River groups merging to protect Ogeechee basin
• Groups make announcement at annual meeting; local developer concerned about implications
By Parish Howard
Four hundred and sixty-five years to the day Hernando de Soto first encountered the Ogeechee River, a group of people passionately interested in the river's conservation held its annual meeting on the cypress-shaded banks near Midville.
It is largely the wave of agricultural, industrial and environmental impacts de Soto's footprints heralded that Friends of the Ogeechee River (FROG) concerns itself with today. Since de Soto's visit in 1540, millions of people have fished its waters, cut its timber, farmed its flood plains and made their homes along its banks.
In a time when industry is moving into less developed areas and the state legislature is debating a number of development vs. environment issues, FROG’s members say they just want to protect, preserve and improve the water quality of the river they love, to preserve it for future generations. But an announcement they made that day has some local developers concerned about the group’s intentions, its power and the methods the group may use to make sure environmental regulations are followed.
FROG grows teeth
At its annual meeting April 24 FROG’s president, John Lewis announced that it would be merging with the Canoochee Riverkeeper, another grassroots environmentalist group.
“It’s all one watershed, one river system, why not one organization,” Lewis told the members of both groups who gathered for the Ogeechee River Basin celebration.
James Newsome, a FROG board member, said Tuesday that he sees the merger as a natural evolution of both groups.
The Canoochee River flows into the Ogeechee just north of Richmond Hill.
“What we had was two grass roots movements realizing that they were essentially doing the same thing,” Newsome said. “Why duplicate infrastructure? How much more effective can we be if we work together?”
Friends of the Ogeechee River originally grew out of a small group of people who got together in 1999 to form Citizens Against Sludge Pollution in an attempt to block a biosolids application permit for an aquifer recharge area in Jefferson County. FROG was formed in 2000-2001 as the group attempted to broaden its scope in regards to both the types of environmental issues it wished to take on and with the hopes of attracting members from other areas.
While the group has issued position statements against the disposal of sludge and the development of regional landfills in counties in the Ogeechee watershed and supported a group of citizens in Taliaferro County in their fight to prevent a landfill’s development at the river’s headwaters, some of its more active members feel FROG’s capacity to be effective has to some extent been limited by the fact that it is composed entirely of volunteers.
With the merger, that changes.
“I really believe this merger is going to be a good thing for us,” said Geary Davis, a Board Member and co-founder of FROG. “It’s going to give us teeth.”
The merger means adding a paid staff and executive director, something the Canoochee Riverkeeper organization already has.
“The EPA has given us a set of laws to help,” Davis said. “We can be a watchdog. Now, as a part of the River Keeper alliance, we have technical and legal resources and litigation is a possibility.”
“They’ve fought court battles and made an impact,” Lewis told the FROG members at the annual meeting before introducing the Canoochee Riverkeeper’s spokeman. “Now we’ll have one voice to protect our entire river basin.”
According to Chandra Brown, The Canoochee Riverkeeper’s full-time paid advocate, her organization was created through conservation litigation.
In 1998 three ladies, sisters from Claxton noticed that their river, which had been rich and brown in their childhood, had turned green. Once they found what they believed to be the cause, they wanted to stop the pollution.
Brown said the sisters brought a clean water act case against Claxton Poultry. While they eventually settled out of court, one of the provisions of the settlement involved the creation of a river keeper, $30,000 was set aside annually for five years to provide for a group to police and protect the Canoochee River. Brown was the recent grad student from Statesboro who was hired.
“One of the coolest things is when you put the boards of these two groups together in one room, they 100 percent agree on what their mission is,” Brown said. “There is no question on what these people want for the river.”
Both groups, she says, are definitely interested in a full time advocate to raise awareness for the river.
“It’s the advocate’s job to pull together information on the river, to be the voice of both the people who use the river and the voice for the river itself,” Brown said, describing the position she has held as Canoochee Riverkeeper. “It’s the public figure, the lightning rod. This is the person who goes on record saying that no, we don’t want this for the river or yes, we do want that.”
