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Mayor, Commission Hear from Citizens on Jail Art, Development

Spend $50,000 of tax money for public art at Athens-Clarke County’s long-planned new jail? Hell no, say many citizens who have contacted their commissioners about this apparently burning issue. “I’ve received phone calls, emails, U.S. Mail letters and stops on the street,” longtime Commissioner Kathy Hoard said at last week’s meeting of the ACC Mayor and Commission, from “people I don’t generally hear from—people who have remained silent on the hundreds of issues” the local government has considered over the years. Hoard said that she personally favors installing art in public areas of the jail—and would be willing to contribute her own money to it—but will vote against public funding, given the “overwhelming” opposition.

“A representative’s responsibility is not only to make decisions based on personal views and life experiences—along with information and study materials provided—but also to listen to the people,” she said. But commissioners are divided on the question. “We’re not talking about making the lives of our prisoners happier,” said Commissioner Ed Robinson, but about making Athens more attractive to visitors (the jail is visible from planes landing at Athens-Ben Epps Airport, Robinson noted, although not from Lexington Road). “Athens is a pretty ugly town to drive in,” he added: “It’s one step up from Augusta.” The commission voted against funding, but the question will be decided next month after Commissioner Jared Bailey requested a reconsideration of the 6–4 vote, having misunderstood the motion.

The meeting was well-attended by citizens who oppose Selig Enterprises’ proposed retail/apartment development adjacent to downtown. The project was not on the commission’s agenda (and it’s unclear how commissioners would stop it anyway), but opponents filled the chamber, and some spoke during the open comment opportunity at meeting’s end. Others held signs (“Think Outside the Big Box”) and stood in opposition.

“I fell in love with this town,” said Ryan Fritz, decrying the “injustice” of “putting a Walmart in between Jittery Joe’s and Weaver D’s.” Attorney Russell Edwards presented a petition of over 17,000 names of people who oppose a downtown Walmart. “We can do better,” he said, while acknowledging “it would be a big convenience to many residents.” He asked commissioners to “pass legislation to compel Selig Enterprises to shrink the size of their anchor tenant.” Others also said the footprint is too large, and cited Walmart’s low pay scale, its reputation for destroying local businesses and for abandoning stores quickly (as it did its Atlanta Highway store).

Selig has shared its general plans but has not filed for county permits (except a demolition permit for buildings on the site, and that was held up for 90 days at the behest of commissioners Alice Kinman and Kelly Girtz). Can commissioners stop the project, or modify it—even presuming a majority of them want to? “It’s hard to answer that question,” ACC Planning Director Brad Griffin told Flagpole, because Selig has not yet submitted its plans for county approval. But the proposal Selig has publicized is “less than half the size of the Walmart on the Eastside,” he noted, and is well under downtown’s limits for building size—which allows buildings to be multiple stories in height (up to 100 feet), and to total five times the square footage of the land parcel they’re built on. Downtown zoning requirements haven’t changed significantly for a decade, he said.

If Selig’s plans meet current zoning regulations—unless they ask for specific “variances” or exemptions—the question would never even go to the commission, but would be approved automatically. The developer will have to submit a study of projected traffic impacts—and pay for additional traffic lanes or signals, if needed—but that’s a matter to be decided between Selig and the Georgia Department of Transportation, not Athens-Clarke County, Griffin said.

And because Selig is preparing its plans based on what Griffin’s department has told it about ACC requirements, the county attorney believes the developer already has “vested rights” to proceed with its plans—even though it hasn’t yet submitted them—and ACC could not legally change the requirements this late in the game. In any case, changing downtown’s zoning requirements would require Planning Commission consideration, and would take at least 90 days, Griffin said; if Selig submitted its plans in the meantime, the existing regulations would certainly apply. Have any ACC commissioners asked the planning department about how zoning requirements might be modified? They have not, he said.

Also last week, several commissioners asked for the commission’s standing Legislative Review Committee (which consists of half the 10 commissioners) to determine whether community gardens—and the sale of vegetables from them—are legal under county ordinances. If not, the ordinances might be changed. “My own vegetable garden might be against the ordinance,” said Commissioner Alice Kinman.