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Commissioners to vote on lifting moratorium
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Newton County will hold a special called meeting Tuesday, Sept. 13 at the Newton County Historic Courthouse at 6 p.m. to vote on the moratorium on permits for places of worship.

The county and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) released a statement Wednesday saying “staff expects to complete the preliminary review on proposed updates to local zoning ordinances” by the meeting.

At least two commissioners said they will vote to lift the controversial moratorium was placed on permits at the Aug. 16 Board of Commissioners (BOC) meeting after plans for a mosque and cemetery on Georgia Highway 162 and County Line Road were made public.

"As a result of the County's quick and efficient review of our zoning ordinances, I plan to vote in favor of lifting the moratorium at the special called meeting on Sept. 13," District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz said. "Newton County is rich in diversity and hospitality, and we are happy to see residents of all faiths and backgrounds live and worship together in our community."

“As a County Commissioner, I encourage us to create a community where people from all walks of life and backgrounds are proud to live, work and play in Newton County,” District 2 Commissioner Lanier Sims said. “I will vote in support of removing the temporary moratorium at the Sept. 13, 2016 special called meeting.”

The meeting will begin with a work session from County Manager Lloyd Kerr presenting staff’s recommendation.
Those recommendations will be for amendments to create a new use classification and approval process for developments of community impact. The purpose of the new category, according to a public notice by the county is to “ensure large-scale developments over a certain size are compatible with the surrounding community and character area, and that such developments promote the public interest and the efficient utilization of land.”
According to Newton County Zoning Administrator Judy Johnson, the amendments to the zoning will look at large scale developments, beyond just places of worship.

“We’re looking into the impact of different types of places of assembly,” Johnson said.

Staff recommendations come at District 1 Commissioner John Douglas’s request that ordinances be looked at during a 5-week moratorium the BOC unanimously imposed on Aug. 16. That moratorium came on the heels of the 135-acre development of mosque and cemetery being brought to light.

Douglas’s motion was for staff to come back to the BOC with recommendations on Sept. 20.

Newton County Chair Keith Ellis said he was expecting staff to work on the ordinances throughout the entire time the BOC assigned them. In a statement, Ellis said that he is not in support of a vote to lift the moratorium on Sept. 13.

"I will continue to serve as an advocate for all Newton County citizens, especially those whom will be impacted the greatest," Ellis said. "Therefore, I do not support lifting the moratorium until the September 21 date listed on the Resolution. If the project moves forward, I will continue to work collaboratively with all parties involved to minimize the impact of this project for all Newton citizens."

Ellis and Douglas both said they were not in favor of the joint release with both the county and CIAR.

CAIR has been one of several groups —Anti-Deformation League, NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union the others— imploring Newton County to lift the moratorium since it was imposed.

"We thank and commend the Newton County commissioners for pledging to lift the moratorium on permits for houses of worship," said Edward Ahmed Mitchell, Executive Director of CAIR Georgia. "Although Newton Muslims will once again have the right to proceed with building a cemetery and house of worship, they plan to first spend more time building bridges with their neighbors."

Ellis, commissioners J.C. Henderson, Schulz and Sims, along with Kerr and County Attorney Megan Martin met with members of the At-Taqwa mosque in Doraville, including Imam Mohammed Islam during two separate meetings Monday.
Imam Mohammed Islam, the leader of Masjid At-Taqwa in Doraville, has also accepted invitations to attend Sunday service at different churches in the area over the next four weeks.

"We believe that building bridges with our neighbors is far more important than immediately building a new house of worship and cemetery," he said.

Newton County Development Services issued an Administrative Use Permit to Al Maad Al Islami, Inc. in June 2015. Prior to the moratorium, Al Maad Al Islami had not submitted plans to Newton County Development Services for review. Once an applicant submits plans, they are reviewed by various county departments and divisions including Engineering, Transportation, Planning and Zoning and Fire Services, as well as applicable state agencies. Once plans are approved, the county issues permits and construction may begin.

“We pledge to work collaboratively with the applicant throughout the review process to ensure the project meets federal and state requirements and follows local ordinances and laws. Once plans are approved, the County can issue permits and construction begins.” said County Manager Lloyd Kerr.

During the Sept. 13 special-called meeting, the Commissioners plan to receive an update on proposed changes to the county's zoning ordinances, which will not affect previously approved projects, including the Al Maadi al Islami, Inc. project.

On Friday, Sept. 2 Johnson said the proposed zoning changes were still being worked on, and that “the changes in ordinances are not specific only to places of worship, but we’re looking at all places of public assembly and large-scale development.”