NEWTON COUNTY, Ga. - The Newton County Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 Tuesday night to approve a management plan for the Gaither Plantation.
The property was purchased by the county in 1996 as part of the Bear Creek Reservoir project.
Under the new plan, BOC Chairman Marcello Banes will be responsible for the day-to-day operations of the event facility. The plan also calls for the Steering Committee to oversee the facility.
That committee will consist of District 1 Commissioner Stan Edwards, District 5 Commissioner Ronnie Cowan, the county Special Events Coordinator and four additional members selected by the BOC.
The committee members will serve at the pleasure of the BOC and no longer than Dec. 31, 2020. The resolution itself is set to expire Jan. 1, 2021.
According to the resolution, all final decisions or recommendations by the Steering Committee will be voted on by the full BOC when practical.
“We have a great design to move Gaithers Plantation in a direction that is more utilized by the county as a whole and a destination location for people outside the county,” Edwards said. ”In an effort to promote that location, the resources lie under the chairman.”
District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz, one of the “no” votes, said while she supported other parts of the resolution, she could not support making the commission chairman responsible for the day-to-day operations of Gaithers Plantation.
“For two years this board, well the board of commissioners, worked very diligently with a citizen’s committee to establish a county manager form of government. And in that county manager form of government, the chairman of the board was to operate at a level where the chairman of the board saw the vision of the county and implemented the vision of the county and was not responsible for the day-to-day operations of the county,” she said.
“I believe that job is so important for the chairman to continue to look at the overriding vision of the county, that we do not need that chairman to get bogged down with day-to-day operations. It’s a distraction. It takes your vision away from overseeing the bigger picture looking at the 30,000-foot level, and for that reason I cannot support this resolution.”
District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson cast the other dissenting vote. He expressed concerns about Civil War reenactments on the property. He also wanted cemeteries on the property maintained and preserved.
“Will the Gaither Plantation still have the Civil War reenactment on the property? Will they still be displaying the slave cabins?” he asked. “Lastly, there’s the graveyard. Have we did [sic.] a survey of any sort to find out where the cemetery is?”
Banes said cemeteries on the property would be identified and preserved.
“We plan on identifying and making sure we preserve those issues properly,” he said. ”That would be a job for the Steering Committee with Commissioner Edwards and Commissioner Cowan to put that together.
“We want this to be successful. We want the county to be successful.”
Along with the Gaither’s Plantation resolution, commissioners also approved by a 4-1 show of hands a proposal by Edwards to pursue a deal with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to turn the roughly 2,000 acres bought by the county for the Bear Creek Reservoir into a wildlife management area.
“Over all, this preserves the property that we paid for. It does that first and foremost for future use as a reservoir,” Edwards said.
Cowan explained why the decision was made to make the management of Gaither’s the responsibility of the BOC chairman.
“We discussed the issue of the chairman being involved with this,” he said. “We felt like the fact that we’re putting together a plan with a state agency at the same time that we’re putting together a plan for a local event center that it would work better if it came through the board of commissioners for a period of time. The chairman has an employee that’s already assigned to him that’s actually kind of managing Gaither’s now.
“That was part of the reasoning behind a sunset provision in this, to have the chairman’s involvement for a period of time and have the board of commissioners involved from the start, not to take power away from anybody, but to basically get the ground work laid with the state agency figuring how that’s going to work.”
Cowan also said Georgia Department of Natural Resources involvement for former reservoir property will be good.
“They’ll help us out with rangers, people who will see what’s going on. There’ll be other protections around this area,” he said. “They will also have access to federal grants that we don’t have access to for wildlife management.”
Edwards told The Covington News some of the Gaither property will be within the proposed DNR managed area.
“We will have to mark the boundaries for the DNR so that the Gaither buildings are not included in the DNR proposal,” he wrote in an email. “The exciting part of this is how willing to customize a lease agreement with the state will be. We will specify our preferences and they will try their best to accommodate those preferences. The challenge will be the aggressive timelines for implementation if an agreement is reached.”
Edwards also said anything of historical significance that might be part of the DNR managed area will be identified and taken care of.
“One of my priorities for 2018 was to identify or spruce up some of those burial grounds or cemeteries that we have at Gaithers and make sure that those are protected and well taken care of and made nice to recognize those people that are buried there,” he said.
“We will be able to cordon those off with the DNR to make sure that anything of historical significance is not disturbed.”
Cowan said an agreement would provide protections for the area.
“It just provides some protections for that area until such point Newton County, three or four generations from now, has a need for that water supply.”