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COUNTY-BY-COUNTY REPORTS:

NO. 3: TOWNS COUNTY, GA

 

The man in the driver’s seat of Towns County government goes to work to try to prevent further harm to the Blue Ridge Mountains and Lake Chatuge

 

By Tom Bennett

Special to Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition, Inc.

 

     Hiawassee, Ga., August 31, 2007 – Bill Kendall is the sole commissioner of Towns County and he is 70 years old.  He could be gardening, playing gin rummy or golfing.   Yet he’s reporting to work at the courthouse here on Berrong Street every work day.  A lot of problems are facing this scenic county, which is high up in the mountains at the top of Georgia.  A problem to be solved needs to take a number and get in line.  Kendall says it is because of his love for young people that he is especially worried about the harm being done to Lake Chatuge.

 

   “I’m truly concerned about what we’re going to leave this oncoming generation,” he told me today in the second interview I had with him.  “If we don’t do it right, they won’t recognize it.”

 

   Many of the permanent residents of Towns County have nothing but contempt for land use planning and zoning.  That much has been documented.  So this rock-solid opposition to positive change can be quite a roadblock.  Yet I am going to list below just some of the things that Commissioner Kendall is doing to improve water quality in the 13-mile-long artificial TVA lake.

 

·        To show his unqualified support for helping the lake, Bill Kendall has put the county government squarely on record in support of the March 2007 Lake Chatuge Watershed Action Plan, published by the Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition.  (Yes, the city and the non-profit organization spell differently the Cherokee name.)

 

   “The coalition and TVA developed the action plan cooperatively with input from citizens, community leaders and local officials,” states the latest press release posted on the new web site:  www.townscountyga.com

 

   “Commissioner Kendall is committing his support and that of all facets of Towns County to work with Callie Moore of the HRWC to develop this plan,” the press release continues.

 

   “It is imperative that we protect this ‘crown jewel of the mountains’… The ecological health of Lake Chatuge determines the economic health of Towns County.”

 

·        To tackle the problem of clear-cutting and heavy vegetation removal on ridges, Commissioner Kendall adopted (that’s what happens in a sole-commissioner county, one man adopts) a Mountain Protection Ordinance in September 2006.  You can read it on the new web site.

 

    The ordinance defines a “protected mountain” as one at 2,200 feet above mean sea level with a percentage slope of 25 percent greater for at least 500 feet horizontally.  Before you do any grading, you must turn in a site plan and get a mountain permit.  The planning commission has 45 days to review your application. Roads are to be designed to minimize the potential for landslides, erosion and runoff.  No more than 50 percent of existing trees taller than eight inches may be cut down.   Single-family dwellings are limited to 35 feet in height.  The commission can issue a stop-work order if there is a failure to comply.  Anyone refusing to do so is guilty of a misdemeanor and if convicted shall be fined up to $1,000 a day.  During several days of interviewing I never heard anyone say this has been enforced, but it’s early.

 

·        To take on the fouling of the lake with human waste, Commissioner Kendall has created a committee of citizens and public officials.  It is trying to do something about the ongoing problems associated with the sewer system infrastructure.  It’s not working well, and the city needs to “implement a proactive program for handling reports of wastewater leaks and spills,” according to the Lake Chatuge Watershed Action Plan.

 

   The foul water committee has met once at this writing.  “There wasn’t anything decided, and so we’re going to have another meeting,” Commissioner Kendall told me.  For the time being, if you’re skiing out there on the lake and go under the water, I wouldn’t take a swallow if I were you.

 

·        To enforce the building codes, Commissioner Kendall has hired an inspector. “He’s also trained in erosion and sedimentation,” Kendall said.

 

·        To teach his county to stop building impervious surfaces that shoot toxin-laced water directly downhill into the lake, the commissioner has paved the parking lot of the county recreation beach with the porous system called Geoweb.  It is “strong enough for dump trucks loaded with gravel to drive over but permeable so that storm-water flows straight down through it to the ground beneath, rather than running quickly over the structure, into the ditch and then to the lake,” according to the Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition newsletter.  This work was made possible by a grant from the Tennessee Valley Authority.