Over the past four years the Canoochee Riverkeeper organization has responded to citizen complaints, worked on sustainable development plans, helped fight off two landfills hoping to locate in the basin and worked statewide with other conservation organizations on a number of projects.
Lewis said the groups have worked together before. But now, by joining with Brown’s group, the new entity will become a part of the national Riverkeeper’s Alliance.
“Terry Backer, the Vice President of the Water Keeper Alliance and the Long Island Sound Keeper, was here to take part in our strategic planning meetings for the merger,” Brown said. “He was so glad to see they were all on the same page.”
Brown says Backer also told them not to join the alliance unless they were prepared to litigate.
“You have to be willing to use every tool in the toolbox to protect the river,” Brown said. “Litigation is one of those tools. You shouldn’t use it all the time. It should be a last ditch effort, but still, you have to be willing and able to do so when it comes time.”
While FROG members are applauding the leverage these affiliations bring their group, it is comments like these and references to litigation and law suits that have some local developers and foresters wondering about what this group of volunteers in its backyard may be evolving into.
Society of American Foresters (SAF) certified forester, real estate broker and developer Teresa Haythorn is not happy about the merger. In fact, she will tell you she is scared.
When she first heard about FROG she thought it sounded like a great idea. She saw it as a group of individuals in love with one of the area’s greatest resources. She saw it sponsoring river-clean-up days.
“I’ve probably spent more time on the banks of the river than most of the group’s members,” Haythorn said. “I’ve walked it cruising timber, waded through beaver ponds and ate lunch on the banks in some of the most beautiful places that no other person has probably ever seen in my lifetime. How could I not be more concerned about the river? Not only have I seen it and love it, but I make my living there. I tell you, I’d much rather be down there than in my office.”
Lately, her attitude toward the group, to which she happens to have paid her dues to become a member, has changed. That change, she thinks, came with power.
“FROG has turned into an elitist group,” she said. “They’ve hijacked the law for their own self indulgence. Everyone should be scared. Instead of chaining themselves to trees, they’re chaining themselves to the law.”
In April, Lewis, FROG’s president, drafted a letter to the Evironmental Protection Division (EPD) asking them to look into several possible violations at development in the Midville area. Haythorn was the project’s developer.
“Environmental laws, in context, are good,” Haythorn said. “But taken to the level they are, they’re killing us. It’s slow strangulation. The EPD is set up as its own personal gestapo. They can do anything they want. If you change your oil in your drive way and spill it, you’ve just violated the law.”
Haythorn said she did not realize any laws or regulations were being broken and wished the group had notified her first, before bringing in the EPD.
She’s afraid that the environmentalist group will end up policing the river too strictly and as a result, she forsees diminished property values, bad advertisement in the community for homes along the river and plunging resale values. She believes she walks the middle ground between the extremists. She wishes the group would turn its focus away from litigation and “policing” and focus more on education and community enrichment.
“Our river is a beautiful gift from God and our children don’t know anything about it,” Haythorn said. “Educate them. Make them good environmentalists. I consider myself an environmentalist. I know how this incredible spaceship of ours works. This group has a wonderful opportunity to cross the bridge from focusing totally on the environment, to looking more at man in the environment. How the two can and should interact. It has to start with education and outreach. Not by turning our property owners in to the government.”
She encourages the group to extend their hands to foresters and others by offering seminars and workshops for developers to bring them up to speed on the laws.
“Put on continuing education classes for developers and loggers,” she said. “Let’s make sure the right thing gets done without the penalties, without the nightmare. Spend your money teaching and not policing and we will work with you.”
“The laws are there to protect the community, the streams and the water quality,” Brown said. “If they aren’t enforced then what’s the point? If our developers are doing what they should and following the law, then they shouldn’t have anything to worry about. Developers and industry have to follow the laws just like every other citizen.”
FROG’s leaders say they are not anti-development.
