2014 was a year of excitement and change—both good and bad—in Newton County, where storms raged, underdogs triumphed, and at least one sword was drawn. Here are the top stories from the past 12 months, including a few that will continue to have repercussions into the New Year.
Jan 21: Grabbing a Bite:
The Mystic Grill, fictional hangout for the characters of Vampire Diaries, opened in real life on the Square in downtown Covington, serving upscale Southern cuisine such as catfish, fried chicken, shrimp and grits and sweet potato fritters. The new restaurant is a welcome addition to the community, with a well rounded beer and wine list and a few specialty drinks, such as the “Vampire Bite,” that pay homage to the show on which it’s based. Since the Vampire Diaries began filming in Covington, thousands of fans have flocked here to admire the antebellum architecture and tour the setting of their favorite supernatural soap opera, bringing in millions in tourism revenue.
2. Jan. 28: Snowpocalypse Now
A massive snowstorm paralyzed Atlanta for two days and shut down much of Newton County, although the local transportation department did an excellent job keeping the roads open, especially for emergency vehicles. The storm raised the recurring debate over Atlanta’s sprawl and congestion, a result of a decentralized system where the city and surrounding metro area is split between 24 counties.
3. March 20: Cannabis for the Cure
A bill to legalize cannabis oil for medical use cleared the Georgia State house of representatives only to die in the Senate in March after an unrelated bill was tacked on. The bill’s passing would have saved one local Covington family, the Hopkins, from relocating to Colorado, where medical and recreational marijuana is legal, for the sake of their daughter, Michala. Two medical marijuana bills are slated for debate in the state legislature early next year: Representative Allen Peake’s bill would create an infrastructure for the cultivation and processing of cannabis oil, while Senator Curt Thompson’s bill would approve medical marijuana for smoking and ingestion for a broader range of conditions.
4. April 23: Locked and Loaded
Governor Nathan Deal signs into law the Safe Carry Protection Act of 2014, called the “guns everywhere bill” by critics, allowing individuals with concealed carry permits to bring their firearms into churches, bars, government buildings and some parts of airports and schools zones. Some of these places, including bars, churches and government buildings, can choose not to allow firearms, and signs explicitly forbidding them have become a common sight around the state.
5. Jul 23: Swashbuckling and Confused
A Covington man was shot by a police officer after he threatened him with a “medieval” sword. Neighbors described the man, Julian Leon Faulkner, 44, as troubled. On July 23, he was seen wandering in and out of traffic on Brookwood Circle near Legion Drive swinging his blade as passing cars. The case is currently under investigation with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and no charges have been brought yet.
6. August: Cracks in the dam
The proposed Bear Creek Reservoir came to the fore of local politics again starting in August when the planners applied to move the dam by 600 feet, reopening public debate. The project has faced criticism from local residents who question whether the dam will be needed soon, if ever, given the construction of another large dam in neighboring Walton County and recent population projections that have been revised downward Newton County’s population growth rate. The waters became muddier still when The News reported that Schnabel Engineering had donated to the campaign of Commissioner Lanier Sims during the most recent election cycle, not long before the company bid for a contract to carry out a safe yield analysis for Lake Varner for $86,000. The Water and Sewerage Authority stepped in at the last minute before the Board of Commissioners voted on Schnabel’s bid, offering to carry out and fund the surveys itself. County Attorney and water consultant Tommy Craig had said that a new safe yield analysis was needed because one had not been done since the 2008 drought of record. However, in December, the Board of Commissioners heard from an engineer who had carried out such an analysis at Craig’s behest in 2009 that included the updated data, raising questions as to why the report was ignored or misplaced.
7. Sept 17: Our future’s so bright…
After some 10 years, the 2050 plan became much ado about nothing after the Board of Commissioners responded to popular pressure and scrapped it. The plan sought to lay out a development plan for the county that included some new zoning restrictions that upset some residents. Specifically, the plan would have set a minimum of 20 acres per single family home in some parts of the county. Although the most controversial aspects of the plan were scrapped in August, the plan was rejected by large swaths of the public and eventually the BOC voted to quit pursuing it.
8. September-November: Mo’ money mo’ problems
Commissioner J.C. Henderson had a turbulent autumn, first coming under scrutiny for accepting a personal loan from the county, and then for failing to filing campaign finance disclosure reports for nearly three years. In September, Henderson asked Chairman Keith Ellis for a loan of $4,500 to pay for his son’s college tuition. Ellis approved the loan, but the Board voted to strip them both of some of their powers. At the next meeting, the board voted to erase the minutes from the previous meeting, restoring Henderson’s place on the county’s Recreation Commission as well as his chairmanship of the Nelson Heights Community Center board. Ellis was left with his diminished authority. Two months later, an investigation by The News found that Henderson failed to file all but one of his campaign finance disclosure reports for the years 2011 through 2013.
9. September-December: Eye of the Tiger
It’s been a big year for high school sports in Newton County. Newton high football beat a top-seeded Valdosta team in the playoffs, Eastside came back from a 21-point deficit at halftime to win a playoff game and Alcoy softball won the region championship over Newton in blowout fashion. See our sports section for more details.
10. 2014: Happy Birthday Oxford!
You don’t look a day over 160. The town of Oxford, considered a Methodist heritage site and the original home of Emory University, celebrated its 175th birthday this year. To celebrate, the town published the book “Deep Running Roots, Far Reaching Branches: The Story of The City of Oxford,” which chronicles the history of the town and includes a list of local historical sights.