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Staff Editorials

Vote yes on school SPLOST

    To face facts, we must replace the Jasper Middle School buildings. The sprawling campus was mostly built in 1958 and while the exterior is neatly maintained, problems abound with something used that many years, first as a high school and later as a middle school.
    Students and parents report that at times whole bathrooms are not functional. The director of operations has said that many of the problems with infrastructure would require digging up floors to remedy.
    And the building design limits the technology that students can access in their classroom – something that is becoming increasingly crucial in teaching.
    But the number one reason that the school needs to be replaced is that it’s not equal to its counterpart, Pickens Middle. You can’t have this. The superintendent told the board at a recent meeting that studies show students at better campuses do better academically. This is not a case of educators whining.
    The inequality between the two middle schools must be equalized. Half the county shouldn’t be assigned to the outdated campus.
    As to a design or even a location for the proposed new middle school, absolutely no plans exist at this point.    There is a lot of talk about whether (and how) the board can rebuild at the same East Church Street site or if they are going to look for new property. But it’s not decided.
    We called board chair Mike Cowart on Monday to doublecheck on any decisions, and he was clear, “We don’t have the cart before the horse.”
    First, they need to fund a new school and that means we need to vote yes for the SPLOST next Tuesday. New schools are best paid for one cent at the time, rather than through property taxes.
    We believe in this case, the project is not just a good one, but more-or-less mandatory. The kids in the half the county shouldn’t be held back so we save a penny at the cash register on every dollar we spend.
    The board, however, is disingenuous in their repeated claims that this is not a new tax. While the voters here have approved similar sales tax resolutions in 1997, 2002, 2006, and 2011, it is a new tax every go round. Each SPLOST comes with its own goals and represents updated priorities. Saying it is only “continuation” makes as much sense as saying the shoes I bought Saturday aren’t new, they just continue the old shoes I threw away.
    If down the road the school board trots out a SPLOST with poorly defined goals, you might seriously consider a no-vote. But this is not the case this time.
    When people want anything school-related, they usually use the argument, “it’s all about the kids.” In this case, it’s not only the kids, it’s also about the county seat and building something we can be proud of. Consider the location of JMS on Church Street, right  in the middle of the main avenue across this county, traveling east to west.
    It’s important that the school board handles construction well at such a prominent site. We urge them to consider the profile of that location and rebuild something there that makes the county proud. The current campus has served this county for half-a-century, let’s not see it become an abandoned site or be replaced with an eyesore.
    To do this, the school board needs the available funds. And we trust them to be good stewards of it. The school board has a solid track record of managing their building projects dating back to the current PHS campus (which was a lesson in mis-management but one from two decades ago). Since this they have relied on professionals and brought their projects in with nice results and on budget, even as the board’s makeup has changed regularly.
    They have earned our trust with the SPLOST and we hope with JMS they build something we can be proud of.   

Pickens County ready for a walk in the woods

By Dan Pool
Editor
    We are heading into the time of year when it’s best to get out in the woods. The leaves are beginning to change, which adds plenty of color to the north Georgia mountains and it’s not too hot to hike around without getting soaked in sweat.
    And for me, the best thing about this time of year is that the double scourge of the woods - yellow jackets and poison ivy - are about to be done for until next summer.
    I don’t buy into much of the New Age ideas of communing with nature but I will testify that it makes you feel good to get out and walk around the woods just to see what you can see.
    Old timers used to refer to a walk as a constitutional – because it was thought to be something good for your constitution (health). I suspect they didn’t worry much about distance, heart rate and special walking shoes as we do today. A walk used to be a chance to collect your thoughts far from the maddening crowd while also getting some fresh air.
    For those people who are always logging steps on some fancy watch, I think you should have a setting where you get double bonus steps for walking on plain earth rather than a walking path. Though paved paths are fine for exercise, it doesn’t compare to really wandering through the woods anymore than Captain D’s compares to freshly caught trout. We know walking in general makes us feel good, but getting outside in nature - on crisp autumn afternoons or even frigid winter days - can do much for our health. Charles Dickens clocked up a huge number of miles on foot - both in London’s damp city streets and England’s countryside. It’s estimated he walked 12 miles per day - in about two and a half hours. His FitBit stats would be amazing.
    A 2012 study found that participants with clinical depression who took a walk in nature experienced improved memory, while an earlier 2008 study found that healthy adults experienced a mental boost after walking for an hour in the park.
    For all the Henry David Thoreau-wannabes, Pickens County is on the verge of opening up two new Waldens.
    First we have the Talking Rock Nature Preserve, right off Highway 515 on the Gilmer County line. This 211-acre tract has been protected and is in the planning stage of trails and a Frisbee golf course through the work of the Southeastern Trust for Parks and Land (STPAL).
    Professional designers for mountain biking hope to open at least five miles of trail there for mountain biking as well as walking and trail running. They are also planning a world class Frisbee golf course where, at no charge, anyone who wants to add a little sport to their “constitutional” can fling Frisbees while they enjoy the woods.
    STPAL has as their mission that their properties are destined to be used “for the quiet enjoyment of nature.” Birding may also be a featured activity there. The property is protected now and some signage marks the location but trails and parking are still in the works.
    I met with STPAL director Bill Jones and the trail designers  in late summer and they emphasized that the park will be much better in the long run if they start with trails that “flow” with the terrain so it is worthwhile to wait rather than rush to clear out some paths wherever volunteers saw fit.
    Following this announcement in July, we again hit the outdoor jackpot this month when the county joined the local Mountain Conservation Trust to permanently protect the Narrow Gate tract which adjoins the Burnt Mountain Preserve. It will also sport hiking trails eventually.
    This piece of property has long been considered a crown jewel for preservation. Sitting near Bent Tree, Burnt Mountain and above Grandview Lake, much concern was expressed when development was proposed there a decade ago.
    Having this under conservation restrictions not only safeguards water supply and our views from town looking to the east, but it opens up some good hiking terrain. While the existing Burnt Mountain Preserve has limited trails, they are not suited for a wide range of hiking as they are very steep—how else could they be on the side of a mountain.
    This Narrow Gate acquisition totaling 282 acres encompasses the base of the mountains and should allow the existing trails to be worked into larger,  and flatter, walkways, at least flatter by north Georgia standards.
    These two new natural areas are tremendous assets for us in Pickens County. Without state or national park land, people here are deprived of the opportunity to wander in the woods, something that everyone should do occasionally.   

