There was a packed house at the commissioners’ meeting last week as folks waited on the verdict for several zoning issues, including the zoo. Photo by Les Bessenger

There was a packed house at the commissioners’ meeting last week as folks waited on the verdict for several zoning issues, including the zoo. Photo by Les Bessenger

By Stephanie Johns

Staff Writer

Members of the Morgan County Commission unanimously voted to table a request from Michael Vaden and Bill Killmer for conditional use for a zoo during their July 2 meeting. They will reconsider the request during their August meeting.

The Meeting

During the July meeting Vaden shared his experience with zoo animals, noting that he has “raised alligators to zebras” for the past 35 years. “This is what I’m about,” he said. “It’s my passion.” He said they plan to use the zoo to give back and educate others.

“I already have visitors,” he said, speaking of his aviary. “It’s like a mini-museum.”

Killmer said the zoo would be “agritourism at its best.”

He shared that they would follow the highest standards and inspections.

“Safety’s going to be very important,” he said, adding that they will continue their efforts to preserve species and operate a green business.

Concerns About the Zoo

The motion to table was prompted by one of the proposed zoo’s neighbors, William Petit, and his lawyer, Michael Daniel.

Daniel shared concerns Petit has about a decrease in his property values should the zoo be allowed next door to him and also concerns about safety and disease pertaining to zoo animals. He then questioned how hunters in the area would be affected if the zoo goes in the agricultural area.

A letter from Allen and Julie McGinnis of McGinnis Realty and Appraisals, shared by Daniel, states that the McGinnises “feel a zoo in this location of Morgan County is detrimental to home and land owners. … This will also negatively impact sales in the general area, driving down values for our current residents.”

A three-page “2008 Georgia Data Summary: Enteric (Gastrointestinal) Parasitic Diseases” document Daniel shared indicated that one disease in particular, cryptosporidiosis, may be a concern for those who visit petting zoos.

As stated in the document, this disease causes “diarrhea after drinking water contaminated with the parasite” and “Persons at increased risk for cryptosporidiosis include … people who attend petting zoos …”

Regarding hunters, Daniel wrote in a later email, “Seems the big issue will be how density in that area will impact hunting. I don’t think anyone knows the answer to that question.”

Daniel also raised concerns about the impact the zoo might have on local traffic and on the county’s health department.

Daniel suggested Vaden and Killmer relocate the zoo to a commercial area within the county to address these concerns.

The Applicants’ Response

During the meeting Killmer read from a report and shared “parks are considered smart growth” and they “increase property values.”

As to safety, Vaden shared in an earlier interview that he and Killmer have a safety protocol they created based on those used by established zoos.

When later asked how the zoo plans to prevent water contamination, Vaden replied, “Know that clean water and a healthy environment and animals are of the utmost importance to us! We are in a ‘green business’! As such, it is in the best interest of all, including the zoo’s priceless and endangered animals, for us to work closely with Morgan County to utilize BMP’s (Best Management Practices), including recycling, composting, and otherwise protecting the environment.”

Killmer told commissioners he has asked at least one hunter if the zoo might negatively impact his hunting and was told it would not.

Bob Hughes, president and economic development director of the Madison-Morgan Chamber of Commerce, said the economic mixture of businesses in the county is “very balanced for a rural community.”

“The zoo will help in the hospitality, retail, and agribusiness legs of that,” he said, adding that it will draw people from the Southeast, the nation, and the world. “It will maintain the character of Morgan County but still provide additional jobs and income.”

When asked, Morgan County Planning Director Chuck Jarrell said the zoo would be an “economic boon” to the county and recommended commissioners approve the request.

Vaden estimated that the zoo will eventually employ up to 70 people, not including accessory employee needs it may have.

When it comes to traffic concerns, Vaden had the following response: “While traffic is of concern for us and our neighbors our investigation show that it will not be an issue. The Morgan County Comprehensive Plan considers GA HWY 83 south of I-20 to be a Minor Arterial Highway, capable of handling 20,000 to 50,000 vehicles per day. To put that into perspective, Interstate Highway 20 is an Interstate Principal Arterial Highway capable of handling 100,000 vehicles a day. GA HWY 83 coming into the square in Madison carries 7,000 vehicles a day. That is over three times the traffic experienced by the most successful zoos in the country. Hard Labor Creek state park absorbs over 300,000 visitors per year with barely noticeable traffic consequences.”

Regarding the impact the zoo will have on the county’s health department, Vaden shared in a later email, “No more than any other development of comparable impact on Health Department resources. The projected County revenue that will be created by zoo operations and employment will increase the taxes now generated by the zoo site.”

Compromise Possible?

Commissioner Ron Milton asked Petit and Daniel whether anything could be done to change Petit’s opinion about the zoo.

Petit at first said no, adding that Vaden and Killmer had not approached him in the beginning with their plans for the zoo. He then added that he would be interested in talking to them about his concerns.

Petit said he did not have adequate notice to consider his concerns prior to the meetings held about the zoo.

Daniel agreed, “We need time to do our own research. They’ve had months, we’ve had two minutes.”

Members of the Morgan County Planning Commission voted on June 27 in favor of recommending both the proposed zoo text amendment and the conditional use of a zoo. Their vote was eight to one in favor of the amendment and seven to one in favor of the conditional use of a zoo.

Then it was put on the commission’s agenda for July 2.

Senior Planner Tara Cooner said that a sign was posted on the proposed zoo property 17 days prior to the meeting and that advertisements were put in the newspaper as well.

Petit said that he had not seen the sign on the property as he does not drive that way regularly.

Prior to tabling the request for conditional use to allow a zoo, commissioners unanimously approved a text amendment to include language pertaining to zoos in the county’s zoning ordinance.

Applicants React to Tabling Decision

Following the commission’s vote, Vaden shared his and Killmer’s reaction via email regarding the commission’s decisions.

“We are very excited about the board of commissioners approving zoos for Morgan County,” he wrote. “The educational opportunities, creation of jobs, and positive economic impact will be enormous!”

He added, “We are working on a few more details before the next meeting, and will hopefully get the final approval to bring a world class zoo to our county.”

Also, “Our goal is to preserve and protect endangered and threatened species. We need to move as quickly as possible before anymore species disappear.”