Anglers worried about losing rights to Johnson's Lake
• Permit holders believe they bought lifetime memberships; however, no covenants existed in deeds during sale of property
By Parish Howard
Not far outside Warrenton is 75 acres of calm water surrounded by pines and hardwoods; a scenic manmade reservoir that Helen Johnson calls a “fisherman’s paradise.”
“It’s too beautiful to quarrel over,” she said Monday afternoon, standing at the boat ramp and looking out over Johnson’s Lake. And no, she’s quick to point out it is named after a different set of Johnsons.
Just a little to her right is an old weathered sign bearing at least two bullet holes. It reads “All members must have permits available for inspection.”
But it’s the newer signs, three of which have been put up in the last two months, and what they signify that has dozens of area anglers boiling mad.
A fisherman standing at the boat ramp can just make out the sign in a cove on the left a few hundred feet away. “No trespassing hunting or fishing.” A similar sign can be seen to the right, just beyond Ms. Johnson’s property, at the point before the lake’s dogleg reaches back out of view. A third sign, also new, carrying the same warning as these two, is in the middle of the lake, straight out from the landing.
Over the last few months a number of fishermen who have been dropping lines in Johnson’s Lake for years say they have had “run-ins” with some of the lake’s new landowners. Some say there have been threats, harsh words and notes left on vehicles. There’s even talk of gunfire, possibly into the air, although no one’s been hurt or could say for certain who fired it or why. It's one man's word against another's.
The fishermen say they bought shares in the lake, lifetime memberships they hope to use as long as they live. One area lawyer says they have no rights to the marked off areas of the lake. Another says he believes they probably do.
And while tempers appear to have cooled over the last couple of weeks with the future of open fishing uncertain, troubled water could be just around the bend.
Helen Johnson first saw the lake in 1977. Not long after that she bought more than four acres there along its south shore, a shaded hillside, high over the water adjacent to the landing.
She has a cabin there nestled into the trees, surrounded by the shoulders of rounded boulders. Nearly all of her six lots overlook the water. For years, it was where she came to relax. It’s where she met quite a few of the fishermen who bought lifetime memberships to fish the lake.
“I’d never heard any cussing or seen any drinking out there in all this time,” she said. “There wasn’t ever any trouble out here until all this started.”
That has been pretty much since the first of the year.
Department of Natural Resources Ranger Brian Adams has felt stuck between the two sides of this issue, the new land owners (who could not be reached or did not return phone calls for comment) and the fishermen.
“The landowners contacted us and told us that they wanted to close their part of the lake to public fishing,” Ranger Adams said. “So, that’s when we started looking into it to see if they could or couldn’t do that. Then, when so many people came out with their lifetime permits, we went back to the landowners and told them they needed to talk to a lawyer.”
Buddy Dallas, a Thomson-based attorney, said he received several calls about the lake and the issue of the permits.
He went to the Warren County courthouse and said that he could find nothing on record there giving the permit holders a right to fish on the property. Dallas said it would be different if there was a covenant in the property deed giving the permit holders rights to the property.
“There’s nothing there,” Dallas said. “Nothing’s been recorded. If there had been a covenant entered into by all of the land holders that were in agreement that gave one landowner control of the lake and then that landowner issued permits, then yes.”
But only if that agreement was recorded and a part of the deed the current landowner signed, he adds. Dallas said, in his opinion, the permits the fishermen hold are simply agreements.
“An agreement between two people who have an understanding is one thing,” he said. “It’s quite different from a covenant which effects the rights of the landowner.”
According to Dallas, when a piece of property is sold, a lawyer is generally hired to check the public record to see if there is anyone out there claiming rights to that property.
“That’s the reason we have an official registry in the court,” he said. “So we can record rights affecting real estate. Law professors have this saying that oral understandings are worth the paper they are printed on.”
The history of the lake, the documentation on how it was built and the details of the agreements regarding the sale of fishing permits appear to be lost to time and buried with the original owners and developers.
