the farmer’s market property off of Summit Street was discussed again. Last month, the council weighed options for the property moving forward and discussed whether to sell, lease or refurbish the property. Strong opposition to sell was voiced by Councilwoman Rhonda Haight and Councilman Ken Gaddis and the council agreed to discuss the issue further at a following meeting.
This month, Jim Sisson, owner of Sisson Log Homes, was present to propose selling the property in a bidding process. Sisson spoke of recent uses, such as held festivals and overflow parking, for the property and stated the property was not an ideal location for either purpose. He also described the property as “negative-performing asset,” meaning that it is and would cost the city more to operate it than the revenue the property would generate. Sisson cited costs for liability insurance and utilities as necessary operating expenditures to the city. Mayor Donna Whitener estimated the city spends between $6,000 and $10,000 a year on utilities alone for the property.
“If you were to sell it us or somebody else, it would at least be bringing in some tax revenue,” Sisson continued.
Whitener mentioned in earlier talks with Sisson, the prospect of leasing the property was discussed. “Have you put any thought into that?” Whitener asked Sisson.
Sisson responded saying his company would prefer to buy the property but would consider leasing it instead. He also added that the property would be used as an overflow area for Sisson Log Homes to store materials in the drying process and no damage would come to the property. “Probably, (we would) not use the platform that is there,” Sisson said.
No decision was made by the council to proceed with any process of either selling or leasing the property.
Another city landmark, the Swan Drive-In, was discussed during the council meeting. Earlier in the day, the city released a statement via social media addressing and denying rumors of the city attempting to close the drive-in as a result of noise complaints received from nearby residents.
In that post, city representatives stated, “The city is committed to working with stakeholders on both sides of the issue to reach a solution that continues to allow the Swan to operate as one of the City’s favorite attractions.”
At the council meeting, City Attorney James Balli also addressed the concern saying, “Let me be clear: the drive-in is going nowhere. I will say that one more time very slowly. The drive-in is going nowhere. The city owns the drive-in. The drive-in will operate. If I had anything to do with shutting down the drive-in, my wife would make me sleep on the couch … I’ve enjoyed it just as many of you have. It’s an attraction to the city.”
However, Balli continued to say the city was beginning to look into various options to address the noise ordinance complaints stemming from the drive-in. The city attorney also stated the operator of the drive-in is exploring methods to reduce noise emanating from the site.
“We would always favor citizens working things out privately without any involvement from the city,” Balli said, adding the city was confident a mutual agreement would soon be reached.
Whitener told the council she visited the drive-in over the previous weekend and was told a 20-foot-high, 100-foot-long noise buffering screen is slated to be installed soon. “So, we won’t know (of the screen’s effectiveness) until it goes up. So give us a chance to work through that,” Whitener said.
Later, Councilman Ken Gaddis spoke of the city’s current policy for meeting decorum. Gaddis stated, “The previous council took a stand to where public comments was not necessary, was not required and definitely was not important.”
Garnering applause from the audience, Gaddis explained he would like to see any item requiring a motion go to public comment before moving to a vote from the council.
“I don’t come up and say I know anything really,” Gaddis continued. “You all voted me in. For whatever reason, you all thought I was important. I came up here with a skill set to help with infrastructure, but everybody in the community has a skill set that’s beyond me, beyond (Councilman) Nathan (Fitts), beyond all of us, and you have an important voice and we want to hear that voice.”
Councilwoman Rhonda Haight agreed with Gaddis and clarified she did not vote on the decision to limit public commentary in the last term.
“However … I’ve seen meetings that have lasted until 11 p.m. I’ve seen meetings that have gotten completely out of control, so we would have to have control. We would have to have time limits on speech,” Haight stated.
Fitts also agreed with both Gaddis on bringing back increased public commentary and with Haight on enforcing order throughout the meeting.
Mayor Whitener explained City Clerk Kelsey Ledford was currently working to amend the meeting policy to allow for more commentary.
A budget amendment to account for incoming funds from a Georgia Municipal Association safety grant, maintenance to City Hall and the Police Department buildings, the hiring of a zoning and land development administrator, and revised pay scales for water department employees was approved by the council.
A conflict of interest exemption statement was approved by the council concerning the $500,000 Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) awarded to the city in 2016 to upgrade water and fire protection infrastructure in portions of neighborhoods east of or near East Second Street. The statement gave public notice of technical conflicts of interest among city council members who either live or own property in the area, have family members who live in the area and/or have business interests in the area.
