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Staff Editorials

From weddings to retreats, clear rules, standards needed

In what has become a trend, the planning commission most months hears a request for a special use permit from someone seeking to open a public venue – usually tied to the wedding business.

The appointed commission members then wring their hands over the lack of guidance in forming coherent and uniform decisions on these “special uses.” 

Then they either approve or disapprove, in a fairly arbitrary manner.

Last month, they tabled a recommendation on a permit for a property in the Henderson Mountain Road area presented with the unusual twist of tree house lodging.

The previous month, they approved a permit for a bed and breakfast to host small weddings, and the occasional meeting or fundraiser dinner in the Long Swamp Church area in a home where the owners would continue to live.

But, they voiced a negative opinion on a much larger wedding venue on Philadelphia Road. Different results even though a couple of their concerns (accessibility to emergency crews; limits on the venue’s growth; signage for out-of-area motorists; general traffic in the area) applied to both.

They have approved the special use permit for an eco-friendly farm-lodging operation in the Whitestone area, even though planning director Richard Osborne cited this as having a poor access road for emergency crews. They approved a wedding venue on Cove Road that backs up to Big Canoe, but this one led to a slap on the wrist for the county’s whole zoning appeals procedure from the Ga. Supreme Court.

During the July meeting, planning commission members Lee Thrasher, Clayton Preble and Bill Cagle all made similar statements about the lack of any “template” (Preble’s word).

And they appear to still be at square one for this template. The only hard and fast rule for a special events/wedding venue is to shut down live music/outside events by 10 p.m. (We’ll wager their sole rule will be a huge enforcement problem, trying to turn out a wedding barn full of paying guests that early.) 

Commission member Thrasher remarked in the July meeting that his “gut instinct” is they need something more. Thrasher’s gut is correct.

Among the template/ standard procedures that are needed:

• Categories - The commission could save a lot of time to formally recognize that a bed-and-breakfast in a private home and 300-person capacity venue need different levels of scrutiny from the start.

• Provisions to limit future changes/expansions – It never fails to come up that neighbors comment they don’t have a problem with the proposed plan/owner but what happens if the venue changes hands and it goes from a small yoga retreat to the next Burning Man Festival? This is a valid question. The commission needs a legal means to allow a business to move ahead with some plans without giving them carte blanche for anything they want down the road.

• Farms and festivals may both be good, but need to be judged differently.  The commission needs to go further to refine/separate agriculture versus agro-tourism. Agro-tourism has been targeted as a great way to spur commerce in rural areas. But, for land-use planning purposes, there is a vast difference between a pick-your blueberry farm and a winery that hosts festivals.

• Roads and infrastructure – Commission member Harold Hensley made the observation that it seems every road in the county is too crowded, with traffic moving fast. Commission members should be presented with actual vehicle numbers, crash reports and a professional opinion of the road condition. 

Similarly with water/infrastructure issues, there is either enough capacity or not, and a report from the water department should settle that.

The possibility of these agro-tourism venues developing  nice, unique settings, attracting out-of-town spending and creating jobs makes this discussion a worthwhile endeavor. But they can’t be allowed at the cost of sacrificing the quality of life of the neighbors. It’s a tough job to find the right balance. We do not envy the planning commission this task. Let’s hope that the county will better prepare them with a template to make good decisions.

 

Local news is our bread and butter

By Dan Pool, Editor

In last week’s edition Tim Schutter queried us in a letter to the editor on our  stance on the statement that journalists are the enemy of the people made by the president.

Upon further thought and staff discussion, we feel that our original response did not explain adequately why we generally avoid commenting on national politics.

So here is an expanded explanation of our position in response to Mr. Schutter’s excellent question.

I generally steer our editorial page away from national news in favor of local issues for a couple of reasons based on conclusions  drawn after years working at this local paper.

1. There is an ample amount of coverage of national politics available to everyone, all the time, literally everywhere you look. 

The national papers cover it; there are television stations that broadcast it all day, every day without pause in an unceasing torrent.

If you want discussion, coverage, opinions on national issues look anywhere. Go to a restaurant and it’s on the television there; look down at your phone and it’s there. Check the Braves score online and you’ll get 32 updates on national news. 

Knowing our limitations, I doubt there is anything new, insightful or different we could offer to the national scene that is not already expressed somewhere in this cacophony of views. Frankly, I want the Progress to offer something different.

 

2. There is no one else commenting or covering our city councils, planning commissions and events inside the county. Last week for example we both praised the city council and commissioners for something as simple as holding a joint meeting and then went on to point out they really ought to do it more often. 