 

·        To create what would be quite a unique amenity up here in the mountains, Commissioner Kendall and the planning commission amended the subdivision ordinance in March 2007.  While he stressed that it was not a requirement and “completely voluntary,” he revised the ordinance to encourage 3-acre minimum lot sizes within developments.  A board of citizen volunteers has also been appointed to design an “Appalachian Conservation Community” designation for developers that choose to follow additional site conservation guidelines.

 

·        To keep a freeway from being paved through here, Commissioner Kendall is on record opposing the talked-about Savannah to Knoxville route called I-3, and named in honor of the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart near Savannah.  Now there’s a name to adopt as a way to start the lobbying process for paving a freeway through the conservative South!

 

·        Finally, Commissioner Kendall demonstrated the new emphasis on the environment when he brought students from Shannon Floyd’s class at Towns County High to a commission meeting at which land developers would be present.

 

   The students have a presentation in which they talk about the need for green space – the ample amount of it you’d have with minimum three-acre lots.

 

   They recite the quotation that is in the foreword of Zell Miller’s 1976 book, “The Mountains Within Me.”  It is attributed by Miller to 1836 surveyors.  (It’s my own observation, and not his nor the students’, that John Shaw and George Kellog were sizing things up for whites after the Cherokee Indians had been displaced.)

 

   The surveyors wrote in the Cherokee Indian Property Valuations of 1836: “Here is perhaps the most splendidly striking mountain scenery upon the face of the globe – an amphitheater of probably 30 miles in circuit is formed by the Brasstown mountains and encircling a beautiful and fertile valley about four miles across, interspersed with limpid streams and making upon the whole a picture unsurpassed and rarely if ever to be equaled for the wildness and grandeur of its scenery.”

 

‘THEY HADN’T COLLECTED ANY TAXES’

 

     Bill Kendall was the school superintendent of Towns County for 26 years, retiring in 1998.  After the 2005 death of Jack Dayton, a popular, 16-year sole commissioner, Bill Kendall decided to seek the office.  He won, defeating five others.  Seven months went by until the county achieved the replacement of its only commissioner.

 

   “A week after Kendall took over, the county bookkeeper gave him bad news,” Cameron McWhirter wrote in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution edition of Jan. 22, 2006.  “Towns County had only $7,000 left in the bank, and $525,000 in outstanding bills due in three days.  Kendall scrambled to borrow money from local banks.”

 

   I asked Kendall this week if repayment of the debts was going well.

 

   “Yes,” he said.  “They hadn’t had a tax digest that previous year.  They hadn’t collected any taxes.  We’re operating in the black now.”

 

‘THEY HAD TO CALL OUT THE NATIONAL GUARD’

 

     In his book “The Mountains Within Me,” Zell Miller wrote:

 

“Zoning and planning are anathema to the independent mountain spirit, but love of the mountains and the desire to protect them are even stronger sentiments which, I believe, in the not-too-distant future will prevail in the form of laws which will give state guidance and assistance to local government in planning and directing growth and development for progress and prosperity in keeping with local wishes while protecting and preserving nature’s balance and beauty.”

 

     However, this vision was never realized by the one-time Young Harris College instructor.  He was mayor of Young Harris; state senator from Towns County; lieutenant governor; governor; and U.S. Senator from Georgia.  Despite all that inner-circle activity by its most famous politician, Towns County is not a Georgia Department of Natural Resources Local Issuing Authority, according to the Georgia Soil and Water Conservation Commission training handbook.  So I asked Commissioner Kendall, “You can’t issue state Department of Natural Resources permits, is that correct?”

 

  “That’s correct,” he said.

 

     Towns is the site of one of the best state golf getaways owned by the state of Georgia and operated by DNR. It is the Brasstown Valley Resort in Young Harris.  Yet the place where it is located isn’t an LIA, protecting state environmental statutes and rules.  In fact, Towns County’s mountain protection ordinance has some rules for “state agencies,” instead of vice versa.

 

     Three different persons I interviewed recall that “Bill Smallwood” was the name of a man who lived on Frog Pond Road here in the early 1990s, having relocated from Florida.  He knew about land planning and zoning, he perceived a need for it here, and so he led in talking up and finally in drafting a 66-page Comprehensive Land Use Regulation for Towns County.  Everyone who remembered this spoke of it as a time when the county dodged a dread bullet.