A town hall meeting was announced to take place at City Hall March 27 at 6 p.m. Mayor Whitener explained the meeting will address public concerns over the CDBG project, which she stated should be halfway completed by then, the farmer’s market property, the city pool, and downtown restrooms among other topics.
In other business, the council discussed the abandonment of an undeveloped portion of Hill Street near East First Street and another unnamed street near the BP gas station on West First Street.
The council also approved an annual $1,500 donation to the Humane Society for the spay and neuter of feral cats throughout Blue Ridge.
A resolution to enter into a memorandum of understanding with Fannin County, McCaysville and Morganton was approved. The memorandum of understanding is an agreement between the entities to share costs for the Nixle emergency management agency (EMA) notification service to residents and citizens.
A resolution declaring April 22 through 28, 2018, to be Georgia Cities Week in Blue Ridge approved and signed by Mayor Whitener.
In public commentary, President of the Blue Ridge Business Association (BRBA) Cesar Martinez stressed to the council the continued need for additional public parking and bathrooms in the downtown business district. Martinez offered the help of the BRBA in forming committees or focus groups to address the situation. In response, Fitts told Martinez both items were top priorities for the council. “We’re not ignoring these. We have a lot going on right now. We are diligently working on them,” Fitts said.
Local sculptor Martin McHan, who created the Blue Bear sculpture that has previously been displayed in the downtown city park, asked about the sculpture’s condition and the kiln-drying process it is currently undergoing. The sculpture was recently removed from the park after a termite infestation was discovered within it. The bear was then transferred to a large kiln operated by Sisson Log Homes in an effort to exterminate the termites. Mayor Whitener explained to McHan after the kiln-drying process is complete, the bear would be painted, restored to the park and the city plans to erect a shelter to protect the sculpture from the weather.
McHan then addressed Jim Sisson directly saying, “Mr. Sisson, I’d like to personally, from the bottom of my heart, thank you … I’d like to thank you for putting (the sculpture) in that kiln because I know how much that costs … It’s a very, very expensive process that this man has donated.”
When Mr. Jim Sisson (Sisson Log Homes) decided to build a new material staging area to load lumber, he discovered the entire property, which is fenced in and around his property, did not belong to him.
Sisson found that his neighbor, the City of Blue Ridge, owned the property. The city did not realize the property did not belong to Sisson until he applied for the build permit. Sisson then made a public request to the City Council to purchase to small the unused area to meet the setback requirements and expand his business (sources tell FYN Sisson offered approximately $3,700 for 1/16 acre).
Found money! Win, win for Sisson and citizens of Blue Ridge…not so fast. What does Steve Setser have to do with this attempted land purchase? It seems the tract of land the Swan Drive-in occupies is part of the 1/16th acre that Sisson wants to purchase. The plat of survey of the property is attached to the Drive-in lease by and between Setser and the City and therefore would require a modification to the drive-in’s lease.
This could be simple…attach a new copy of the plat to the lease and call it an addendum! Not that simple. The drive-in lease has been hotly contested in the past publicly by City Council member Rhonda Thomas. Several comments have been made concerning the way the lease was written by a former council member Michael Eaton. Eaton led the charge in renewing the lease with Setser.
A little background…Setser pays the citizens of Blue Ridge $500 a month for approximately 11 acres of land, a movie screen valued at approximately $250,000 along with the drive-in buildings. With everything included, the estimated value may exceed $400,000.00!
When Setser was contacted about Sisson purchasing the property, Setser’s attorney, Auric Steel, contacted Blue Ridge City attorney David Syfan at Setser’s request. FYN has obtained a copy of the email from Syfan to mayor and council informing them of his conversation with Setser’s attorney. After careful read of the email below, I will break down in detail several areas of the email.
“Mayor and everyone:
In talking to the Mayor yesterday about the proposed sale of City property to Jim Sisson, I discussed with the Mayor that I thought we were at an impasse regarding this transaction. On Wednesday, September 9, 2015, I received a call from a gentleman that identified himself as “Auric Steel” and that he was/is the attorney for Steve Setzer. I thought that I had sent out an email on this conversation. Mr. Steel alleged that in the executive session of the night before by the Council, that the Council had discussed and agreed to change the lease terms of the drive-in property with Mr. Setzer. I told Mr. Setzer that no one had yet discussed with me anything about the drive-in property except to try to have a conveyance of the small tract that Mr. Sisson needs and without affecting the lease of Mr. Setzer.
Mr. Steel contended that Mr. Setzer uses all of the drive-in property including the area in question and which he identified as being used as a buffer for the drive-in screen and for security of the property. I explained that my understanding was that everyone thought that the property line was the fence and that a simple conveyance of the property [the small sliver needed by Mr. Sisson] subject to the terms of Mr. Setzer’s lease would solve the problem without affecting Mr. Setzer’s lease.