Local is our focus. It’s what we know about, can offer insight on and what interests us as a staff. A pronouncement from our commission chair carries a lot more weight on the day-to-day activities here than some acidic barb hurled in Washington. 

I believe that if people paid a little more attention to what is happening here and less on the innuendos and name-calling in Washington we’d all be better off — maybe we’d have nicer parks (which we have editorialized for numerous times) or a comprehensive infrastructure plan. Maybe more people would take time to ponder the opioid crisis right here in this county and develop additional local resources.

Accurate news coverage and thoughtful commentary on the local level is our bread and butter. I have confidence we do it well and that it makes a difference. When we run stories about efforts to raise funds for some person’s medical needs or a group’s work to address a social problem, we can make a difference.

 

3. Finally, I plead limited ignorance to the national hubbub. There is a breaking headline constantly coming from Washington. I don’t have the time or any special resources to study them — to assess exactly what Mr. Trump may have said or the context. While I support my fellow journalists, before I jump on any bandwagon, I would feel the need to personally dig for the source and, frankly, I rarely have the luxury of the time necessary to sort through the claims and counterclaims.

 

I hope this better explains our position. And I thank the writer of the letter to the editor last week for taking us to task for not articulating it more clearly in the first place.

We may occasionally address a national issue, particularly if we feel the subject hits home in Pickens County. And we welcome others to bring their perspectives in the Other Voices column or as letters to the editor. But for the most part, our view is focused on the area between Talking Rock and Nelson, Big Ridge and Yellow Creek.

We welcome questions or comments regarding any of our coverage decisions. Look at the contact information below. 

Talking & thinking about Jasper

By Dan Pool

Editor

 

It seems that quite a few people from all walks of life have had downtown and the whole of Jasper on their minds lately. Both at the paper and around town, I have heard a number of discussions on what’s wrong with Jasper.

Not that these opinions have been sharply negative, but the general consensus is that Jasper is lacking something. One person referred to it as a “vibe,” which Jasper just doesn’t have downtown compared to Blue Ridge or Ellijay or even Ball Ground.

It is hard to define what gives an area a positive vibe. If you ask people what they liked about other towns, they invariably start by describing the businesses there or an event they hold.

Rarely, did anyone cite any cityscape element. No one complimented any other city’s sidewalks or how they arranged their plants.

The infrastructure of Jasper is not lacking. The sidewalks are nice, wide, smooth; there are brick accents and plants and trees. There is new asphalt on Main. There is a monument on the north end of town and a green space on the south; a scenic “Old Jail” and an attempt at a fountain.

The city plans to add downtown bathrooms and the merchants are looking to add lights. As far as the public areas go, what more can we do? Literally. Readers ask yourself are there features you have seen elsewhere that might convey a better vibe in Jasper and are feasible to bring here? [e-mail at bottom to comment]

We can’t replicate the Spanish Steps of Rome on Depot Street but perhaps the city/merchants/Chamber could do more with signage or other affordable touches? Please offer suggestions. [e-mail at the bottom]

One missing element often identified in Jasper is the people, as in the public, the shoppers, window shoppers, diners and pedestrians.

On the weekends, Ellijay and Blue Ridge are packed – too crowded, while Jasper often has a near-deserted look. City council member Kirk Raffield told me how he was sprucing up the grounds at the Old Jail when some out-of-towners paid us a compliment of sorts -- they liked Jasper because the streets were so empty. It’s true. On a Sunday afternoon you may have Main Street to yourself. 

One finer point to consider is that both Blue Ridge and Ellijay have large crowds of tourists holed up in mountain/river/lake cabins to draw from. People are visiting the areas north because of natural assets we simply don’t have in Pickens and there are not hundreds of rental cabins up in our hills. 

Jasper could add more street signage, better planters and more attractive signage but without those big natural draws we aren’t going to see that heavy traffic stopping here.

Some may read this and come to the conclusion that we favor  doing nothing. But that is not our position at all.

We believe there is always a place for improvement. Anything that makes Jasper better is a great service for all of us who live here – even if it doesn’t lure crowds.  Significant improvement is still laudable, even if it doesn’t bring a tide-change in the vibrancy of our town overnight. 

 

 

 

City of Jasper and County should get together more often

Last week, county commissioners held a called joint meeting with Jasper City Council and Mayor John Weaver to discuss details about the Grandview Lake reservoir project. Nothing unusual there, right? It makes sense for two government entities to meet about one of the most important developments in Pickens County’s water supply in decades, right? 