At fall festivals, let’s keep tradition alive

    Think back to being a kid and of the events you looked forward to the most every year. Outside of the big daddy, Christmas, the annual school fall festival probably topped your list – and to the delight of local kids, Pickens schools are in the throws of hosting their own festivals.
    For kids, the fall festival conjures up thoughts of hayrides and apples, pumpkins and games, cider and ponies. These festivals have been celebrated for thousands of years by communities around the world as a way to pay homage to a good harvest at the end of a long, hard growing season. Celebrations include festival games, music and bountiful feasts that incorporate food that matures during that time of year. Decorations are mostly organic, from gourds to dried corn stalks, to hay and pumpkins. 
    We love how these festivals can offer our kids a peek into a time when people lived off the land, and we think the best way to celebrate is to keep those earthy traditions alive - even if there are modern elements incorporated.         Today, for example, most fall festival organizers (especially at schools) include elements of Halloween themes like costume contests and decorations. It makes sense to blend the two holidays when PTOs are already strapped for time and kids enjoy these fun-themed parties.
    A new national trend we’re not crazy about is the shift to schools holding fall festivals in the evening. There’s something about a nighttime festival that just isn’t the same. If the sun sets around 7:15 p.m. it means half the event will be in the dark. 
    That being said, attendance at last Friday’s festival at Hill City Elementary (6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.) was astounding, the biggest crowd we can remember there. The halls were absolutely packed with parents and kids standing in line for the cakewalk, bowling, ring toss and other games located inside the classrooms, and we hope their PTO raised lots of money. Unfortunately, weather was not cooperative that night. The bouncy houses that were supposed to be placed outside were moved into the gym, and the hayride was a total washout. 
    We’re not sure if attendance was so good because it’s more convenient for parents to squeeze the festival in after work and salvage their Saturday, but we would like to see that national trend swing back to daytime festivals on the weekend with as many events as possible held outside.
    We also miss those old games like bobbing for apples and greased pig chases, but we know PTO volunteers and schools have their hands tied with these traditional games that are now considered unsanitary. 
    As fall festival season continues on we want to applaud all the PTO volunteers - as well as festival organizers for cities and townships and other organizations - for taking the time to keep our traditions alive for kids. We encourage you to attend one (or all) of the many festivals coming up in town to take part, and to get in the last of the warm weather with our families and friends before winter settles in. 
    Happy fall from the Progress.