Ms. Johnson says she has looked, and will continue to look, but has not had much luck.
On a Saturday in late April about 25 people, each with his or her own well-weathered handmade lifetime fishing permit to Johnson’s Lake, gathered outside of Gibson to discuss the future of one of their favorite fishing spots.
They shared their stories of threats and their opinions of why they may be denied access to what they call some of the choicest portions of the lake.
They also talked about how they believe the lake was built. According to those gathered, about $10,000 came from the government in the form of a soil and water conservation grant, and probably an equal amount was borrowed by adjoining landowners. The permit holders are under the impression that the $100 lifetime fishing rights were sold as shares to help the landowners pay off the money they had to borrow to finish the pond.
Ms. Johnson, who was there for the meeting, believes the pond was built in 1951 or 1952 and after being filled and stocked, was probably opened to the public sometime between 1954 and 1956.
So far she has collected around 200 names of area individuals who claim to have bought fishing permits, but she said she would guess that there may have been as many as 2,000 permits sold between 1954 and the late 1980s.
“Everywhere you turn someone has got one,” she said. “They sold them all over Jefferson, Glascock, Warren, McDuffie and Columbia counties.”
Chester Chalker was one of the fishermen who organized the April meeting where they stood around looking at an aerial map of the pond trying to determine, in their estimation, how much of the pond could really be considered off limits.
“It was the money they got from us built that dam all those years ago,” Chalker said. “Our money built the dam and I don’t know why that wouldn’t give us a right to fish in that pond.”
The men gathered there passed around a cap and filled it with small denominations to raise the money to hire a professional to look into their situation and see if they had a case.
On their behalf, Louisville-based attorney Brannen Bargeron also visited the courthouse, but came up with very few leads.
“There had to be some kind of agreement between the property owners as to how this pond was going to be used,” Bargeron said. “But I don’t know if it was ever put in document form, and I’m reasonably sure it was never recorded.”
While attorney Buddy Dallas sees this as a matter of record, Bargeron feels that it’s not that simple.
Bargeron said that he isn’t looking at this case so much as a matter of determining what’s on record anymore, but he is looking at the current owner’s knowledge of use.
“I’m thinking this is more an open and notorious use of property case,” he said. “When they bought it, did they have notice that these people had been fishing there for years or had permits to? If so, then they shouldn’t be able to close it.”
If they were able to close it, Bargeron would classify that as a windfall.
“The property would be worth considerably more if others didn’t have the rights to it,” he said. “You’re dealing with the nuisance factor. Other people are always nuisances aren’t they? When you have other people on your property you have to deal with their candy wrappers, cigarette butts and bait containers.”
It’s Bargeron’s understanding that a surveyor for one of the property owners used a depth finder in a boat to find and mark what they believe is the center of Taylor Creek. And he said that if your deed says to the run of the creek, then a property owner could normally restrict other parties from fishing on his or her property.
The problem with bodies of water though is in policing them.
“When you’re talking about land under the water, you can’t really see tracks across it where people have been,” Bargeron said. “And if there is some kind of agreement regarding fishing rights ahead of time, well, that changes things.”
Dallas says that to understand why, in his opinion, the fishermen no longer have rights to certain portions of the pond, you have to view it as if there is no lake there at all. The landowners own the land under the water, he said and the permits were simply rights temporarily offered, whether they said “lifetime” or not.
“The property owners don’t want people they don’t know coming in and out of their property,” Dallas said. “When other people owned the lake, it was agreeable and as long as it’s agreeable that people fish there, then there’s no problem. But once the property changes hands or for whatever reason it is no longer agreeable, well, then things change.”
Ms. Johnson and the fishermen don’t buy that.
“The land underneath it is theirs, but not the water, not the fish.,” she said. “How can you tell which drops of water belong to who? Which fish are yours?”
Overall, she sees the debate over the lake and the permits as a moral issue.
