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Joint Development Authority to issue $42 billion in bonds for large-scale project at Stanton Springs
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COVINGTON — Another large-scale development is in the works at Stanton Springs. Members of the Joint Development Authority of Jasper, Newton, Morgan and Walton Counties voted Tuesday to issue $42 billion in bonds for a project under the code name of Baymare.

Although the identity of the development prospect is being kept under wraps, Shane Short, executive director of the Development Authority of Walton County, said the company is in line with the two current occupants of the park — Facebook and Takeda.

“It’s a very green company, and it will fit extremely well with the current tenants within the park,” said Short. “We will close on the deal next month, and we expect the company to make an announcement and reveal who they are near that time.”

In addition to approving the bond issue Tuesday, the JDA agreed to sell 600 acres of land inside Stanton Springs to Baymare. The land includes more than 500 acres that were part of the park’s original footprint and another 42.23 acres that the JDA recently acquired and had rezoned this month from Agricultural to Stanton Springs Business Park.

As with the JDA’s agreement with Facebook, which also involved a $42 billion bond issue, Baymare will receive an abatement on property taxes for a specified number of years. The company will also make payments in lieu of taxes after a certain period of time elapses.

Short said the Baymare project is expected to create 300 full-time jobs. Build out of the project will take five to six years, he said.

Short said the JDA has been working on the Baymare project since last summer. The project will be built on property that became accessible early last year after the JDA worked to extend Shire Parkway 3,000 feet and across a small creek.

Short said at the time that the extension of the parkway was a critical need for future development.

“With the closing of the Facebook deal, the JDA had no more property along the existing parkway,” said Short. “Everything on the left (of the parkway) belongs to Takeda, and almost everything on the right belongs to Facebook. So we had to extend the parkway so we could open up about 600 additional acres.”

Prescribed burn done at Big Haynes Nature Center to burn off unwanted vegetation
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CONYERS — Anyone who saw or smelled smoke on Wednesday, Feb. 24, and thought part of the Georgia International Horse Park (GIHP) was on fire was correct, but the fire was intentionally set under strictly controlled conditions.

The Georgia Forestry Commission (GFC), in collaboration with GIHP and the Georgia Prescribed Fire Council, conducted a prescribed fire on 51.8 acres of fields and woodlands in Bald Rock Meadows on the north end of Big Haynes Creek Nature Center from 1-4 p.m. Wednesday.

Prescribed fires are common in middle and south Georgia, but are a rarity in more urbanized north Georgia, and this was the first prescribed fire to be done in the metro Atlanta area.

Jennifer Edwards, director of public relations and tourism for the city of Conyers, which owns the horse park, said the park has been working with a multitude of agencies to get this burn done.

“The GIHP staff has been working closely with the Georgia Prescribed Fire Council, Georgia Forestry Commission, Georgia Wildlife Federation, Environmental Protection Division, Rockdale County Fire and Rescue and other entities for the last two years to put this first prescribed fire together at the Big Haynes Creek Nature Center,” Edwards said. “The weather has been a hindrance for us up until now, but it finally worked out to where we could organize the fire before the busy season begins in earnest at the GIHP.”

Scott Tanner with the Georgia Prescribed Fire Council said a prescribed fire is basically a low grade, low intensity, controlled fire.

“We consider it a good fire because it prevents the bad fires like out in California,” he said. “Fire is a natural part of the landscape, and we use it in a controlled, methodical way. The goal here is to control some invasive plant species. I think predominantly it is Chinese privet that is out here. That is a non-native, invasive plant. It doesn’t benefit wildlife, and it displaces other plants that benefit wildlife here.

“It is going to protect the area from a forest fire, should that ever occur. Wild plants are going to spring up very quickly in the area. It’s going to enrich the soil, and that will benefit all the wild animals that call the nature center their home.”

Tanner added that GFC Wildlife Specialist and “Burn Boss” Ken Parker was very intentional in picking Wednesday as the day to burn.

“The experts out here use very precise fire weather and other tools to know exactly the right time to burn,” Tanner said. “It needs to be just dry enough, but not too dry. It needs just the right winds and humidity to keep that fire down on the ground, low and close and controlled. They’ve come in and prepped the area by plowing firebreaks and things like that.

“Another big concern is what happens with the smoke. In the weather forecasting they have, they look at ground level winds, what is the wind doing 20 feet up, 50 feet up, is it going to disperse it and transport it away? That’s what they want, because they don’t want it to hang around on the ground, or lift up and then drop somewhere else. They want it to go up in the air, hit a transport wind and be dispersed and go away. That’s why they’ve been very precise in choosing the day and the time.”

Mike Worley, president and CEO of Georgia Wildlife Federation in Covington, one of the members of the prescribed fire council, added that Georgia is a state that is shaped by fire.

“Our native plants and native animals are all fire-adapted,” Worley said. “We’re concerned with forest fires and wild fires, but the prescribed fire promotes the use of the burning of vegetative areas so that we can reduce the fuel load so we that we don’t have those wild fires, and clear some of those areas to allow for new growth, to allow for some of our native species to grow back, so that our native animals can have their plants to eat.”

Edwards added that after the success of this burn, they hope to come back next year for another burn in the southern portion of the nature center.

“This prescribed fire focused on 51.8 acres of the nature center (the total acreage of the nature center is 173 acres) commonly known as Bald Rock Meadows,” Edwards said. “We hope to regroup next year, if weather conditions allow, for a prescribed burn of the southern portion of the nature center, which includes more of the wetlands where there is a real problem with invasive species being more prevalent.”

