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Candidates Share Views on Preservation at Historic Athens Forum

From left, moderator Marvin Nunnally, Audrey Hughes, Matt Pulver, Patrick Davenport, Tiffany Taylor, Dexter Fisher, Allen Jones, Jared Bailey and Asia Thomas. Credit: Blake Aued

Most candidates for Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission said they’d be in favor of some kind of restrictions on both long- and short-term rental properties during a forum held by the preservation group Historic Athens.

A law passed during the Heidi Davison administration almost 20 years ago requiring renters to register with the county government, known as rental registration, was thrown out by the courts, but ACC can still use its code enforcement arm to mitigate noise and parking problems, Mayor Kelly Girtz said during the Apr. 11 forum.

“Nobody wants to try to put their kids to bed at 9 o’clock and have somebody from out of town partying until two in the morning,” Girtz said.

Challenger Pearl Hall said that short-term rentals, such as AirBNBs, are necessary, while Mykeisha Ross said neighborhood standards should be upheld, and Bennie Coleman III called renters a problem in his neighborhood.

“We’ve got people who are not from Clarke County who come here and do what they please,” Coleman said.

Another challenger, Fred Moorman, who owns a number of rental properties in town, said that restrictions amount to affluent residents telling renters where they can and cannot live.

Moorman primarily railed against ACC tax assessors, saying that they discourage historic preservation by punishing property owners who renovated buildings. He then digressed into discussing his business acumen, saying that he is the most hated man in Athens because others are jealous of his success.

On the question of rentals, Commissioner Patrick Davenport and former commissioner Jared Bailey were skeptical that ACC can do much. The state pre-empted local regulations on AirBNBs, Davenport said, but he pointed to his work with the late Commissioner Jerry NeSmith tightening ordinances regarding “party houses” rented out to UGA football fans.

The problem is investors, said Audrey Hughes, who’s running against Davenport in District 1. “Some of them don’t live here, and they drive prices up,” she said.

Referring to ACC’s definition of family law, which limits houses in single-family zones to no more than two unrelated residents, District 7 candidate Allen Jones said there should be “constraints” on rental homes, such as enforcing noise and parking ordinances, but there should be an exception to the definition of family ordinance if the owner lives there.

The definition of family law is difficult to enforce, said Bailey, who’s running in District 5. “It’s very difficult to legislate where people can live and where they can’t live, and how many people,” he said. 

Bailey’s opponents in District 5, Dexter Fisher and Matt Pulver, both said something should be done. “I wouldn’t want a 19-year-old college kid near anything,” Pulver said.

District 3 candidate Tiffany Taylor called rentals “a distraction” for kids and said rental neighborhoods need more policing. The other District 3 candidate, Asia Thomas, said that as an entrepreneur she aspires to own AirBNBs one day, but that maybe more hotels would be an answer.

This post has been update to correct Jones’ position on definition of family.

Asked about preventing “demolition by neglect”—when owners of historic properties allow them to fall into disrepair—Girtz pointed to ACC’s land bank authority, which has the ability to clear titles when multiple heirs inherit a building, and proposed expanding Historic Athens’ Hands on Athens home repair program for low-income homeowners to include interior as well as exterior improvements. He also said he would use “financial strictures” to force sales by “craven” developers who are intentionally letting a building crumble so they can build new.

Ross said she would encourage renovation rather than demolition. Coleman and Hall said they would direct tax dollars toward saving historic properties. “I think the city has enough money somewhere in a budget where we can get together and rebuild these homes,” Hall said.

Clarke County school board candidates all agreed on the importance of preserving historic schools, as well as teaching students the complete history of Athens—good and bad.

District 9 candidate Mark Evans, a Piedmont College education professor, criticized the Clarke County School District for tearing down older schools and said that the district needs a historic preservation policy. “That we don’t have a policy in place in 2022 is ridiculous,” he said. “It’s absolutely backwards in terms of how we present our community and how we teach our children.

“There are forces inside [CCSD] that really don’t care about our community,” Evans continued. “They don’t live here. They drive in, and they drive out. What they care about is their paycheck.”

Elder Johnson, a father and owner of an online tutoring service, talked about the importance of preserving physical spaces as a way to maintain a connection with ancestors. “We need a museum or some space where people can go back and experience memories,” he said.

Former art teacher Heidi Hensley, running in District 1, also said that physical spaces are important for communicating history and criticized CCSD’s habit of razing rather than renovating schools. Her daughter attended the old Gaines School while Hilsman Middle School was being renovated and preferred Old Gaines to the “stark, cold” new Hilsman, she said. 

District 5 candidate Tim Denson—an ACC commissioner running for school board because Republicans drew him out of his commission district—agreed that older buildings should be preserved. He said that CCSD is systematically destroying Athens’ Black history. The challenge, he said, is that historic value is hard to quantify. “If you don’t recognize that [value], you’re going to continue to have old schools torn down and new ones built,” he said.

Mayoral candidate Mara Zúñiga, Commission District 7 candidate John Culpepper and District 1 Board of Education candidate James Alexander did not participate in the forum. Zúñiga also skipped an Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement mayoral forum on Apr. 9.