Photo Credit: Joshua L. Jones
"Let me get this straight—you want to let chickens smoke weed on the Prince Avenue bus on Sundays?"
We've lost four years already. During Mayor Nancy Denson's first term, little was done to alleviate Athens' crushing poverty or improve transportation; development has gone unchecked in parts of the city, while businesses are fleeing from others. Reports were shelved and recommendations ignored. Meanwhile, the mayor has kept smiling and waving—which explains why she's now three months into her second term.
She wasn't smiling much last Tuesday, at the Athens-Clarke County Commission's monthly voting meeting. At the same time they put Do-Nothing Denson back in office, voters elected two assertive new commissioners, Sharyn Dickerson and Melissa Link. Now, after four years of being unable or unwilling to bust through the mayor's roadblocks, the commission is re-asserting its authority, and government is lurching into motion again.
First, Tim Denson—fresh out of the joint after being arrested while agitating for Medicaid expansion at the Capitol—and the Athens for Everyone crew stepped to the podium in support of Sunday bus service. (It wasn't on the agenda, although a standard grant application for federal transit funding was.) It remains to be seen whether Nancy Denson, who has cut bus service in the past, will support Sunday buses when she submits her fiscal 2016 budget late next month, but there seems to be interest in it among commissioners, who can override her.
Then, the commission approved a set of floor-area-ratio regulations for commercial corridor developments (don't ask). As part of that vote, Commissioner Kelly Girtz added an amendment referring much broader overall design guidelines to the planning commission. Dickerson added another amendment requiring a joint commission and planning commission work session on two long-neglected corridor studies by September. Both passed unanimously.
You may recall that, in 2012, the ACC Planning Department produced comprehensive studies on future growth and transportation for the Oak/Oconee Street and Prince Avenue corridors, both of which corridors were (and remain) under heavy development pressure from student housing and medical offices, respectively. Almost two years ago, Denson was supposed to call a joint commission-planning commission meeting to continue talks about implementing those studies. She never did. Dickerson successfully forced her hand.
Chickens were up next. Link and Commissioner Allison Wright advocated immediately legalizing urban agriculture while an ordinance regulating raising chickens, bees and fish is written, but they couldn't muster the votes. Since it came to light that ACC's zoning code effectively bans any kind of plant or animal on residential property, other commissioners opted to act first to legalize lawns, gardens and fruit trees while planners write an ordinance covering chickens and bees. (Quote of the night from citizen Mark McConnell: "We're talking about the birds and the bees. What's the problem here?")
Denson remains anti-chicken, citing concerns about property values. "We do not need to impose something on all the people for the benefit of the few," she said.
While a succession of urban-agriculture enthusiasts told the commission they prefer Wright and Link's approach, it was important to assemble a veto-proof majority, denying Denson the opportunity to put the brakes on potential pro-poultry legislation. And commissioners did just that, passing a motion by Commissioner NeSmith by an 8–1 vote (Wright was the lone holdout).
The planning commission will consider the chickens-and-bees ordinance at its Apr. 2 meeting, and their recommendation will come back to the county commission for discussion May 19 and a vote June 2.
After the night's business concluded and the podium opened up to anyone, Landon Bubb of Bag the Bag chastised the mayor for lobbying state legislators to pass a bill barring local governments from banning, charging a fee for or otherwise regulating environmentally damaging plastic bags, along with disposable cups, boxes and other packaging—another issue that has drawn some attention from commissioners.
"I feel like this is a discussion that's happening in Athens, and it should stay in Athens," Bubb said.
Denson acknowledged supporting House Bill 444, which passed out of the House Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee on Mar. 2. (An identical bill has already passed the Senate.) "This is not the kind of legislation I think is appropriate to stop at city or county borders," Denson said. If forced to bring reusable bags or use paper, shoppers might just drive to another county, she said.
HB 444 supporters' argument about regulatory burden makes about as much sense as a sea turtle going Krogering. To give just one example, you can buy beer at the grocery store on Sunday in Athens, but not in Oconee County. Yet, the OC still has grocery stores. Retailers do just fine dealing with a patchwork of alcohol regulations statewide.
From local taxes to local commission districts to Gov. Nathan Deal's "failing" schools takeover, many state lawmakers say they believe in local control—until the locals try to do something the state would rather control. This is just another case. Dickerson, for one, said she doesn't necessarily support a bag fee or ban, preferring incentives instead, but she's in favor of home rule.
"I really feel like the decisions for this community are best made by people who live and work in this community," she said. Denson lives and works in this community—but instead of being involved in making a decision locally, she's trying to get folks in Atlanta to make the decision for us.
In spite of saying during her re-election campaign that she's in favor of decriminalizing marijuana, though, Denson isn't currently lobbying legislators to legalize it. A contingent of students involved in the pro-pot group Athens CARE (Campaign for Access, Reform and Education) showed up to remind her of that stance. (As Afroman might say, "I was going to decriminalize marijuana, but then I got high.") Link pondered how much money ACC taxpayers are spending to prosecute and jail pot-smokers. That's a good question!
Religious Liberty: A "religious liberty" bill (covered in the Mar. 4 issue) that many in the LGBT community fear would authorize business owners and government officials to deny them services passed the Senate. However, at the moment, it appears that Speaker David Ralston is keeping the legislation bottled up on the House side.