“We’re not eco-terrorists and we’re not against development,” Lewis said. “We’re all for good development that is good for the river.”
He went on to say that he feels education is indeed one of the group’s primary responsibilities.
“One of the most important things we do is educate people about the river,” Lewis said. “About how beautiful it is, about how many fish you can eat without getting mercury poisoning, about what the rules are for development, erosion control and timbering along its banks.”
Brown says that she hopes the new organization will be able to take a more pro-active role, getting the word out about the regulations protecting the environment so they can spend more time on the outreach and less on policing.
“We don’t want to restrict all development,” Brown said. “What we want to restrict is predatory land uses. There are people out there who prey on rural counties.”
According to Brown, there are people, organizations and corporations who target poor, rural counties, like many of those found all along the Ogeechee River, knowing that their local officials may not have the ordinances and zoning in place to properly protect themselves.
The two groups' boards will continue to meet until the merger is completed, hammering out the new group’s bylaws.
“There are a lot of concerned, intelligent people in both these organizations, and the talent between the boards, not to mention the groups, is amazing,” Newsome said. “And they aren’t getting anything from this except the satisfaction of thinking they have helped preserve some part of this for future generations.”
Wrens P.D. recognizes gang activity
• They're mostly just wannabes," Hannah said, "but if they want to call themselves a gang and act that way, then we'll treat them as one."
By Parish Howard
He has seen the “East Side Boys” graffiti, heard the rumors of gang activity and after an incident this past weekend when a 27-year-old man was beaten by a group of 16-19 year-olds, Wrens Police Chief David Hannah is ready to start taking it seriously.
“They’re mostly just wannabes,” Hannah said Monday, “but if they want to call themselves a gang and act that way, then we’ll treat them as one.”
For the first time to his knowledge Wrens P.D. plans to charge nine individuals with “participation in criminal street gang activity.”
According to the incident report, the Wrens P.D. received a call Friday evening in reference to a fight in Pine Valley Apartments.
“At the same time, dispatch advised officers to report to Green Meadows Apartments in reference to a fight in that area,” the report reads.
There they found the victim, a 27-year-old resident of Hannah Branch Road.
“The victim indicated that he was beaten one time in Pine Valley by a large group of people,” the report reads. “The victim was able to escape and ran to Green Meadows Apartments. Prior to reaching Green Meadows the victim was beaten again in the wooded area between Kings Mill Road and Denny Road.”
A witness claimed to know all of the assailants by name.
A short time later officers picked up a juvenile and a 17-year-old at Pine Valley who had been named in the altercation. After conducting interviews, several of those mentioned admitted they had taken part in the beating.
One of the assailants told officers that the altercation began when “he flipped a table over during a card game argument,” the report reads. Since the house’s occupants did not want any fighting inside, the victim and and a 17-year-old resident of Kings Mill Road went outside to fight.
“[The original assailant] states that he did not realize that ‘It was going to get outrageous,’” the report reads, and goes on to say, “all of the participants in the beating are commonly known as the East Side Gang.”
Just four days earlier, at least four of those arrested allegedly participated in a gang fight at a location right outside of the city limits on Old Stapleton Road. They later returned to a Fleming Street address and were arrested there and “charged with disorderly conduct for failure to leave in a peaceable manner when requested to do so by the owner and law enforcement.”
According to the report the four referred to themselves as the East Side Boys and admitted they went to the Old Stapleton Road address “to ensure that ‘their boy’ had a fair fight and that no one else jumped on him.”
“This is not the first time they’ve beaten somebody up,” Hannah said. “I’ve been seeing more and more of this gang activity over the last couple months.”
The first time the assailants were charged with battery.
“I wasn’t really thinking of them as a gang,” he said about that earlier charge. “I wasn’t really thinking they were going to be a big problem.”
Hannah said he first began to hear the gang mentioned a few months ago during the investigation of a Jan. 17 armed robbery of the South Jet Foods convenience store.