Gun rights not a problem, some gun owners are

By Dan Pool
Editor
    I grew up in Pickens County when it was fully a rural county and needless to say guns were pretty common. One of our former reporters tells of a kid who got a new shotgun for Christmas and brought it to high school to show it off in the parking lot. The teachers two decades ago agreed it was a good looking 12 gauge, nothing more. Today that situation would have ended differently.
    I have no problem with guns. Where I have a problem is with gun owners who also happen to be seriously lacking in IQ or someone I would suspect of having an elevator that doesn’t go all the way to the top.
    Last summer at the 61 Main restaurant, there was a young man with a pistol in a holster drinking a few beers with a young woman. The bar area there is tiny and it was unnerving to have some guy you don’t know drinking beer with his gun out.
    Admittedly, there are places where you would be justified in carrying them for protection, but a farm-to-table restaurant on Jasper’s Main Street clearly isn’t one.
    I am a rural gun snob. If you grew up hunting, had a gun in your hands before your drivers license, learned to shoot and were preached to about “never pointing it at anything you didn’t mean to kill” by your father or grandfather, then I support your right to carry guns anywhere you please. Or if you had military service, then one assumes you know what you are doing with a gun.
    With our current gun statues, there are some restrictions on people who can’t own weapons, but these rules are thoroughly ineffective. Mentally defective people and convicted felons are empirically not reliable on an honor system, which is essentially how these rules work. For person-to-person sales, no one is required to even ask if the person falls into a restricted category.
    It’s the lack of idiot restrictions that bothers me. Anyone can walk into a store, buy a gun, ammo and go home and accidentally shoot their neighbor’s car, house, kid or dog while trying to figure out the safety. Even intelligent people should not be expected to figure out a gun by themselves without some training.
    A perfect example that I witnessed was at a friend’s house on Old Burnt Mountain Road.  He would host an occasional party for his wife’s metro area co-workers and a few locals to come shoot.
    At the last one, the boyfriend of one of the employees arrived with a duffle bag of firearms he had bought several weeks prior at an estate sale.
    He was candid that he knew nothing about guns and confirmed his incompetence by saying he had been randomly trying some of the  loose ammo from the bag in the different handguns to see which it would fire in – very unsafe.
    But the shocker was a “riot-stopper” pump 12-gauge found to be loaded when the host was looking over the arsenal. The guy had bought it that way and didn’t know how to check the pump shotgun. And it would appear whoever sold it hadn’t bothered to check or didn’t know how either.
    And this man and his purchase of loaded gun were fully legal.
    If you go  somewhere like the Bargain Barn, you can be sure a salesman is going to offer plenty of expert advice to get started.
    Local pistol instructor Carlton Wilson estimates that 1 out of every 20 students he trains shows up for the first class with a loaded pistol and almost no knowledge of how to safely handle it. Many have bought the gun but never fired it as they weren’t sure how, he said. “It’s not common but it happens often enough to be a concern,” he said.
    [Disclaimer: gun accidents rank low on the list of dangers, well below accidental poisoning or drownings.]
    While I support gun rights, I worry about where kids without that father or grandfather are supposed to learn how to unload an automatic shotgun or check to see if there is a round in a chamber with a pistol?
    The state of Georgia won’t let you hunt until you complete a hunter’s safety course. So, you may not legally carry a gun to shoot a squirrel out in the woods until you’ve had some training but you can carry a concealed pistol (with the safety off if you choose) to a mall as long as you aren’t a former felon or certified dangerously crazy.
    29 of the 50 states, including both Tennessee and Florida (and gun rights stronghold  Texas), require some form of training before issuing a weapons permit. Georgia should look to do the same.
    I don’t want to give the idea that I want someone to come for our guns, but a little education would certainly make me feel better about guys with duffle bags full of used guns.

County should know property zonings

Following a September 10th Progress story that announced Dollar General is considering a new store at the corner of Grandview and Cove roads, a flood of comments were posted to our Facebook page and website mostly in opposition to the potential project.  

Unfortunately, because the county may not have an up-to-date zoning classification for the parcel on their books, these concerned residents don’t know if they will have say in a store being built there or not. 

Right now this 6.22-acre particular tract is owned by Northside Church of Christ in Jasper. A representative of the church told the Progress the property is under contract with the developer, and that a portion is zoned rural residential and a portion is zoned for business and commercial usage. 

If the county records are correct and the property is zoned rural residential, adjacent property owners will need to be notified of the requested change (if it is ultimately requested); signage must be posted on the property and a public hearing must be held before the planning commission, which will then make a recommendation to the board of commissioners. After this the board of commissioners will make the final decision on whether it stays residential or is switched to a highway business zoning. 

If the property owner is correct and a portion of the parcel is already zoned for business, the store construction could proceed without delay. 

After talking with the church we followed up with the county by checking information on the QPublic website for Pickens [www.qpublic.net/ga/pickens] and by contacting the planning and development office and the tax assessor’s office.

All of their information reflects only a rural residential zoning, but when asked about the possibility of two zonings on one property the county’s public information officer said the current property owner could have “other documentation that indicates a highway business zoning.”  

What? That’s right. He said it was possible the county records weren’t up-to-date, and that the conceptual drawings for the Dollar General that have been shown to county officials were “likely based on documentation or information that reflected a portion of the property has a highway business zoning.” 

He then pointed to 2005 when the county first adopted the Land Use Ordinance (prior to this property here did not have any zoning). There was a 90-day window before the adoption of the ordinance in which property owners could pick and choose their zoning and apparently some of these zoning classifications didn’t make it into the county’s records. This is blatantly unacceptable that 10 years after zoning was adopted there are incomplete records.

This Dollar General case shows perfectly the pitfalls of sloppy record keeping by the county. On the one hand, you have adjacent property owners who may be shocked to learn that a parcel they had long thought was safely residential is actually open for commercial growth. On the other hand, you may have Dollar General planners and a church finding a huge kink thrown into their property deal if they discover a piece they had thought was commercial really isn’t.

Either way, someone loses because of government ineptitude.

The county has routinely hedged their bets on accuracy by cautioning that the QPublic website maintained in the tax office may not have the correct zoning on the parcels, since zoning is the province of planning and development. 

That is textbook example of bureaucracy – the buck doesn’t stop anywhere with zoning. It is not too much to ask that an accurate and public index of property zonings for the county be created and one that will stand up to challenges.