“I feel so sorry for these old people,” she said. “I’ve talked to so many and I’ll tell you, I’ve seen some of them almost cry about it.”
The first day the notice ran in The News and Farmer/The Jefferson Reporter requesting that members of Johnson’s Lake contact her she says she had 24 calls about it.
“There were 18 calls the next day and God knows how many I’ve had since,” she said. “I don’t think it’s right for those people, and most of them are senior citizens now, to lose their rights to fish out there. It may be legally right, but it’s morally wrong.”
Bargeron said that he thinks it’s going to be hard for new property owners to restrict anyone who has recorded their license at the Warren County courthouse.
In another state there would be no question.
“In some other states anyone with a little bit of water frontage has rights to use the entire body of water,” said Toombs Circuit Senior Assistant District Attorney Bill Doupe’ Tuesday afternoon. “But that isn’t the case in Georgia.”
In this state, he added, property owners can generally control the water over their property.
“In any criminal case there has to be criminal intent,” Doupe’ said. “The issues here, the fishing rights and permits, everything is so murky and muddy that the courts are going to have to determine in a civil context whether any permit holder who goes out there to fish has criminal intent.
“A jury may find that someone holding a slip of paper may not have any criminal intent in going out there to fish.”
At the same time, he made it clear that the law is clear on a lot of other crimes and if anything else goes on out there, his office will certainly do its duty.
Until either the landowners or the fishermen take the issue to civil court then the issue is expected to float along like a loose cork.
According to Ranger Adams, he does not intend on pushing the issue.
“If a judge rules that the people with lifetime memberships can fish there, then DNR will ensure that they can fish there,” Adams said. “If it goes the other way and he says they can’t, well, we’ll have to do our job then, too.”
With no official law enforcing the trespassing signs, some fishermen say they will fish just like they always have.
“That means anyone wanting to fish out there is going to go head to head with the landowner,” Dallas said. “That’s another thing. Fishing is a recreation, you do it to relax. Why would anyone go somewhere they’ve been told not to, to relax? Sounds to me like they would be looking for a confrontation.”
Bargeron said he isn’t really sure what will happen next.
“It could be nothing,” he said. “If they start excluding people from fishing there or writing tickets, that could force things to begin. Then again, people could learn to get along. It has been known to happen.”
Penalties waived on industrial taxes
• Commission votes to forego fees, believes mistakes were unintentional
By Ben Roberts
Jefferson County Commissioners have decided to waive the penalties and interest for industries within the county that incorrectly paid taxes as far back as 2002.
In their regular meeting this month the commission voted unanimously to waive the penalty fees for industries in the county that failed to correctly report the value of personal property, such as equipment and office supplies, in their plants in the years 2002, 2003, 2004 and, for some, 2005.
According to the county’s Chief Appraiser, George Rachels, those discrepancies in values were found last year when the county hired a private firm to audit the county’s 18 industrial accounts because the Board of Assessors felt tax amounts were not being reported correctly.
Based on lists provided to The News and Farmer/The Jefferson Reporter, the total estimated taxes due with penalties is $348,985.63.
However, Rachels and Jefferson County Administrator Paul Bryan explained these figures included taxes owed to not only the county, but to the Board of Education, The Development Authority of Jefferson County, as well as any city taxes an industry might owe.
Rachels said the vast majority of that amount is actually tax dollars still owed and that the waived fees made up a much smaller portion.
Of the 18 industries, three had no corrections to their bills, while two had actually overpaid and have been issued credits for a total of close to $17,000.
Of the remaining 13, seven have appealed the audit results or are awaiting additional information and the final six have been billed for their new amounts.
Those bills, including the penalties, come to a total of $129,044.25. The penalties, however, only amount to just under $11,000.
During the commission meeting, Tommy New said the errors in reporting were based on bad information provided to the industries from their own financial advisors.
“I think we can give them a break on the interest and penalties because I do not think it was done intentionally,” New said.
