By Patrick Yost
After a 90-minute hearing on a request to allow a conditional used permit for a zoo on more than 30 acres of River Farm Road, Ellen Warren, chairwoman, Morgan County Board of Commission, broke tradition.
As chairwoman she is not tasked with offering motions either for or against a request.Tuesday at the regular meeting of the Morgan County Board of Commissioners she did.
“I strongly recommend this project,” she said.
Two other members of the board, Ron Milton and Donald Harris, agreed. Commissioners Andy Ainslie and Phillip Clack did not.
The motion passed 3-2 and cleared the way for property owner Michael Vaden and business partner William Killmer to begin the process of constructing and operating the controversial facility off Georgia Highway 83, south of the Williams Dairy.
While the conditional use permit was approved it was not without detractors, primarily two property owners near the site.
In fact one neighbor, William and Alezia Michelle Pettit, filed suit against Vaden on July 23 to stop the proceedings. The Pettit’s attorney, Michael Daniel of Prior, Daniel and Wiltshire told the commissioners that the request infringed on his client’s property rights. “Should economic impact overcome a person’s right to his property?” Daniel asked the board. “When he (Pettit) moved to this area the property was not zoned as a zoo, it was zoned agricultural.”
“Not only is it improper,” Daniel said of the request, “It is in violation of the law.” At its June meeting, the Morgan County Planning Commission in a 6-2 vote approved the conditional use permit.
Commissioner Harris said the affirmation of the planning commission weighed heavily in his affirmative decision. “There’s no need to have a planning commission if you’re going to go against what they do. In my opinion the only time to do that is when a great mistake is made. I don’t think a great mistake was made here.”
Adjacent property owner Ken Kuperburg told the board that the project would have a negative impact on his property. Kuperburg said he and other family members had purchased land in the area both as an investment and as a possible future home sight. If the permit was approved, he said, he was “stuck with a piece of land… that I don’t know what to do with.”
“The property was not zoned that way when I bought my property… I’m against it.”
Both Vaden and Killmer and the Pettit’s had legal counsel at the hearing. Bob McCauley, from the law firm of DuBose, Massey, Bair and Evans, represented Vaden and Killmer and said that the economic impact, the wealth of experience and letters of support the project had received helped validate the project. “They will actually end up rendering a whole greater than the sum of parts,” McCauley said. He also said the suit filed against Vaden was “frivolous.”
That suit, according to court documents, sought in part to thwart the project based on residential covenants restricting raising fowl for food.
Daniel said after the meeting that the Pettit’s had dropped the suit’s covenant clause, but still reserved the right to move forward with legal opposition to the project.
Both Daniel and McCauley blamed each side for a lack of cooperative negotiation after the suit was filed.
In speaking against the application, Clack sided with landowners in the area. “It’s a residential area. I just don’t think these people thought this would happen,” he said. He also chastised Vaden for not making greater efforts to notify nearby property owners of his plans. “If you can get letters from all over the world in your support but not from two neighbors?” he said. “That bothers me.”
In making her motion Warren said she believed the project would have minimum impact and would be positive for Morgan County. “I think it will be an asset to agri-tourism in an agricultural area,” she said.
Votes by the Board of Commissioners
Yea’s: Ellen Warren, Ron Milton, Donald Harris
Nay’s: Andy Ainslie and Phillip Clack