Of course it makes sense for them to meet, but this meeting of the minds was highly, highly unusual - we can’t recall a single time county and city officials have met publicly to discuss anything, just the two of them, in at least 10 years. This fact was pointed out by two council members that night. Council member Sonny Proctor encouraged similar meetings in the future, while council member Kirk Raffield called it an “historic” event he hasn’t seen in his lifetime, going so far as to ask for a group photo to document it.  We spoke with a person closely involved in the project and he called the discussion “excellent,” commenting that having two government bodies hash out ideas and differing opinions is the “best way to do business.”  

We agree, and we’re honestly not sure how the city and the county have functioned so long without getting together. Jasper was identified at the recent Comprehensive Planning meetings as the driving force in Pickens County, with most commerce and infrastructure located inside the city limits, and there needs to be open and frequent communication between them and the county. Like Raffield said, “These two entities sitting together, things can only get better for our community. This group serves one community. That’s important for us to remember.” 

The benefit of such a meeting was made apparent not 10 minutes into discussion when some long-held misunderstandings were cleared up about the Grandview Lake project. The mayor thought the county wanted to sell water they will draw from the lake to customers inside the city’s service delivery area, which was not the case and resolved in a matter of seconds. 

A few examples of where more frequent discussion between the two entities could be beneficial are: 

• Parks - the city has one woefully underused park (Doris Wigington) in dire need of improvements, and the county has a park (Roper) that’s always too crowded;

• Road problems inside Bethany Moorings subdivision, which are currently located in the county but because of a complicated lawsuit are slated to be annexed into the city;

• Sewage treatment, which the county doesn’t have, and which the city wants to expand its facility but is struggling to justify the massive cost at this point.

The fact that a council member wanted to take a photo at last week’s meeting to document the unusual occurrence is telling. By no means are we proponents of meetings for the sake of having meetings (heaven knows we attend too many ourselves), but periodic meetings between city and county leaders including planning and development directors and other department heads can do nothing but good things for our community. 

 

In praise of air conditioning

While on Jekyll Island in early June at the annual Georgia Press Association convention, a colleague asked a group whether we would prefer to be a member of the 21st century middle-class or among the upper class of the 19th century when Jekyll Island was in its heyday. Seeing the restored “cottages” as they called them that the likes of William Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Joseph Pulitzer and Richard Crane Jr. built on the island, one might have chosen to be in the upper-class of the late 1800s. While they may have had servants to wait on them hand and foot, yachts and mansions (their “cottages”), we all voted solidly to be in today’s middle class. 

The reasoning? Air conditioning. Regardless of how many people you could afford to pay to bring you lemonade to cool you down or wave hand-held fans around you all day, it doesn’t beat the ability to sit comfortably in our temperature-controlled homes and offices during August.

The man who invented modern day air conditioning, Willis Carrier, is a genius. While most people may not know his name, it is one to remember and applaud. 

As we head into August with what feels like constant 100 percent humidity coupled with 90 degree days, you can see why some historians have argued that the air conditioner was an essential pre-requisite for development in the South. 

Carrier, a young engineer in the summer of 1902, was sitting in a foggy Pittsburgh train platform when he realized he could dry air by passing it through water to create fog. Doing so, according to Carrier.com, would make it possible to manufacture air with specific amounts of moisture in it.

Within a year, he completed his invention to control humidity – the fundamental building block for modern air conditioning.

Brilliant.

Early on his invention was called a “weathermaker” and it changed the world, especially for those of us in the American South. That one invention morphed into something that allowed us, mere humans, to control the weather – at least the weather inside - by simply pushing a button or adjusting a dial. Talk about far-reaching and unexpected effects. While we’ve always been able to handle frigid north Georgia winters by warming ourselves by the wood fire, cooling down wasn’t so easy until Carrier’s invention took off.

Back in the day it was only flour mills and places like the Gillette corporation, where excessive moisture rusted the razor blades, that used Carrier’s invention. Later on, movie theatre owners figured out they could install air conditioning and it was as much of a selling point as the movies themselves. Imagine sitting in a windowless, hot, body-filled room in the summer months prior to air conditioning. Not happening and not surprisingly, most theatres shut down in the summer. Today, it’s almost essential to take a light sweater when temps inside a cinema are near-Arctic.

Thankfully for us in the South, today most everybody gets to enjoy chilled, humidity-free air inside their homes, offices and cars. It’s a luxury tycoons in the early 1900s never even imagined.

Lots of people say prolonged exposure to A/C erodes our natural ability to deal with the heat and that may be the case, especially if you talk to anyone over the age of 85 who may not have had A/C their entire lives.

    Being without cool air from a vent makes us temperamental and edgy, not to mention it takes the fun out of sleeping, forcing us to toss and turn all night.  

So J.P Morgan can have his yacht and mansions. We’ll take air conditioning any day because it’s the best since thing since BEFORE sliced bread.