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.
Blue Ridge, GA