 

     Bill Smallwood’s draft land-use regulations were aired in a public hearing at the courthouse.   The outcry from citizens was so great and there was such a commotion that “they had to call out the National Guard to quiet things down,” according to Eddie Bradley, a Towns County farmer and member of the board of directors of the Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition.

 

   “He was trying to tell you exactly what you could do with your land, and with the folks around here, that doesn’t sit well,” Debbie Phillips, a librarian at the Towns County library, said.

 

    No one by that name is in the phonebook and I can’t locate the man who had the temerity to advocate land use planning.  I did find the 63-page draft document.  It is on the reference shelf of the PINES (Public Information Network for Electronic Services) mountain regional library in Young Harris.   It has provisions that are commonplace.

 

    I believe Smallwood’s experience shows how vigorous employment of our 1787 First Amendment speech freedom is still in the offing for the nine Georgia counties still using the sole-commissioner system of government.  The other 3,057 counties in the United States have multi-commission systems, according to the National Association of Counties in Washington, D.C.

 

     “There is a feeling here that if there were more people (on the commission) to have to go to get funding or approval for something, and if there were a tie, you’d still have one person making the decision,” said Elaine Delcuze of the mountain regional library in Young Harris.

 

‘OH, THAT’S THE MOUNTAIN WITH THE CUT-OUT ON IT’

 

     You can see Bell Mountain from many vantage points as you drive and hike here in Towns County, and there is an unsettling aspect to this peak.  It has a pit carved out of the top, a brazen excavation in “the most splendidly striking mountain scenery upon the face of the globe.”  Mountaintop mining has occurred, of the type common in the U.S. coal industry and that causes tremendous erosion, according to the New York Times.

 

    The reference shelf at the regional library in Young Harris also has the document, “The Bell Mountain Silica Deposit of Towns County, Georgia.” Here is a record of just how indifferent to the Blue Ridge Mountains and Lake Chatuge two men could be.

 

     They were Vernon J. Hurst of the Geology Department of the Area Redevelopment Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce and George R. Horton of the School of Business Administration of the University of Georgia.  They wrote this 1964 booklet as a guide for someone to go 3,360 feet up to the top of Bell Mountain and make a lot of money taking out the silica.  They had core samples taken by the ABC Drilling Company of Greenville, S.C.  There is not a word in there about protecting the mountains or the lake, and they say on the second page they don’t know where anyone could sell the silica once they gnawed it off the mountaintop.

 

   “A large market does not now exist for the Bell Mountain silica,” Hurst and Horton wrote. “The best potential market is the cast iron trade which offers a large market at prices around $30 a ton.”

 

    Such ascendancy of economic over environmental concerns that prevailed about mining then now can shift to the arena of mountain homebuilding unless people join non-profits like the Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition and courteously go to work to protect things.

 

    The Mauney family of nearby Murphy, N.C. was investors in its talc mine, and it was they who tried to succeed with a mining operation on Bell Mountain in Hiawassee, according to Councilman Phil Mattox of Murphy.  Strip mining for copper also was going on in nearby Copper Hill, Tenn., so all-out stripping away of the surface of the earth was a routine thing in this area.  Yet the Mauneys or whoever it was that went after the silica failed to succeed.  It is now 42 years later, and the ugly scar of their work remains in place.  It’s talked about all over Georgia as a rueful reminder of poor environmental practices in this state, and yet in the county where it is located, you still can hear it defended.

 

     “All my life I remember that gap being up there,” Librarian Debbie Phillips told me.   “It’s kind of a landmark. Everyone says, ‘Oh, that’s the mountain with the cut-out on it.’  Well, at least there’s not a gazillion houses up there.”

 


OTHER COUNTY-BY-COUNTY REPORTS:

 

April 7, 2008 – Clay County, NC Petition  filed to halt expansion of Shewbird Mountain mine

 

Feb. 27, 2007 – Cherokee County, NC  Health Board appointments end abruptly and an official fears effluent from improperly installed septic systems could travel "almost immediately" into the Hiwassee River

 

July 2, 2007 – Union County, GA  Union County's Lamar Paris unifies 16 north Georgia counties to gain relief from mandatory 150-foot stream buffers  

 

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Tom Bennett of the Martins Creek community near Murphy, N.C., is a retired newsman and Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition member/volunteer. E-mail him at farblumtn07@gmail.com

 

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