The more people he talked to, the more he heard about this group of young men who called themselves either the “East Side Gang” or “East Side Boys” in the Pine Valley Apartments area of Kings Mill Road.
“They’ve started marking buildings and painting on the sidewalk,” he said. “I’ve had more and more reports over the last three months, but really nothing much until then. I decided that if they want to keep this up and terrorize people, making them afraid of them, then we will treat them like a gang, we’ll charge them that way.”
If convicted of “participating in a criminal street gang activity,” any of these teenagers could face fines of up to $10,000 and up to 15 years in prison. The chief said that he knows the penalty is tough, but he believes that involvement in gang activities is a serious matter.
“This is the first time we’ve charged anyone with this,” Hannah said, “but I’m pretty sure it won’t be the last time.”
County plans to add user fees to cover landfill costs
• User fees will apply to every residence in the county's unincorporated areas; tipping fees could also increase
By Ben Roberts
Residents of unincorporated areas of Jefferson County will see a change on their tax bills this year - a $100 user’s fee for the county landfill.
Commissioners have sought a solution for some time as to how they might charge county residents in unincorporated areas for their share of garbage taken from county dumpsters to the landfill. At Monday’s meeting, county administrator Paul Bryan recommended that a $100 users’ fee be assessed to every residence in the county’s unincorporated areas or that was not currently paying for trash pickup of some kind. While the fee applies to every household in those areas, it will appear as an additional charge on property tax bills sent to the owner of each residence.
For example, if someone owns four houses in unincorporated areas, but rents three of those homes out, he or she will still be charged $400 on their tax bill.
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While commissioners approved the fee by a vote of 4-0, each expressed their dislike in doing so.
“I don’t like it one bit,” said Tommy New, “but I don’t see how to do it (rein in landfill costs) any other way.”
“We don’t have a choice,” echoed Gonice Davis.
Commissioner Sidney Norton was absent from the meeting as he continues to recuperate from injuries suffered in an automobile accident last month.
Commissioners will give the vote final approval at next Tuesday’s regular commission meeting at 7 p.m.
In his explanation of the fee, Bryan told commissioners their goal was to reduce the landfill’s financial strain on the county budget derived from ad valorem taxes. In adopting the fee, landfill costs would be more appropriately shared by all county residents.
Bryan figures there are currently 4,328 homes in unincorporated areas, resulting in $432,800 in additional revenues. That figure combined with projected fees and revenues from the sale of recycled goods amounts to budgeted revenues of $791,262 for the landfill in 2005-2006.
While those single-year revenues won’t cover the cost of construction for the new cell to be built later this year, they are expected to make up that difference and cover expenditures in the three to four following years that the cell should last.
According to Bryan, Avera is the only incorporated municipality that does not currently charge its residents directly for trash pickup. He said they would have to form an agreement with the city as to how they would assess that charge to Avera residents.
Commissioners also unanimously approved Bryan’s request to compare current landfill tipping fees to those of surrounding counties in an effort to decide if Jefferson County should increase those fees. Such an increase would result in even more revenue towards landfill expenditures.
Discussion of maintaining roads was again a topic for commissioners as they considered requests from residents on both Gough Road and Wren Road.
Gough Road residents are asking for the road to be paved from its beginning at Middleground Road to the Burke County line. Bryan explained they’d have to get a current cost estimate to move the Georgia Power transmission lines that run along Gough Road as well as deeded right-of-ways from the residents. Bryan said that while the county has not been deeded the right-of-way on Gough Road, they maintain it by prescriptive rights, meaning they have maintained the road as it sits for over seven years.
In the case of Wren Road, which is not a public road, the commission unanimously voted for residents to have the right-of-way lines surveyed and drawn up by a surveyor at their own cost. They may then submit their request for the county to take over maintenance on the road at that time.
In other business to be addressed Tuesday night, commissioners are expected to name appointments to the county Department of Family and Children’s Services board and the Ogeechee Community Service board.
They will also give final approval to transferring the former Marshal’s Department budget of $116,470 to the civil division of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department.