Newton County stays the course with Boys & Girls Club
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COVINGTON — Newton County appears to still be on track to partner with the Boys & Girls Club of Newton County for a westside youth facility after an effort to divert funds away from construction of a club facility failed.

Newton County Commission Chairman Marcello Banes broke a tie vote on Feb. 16 that would have designated $495,427 in Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax for a youth center at Fairview Community Park inside Fairview Estates subdivision. District 3 Commissioner Alana Sanders had sought to direct the funds to a youth center in Fairview Park rather than go forward with a plan for construction of a Boys & Girls Club facility. The club currently operates out of a temporary building on Brown Bridge Road.

Newton County has been working with the Boys & Girls Club for several years to find a permanent location for the club on the west side, under the general expectation that the SPLOST funds would be used to construct a building that the club would then lease from the county. The club and the county have not yet formalized their agreement.

However, Sanders, who took office Jan. 1, said she supported the county establishing its own youth program at Fairview Estates. Sanders said that, based on input she has gathered from the community, the Boys & Girls Club does not provide the type of programming citizens want.

Sanders said the Boys & Girls Club appeals more to Generation X and Baby Boomers, “but when you are dealing with Generation Y and Generation Z, which is our technology generation, then we have to do more.”

“The programs are antiquated; it has nothing to do with not wanting a Boys & Girls Club in the community,” Sanders added.

Sanders objected to providing funding to an organization over which the county would have no programming control. She also noted that the Boys & Girls Club is a national program that has access to large corporate donations.

District 1 Commissioner Stan Edwards expressed concern about changing plans for use of the funds earmarked for a youth facility.

“I don’t know that it is documented anywhere, but it was sold to the public as a partnership between the Boys & Girls Club and the county,” he said.

County Manager Lloyd Kerr said the county had informally committed to construct a “shell of a building” and that the Boys & Girls Club had committed to completing the interior of the building, providing programming, and paying for maintenance and operation of the facility.

“The idea was they would be there operating it and providing the programming as long as the county was satisfied they were meeting the needs of the community,” Kerr said.

Kerr said the county has been in discussions with the Newton County School System for a potential land swap that would provide a location for the club in the vicinity of Jack Neely and Kirkland Roads — making it accessible to several schools in the area. Kerr said it is also possible that the club could be built in Fairview Park.

District 5 Commissioner Ronnie Cowan reminded the board that the late Superior Court Judge Horace Johnson Jr. had a vision for a Boys & Girls Club on the west side of the county.

“I think we need to continue on with the Boys & Girls Club as it is structured right now, because I don’t want to do anything that is a disservice to his legacy … “ said Cowan.

Sanders made a motion to use the $495,427 in SPLOST funds for a youth outreach center at Fairview Community Park. District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson seconded the motion.

When it came time to vote, Edwards and Cowan opposed; District 2 Commissioner Demond Mason struggled with his decision and ultimately abstained, leaving the vote tied.

Chairman Banes noted that he grew up in the Boys & Girls Club.

“I was hoping I wasn’t going to have to vote tonight because I am definitely going to vote for the Boys & Girls Club,” he said. “I think there is still a solution here, because the fact of the matter is in less than 60 days we are going to come back and start talking about building a project for District 4, District 3 and District 2, so I think there’s a way that everybody will be happy,” he said, referring to projects that commissioners want to bond in their districts. “I think everybody will get what they are looking for.”

Bill to help convicted Georgians end probation early clears state Senate
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Sen. Brian Strickland

A bill to tighten rules for allowing ex-offenders in Georgia to be released early from probation that should help thousands of people maintain jobs and housing passed out of the state Senate on Thursday.

Sponsored by Sen. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, the bill would let first-time felons in Georgia sentenced to prison for 12 months or fewer seek early termination of their probation after they’ve been released, paid court fines and avoided another run-in with the law for two years. Strickland represents parts of Rockdale, Newton and Henry counties.

The bill would allow well-behaving probationers to petition courts for early termination of their supervision terms after three years. Its aim is to cut down Georgia’s highest-in-the-country probation population, Strickland said.

“In Georgia, we should incentivize individuals who make mistakes, serve their time, pay their restitution and stay out of trouble,” Strickland said from the Senate floor.

“We should be helping Georgians who have earned a second chance in life to get a job, buy a house, start a family or accomplish anything else they dream of doing in this state without the stigma of probation hanging over their heads.”

The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and now heads to the state House of Representatives.

It follows legislation in 2017 under then-Gov. Nathan Deal aimed at easing rules on terminating probation early. Those changes have not worked as planned, with only a handful of the roughly 50,000 eligible probationers actually being granted early termination as of last year, advocates say.

Many Georgians on probation face lengthy supervision terms lasting at least a decade, limiting their ability to land jobs and maintain steady housing from landlords wary of their status as probationers, said Lisa McGahan, policy director for the nonprofit Georgia Justice Project.

“We know that for people to be successful, they have to have access to economic opportunity (and) they have to have access to employment,” McGahan told lawmakers at a state Senate Judiciary Committee last week. “When you’re serving a very long probation sentence, those two things are mutually exclusive.”

Strickland’s bill marks a priority on Republican state senators’ criminal justice reform agenda in the current legislative session, along with another measure by state Sen. Randy Robertson, R-Cataula, that would bar licensing boards from denying business licenses to most Georgians on probation.

Cosponsors of Strickland’s bill include Sens. John Kennedy, R-Macon; Bruce Thompson, R-White; Tonya Anderson, D-Lithonia; and Ben Watson, R-Savannah.