Farmer’s market property, drive-in discussed at council meeting


[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.”





Jason Beck

Born in Merrillville, Indiana, raised in Cleveland, Tennessee, and currently resides in Copperhill, Tennessee. Graduated from Bradley Central High School in 1996 and attended the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, eventually earning a B.A. and M.A. in English. Hobbies include hiking, camping and fly-fishing. Interests include baseball, hockey and cliff jumping.

Ads in Fannin Focus do not show up correctly in Sheriff Candidates Campaign Financial Reports

Featured, Featured Stories, News

Mark Thomason, the publisher of the Fannin Focus has been in the news a lot lately. This is an unrelated story to Thomason’s arrest, “Journalist Jailed”. It does, however go with the big picture of Thomason’s publication the Fannin Focus, “Intent on Integrity”. Read the story and you decide.

FYN has a copy of every Fannin Focus issue since primary election qualifying. We have reviewed each page for all campaign advertising. We also have a copy of the Fannin Focus advertising rate sheet. We have cross referenced the ads with the rate sheet. We have all the documents to support this article. FYN files the following report on three Fannin County Sheriff Republican Party Candidates, Johnny Scearce, Jack Taylor and Larry Bennett.

Fannin Sheriff Candidates Political Ad Reporting in Fannin Focus

#FanninCartel Defined

“A coalition or cooperative arrangement between political parties intended to promote a mutual interest”. Did this happen in the Fannin County Sheriff’s race?

Larry Bennett, Republican Candidate for Sheriff placed ads in issues of the Fannin Focus on 3/31, 4/7, 4/14 and 4/28. According to the Fannin Focus advertising rate sheet, the number of ads and the size of the ads Bennett placed should have totalled $1,142.78 in advertising with the Fannin Focus. According to Bennett’s Campaign Contribution Disclosure Report he spent $0 in advertising with the Fannin Focus. Bennett is the former police chief of McCaysville GA.

Jack Taylor Republican Candidate for Sheriff placed ads in issues of the Fannin Focus on 3/3, 3/10, 3/17, 3/24, 3/31, 4/14, 4/21, 4/28, 5/5, 5/12 and 5/19. According to the Fannin Focus advertising rate sheet, number of ads and size of the ads Taylor should have totaled $7,970.63 in advertising with the Fannin Focus. According to Taylor’s Campaign Contribution Disclosure Report he spent $600 in advertising with the Fannin Focus. This left $7,370.63 of unreported spending with the Fannin Focus. Remember all those full page ads Taylor ran in the paper?

Remember the marquee at the Swan Drive-In, “Vote Jack Taylor for Sheriff”? What did Taylor pay Steve Setser, the owner of the Drive-In, for the advertising? Taylor listed Setser on his Campaign Contribution Disclosure, but in the space where a candidate has to give the amount of the contribution, Taylor wrote “Setser“ but would not give a price or “no charge” (You can legally donate goods or services to a candidate {In-Kind} but the candidate must describe the donation and place a value on their campaign disclosure). In-Kind contribution values must comply with campaign finance laws. Setser is required to place a value on his contribution. Steve Setser also donated $463 for T-Shirts and $300 for flyers to the Taylor campaign.

Jack Taylor Swan

Now, that brings us to Johnny Scearce. Scearce is currently the Blue Ridge City Police Chief. Scearce has run for Fannin County Sheriff several times and is used to filling out a “Campaign Contribution Disclosure Report”. One would assume that Scearce would understand he has to list everyone who contributes to his campaign and show all outlets where he has spent money.  According to Scearce’s Campaign Contribution Disclosure Report filed on 6/30, he showed $0 left in his campaign account.

Johnny Scearce Republican Candidate for Sheriff placed ads in issues of the Fannin Focus on 3/17, 3/31, 4/7, 4/14, 4/21, 4/28, 5/5, 5/12 and 5/19. According to the Fannin Focus advertising rate sheet, the number of ads and size of ads Scearce placed should have cost $4,946.89 in advertising with the Fannin Focus. According to Scearce’s Campaign Contribution Disclosure Report he spent $0 in advertising with the Fannin Focus.

johnny brenda 3johnny full page 3

Scearce hired  Kendell Goss as Campaign Marketing Manager. Scearce paid Goss $3,369.00 and listed it as advertising. Sources tell FYN, Goss handled the campaign website, prepared speeches, and campaign video along with other marketing materials.

Let’s just suppose Goss used some of the money to place ads in the Fannin Focus…it still would have to be disclosed! Scearce disclosed that he spent money directly three times with The News Observer and once with WPPI – FM so why wouldn’t he disclose any money paid to the Fannin Focus or place the ad directly himself?

There is no disclosure on who paid for the ads. We could not find one Johnny Scearce or Larry Bennett ad in the Fannin Focus that discloses “Paid for By.” One could understand if the publisher missed one ad but it seems he missed them all! Why not show who is paying for the campaign ads, it’s a campaign finance rule?

Sheriff Dane Kirby spent $0 with the Fannin Focus and placed no ads in its paper.

The publisher of the Fannin Focus is Mark Thomason. If Thomason decided to give the advertising to the candidates for free, the Fannin Focus would still have to be listed on the candidates campaign finance reports with an “In-Kind” amount. If an “In-Kind” was the desired result to benefit the above listed candidates by Thomason, the amounts have far exceeded the campaign contribution limits.

Some questions…Did Mark Thomason extend $13,460.30 of free advertising to three Fannin County Sheriff candidates? Why just the Sheriff candidates? Could they have been in cahoots (colluding or conspiring together secretly)? Wonder how the other candidates who paid for their ads must feel? Wonder what the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission will think?

Click to read campaign finance reports.

Johnny Scearce 6302016

Jack Taylor 6302016

Larry Bennett 6302016


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Related story: Fannin Focus Mark Thomason Arrested, Journalist or Vendetta




Sisson – Setser Property Dispute


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).

Swan-drive-in-pic-608 Sisson-prop-side-4


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!     

Swan-drive-in-pic-608       Sisson-prop-side-4

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

  1. 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.


City of Blue Ridge Sept 8 2015 Meeting Minutes

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!



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Featured Stories, Politics

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Community, Featured Stories

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Community, Featured Stories

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