By Nick Nunn staff writer

The Morgan County Board of Commissioners (BOC) voted unanimously to issue a conditional use permit to applicant Michael Vaden to operate a zoo on property owned by Mike Conrads on Highway 83 just south of Interstate 20. The BOC also voted in favor of rezoning the property for the zoo – tax parcels 037D-014, 038-003A, and 50 acres of 038-002A – from Agricultural Residential (AR) to general Agricultural (AG).

The approval of the conditional permit for the zoo on the Conrads’ property voids the conditional permit that was issued last year for the operation of a zoo on Highway 83 near Morgan County’s southern border. Michael Vaden, along with his business partner Bill Killmer, now have the permit required to begin work on the Georgia Zoo & Safari Park on the 395 acres owned by Mike Conrads. Eight conditions – originating from both the applicants and the county – were stipulated as part of the approval. The applicant asked that the requirement of barbed wire on the perimeter fence be eliminated, and they also asked that regular cattle fence be allowed where all domestic animals be kept. Vaden also asked that pervious parking be allowed for the parking areas be lifted in lieu of paving requirements for zoos.

They also asked that they be able to use existing buffers that exist just outside of the property boundaries with permission from the owners of the neighboring properties, and that they install buffers on other parts of the property only as they begin development of the phases that would require buffering in those areas. The staff further insisted that the Vaden receive written permission to use neighboring buffers from the respective property owners to assure that the existing buffers won’t be unexpectedly eliminated. Staff also asked that there be no public entrance from Clack Road and that the applicants have a policy for notifying the city of Madison in the event that an emergency ever occurred at the zoo.

All eight conditions were approved with the application. No public comments were made against either the rezoning application or the conditional use application at the BOC meeting. Property owner Mike Conrads spoke in favor of the rezoning application stating that the request was a “downzone” on the property and that, if the conditional use permit was not approved, he would be requesting a rezone to return the property to AR from AG. Commissioners Phillip Clack and Ron Milton asked for clarifications regarding the conditions requiring the applicant to construct the appropriate buffers on the property in the event that the existing neighboring buffer was removed.

Morgan County Planner Tara Cooner said that the requirement would adhere to the property in the event that it was sold and that it the planning department did not have any “terrible issue” with the condition. Killmer assure the BOC members that they would comply with any buffer conditions that were set out for them to follow. Vaden also added that, before bringing these applications to the board, they “diligently” worked to speak with all of the neighboring land owners in order for them to voice their questions and opinions. Mike Torino spoke in favor of the application, noting the “phenomenal educational base” that it would bring to the community and that it would bring growth to Morgan County while allowing it to maintain its integrity.

Bob Hughes, president of the Madison-Morgan Chamber of Commerce, said that the zoo would provide an “anchor” to Madison as a travel destination. He said that it would also provide more business for hotels and restaurants. “We’re very much in favor of this,” said Hughes. The Morgan County Planning Commission also approved both the rezoning application and the conditional use application unanimously during their regular meeting last Thursday, March 27. During the Planning Commission meeting, commissioners expressed some concern that rezoning the property to AG when no other properties zoned AG bordered on it could be considered “spot zoning,” but Morgan County Planning Director Chuck Jarrell said that, since the property is so large, the independent zoning will be able to “stand on its own.” Frank Wooten and Dr. Fred Bell spoke against the rezoning application as a predicate to the conditional use application. Vaden spoke about the plan to use the zoo as a means to “preserve and protect” the land that it will occupy, saying that its use as a zoo will ensure “greenspace in perpituity.”

Vaden also said regarding concerns about depending on buffers from neighboring properties that they would “jump in and build that buffer,” if it ever became necessary. He also explained their proposed fencing system of dual 8-foot perimeter fences, which are recommended by the USDA. “Eventually, that will all be high fence,” said Vaden. Ed Price, Sandy Cawley, and Mary Kay Blalock all spoke in favor of the zoo as members of the public at the Planning Commission meeting. Blalock, who stated that she previously worked for the Department of Natural Resources as a permit inspector for zoos, stated that the applicants’ fencing system is “over and beyond most of the other facilities in Georgia.”