“We’re not accusing anybody of anything, but they weren’t reporting the values correctly and that’s why we needed the audit,” Rachels said Tuesday.
According to Rachels, the audit was done by a private company because the Tax Assessors Office simply does not have the expertise to complete the project on its own.
Rachels said he has included funds for an audit of the county’s commercial accounts in the 2006-2007 budget for next year.
Bryan is quick to point out the forfeiture of penalties and interest is only for the last three year period. Industries would be penalized the fees for any discrepancies in their 2006 values, he said.
"Playing house" not acceptable for Glascock County schools
• System continues to investigate complaints that some students actually live in Jefferson, Warren and McDuffie counties
By Faye Ellison
Misleading information and a lack of knowledge about a county’s school system have led to rumors about why parents can be asked to withdraw their children from the Glascock County school system.
Recently, a parent of two former GCCS students said she was met by the Glascock County Consolidated School Principal Salley Garrett, outside of the school in March. The parent claims that Garrett informed her that the school had received a complaint that they did not live in Glascock County.
This recent incident left many students’ parents wondering about the rules regarding enrollment for out-of-county students from Warren, McDuffie or Jefferson counties.
In 2000, the United States Office for Civil Rights made a recommendation after an investigation centered on a complaint about white non-resident students from Jefferson, McDuffie and Warren counties, majority black schools, crossing county lines to attend Glascock County Consolidated School.
The school board voted to adopt the recommendation that with the beginning of the 2000-2001 school year, the parent or legal guardian must demonstrate proof of residency. This includes providing evidence of residency including homestead exemptions, utility bills, rent receipts and visual confirmation.
“In April of 2000, the Glascock County school system entered into a Federal Court Ordered Resolution Agreement with the Untied States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights,” said Glascock County Superintendent Jim Holton. “The resolution stated that the Glascock County School System would not allow students from Warren, McDuffie or Jefferson counties to enroll in the ...school system.”
Even after the ruling, Glascock County School officials are faced with complaints of families “playing house” to send their children to the school.
The recent incident has led to many rumors around the county about why families are investigated. According to Garrett, the school only investigates when someone complains to the school about out-of-county children attending classes.
The resolution agreement states that if the parent or legal guardian of the student is unable to obtain the documents needed to confirm residence, the parent or legal guardian, in the alternative, shall agree to permit a school representative to obtain visual confirmation of residence prior to enrollment.
Garrett went on to add that when a complaint is filed, proof of residence may require a visit by a designated official such as the sheriff.
The resolution also states that those parents or legal guardians were given until the beginning of the 2000-2001 school year to move to Glascock County and become residents. Thereafter, students whose Glascock County residency has not been confirmed had to withdraw from the Glascock County Consolidated School.
Garrett verified that after the ruling at the beginning of the 2000-2001 school year, there was a definite drop in the students enrolled in the county’s system.
The agreement does not apply to the children of full-time professional employees of the school district who reside in other counties. Their children may attend the Glascock County Consolidated School regardless of the county of residence. Also exempt are the children of paraprofessional staff employed by the school district. The agreement grants this exception due to the critical shortage of paraprofessionals needed for the classroom instruction.
The exemption, however, does not apply to the school district employees who do not provide direct instructional support to students such as clerical staff or bookkeepers.
The Office for Civil Rights added in the resolution agreement that the school district will provide them with a report concerning impact and effectiveness of implementation of this agreement, including information on the residence of students who are children of non-resident employees and on students who establish residence in accordance with the resolution.
On Nov. 5, 2002, former Superintendent Dorothy Reynolds submitted a report to the Office for Civil Rights commenting on the students attending the school from Warren, Jefferson and McDuffie counties.
During that school year, there were only five students from Jefferson County, four for employees and one as a hardship case because the student was being targeted (physically assaulted) in his home district.
There were no students from McDuffie County.
Twenty-seven students from Warren County were attending Glascock County Consolidated School with three of them being white and children of employees.
