Emotions ran high, framing the year’s first meeting of the Newton County Board of Commissioners (BOC) on Tuesday night.
It began with Commissioner John Douglas, District 1, making it known he was outraged by a tie-breaking vote on a rezoning appeal cast by Chair Keith Ellis. It ended with Ellis demanding an explanation from Aaron Wadley, newly appointed County Engineer, about the multiple leachate leakages at the landfill over the holidays.
Following Wadley’s report, Ellis then spent at least 15-minutes speaking out in support of privatizing the landfill and lecturing those in attendance about why the Solid Waste Citizens’ Committee recommendations to create a Solid Waste Authority was short-sighted.
Vote on Autumn Trace appeal
The meeting Tuesday night kicked off with the BOC retiring into Executive Session to consider possible legal action. During a discussion of the proposed 116-acre Autumn Trace subdivision on the east side of the county, Commissioner John Douglas, District 1, stepped out because he had testified against granting the appeal at a public hearing in 2015.
The developers of the 116-acre subdivision near Hwy. 278 and Deep Run were appealing the decision of the Planning and Zoning Board and the Zoning Appeal Board to deny the Autumn Trace plat for 57 lots. The boards denial was based on the requirements of the Alcovy Watershed District, which mandated two-acre plots in the proposed subdivision’s zone.
The two-acre mandate would reduce the number of lots available for development from 57 to 33.
Upon the BOC’s return from Executive Session, Douglas announced he would be leaving to celebrate his wife’s birthday.
He did, however, stay for the BOC’s vote on the appeal filed by REO Funding Solutions and CAL Land, the developers of Autumn Trace. Commissioner Levie Maddox, District 5, made a motion to deny the appeal, saying later, “I have not received one email or phone call saying, ‘I want this.’ In fact, it’s been very much the opposite.”
The motion was seconded by Commissioner Lanier Sims, District 2. Both Maddox and Sims voted in favor of the motion, which would deny the appeal. Commissioners Nancy Schulz, District 3, and J. C. Henderson, District 4, voted against the motion.
Chair Keith Ellis broke the tie by voting against the motion to deny.
Schulz then made a motion to approve the developer’s request for an appeal. The motion was seconded by Henderson. Both voted in favor of the motion, while Maddox and Sims voted against it. Again, Ellis broke the tie, and voted to support the motion, granting the appeal to the developer.
An outraged Douglas said, as he finished packing up to leave, “Now that you’ve screwed the east side [of the county] and now that you’ve pulled the rug out from under the staff and under me, I’m going home [to celebrate his wife’s birthday].
“I will not forget this,” he told Ellis.
In an interview with The Covington News, Douglas said later, “I had made it absolutely clear to the chair and the rest of the board that I did not want it approved, that the people who lived in the area along Hwy. 278, particularly those living in the two subdivisions – Deerfield and Deep Step – that bookend the proposed subdivision, did not want it, yet Keith took it upon himself to single-handedly vote in favor of the appeal.
“Keith and I talked about his on the phone and I mentioned it could be a tie vote, and I would appreciate his support in denying the motion,” he said. “He never said one word to me about [what he planned].”
Douglas did say that he learned later that in Executive Session, when he had excused himself during a discussion of the appeal, Ellis had indicated he would support a motion to approve the appeal, “but he never had the courtesy to tell me that.
“I felt like the people [on the east side], me and the staff were stabbed in the back,” he said.
History of development
Originally approved by the county in 1998, the preliminary proposal made by Patrick and Associates to develop a subdivision of 116 lots was granted. Development of the plat never happened and the zoning variance expired after two years.
In 2003, the BOC adopted the Alcovy Protected Watershed District, which established a two-acre minimum for lots lying within the district. When the new owner of the property, Newton One Properties, LLC, submitted plans for the defunct Autumn Trace subdivision, Director of Planning and Development, Marian Eisenberg, told the owners the new lots sizes needed to e two acres as required by the watershed district regulations.
One year later, Newton One presented a preliminary plat for Autumn Trace for 57 lots with 48.76 acres set aside as open space. In 2006, the developer was granted a Land Disturbance Permit, and the project began developing roads and infrastructure. Development halted and a final plat was never submitted, according to a memorandum from Judy Johnson, County Zoning Administrator.
In April 2015, REO Funding Solutions and CAL Land resubmitted a preliminary plat for Autumn Trace. Zoning found a conflict between the requested number of lots – 57 – and the two-acre minimum average lot size required by the watershed.
The developers filed an appeal, which was denied by the zoning appeal board. The developer’s appealed to the BOC, which came to the commissioners at their Dec. 1 meeting.
The item was tabled until the BOC met at its first meeting in 2016, on Jan. 5.
Leachate field leakage
At the close of the meeting, following the citizen and commissioners comments, Ellis called Wadley to the podium to question the leachate leakages at the landfill over the holiday.
Wadley said there had been several issues at the landfill, primarily due to the heavy rainfall, a Christmas Eve lightening strike and electrical and mechanical failures. He told the BOC that these failures led to leachate spills that overflowed the unlined holding basin and eventually, spilled into the Yellow River.
“It is a 20-year-old system that can’t keep up with the current demands of the landfill,” Wadley told the board. “The rainfall [estimated to be between 12- and 13-inches] overwhelmed the landfill. The liner pumps couldn’t keep up.”
A system engineer, he said, would need to be brought in to look at the pumps and determine what would be needed to repair them.
In the meantime, he reported, emergency generators have been running the pumps.
The spillage was reported to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD). Wadley warned the BOC that there would be EPD fines assessed and would be making recommendations on the corrective action needed. He also said testing showed that while the spillage did show there were high levels of metals that are normally high in the area, other metals were absent.
Wadley also warned that the county had already spent $350,000 of the $400,000 budgeted for Harbin Engineering’s services. The engineering firm is contracted by the county for solid waste consulting and environmental monitoring.
In the wake of Wadley’s report, Ellis spent 15- to 20-minutes lecturing the commissioners and citizens about privatizing the landfills, saying that if the landfills were run by private companies, there would be no more spills into the Yellow River. He said there had been proposals from solid waste engineering firms that would pay for the clean-up of the landfill without the county having to spend any additional money.
“The landfill continues to be the hole in our bucket,” he said.
He then challenged the recommendations of a Solid Waste Citizens’ Committee, which recommended the creation of a solid waste authority, similar to the Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority, which would oversee the county’s operation of the landfill. The committee had also recommended the eventual closures of the convenience, or neighborhood recycling centers, moving to curb side pickup of trash and recyclables.
Ellis has long been against closing the convenience centers and been for privatizing the landfill.