However, Mr. Steel and/or Mr. Setzer seemed to think that the Council was going to change the lease to charge him a greater rental premium and therefore he [Setzer] was not going to agree to anything or would only agree if the lease terms changed for the better [for him].
Therefore, I think we have reached an impasse. It may be that we could break the lease, but that would involve litigation and didn’t know if the City Council wanted to take this step or not.
I suggested to the Mayor, that maybe Mr. Setzer and Mr. Sisson could talk and work something out and that the City could then help regarding anything that they agreed to do.
I’ll be glad to discuss. Thanks, David
- David Syfan”
Please note that the notice that Syfan received a call from Setser’s attorney the day after a Blue Ridge City council executive session meeting. “Mr. Steel alleges that in the executive session of the Council the preceding night, the Council had discussed and agreed to change the lease terms of the drive-in property with Mr. Setser.” It is illegal to have anything in an executive session discussed outside of the executive session. Who ran and called Mr. Setser after the meeting: Councilwoman Angie Arp? Councilman Bruce Pack? Councilman Rodney Kendell? Councilman Harold Herndon? I am going to roll the dice and say it was not Mayor Donna Whitener or Council woman Rhonda Thomas, considering the very public display of dislike for Mayor Whitener and Councilwoman Thomas displayed by Setser. I am going to guess they did not call. The answer of who called Setser and discussed the executive session may be something for a Superior Court Judge to determine.
Next, notice the “Council had discussed and agreed to change the lease terms of the drive-in property with Mr. Setser.” Which City Council member told Setser that they had reached a decision? The city council can only reach a decision on an item in public. The item must be on a public agenda for a vote. To say a decision was reached is a clear violation of executive session and the city charter.
Now, note “Mr. Steel and/or Mr. Setser seemed to think that the Council was going to change the lease and charge him a greater rental premium and therefore he [Setser] was not going to agree to anything or would only agree if the lease terms changed for the better [for him]”. Setser knows the $500 a month rent he pays is a great deal. A property inside the City of Blue Ridge with the value of the drive-in could be possibly be rented for $1,500 to $2,500 a month. One must keep in mind the property belongs to the citizens and the loss revenue is the citizens money. Setser, therefore, has good reason to be concerned about renegotiating the lease. Setser says he will only agree if the lease is to the “better for him”. How much better can it be? Less than $500 a month?
“Mr. Steel contends that Mr. Setser uses all of the drive-in property including the area in question which he identified as being used as a buffer for the drive-in screen and for security of the property”. My only answer to this statement… NOT TRUE. FYN’s pictures of the property show that the property is not used by the drive-in. Our pictures also prove that the new loading area that Sisson wants to build would not affect drive-in operations in any way whatsoever. The city could sell the property to Sisson, put approximately $3,700 in the bank for the citizens, and the drive-in would not be affected in anyway.
City attorney Syfan wrote, “I suggested to the Mayor, that maybe Mr. Setzer and Mr. Sisson could talk and work something out and that the City could then help regarding anything that they agreed to do”. I spoke to Mr. Sisson about talking with Setzer. Sisson told me he met with Setzer and it did not go well. He was able to tell that Setzer was not interested in making any deals unless the city renegotiated the lease in Setser’s favor. Sisson can’t understand why Setser won’t be agreeable to this. When Setser needed a right of way over Sisson’s property to run three phase power for his new digital projector, Sisson allowed it without exception . If Sisson would not have allowed the right away, the alternative available to Setser to get power would have been at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars. Sisson told me, I did it to be a good neighbor and it didn’t hurt my business.
In closing, why is it being left up to the owner of the Swan Drive-in and Sisson to work out a deal on the property? The property belongs to the City of Blue Ridge, AKA the citizens. The City Attorney David Syfan told the mayor and council, “It may be that we could break the lease, but that would involve litigation and didn’t know if the City Council wanted to take this step or not.” Is it time for the city to take the bull by the horns, break the lease, sell the property to Mr. Jim Sisson and rewrite a lease that is good for Mr. Steve Setser and the citizens of Blue Ridge? Setser has done a good job running the Swan Drive-in and the drive-in is nationally know. People come from several states to visit the drive-in. Maybe as they say, “a happy medium” could be reached with a fair market value lease, you know a win, win, win.. Maybe Council member Angie Arp could assist with arriving at a reasonable fair market value since she announced in a City Council meeting that she owns more property than anyone in Blue Ridge, GA. Just saying!