The other 24 were black students from Warren County, for which the Office of Civil Rights also gave an exemption.
After they sent their reply to Reynolds, they closed their files with respect to the case.
“In December of 2002, the Office for Civil Rights indicated in a letter to the Glascock County Board of Education that the Court Ordered Resolution Agreement would not be enforced on black students from Warren, McDuffie or Jefferson counties,” Holton said.
Currently the school system gives parents of children from Warren, McDuffie or Jefferson counties two weeks to either comply with the resolution agreement or either make arrangements to have their children educated elsewhere and withdraw the children from the school system.
Garrett said during the 2005-2006 school year, the school received seven complaints with only one case of the parents deciding to withdraw the children from the school instead of proving residence in the county.
“The Glascock County school system investigates all complaints of out-of-county students,” Holton went on to add.
Memorial Day services planned
• Event at Jefferson County Courthouse Sunday, May 28, and American Legion Post 229 hosts event Tuesday in Wrens
By Jessica Newberry
As traditional summer baseball and cookouts come into full swing, plans for honoring the nation’s veterans in keeping with age-old American tradition are in the works.
The Friends of Historic Downtown Louisville will conduct a Memorial Day ceremony on Sunday, May 28, at 2 p.m. on the Jefferson County Courthouse lawn.
The event will begin with a color guard procession of the Jefferson County High School JROTC under the command of Cmdr. Charles Lewis.
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Gen. John R. Galvin will give the keynote address. Galvin is a graduate of West Point and also holds a master’s degree in English from Columbia University. His early career included work in parachute and light infantry units and command at all levels.
He served 15 years in Europe, five years in Latin America and two year as a staff officer in plans and operations and as a commander of the First Battalion, Eighth Cavalry in the Vietnam War.
Galvin served as NATO’s top military commander in Europe during the five years that ended the Cold War and, in June 1987, was appointed Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (NATO) and the Commander-in-Chief of U.S. Army, Navy and Air Forces in Europe.
He has also published several books including The Minute Men, a study of the first battle of the American Revolution; Air Assault, an analysis of the development of air mobility in twentieth century warfare; and Three Men of Boston, a study of the political events leading to the American Revolution.
Following Gen. Galvin’s address, Donald “Sarge” Hartley will then dedicate flags purchased in honor of local veterans.
These 3x5 foot flags will also be used at future Memorial Day celebrations and are available for $18 through Thursday, May 25. As part of these tributes, the veteran’s name, rank and years in service will be read during the ceremony.
To order a tribute or for other information, contact Jon Westdahl at The Firehouse Gallery at (478) 625-0387.
The John Frank Raley American Legion Post 229 will observe Memorial Day on Tuesday, May 30, with a service beginning at 11 a.m. at Wrens Memorial Cemetery.
The ceremony will include the standard military procedure for observing the day as well as a special tribute to deceased veterans from World Wars I and II.
Commander Tip Carroll will preside over the ceremony and will read the list of deceased veterans' names.
Retired Army Sergeant Reeves R. Parish will be the main speaker for the occasion. Parish, a native of Wrens, has retired from an extensive military career during which he served in both World War II and the Korean War.
While fighting in the 35th Infantry Division in Europe, Parish was wounded and evacuated to the United States. He remained in the army and was in Japan when the Korean War started.
As a medic, Parish was sent into Korea as part of a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH). After the Korean War, he went to Fort Benning and on to Walter Reed, the most advanced medical school for an enlisted man at the time. He worked in the Presidential Suite of the hospital.
Parish then became a First Sergeant at Fort Sam Houston, retired from this base and returned to Wrens where he currently resides.
As part of the program, he will be speaking on duty, honor and country and citizens’ obligations to protect their country.
Applications for engraved bricks for the new Veteran’s Park to honor those who have served in any war will also be available at the ceremony.
For more information, contact Speakie Stephens at (706) 547-2666.